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I Believe the Children are Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post was updated to include the entirety of the author’s post. We apologize for the error! 

by Kim Lee

I had a newborn. But I figured: never too early to learn. Subsequently, there I was, attending a class for parents on teaching children to drive.

First question: “At what age does a child learn to drive?”

One called out, “Sixteen.”

Another, “no, no, no. Fifteen, that’s when they start taking driver’s education courses.”

Silence.

Photo from Selywn Ave Presbyterian Church Facebook page

After what seemed a rather dramatic pause, our presenter said, “I’d like to suggest that your children are learning to drive from the moment you buckle them into their car seat.”

“Do you slow down for yellow or speed up?” “Do you lock your doors?” “Do you wear your seatbelt?”

As a Christian educator, I think about those wise words and ponder: When does a child learn he or she is a child of God?

I’d like to suggest from the moment we welcome them into the family.

Are we keeping God’s words in our hearts? Do we recite them to our children? Do we talk about them when we’re at home? When we are away? When we lie down? When we rise?

I was a preschool teacher for fourteen years. Over those years, I came to realize that if I really wanted to impact the life of a child, and what teacher worth his or her salt doesn’t?, I had to reach the parents. Let’s be honest, as a teacher I had access to the hearts, minds, souls and bodies of my little learners twelve hours a week, if they were in school every day.

As the Director of Children and Family Ministry, I have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of my little disciples-in-training, at best, two hours a week, eight hours a month, and fifteen hours over the summer, if a family is EXTREMELY active. That means the church, assigned with the task of “guiding and nurturing by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging the body of Christ to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ,” has a grand whopping one hundred and eleven hours a year to fulfill its baptismal promise.

On the other hand, parents have access to the hearts, minds, souls, and bodies of their children twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a minimum of eighteen years! I think that is why the writer of Deuteronomy addresses Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statues and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children…
–Deuteronomy 6:4-9

What? What shall we say?

As parents and teachers and pastors, we are not asked to make up answers on the fly. Rather, we are charged to hear God’s Word; to love God with all of our heart, an undivided faithfulness; and with all of our soul, a commitment unto death; and with all of our might, everything we have and are — the totality of the human creature. Throughout the Bible, there is a recognition that it will take the whole of Israel — parents, teachers, preachers, and neighbors — to instruct children into the household of God.

An exasperated mom tells me that every day she fights the same fight: She gathers her eight-year old daughter’s cleats, socks, and shin guards, fixes a water bottle, makes a snack and places everything by the front door so that all her daughter has to do when she gets in from school is pick up her bag, grab her snack and get in the car. And yet, each weekday afternoon her daughter finds some reason or is flustered by some event that prevents her from doing just that, making them late to soccer practice every. single. day. And I wonder: Why do we expend so much time, energy, and money for our children to partake in soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, tennis and on and on and spend either no time or very little time worshipping God, praying, and studying the Bible with our children?

Where on earth did we get the idea that children are little bodies devoid of souls? We may not sacrifice our children to fire gods anymore, but I fear we are sacrificing them to soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and the like.

Children are born unto us as curious, searching, longing, spiritual beings. They ask the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Why isn’t life fair? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? Why? Why? Why?

Then we shall say to our children…

What?

What will we say?


Kim Lee serves as part-time Director of Children’s and Family Ministries at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Kim is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. Before arriving at Selwyn, she served as the Director of Spiritual Formation at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian from 2007 to early 2015. Prior to that Kim served as a lead teacher in their Weekday School for fourteen years. Kim is a native Charlottean, having grown up at Covenant Presbyterian Church. She and her husband, Rick, have an adult son. Kim loves stories any way she can get them — books, movies, songs or spoken. She also enjoys frequent walks along the greenway with her golden retrievers, Norton & Tilly.

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:

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.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. 

Seeing the Cross Again and Again for the First Time

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Roger J. Gench

I have a quandary. My quandary involves the cross — the central symbol of the Christian faith. We profess the centrality of the cross, but a critical dimension of it has virtually disappeared from ecclesial faith and practice: the cross as a public or political symbol that exposes not just the brokenness in our individual lives, but also the corresponding social and political brokenness in our world, for the two are intimately connected. This public dimension of the cross is, in my view, essential to the life of the church, but it is absent from too much of our life and faith.

To remedy this absence, for the last ten years or so I have been teaching, preaching and practicing a public theology of the cross, but it has not been easy! Thus, my quandary. I often find myself floundering as I’ve struggled to help folk understand it. However, my NEXT Church coaching cohort group is helping me to gain perspective on these struggles, perceived or real. To paraphrase Marcus Borg, I am seeing the cross again and again for the first time. Let me explain.

In the scholarly world, the theology of the cross has undergone significant change over the past 50 years, resulting in a recovery of more biblical understandings of the cross — for the New Testament presents a broader and richer range of perspectives on the cross than traditionally acknowledged, including what I am calling a public or political theology of the cross. From this perspective, the cross of Jesus represents the humiliating, dehumanizing abuse of power anywhere and everywhere it is exercised — on however large or small a scale. The cross is a place where all such abuse is exposed as not the way of God in the world, and also as a place where God seeks to bring life, healing, and justice in the midst of brokenness.

A public (or political) theology of the cross is grounded in our earliest biblical witnesses. The apostle Paul berated the Galatians with these words: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal 3:1). As Pauline scholar Davina Lopez astutely observes, “Paul’s Galatians . . . did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did not have to. There were plenty of examples before everyone’s eyes (in real life, in stone, on coins) of capture, torture, bondage, and execution of the others in the name of affirming Rome’s universal sovereignty through domination.”1 This quote represents a quintessential expression of public or political theology that sees the cross of Jesus as exposing other crosses, large and small all around us.

Theologian Ted Jennings puts it succinctly when he says that the cross represents a collision between the way of Jesus and the politics of domination.2 Kelly Brown Douglas is even more concrete and contemporary when she speaks about the crucified Jesus’ complete identification with the Trayvon Martins of our world. Moreover, she insists that this identification “with the lynched/ crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”3

A public or political theology of the cross has profound implications for every aspect of ministry — whether discernment about pastoral care, children’s ministry, budget allocations, staffing, committee configurations, and membership, to social witness and action — for our own wounds (marks of the cross) are deeply connected to the wounds of others in our community and world. Recognizing these interconnections can profoundly affect the way we do ministry.

My intentional focus on a public theology of the cross for the ministry of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church has included invitations to the session and other groups within the church to engage readings on the subject. I have also preached on the cross ad nauseum! I am even considered inviting the session to rewrite our twenty-year-old mission statement based on a discernment process that engages the spirituality of the cross. But the work has not been easy; indeed, at times I pondered giving it up! Yet the question my NEXT Church cohort group posed to me helped put all of this in perspective. Their question was this: “How would you know if this understanding of the cross was reflected in your ministry?” How would I know?

Buddhism teaches that every symbol is a finger pointing to the moon. In other words, a symbol points to a reality not completely captured in the symbol. So a symbol like the cross needs to be “light on its toes” — it can be reflected in varied and expansive ways. Compassion, for example, is a sign of the cross when it moves beyond patronization into real interrelation with others who are suffering. When Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19), he is intensely identifying with the crucified of the earth. It seems to me that Paul’s theology of the cross resonates with statements by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh — “killing someone is killing yourself”4 — and James Cone — “When whites lynched blacks, they were literally lynching themselves – their sons, daughters, cousins.”5

So how would I know if a political understanding of the cross was reflected in my ministry? I suppose the truth is that I will never completely know, because the cross is a finger pointing to the moon. But there are intimations of it in every act of compassion — even an act that begins in patronization can, by the power of the Spirit, open us to the possibility of identification with the crucified, of seeing our wounds in the wounds of others. By the power of the Spirit, there are also intimations of the cross every time someone rails against an abuse, because harm of any one person harms all of us — as Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”6 Indeed, I’ve come to realize that intimations of the cross are present everywhere in the ministry of the church because the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ is present there too. It’s like learning to see the cross again and again for the first time.

Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 163.
Theodore Jennings, Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 61
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Orbis, 2015), 174.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society (Berkeley CA: Parallax Press, 2012), 109.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 165.
Letter From the Birmingham Jail.


Roger Gench is pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC and author of the book Theology from the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry.

Sage Training or Saint Training?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Tanner Pickett and Elizabeth Link are curating a series that will reflect experiences of those in the beginnings of their ministry, particularly through the lens of Trent@Montreat. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear reflections from past and future participants, track leaders, and members of the leadership team of Trent@Montreat. We hope these stories will encourage you along your journey – and maybe encourage you to join us next April! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter!

by George Anderson

What’s your pleasure, pastor: sage training or saint training? Before having that Reformed theologian’s knee jerk reaction that rejects the idea of saints – or gives our tradition’s “everyone gets a trophy” spin that we are all made saints by God’s grace – I invite you to consider the question in light of how the Jewish philosopher Maimonides defines sages and saints.

From the Roanoke Times

For Maimonides, a saint (hassid) is not someone who is perfect but someone who is unwavering in her or his defense of a virtue. A sage (hakkam) is someone who understands that politics is the “art of the possible.” The saint will take a stand despite the cost. The sage will consider the costs, is willing to compromise, and can accept losing. The saint leads by taking a stand. The sage leads by holding the middle.

Often, sages are deemed weak and are open to ridicule. I remember a Canadian pastor poking fun at his own country when he reported that the winning submission for a slogan for Canada was: “As Canadian as can be, under the circumstances.” Tweak that a bit, and you have Maimonides’ description of a sage: “As virtuous as can be, under the circumstances.”

Here is the surprising thing about Maimonides: while he says that there are times for both saints to take their stands and sages to hold the middle, most of the time faith communities need sages over saints. The reason is simple: The Jewish (and Christian) community is best served, under normal circumstances, by empathy, patience, compromise, mediation, and balance; all with a spirit of humility and generosity. Jonathan Sacks defended Maimonides’ preference by saying, “The saint may be closer to God, while the sage is closer to doing what God wants us to do, namely bring [God’s] presence into the shared spaces of our collective life.” [1]

In some ways, I see my outstanding seminary education as being largely “saint training.” At seminary, I was given a vision of the Gospel and what the church can be. The more pragmatic aspects of leading a church were considered in the classroom but the emphasis was on the elegant beauty of the Gospel and what the church is called to be in bearing it witness. It was “saint training,” and I’m grateful. If I ever lose a longing for what the church ought to be beyond what it is, someone needs to let me know that it is time for me to retire.

Yet I have come to value and appreciate what Maimonides says about sages. Maimonides says that the lingering traits of God are not of the saint (demanding unblemished sacrifices) but of the sage: “compassion and grace, patience and forgiveness, and the other ‘attributes of mercy.’” [2]

NEXT Church, in seeking to equip leaders for the church of the future, wants to be a support for the sage as well as the saint. In support of “sage training,” NEXT Church is one of the sponsors of the Trent@Montreat 2018 conference. This conference is designed to inspire with its worship, but also equip and support pastors with its tracks that focus on day to day ministry. It is designed to help pastors who want to lead over the long haul and so want to;

  • deal with staff without being consumed by staff issues,
  • or deal with conflict in a way that calms rather than inflames,
  • or encourage generosity both to support missions,
  • and pay the church’s bills,
  • or preach sermons worth listening to Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

For those who risk disappointing a holy God through the compromises that come of loving and leading God’s imperfect people, this conference does more than support them. It celebrates their ministries as reflecting, in their own way, the image of a gracious God.

If you want to know more about Trent@Montreat, visit the conference website or find the Trent@Montreat 2018 Facebook page.


George C. Anderson is the seventh senior pastor in the history of Second Presbyterian Church (Roanoke, VA). He began preaching at Second on February 22, 1998. Previously, he had been the Senior Minister at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, and an Associate Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, TN. He is a graduate of St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC, and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. George and his wife, Millie, have three daughters: Paige, Rachel, and Virginia. George is one of the creators and conveners of the Trent Symposium and is among the leadership for the Trent@Montreat conference in 2018.

[1] Sacks draw my attention to Maimonides’ definitions of saint and sage in his book, To Heal a Fractured World; The Ethics of Responsibility. This quote is on p. 247.

[2] Sacks, p. 246.

Cultivated Ministry at The Board of Pensions

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 Frank Spencer

Jesus never said check your intellect at the door and forget what you have learned outside the Church. Jesus praises the good manager in parables and chides those who waste or steal. We are obligated to make good use of our time, talent and treasure. Thus, we are called to excellence in all we do while extending the hand of hospitality and living in the grace of compassion.

Here at the Board of Pensions, we often say that the numbers can never define our values, but analytics must always inform our stewardship.

Jesus also talked a lot about vineyards and the hard work that goes into growing good fruit. He used that analogy to talk about fruitfulness in our lives. NEXT Church has furthered that analogy to explore new ways of assessing ministry effectiveness. A cultivated ministry exhibits the following four principles: theological reflection, constant learning, mutual accountability, and storytelling.

Asking the theological “why?” has transformed the Board and its programs. We began the change three years ago by developing a Theology of Benefits. That work allowed us to understand our mission as a vital part of enlivening the body of Christ in the PC(USA). It led us to understand benefits as wholeness, rather than a financial proposition. This theological understanding is embedded in everything we do, seeking well-being for those who serve Christ’s Church in the four critical arenas of health, spirituality, finance, and vocation. Those who have experienced the CREDO program know these focus areas well.

We believe in constant learning, evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do. To learn from past errors and identify future possibilities, we have had to be brutally honest about the current state of things. Some things like care for our members and investment of our assets we did really well and we affirmed that excellence. Other things, like information technology, flexibility, and cost control were not as good. By facing these challenges, we have dramatically improved how we serve and expanded whom we serve. But we are only just beginning because there will always be more to learn. Knowing that we can and will improve keeps us energized and hopeful for the future.

We practice mutual accountability with many levels of constituencies. We are of course accountable to our Board and have developed a culture of openness and honesty that has allowed us to work through problems together and take bold steps for improvement. We are accountable to members whom we serve in a consultative framework. We are accountable to the larger Church through the General Assembly and to each congregation. We have adopted a posture of complete transparency and have spent the past three years unmasking hidden subsidies and telling the Church honestly what benefits cost. We have scrapped hundreds of administrative rules trusting each congregation to make decisions that best fit its unique context.

And oh do we love the stories! We know our members personally because they call us and write us and meet with us. Some of these stories are wonderful triumphs of healing and wholeness. Others speak to the deep grief and disappointment that is a part of all of our lives. We always try to say “yes” but sometimes we have to say “no” and those stories are always the most painful. There is rarely a month that goes by without my being moved to tears of joy or sadness.

Cultivated Ministry implies a never ending cycle of assessment, reflection, input from constituents, and sharing of personal stories. Just as the vineyard is always in need of tending, so it is with every ministry. Staying centered in the face of constant change is a challenge. For us, prayer is an important part of staying centered. Every Executive Team meeting and every Board committee begins with prayer. We pray in thanksgiving for the honor of serving Christ’s Church. To remind ourselves of the community we serve, every prayer ends by lifting up another agency or organization of the PC(USA).

What a wonderful thing it is that sisters and brothers care for each other in the name of Jesus Christ. If you count all the active members and their families, retired members and their spouses, surviving spouses and children, and vested former employees, PC(USA) is caring for 61,000 individuals through the Board of Pensions. This ministry is well-planned, theologically grounded, ever reforming, and abundantly fruitful.

It is indeed a well cultivated ministry.


Frank Clark Spencer is the president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served on the initial strategy team for NEXT Church. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included leading his company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Southeast. Frank is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and former President of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and earned his M.Div. at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. You may listen to Frank’s sermons and find out about his latest book at www.fspencer.com.

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.