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Confessions of a Free-Range Pastor

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

This month I enter my third year as a pastor without a congregation.

For my first twelve years of ministry, I served two congregations, following one of the traditional paths of a seminary graduate: associate at a medium-sized church, then a solo pastorate. It was a joy, a challenge, a growth experience, and a chapter I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

The “typical” next step is to become a head of staff somewhere, right? I certainly thought about it. But sometime during those twelve years, a new element got introduced into my ministry that led my path to diverge from what’s typical. I will never know what the decisive element was. Maybe it was when I got asked to write a monthly Bible column, or keynote a conference. Maybe it was the book. Of course, lots of parish pastors write and lead conferences as an adjunct to serving a congregation. But somewhere along the way, those activities became not an add-on to my ministry, but the heart of my ministry. So two years ago this month, I left the solo position at the lovely small church, and struck out on my own as a writer, speaker, and conference leader. Now I write books and articles, I do a little freelance writing for non-profits, and I speak to some eighteen to twenty-four groups a year.

As I pause and take stock of that decision, I think about what has been gained and lost in terms of my pastoral identity.

What I’ve gained:

Freedom. I never fully glimpsed how much pastors sacrificed until I was no longer doing it. Evenings, weekends, even vacations can be compromised by the needs of the congregation. It’s a call that most of us find to be worth the sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice nonetheless.

Our family hasn’t settled on a church home yet—we’re taking our time. In the midst of our exploring, I can now run an occasional race on Sunday morning without taking a vacation day, or attend the 24-hour Best Picture marathon with my mother, which we’ll do in a few weeks. (Nine movies shown back to back. It’s a bleary-eyed blast.) I also have freedom to attend and lead worship in a variety of settings. I recently preached and presided at table in a Lutheran congregation; breaking bread at another denomination’s table will put you in touch very quickly with what you take for granted in the Eucharist!

Appreciation. With that freedom comes great appreciation for the work of local church pastors. As a writer, I hope my work reaches as wide an audience as possible. At the same time, over these last two years I have come to see my vocation more as that of supporting church leaders. When I preach or lead an event in a congregation, I’m not just sharing what I’m passionate about. I’m serving as a “relief preacher” for church professionals who may be feeling tired or stuck, or who may just need a fresh arm to take over for a while. I pray for my colleagues and check in with them more than I did when I was in the trenches myself.

A new “parish.” Pastors like to joke about the fibs we tell when people ask us on airplanes, “So what do you do?” As an introvert, and one whose job it was to provide spiritual counsel for so many years, I often demurred on such questions, rationalizing, “I gave at the office.” I no longer shy from claiming my identity, though our Presbyterian terminology trips me up. “Pastors” are tied to congregations, and I am not; “teaching elder” is meaningless to people outside the PC(USA) as well as many people inside it. I’ve gone with “minister” or “pastor” because it’s understandable to most people.

I love my quirky unofficial parish. I’ve been called upon to pastor people in a whole range of settings: walking the kids home from school with a gaggle of parents, via Facebook message, and even while running—trying to explain the Reformation while running a hilly eleven-miler was a special challenge.  

A highlight in this new free-range ministry was leading a service of dedication of a memorial bench for a friend whose baby died after three days of life. I was called upon to acknowledge the mother’s Christian identity while also being expansive in my language to welcome the wide variety of faith traditions of the people present. It’s a muscle we all must exercise from time to time in the church, but one we’d do well to strengthen as our culture becomes more and more diverse.  

I rejoice at all of these gains!

What I’ve lost:

Income. Free-range ministry is a constant hustle, and I’ve taken a pay cut moving to a “fee for service” model (to say nothing of the lack of benefits and pension). I am constantly trying to balance asking for honoraria that I feel I am worth, while understanding that most congregations aren’t exactly flush with cash.  

I also have to name that I can do the work I do because our household expenses are not wholly dependent on steady income from me. I have a spouse whose vocation is one that our culture happens to compensate well. Facebook memories just reminded me of this article, “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. I wrote at the time how I cringed when people said how “brave” I was to strike out on my own. I am in a privileged position, and I never want to sugar-coat that.  

As NEXT Church considers transformation in the church, including alternate forms of ministry, we must always keep this economic piece at the forefront. How can we support people doing good work for the church whose spouses don’t work in computer security, for example? Or who don’t have a spouse?

Focus. With the flexibility of my new vocation comes a major need for focus. This need plays out in many ways, from deciding which articles I write to what kind of speaking engagements to take. Writers don’t make much money from books—the income mainly comes from speaking. Yet books are the engines that fuel the speaking opportunities. So it’s a balance.

Further, as we settle into a new presidency, many of us have come face-to-face with the reality that democracy is an active enterprise. We must all do our part to make our values and aspirations known, so that our government may reflect those values and aspirations. I could spend all day, every day on activism if I let myself. I miss having a regular community to provide structure to my work in the world. A church is a ready-made place for such accountability and focus. In lieu of that, I’ve shepherded the formation of some groups that provide a place for support and common action for the greater good. It’s interesting to do so as a pastor. Our gatherings aren’t explicitly religious, nor do we want them to be. But there’s a general sense of something deeper undergirding our work—even if I’m the only one perceiving things on that level.

Patience. At the same time, the moments when I do dip back into church work I find I have less tolerance for much of the nitty-gritty that consumes the time of a average pastor. Every institution has its necessary maintenance tasks—there’s no denying that—but we spend an awful lot of time on items that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about.  

After twelve years of ministry, I was thoroughly sold on why the church matters. I remain sold, but I understand much better why many people see little need for it. It’s not just the endless committees or the busyness. It’s not even the judgmentalism and hate that seem to dominate the headlines. It’s also the fact that community, and the opportunity to give back in meaningful ways, can be found in so many different places now.

I don’t know how long this chapter of my life will last. Like the aspiring improviser that I am, I’m taking things one step at a time, without needing to know what’s coming down the road.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a teaching elder in the PC(USA) whose ministry consists of writing, speaking, and freelance writing/consulting with non-profit organizations on their social media needs. She is a member of the NEXT Church strategy team. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

More Than Valid: A Ministry of Word and Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box?’ We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Cheifetz

I’m grateful beyond words to colleagues who are called to parish ministry; for their ministry to me and my family, for the places they show up. And I’m grateful I’m not one of them.

Beauty in art, nature, and human interaction makes my heart sing. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with parents who made sure we went hiking, went to the theatre, and visited museums, it was easy to sense the holy all around me. But now that I live in a landscape foreign to my spirituality, I feel the vitality of God’s call is with other people. I will turn to the stories of people, to their yearnings, real needs, and lofty dreams, before I turn to strict rules or orthodoxy. My own reading of Scripture, my relationship with God, both hang on how people flourish. Or don’t. That is my call.

Photo credit: Presbyterian Outlook

I have been gifted with opportunities to serve the church – in theological education, young adult leadership formation, governance, advocacy, and publishing. Like parish pastors, I’m never bored. I have long felt called to live ministry in the world in ways that make sense, rather than wedging myself into a position that is the wrong fit. I can be up front, but I’m also skilled in working as part of a team. I am good at operating within big systems, interacting with lots of different people. I flourish in ecumenical work, which is so Presbyterian. I enjoy leading worship, but I have more fun facilitating conversations, writing blog posts, working behind the scenes to make something happen. I have the freedom to speak my faith convictions within the bounds set by my supervisor very differently than if I were in a parish setting.  

What does my ministry offer to the church? I give to you, the church, the ministries of speaking out, getting stuff done so the church has an event to attend/resources to access/a service for worship, making connections between people and communities, all in the body of a queer Asian American woman. I am a specific ministry by my representation as much as by my actions. I get to show people that their specific bodies can also be in ministry.  

Now, working in religious publishing, I am in what is referred to in my judicatory as a “validated ministry.” Working to publish books, interacting with others on behalf of the press, going out to hear what the church is discussing at the moment, collaborating with other religious bodies to make something happen, that is validated. We Presbyterians are an educated bunch. The books published by my workplace have been formational for religious leaders from many different traditions. But ultimately what validates this ministry for me is that books tell the stories of what makes us human and our relationship with the divine. I have on my desk a stack of academic tomes, thoughtful general reader books on Christian living, and bible studies, all reflecting the vitality of our faith. Being human is beautiful; after all, God created us this way. But to be a human who reads and writes is to share who we are and whose we are through the power of the written word. This is ministry.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Vice President of Church & Public Relations and editor of “These Days” at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She has served with the Forum for Theological Exploration and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She grew up a double pastors’ kid in the Pacific Northwest and holds an MBA from North Park University and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary. For fun, she watches television, reads fiction, delves into post-colonial feminism and critical race theory, and rages against the system of which, she is clear, she is a part. 

Finding My Call on Campus, Finding My Faith in Interfaith

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Layton Williams is curating a series we’re calling “Ministry Out of the Box,” which features stories of ministers serving God in unexpected, diverse ways. What can ordained ministry look like outside of the parish? How might we understand God calling us outside of the traditional ministry ‘box’? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Brekke

My full title is Director of Religious Diversity.

It’s an interesting title as it doesn’t explicitly name me as a minister.

My job itself operates into two spheres – on the one hand, I am the campus minister for our Protestant Christian students. I have a Christian diversity intern, and lead a weekly Bible study. I advise three Protestant groups, I offer special Protestant worship opportunities. On the other hand, I am also chaplain to all religious and spiritual communities beyond the Christian umbrella. I am the chaplain for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, those who identify as spiritual but not religious, and so on. I lead bi-weekly interfaith dinner discussions that offer opportunities to engage in conversations from race and religion to religion and pop culture with peers from different religious and spiritual traditions. I support diverse holy day celebrations, advise the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on topics specific to religious diversity.

My parish extends to more than five thousand students; Catholic, Protestant and of many religious traditions. My preaching is less often behind a pulpit and more often in the form of a lecture. I lead groups through workshops on intersectional identity engagement and recognizing religious bias. And with one of my professor colleagues, I co-lead the Inter-Belief Floor – a floor in one of our residence halls focused on interfaith engagement. Not exactly skills on the average seminary checklist.

I served a traditional church before I became a campus minister. I loved my year as stated supply to a tiny church in rural Alabama, but my heart has been for college students. I grew up in a non-religious family. My faith in Jesus came to fruition in college – because of a patient and welcoming campus minister, Rev. Dr. Diane Mowrey at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. I was given space to ask questions and grow in fits and starts on my faith journey. I take those memories of encouragement into my ministry at Santa Clara University.

My biggest challenge is ministering to students of other religious traditions. We don’t have a campus rabbi, imam, or holy leader from non-Christian traditions. And yet for me, being a chaplain outside of my comfort zone has rooted me deeper in the grace and compassion of Jesus Christ. How do we preach the gospel always, yet use words only when necessary? How do we show the love of God to someone who has rejected religion? Where do we encourage questions as young people grow into their identities beyond the safe embrace of their family? These weren’t the questions I was taught to answer in seminary – but these are the questions which have given my ministry meaning and great joy.

Now, in the wake of executive orders which seek to ban my students and colleagues from residence in my country, these questions of compassion, of reaching beyond the tradition that roots me, are even more important. When people say Jesus wasn’t a refugee and refuse to imagine an entire religious group as a complex collection of real humans with real hopes and fears, I find my job as the director of religious diversity even more important. Diversity often means division, but it doesn’t have to. Diversity can mean unity without uniformity.

My greatest joy as a university chaplain is that I am surrounded by people who make me think hard on what and why my faith matters. They aren’t shy in their questions about Jesus and his miracles, or how I read and interpret scripture. I miss preaching weekly, but I get the joy of leading a Bible study with seven college students who are excited to be there each week. I don’t get to preside at communion regularly, but I do get to help plan the annual Passover seder with the Jewish Student Union – and learn a lot in the process. I don’t get to take part in youth service trips, but I do get to see my evangelical student group organize and run a weekly worship night with more skill than some new pastors!

Ministry beyond the church walls is challenging – it’s full of unforeseen pitfalls, and unexpected graces. There’s endless paperwork and program assessment, to be sure. But there are colleagues who ask tough questions. There are students who bring their whole selves to their worship. And there is the wonder of the way God is working through each crack and cranny of the human heart.


Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied history and creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Masters of Divinity form Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Ministry: I Think We Need a Bigger Box

by Layton Williams

Back in the ’90s, there was a Taco Bell commercial in which their chihuahua mascot is trying to trap Godzilla into a box with a tasty taco as bait. “Here lizard, lizard, lizard,” the chihuahua calls. And then, when the monstrous Godzilla comes into view, dwarfing both dog and trap, the dog says, “Uh oh, I think I need a bigger box.”

When it comes to our understanding of what ministry can be: I think we need a bigger box.

When I was five years old, I intended to be a waitress who also owned the restaurant where I worked and would live above it. I was going to be a writer in my spare time, and a pastor on Sundays.  This early dream reveals several significant facts about me:

  1. I have always seen ministry (and writing) as part of my future.
  2. I have always dreamed in expansive and unexpected ways.
  3. I grew up thinking ministry only happens in churches and on Sundays.

I can’t really blame myself for this last one. We all carry around a certain image of “pastor.” Too often male, collared or wearing a big, billowing robe and stole, who smiles warmly at you on Sunday mornings and climbs up into the pulpit to preach a good word.

Credit: Sojouners (JP Keenan)

Of course, anyone who really gets involved in a church ought to know that church ministry is far more than a Sunday morning job, and church pastors do far more than smile and shake hands and preach. It’s important to recognize that parish ministry is much more than that. It’s equally important to realize that ministry is much more than just the parish, and that is a lesson I think the church is still learning.

When I was in seminary, I used to say that I thought I was called to something I couldn’t yet imagine. Over my three years in school, I imagined my ministry in a hundred different ways, ranging from starting a coffee shop to getting a PhD to advocacy work. Still, at the encouragement of others, I took a position in a parish setting upon graduation. During my two years in that church ministry, I learned a great deal about both the beauty and challenges of parish work. I came to love both the people I worked with and the people I served. I was ordained to that position, and committed myself to a life of ministry in service to God and God’s people.

But when my time at that church drew to a close last summer, I knew with greater certainty than ever that I was called to a different kind of work. I was feeling more and more pulled to the intersection of religion and politics. I was spending a great deal of my time writing about issues of justice and faith. I still couldn’t quite imagine what my future should look like, but I was determined to trust God and take a leap.

Last fall I moved to Washington D.C. with a little bit of savings, a lot of hope, and no job. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be in a church. Friends and strangers alike balked at this decision to not even consider the parish, and I often worried that I was betraying the ordination promises I had so recently made.

Then, when my savings and hope had all but run out, I was offered a job by Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine, website, and advocacy organization. I had written for them before and joining their staff felt like achieving a dream I didn’t know I had. I became their Audience Engagement Associate — essentially a Sojourners evangelist — and was thrust into the complex world of being both pastor and journalist.

It has been a whirlwind ever since. In truth, I often still fear what others think of my choice and whether I have failed to uphold my commitment to my ordination. And yet, I feel more fulfilled and more called to my work than I even thought possible. I am exploring God at work in this world through people and writing and faith and politics and it is, absolutely, a ministry I could not have imagined before and now could not imagine my life without.

I have always known that God is at work everywhere in this world in beautiful and unexpected ways, and now I know that sometimes She calls us to be at work in beautiful and unexpected ways too.

As a church, we need to cultivate and embrace a broader understanding of what ministry can be, and then ask how we can best support those engaged in these nontraditional vocations. Too often, even when we support such ministries, we can treat them like add-ons or somehow less valid ways of serving than the parish role.

The blog series that NEXT Church will publish this month is full of diverse stories of committed ministers serving God in a multitude of beautiful and unexpected ways. There are chaplains and PhD students, and entrepreneurs and publishers. Reading these stories has stretched and inspired me, and made me excited for the church and the future of ministry. I hope these stories stretch and inspire you as well.

As for me, it turns out I am a writer and a minister, still known to occasionally preach on Sundays. So maybe my five year old self had something figured out with all that expansive dreaming. Maybe ministry does need a bigger box, or maybe when it comes to how God calls us, we don’t need a box at all.


Layton E. Williams is an ordained PCUSA teaching elder currently serving as the Audience Engagement Associate for Sojourners in Washington D.C.. Her work combines data analysis, creative communications, new media strategy, and relationship building to grow the Sojourners community in both breadth and depth. She is also a writer, focusing on intersections of faith, justice, politics, and culture with an emphasis on sexuality and gender. She previously served as Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and received her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.