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Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

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 Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

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 John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Sitting Side-by-Side

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 Jessica Patchett

Nicole’s eyes got big.

“It’s not you, it’s us,” Lisa said.

There had been an audible gasp in the room when I had said that we should ‘segregate’ our two financial asks for the upcoming luncheon.

It was the week after the Charlottesville riots, and we all had trauma hangovers.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t worry about us,” Glencie said. “Just be aware when you’re out and about that people might take that the wrong way”.

“Good advice” I said. “So, let’s remove the ‘ask’ for lunch donations from the room and do that online in the Eventbrite RSVP process, so that people don’t have to know who can pay for lunch and who can’t. Then our general ask for financial support can be the only one we make live in the room.”

“How sensitive of you to think of that,” Lisa said. “I like it. I’ll make it happen.”

Nicole, Glencie, and Lisa are black. I’m white. We’re four of six core team members of a network we launched called Clergy Women of Charlotte.

It was Nicole’s brainchild. She is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition. She’s passionate about encouraging women in ministry to live into their fullest potential. When Nicole pitched me the idea of a local clergywomen’s network, my initial internal reaction wasn’t favorable. Many of the clergywomen groups I’ve been part of haven’t lasted long (or I haven’t lasted long in them).

But quickly, I realized that this one had the potential to be different than anything I’d tried. It would be local and diverse – racially, theologically, politically, generationally, spiritually, and vocationally – in a moment when our community desperately needed leaders to break down the walls between social segments.

At our first Core Team huddle, we had to have a hard conversation about how we would name and define ourselves. There were decisions to be made: would we be explicitly Christian (yes); would one have to be ordained in a tradition in order to find a home in it (we’d hope not); would we stand for something bigger than ourselves (we’d want to be open to the Spirit’s leading).

Out of that discernment process, we articulated our intentions: Our mission is to gather women in the greater Charlotte area to support one another in cultivating health and vitality for sustaining one’s calling in Christian ministry.

At our first public event, about 40 women gathered for breakfast, encouragement, and prayer. We were largely black and white. We were pastors, professors, chaplains, first ladies, bi-vocational laborers, storefront preachers, evangelists, and authors. We were Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Our speakers that morning included a Baptist overseer with more than 40 years in local church ministry and the director of the American outpost of an international para-church spirituality and justice movement.

And we were all neighbors.

It was a gathering unlike any I had attended in my decade of ministry in Charlotte.

Some people in the room were deeply rooted in traditions that don’t elect or appoint women to the highest leadership positions in their churches. Some hoped this network would help them on their journeys to live fully into the roles available to them in their traditions. Others hoped this gathering would stand behind them in their pursuits to shatter stained glass ceilings. Still others came as members of the LGBTQ+ community, wondering if this network would be broad enough to support them in their vocational endeavors.

When the Core Team met to debrief our first public event, we quickly realized that it would be a real miracle if all these different kinds of women kept coming together around breakfast and lunch tables year after year.

And, in the next moment, we opened our eyes to see that this would be the point of it all: to witness what beauty the Spirit of God would call forth out of our humble efforts to sit side by side, pray for each other, and affirm the dignity of each person’s unique life in Christian service.

Over the past year, we’ve continued to grow and connect with a broader circle of people. We have a web site; we’re filing for non-profit status; we’ve gained the support of seminaries, small businesses, churches, and individual donors. These are enormous blessings that will help us continue and expand our work.

But the most beautiful fruits of this effort are the deep, spiritual gifts of unencumbered friendship. Members of the network host each other for breakfast, work out together, celebrate each other’s personal and vocational milestones, and recommend each other for opportunities to work and serve in ministry.

The Wednesday after the events in Charlottesville, I met Nicole for yoga. Almost at once, we both said, “I didn’t realize how much I needed to see you!” After class, we walked to the store to rehydrate and had a good, honest talk about the week and how we were dealing with it.

And that’s what we hope will happen for many other women as they begin to live together in the diverse community of the Clergy Women of Charlotte: that we and they will continue to push past polite, become intimately acquainted with the deep longings of each others’ souls, and support one another in the ways that God calls us to serve in the world-redeeming ministry of Jesus.


Jessica Patchett serves as Associate Minister for Christian Education at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and as a member of the Core Team of the Clergy Women of Charlotte. She loves a good book, a challenging workout, the great outdoors, and cooking for her friends. You can learn more about the Clergy Women of Charlotte at www.clergywomenofcharlotte.com.

Our Commitment to Racial Diversity

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 Aram Bae

Recently a colleague asked me about the racial make-up at the church where I work. Simply put, his question was: “How many non-whites are in your congregation?” It was an easy question to answer, for I could count on one hand the folks who came to mind. While my number may be wrong in terms of actual membership, the headcount is accurate for consistent worship attendance. It’s easy to make that kind of headcount out of a sea of white faces. It, in fact, comes naturally to me; I do this wherever I am, be it at a coffee shop, on the bus, at a lecture, in a restaurant—any time and everywhere, instinctively.

Photo from First Pres Charlottesville Facebook page

The PC(USA) denomination isn’t entirely white, but we’re also not balanced in our racial make-up. According to the new PC(USA) Church Trends site, approximately 8.75% of members identified as Asian, 9.3% identified as African American, 7.69% identified as black, 4.6% identified as Hispanic, and 96.25% identified as white in 2016—just to name a few. We do, however, know when and how to showcase our commitment to diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s good for press, and we’ve got Scripture to back-up our efforts. We pat ourselves on the back for being progressive in this way, and we make efforts to keep moving forward holding hands with non-white peers. Our “progress,” however, can be felt as more of a political ploy than a commitment for partnership. Simply ask a person of color the contexts in which s/he has been invited to speak, preach, teach, keynote, or pray for the denomination on the basis of an event that is NOT about race or diversity. Yes, I’m talking about multicultural tokenism. It still exists, and we progressive Presbyterians play a role in perpetuating the diversity game—we play it when we need it; when it makes us look good.

I have mixed feelings about being a racially and ethnically diverse church. On one hand, how beautiful of an image. On the other hand, as a person of color, sometimes all I want is to be among my people and feel like a majority, even if for a few hours of one day out of a long week when I’m surrounded by anything but a sea of Asian faces. I support our denomination’s efforts in wanting to be diverse—theologically, politically, socially, and racially/ethnically. It’s biblical and right and good. But I also shed a cautionary light to those who are doing the asking. Rather than asking folks to fill a diversity need, we may want to consider asking: “What do you need from me/us?” In other words, turn the tables a bit. Give up your seat of power of doing the asking for your need to be filled, and practice some listening instead. In this way, we just might do as Paul encourages his dearest friends in Philippi: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:3, The Message translation). The helping hand, in this case, is to be a listening partner. Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to put the “progressive” aside a bit, and simply listen. Simply put, it’s long overdue.


Aram Bae is associate pastor for youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. 

 

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

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 Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

The Lion and the Lamb

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 Whitney Fauntleroy

I hope that our knees get battered and our heads ache from being bowed down in prayer, hoping that we might be the people who bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. I believe the Kingdom of God values diversity. Those images of welcome feasts and animals lying together are significant enough for me to believe that the toil of diversity is worth it – for the sake of the church, the sake of the world, and the sake of the kingdom. This kingdom imagery surrounds us every time we miss the mark, mess up, and don’t get it. All that mess around the message of the kingdom and the message of diversity in the Scriptures says that we have to toil and work toward a world where earth and heaven get closer to mirroring each other.

The work is indeed messy. The work is awkward. The work is painful. I have been deeply angered and hurt by a denomination that writes so beautifully about diversity yet often clings to its privilege. Listening to people speak about the call process, I have heard of married women who were asked if they would be committed to the ministry while men who were married were not. Friends who identify as LGBT* wrestling with whether they should self-disclose when those who identify as heterosexual don’t have to. People of color being asked how they feel working in a white church. So many of these questions surround our comfort. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we strive towards a more diverse church.

Many seek out churches because of comfort. We choose styles of worship because they is familiar to us. We choose to join and be a part of communities where we feel comfortable. I am often one of the faces that makes a church appear diverse (at least optically). I struggle to navigate through human nature to be comfortable. I have not spoken up when I heard micro-aggressive statements or prejudices toward minority or marginalized communities. Why? I don’t want my difference to be the only focus. I don’t want it to be dismissed either, nor do I want to be viewed as an exceptional representative of a community. I’ve been labeled “not really black” and an “Oreo.” For years those comments made me feel uncomfortable. Only recently did I start to understand why. Those comments are attempts to normalize one way of being (typically cisgender, white, heterosexual, educated, and male). The church has to push against a narrative that seeks assimilation and calls it diversity. Marginalized voices are standing up against this idea that we have arrived or achieved when we shed our uniqueness for the sake of uniformity. Normalizing and uniformity is comfortable. It is easy; it doesn’t ask for sacrifice, risk, or toil.

We have to stop sliding into patterns that make us comfortable and allow ourselves to be agitated, to be informed, to do our own personal inventories of prejudices. It will be messy, and there will be mistakes, but we have to trudge through it for the sake of the church, the kingdom, and the world.

I imagine that when the lion and lamb lay together, they did not become a hybrid. Perhaps sometimes the lion had to check herself and not roar or become a predator again. Sometimes the lamb had to go against his tendency to be a part of a flock. Each day, they had to be committed to the work of lying together, of getting to know each other without trying to become one another. Likewise, it is hard work to build a table long enough for everyone to be able to sit and access the banquet feast. Diversity is the work of the kingdom. It requires us to toil, to be uncomfortable, and to persist. We have been called to this work in the scripture, and as our world and nation change rapidly, the urgency of diversity seems to have risen to our consciousness. Thank God! The time is now to do the messy work of proclaiming the kingdom message, a message of diversity to a world that always needs to hear it.


Whitney Fauntleroy is associate pastor for youth and young adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

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 Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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 John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Mindfully Anchored in the Word: Nurturing Ministry in a Complex Environment

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 Rick Young

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the fabric of our churches and denomination is a constantly changing reflection of our current national climate. This is something we must not only acknowledge, but address directly. I have had the privilege and honor of pastoring four congregations over the past four decades. Each was different, yet the same sort of blessing in so many ways. A pastor plays many roles — and not always the ones we’ve been trained for. While seminary provides a strong foundation, our most important lessons are taught in the trenches of modern day ministry. There are a few things we need to keep in mind as we work together to nurture ministry in today’s complex environment:

  1. The Church is not an easy place to work and play.

This couldn’t be truer today. Recently, one of my colleagues not-so-jokingly said, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand.” As pastors, we enter into the ministry somewhat idealistically, believing that with our leadership, the kingdom of God will be at hand.  

Then reality sets in. A member of one of my former congregations said, “The pastor’s role is to be a medic in a war zone where everyone on both sides is wearing the same uniform.” We are called to be compassionate, healing servants to all of God’s people. As I was preparing to leave one of the congregations, a dear member and friend handed me a framed poem that she had written entitled, “God’s Firefighter.”

The poem read…

“One of God’s great miracles is fire, sent to us on earth. Another of His gifts is a person who understand its worth. Fire can be vicious, it can rage, destroy and consume. It can be gentle, bringing warmth and light to a cold draft room. An evening round a campfire or in front of a hearth ablaze, can bring a peaceful end to even the most stressful of days. A good firefighter knows when to let a fire burn and when to control, when to light a fire under people or down deep inside their soul. I met such a firefighter when my world was full of strife.  He helped me find the fire, and the way to turn around my life. No matter where time takes us, or how many miles we are apart – I will always have God’s fire and His special firefighter in my heart!”  

In my experience, many times the wars were brutal and even unchristian, and the fires ravaged lives and left devastation behind. But with God’s help, we made it through, and so can you. As I said, the Church and congregation can be at times a rough place to play and work.

  1. The denomination is divided, and we must forge ahead together.

The last five years have brought this to bear for many of us, as we have seen dear friends and colleagues depart the denomination. The process has been painful, and the scars are both deep and fresh. There have been arguments, hurt feelings, truths, and untruths told on both sides of the divide. This is a painful divorce, and sadly there are no winners and many losers.

The division has been expressly felt in the state of Texas, where the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) is headquartered. Presbytery memberships have decreased by as much as forty percent. TPF exists to enable and expand mission — together, which is not always easy in this frayed and tattered environment. But we hope to lead by example. Truly, we’re all on the same side. We stand in the middle waving a flag of neutrality and God’s mission. Why? Because it is what God asks of each of us. We are not naïve enough to think that neutrality protects us from the need to take a stand in the denouncement of evil, as well as the relentless search for peace going forward. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we keep the door open to help facilitate reconciliation and create pathways for future conversations.  

It’s time. We need to pick up our medic bags, bind up the wounded, and unroll our fire hoses to control the fires that destroy while tending the fires of love and compassion that simmer in our souls.


Rick Young is the President/CEO of the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) and served four pastorates along the way.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

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 Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.