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The Dream of Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shirley Dudley

I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a life-long Presbyterian, and a minister’s wife, confirmed over 70 years ago. I have attended many conferences through the years, especially the ones with the Presbyterian women, but this was my first time at the NEXT Church National Gathering. What struck me throughout the conference was its INCLUSIVITY. Everyone was at the table in every aspect of this conference – top leadership, worship leadership, worship space arrangements, workshop participation and leadership, worship music, entertainment, etc. Also, people were not afraid to laugh at themselves and they did not take themselves too seriously.

The next thing that grabbed me was the INNOVATION. It was like we were living in “the dream of our future” at this gathering. I am not only talking about the big things but the little things, too, like the cardboard box altars where people could leave mementos and congregate. I did not know that there were so many ways to get people out of their comfort zones in a church-related situation. My husband was a professor of Church and Community in several seminaries and I know he would have been stimulated, as I was, with Dr. Leong’s discussion of race and place. I am in a multi-cultural downtown church with people who come from everywhere else but the downtown. It is freeing for us to have to mingle and worship together, but it requires a time commitment that we are sometimes not willing to give in order to make a dent in the crises of our city. So even if we are not bound by our individual places, we are bound by our “place” in a troubled city.

Since I returned home, I was asked to share my experiences from the conference with my session and offer some concrete ideas for our future. I described all of the above, the worship theme, the main speakers, the energizing testimonials from Baltimore, workshops, and some of the fun things that happened to me personally as I reconnected with old friends. Then they asked me for concrete ideas for our church. Here are a few of those:

We are a small church that could definitely benefit by intergenerational opportunities. There are moments when we could share in small groups with each other in the worship service itself. We have many small tasks that could be spread around and the children could be more included in decorating our sanctuary, even finding pictures for the pastors to use on Sunday morning in our screen.

We don’t have to be so serious all the time. This conference seemed to give permission to “lighten up.”

We work diligently with hunger problems, but digging deeper in our local community for partners in ministry would work well for us – especially as the city of Hartford is becoming a place of change and more young people.

I was also moved by the Florida groups that were supporting the students affected by the massacre. We too can take part in the efforts to win more gun control.

We also have DACA leadership in our church and they need support.

And on and on… Yes, with the help of God, we will try to do our own “rising” in a wilderness church with inspiration from a life-giving conference.


Shirley Dudley an 85 year-old mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and was married to a Presbyterian minister and faculty member of McCormick Theological Seminary (and Hartford Seminary), Carl Dudley (now deceased). She served as first full-time registrar and assistant dean at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1976 -1993. Shirley presently lives in an Active Life Care Senior Center in Bloomfield, CT, and attends a downtown Hartford Presbyterian Church.

Sustenance to Bloom

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Eliana Maxim

In a busy season of ministry, the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering popped up on my calendar quite unexpectedly. I remembered the enthusiasm with which I had registered back in early winter, but now with to-do lists multiplying magically, I wasn’t sure I would find the time or “head space” to engage.

I am so glad I did.

The theme of “The Desert in Bloom” appropriately described what many of the pastoral leaders with whom I work have been experiencing. The realities of ministry can certainly make one feel as if you are in extended wilderness time. And that you are doing it alone.

In order to bloom in said desert would require sustenance, at least for this pastor. A desert in bloom means hope above all else.

My first interaction in Baltimore was attending the Sunday evening People of Color get-together. This group met again at the conclusion of the gathering. And in both of those meetings, I found the space where we could speak frankly about the ways the church has moved towards greater inclusion and equity, and how much further is has to go.

I was challenged by Rev. Jonathan Walton’s keynote talk on pastors being suspicious of praise and the church’s complacent comfort in a safe Jesus. “Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than to accept the challenge of a moral prophet.” And I took comfort in Rev. John Schmidt’s vulnerability as he shared his wilderness testimony as a Biblically conservative pastor guiding his congregation to stay in the PCUSA and remain engaged missionally where God is calling them, which includes ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.

I was nurtured by impromptu coffees, lunches or happy hours with old friends and people yet to become friends that provided informal opportunities to check in, celebrate, grieve, and dream together, regardless of where we came from or what our ministry contexts might be.

At a time when many are wandering the desert, wringing their hands in despair over the church we are no longer, the NEXT Church National Gathering provided space and energy to rejoice at the new things God is doing. We acknowledge the demise of what we were, but rejoice at what is yet to be. Is it scary? Anxiety producing? Of course! But we navigate this new terrain together and most importantly with the assurance of God’s presence among us and God’s sovereignty.

As a member of the Way Forward Commission, a body created by the 222nd General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the structure of the denomination for this next season of ministry, I have intentionally sought out the blooms of the church we can be. I caught glimpses of it at the National Gathering.

And as a member of the Seattle Presbytery, I am beyond excited to know NEXT Church will be coming to our neck of the woods in 2019. I look forward to the inspiration and continued sustenance I am confident will be offered. And I look forward to seeing you there! Praise be to God!


Eliana Maxim is the Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Eliana also serve as the vice-moderator of the PCUSA’s National Hispanic/Latinx Caucus. You can usually find Eliana hanging with her husband Alex, daughters Sacha and Gabi, and spoiled-rotten Boxer Lola the Dog.