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Trusting in God, Always at Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Derrick Weston

“We trust that God is always at work in our world and in our lives, giving us joy, and calling us to be faithful to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.”
– The Sarasota Statement

Underpinning the confessions, griefs, and commitments of the Sarasota Statement is a hope. That hope is rooted in a belief that God is at work, remaking the world in justice in love. It is this deep hope that allows us to carry on even when It seems that the world is at its darkest. We trust that God is working in our lives. We also trust that God is working through our lives. It’s that trust which keeps us from wavering in our work, recognizing the privilege we are given to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

For the last year I have had the privilege of working as the neighborhood organizer for Arlington Presbyterian Church just outside of Washington, D.C. Facing struggles similar to many congregations in the denomination — namely a large, aging building and a small, aging congregation — the church took a faithful step. They sold the building to a local, mission-oriented developer who is in the process of turning the space where the building once was into affordable housing, a major need in Northern Virginia. It was a courageous move, one that could only be made with a firm belief that God is doing a new thing and the church gets to be a part of it.

APC is in the middle of a process. Once the new building is constructed, the church will relocate to the first floor of the new affordable housing complex in a newly designed storefront. While there is incredible excitement for what the church will be once the new space is completed, it is in this in-between time when that trust is tested. The imagery of desert and wilderness feel less like abstract notions and more like lived realities. And it is in this “here but not yet” mode that the church relies on God for her joy.

We find our joy in thinking through new ways of being church. We find our joy in creating new partnerships that will help us to serve the community. We find our joy in knowing that the trail we blaze now may be for the benefit of other congregations that will follow our path or one like it. The joy that we experience is no fleeting emotionalism, but a deep satisfaction in knowing that we are striving to be faithful to the vision that God has given us. It is that joy, based in hope and perseverance that sustains us when the way ahead feels uncertain.

None of what the Sarasota Statement calls for is easy. The work to which it calls us is the work of many lifetimes. These words from the closing of the statement remind me of Dr. King’s insistence that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The work of God’s Kingdom is a slow, incremental climb toward love of God and love of neighbor. The importance of this reminder is that we should work in a way that builds on the legacies of the past while preparing to pass the baton to the leaders of the future. This ensures that the vision to which we are being faithful is indeed, Christ’s vision and not our own.


Derrick Weston is the neighborhood organizer at Arlington Presbyterian Church. He is the co-host of two podcasts, “God Complex Radio” and “The Gospel According to Marvel” and blogs regularly at derricklweston.com.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

Workshop Materials: Keep Your Eyes on the Road

Workshop: Keep Your Eyes on the Road: Staying Focused on Core Mission
Presenters: Mark Elsdon

Attached you will find the worksheet from Mark Elsdon’s workshop “Keep Your Eyes on the Road: Staying Focused on Core Mission.”

Workshop description: There are countless good ideas out there, infinite causes worth supporting, and endless options for how to spend energy, time, and money. But many of these ideas are distractions from the real direction you and your organization are headed. Staying focused on your core mission is key to success. This session will explore the importance of remaining focused on core mission, and provide practical tools for saying “yes” to the right things and “no” to everything else.

 

2018 National Gathering Testimony: John Schmidt

John Schmidt, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, gives a testimony presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering.

John E. Schmidt is pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. A native of Louisiana, John served with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and as a PC(USA) Missionary in Japan before taking a call to parish ministry. He was a founding board member of HopeSprings, a ministry in the Baltimore area committed to removing the stigma of HIV/AIDS and mobilizing church volunteers to serve people impacted by AIDS. John currently serves as chair of the Commission for Thriving Congregations in the Presbytery of Baltimore. John and his wife Debbie have been married for 42 years, and have two children and 4 grandchildren. Their daughter and son-in-law are both ordained in the PC(USA).

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Heather Colletto

Heather Colletto, Director of Communication and Mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, MI, gives an Ignite presentation at the 2018 National Gathering about ServeGR.

Westminster founded ServeGR.com in 2016 to help all Grand Rapidians link their lives together in meaningful ways by finding ongoing volunteer opportunities that play to their strengths, use their passion, and fit their schedule.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Christin Thorpe

Christin Thorpe is the Fellows and Community Engagement Coordinator at Metro-Urban Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and gave an Ignite presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering. Christin’s ignite presentation on Interactive Theological Education aims to get you to think about how academic institutions can bridge the gap between day-to-day realities faced within our very complex communities and our classical theological training.

Hidden Leaders

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

by Richard Williams

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

Photo from Young Adult Volunteer Facebook page

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

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

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

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


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

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Kate is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Kate Foster Connors

In this season of waiting, I feel impatient.

Congress is a mess. The #metoo movement is only growing, with accounts of sexual harassment and rape coming out daily. Wildfires are burning California – again. Churches are declining and shutting their doors in a steady stream.

This year, the lectionary texts from the first Sunday in Advent feel especially timely. Isaiah pleads with God: “O that you would … make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2) And the Psalmist implores, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (Psalm 80:2b) Like Isaiah and the Psalmist, I don’t feel like we can afford to wait. My prayers lately have been some version of, “How can we WAIT, God? Have you been paying attention to this messed up world?”

It seems fitting that this season of waiting, arriving in a firestorm of brokenness, begins with a call on God to act boldly.

Advent also is the season of getting ready. Advent is the time when we prepare for the coming of Jesus – not the docile baby wrapped in cloths that is depicted in so many children’s books and light-up, front lawn nativity scenes, but the justice-seeking Jesus whose mission is to bring radical love for all of God’s children. Advent is the time when we prepare for God to upend the world as it is, and usher in the world as it should be.

So although (like Isaiah and the Psalmist) in my prayers I’ve been pleading with God to please come soon, my prayer this Advent season can’t only be about my impatience with God. Preparing for the coming of Jesus means that I have some work to do, too.

I have a rock sitting on my desk. It is almost perfectly round, and is smooth and flat on the front and on the back. I keep it in the most visible place on my desk – next to my phone, and in front of the pictures of my family. Across the top, big and bold in black marker, are these words: “Keep awake.”

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday of Advent commands us to “…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33)

I wrote those words on my rock during Lent a couple years ago, at a prayer station our Christian educator had set up for a Maundy Thursday prayer service. It was a good message for Lent, but I decided to keep it in plain sight all year round, because it keeps me honest. To keep awake, I need to pay attention. To keep awake, I cannot let myself stay in the safe bubble that is easy for a middle-class, white woman to stay within. To keep awake, I cannot stay inside the cocoon of my office, or my house. To keep awake, I need to listen to my neighbors in a city that is both full of life and culture, and that is broken and hurting deeply.

It is easy for me to get stuck in my cry for Jesus to please come soon! I need God to help me keep awake, so that I don’t wait (however impatiently) my way through another Advent.

My prayer for the Church this Advent is not all that different: that we all pray urgently for Christ’s coming – “come to save us!” – but that we don’t get stuck in that prayer – that we don’t wait passively – that our churches keep awake to the injustice that is unfolding daily, in our nation, in our states, in our cities and towns, and in our backyards. That we resist the easier path, the one that takes us from our cars in the parking lot to the pews in the sanctuary and back again – and take the more difficult one, the one that takes us out of our church building and into our neighborhoods to find out what’s really going on with our neighbors. The path that keeps us awake.


Kate Foster Connors is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Theological Seminary. She has served churches in Memphis, TN, and Baltimore, MD. Currently, Kate is the Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore that hosts church groups for mission experiences in Baltimore. She and her husband, Andrew, have 2 teenage daughters, a cat, and a dog.

Waiting with the Widow

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: McKenna is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.

Stewardship 101

by Deborah Rexrode

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to God’s service, you could not give God anything that was not in a sense God’s own already.
– C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

For us as Christians, all that we have and all that we are belongs to God. So then what does stewardship look like in our lives today? How do we define stewardship?

Too often stewardship means the Annual Stewardship Campaign. It means filling out a pledge card to make a commitment to the annual budget of the church where we are a member. In some cases, the definition has been broadened to include a commitment of our time and talents so that we don’t put all our focus on money.

As we begin a month of reflections on stewardship, it seems the best place to begin is to ask, “What do the scriptures tell us about stewardship?” I share these biblical principles of stewardship for you to begin to broaden your definition of stewardship:

Ownership – Let’s begin with the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” God created everything! In Psalm 24 we read, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” God is not only the creator but also the owner of everything. The biblical teaching is not that God created everything and then handed ownership off to us or someone else. God still owns all that is.

Responsibility – Once we acknowledge that what we have is God’s, the question becomes: “What would God have me do with all of this?” As God’s stewards, we are responsible to care for all that God has graciously entrusted to us. “Who then is the faithful and wise steward…?” (Luke 12:42) A steward is a person who cares for something that belongs to someone else. The steward is not the owner, but instead manages that which belongs to another. All that surrounds us in this life belongs to God, and we have been given the privilege to manage and care for some of it as we travel through life.

Accountability – One day each one of us will be called to give an account of how we have managed what God has given us. In 1 Peter we read, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (1 Peter 4:10) As God’s people, we are called to live and give generously, especially to help those in need. We are called to give first to God and God’s work, to give regularly, and yes, to give cheerfully. The Bible tells us that what we do with our money and possessions impacts our faith. We are called to be accountable for what God has entrusted into our care.

Reward – Stewardship is the way we use the abundance that God has entrusted to our care to love God and our neighbor. Stewardship is more than money, offering plates, and pledges. As the master said to the servants to whom he gave five talents and two talents, “Well done, good and faithful servants! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21) They used what they had been asked to manage and multiplied it for the good of the master and his kingdom.

Stewardship goes beyond the church budget or building project and connects everything we do with what God is doing in the world. Stewardship is a way of life. It is one of the primary ways that we live out our identity in Christ. We are called to be faithful stewards in all that God is calling us to do. It is being open to the opportunities and challenges that God places in our lives and serving with faith and joy.

Stewardship is a spiritual practice that allows us to live out the belief that all we have and all that we are belongs to God. Stewardship is our gifts of time, relationship, worship, thanksgiving, prayer, service, and material possessions. It is a way of living that includes giving.


Deborah Rexrode serves as the Associate for Stewardship with the Presbytery of the James. She is an ordained Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and brings to the presbytery a background of research, study, and application of the theological understanding of stewardship and the importance of ongoing stewardship education in our congregations. She provides consultation to pastors, sessions, and stewardship committees with stewardship campaigns, capital campaigns, and planned giving. Deborah has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the Sociology of Religion from the University of Virginia. Her research and doctoral dissertation focused on stewardship and the role of clergy in providing strong financial leadership in their congregations.

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