Posts

A New Vision of the Old, Old Story

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!

by Jonathan Coppedge-Henley

On Maundy Thursday, I sat in the chapel of a seminary with about nine other people to remember Jesus’ last night before he was killed. The ten of us represented things that past generations of church might not have envisioned. I, a straight United Methodist pastor, shared leadership with a gay Presbyterian pastor. Our group was diverse in age, gender identity, denominational histories, and ethnicity, paying no mind to the old discriminations of too much of church life in America. We needed this service to demonstrate that we all belong to God. My friend made that real for me in a way that made me feel like we were part of something beyond just us.

The old “triumphal” version of Christianity was nowhere to be found as we tried to embody Jesus’ commandment to his disciples: love one another. Instead of getting a liturgy from a publishing house, I put the liturgy together myself, combining high doses of introspection and accountability with the Gospel readings and the Communion and foot/hand washing rituals. The guitar player from my friend’s congregation played music he had written, music that set the tone for something intimate and real, nothing packaged, nothing made for sale. We were small and decidedly not worried about attendance numbers or finances. I think we saw a new vision of the old, old story of Jesus.

In the late 1990s at the first parish I served, the postmaster in that town told me that she always asked new residents which denomination they claimed so that she could both give them directions to the church and also — get this! — send their contact information to the pastor of the “church of their choice.” That violation of privacy actually seemed normal to her! To her, churches still had a vague belief that newborns were the “future of the church,” that churches held a foundational part of the community, and that new folks were just out looking for a church to attend.

Denominations trusted these time-tested theories, so they built their new churches in high development suburbs having only slightly adapted to new cultural circumstances, believing that church was like cereal to people — everyone bought it so the only question was which one. Because those emerging generations had lots of questions, we created “seeker sensitive” worship services intended to address those questions by still funneling people towards the “right” answers. Church leadership learned to measure success by the numbers: attendance, contributions, staff size, square footage, number of programs, and the number of those who participated in programs.

By those standards, the Maundy Thursday service my friends and I put together would have been considered a failure, partly because it would have been desperately confusing to know which church got to claim the attendance numbers, and partly because in my misguided denomination my partner in leadership would not be allowed to fully respond to how grace has called him as a husband or as a minister.

Perhaps denominational fiefdoms, standardization of doctrine, segregation of worshipping communities, and the straightness, whiteness, and maleness of mainline Protestantism served some purpose (God only knows what). But while God has always been up to something new, the institutional American church has generally shown little capacity to do anything more than repackage the product — a product that in practice has often had little to do with Jesus the deliverer and more to do with Jesus the logo.

We are now learning that what we were doing, particularly in terms of our funding model, isn’t sustainable. We find ourselves staring at a different situation with less certain paths. This new frontier has the potential to reform the ways in which the people of Jesus practice what he taught, but it is clearly scary to many in the pews and many in the institutional offices. Hopefully the loss of our privileged stature in society will remind us to repent of how we’ve let go of our essential mission to love God, love everybody, and teach others to do the same. Jesus still speaks to people. People still need the love, accountability, honesty, and grace that Jesus expects and that Jesus people are called to offer. The difference is that people are now emboldened to admit that they don’t find those things in the institutional church any more. This is a chance for the church to recalibrate and let go of some idols.

For us the question now is what we should have been asking all along: what is God doing and how can we be part of it? From simply talking to people, you realize pretty quickly that many folks didn’t wait for the permission or vision of the church before setting out to meet the real needs of the world: caring for the poor and the migrants, actively combating racist systems, caring for the environment, searching for solutions to everything from homelessness to the re-segregation of schools to the cruelty of gentrification to the economic injustices that define too many workplaces. Many who don’t attend church long ago embraced that same-sex couples deserve the human dignity of a marriage ceremony. God didn’t wait on the church to get things done. In fact, I’ve come to believe that many of my non-church friends are better doers of the Word than the people who read it every Sunday morning.

People need what we’ve always needed: spiritual and physical safety and nourishment; we’ve always needed places to belong. That Maundy Thursday service sure felt close to what God is doing, close to the kingdom Jesus dreamed about. We know he likes to challenge our assumptions about what it means to follow him — a service led by a gay pastor and a straight pastor, a Presbyterian and a United Methodist, might challenge some assumptions. But what I know is that the willingness to belong to one another in that one hour helped us belong to Jesus in ways previously unimagined. God did and is doing a brand new thing.


Having grown up in the North Carolina mountains, Jonathan Coppedge-Henley has a deep appreciation for folks whose voices are ignored, under represented, or misunderstood. He has been a United Methodist pastor for 23 years in urban, suburban, and rural churches, He has been a church planter and has served historic congregations. He has some extraordinary worship experiences and tripped all over himself in some others. He has held numerous leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, particularly in campus ministry, but he also has an extensive background in community development. For five years he was the host of the Road Signs radio show on the alternative rock station in Charlotte in which he highlighted alternative rock songs as ways to make sense of life. He is a clergy coach to residents in ordained ministry and he writes weekly columns for the Morganton News Herald. As his current side gig, he is preparing to launch Neighborhood Table, a non-profit coffee shop, pub, and co-working space that will host community-building story-telling, artist collaboration, conversation, and peacemaking. Jonathan and his wife Elizabeth, also a United Methodist pastor, have two wonderfully sarcastic children, Owen and Lora, and vicious watch dog, their Berne-doodle, Homer.

Hidden Leaders

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

by Richard Williams

In reflecting on how we church folk often think about leadership, it seems we take a pretty singular approach. Considering movie analogies, we seem to think more “The Right Stuff”, and less “Hidden Figures.” We are captivated by the myth of the single, solitary, decisive leader. Our imaginations are much less developed when we try to picture leadership not as a single crown, but rather as a community’s effort — mutual and shared at its foundation.

Photo from Young Adult Volunteer Facebook page

The Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program lists leadership development as a core tenet. We encourage participants and staff alike to imagine a wider view of the concept in their year of service. Central in the program’s thinking is a reliance on the Reformed tradition’s insistence that every person is called to serve Christ in world. In this one-year opportunity for young adults to serve alongside local organizations, both in the US and around the world, we aim to meet every young adult where they are in their capacity to be a faithful leader, but to leave none of them in the same place by year’s end. We work to see all of them move, grow, and develop, knowing that process will be different for each volunteer; as different as each of their calls.

Our goals for leadership development results in an intentional shift from focusing solely on the “typical” candidate that meet our society’s unexamined personality markers of stature, outspokenness, and confidence, as well as the identity biases of race, class, and gender and sexuality. Our program’s internal shorthand is that we aren’t only about making the sharpest pencils in the box sharper, but about finding a way for all the pencils in the box to be sharpened into their full potential. While we have all been shaped by images of leadership that are mainly white male dominant, as people of faith we must recognize and embrace different forms of leadership, and then work to change our systems to nurture, develop, call, and support them.
This type of leadership development results in inviting and preparing for a broad section of people to consider engaging in faithful service and leadership development. This makes our work both exciting and timely.

Leadership development is not a quick fix, with results you can see in a few hours or a few months’ time. This is very different than what we are used to seeing, particularly in today’s (insert like, star, crying emoji here) social media culture. Leadership development is on a generational timescale, not the ‘what’s trending’ timescale. A colleague of mine in another faith-based service program shares that they really only look to measure the ‘outcomes’ of their program five years after a participant ended their service. As programs and institutions that are involved in shaping leadership for our church and world (committees on preparation for ministry, seminaries, local congregations, and programs like YAV) we all must be intentional in looking for the long term impact of our work, because these leaders will be responsible for following God’s call and leading our church after most of us reading this blog post are long gone.

I find no greater satisfaction than working with young adults as they continue to seek faithful ways to grow in leadership for our church and our world. As a disillusioned GenXer, I am constantly surprised by how much my work with rising leaders in the YAV program gives me hope and confidence in God’s future. It will be different than where we are right now — thanks be to God. And it will be richer in God’s possibilities — thanks be to God.


Richard Williams is the coordinator of the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program, a faith-based year-long service experience. He served as a YAV in the Philippines and in Nashville, TN. Richard has served in congregational ministry, campus ministry, and most recently as a Mission coworker in Colombia, South America. Richard is married to Mamie Broadhurst (also a YAV alum!) and lives in Louisville, KY, with their daughter. An aspiring biker, he is always looking to find more ways to make trips on two wheels instead of four.

Building Evaluative Muscles

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 Shannon Kershner

Two years ago at our annual session retreat, congregational leaders at Fourth Presbyterian Church discerned God was calling us to make discipleship a priority in the life and mission of our particular congregation. We decided it was time to intentionally focus on nurturing and growing our sense of God’s claim on our lives and life together, as well as our ability to articulate the difference that claim made in our lives. As a congregation, we have always felt strongly called to work for God’s justice and compassion in the world, but we have not always been able to articulate why. The session decided it was time to help all of us give words as to why we did what we did. It was time to help our folks be able to describe what made us, as a congregation, different from other non-profit agencies who did similar community outreach work. We felt God was challenging us to work on a deeper sense of discipleship.

As we continued to wrestle with what that meant (including trying to define discipleship!), we began to get stuck on how we would know if we were making progress. What were the metrics we could use to see if we were actually doing what we said we felt called to do? We knew that we could not just use the church’s operating budget or our worship attendance numbers to tell us if the discipleship priority was taking hold. Both financial health and attendance statistics provide useful data, but neither thing captures “success” – at least not in terms of ministry. And yet, those kinds of quantitative metrics were all we had.  

I was always reminded of this point whenever elders who had rolled off session would want to hear how things were going. “How are we doing with our discipleship priority?” they would ask. “Are you seeing some shifts occur?” Being a preacher, I always came up with something to say, but I also felt inadequate to describe the progress I saw taking place. I had a variety of anecdotes I could tell them, in which I could describe how I saw our baptisms shining brightly, but I did not know if that “counted,” in terms of metrics… until NEXT Church launched the Cultivated Ministry project.

Our session took the Cultivated Ministry method out for a spin this past June at our last annual retreat. I will admit it was a little rocky in the beginning. Some of my folks needed to be convinced that the traditional ways of measuring healthy ministry via budgets and attendance were actually meant to be inputs rather than outputs. In other words, a church’s financial resources and people resources are means to an end and not the “end” itself (hint—the end is God’s complete reconciliation of the cosmos). It is a shift to recognize that people’s stories of transformation are just as valid as how many people showed up. We have been counting for so long that other ways of describing progress can feel suspicious or threatening. However, the more we practiced broadening our vision as to what/how to measure “successful” ministry, the more it began to feel right. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten started.

Our next steps will be to keep practicing the Cultivated Ministry method with small, well-defined ministry programs. It is still difficult to measure how we are doing regarding deepening our discipleship, but we can become more adept at these new metrics if we start with smaller tasks. For example, we can use this method to see how our new family neighborhood small groups are working  Or we could use this method to look at a new mission trip. Or we could use this method to evaluate our session meetings or our trustee meetings. There are a myriad of different ways we could implement Cultivated Ministry metrics as we build our evaluative muscles.  

I am thankful for the group who gave this work all of their time, energy, imagination, and love. I get excited to imagine how this different way of measuring healthy ministry might take root in the congregation I serve. It feels faithful and interesting. And I believe it has the potential to keep us from getting too comfortable or stagnant. The practice of Cultivated Ministry will help us grow deeper in our discipleship and more articulate about how our faith impacts our life. We are going to keep working at it, undoubtedly messing up and trying again, as we try to figure out how to scale it for our different ministries and mission. I hope other congregations will join us in the experimenting!


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

Success in the Church

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Chris Chakoian, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, IL, considers what it means to be successful in the church as part of NEXT Church’s series “The NEXT Few Minutes.” What is it Jesus really wants from us in the church? What is it he hopes for us as we move into the future? What does success look like in your context? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.