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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:

Removing “Just” From our Vocabulary

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Suzanne Davis is curating a series highlighting the working relationship between ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament (or teaching elders). We’ll hear from both individuals and ruling elder/pastor partners reflect on the journey in ministry they’ve had together. How do these two roles – both essential to our polity – share in the work and wonder of the church? What is the “special sauce” that makes this special partnership flourish? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lisa Raymaker and Heather Newgreen

Growing up, pastors were always on a pedestal – set apart by God, always doing and saying the right things, seemingly without fault. As we get older, perspectives change. Set apart by God is still true, called for a special service is true… AND we are ALL set apart, we are ALL called for a special service. Responding to that call sometimes makes us feel inadequate.”But I’m just a layperson, how am I equipped to answer that call?” God doesn’t pay attention to the “just.” He/She gave each of us particular gifts and calls us to use them, regardless of whether we think we’re up to the task.

We’ve been able to believe this more because of our relationships with our pastor. He treats us as an equal in the body of Christ and encourages us to lead where we are called. In the beginning, it’s normal to feel that we need to be careful with our words, to put our best foot forward. We are in a church, after all. As we work together more as the hands and feet of Christ in our faith community and in our city, we can become more comfortable being our authentic selves, for better or worse. We have learned that it’s alright to question the way things are done; to speak the truth in love; to challenge each other to think, love, and serve more deeply. We learned that our thoughts and ideas are valued, and that the diversity of our thoughts is exactly what the church needs.

The relationship between a pastor and an elder can be summed up in one word: equals. We should be listening to each other, questioning each other, and trusting that we are capable to serve in the roles where God has placed us. When a congregation sees that the elders they elected are working in partnership with their pastor and not for their pastor, they can trust that their voices are being heard.

We believe there are three components to making a teaching elder and ruling elder partnership successful (of course, there are three – thank you, Triune God): always making room for the Holy Spirit to move and lead us, the teaching elder valuing and encouraging the work of lay leaders, and the ruling elder believing in and using their spiritual gifts. God’s call comes in many different forms and at different volumes. It can be a burning bush and it can be a whisper. It can be to serve as a pastor and it can be to use your skills as a business person to help lead your faith community into uncharted territory. If we listen, if we respond, if we work together as equals in the body of Christ, if we get rid of the “just” in our vocabulary, God will lead us to amazing places.


Lisa Raymaker is a member of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, and a ruling elder. After serving a 3-year term on the Session at Caldwell, she is chairing the Hope Committee, which is part of the new Gambrell Social Justice Fellowship program, and the Touchpoint Committee, which focuses on Caldwell’s outreach to the Charlotte LGBTQ community. Lisa works in the insurance industry and her husband, Patrick, is a musician.

Heather Newgreen was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church. She was ordained and installed as an Elder in 2009 and recently reinstalled in 2018. Heather currently serves as the Chair of Christian Formation where she oversees the education programs from infants to adults for Caldwell Presbyterian Church. She has remained an active volunteer in many of the church’s educational programs such as Godly Play, Youth Sunday School, and Confirmation. Though she holds a degree in music, Heather works for a non-profit that provides financing to small businesses. Her husband Kyle, and their two small children, James and Emily, are her greatest blessings.

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.

Workshop Materials: Leadership Essentials for Laity

Workshop: Leadership Essentials for Laity
Presenters: Ann Michel

Attached you will find the powerpoint from Ann Michel’s workshop “Leadership Essentials for Laity.”

Workshop description: This workshop will equip lay leaders and church professionals who are not ordained clergy with some of the basic skills essential to effective church leadership. Beginning with the premise that all leadership is relational, the workshop will consider team building, recruiting, and how to develop others as leaders.

 

 

Workshop Materials: In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call

Workshop: In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call
Presenters: Ann Michel

Attached you will find the materials from Ann Michel’s workshop “In Ministry Together: How Laity Can Embrace Their Call.”

Workshop description: This workshop will explore a more inclusive, synergistic paradigm of ministry that includes the work of lay leaders and church professionals who are not ordained clergy. Participants will be given the opportunity to consider how God’s call is active in their life and their work, and to claim a clear theological identity as ministry leaders.