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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 it Takes to Transform

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 their testimony at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Heidi Husted Armstrong and Scott Lumsden talk about the story of First Seattle Presbyterian Church – a church that went from being one of the biggest churches in the country to total membership collapse. This 30-minute video is a resource for any church group – the session, committees, or teams – to dig into what it takes to transform into the new thing in which God is calling them.

Heidi talks about three things that keep her “hanging in there.” Consider those three things below.

1. I have never been more free to say “I do not know what I’m doing.” How many 5 year plans have been run through this place? Like I’m going to come up with the one that works?! The phrase solvitur ambulando has been attributed to Saint Augustine, which translates as “it is solved by walking.” It means to just take the next step, and the next step, and God will show the way.

What is the hard thing before you in ministry that you need to take the next step toward? What might be an initial first step?

2. Letting go of “churchiness” so that I can embrace the quirkiness, the uniqueness, and the messiness that is in this place. Let me be present for what you have for us today. Let me show up. Help me show up for what is.

What is quirky, unique, and messy about what is in your place? How might you be more present to show up for what is?

3. Remember God is a God of resurrection. Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing (Frederick Buechner). Being in a struggling church mean there’s lots of room for God to show up! There is one Lord of the Church who is still in the business of raising from the dead what is dead in us. Raising what is dead through us. Raising what is dead around us. Raising what is dead in spite of us.

What is dying around you? What might God be resurrecting and raising up in your midst? What are the spaces in your context where there is room for God to show up?

Scott closes their testimony by saying that the church has to admit we no longer have all the answers and instead need to start asking questions of ourselves, of our neighborhoods, and of God.

What questions do you need to start asking of yourself, of your neighborhood, and of God? What questions keep you up at night?

Exegeting Culture for Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Melodie Jones-Pointon

I first felt the call to professional ministry in the church when I was 21 years old. At the time, I made a “deal” with God: I would go anywhere God called (almost). I imagined this deal with God would lead me to ministry in Hawaii. But that has not yet been the case. So far, my calls have led me from my hometown in Idaho to Washington State, from Arkansas to New Jersey, from Michigan to Mississippi. Currently I call Lincoln, Nebraska my home.

In the Presbyterian call system, church professionals are often called far from home to lead in congregations and communities that have unique cultures. Discovering those cultures and naming them help us navigate those cultures in ways that make our leadership connected and effective.

Here are three insights I have gleaned over the years:1

If you want to know how something really functions, ask the custodian. Okay, so my current church has a professional cleaning company, so this doesn’t always work. I would happily insert the office manager, administrative assistant, or maintenance/security personnel in this spot. The larger point is that oftentimes the pastor and leadership aren’t around for some of the important happenings at the church.

Here’s the truth – as the senior pastor, I love to rattle off the list of things we support and believe in at the church. I am proud that we currently are a meeting site for AA and Girl Scouts, non-profit board meetings and senior citizen groups. I read the calendar every week and am thrilled at how we are growing into using our building better. It’s my job to look at the big picture.

But I don’t always know what is really happening. I recently learned that our new AA meeting is growing quickly in number and that our food pantry is hosting their first volunteer staff and client picnic where they anticipate at least 40 people. I learned this because our office manager brought up details for set up at a staff meeting so she could pass these details on to our maintenance staff.

Sometimes the most important conversations and decisions are made outside of the committee meeting. I learned this in my second call, in a small town in Mississippi. I found myself frustrated that I would sit at committee meetings where items were discussed, decisions made, and then changed later in the week.

I started paying attention, and discovered that the most important discussions in the community took place at the ball field and the grocery store parking lot. That particular congregation and community was (and is) relationship-driven. So they couldn’t make decisions without those conversations. In other areas of the country, the Catholic or Lutheran church has been a large community influence, and committees would never make a decision outside of a meeting with a pastor present. These are issues of culture and influence that affect how we lead.

Cultures aren’t “one-size fits all.” I am often asked how I like my current call and current city. The truth is, I love it. And I know why. It’s a growing larger-sized farming community with an emphasis on higher education. It is very similar to my home congregation and community. I’m comfortable here because I understand the culture.

But it’s just a culture. There’s no one ultimate right or wrong way to run a church. In today’s culture of change, it’s important for us to focus on the vision and mission of our congregation and community. As new people move into the community, they bring different experiences and ideas that are valuable. Don’t let the established culture run them off! Pay attention to it, be able to name it, and learn to either work within it (if it works) or change it (if it’s toxic).

For further reading and reference, see the works of Eric H.F. Law, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, and Israel Galindo.

1 These are in chronological order of discovery, not in order of importance.


Growing up in Idaho, Melodie has always had a great love for Christ and for the church. Melodie received her Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Seminary in May 2017 and has served at Presbyterian churches in Idaho, Washington State, Arkansas, New Jersey, Michigan, Mississippi, and finally here in Nebraska! Her pastor husband, Steve, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and together they have two children, Phoebe and Eli, and a 4-legged friend named Pebbles.

Getting Out of the Boat

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

Leadership: Our Faith Depends On It

by Laura Cheifetz

I don’t know if we can blame this on American individualism, white Christianity, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus did and how he did it. We have a habit of thinking single leaders will save us. Whether it’s deciding that the election of an African American stated clerk represents a turning point and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen (so what I’m saying is y’all better be showing up and doing your own work instead of waiting for the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson to magically transform the church by his lonesome). Or that an out gay Latino heading up PMA will be such an important change for the church (represents a change? Yes. WAS the change? That’s not how change works.). Or that hiring a charismatic white under-40 pastor will do for the congregation what the congregation has not been able to do for itself.

We are not a church of individual leaders fixing things. I mean, sometimes we think we are, but that’s not how we are set up. It is not how we flourish. It is not how we get things done.

Which leads me to the matter of leadership development.

We can’t, in fact, neglect leadership development in a church with no bishops. And we can’t focus leadership development only on the conventional choice (the young, the male, the outspoken). We need to develop everyone. You never know when you need someone to organize a group of people to march in a parade, corral knitters to make hats for preemies, or arrange the food pantry.

I hate being the youngest in the room; by the time I was in my mid-30s, I realized it is a chronic issue in many church circles. It’s a sign that we aren’t doing our job to find and cultivate leaders and make leadership development opportunities accessible. That’s not true anymore; I’m the second oldest on staff at my organization. I am delighted I can play my true heart’s role: grumpy older lady who knows some things. Every day is an exercise in leadership development.

That’s what church should be. A daily exercise in leadership development. The story of our faith in Scripture lays out a myriad of prophets, common folk getting things done, a community of people following Jesus and sharing the good news, scrappy early churches. We need people with the capacity to show up after their day (or night) jobs and be leaders. Our faith literally depends upon it.

This series of 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.

Here is the lesson I offer.

Leadership development is training people up to love God, love neighbor, and have the strength to withstand being uncomfortable. You know what’s uncomfortable, at least at first? Difficult conversations. Leading Bible study. Talking with strangers. Speaking in front of others. Marching past counter-protestors. Antiracism work. Guiding a community of faith to learn more about and be inclusive of LGBTQ people. Being in a different cultural context. Learning new skills. Engaging in a community that is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating. Integrating people with intellectual disabilities in worship for the first time. Visiting people in prisons and detention centers. Being in community with people who live with addiction.

You know, being the church.

Church should be uncomfortable. Church should develop leaders.

Go and do likewise.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Deputy Director of Systems and Sustainability at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). Prior to that, she served as Vice President for Church and Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, at the Forum for Theological Exploration, and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She and her partner live in Decatur, GA. If you were to be stranded in Atlanta, you could call them for a night on the couch, craft cocktails, a meal, lively discussion on politics or race or religion or whatever else we aren’t supposed to discuss, and dog snuggles.