Posts

A Safe Space to Gather

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Leslie King

There is so much important work being done on diversity across our nation. Whether in public rallies, conversations on college campuses, city governance meetings, or around our family dinner tables, we all recognize the diversity challenge is not simple. Not only do we realize the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement, we are also experiencing the disenfranchisement of the white working class that seeks to insert itself into the diversity conversation. More than ever, diversity requires intentionality and integrity.  

Intentionality found the First Presbyterian Church of Waco, just recently on August 20, when the Democratic and Republican parties of our county, led by an intelligent young millennial, requested to use the “safe space” of our sanctuary for a public gathering for racial unity. With intention, the political parties wanted to stand together and declare honor and respect for the diverse world in which we live.  

In the wake of their request, First Presbyterian engaged their own intentionality. Ask anyone in Waco: we are not a venue and we think critically about the way our space is shared. Will it strengthen the common good? We had to admit, it felt good to be asked to use the space. In the wake of Charlottesville, we all wanted to do something to respond. But our Session asked deeper questions, like who would be involved in such a gathering for racial unity? We knew that this was more a “left-leaning” sort of event. The request had been from both parties, but who specifically would be speaking and what would the message be? Would this be a biased gathering about diversity with an anemic call from like-minded voices?  

The organizers wrestled with our questions and with the details of the event. They made a courageous decision. They did not look for middle of the road mindsets. Each invited speaker was strong and passionate from a specific perspective. The event agenda revealed a balance between Democrat and Republican mindsets. Confirmed speakers gathered for a pre-event dinner where they discussed tone, etiquette, and content. All were given a time limit. As the evening arrived, individuals from so many walks of Waco life arrived to the sanctuary. A couple of news channels and the local paper were represented. Each speaker approached the podium with a tentativeness. Their posture and opening remarks confessed appreciation for the unusual opportunity to speak to such a diverse group of people. The tone was respectful and the content was provocative.  

The president of the local Republican club began his speech, “I am the most conservative person in this room. I believe we pull ourselves up by our boot straps. But I have come learn that many people are never even allowed to imagine their possibilities. Racism is real and we must work to eliminate it.” The Democratic party chair began her speech with a tender voice, “It has always been my dream to share a podium with the Republican party chair. I’m so glad to be here tonight.” The NAACP president of Waco cited a local Anglo pastor as the best example of leadership for a multi-cultural bi-lingual congregation.  As we listened to each speech, the room seemed to fill with the Spirit. Not only were we were talking about diversity, we were modeling and identifying concrete examples of it in our own community.       

The two political parties asked First Presbyterian for our sanctuary that it might be a “safe space.” We agreed to share our space that we might all address our biases and pursue diversity. Those organizers rose to the challenge of our questions. Diversity’s spirit manifested itself. By the end of the evening, we were no longer were as concerned about feeling safe because our confidence and trust were growing.  


Leslie King received her BA from Kansas University (’91) and her Masters of Divinity from McCormick Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago (‘94). In 2010 she completed her Doctor of Ministry at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City Missouri with an emphasis in Spirituality and Organizational Change. She has been married to DJ King since November of 1996. They are the parents of three children: Cody, Katie, and Claire. Leslie enjoys reading, quilting, walking her dogs by the lake and the Texas heat. 

Greatest Hit: Challenges of Membership

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on the challenges of membership is one of our most popular posts on the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable (2013) regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership. And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.” In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that elders, deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues – not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in sync with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church.” We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?” This allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us,” then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with the pastor to discuss faith and life in the church.
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership.
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individuals right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)


After serving in her first call at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie, Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother. Leslie is on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

 

Looking for more? Check out these resources on church growth and new members:

Bridging the Thin Places

By Leslie King

It was an amazing 2015 conference at NEXT Church. As always, front line ministries were “the experts” kindling our imaginations and hope for the church. All gathered were honoring the past while answering God’s persuasive call into the future with curiosity and discovery. What other conference allows you to come home and “brain dump” seven pages of pragmatic notes for your own ministry? It was wonderful.

On Tuesday evening of the conference, we panned up from all the particular ministries we had been considering to sit at the feet of Diana Butler Bass. Her current work is around the awakening that she believes is happening in the church. In order to explore the process of awakening, in her work, she appropriates Otto Scharmer’s Theory U project for the church. So Theory U has a wonderful simplicity. The shape of the letter U allows one to understand the personal or corporate shift from a crisis in understanding (an experience at the top left of the U shape) as a movement through the lower and deeper places of personal or corporate awareness (cradle of the U shape) toward a new understanding and transformation (upward toward top right of the U shape). In her presentation, Bass described the bottom of the U as the “thinnest” place where access to a new vision is most available to us. However, this promising thin place is also the most fragile place. Diana Butler Bass encouraged participants in NEXT to understand themselves as a bridge for the Body of Christ, crossing over the thin places toward new visions that were not just personal but corporate.

At some point in her speech, perhaps before she described her appropriation, there was from the balcony a voice that called out and interrupted Diana. With apology but abundant joy, a young woman announced to the room that Amendment 14-F had received enough Presbytery votes to officially pass. The amendment, proposing a redefinition of marriage, would become part of our Book of Order. Her call from on high pulled an unstoppable groundswell from below. Cheering people were on their feet with a spontaneous joy. I was not surprised by the passing of the amendment, but I was surprised by the reaction in the room.

NEXT Church has, over its five year existence, carefully attended to its identity. Its self-description is careful and complex. While so many other groups were organizing around issues, NEXT church organized around relationship and ministry. In its own words, NEXT is “…a movement seeking to change the culture of connection in the PCUSA.” And yet, it was clear on Tuesday evening that we had a shared and strong majority opinion on amendment 14-F. We had a joy and a response that, even in its sacredness to us, might strain the relational, diverse, collaborative, and agile future for which we are striving. We know that in a room of 600 people, some were on their feet but not buoyed in spirit.

It was a serendipitous example of a thin place. It was not controllable. I would not have wanted to stifle it. Yet, as I was standing, I was thinking of the all the Presbyteries who were still going to sit down and engage the privilege of considering, debating and voting on the amendment. Would they be compelled in their work to determine what was NEXT for our church? Or had the arrival of the simple majority suggested that their privilege had come too late and that the work was complete? Rev. Brian Ellison had just reminded us in his sermon that morning, even after the passing of an amendment, the work of the church was far from complete.

The moment, as I look back on it, is ripe for NEXT church and its consideration of culture, theology and practice of ministry. I have imagined how I might have liked the moment to happen. No matter the scenario I construct, I am convinced that none of them would have honored the transparency and authenticity of NEXT Church. I have decided the moment was a gift, a challenging and ripe gift, ready to inform and nourish the work of NEXT church on the other side of 14-F. With God’s help may we bridge the thin places, and cross over into the ascension of all that is NEXT for Christ’s church and all the people—in all our diversities—that will comprise it.


leslie kingLeslie King is a Teaching Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Waco, TX and is a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team. 

 

Challenges of Membership

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, Andrew Taylor-Troutman is curating a conversation around small congregations. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

By Leslie King

membership smallAfter enjoying discussion in August’s Church Leaders Roundtable regarding church growth, I was asked to expand on experience I had implementing a response to the challenges of membership within a particular Presbyterian Church. The particular challenge that we faced was a stagnant demographic (little to no growth), a declining membership base and a desire to grow. The first two realities seemed to make the third impossible.

It was 1994 and the congregation had called me right out of seminary to partner with them in this adaptive challenge. The most pressing concern among the congregation was membership.  And as the congregation and I got to know one another, it became apparent and when we imagined membership, we were primarily understanding it as a way to “keep the doors open.”  In other words, Christian membership, which may be best understood as the organic and emergent response to Christ, was imagined to be something that Elders, Deacons, clergy and the existing congregation could orchestrate or “control” in order to get a solvent budget and a full sanctuary. Of course, this best guess sounds obviously faulty to the reader of this blog. But perhaps, our best guess in early 1994 is not too far from underlying assumptions of many congregational redevelopment and new church development models.

Without fully understanding why, I remember feeling a need to be freed from our desperate desire for new members. Our desperation was keeping us anxious. Our desperation was keeping our esteem sub par among our Presbyterian peers and colleagues not to mention other churches in town. In order to calm our system, I experimented with a new response to the congregation’s lament. When, in the Sunday morning receiving line they would declare,  “We wish more people were here on Sunday mornings,” I would respond by saying, “The crowd that gathers is the perfect crowd, I want no more.” This took us back at first. I was not even sure I believed it. But the phrase was the beginning of our healing. Though the congregation was surprised by the phrase it began to allow freedom from desperation and anxiety. It provided care to our esteem which allowed us the energy to gently build an imperfect but genuine program. (We learned that many church seekers were not looking for perfection, as much as they were looking for a genuine faith community.) Perhaps, most importantly, the phrase helped me, as pastor, to get off the dime and begin the dance of ministry with those gathered. I did not wait for a better circumstance in which to invest my skills and talents.

In the wake of our new response, we enjoyed a surge in energy. The session was a pulse point within that energy surge.  They were in synch with their congregation. In the midst of the energy surge, the session made two important decisions.

They first decided to invest their mission money in their stagnant community. We were not the only ones struggling. We met with our Presbytery and asked for the blessing to keep our mission money local to our community. These were hard conversations for us to have with the Presbytery, but important. In the end, we decided that we could best serve our Presbytery and national church by serving those in our community. If our community did not know the Presbyterian Church USA as a reliable and invested group, it seemed unlikely that we would be practicing faithfulness to the itinerant Christ.

Secondly, the session decided to stop examinations for membership. It was an ironic decision since we weren’t hosting more than one a year anyway. This decision was a break with the Book of Order. The break with the Book of Order kept us from pretending that the problem was that “people just didn’t want to come to church”. We began to live the question “Who is it that want to come to this church and what can they teach us?”  This break allowed a break from the pressure of pretending to know more about the church than our visitors. We participated in the energy of the gospel which remembers people reaching toward and claiming a faith in Christ of their own initiative. We stopped asking people to prove themselves up front. We put our efforts into educating and nurturing them in the Presbyterian way AFTER they joined. The session effectively said to one another “let’s see who claims us”, then we will love and educate those people. We did not publicly display them and demand questions of them in a worship service because it seemed “showy” to them and to us.

The membership model became:

  1. Meet with Pastor to discuss faith and life in the church
  2. Dine over pie with the session and be received into membership
  3. Find leadership positions/involvement positions for those individual right away.
  4. The pulpit and Christian Education environments were encouraged as ways to learn more about faith and denomination.

The results were mixed. Some became people who could talk the Presbyterian talk and others were more connected with the local congregation than the denomination. (Though these results seem to be prominent in every church, even those with rigorous membership requirements.)

Over the years, worship attendance expanded from 30 or so worshippers to as many as 120 on an average Sunday. In all that time, we completed our year-end statistical reports. And every year, we wondered if we had been faithful in our understanding of membership and the adjustments we had made in order to be a congregation who might expand. Years later, I would read the book, The Unfinished Church by Bernard Prusak. The book provided me a comfort that I have received no place else but the gospel regarding an expanding community. In it, Prusak notes,

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures . . . To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence” but did not otherwise predetermine the development of his community.  (56)


KingAfter serving in her first call, at First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie Kansas, Leslie King is currently pastor of First Presbyterian of Waco Texas.  She is happily a wife and mother.