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2019 National Gathering Testimony: Suzzanne Lacey

Suzzanne Lacey, founder of Museum Without Walls, gives a testimony presentation on her work in experiential learning with young people at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle.

A Quest of Fearless Failure

by Andrew Kukla

As a pastor, there are certain questions you get very used to being asked. Not the fun questions I don’t tire of answering, like “why does the Apostles’ Creed say ‘descended into hell?’” from which I usually embark on a conversation about radical grace. No, I’m talking about routine questions revisited because people don’t like the answer you give, questions that get you jaded and…worn. One of those for me is “can we get more training?” It’s a question that comes from a new member, a Sunday school teacher, a communion server, a deacon offering homebound communion, a new ruling elder; it’s a question that comes regularly and from all corners of the church. And the question is genuine. I remind myself of that every time.

But I think the question is often the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong ― I’m not adverse to training. However, I can no longer abide training as downloading data to empty vessels. The problem with training people in very particular trivia that apply to something that they don’t regularly do is that it just doesn’t stick. Why would it? It’s not that it isn’t relevant at all, it’s that its relevant to something so rare that when you finally need it you have long forgotten it. And much of the ins and outs of our polity has absolutely no correlation to the everyday life of our church leaders. So, what is worth taking time to train for?

This gets us to one of the hard realities of life in any job formation/training question: you won’t know what you don’t know, and therefore need to learn, until you get in there and muck it up. You are going to have to make some mistakes. You are going to have to wrestle with applying information to life before you can sort what parts of the information are even helpful. There is an old line I love: failure is a diagnostic tool.

If I could train people in only one thing, it would be learning to fail well.

And this is the real rub. People don’t want to make mistakes. For all our wonderful rich theology of grace, we still imagine ― more often than we admit (like all the time) ― that mistakes at church feel like they have eternal consequences. And so, we are terrified of doing things “wrong” and doing things “unsuccessfully” and we simply don’t trust ourselves to lead.

This is the real question I think people are asking? Its not more training per se, but “how do I trust myself with this task I see as vitally important and consequential?” What absolutes can you tell me that will give me the confidence to believe I’m doing it right? What information can I jot down on a piece of paper so that that this paper will lead me when I don’t trust myself to do the job? The answer to that is that I cannot… and I will not. The starting point to all of this needs to be, “You will be wrong, you will fail (as will everyone else). Get over it, and then we can get started.”

When we engage in training, what I want to do is less about teaching information and rules and more about freeing our imagination… to remind people that our job is to listen and wrestle with our calling as this small part of the Body of Christ at this time and in this place… and imagine that we can see what God is seeing for us and with us. That constantly doing this task allows us to risk the church in daring to make that imagination come alive in what we say and do together here, at home, and everywhere in our community. That’s what I want us to do…and to train for that? We need to unlearn as much as we need to learn; we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, rather than the easy or typical questions; and we need to be playful as much as studious.

Ideally… we might even manage both.

So, for the next month, for all that we are talking about officer training, let us remember that we are not trying to fill up church leaders full of things they need to know. We are hoping that together, through prayer, study, fellowship, and mission, we are falling in love with God more deeply ― day by day. Let us spark our collective imagination as a bunch of church leaders to think about what it means to embark upon a quest of fearless* failure as we endeavor to make God’s calling on us come alive in flesh and bones.

In the next month we will focus on what I’m calling the three tasks of imagination:

Feeding our Imagination: Exegeting our World View
Enabling Fruitful Imagination: Cultivating a Space for Fearless* Failure
Focusing Our Imagination: Remembering Our Goal

I believe this is the role of church leaders: less officers of the rule of law than those who blaze trails the Spirit guides them to, encouraging others to follow. And yes… there are some ancient, old, and contemporary guides in how to travel those trails that will be helpful ― Books of Order and personnel manuals ― but let those be tools, and not masters, of our task. The world needs people alive with God’s imagination far more than it needs a plethora of people steeped in by-laws. And while I do not believe that’s an either/or scenario, I do know where I want to start and what needs to stay front and center.

Without further ado…let’s find the second star to the right and go straight on till morning!

*by fearless I do not mean we won’t have fears. I’m a pretty fearful person. What I mean by fearless is that fear will not be our master. We will overcome our fears, not the other way around.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

Letting Anxiety Go

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 Mads Benishek

We find ourselves in the wilderness for all kinds of reasons: to sulk (Jonah), to hide (Elijah), to mourn (Ruth), because we are called there (Jesus), and because we have no other option (Hagar). We don’t go there willingly most of the time. The church didn’t choose the wilderness. Indeed, we’ve feared it and puffed ourselves up, shunning it and pretending that we have all the answers and have no need of the wilderness. Yet the wilderness could care less about our self-importance and best-laid plans.

So here we find ourselves: plunged into, deposited, or chased out into the wilderness. After panicking a bit, we sit on the ground with our back to a tree trunk and stare into the sky for a while, thinking, “Now what?” Our defenses drop. We look and for once really see what’s around us, if only because we no longer have anything to distract us, out here where the sky is huge and rocky cliffs rise in the distance. It’s then that the wilderness surprises us. We notice a spring of water coming up from dry ground, a deer leaping for joy, the wind whispering, “What if…?” and “Look!”

The wilderness surprised me in small ways at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering: a corner with pillows for sitting on the floor during keynote and worship, communion stations that seemed to pop up all around the room, roadside markers throughout for us to leave notes or mementos or just things we’d forgotten. The spirituality studio where I played with paper, scissors and glue for a while. As I noticed and explored these treasures of the wilderness, giving my curiosity free reign, I felt my fear and anxiety melt away, becoming humble, open, learning.

I wonder if the church is starting to do this too. I wonder if we’re realizing that we have so many wondrous things to learn once we let all our very adult-seeming anxieties go and we fumble around, ask questions, listen, explore, and thereby discover gifts, insights, tools, and beauty that our very self-important gaze, with our very adult-seeming blinders, would have overlooked.

At the Gathering we learned from community organizers, academics, artists, deacons, elders, businesspeople, and musicians in addition to pastors and academics. The Spirit is in the wilderness, stirring up these prophets, apostles and teachers in and beyond our midst. The Spirit is in the wilderness and at the Gathering I saw the inklings of the church stepping out to follow, a child-like and humble church with big eyes and an open heart eager to learn, to try, to wonder, and even to play. I hope the church, that is each of us, follows our childlike curiosity, that we open ourselves to being surprised by each person, ordained or not, churched or not, and by each place where we find ourselves. Then, together with our siblings in all walks of life, we’ll wonder at and celebrate and join the Holy Spirit at work all around us.


Mads Benishek (he/him/his) is a recent seminary graduate and candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. Currently Mads leads an LGBTQ+ dinner church in north-central New Jersey and is starting a young adult group focused on spirituality, the environment, and local food.

Skipping A Step: Resisting the Quick Fix and Embracing Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Charlie Lee

How can we fix it? This is a question posed in our congregations every day. Common elements of decline such as sagging attendance, diminished donations, or a general lack of excitement can create significant anxiety among church leaders and create a sense of crisis in our congregations. Well-intentioned church leaders who observe these crises are often quick to call for and implement solutions that are designed to directly address these problems.

This is what we did in my own congregation. We observed a decline in giving and attendance, the metrics that have traditionally defined a successful congregation. Therefore, we gathered leaders together to design a solution to our crisis. We started a new worship service, added a new staff member, and even made plans to remodel a portion of our building. While these steps were successful in granting us some temporary gains, in time we learned that our solutions were not lasting ones and eventually we found ourselves right back where we started.

So what went wrong? Why did our well-thought-out solutions not have a lasting effect on our problems? As we wrestled with these questions, we learned that we had skipped a step in our efforts to quickly address our congregational crises. We had moved directly from the observations of our perceived problems to interventions we thought would address them. What we failed to do was to put in place practices that might help us interpret our initial observations so that we might gain new learnings that could then be applied in the design and execution of future interventions.

My guess is that our congregation is not the only one who is skipping this important step as we struggle to adapt in these times of rapid change. However, we can no longer afford to do so if we hope to face the adaptive challenges that lay before us and remain faithful to God’s collective calling on our communities of faith. We must take on the task of developing practices of assessment and evaluation within our congregations, and if we do so they can help our congregations do three things:

  1. Discern: The metrics of attendance and financial giving have for too long defined the success or failure of a congregation. Vital ministry is about so much more than counting “butts and bucks.” It is about faithfully following the calling that God places upon us. Churches by nature are “heliotropic,” meaning that just like a plant leans towards the direction of the sunlight, a church will move towards the source of energy or focus that is present in the system. If we continue to focus on outdated metrics, then this will only continue to produce anxiety and a feeling of continual crisis in our congregations. However, if we utilize tools of assessment and evaluation, then we can better focus on continually discerning the dynamic calling of God upon our congregations, and therefore begin to define success in our ministries with an eye towards fruitfulness rather than fear.
  2. Learn: “You don’t know – that you don’t know – what you don’t know.” This was a favorite line of one of my undergrad college professors. He repeated it often to us in an effort to encourage our curiosity and inspire our learning. His point was that there are always new things to learn and opportunities to go deeper in that learning than we ever thought possible. The same is true in our congregations. Tools of assessment and evaluation are the key to opening up new realms of possibilities in our ministries. They help keep us from moving immediately to towards implementing solutions to problems and instead take a deep dive on the issues behind what we have observed. Often, in this process, we discover that the perceived problem we were so focused on in the beginning is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. It is these new learnings that make it possible for us to address not only the technical challenges of ministry, but the more adaptive and complex issues facing our congregations.
  3. Tell the Story: It has been a few years now since the congregation I serve began experimenting with different practices of assessment and evaluation. The most successful practice by far that we have adopted has been the practice of storytelling. An important part of assessment and evaluation is capturing data; however, if all the data that is captured is merely quantitative, then it will not give a complete picture of all that is occurring within a congregation. Numbers and statistics can only communicate so much. Qualitative data is required in order share those things that cannot be measured but can be observed. The assessment practices we put in place gave us the tools to begin asking our congregation to tell us their stories. As much as possible, we began sharing these stories in worship and through our publications so that all could hear the good news of how lives were being transformed through Christ and how God was at work in and through the ministries of this congregation. The practice of storytelling has changed the conversation within our congregation, enabling us to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

I am grateful to the leadership of NEXT Church and the individuals who have worked so hard to produce resources for assessment and evaluation. I believe the utilization of these resources can help keep us from looking for the next quick fix and instead provide a consistent way for us to become more attentive to God’s calling.


Charlie Lee is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He received a Doctorate of Ministry Degree in 2015 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His primary focus of study was on the implementation of formative evaluation in congregations.