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Re-post: Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on June 2, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership. You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened. You said you would double funding for after school funding and that hasn’t happened. And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less. When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth. We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension. All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally. We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension. Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels. Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged. In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving. Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask. “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence. In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard. Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church. In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways. We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups. I need to work harder on this!” Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader. They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one. But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out. Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives. But this is a good thing. Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double after school funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science. Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it. There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily. But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members. The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

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.

God, the Architect of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lawrence Rush

When thinking about power, the first question you must ask is “what is power”? The dictionary defines power as: the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality. Simply put; power is the ability to get things done. When viewed through that lens, power is neither positive nor negative, neither good nor evil. These values are added in the way that power is used. For example; Dr. Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler are two of the most influential and powerful speakers of all time. They wielded their power to completely different ends. Again, power is neutral.

So how does power impact me? What is my theology of power? First of all, as a Christian, I believe that power, all power, comes from God. Not only is God love, God is power. I think that understanding this truth helps us understand why power can be positive or negative. Those who know that power comes from God tend to use their power in ways that they believe would be pleasing to God. Conversely, those who seek power for their own ends tend to wield their power in a negative, harmful way. Another aspect is power’s seductive nature. Since the fall of humanity we humans have been fascinated with power. Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent tempted Eve, he said it would make them like God. I think that was a major selling point for her and has been a continued selling point throughout the history of humankind. Power is seductive because it has the ability to give us more control and (seemingly) God likeness.

The saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you remove the concept of absolute from it (like a math equation) you learn that power corrupts. From this I conclude that the more power you gain, the more corrupt you become. I have struggled with this idea for all of my adult life. I have held numerous positions of leadership and I have always worked share and limit that power for fear of corruption. Power’s seductive nature makes it easy to forget where power comes from and that leads to all manners of abuse. This fear of the corrupting nature of power is also due to my interactions with it. Many times in my life I have had to deal with people with power who have wielded it in immoral and hurtful ways. I never wanted to be like that. So despite my cognitive understanding of power as a neutral, I saw it, experienced it, as a negative.

Another issue I had with power (this time, as it relates to the church) is the church’s activity in politics. When I was in college, my American politics professor said that “politics is the study of the acquisition and maintenance of power.” It’s how you get and keep power. The issue I encounter is the drive to acquire power. If we are servants to God who IS power, then we shouldn’t seek to acquire or maintain it because it is God’s to do with as God pleases. I have seen so much corruption and hurtful things come from politicians (many of which are signed off on by church leaders) that I don’t think the church and politics should be so closely linked.

My view on power has started to shift since the NEXT Church training in community organizing. The teachers went out of their way to illustrate the positive impact that power can have. They highlighted the differences between dominant power (which is more controlling) and relational power (which is more of a shared power). Getting back to theology, I believe that relational power is more God-centered. God calls us to be in community with one another just like the trinity is a community (3-in-1 and 1-in-3). However, even in that there is potential for power to be seductive. The accountability of community can counteract that if it is used. The accountability of shared, relational power is also the route through which the church can safely enter in and have a voice in the realm of politics. I mention Dr. Martin Luther King again in this regard. The civil rights movement was a political action that was born of and bolstered by the church. This is how it looks when it’s done right.

Power is something that has been a negative word throughout my life. Much of this is based on my personal experience with it and that tempered my theology towards it. However, now I have to re-evaluate my views. Perhaps power (having it and using it) is not something to be wary of. Power itself is neutral and acknowledging its source and using it properly will keep it from being a corruptor. The early church was all about building shared relational power, building up new leaders who would further spread the gospel and baptize. Perhaps I can acquire and wield power in positive, non-corrupted ways as long as I keep God (the architect of all power) first and foremost.


Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Lawrence Rush received his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2009. Presently, he lives in Tampa FL with his wife of nearly four years. Lawrence is an ordained Presbyterian minister currently serving as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.

Sacred Agents

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Eyde Mabanglo

The Purpose of Power is Restoration

Luke 1:17
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I am tempted to recoil from power because I see power abused everyday. It is offensive to me and grieves my heart. As a result, I often reject (or shrink from) any power I might have in order to avoid any temptation to wield the same abuses of power that I abhor.

Reflecting on a theology of power has challenged me to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my ultimate distrust and rejection of power. My calling to follow after Christ and proclaim healing to the nations is woven together with a God-given power and sacred agency to participate in that restoration. I am reminded that the world desperately needs Christian leaders that have a healthy view of power to enter into this glorious, restorative work of God’s Spirit.

Power Comes from God’s Authority

Luke 4:36
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”

The truest power is God’s. I love how the word authority includes the word author. God is author of all that was, is, and will be, so naturally the only power that exists to bring renewal and restoration belongs to God alone. God is sovereign. Scripture reminds us that power and authority go together. When power serves self only (basically the definition of abuse of power), then it should be obvious to all that it does not reflect God. Power that diminishes or destroys is demonic. Power that restores is sacred and ordained.

We Have the Power to Help and Heal

Luke 9:1
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…

I believe that the abuse of power prevalent throughout the lifespan of humanity is indeed a demonic force. I may hesitate to believe that I have ultimate power over demons, but I now believe I have the power (and obligation) to speak to power, to redirect power, to leverage power, and to influence other agencies of power to bring about healing in our bodies, relationships, and institutions. I am a sacred agent of restorative power.

Power Restores Right Relationships

Luke 22:69
“But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The picture of Jesus sitting at the right hand of “power” is more than a family photo. Through a theological lens, the incarnate power of God simply (yet profoundly) abides with God’s Self. Power is about restoring each of us to a wholeness that finds itself in God’s self. This is the purpose of power—to turn hearts (Luke 1:17) to others which in turn is to turn one’s heart to God. This is the new commandment (self-giving love is the essence of God’s Word). In other words, “They will know we are ‘Sacred Agents’ by our love.”

God Sends Power and Sends Us

Luke 24:49
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

God’s power is God’s essence which means that this divine power is not just sacred agency but perhaps is profoundly equal to God’s love, grace, mercy, life, faith, resurrection, and self. God’s self can’t not love. God must create (make things new) always, so God’s Power is always regenerative, renewing, restoring. This may be the best way to understand the Word — the Logos, the imago dei, our Triune God. Dwelling in that Word is how we understand the purpose of God’s sacred power and our sacred agency.

Then, we must humbly embrace the responsibility of receiving this power to bring about right relationships under the authority of Christ Jesus. We must not abuse it, but neither should we reject it or recoil from it.

For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Now and forever. Amen.


Eyde Mabanglo is an ordained PC(USA) pastor and ICF trained leadership coach. She is an experienced transitional pastor and is currently serving in a 260-member congregation in Tacoma, Washington. Eyde is driven by a profound hope in Christ Jesus and is devoted to helping church leaders fully participate in God’s mission of sacred restoration.

Stinging Like Salt

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

We church people — we post-Christendom church people, at least — tend to be squeamish about power: we don’t want to claim it, use it, or even, for that matter, be in close proximity to it.

Even those of us who like to think we’re not nervous around power still probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had it, and there’s a decent chance it’s never occurred to us to think theologically about power. That is, while we may not think of power as something “dirty,” neither do we consider it to be more than a tool of last resort. We prefer to live in the world as it should be, rather than in the world as it is.[1] As a result, we feel that the rightness of our ideas and arguments ought to be enough to carry the day — and if not, if carrying the day requires the use of brute force, then there must be something wrong with our ideas and arguments.

The theory and practice of community organizing, however, tell us that it’s high time we church people began to develop a realistic theology of power and a (non-squeamish) understanding of its place in situations that call for positive change.

Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers is an instructive study of one person’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with power and its use. Chacour is a Palestinian Christian, a priest and archbishop in the Melkite Church, who grew up as his Galilean homeland was occupied and then transformed into the state of Israel. As a young man, he struggled to reconcile his anger and urge to resist the injustices suffered by his fellow Arabs with his father’s seemingly endless well of patience and accommodation. Chacour reflects,

Here was that old question that had troubled me so long: As a Christian do you speak out against the actions of your enemies — or do you allow them to crush the life out of you? So many seemed to think that submitting to humiliation was the only Christian alternative. Should you not, sometimes, be stinging and preserving like salt?[2]

Chacour’s use of the metaphor of salt is helpful (as well as biblical): we often think of salt as a preservative, but it also stings. Might Jesus himself have had both aspects of salt in mind when he used the metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount? Chacour goes on to think of power in other terms growing out of Jesus’s teachings:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Immediately I thought of Moses, who was called “the meekest man on earth.” Yet he opposed Pharaoh and all Egypt, insisting upon freedom for God’s people. Meekness, then, was not weakness but relying fully upon God’s power as Moses had.[3]

What Chacour leaves unsaid is that one does not rely on God’s power by magic or wishful thinking but by cultivating the mindset, skills, and discernment required to wield it.

Finally, Chacour helps us to reflect theologically on power by telling the simple story of a march and rally that he led at the urging of the Melkite bishop Joseph Raya, who advised him:

It’s good that we’ve rallied these [Palestinian] people. It’s a first step of hope for them. But the Jewish people need the hope of peace, too. It’s time to march in Jerusalem and give our Jewish brothers the chance to walk at our side and show the world together that we are all against violence.[4]

A reminder that the use of power often involves significant risk, Raya’s words also point to the crucial role of forming and cultivating clear-eyed relationships among as many parties, on all sides of an issue, as possible.

Many of us will likely never confront forces such as those Chacour has dealt with over a lifetime of struggle in the Middle East, but he shows us that, whatever our context, our efforts to bring about justice and peace will fail, or at least be diminished, if we’re unwilling to claim and use the power we have. Power isn’t dirty. Rather, it’s a neutral but important tool for effectively organizing positive change.

As we look at our communities and congregations and the ways in which they cry out for growth and change, let’s not be squeamish about power. Instead, let’s be willing to identify and analyze the places where power resides and to use and grow power through relationships with others who have a stake in the outcome. Not every situation comes down to the choice between “submitting to humiliation” and “stinging … like salt,” but neither should we forget that the latter is often (or perhaps always) the way to be the Jesus-followers that we claim to be.

[1]An oft-cited distinction in community organizing circles, as described in chapter 2 (p. 33–46) of Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, by Michael Gecan (New York: Random House, 2002).
[2]Elias Chacour and David Hazard, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, 2013), p. 133.
[3]Ibid., p. 149.
[4]Ibid., p. 190.


Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

Power in Relationship, Community, Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathryn Johnston

My theology of power has three components:

  1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
  2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
  3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.

These three components are illustrated in the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

Kathryn and IAF organizer Kathleen O’Toole demonstrate a one-on-one meeting

1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
A man, presumably because of his occupation as lawyer, has individual power that he decides to use to test Jesus. He asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus turns the question back on him. The answer is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (NRSV).

The lawyer pushes: And who is my neighbor?

Jesus responds with what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Jesus builds a case for a community that cares for one another simply because everyone is part of the community – regardless of ethnicity, class, or religion. Real power is shown through mercy to one another and building community together.

2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
The priest and the Levite are good examples of sin being humanity’s default. I don’t think the two men who didn’t help were two evil men, but rather were two humans who made a bad decision. Their reasons for doing so undergird the reasons for relying on #1 – power sustained by community. Each one made a decision not to help the man based on their own individual needs (fear? prejudice? time constraints?). In contrast, the Samaritan acts with mercy, but that doesn’t mean he is without sin throughout his life.

The theology of power must include recognition of temptation and sin, and rely on the community for accountability.

3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.
At the end of the story, Jesus challenges the lawyer to act mercifully. Jesus doesn’t offer guarantees that if he does it will mean that robbers will no longer roam the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Jesus also leaves the power with the man who asked the question. When asked by Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV)

Whether we choose to engage with our neighbor or not – there is power in that choice. The Good Samaritan had to make a choice to engage with his neighbor. And then according to the NRSV, he made many more choices after that one (He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ vv. 34-35), each choice building the power of relationship with the man he was helping, and potentially between their two communities.

There is power in the choices the two passers-by made as well. Both the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side (v. 31, 32). A decision not to engage is still a decision. It’s still a choice, and there is power and fall-out from that choice. The two men didn’t just pass by on the other side. They made the decision not to stop.

Feeling powerless while ‘the world as it is’ sloshes around us is a normal reaction. Power comes from and is sustained by a hope that passes all understanding, a hope based on the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:1-6).

There is power in making the choice to stop and notice our neighbor.
There is power in recognizing that we are all broken, we all need mercy.
There is power in relationship, in community, and in hope.


Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

Relational Power Over Coercive Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jim Honig

Twenty-five years ago, I was a young pastor in Naples, Florida, and got a hard lesson on power. Our congregation operated a preschool in a relatively small room in our church building and wanted to move it to a house that we owned next door to the church. The house had a wonderful open floor plan, a large backyard that would be perfect for a playground, and a circular drive out front to make drop off and pick up relatively simple. To move the preschool required a zoning variance. So, we hired an engineering firm and an attorney, and prepared to make our case. A few of the neighbors we enthusiastic supporters; most had no objections.

Most. One key neighbor was opposed to the notion, and he had friends on the city council. When we made our case before the city council, one of his friends actually got up and left the room during our testimony and came back just in time to vote no. And so did his other friends. I naively assumed that since we had good intentions, we were good neighbors, and the city needed more preschool spaces, we would get the zoning variance. I had my head in the world as it should be and neglected to pay attention to the world as it is.

Participants in the 2018 organizing cohort learn from a panel of clergy.

It’s not enough to have good intentions if we want to accomplish good things. In order to act, one has to have power. Broad based organizing is about organizing people and organizing money so that one can act. That’s the exercise of power, the ability to act. Since that difficult and expensive lesson, I have seen organized people and organized money get things done; it works.

A key distinction we make is the difference between coercive power and relational power, power over in contrast to power with. Coercive power operates from the place of position and privilege. Coercive power is like the manager who can make her employee do something unethical because she can threaten to fire him; the politician who can choose to make a decision that is good for his contributors rather than the ordinary citizens because his position and privilege allow him to. By contrast, the ability to act with rather than over is a way for ordinary citizens to push back against the coercive power that stems from position and privilege.

The exercise of relational power is countercultural and counter-intuitive. It is not the way we are taught or formed. “You can’t fight city hall,” we say, symptomatic of our willingness to give away our power and bow to the systems, structures, and powerful individuals. Building relational power is a way to take back the ability to act in the public realm.

The exercise of relational power is not demonstrated primarily through the big, dramatic public actions — although the public actions is where the hoped for change actually happens. The fundamental exercise of the relational power happens when we actually relate to others. The primary tool for building relational power is the one-on-one individual meeting. When we take the time and effort to relate to one another, we build a large and strong network of relationships and as a consequence have the ability to exercise that relational power.

Acts of resistance are also part of exercising this power, especially when resistance is undertaken in community. Part of our baptismal identity is to resist the structures and manifestations of evil, those forces that defy God. So, in this sense, it is also a subversive power, a countercultural means of throwing a wrench into the gears of the systems and structures that work against human thriving.

Though I am committed to doing the work of the kingdom by the arts and practices of organizing and exercising relational power, there are still points of tension for me. I still struggle with the paradox of exercising power vis-a-vis the theology of the cross. In the theology of the cross, power is exercised in the contrary — strength through weakness, wisdom through folly. The theology of the cross supposes that God acted most powerfully to reclaim, redeem, and reconcile the world through the humiliating and shameful crucifixion of Jesus. Paul builds on this notion in 1 Corinthians 1 when he says that God’s ultimate power is demonstrated through human weakness and God’s wisdom through human folly. God works not through coercion, but through love; inviting rather than coercing.

I believe God has intentions for the world and calls the church to work for the sake of enacting those intentions. In over 30 years of pastoral ministry, this exercise of relational power is the most effective means I’ve seen to get that work done.


Jim Honig is pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin. He is a writer, blogger, and the author of the novel, By Paths Untrodden. He is passionate about congregation based organizing and trying to figure out how that works in a new context after spending 15 years in the Chicago suburbs.

The Ability to Act

by Jessica Tate

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

I say these words almost every time I’m asked to offer a benediction. I’m struck that in church we talk a lot about grace and certainly about love, but I don’t hear too many conversations about power.

Power is, simply, the ability to act.

Participants in the 2018 community organizing cohort are taught about power

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest faith-based organizing network in the US, teaches leaders about power – what it is, how it works, how to build it and use it for the aims of justice. A key teaching from the IAF is that in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

As people of faith, we dwell in the world as it should be. We are charged with sharing the promises of God where justice rolls down like water. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Where love reigns.

As people of faith, we are confronted with the world as it is. Where people are suffering. Where we harm one another and are victims of harm. Where we forget our interconnectedness and become isolated. Where power reigns.

Again this key teaching: in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

The kind of power we’re building matters. The IAF (and I would argue they borrowed this from Jesus) argues for building power with people. Not power over them or power for others, but power with people. This is the kind of power that is engaged, reciprocal, dynamic, expansive, open, and accountable, based on respect and trust. It is the kind of power Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The church at its best builds power with people in order to alleviate suffering and move us ever closer to the promised world as it should be. I have watched as congregations –

  • built up trusted relationships between adults and teenagers and engaged in education around mental health, anxiety, and depression as suicide rates rose in the community;
  • worked together to lobby the county for a new bus line so that folks can get to and from the Department for Health and Human Services more easily;
  • came together in the wake of blatant racism on the part of elected officials to examine the legacy of racism and forge new ways of leading together; and
  • developed a strong enough coalition to demand that banks reinvest $250 million in principal reduction and loan modifications to keep thousands of families from losing their homes in one of the counties hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

There are countless other examples of congregations building their power to act in the world as it is on behalf of the world as it should be.

This month our blog will explore power through the reflections and experiences of members of the 2018 community organizing cohort. The reflections will range from scripture to theology to experiences with power and the lack of power to using power in ministry settings. Our hope is that their reflections will give shape and texture and nuance to the concept and use of power in the life of ministry.

People around us are suffering. As Christians, we claim good news. I am convinced that for this good news to be more than a nice idea, church leaders need to understand how power works and claim our own power to bring these values to life.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)


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

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.

Journeying Through the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.