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Not Like Us

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elaine Vaden

In the 1980s, the “church growth movement” emphasized the need for churches to focus on their own homogenous group in order to minimize the barriers between the church community and those outside. If the initial church community was composed of Anglo, middle class parishioners, it was believed that keeping the focus on the same kind of people would ensure greater growth. This principle came to be known as the “HUP,” or homogenous unit principle. I bought into this theory — and even taught it as a church growth consultant.

While the social theory of “like attracts like” may have some results, sadly, the theological implication of the HUP is devoid of the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel of the kingdom breaks down the walls that divide, brings together people who eat meat and those who don’t, unites Gentiles and Jews, male and female, marginalized and privileged, and on and on. The local expression of the Church should reflect the kingdom makeup as much as possible. Only then can the observation made of the early church, “behold how they loved one another” be true.

But how in the world can this happen in this era of polarization, claiming sides on the political fence, keeping out those who are not like us? Can it happen? I have lived much of my working life either in another country or in a city of 12 million with over 80 spoken languages. And I can attest to the richness of life that comes from encountering those who look, eat, dress, worship, and speak differently than I do. And while most of us cannot relocate to a different city or town, none of us are restricted from crossing the cultural divides around us, if we want to demonstrate the liberating nature of Christ’s kingdom in a world that would say “find people like yourself” and grow your church with the same kind of people.

Lest you say “we are good at giving to the poor” or “our church marches for the marginalized,” have you entered into the world of those who are different and allowed them to wash your feet or serve you their unusual food? Have you made yourself vulnerable to those of a different faith or social structure so that you might have the blessing of receiving and learning?

Some years ago, while working in southern Zambia, I complained a bit when for several months, potatoes disappeared from the roadside markets and small stores. The ministerial students in my classes listened and laughed but then one Christmas Eve, three of the students appeared at my door with a 50 lb. sack of potatoes they had carried from their village more than 100 miles away. I was overwhelmed by their love and generosity for their “complaining” professor. As I boiled and roasted and fried potatoes in the months ahead, I realized they had shown me a side of love I had not experienced when I just hung around with folks like me.

Going to the other side, encountering those who look, speak, eat, and maybe even smell different has a way of demonstrating the many shades of love and revealing the kaleidoscope of the kingdom.


Elaine Vaden serves with The Antioch Partners as a theological educator. She joyfully teaches missiology (and sometimes church history) in places like Nepal, India, Mexico and Zambia. The picture was taken with a Nepalese friend after Elaine preached in Kathmandu.

Facing Criticism and Questions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sean Chow

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” I’d like to take a bit of liberty and translate the last part of that verse this way: “In ministry, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”

Face it: in ministry there will be criticism. We will be criticized. Especially when we’re at the forefront of what God is doing “next” in the church. Realizing that does not, however, make accepting criticism or having people question our ministry, motives and work.

More than 20 years ago, when I first started ministry, I had a question that still haunts me. “When are you going to get a real job?” That question, from a family member, stunned me. Was my work and effort and ministry as a youth pastor not worthy of being considered a “real job?” Thankfully, the question forced me to consider what I was doing at the time and even today, the question is cause for reflection.

For 6 years, I served a church on the East Coast. The congregation decided it was interested in being more involved in the community. At least, they said they wanted to be more involved in the community. The church hired an “evangelism coach” to help the pastoral staff and congregation understand what it would take to be truly outwardly focused. But, like most churches, what they really wanted was for the community to come into their doors, and they wanted them to enter on their terms.

As the leadership team began to chart a new course and unveil it to the congregation, tension began to rise. Pointed questions began to filter in. Questions such as:

“When are these new people you are working with going to sit next to me in church?”
“We are paying your salary; you should be spending more time with us instead of them.”
“When are they going to be contributing members to this church?”

I had a deep love for the congregation and through the years we had walked through the complexity of life together. But their criticism of the ministry God had called us to became a real challenge for me. I did not know how to deal with criticism from people that I respected, people I loved and people with whom I had forged great relationships. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, I knew that we were part of something greater—something far beyond ourselves and the four walls of that “church.” The endless criticism and constant questioning wore me down. It caused me to question if God had actually called me to that place and that ministry. I internalized the criticism and it changed me. It caused me to go down dark holes of despair and I found myself being passive aggressive. I became someone I did not want to be.

Recently, I was watching Brene Brown’s Netflix special and she raised up a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that gets to the heart of the matter:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. I look back and reflect on those 6 years of ministry with a clearer understanding. Today, I wonder if those who offered critiques of my ministry had an adequate understanding of what we were doing. I wonder if I could I have helped them have eyes to see and hears to hear. Perhaps I failed to make space for them in the arena.

As we engage in ministry, as we discern what’s next for the church and as we walk into that vision, we will be criticized and there will be questions. Here’s my wisdom on the matter after 20 years in ministry. Be confident in who God has called you to be and steadfast in the work before you. Don’t fear the questions or the criticism and do not let those who criticize chip away at who you are. Rather, invite them into the arena; make space for them to walk alongside you and invite them into the thick of the discerning process.

Dare greatly as we participate in God’s mission on earth to journey into what is “next” for the church. And remember the words of the one we follow, “In this world as you answer God’s call on your life, you will face questioning and be criticized, but take heart! I’m not afraid of the questions and I have overcome the criticism.”


Rev. Sean Chow lives with his family in the San Francisco area and is the Western region associate for 1001 New Worshiping Communities.

Church Matters — When It Mobilizes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Rev. Stephen Roach Knight

Does church even matter anymore? That was one of the questions posed to me when I was invited to write for this blog, and the one that most resonated with me. Of course, my answer to that question is “Yes,” but perhaps not for the reason you might expect (or, if you know me, then, well, you probably would).

I believe church matters, perhaps more than ever, as a center for organizing in local communities. A few years ago, we invited Liz Butler from the Movement Strategy Center and Friends of the Earth to come and speak at the Transform Network national conference in Washington, D.C., and as an activist, she said it better than I had heard anyone say it before (which is why we posted it on the Transform Network website for posterity): “Community is the first step of collective action. Faith communities play a vital role.”

There is an incredible amount of movement work that needs to be done in order to effect positive change in our communities, in our country, and in our world — and it won’t be accomplished without the vital participation of churches as centers for personal and societal transformation.

In the Moral Movement work that I’m a part of through Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the participation of clergy and moral leaders at the center has been intentional and necessary. Many faith leaders are awakening to the responsibility to no longer be chaplains to empire but to be “prophets of the resistance” (as Michael-Ray Matthews says) or “moral prophets to the nation” (as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II puts it).

Yes, the local church is to be a house of prayer and worship, but it must also be a place of action and mobilization. The era of the country club church, the membership club for insiders, is over (if it was ever sanctified at all to begin with).

Churches with buildings in neighborhoods and city centers can and must open their doors not just so that people can come in on Sunday mornings but so that people can go out the six other days of the week to be salt and light and wounded healers. And clergy are being called to not just preach truth, love, and justice from the pulpit on Sunday mornings but to proclaim truth, love, and justice in the public square — at press conferences and vigils and rallies to address and confront injustice.

Church work and social justice work are both extremely difficult and life-long commitments. Both require strength that comes from a deep inner well of faith and spirituality. That is why, at Transform Network, we have chosen to put such a strong emphasis on what my wife Holly Roach Knight calls “contemplative resistance.” The idea being that we must develop practices of contemplative spirituality that will feed us and guide us daily as we seek to be about God’s work of love and justice in the world. Without those practices, we will flame out and burn those around us with our toxic Christianity or, in my case, masculinity. Centering prayer and other practices are daily opportunities to pull out the poison of white supremacy and patriarchy.

There’s really no excuse today. The question you might’ve asked in years past, “But how do we do it? How do we get engaged?” is no longer a difficult question to answer. There are so many tools and resources available today that speak to faith and social justice, and campaigns (like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) to get involved with in order to engage. But if you are still uncertain and need help discerning where you and your church might best be engaged in the good fight of God’s justice in your community, I hope you’ll reach out to us at Transform Network. We’re available to spend 30 minutes on the phone with you for a free justice church coaching call to get to know you and offer whatever support we can to help you take the next steps to faithful presence and authentic engagement where you are, with the people you are walking with. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

You’re not in this alone. In order to change everything, it will take everyone — and every church. Because church still matters!


Rev. Steve Roach Knight currently serves as Director of Communications for Repairers of the Breach, the nonprofit social justice organization founded and led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Steve has previously served as National Faith Organizer, mobilizing people of faith to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, among other projects he has worked on for Bishop Barber. Steve is a commissioned minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and has formerly served as full-time consultant to the denomination’s church planting and church revitalization arm, Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. Steve is a co-founder and current board member of Transform Network.

New Questions for a New Paradigm

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Fernando Rodriguez

There are questions that open up possibilities and inch us closer to a better understanding of the community around us, and, ourselves. Then, there are questions that simply mess you all up. Mike Mather’s Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, finding abundant communities in unexpected places has not only pushed me to ask questions, but has changed my paradigm for community and ministry.

I met Mike during the early years of my ministry serving as a church planter in a Latinx community in Indianapolis. His ministry at Broadway United Methodist Church influenced me tremendously early on. Now, as an associate pastor leading mission and outreach efforts of a suburban high steeple church, his book has pushed me to continue wrestling with what it means to see and be a part of an abundant community.

Two of the most foundational questions one can ask as a church planter are “What are the needs of the community?” and “how can the church provide for those needs?” The ultimate purpose is to engage the community and hopefully grow the new church. Based on these questions, we developed programs like tutoring, dental clinics, etc. Many of these programs were successful as they provided for a perceived need the community had while creating opportunities for us to develop relationships with neighbors. However, this engagement was transactional and did not always lead to more people in worship.

The stories shared through the pages of Mather’s book offer different questions. Instead of asking what the needs are in the community (as real and pressing as they may be), the questions should be, “What are the gifts and talents of those in the neighborhood and what does it look like to build community around them?” They focus on what the community has, not on what it lacks.

The first time I considered these questions I was both excited and worried. Excited, because I knew that everyone in the neighborhood I was serving was a child of God, and consequently, was given gifts that build community. I was worried because it changed the paradigm from one that built a church to one that built community. These questions messed me up. They were convicting. They challenged all my pre-conceived notions of church, engagement, and community building.

Even today, as I serve a very different context, the questions persist. My current church is one that seeks to fund efforts such as those in my first ministry. We are constantly discerning what the best way is to invest in ministry outside the walls of the church. We serve as volunteers in local community organizations and have even developed a non-profit that brings music programming to public schools in the neighbor city of Pontiac.

Though the context may be different, Mather’s book reminds me not to stop asking questions that focus on seeing abundance in communities that are often thought to have nothing. The challenge now is to think if/how the programs we are funding are building off of the existing gifts and talents in the neighborhood being served. Although we have had good results with getting people to serve in local community organizations, a next step would be to ask: what has this engagement looked like? How are relationships being formed beyond the “service?”

Questions abound when exploring how to live into community in a way that celebrates true God-given abundance. The questions that Mather’s book raise for us are one’s that not only affect the church, but also socio-economics, health, education, etc. These questions are bigger than us. However, our calling is to ask them and “follow the story” that comes from them.


Fernando Rodríguez currently serves as Pastor for Missional Renewal and Stewardship at Kirk in the Hills in Michigan and has also pastored churches in Indiana and Delaware. He enjoys laughing with his wife and two children and screaming at the television without regard during FC Barcelona futbol matches.

Sent Out into the World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the benediction. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andy Kort

The benediction. It is usually the last spoken piece in worship and is spared the distinction of being the last piece only by the inclusion of a postlude. The benediction is perhaps the shortest element in the worship service, usually only a few seconds to complete. Maybe that’s why people often love it. It is a blessing offered at the end, a simple and wonderful way to remember that God’s help, guidance, and grace goes with us as we leave the sanctuary. I hope that’s actually the real reason why people love it. But in my mind, the benediction and the accompanying charge serves as more than a blessing. I also see it as a line of demarcation, with a before and an after.

What happens before shapes what comes after. Think about the typical Sunday morning and all that happens before the benediction. There is an education hour complete with Bible studies, conversations about faith, kids in Sunday school, prayer in the chapel, and people catching up about their lives from the last week. Before the benediction there are all the other elements of a worship service. We are called together, we praise God, we confess our sins and hear we are forgiven, we pass the peace, and we read God’s Word and then proclaim it in sermon and song. We share our gifts as we are called to generosity, we pray, we sing, and on really good days we celebrate the sacraments. In all of this we hear about God’s reconciling and liberating work in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We hear about love, justice, mercy, compassion, and more. We cannot help but be shaped by this. And in turn this shapes what happens after the benediction.

What usually happens after the benediction? In the congregation I serve, the pastors recess from the chancel and position themselves to greet worshipers at the doors. The worshipers either stay seated for the postlude or get up and begin to disperse. Eventually we all go into our fellowship hall for coffee hour. Then what? Do we all just go home until next week? No. We go into the world as people shaped by all that happens before the benediction, ready to do the work after the benediction. For many of us, that involves mission activity that has been informed and interpreted through our worship, Christian education, fellowship, and even committee meetings during the week.

Many of us love to quote St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands…no feet…no eyes…but yours.” To that I would also add ears. Maybe even before we are the hands and feet, we are the eyes and ears, looking and listening, witnessing and watching what is going on in worship, but also in our neighborhood, community, and world. Once we learn more about what is going on around us, we are in a better position to engage while responding to being sent into our communities to work with our neighbors. This can also save us from imposing on our neighbors what we assume they need, or helping them with things they don’t really need or even want.

I recently spent time listening to church members through surveys and ethnographic interviews to understand what is important to them as it relates to mission, how they understand mission, and feelings on what we have been doing. I also listened to community agencies to hear more about their needs. The results were informative and led us to adjust what we were doing. Some things changed, others were dropped, and a few new things began. One example of a new initiative is our “pop up missions” where we learn of an immediate need and try to help. But we also strengthened relationships with existing mission partners like Montgomery, West Virginia (15 years), a Catholic church in Nicaragua (20 years), and many local groups.

After the benediction we don’t just get coffee in fellowship hall. We are sent out into the world, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our homes to participate in what God is doing. What is God doing? A whole lot. Christian education, the elements of worship help us to understand “who is our neighbor?” it informs our understanding and biblical best practices. We get a reminder that we are called, equipped, and sent out by God. And as we are sent out, we receive a blessing to send us on our way. It’s absolutely beautiful.


Andy Kort is senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.

Ministry at the Border

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Susan Young Thornton is curating a series highlighting ministry on the Pacific coast — a diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex part of the country, and home to our upcoming 2019 National Gathering. We’ll hear from individuals serving in a variety of ministry settings about the struggles and blessings of living into God’s call on the West Coast. What is it really like to serve in this region? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Minda Schweizer

Abigail and Minda

Last week I accompanied my high school daughter to Tijuana. Abigail, a volunteer teacher with Little Brushstrokes, a program for refugee children, wanted to bring art to the migrant caravan children. And since she has been in Spanish immersion classes since elementary school, she could teach in Spanish.

Abigail talked with World Relief Southern California, a provider of immigrant legal services, and arranged for us to go to Tijuana with them. While World Relief provided asylum counsel to migrants, Abigail would do art with children waiting for their parents. I was Abigail’s assistant and got to witness first person the border situation; invaluable to me as founder of a non-profit called Home for Refugees which helps faith and community groups partner with refugee families to welcome, help resettle, and create new homes here in the United States.

The week before, we saw that tear gas had been used at a border demonstration and that the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry had been closed temporarily. Abigail and I wondered what it was going to be like.

  • Would we see crowds of migrants when we entered Tijuana?
  • Would we find space to set up our art class?
  • Would it be chaotic?

Our day was different than we imagined. When we walked over the PedWest pedestrian crossing with the World Relief legal representatives, fewer people than we expected occupied the square. The plaza was calm and orderly. Looking around, I noticed border guards set up about 100 feet from the entrance to the U.S. and in another corner a group of migrants listening to numbers being called out one at a time.

Jose Serrano, the director of Little Brushstrokes and Senior Legal Services Specialist of World Relief Southern California, pointed out what was going on around us. He said, “See that door over there to go back to the U.S? Legally anyone is able to go up to that that door and say ‘I’m afraid’ and ask for asylum.” Then he pointed out the border guards set up about 100 feet from that door and shared that the guards were checking IDs and allowing only people who are permitted to go into the U.S. past them. The guards directed the migrants to another part of the plaza where numbers were being called.

Jose explained that twice a day, morning and afternoon, 100 numbers are called out. Roughly 10 numbers represent a family group, which means about 20 families get called a day, allowing them to start the process of asking for asylum. Some days the number calling sessions are arbitrarily cancelled. That happened in the afternoon. Jose explained that the migrants themselves created this system. The migrants elect representatives from their group to organize the system and the number caller is a migrant. Seeing this, I wondered, “What is going on behind the scenes here?” “Is this arranged to get around the federal law that guarantees the right to seek asylum?”

I couldn’t dwell on speculating. Abigail and I had a job to do: making beaded bracelets with the migrant children. Jose told Abigail to set up next to the group of migrants listening for their numbers. As Abigail and I set up, Jose stood up on the curb to gather a crowd and to explain their rights as asylum-seekers and the procedure to follow to make a solid case for asylum. Sadly, most migrants don’t have the benefit of legal counsel before applying for asylum, which often results in not having the right paperwork and disqualifying them from passing the initial stages of seeking asylum. The World Relief legal representatives worked their way through the group hearing individual stories and giving counsel.

The children were happy to string bead bracelets. The potential craziness that Abigail and I wondered about never happened. The children were polite, taking turns picking out beads. Parents came over to see what was happening and got big smiles. Some of the parents sat with their kids and helped them finish their bracelets. One of the children said he made it for his mother and asked me to tie the bracelet on her wrist.

I have sometimes observed God’s tangible and loving presence in marginalized and vulnerable populations, those Christians are called to come alongside. I certainly felt that presence on this day. To be able to interact with the children and make bracelets with them was one meaningful and empowering way Abigail and I found to show our support to the migrants in Tijuana.


Minda Schweizer holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the founder and president of Home for Refugees U.S.A. You can learn more about their work at http://www.homeforrefugeesusa.org

In Search of Sabbath

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 Adriene Thorne

I am sore afraid that the ruling elders in my church are working two jobs, at least – the one they get paid to do and the unpaid one they do to the glory of God. Too often, church looks like their second job – their second job with long hours and lots of demands. While I am grateful for the working relationships I enjoy with dozens of dynamic, creative elders, I am also on a mission to reclaim sabbath for us all. I hope you will join me.

I began feeling nervous last fall when an elder in my church told me that when she and her husband retire at the end of this year, they would probably take a break from church. I murmured, “Oh, visiting family and friends? Traveling abroad?” She replied, “No, I think we will take a break from church because… maybe we’re tired?” She spoke in a little chipmunk voice with her hands in front of her face as though she thought I would smite her! She went on to share that she wanted a break from lying awake at night wondering if the boiler would work on Sunday morning. She needed a reprieve from coming to church and answering questions about the building, the insurance, and the new church carpet. She wanted to be free of the burdens of doing ministry in a 200-year-old building that had spilled into her life over the course of more than two decades of service. She was in search of a sabbath, and I couldn’t blame her. Just listening to the many responsibilities she carried out made me want to take a nap!

It isn’t just my elder, and it isn’t just my church. Over the past six months I’ve queried lay leaders from a few churches around the country who have shared with me both their satisfaction in serving and their joy in finally being done. Elders I spoke with thanked God their time of service had ended. Every. Single. One.

As I attend conferences and connect with ruling elders from all walks of life, I am reminded that I signed up for this work, that I trained for it, and that I love it. It is my calling and my job. I take a sabbath rest two days of nearly every week, but many of my elders work all week at their paying job and then work many evenings and all weekend at their church job. A colleague recently said to me that church work, done right, is life giving. Yes, that is true, but I am also listening to the stories and looking into the faces of elders who look anything but alive.

I realize that the language I’ve heard thrown around in ministry that says lay leaders are unpaid staff, is problematic. First and foremost, lay leaders are members of the body of Christ entrusted to the care of their pastor. They, as much as any member, and sometimes more than most, need the pastoral attention of their teaching elder. And if the only or primary conversations we are having with them are about budgets and attendance and volunteering more of their time, then something is wrong. Where and what is sabbath for ruling elders?

I’ve started a self-scheduling calendar for elders at my church. They can put themselves on my calendar for an agenda free tea date as often as they need one. Occasionally, I will invite one or two or several over for dinner with me and my family and say bring your partner and kids. Sometimes I’ll grab a glass of wine with an elder at a local bar after I’ve put my kid to bed, and always when we gather, I’m creating sabbath. The only rule is that church conversations are banned. Often, we laugh, share stories, and learn something new about one another, and for that hour, there are no demands on us to accomplish anything more than the tending of ourselves. My elders love pondering where God is in their lives right now and what it is their soul needs. The hour leaves us feeling loved and fed.

We are all slowly starting to come back to life at my church. It is imperfect, and we still do too much. September is already jam-packed, but things thin out by Reformation Sunday. The best part is that we are doing a better job of being on the lookout for Sabbath and asking the questions that make ministry possible and most importantly, life giving and restful.


Adriene Thorne serves as pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn in New York City where the community seeks to tell God’s story of love and justice in creative and transformative ways. Find her on Facebook at Adriene.Thorne.Minister, on Twitter at @AdrieneThorne and on Instagram at revadriene.

Newton’s First Law of Motion and the Church

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 Mick Hirsch

Nobody knows what to do with Newton. You see, Isaac tested not only the laws of physics – he also tested how far Christian orthodoxy could bend until it simply breaks. Today, most people think of Newton as a brilliant physicist, the guy who came up with the Three Laws of Motion that we all had to learn at some point during our educational journeys. But, back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, people didn’t know where to put him. If we’re honest, we all know how comforting it feels to label someone, to put them in a category, which we can either love, hate or discard as unimportant. This is what happened to Newton. The guy who discovered the Laws of Motion was put. And still today, among an itsy-bitsy group of historians and theologians who dabble in esoteric subjects, people are still arguing about where to put poor Isaac.

Let the name-calling begin: Newton’s a born-and-bred Anglican; no, he’s an antitrinitarian Arian heretic; impossible, he’s certainly somewhere between a Socinian and the Eastern Orthodox communion; seriously, let’s get real – he’s a deist; for God’s sake, it’s so obvious – he’s a latitudinarian-millinarian, duh!!! Oh, and we mustn’t forget… he’s one of the greatest physicists of all time.

We’re always looking for an easy way out, but if we think seriously about it, it’s really, really hard to put someone somewhere. Can you relate? Has it happened to you? It’s certainly happened to me, perhaps nowhere as intimately and personally challenging as the my own mercurial faith background. Like Isaac, I, too, have been called a lot of names and put in a lot of places.

Here’s the story: I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, just a year or two after my mom converted to Catholicism in order to marry my dad. But, by the time I was about two or three, my mom had had enough of Catholicism, and wanted to return to her Protestant roots. So, she took me to the “community church,” which happened to be American Baptist. Soon afterwards, my dad succumbed to some kind of Protestant temptation and followed along. It so happened, that by the time I entered junior high school, the Baptist youth group had diminished to a small handful of kids. So, the three of us abandoned ship and joined in with the Methodists. All fine and well, except for the fact that when my grandfather – my best friend – died during my sophomore year of high school, I was devastated. My “to be expected” teenage angst turned into a fierce atheism. With all apologies to any lawyers out there, it took working as a paralegal at a cutthroat Chicago law firm my year after college to reorient myself to a life of faith.

I felt something moving in my heart (John Wesley, referring to his own experience, said, “my heart was strangely warmed”). Coincidently, the only place I knew was the United Methodist Church (the one Wesley “founded”). So, I went there… and this time, I was pretty sure that my heart was strangely warmed. One Easter morning, I woke up and went to church. I knew all about Easter – the rabbit who lays chocolate covered eggs… cool. But, when the congregation belted out the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” well, I broke down in tears. It was an Isaiah 6:8 blast of what Methodists call “justifying grace” – the type of grace where God pardons and restores a person back to God. Before I could even think, there I was proclaiming, “Here I am. Send me!”

Bam! I entered Yale Divinity School on track to become ordained in the United Methodist Church (UMC). (By nature, I am curious – despite my affiliation with the UMC, I worked at a Congregational Church and completed my requisite internship at an Episcopal Church – once again, I was put… x 2.) Nevertheless, within the UMC, I felt on top of my game. I was young, clever, capable of entering the denomination from the inside, so that I could champion UMC-awesomeness, but also change some of the things with which I struggled about the Church.

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself faced with a very difficult decision: either I take the vows to follow United Methodist doctrine, which would mean denying my LGBTQ friends the opportunity to profess their love for one another through marriage, as well as dissuading my LGBTQ friends from following their authentic call to ministry because they would be denied the same ordination I was about to receive. After many years of study, jumping through all the hoops, interviews, essays, paperwork, background checks, etc., etc. – I walked away. He who strived to be an insider now found himself an “outsider.”

But, that’s when I realized something monumental, something so very important, something incredibly powerful, life-giving, meaningful, purposeful… something real and inspired, all in one!

I was part of the laity.

Let’s go back to Newton. Our friend Isaac became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1667 at the age of 24 – the same age I was when I entered Yale Divinity School. Isaac was on the ordination track in the Anglican Church. Like me, he, too, walked away. There were things with which he didn’t agree in the Church, and he felt it impossible to commit to things about which he felt strongly.

Even more importantly, despite the fact that others immediately tried to put him into certain categories – heretic, anti-this & anti-that, etc. – he didn’t stay put. Rather, he discovered the laws of MOTION!

Think back: do you remember Newton’s First Law of Motion? “Every object persists in its state of rest (i.e., inertia) or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”

I’m going to make an assumption: like me, you learned this First Law of Motion as a phenomenon of the science of physics. Well, I’m going to suggest something else: Newton’s First Law of Motion is equally a phenomenon of APOSTOLIC MISSION!

Christians – the ordained, yes, but even more so the laity (they are few, while we are many!) – Christians are, by definition, MOVED! When we open our hearts to God, God responds with a blast of grace, and that blast is the “force impressed on [you and me]!!!” That blast is God’s call to us to abandon the comforts of inertia – the comforts of “here” – and instead, pack up our faith, our hope, and our love, and go “there” – wherever “there” may be. For, there is always a need “there.” There is always a place, a people, a neighbor, someone who needs us “there.”
God’s grace fosters, nurtures and empowers us, every single member of the body, which, for Isaac, is another way of saying, “God moves us!” And, for Jesus our Savior, is another way of saying, “go and make disciples of all nations…”


Mick Hirsch is the President & Executive Director of THRIVE Gulu, a non-governmental organization that delivers mental health and psycho-social support services to survivors of the genocide in Northern Uganda and South Sudanese refugees displaced to Uganda.  He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, the Yale University Divinity School and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. He has no particular denominational affiliation apart from the fact that he loves Episcopal liturgy, Orthodox iconography, United Methodist hymnody and Unitarian Universalist social justice.  

The CCC: Churches, Communities, and Challenges

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 Lee Nave, Jr.

By design, churches serve to enhance the communities they reside within.

During some of the most challenging times in recent human history, church leaders have worked within communities as leaders. These challenges, in some cases, were large in scope (civil rights movement), with implications on how certain populations within the community were treated.

Not every church can march on Washington but every church leader can support their community on Main Street. Church leaders are not just leaders of their church community but also the larger community that they reside in.

When I was eight, I had my first job cutting grass with my grandparents for members of our church one summer. My grandparents and I would drive around all day that summer, cutting the lawns for older church members who didn’t have anyone to do it for them for various reasons.

In order to increase our outreach, we worked our pastor to outline members of the congregation who may need assistance. Our pastor would give my grandparents a list with contact information of those in need. This list began to expand to include community members that were not a part of the church community.

This grassroots kind of community service, though small in scope, can play a massive role in how churches engage the community they serve. Using resources from church members, such in this case landscaping, can assist the lives of one of the churches’ most vulnerable communities.

1. Know your limitations/capacity/community as a church leader.

Churches, however, can’t be in charge of solving every issue that impacts the community. There is only so much a church can do considering their limited capacity (funding, time, volunteers, etc). And a second point is that churches can’t create a platform or action plan without community input.

A common disadvantage of international development is that organizations enter communities without assessing community wants and needs before starting a program. Therefore, churches have to assess directly from the community to discover what needs are and work with the community to create an action plan.

2. Capture the voices of community members.

Now, as a professional in the nonprofit space 20 years later, one of the most valuable methods of collecting community input I’ve seen and done myself is through focus groups. These small group conversations can be tailored around specific topics or just general community outreach.

Focus groups could be conducted in spaces that church members feel most comfortable in. However, there also needs to be spaces for those not as comfortable with church environments to still participate in such discussions. Recreation centers and other spaces could serve for those audiences. Especially when dealing with young people who may not feel as comfortable using their voice in this particular space.

3. Put actions into… well… action!

The action plan itself would be based off of the feedback gathered. For the focus groups to be successful and useful, they need to go beyond just the harms and problems within the community but also contain recommendations and actions a church could take.

For example, if forty community members need assistance with landscaping, there needs to be a plan on how those services will be rendered. It could involve asking a local landscaping company for discounted rates or a few motivated teenagers could be asked to deliver services like I did with my grandparents 20 years ago.

One of the most troubling results of having community discussions such as focus groups, is when participants feel like nothing has come from it. As much as possible, try to inform participants of all actions taken as well as engage them in the process.

As you continue to grow as a church leader, remember that the voices of the people you break bread with should all be valued and understood fully. Your work isn’t just to lead the church but to be a community organizer who harnesses the voices of community, to defeat all challenges.


Lee Nave Jr. is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Citizens for Juvenile Justice. He has over a decade of experience working with communities all over the country in the nonprofit space. He currently resides in Boston, MA.

Welcoming the Refugee, Loving Our Neighbor

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 Linda Kurtz

At the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering in Kansas City, Tom Charles, a ruling elder from Nassau Presbyterian Church, gave a testimony presentation about the church’s ministry resettling refugee families. You see, Nassau has been welcoming refugee families to New Jersey for almost 60 years, giving them — and Tom — a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. Less than 20 minutes later, when he was done speaking, Tom had the entire room on its feet in applause. His testimony was inspiring — so inspiring, in fact, that some folks who heard Tom in Kansas City went home and asked their churches whether or not they might be called to refugee resettlement ministry themselves.

Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA — in partnership with Union Presbyterian Seminary — is one such church. In the last year, they’ve discerned whether God might be calling them to sponsor a refugee family and ultimately decided the answer was yes. In fact, the family Ginter Park and Union Presbyterian Seminary are supporting arrived in the United States two weeks ago!

As a student at the seminary, I gathered several of my classmates and other members of our seminary community to discuss the extent to which we could partner with Ginter Park in this ministry. To facilitate that conversation, I turned to Tom’s testimony.

Here’s a reflection exercise appropriate for any faith community who might be engaging in similar discernment.

First, watch the entire testimony yourself. Since it’s just over 18 minutes long, I suggest selecting the most pertinent clips for your community to show others. I showed the video from 2:03-3:05 and 4:53-7:27.

Then, discuss:

  • What is your reaction to Tom’s reflections in this video?
  • What do our scriptures and confessions say about the refugee and immigrant? [See Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, I Peter 1:1-2; BoC 9.45 for starters.]
  • How might refugee resettlement fit into our broader mission and ministry?
  • If not sponsoring a refugee family, what are ways we can live out our call to care for refugees and immigrants?
  • How might our faith be impacted by this work?

Tom also helpfully provided a comprehensive guide for churches, individuals, and organizations looking to start such a program in their own context that assist with some of the more practical details.

But this isn’t the only way this testimony might be used. Sponsoring a family might not be feasible for your faith community for any number of reasons, but I find Tom’s heartfelt commitment to loving his neighbor — even his newly-arrived-from-another-country neighbor — inspiring. This video could also prompt a good discussion about how faith can be changed by encounters with people outside of our faith community or be used to facilitate conversation amongst a mission committee discerning where God is calling them next.

That discussion might be prompted by:

  • What is your reaction to Tom’s reflections in this video?
  • When have been some of the most faithful moments of your life?
  • How are we called more generally to love our neighbor in this community?
  • How do the people we interact with outside this faith community impact our faith?
  • How might we provide opportunities for members of our faith community to live out and experience their faith as Tom has?

Has your church discussed the possibility of sponsoring a refugee family? What was your discernment process like? How else might you use Tom’s testimony to spark conversation in your ministry context? Share with us in the comments!


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