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Sources of New Life

by David Norse Thomas

Church conferences can be, lets face it, weird. Long exhausting days can overwhelm me with an even worse sense of imposters syndrome than my first few weeks of seminary. Sometimes I leave with a nagging feeling that maybe this was the year I should have organized a reading retreat with my friends with my continuing education funds instead. But this year, at the NEXT Church National Gathering, I had a uniquely different experience, and I’m not the only one. This month the NEXT Church blog will share the stories and insights of pastors who attended in person and virtually, and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church.

This year, the gathering was in Seattle, and as a child of the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t just the weather and the mountains that made me feel at home. For three days, I found myself engaging in the conversations with colleagues and friends, hearing from speakers doing the work that I see Jesus’ resurrection made visible in. This was a year full of honesty, tackling the ways in which we can be woven together too tightly without room for the people God is calling into our communities, speaking prophetic words about how we need to shift from constructs of racial reconciliation to repairing relationships and seeking reparations alongside our Black siblings, poetry that spoke to the power of being honest about how difficult the work of the Church can be, and where new life is showing up.

For me, one of the most powerful experiences was a workshop on utilizing design thinking in our congregations. Design thinking centers the experience of people and pushes us to creatively utilize the resources we have, instead of mourning what we lack. It is a powerful tool for opening leaders to new possibilities that God might be calling us to risk trying. In the workshop, we utilized the “Mission: Possible” game, and I took away two surprising paradoxical lessons from this experience. First, being encouraged to look at the resources we were given in the game (in the form of resource cards) set my imagination, and those of my table mates, to be creative with the skills and experiences we have. It seems so simple to start with the gifts God has given us in our congregations, but I realized that we so often start with what we lack, instead of giving thanks for God’s provision.

The other surprise came when our facilitators set firm time limits on our planning. Knowing that we had to make a decision freed us up to be more experimental, and to focus. This rang true personally for me. In my context at Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD, we have a firm deadline for when we have to become financially stable as a congregation, or begin to consider options like calling a part-time pastor, seeking to merge with another congregation, or consider selling our building. This deadline has unleashed unimaginable creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to risk failing that we would not have had otherwise. We have to act, and while we need to discern, decisions have to be made.

I returned from the NEXT Church National Gathering excited, ready to start from a place of gratitude and creativity, and I look forward to attending next year with more stories to tell. I ordered Mission: Possible for our next session meeting, and I am excited to see what our creative, motivated ruling elders dream up.


Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

Editor’s note: We invite you to dig more deeply into two of the stage presentations David references by watching the video recordings and engaging with the provided reflection questions:

What Does Belonging Look Like?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Tali Hairston gave a keynote at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in which he used the story of Naomi and Ruth to talk about belonging, equity, story, interrogating whiteness, and the power of transformational relationships.

This keynote will be particularly interesting to:

  • a congregation that is committed to “diversity”
  • white congregation consciously thinking about its own whiteness
  • anyone going on a mission trip, and
  • a mission committee thinking about charity, equity, and justice.
  • It could also provide the basis for some great senior high youth group conversation.

After you watch the keynote, consider these questions:

  • Belonging, Tali argues, is a key indicator of the possibility of transformation. He asks the: What does belonging look like for you? Describe the word belonging for you.
  • Tali helps to contrast charity and transformation. In the system in which Boaz lived, he was supposed to act charitably toward Ruth and Naomi. Charity invites us to do FOR people, rather than WITH them. To offer charity suggests that we don’t believe in people’s capacity or ability. They are not our equals. We fail to see that they are fully made in the image of God. Advocacy based in mutuality, in contrast, leads to transformation. Boaz chooses to work with Ruth and Naomi to advocate for their redemption. Think about the mission projects of your congregations. Which ones promote a mutually engaged path of transformation? Which ones promote charity? Are there ways to do more transformation and less charity?
  • Transactional relationships sustain marginalization, while transformational relationships can lead to justice. To engage in transformation, those with power have to become uncomfortable. Boaz, for example, became uncomfortable when Ruth shows up at his feet. Reflect on a time when a relationship led you to discomfort that ultimately led toward transformation.
  • Tali notes that we speak fluently about things we think about all that time. People who are part of the dominant culture don’t have to think about their own cultural markers because the culture is assumed. This has the effect of folks in the dominant culture not being practiced in talking about their own identities in complex ways. Tali presented five lenses and invites everyone to tell their own story using these five lenses: education, belief system, ethnicity/race, class, gender. Try it!

2019 National Gathering Keynote: Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey, professor of religion and ethics at Drake University, gives a keynote presentation on racial justice and white anti-racism at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle.

Confronting the Dominant Gaze of White Culture

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In his keynote at the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah discusses the changing landscape of our culture, how that affects our churches, and how the dominant gaze of white culture continues to divide and disconnect us from our neighbors. Dr. Rah’s keynote would be a great resource for a committee, session, or team to watch and discuss, or even for a youth group as a way to dig into the surrounding culture.

What changes in the culture do you see in our world? In our country? In your neighborhood?

Dr. Rah describes two commonly used images of diversity:

  • Great American melting pot
  • Salad bowl

What are the images you have heard? As you reflect, how are they helpful or harmful?

Dr. Rah discusses how the dominant gaze defines everybody else – that culture is defined by the dominant group. Those not in the dominant group are either viewed as a pet or a threat.

Where have you seen people of color viewed as a pet? Where have you seen people of color viewed as a threat?

Can you think of examples where dominant culture saw a pet become a threat? How did the dominant culture react? How did you react?

Dr. Rah says that white dominant culture isolating itself has created a loss of connection and that the church needs to step in. He leaves the audience with two challenges to consider:

1. What is the world you have surrounded yourself with?

The last 10 books that you’ve read – who are the authors?
The last 5 people you’ve had in your home – what race and culture were they?
The furniture in your home, how would you describe it in terms of culture and ethnicity?
What are the books on your coffee table?
Who are the main stars in the top 5 tv shows that you watch?
What other questions might you ask to examine yourself?

2. Who are those who have shaped you? What race and ethnicity are the mentors in your life?

What step might you take to intersect with cultures different from your own? How will you hold each other accountable to take this step?

2019 National Gathering Keynote: Tali Hairston

Tali Hairston, Senior Advisor for Community Engagement at the Seattle Presbytery, gives a keynote presentation on community at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle.

Seeing the Possibilities in Ministry

by Jessica Tate

Back in 2011, at the first NEXT Church National Gathering, Joe Clifford gave a short talk in which he introduced the chemistry concept of the “adjacent possible.” The concept, so far as I understand, is that specific chemical reactions are possible based on what elements are next to one another. Clifford suggested it is important for the church to pay attention to what is next to us because there are numerous possibilities available to us based on what is adjacent to us. Too often, moving down well-worn paths, we forget that other possibilities exist. On the flip side, we are limited by what is next to us. There are set possibilities of how elements interact with one another. Hydrogen and oxygen combine for water. If you have hydrogen and carbon, you can’t get water, no matter how much you wish it.

The concept of adjacent possible has stayed with me since 2011. In moments when I have felt stuck, it has encouraged me to take a step back and look at the adjacent possible. What combinations might exists that I have been ignoring? What reaction am I wishing for but don’t have the right elements in the right places?

NEXT Church gatherings – local or national – seek to connect leaders to one another, to spark imagination, to offer an honest reflection about the challenges confronting the church, remind us that God’s Spirit is up to something, and encourage us to see possibilities to which we had been blind before.

In 2014, Kara Root told the story of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church and the congregation’s creative reimagining of a rhythm for worship in their community. As is true for many congregations, Kara described Lake Nokomis as a congregation that had declined numerically and yet tried to keep up with all the demands and programmatic offerings of a larger congregation. The result was exhaustion. Congregational burnout. Together, the congregation undertook a serious study of Sabbath which led them to be more honest with one another about their energy, their capacity, and a desire to practice the act of Sabbath keeping together as a community. The creative result was a change in their worship pattern so that some weeks they meet on Sunday morning for worship. Other weeks they meet on Saturday evening for a simple supper and evening prayer, preserving Sunday for communal Sabbath keeping. Some weeks they lead worship at a local home for children. A radical change in the rhythm of life was borne out of honesty, theological reflection, and Christian practice.

All of the speakers and leaders at NEXT Church gatherings bring their gifts as an offering to the church in hope and in faith – not with the expectation that everything shared will be directly relevant across all contexts, but trusting that hearing testimony from leaders reflecting on their own contexts might spark a new insight for your own. As an organization, NEXT Church creates space for these offerings, recognizing that though we cannot control what is heard, what takes root, and what is acted upon, we trust that these interactions bear fruit over time.

This month, we are going to revisit some speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle, as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit.

As we continue to journey through Lent and as I, along with other NEXT Church leaders begin an audit process this week with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I am reminded again of the powerful keynote Allan Boesak gave at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering. During the Q&A, a participant noted the church’s long silence on racism and asked him, “what does the church need to give up moving forward?” Boesak responded with a story.

South African author Alan Paton wrote a book about a principal in Soweto, where the 1976 uprising began. The principal was a gentle guy, not controversial, not one who goes to protests. “Very much like me,” said Allan Boesak. He had many friends in the white community because he did not come to their tea parties to talk about politics. “He was reasonable.”

One day the whites saw him sitting on a stage at a rally. Then the next time they saw him and he spoke at the rally. Then he was in the front leading the march. And they said to him, “What has happened to you? We depended on you! Now you are making things worse.”

He responded to them: One day I will die and the Great Judge in heaven will ask me, “where are your wounds?” And I will have to say, “I don’t have any.” And when I say, “I don’t have any,” the Great Judge will say to me, “Was there then nothing to fight for?”

Boesak continued: In the end the one who will ask you about your wounds will not be me, will not be #blacklivesmatter, will not be the women, will not be the children. It will be the one who appeared before Thomas and said to Thomas, “look at my hands and my feet and put your hand in my side.”

“I pray God,” Boesak concluded, “we will have something to show.”


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC. 

Cultural Contempt

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team (and others!) are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This editorial was originally posted on the Presbyterian Outlook website and has been re-posted with permission.

by Jill Duffield

Repeatedly, in a multitude of settings, I hear complaints about people in leadership positions: the executive director, the principal, the president, the head of staff… you name it. From the neighborhood association to the city council and beyond, leaders are considered not simply mistaken or misdirected or misinformed, they are stupid, idiots, evil. Motives are not questioned, they are assumed malevolent. Decisions are not disagreed with, debated and discussed, they are maligned and the people who made them castigated. The benefit of the doubt doesn’t exist anymore. Public postings of perceived ineptitude have replaced personal conversations seeking understanding and resolution.

And we wonder why the pool of people willing to occupy leadership roles is so shallow.

When we operate out of a default mode of disdain, we get the leaders we deserve: the ones who don’t give a whit about what others think, the ones who seek power for self-aggrandizement and abuse the privileges their offices afford.

Research has shown that the biggest indicator of the dissolution of a relationship is contempt, described in an article from Business Insider as “a virulent mixture of anger and disgust.” Susan Heitler, writing in Psychology Today, notes, “Empathy and contempt are polar opposites.”

I believe we are living in an age of cultural contempt.

When adults insult teenagers grieving the death of friends shot and killed in a mass shooting, and a group of fraternity brothers film themselves spewing racial and ethnic slurs, and memes making fun of children with disfiguring genetic disorders go viral, our moral compasses have collapsed. Empathy has left the building; anger and disgust have overtaken any sense of connection and concomitant compassion.

No wonder people of goodwill soon succumb to the relentless pillories and step aside.

Civility is not the answer. I understand the critique that civility is code for silencing the oppressed and delaying, if not denying, justice. We are nowhere near mutual respect. We are an ocean away from mutual trust. We need to begin with recognizing the reality and destructiveness of our mutual contempt. We must individually and corporately recalibrate our moral compasses.

I had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Walton of Harvard Divinity School speak at this year’s NEXT Church gathering. His answer to a participant’s question sticks with me; he responded that we must know and name our “moral frame.” How do we morally view life, people, situations? He noted that his moral frame meant he is always aware of who the most vulnerable person or people are in the room. He knows his moral frame, and others know it too because he names it.

I began to think about my own moral frame and here is where I landed: I believe everyone is a beloved child of God made in God’s image. Additionally, I believe that transformation is possible. These two frames shape how I view everything and everyone. Now that I am clear and explicit about this framework, I am clearer and more explicit about my beliefs, motivations, words and actions. Contempt for another cannot fit in this picture. The frame cuts it out. Disgust cannot remain either. And if I believe that transformation is possible then I cannot write off anyone. Now that my moral frames are visible and known to me, I am obligated to check to see if what I say and do align with them. And when they don’t (and they often don’t), I am forced to make a choice: Do I want to live with integrity or not? Am I willing to do what I need to do to live within the parameters I believe God sets for my life or not?

Let me be explicit, blunt, uncompromisingly clear about this reality: Countless times I have answered, through my actions, a resounding and hurtful “no” to both of those questions. My only hope in the wake of such personally caused destruction is God’s promised grace and the forgiveness won for us through Christ.

In this age so rife with cultural contempt, what is your moral frame? Make it explicit, known, visible in word and deed so that a grassroots movement of empathy can transform our culture. Transformation is possible, promised by God even.


Jill Duffield is the editor of The Presbyterian Outlook.

This Connectional Church

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 Angela Ryo

The first time I attended a NEXT Church National Gathering was three years ago. I was in my first call as a resident minister — a two-year position for recent seminary grads to explore every aspect of ministry in a large congregational setting. Going to the National Gathering was a natural progression of what I wanted out of ministry: to imagine a different church, a different set of tools for ministry, and life-transformative outcome and not just soul-draining output.

So I went for the first time, looking for others who were doing ministry differently and wanting to learn and connect with them. That particular year, there was a workshop titled, “Do Something Else.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for. It was led by three very energetic (I mean, “exactly-how-many-cups-of-coffee-did-you-have-this-morning?” energetic!) pastors who were doing ministry differently. They sure LOOKED crazy! But as crazy as they were, by the end of the workshop, I remember looking at one of them in particular — Nate — and thinking, “how cool would it be to work with someone like him, who can imagine a different way to BE the church!” But he was all the way from Delaware and I was in Michigan — fat chance that would ever happen!

The next time I saw Nate was the following year at the National Gathering. He had accepted a call at a church in Michigan and he was looking to put together a team. I had my first informal interview with him between workshops. And yup, you guessed it — he’s now my head of staff. That’s just a prime example of what NEXT Church is all about: bringing total strangers together in surprising and awesome ways!

This year, I came to the National Gathering with my boss — the one I met at a National Gathering two years ago. We dreamed together as we watched Ignite presentations about Pres House and Serve GR and asked each other, “Why aren’t we doing this at our church?” During David Leong’s keynote, we thought about how we can help our church be at the forefront of change by lifting up artists as prophets and adding fuel to their imagination. Having enjoyed my time with old and new friends, I left the National Gathering feeling rejuvenated and refreshed with a renewed hope for the Church.

I am no longer a resident minister whose job description is to be curious and to dream and experiment. In the busyness of everyday ministry, curiosity and imagination often take the back seat because they feel like luxuries I can’t afford. However, reflecting on my experience from the National Gathering, I am reminded of the importance of practicing the following in my ministry:

  1. Interaction with ALL KINDS of people (even those you think had too many cups of coffee!).
  2. Integration of what I learn from them into my daily life as well as my ministry (workshops are great at that).
  3. Imagination of what the church OUGHT to be and CAN be (Ignite conversations will do that for ya!).
  4. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformational rather than transactional in all of our relationships both in our church and community (David’s keynote hit the spot).
  5. Invitation to others to join and dream with me in my ministry and vice versa (that’s NEXT Church, y’all!).

I hope you will keep dreaming with me until the next National Gathering! And who knows? You might end up meeting your head of staff there just like I did!


Angela Ryo is an assistant pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her previous life, she was a high school English teacher in Chicago, where she grew up. She loves to watch food documentaries and horror movies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which.

A Public Moral Framework

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 Amanda Pine

In an age where every church worker has a blog, the questions: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to become?” reign supreme in the public leader’s mind. Like it or not, every person employed by a church becomes a public persona of that congregation; thus, the establishment of an unwavering moral framework becomes imperative to an individual’s presence – both in person and virtually. Jonathan Walton’s keynote at the NEXT Church National Gathering helped me to envision how a moral framework might be created, for those behind the curve.

Define Your Moral Framework- How do you guide your behavior? How do you know the difference between right and wrong? When you are solving a problem, on what basis do you make your decision? When you define your moral framework, lead with it. Make it a part of your sermons, your blog posts, your newsletter articles, and any other communication that you can think of. The more often you reiterate your thought process, the better. People may not agree with your moral framework, but they will understand where you are coming from.

Know You Might Be Wrong- Walton indicated that every preacher has to deal with public disdain and contempt. However, it may not always be because you’re speaking truth to power in love and you have such a strong prophetic sensibility. Sometimes, the disdain and contempt comes because we’re just jerks. Acknowledging that your moral framework is not infallible is an important step to overcoming our inner jerk – and recapturing the humility that comes with ministry.

Take Critique Seriously- Along the same lines, church leaders hear both praise and contempt on a weekly basis. Perhaps, as a response to a sermon, a newsletter article, or something that they posted on their Facebook wall. Respond to critique with the same love that you would speak truth in any other circumstance. Just as you hold those in power accountable, the congregation should hold their leadership accountable.

Know the Slide- Every moral framework, according to Walton, should slide based on the situation that one finds themselves in. For example, if part of your moral framework is that you partner and advocate for the most vulnerable group of people, that may change based on the space you find yourself in. While the moral framework itself does not change, who you align with in a particular moment might shift. Be attentive to such changes.

It seems to me that a public moral framework prevents an individual from getting caught in the trap of partisan politics. They can transcend allegiance to a particular side, and more effectively listen to those that they serve. Furthermore, no one is caught off guard thinking that the leader aligns with them on every issue. The development of a moral framework is a great place to start for those feeling called to boldly proclaim the truth.


Amanda Pine is director of Christian faith formation at King’s Grant Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, VA. A graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Amanda has previously served churches in Newport News, VA, and Chesapeake, VA. She is passionate about social justice, community issues, and is an avid learner. Amanda and her husband live at the Virginia Beach oceanfront with their two cats, and are expecting their first human child in June.

2018 National Gathering Keynote: Jonathan Walton

Jonathan Walton, social ethicist and scholar of American religions, gives a keynote presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore.

Walton joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in July 2010 and was appointed Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church in 2012.

Formerly an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of California, Riverside, Professor Walton’s research addresses the intersections of religion, politics, and media culture. He is the author of Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. He has also published widely in scholarly journals such as Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation and Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. His work and insights have also been featured in several national and international news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC.

Walton earned his PhD in Religion & Society and MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. He also holds a BA in Political Science from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He serves on several professional boards and committees, which include the Board of Trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.