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Addressing the Evil That is Racism

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 her testimony during the 2016 National Gathering, Jessica Vazquez Torres offers a strong challenge to the church to get serious about addressing the evil that is racism in meaningful ways. This 30 minute video is a resource for leaders and congregations who are already talking about race, racism, and white supremacy and want to lean into that tension. It is a challenging personal introduction for leaders who want to deepen their own wrestling with racism and white supremacy.

As you finish the video, what word or phrase describes how you feel after watching this? (in a group setting, be sure to allow for complexity of reaction and varied reactions)What is hard to hear in what Jessica says? How might you lean into that discomfort?

Jessica offers four insights in addressing racism that the church needs to be clearer about:

  1. Racism can’t be understood aside from white supremacy.
  2. History matters.
  3. Racism is structural, not relational.
  4. All of us are made complicit.

Thinking about your own context or your own life, which of these insights is most recognizable to you? Which is the most daunting?

What’s one step toward learning you can do in one of these areas?

Jessica she offers four actions to take:

  1. Own your complicity.
  2. Develop a thicker, more complex, intersectional analysis of racism.
  3. Be political (because racism is lived out in the public sphere).
  4. Talk about whiteness and the benefits to white people, not just the oppression of people of color.

Which of these actions could you lean into most easily as an individual or as a congregation? What’s one step you/your church could take?

Which of these actions would be the most difficult to lean into? Is there an initial step you could take toward that larger action?

Holy Spirit, this is a challenging word. Help us to hear your liberating promise within this challenge. Open us to the tension and discomfort that we pray is in service of sanctification. Amen.

Scripture, Poetry, and the “Irrational David”

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jenny Warner

When I get stuck, I call Ken Evers-Hood.

And when you read his new book, you’ll know why he’s on my speed dial of advisers.

Ken and I met as pastors in the same presbytery in Oregon. As a new pastor, serving three hours from the hub of most other churches, I had few true colleagues. Ken invited me to sit in the back row with him, included me in the irreverent commentary of the younger pastors (by which I mean those under 55), all the while sharing with me a great love of the presbytery and its process.

I learned to trust Ken’s perspective, and so when he invited me to join him in a yearlong leadership cohort with the poet David Whyte in 2015, I said yes. The experience changed both of us. We found a community and a construct that took us further in ministry, our lives and our future. Our collective engagement with David’s work taught us to bring our whole selves to bear in our vocation. We learned to trust where vulnerability leads us, which is perhaps the most radical move a leader in contemporary America can make, religious or not.

Ken found another companion in this wholehearted journey in David of the Bible – a shepherd, king, musician, poet, friend, lover, and full-throated human. In this book, you will see David with a lens that opens fresh possibilities of being faithful, not perfect.

In his first book, The Irrational Jesus, Ken offered his doctoral research on decision-making and leadership in the church. In this book, The Irrational David, Ken dives deep and has “a real conversation,” as David Whyte would say. He brings Scripture, philosophy, theology, poetry, literature, and psychology into a conversation that puts us all at ease because of Ken’s profound vulnerability.

For those who are struggling to articulate a faith that is not either/or in the aftermath of the liberal/fundamentalist battles, Ken masterfully articulates a faith that honors the complexity of postmodern understandings in a way that is grounded and undefended. He doesn’t let either side get away with defended polarities and invites us into faithfulness and wholeness instead.

My copy of this book will be full of underlining and coffee stains as I return over and over to see what Ken has to say about the text I’m preaching on. His words often say what I intuit, but am not yet able to articulate. As a gift to preachers, he brings along references from literature, history, and life that will make Scripture come alive week after week. This book is a trusted dance partner in the rhythm of life with God.

Editor’s note: The Irrational David is not available yet, but you can sign up to receive an email from Amazon when it is available there. This post will be updated when the book is available (any day now!).


Jenny Warner is pastor at Valley Presbyterian Church on the western edge of the Silicon Valley. She loves the challenge of pastoring on the West Coast. She and Chris have two teenage daughters and a Bernese Mountain Dog named Holly.

National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.


Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

The Makings of a Vital Partnership

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 Katie Harrington & Kelley Hames

Pastors and volunteers rely on one another to make ministry happen at local churches, but how does a successful relationship work? At Sardis Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rev. Katie Harrington, associate pastor for families, and Kelly Hames, a ruling elder, have a vital partnership that enhances the children’s ministry at their church.

Kelly: I have an exceptional relationship with my pastor. What makes it so special you may ask?

Photo from Sardis Presbyterian Church Facebook page.

I have given it a lot of thought and what continues to impress as unique and powerful is that my pastor appreciates my vocation: a divine call to God’s service in the church as a volunteer. She has a care for my gifts and a desire to help me use them to the glory of God… always nurturing me, gently leading me, and sometimes challenging me in the development of those gifts. She treats me as a partner in ministry worthy of respect and gratitude. This, in my opinion, is the true secret of our relationship and ability to work well together: we’re equal members of the same cohort with different calls to service, both necessary in the church.

For my part, I believe that elders are called to embrace new thoughts and ideas. The culture in which the church exists is constantly changing. The church should adapt if we want to be relevant now and into the future. There are so many opportunities these days for ruling elders to increase in knowledge and wisdom — through continuing education and associations, to name just two. We should take advantage of these resources so that, in partnership with pastors and staff, we can grow with and lead the church through all the tides of change.

Katie: One of the joys of serving the Church is discovering leaders in the church who not only make the ministry happen, but make it thrive. Kelly is one of those ruling elders at Sardis Presbyterian. With a passion for children’s ministry, and lots of experience and training, she makes church work exciting and inspiring. Our relationship enhances my ministry to the whole congregation, and our collective ministry to the children and parents of our church. We truly are partners, and inspire one another to do exciting new things for our families.

One of the challenges of ministry is finding volunteers — there are always holes to fill for Sunday School teachers, youth advisers, coffee hour hosts, ushers, greeters. You name a role in the church, and we need a volunteer to do it. The joy of ministry is when we ask someone to fill a role for whom that role becomes a vocation, a calling. And then, we teaching elders need to step back, trust and support their leadership, and give them lots of encouragement along the way, building a vital partnership that benefits all of God’s kingdom.


Kelly Hames is from Mobile, Alabama, where she earned an undergraduate degree in Accounting from the University of South Alabama, and in 2012 graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary with a Masters in Christian Education. In 2008 she was ordained as a Ruling Elder in the PCUSA. She now lives in North Carolina where she is a member of Sardis Presbyterian Church.

At various times she has served on Finance, Member Care, Missions, Worship, Children’s Christian Education, and Elementary Faith Formation Committees. She served as Interim Director of Children’s Christian Education at Matthews Presbyterian Church twice and in between that as the Director of Children’s Ministries at Indian Trail Presbyterian Church. She now thoroughly enjoys doing similar work as a volunteer at Sardis.

She lives with her disabled sister, their seven fur babies, likes to read, enjoys card-making and adores fantasy science fiction (especially dragons). She has a passion for children’s ministry and delights in her favorite role as Sunday School Teacher.

Katie Harrington is associate pastor for families at Sardis Presbyterian Church in Charlotte NC, where she enjoys serving families in every sense of the word family. Originally from Ohio, after 13 years, she has now settled into life in the South, assisted by marrying a native Charlottean and raising two southern kids!

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.

A Reflection of Our God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In February, Laura Cheifetz curated a series on leadership development. We have one more to add to the series! These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Omayra Gonzalez Mendez

I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, and I have an accent. Does that describe who I am? Of course, the truth is I’m much more, but I must admit that representing those categories has opened many doors. Yes, there were times when I felt I checked all the boxes when different people were needed: woman, young, and Hispanic; I was a perfect package. Sometimes, I questioned if I really had the skills or was just invited to meet the quota. It may seem odd or illogical, but with the desire of the church to have different faces in leadership spaces, it was a blessing.

However, when I was about 18 years old, I met great women of color leaders while serving in Racial Ethnic Young Women Together (REYWT). One of these women, Marnie del Carmen, reminded me that wherever I went I had to make a difference. She preached to me, “Do not erase your accent, do not erase who you are. Share with others about your childhood. Your voice will make a difference. Other people will somehow identify with you and your story.”

Photo from Montreat flickr page

I remember the first time I led an energizer at a Montreat youth conference, perhaps in 2006, and a young Dominican girl approached me. She was excited because my accent reminded her of her mother’s family. I felt that even in the middle of North Carolina with all these people, it was wonderful that there was someone like her, someone to identify with, someone who understood what it is like to have an accent.

I’m more than my ethnicity. I realized that I am also the sister of a woman with disabilities. So, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, I have an accent, and I grew up in a family with a kid with disability.

Having a relative with a disability gives you another perspective on life. You learn not to complain about everything. You learn the power to believe in yourself. And you especially learn that the world is not made for people who are different or have special needs. Sometimes, not even the church.

For years I have worked in several capacities within the church, but my most prominent roles are in recreation. And as I wrote a few years ago for another publication: “Recreation is more than ‘time to play.’ It is about creating community. I try to lead games that invite people to work together, help people understand the need to be part of the greater body of Christ. Everyone has a purpose. Sometimes people don’t stop to think of the theological part of what they are doing — and that’s okay — but I know that God works in every single moment of the day. Energizers may not be the traditional way of doing worship or teaching the Bible, but is a way and sometimes that’s all that we need — a way to start doing things.”

This summer, while directing recreation in Montreat, my co-leader (Betsy Apple Eldridge) and I set out to plan the events with people who have mobility problems or motor skill challenges in mind.

At the end of the first week, we received a letter from the mother of a young man in a wheelchair thanking us for thinking about him, and finding ways to make him part of the body of Christ through recreation. We do not do things to be recognized, but that letter filled our hearts.

It was a confirmation that in everything we do, small or great act, is a reflection of our God.

The church has much to offer. The church can be that space that creates leaders who are aware of who they are, how they have grown up, and the blessings they can be for other people. We are the face of the church, in all our difference, and it is a gift!


Omayra L. Gonzalez Mendez is a news producer, movie lover, and super passionate about the church. From media reports, pictures and videos, she takes every free minute to work in different organizations of the Presbyterian Church, both locally and internationally. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Hato Rey, she works with the youth society and finance ministries. She understand that all parts of the church are equally important, so she can take a summer to sit and follow the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and fly the next day to lead recreation in a youth event. All matters of the church, processes and creation, fascinate her.

The Business of Making Active Disciples

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Laura Cheifetz is curating a series on leadership development. These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shelley Donaldson

What does leadership development in the church look like to me?

In the fall of 2001, a couple of pastor-mentor-friends convinced me I should work for the Calvin Center just outside of Atlanta, GA. I liked kids and I loved being outside. I was also going through a rough patch with my faith and just happened to be looking for a job while going to college. I needed a paycheck, so I signed up. Looking back now, I realize that at no point would anyone ever have been able to explain to me the 9+ years of leadership development that I would undergo and that would transform how I see the world and interact with God’s creation. I’ve tried really hard to carry these skills with me throughout my ministry since and use them to inform my decision making.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you can’t have good leadership if you aren’t someone who is helping to develop new leaders. Constantly. It’s part of God’s big hamster wheel that we should all find ourselves on. I realized I was running on that wheel after becoming an associate camp director and eventually a solo director where I was hiring college students and helping to create an atmosphere of nurturing new leaders. Good leadership and leadership development keeps going. You can’t just hone your own leadership abilities and be a true leader without being able to share with and impart that leadership onto others because that’s not how the gospel would do it.

I know it’s cliché, but in Matthew 28 we get our fundamental instructions for leadership development: to go and make disciples. When Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, it’s not only to make the world believe, but to believe and act on that belief. Which means, if we are to make disciples, then we’re meant to make active disciples who in turn go on to make more active disciples and so on. We are meant to make leaders who go on to make other leaders and so on. We are meant to keep God’s hamster wheel spinning and we should all be on it in some shape, form or fashion.

Over the years, the idea of leadership development has become something of a hot topic in the church. When I attend conferences or large gatherings, I often hear of special leadership events that a particular event or group is hosting, most often it’s an invite-only event. If your invite-only event is one that is intentional about bringing to the table people who have typically been left in the margins when it comes to leadership, then great. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Most of the time, we see the same groups or individuals at these events and we see the same people leading them. It’s frustrating and its exclusive.

Sure, some really good leadership development is done hosting intentional workshops for a hand-picked, select group of people. But the best leadership development happens when we figure out how to embrace God’s hamster wheel and start developing our leaders (aka disciples) who will bring others onto the wheel, not just the few deemed worthy or because they know the right person with some sway. I’m talking moving beyond the pulpit and chancels and moving into the pews and out into the streets.

Here’s the secret that we don’t want to talk about when it comes to leadership development in the church: like so many other parts of our world, you have to have a foot in the door to be a part of leadership and to get that development. And to get your foot in the door often requires an access to privilege and power that, let’s be honest, we don’t often like to share or give up. We’ve essentially separated making active disciples and developing leaders. And we wonder why the church is shrinking?

I had privilege that helped get me in the doors I needed to walk through to get good leadership development. I wasn’t looking to develop my leadership skills, but I did because of others. I was a young white woman from the suburbs, I had good people looking out for me, and my boss (who turned out to be a close friend for life) was one heck of a mentor who was never afraid to call me out when I did something wrong, tell me no when I’d always heard yes, and refuse to coddle me when I failed and acted immature about it. The leadership development I got from my time at the Calvin Center didn’t just help to create a leader in the church, it helped to create an active disciple. It did that for me and so many others because they weren’t interested in being selective, they were interested in developing each person who walked through those cabin doors because they were in the business of keeping that hamster wheel running and making active disciples to run it.

My leadership development came, in many parts, because of my own privilege. Sure, I was smart, likeable, and had a lot of energy for life and God’s church, I still do. But, there were people who were able to help place me in a position where I could blossom. Which is why the skills I developed in leadership are at the core of who I am, because I can’t take any of it for granted. I was introduced to people who helped shape who I am and my abilities, and I sincerely hope that we can change that model from getting leadership development for those with privilege or those with access, to making sure it’s available to all God’s people, especially the ones with little to no access.

We have to be in the business of making active disciples of everyone, not just the select. Then we’ll be in the business of leadership development that will keep that hamster wheel spinning. It won’t just affect the church, but it will affect the world. The church should be at the forefront of leadership development, it should be at the core of who we are. Which means it can’t be exclusive but intentionally open to everyone. Change the exclusive invites from a “+1” to a “bring all your friends and some random folks as well with you.” Leadership development shouldn’t be for the ones that those in places of power deem worthy, but for those whom God has deemed worthy.


Shelley Donaldson is a candidate for ordained ministry in the PCUSA. She works in Chicago at Fourth Presbyterian Church working with youth and leading missions to Cuba. She is a contributing story writer for WJK’s new book Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible, as well as the Youth Cartel’s 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers. She is also a founding member of Creation Lab. You can find her work on her blog, The Travelling Theologian: Traveling with 2 L’s Because I Can.