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Pilgrimage is in the Leaving

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage. 

by Rev. Greg Klimovitz

“That’s not how the story goes,” I said to the Canadian pilgrim next to me as the doors to the tomb slammed shut. It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week after the Sabbath, just like the gospel story. I had ventured alone from my hotel in Jerusalem, through the Damascus gate, winded my way through the empty and narrow streets of Old City, and into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says the empty tomb of Jesus is located. The wait was too long the day before and I was looking for a different ending to my pilgrimage.

After taking the Eucharist in front of the open tomb, I was third in line when an ecumenical argument broke out between two priests responsible for their tradition’s worship on opposite sides of the sepulcher. Whatever the dispute, one priest presumed it was enough to shutdown visitation. My fellow traveler leaned over to me, “Did we just get barred from Jesus’ tomb?”

This marked the end of my Jerusalem journey. Despite the disappointment, I logged the homiletical illustration and kept walking.

The call to keep walking was a common theme for the week. Whether in Galilee or Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Nablus, Shiloh or Joppa, our local Palestinian guide, Iyad, frequently whispered through our audio devices, “keep walking.” This was a short pilgrimage and our ambitious clip was designed to ensure adequate time with local partners like Daoud Nassar. After all, pilgrimage is about people as much as place.

VW Bus surrounded by olive trees and parked at Nassar Farm due to road restrictions for Palestinians. (Greg Klimovitz)

Daoud, a Palestinian Christian, lives on land his family has owned in the West Bank for well over 100 years. Also known as Tent of Nations, Israeli settlements are constructed all around them, suffocate the farm, and cut off the Nassar family from running water, electricity, and access to public roads. Yet Daoud Nassar and his family reject intimidation and keep walking. They peacefully resist through remaining, grounded on the mantra, “we refuse to be enemies.”

Daoud spoke with us about a Israeli military raid that burned down 250 of their olive trees, a major source of their livelihood. Tent of Nations shared their plight with partners, assured God would somehow hear their cries and concerns and resurrect something new. And God did, through a UK based Jewish community. Empathizing with their story, this community purchased new olive trees, organized a visit, and planted life alongside their Christian neighbors. I bought an olive tree that day, prayerful I would revisit this symbol of hope. “We believe in justice,” Daoud said before we left. “One day we will see the Son of Justice rise again.”

As likely noticed throughout this blog series, many of us wanted to linger longer in the caves and among the olive trees of Nassar Farm. We had spent two days in Bethlehem, where a thirty-foot wall lined with barbed wire, video surveillance, and snipers snakes throughout the region. This wall imposes separation, perpetuates fear, and sustains modern apartheid. At Nassar farm, however, we found an alternative narrative of hope through the prophetic witness of a new friend whose faith was grounded in the One who, amidst first-century occupation and oppression, also called this region home. Then we heard a familiar voice in our ears, “keep walking.”

So we did.

Sunset on the beach of Joppa (Greg Klimovitz)

We walked to Nablus and Hebron and alongside Muslims, Jews, and Christians. We walked with refugee children before we dipped our hands in the well where Jesus offered living waters to those written off as other. We even walked the beaches of Joppa, where Jonah was spit onto dry land and Peter reminded, “not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12). There we were reminded of our call to keep walking towards Philadelphia and Charlotte, D.C. and Atlanta, San Diego and wherever we called home. Empowered by what we had seen and heard, keep walking to confront the dividing walls of hostility that snake through our own communities and threaten our own borders. Awakened by the courage of new siblings in the (inter)faith family, keep walking as advocates for neighbors oppressed by the ghettoization of our own neighborhoods. Stirred by the systemic restriction of resources through racial grids in one nation, keep walking with interfaith and ecumenical partners to dismantle the same practices in our own. And when the doors of tombs slam shut and resurrection hope appears burned to the ground, lean on the witness of Daoud and keep walking towards the Son of Justice, who will rise again. Keep walking, whispers God’s Spirit, because pilgrimage is as much in the leaving as in the initial going.

A poem written in the airport prior to leaving, which stayed with me on our pilgrimage and upon return:
Life is pilgrimage.
Travel well and never alone.
Venture to spaces where the divine and human collide
in a particular place.
Go with eyes wide open
where stories and parables
share the ground your feet now tread.
Pray en route
and listen to the voices of the other
those more oft passed by.
Ask questions
linger longer.
Expect to encounter the Holy
to return different than when you first set out
awakened
as you keep walking.


As the Associate Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, Rev. Greg Klimovitz encourages church leaders in the development of collaborative and holistic ministry partnerships, exploration of intentional and creative mediums to tell related stories of faithful witness, stewardship of grant resources to fund and sustain new and existing initiatives, and design of contextualized expressions of the gospel in the twenty-first century. Greg is married and has four young children. Follow on Twitter @gklimovitz or gregklimovitz.blogspot.com

Removing “Just” From our Vocabulary

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Suzanne Davis is curating a series highlighting the working relationship between ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament (or teaching elders). We’ll hear from both individuals and ruling elder/pastor partners reflect on the journey in ministry they’ve had together. How do these two roles – both essential to our polity – share in the work and wonder of the church? What is the “special sauce” that makes this special partnership flourish? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lisa Raymaker and Heather Newgreen

Growing up, pastors were always on a pedestal – set apart by God, always doing and saying the right things, seemingly without fault. As we get older, perspectives change. Set apart by God is still true, called for a special service is true… AND we are ALL set apart, we are ALL called for a special service. Responding to that call sometimes makes us feel inadequate.”But I’m just a layperson, how am I equipped to answer that call?” God doesn’t pay attention to the “just.” He/She gave each of us particular gifts and calls us to use them, regardless of whether we think we’re up to the task.

We’ve been able to believe this more because of our relationships with our pastor. He treats us as an equal in the body of Christ and encourages us to lead where we are called. In the beginning, it’s normal to feel that we need to be careful with our words, to put our best foot forward. We are in a church, after all. As we work together more as the hands and feet of Christ in our faith community and in our city, we can become more comfortable being our authentic selves, for better or worse. We have learned that it’s alright to question the way things are done; to speak the truth in love; to challenge each other to think, love, and serve more deeply. We learned that our thoughts and ideas are valued, and that the diversity of our thoughts is exactly what the church needs.

The relationship between a pastor and an elder can be summed up in one word: equals. We should be listening to each other, questioning each other, and trusting that we are capable to serve in the roles where God has placed us. When a congregation sees that the elders they elected are working in partnership with their pastor and not for their pastor, they can trust that their voices are being heard.

We believe there are three components to making a teaching elder and ruling elder partnership successful (of course, there are three – thank you, Triune God): always making room for the Holy Spirit to move and lead us, the teaching elder valuing and encouraging the work of lay leaders, and the ruling elder believing in and using their spiritual gifts. God’s call comes in many different forms and at different volumes. It can be a burning bush and it can be a whisper. It can be to serve as a pastor and it can be to use your skills as a business person to help lead your faith community into uncharted territory. If we listen, if we respond, if we work together as equals in the body of Christ, if we get rid of the “just” in our vocabulary, God will lead us to amazing places.


Lisa Raymaker is a member of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, and a ruling elder. After serving a 3-year term on the Session at Caldwell, she is chairing the Hope Committee, which is part of the new Gambrell Social Justice Fellowship program, and the Touchpoint Committee, which focuses on Caldwell’s outreach to the Charlotte LGBTQ community. Lisa works in the insurance industry and her husband, Patrick, is a musician.

Heather Newgreen was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church. She was ordained and installed as an Elder in 2009 and recently reinstalled in 2018. Heather currently serves as the Chair of Christian Formation where she oversees the education programs from infants to adults for Caldwell Presbyterian Church. She has remained an active volunteer in many of the church’s educational programs such as Godly Play, Youth Sunday School, and Confirmation. Though she holds a degree in music, Heather works for a non-profit that provides financing to small businesses. Her husband Kyle, and their two small children, James and Emily, are her greatest blessings.

Tips for Working in Mutual Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Suzanne Davis is curating a series highlighting the working relationship between ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament (or teaching elders). We’ll hear from both individuals and ruling elder/pastor partners reflect on the journey in ministry they’ve had together. How do these two roles – both essential to our polity – share in the work and wonder of the church? What is the “special sauce” that makes this special partnership flourish? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Grace Lindvall, Kim Nims, and Sherese Smith

This is our common calling, to be disciples and servants of our servant Lord. Within the community of the church, some are called to particular service as deacons, as elders, and as ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
– Ordination and installation services for elders and deacons, Book of Occasional Services

Working together as ruling elders and ministers is essential to our identity as Presbyterians; it is also the heart of much joy, collegiality, and growth. The church works its best when we work together as different officers in the church, when we recognize our particular services to the church while keeping our eyes always fixed on our common calling.

Photo of Trinity Presbyterian session from their Facebook page

While the church works its best when we work together in mutual ministry, there are, and have been, and will be bumps along the road. After all, we’re humans working together in relationships that are unlike any other: we’re pastor and parishioner – which can mean muddied waters sometimes. Who is responsible for what? Who has the greater stake in the church? Where are the boundaries supposed to lie? Who holds who accountable? How can we push each other without hurting each other? How do we mix business and pleasure and worship?

Sure, any one of these could prove to be hard – even impossible – hurdles to jump to find healthy working relationships but over the two years we’ve found that it is possible to move through them. And, amazingly, not only is it possible to get past them but the relationship that comes from it can be more than special, and downright sacred.

As we reflected on what works for us, themes kept bubbling to the surface, things we’ve done and learned:

Respecting our individual calls to ordained ministry – ordained lay leaders and ordained ministers

First things first: the most important part of our unique relationship becoming a sacred relationship is our respect of one another’s callings. Blessedly, each of us has had the opportunity to see and be a part of the other’s ordinations or installations. We’ve laid hands on one another in prayer and seen that it is God who has called us all to these unique roles in the church. We respect that one calling is not higher than the other, but that we have been mutually called to serve God and Christ’s church.

Sharing together

Before we are minister or elders or leaders, we are humans. When we meet together we bring our days, weeks, joys, and sadnesses with us. Part of the beauty of this special relationship is that it is special and unique. In what other working relationship do you get to sit down and tell your partners that you are frustrated because of your kids behavior and need advice, gush about a recent engagement, or share that you are stepping down from a working role and seeing where God leads you? Sharing together has become a part of our time together. Before we cut to business, we check in with who we are as humans and who we are as disciples. We share joys with one another, we share grief, we share scripture, we share our faith, we share our doubts, and we share our prayers.

On the topic of sharing, share a meal together – share a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, a lunch. Break bread together. We’ve become convinced that our sacred relationship is sacred because of this sharing.

Being willing to be surprised and even wrong

Some of our greatest joys in ministry have come when we found out we were wrong. Some of our biggest successes in ministry have come from what we did not plan. When we come together without agenda of what we want the other to say or the direction we hope the meeting will take, the Holy Spirit shows up and surprises us. It’s amazing what happens when we sit back and watch without agenda, and cling instead only to the hope of the Spirit’s movement in our conversations.

What ways is your sacred relationship between elder and minister shaping your ministry?


Kim Nims is a 59 year old wife, mother of 3, and grandmother of 2. She is a graduate of Columbia College in South Carolina. Formerly, she has served as a piano teacher and as director of music and activities for children and youth in PCUSA churches in Georgia and North Carolina. Kim has recently retired from serving for 14 years as a Teaching Leader and Area Advisor with Bible Study Fellowship International. She currently serves as an elder and co-chair of the Christian Formation Ministry Team. For fun, Kim enjoys walking 1000 miles a year, traveling, and spending time with her family and her dog.

Grace Lindvall serves as Associate Pastor for Mission and Church Growth at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Before arriving in Charlotte Grace graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary where she had the opportunity to learn from wonderful teachers and classmates. She enjoyed the opportunity to serve in different ministry settings ranging from suburban church youth work to immersive Mission experiences in Baltimore and Rwanda. While Grace loves a good “covered dish” at church she also loves to cook, laugh with friends, share stories, and spend time with her fiance, Matt.

Sherese Smith is a 49-year-old wife and mother of 2. She is a graduate of Wake Forest University and received a Masters in the Art of Teaching from Queens University. Formerly she taught school for 5 years in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system, and then worked for 8 years in Human Resources for Bank of America. She currently serves as an elder and co-chair of the Christian Formation Ministry Team. In her spare time, she volunteers at her kids’ schools, plays tennis, walks her dog, Sadie, and shuttles her kids to their after-school sports.

Holy Spirit, Is That You?

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

by Sam Hamilton-Poore

A most important responsibility for church leaders is learning how to notice the movement of the Holy Spirit, and then respond to the movement in ways that are faithful. Whenever we gather, we call upon Christ’s promise of the Spirit’s presence and guidance — we hope that our discussion and decisions will be Spirit-led and Spirit-filled. But how do we recognize when it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit that is moving us, guiding us?

I’ve found help for this question in the words about the Holy Spirit from the Gospel of John and the letter of 1st John.1 Again and again we’re told in the Johannine witness that the Holy Spirit is inextricably linked to Jesus Christ, and links us to him. The Spirit is Jesus’ emissary, we’re told, who will bring to mind all that Jesus has said and done (John 14:25-26). The Spirit is our counselor, who advocates on behalf of Jesus and enables us to testify to him (John 15:26). Different spirits exist, not all of which may be holy — therefore all spirits must be tested (1 John 4:1); and the standard or norm by which the various spirits are tested is Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh (1 John 4:2). The Spirit is often manifested in an inner experience by which we recognize Jesus or God (1 John 3:24). And an essential mark of being grounded in God by the Holy Spirit is a sense of confidence toward God as a response to God’s love (1 John 4:16b-17).

As I understand these words from John and 1st John, this means that whenever or however we perceive that our thoughts our actions are being drawn closer to the pattern of the life, death, resurrection, and power of Christ, we are in fact being moved by the Holy Spirit. It’s not simply a matter of how I may feel about something, or any surge of enthusiasm for a particular decision — but whether we are being drawn more closely to the person and work of Christ himself. If our discernment is leading us into ways of being that more clearly reflect Christ, the Word Made Flesh, then this discernment is being guided by the promised Holy Spirit.

It may be worthwhile to ask ourselves something like this: How does this decision (or ministry or activity or expenditure) reflect Christ? How does what we do as a church and as Christians embody the ministry of Christ—the Word Made Flesh—in our community and world? Yes, whether it’s Session or committees, there are usually a wide variety of things to be considered—from boilers to by-laws. But at heart, we gather to try to discern the will of Christ for our congregations and community — and such discernment requires attention to the movement of the Spirit. And this Spirit, more than anything, wants to connect us more firmly to Christ himself: his life, his witness, his power, his justice, his compassion.

May you perceive and follow the Spirit throughout your life and service to the church — the Spirit that links us inextricably to the Risen Christ among us!

1My thanks to Elizabeth Liebert and her wonderful book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making (Westminster John Knox 2008) for calling my attention to this. See pp. 14-15.


The Rev. Dr. Sam Hamilton-Poore is a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director who has served congregations in North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. He is also author of “Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation,” and the former Director of the Program in Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Is This the Best We Can Do?

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

by Paul Hooker

When I was young in ministry, the session of First Presbyterian of Kingsport, TN where I was associate pastor would debate some important matter until it appeared everything had been said that needed saying. Then, just before the moderator called for the vote, from the back of the room, Ernie Blackard would raise his hand, and when recognized, ask, “Mr. Moderator, I’d just like to be sure: Is this the best we can do for Christ and his Church?” There was, as I recall, never any answer to that question but silence. But there was always a silence, during which we all asked ourselves whether the vote we were about to cast served any purpose other than the advancement of our own interest or agenda. Ernie is long dead now, but his question echoes in my head every time I prepare to cast a vote.

The Book of Order names the order of ministry to which ruling elders are called, “the Ministry of Discernment and Governance” (G-2.03). I think the polity gets that just about right. The first and primary function of the ruling elder is that of discernment. The word comes about as straight and un-Anglicized from the Latin discernere as it is possible to do: “to separate, set apart, divide, distinguish, perceive.” The polity is even clear what, precisely, ruling elders are to discern: they are “not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204). The will of Christ. Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor. We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ.

It’s only after discernment that one gets to governance, the business of leading and guiding the people and institutions entrusted to the session’s care. Governance is always secondary and subsequent to discernment, because it depends on discernment. Even the title given to the order reflects this: ruling elder. The mission of the ruling elder is as old as Scottish Presbyterian polity. The Second Book of Discipline (1620) is clear that the task of the ruling elder is to measure the faithfulness of the congregation “according to the rule of the Evangel” — that is, according to the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. This, by the way, is where the term “ruling” in ruling elder comes from.

I refuse to pull punches here. This means that every ruling elder must be a scholar of Scripture. It also means that it is the task of every teaching elder is to facilitate the session’s scholarship. The best sessions and pastors I know are the ones who take that responsibility seriously and spend time at session meetings in study, conversation, and prayer around the relationship between Scripture and the business at hand. Sessions that fail to do so, or that are convinced that they simply don’t have time to do so, are failing in their duty. That indictment, I fear, would convict more than a few of our sessions, including most of the ones I led when I served as pastor and moderator. Shame on me. Shame on us all.

When the members of the Form of Government Task Force (of which I was one) were making presentations to presbyteries in advance of the vote on the then-proposed Foundations and Form, we were fond of saying that the role of the ruling elder was a spiritual function, not to be confused with being a member of the board of directors of a small non-profit corporation. The best preparation for being a ruling elder is not an MBA (although many fine elders have one) but a sense of the mystery of God, not a head for figures so much as a heart for the flock. Ruling elders are shepherds before they are CEOs.

It will be argued that the church, as an institution, has certain needs in common with most businesses, and that some business sense is needful as the church makes its way in the world. Probably. It will be argued that the church’s financial ship will run aground on the rocks of receivership if there aren’t a few people who can read a balance sheet. Conceded. But let it never be said that those voices are the last voices to be heard in debates about the wellbeing of the people of God. Grant rather that the last voice is that of Ernie Blackard, wondering whether this is the best we can do for Christ and his Church. And let there be, in the silence that follows, a moment of discernment.


Paul Hooker is Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  A teaching elder, Paul has served in parish ministry, as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, and has extensive experience in writing and interpreting the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He blogs original poetry at http://www.shapeandsubstance.com.

Turning Intentions into Action

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

When I was in the early months of a new call, I worked with a ministry coach on a process of structured goal-setting. I’d never heard of coaching, but after meeting him for a preliminary session and hearing about the process, I decided I could use all the support I could get. We met over the phone for six sessions over a period of 4-5 months, in which I shared what I was learning and experiencing in this new context, and thought through ways to move forward faithfully. My coach asked good questions and, in some cases, made concrete suggestions, but the beauty of coaching is that the bulk of the wisdom emanates from the client. I made commitments to my coach, but most importantly, to myself: to make the phone call I found every excuse not to make. To establish good habits and boundaries. To turn my good intentions into concrete action.

I have to admit that in the early days of this coaching relationship, I would sometimes feel bad about myself for even needing a coach at all. Talking to other coach clients, I know this is common. Self-sufficiency is a strong cultural value, and coaching is an acknowledgement that we can’t do it all ourselves. We load ourselves down with “should”: I should be able to manage this on my own. I should be able to set a goal and just do it. I should be able to figure out what’s keeping me stuck. More power to those who have that kind of personal discipline, but most of us need a little something more. Coaching isn’t the only place we can find that perspective, but it’s a powerful one.

A few years ago, I heard Carla Pratt Keyes address a NEXT Church gathering and she shared some startling statistics. When we set goals for ourselves, there’s about a 6-8% chance that we will achieve it. The chance increases to 30% when we write the goal down, and it increases to 60% when we tell someone about it.

What helps move that stat from 60% toward 100%? I suspect it’s a lot of what we find in the coaching relationship, in which each conversation ends with a series of commitments: What will you do in the next few weeks? When will you do it? Where will your accountability be? (Knowing that the coach will ask about it next time was always a big help to me.)

For this reason, NEXT Church has created NEXT Steps Coaching, an initiative to help ministry leaders be more fruitful in their ministries. Right now we have two primary means for people to take advantage of these resources:

  • a directory of coaches, vetted for training/certification and familiar with NEXT, whom church leaders can contact directly and contract with on their own.
  • pro-bono coaching for leaders who could not afford it, provided through a generous gift from National Capital Presbytery.

Of all the initiatives currently on tap through NEXT Church — the Cultivated Ministry field guide, the community organizing training and certificate, our stellar National Gatherings — NEXT Steps Coaching is the one nearest to my heart. I have seen a pastor’s eyes light up as they finally figure out how to streamline some cumbersome administrative process. I have heard the relief in the voice of a leader who said, “Of course… I never thought about it that way.” And I have witnessed individuals and groups who felt utterly stuck and dispirited find new vitality and purpose.

For the past several months, a NEXT Church coach has been working with a team of leaders from South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church as they make some major changes to how they worship, connect, learn, and serve on Sunday morning. Their story is theirs to tell, and I hope they will, for the sake of countless congregations experiencing similar challenges. But here’s what’s struck me about their process. Among other things, the church made the difficult decision to move from two worship services to one. It’s a painful issue that many churches are facing right now, and it can come with a lot of emotional baggage, even grief, over letting go of the way things used to be. It can lead to a real defeated, deficit mentality.

But the team at South Jax realized that with this challenge came tremendous opportunity. After attending the NEXT Church gathering together in Baltimore, they re-branded themselves the “NEXT team,” charged with helping the congregation take the best from their past as they stepped into a new chapter. They designed a church-wide campaign of listening sessions, synthesized the stories they heard, and made recommendations to session. Most importantly, perhaps, they framed the changes with genuine excitement: One of the things we value here is relationship… with this change, we will all be worshiping together, at the same time, as one community. This change allows us to live our values more deeply than before. When I chatted recently with the chair of the team, he said, “We still have a ways to go, and lots to tweak. But one of our members that had expressed great concern about the changes came up to me recently and said, ‘I see nothing but smiles since the change.’”

This endorsement speaks to the leadership of the team shepherding this work. But it also speaks to the power of coaching — of listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit in one another, discerning the next right thing, and holding one another accountable in love to do it.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

What is No Longer So?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

In Blair Monie’s short video “What Isn’t Helpful Anymore?” for “The NEXT Few Minutes,” he identifies the reality that as people and systems evolve, practices need to change with them and yet we often keep practices the same beyond their usefulness.

This reflection exercise could be incorporated in many ways in ministry settings:

  • A reflection exercise by a session, staff, or any leadership team, thinking about a particular area of ministry.
  • A reflection for the congregation as a whole in a period of discernment or as a moment of taking stock.
  • An invitation within a small group for self-reflection and deepened relationships as responses are shared.

First, watch the video:

Then answer the following three questions that he raises in the short clip:

  1. Can you think of things in your own congregation/ministry history that were healing and helpful in one time but are no longer so?
  2. Can you think of things in your own journey that were healing and helpful in one time but are no longer so?
  3. What were once means to an end of spiritual growth, but are no longer so?

If you would like to take it even further, invite participants to ask these questions of others in the ministry context and learn from their answers:

Name three other people you’d like to hear answer these questions. Maybe someone who has been at the church for only a couple of years. Maybe someone you consider a leader. Maybe someone who has been at the church for his/her whole life. Maybe someone who you see only a couple times a month.


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

Sharing Resources, Sparking Ideas

by Linda Kurtz

When you think of NEXT Church, what do you think of?

Perhaps you think of our annual National Gathering, three days of worship, workshops, keynotes, and more – a place to connect with other church leaders and share experiences of ministry.

Perhaps you think of our relatively new Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which aims to create a culture and process of ministry that does not rest on traditional metrics nor does it abdicate accountability altogether.

Or perhaps you think of this blog, which mostly runs on monthly themes that highlight a particular intersection of life and ministry, and through which we try to connect you, our readers, to creative ideas and best practices.

Sensing a theme there? We love sharing ideas in hopes that they spark something in your own ministry.

To that end, this month, our blog will feature resources found on our website (primarily under the aptly-named “resources” tab on our website – conveniently next to “blog”!). Our hope is that by highlighting some of these resources and providing extra insight into how they might be used, you might find them even more useful in your ministry context. Plus, we have a lot of great things on this site, so we might even highlight a resource you’ve never found before!

Here’s how it will work: the blogger will identify a particular resource and share how they have or would use it in their own ministry context. They’ll include some potential discussion questions or insights into how the resource can be used. And they’ll invite you to do the same!

As we get started, I’d love to know what resource on our site you have used and would choose to highlight on this month’s blog. Leave a comment here or on our Facebook page with the link to the resource and your thoughts about it.

God calls and equips local congregations for transformation: gathering people in Christ-centered community, and dispersing them into the world to seek justice, peace, and reconciliation. Informed by that conviction, NEXT Church strengthens congregations by connecting their leaders to one another, to creative and challenging ideas, and to best practices. Join us!


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

If You Want to Know More About Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Anna Pinckney Straight

What I found in curating this series of blog posts is more questions than answers. I still don’t know how to solve food distribution issues.

And I’m convicted by knowing that West Virginia not only has the highest rate of transgender teenagers of any state in the nation, but also higher than average suicide rates. There is work to be done.

So, if you’d like to know more, here are some places to start:

Elizabeth Catte’s What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia is my #1 recommendation. Written, in part, to respond and rebut J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, this is a good read for people who are new to Appalachia and those who have grown up here.

(Pro tip: if you like Hillbilly Elegy you’re probably not from Appalachia. If you’d like to know more about why it is NOT a book about Appalachia and why so many people dislike it, please get in touch and I would be happy to be in conversation with you).

In her text, Catte challenges stereotypes:

There are currently around 36,000 miners in the entire region. The real forgotten working-class citizens of Appalachia, much like the rest of the nation, are home health workers and Dollar General employees. They’re more likely to be women, and their exemption from the stability offered by middle-class employment is not a recent phenomenon.

She points out the folly of the word “Appalachia”:

…people woefully overuse the term “Appalachian culture.” This is particularly true in our current moment that fetishizes the presumed homogeneity and cohesiveness of the region and uses these characteristics to explain complex political and social realities. Appalachian scholars and activists often prefer to stress our interconnectedness to other regions and peoples rather than set ourselves apart as exceptions. Individuals in Appalachia, for example, offered support and solidarity to communities in Flint and Standing Rock, understanding that the struggle for clean water is local, but also national and global.

And, maybe best of all, she writes with hope:

How does life go on in “Trump Country” for those of us who never lived in “Trump Country” to begin with? It goes on much the same as it always did. For me, I will try to build power with likeminded individuals and challenge the institutions that harm us. I won’t do that by reaching across political divides that are far more complicated here than you can image. I’ll do it by exercising the basic principles of mutual aid and community defense. The people of Appalachia have never needed empathy; what we need is solidarity, real and true, which comes from understanding that the harm done to me is connected to the harm done to you.

If you’d like a broader look at the region through the eyes of economic history and critique, Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia may well be your cup of tea. In this text Stoll painstakingly goes through the history of this region through the lens of the land and the economy – who has the land, when they have it, who is kicked out of the land, and who makes money from its resources. His approach is both local and global with consideration for how the earliest American settlers found a land that was not empty but very much inhabited.

 

 

 

I’m still waiting on my copy through inter-library loan, but everything I’ve found that’s written by Edward J. Cabbell is well worth the read. There is a perception that Appalachia is very white. That’s not false, but it’s also not true. This is the classic text, I’m hoping it leads me to more modern insights.

If you’d like to hear Cabbell you can hear him talk and sing here.

Another such text is Affrilachia: Poems by Frank X Walker.

There are also powerful testimonies found in fiction rooted in Appalachia:

Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake

And for a great website with powerful stories: http://herappalachia.com/

Thanks for reading this month-  I hope that you will ask your questions as well as share your suggestions and observations in the comments!


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.

Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for http://hillbillymovie.com/, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.