Just Getting Started

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 Andrew Kukla

In his writings and teaching, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh often tells an old Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

He uses this to talk about the dangers of habit-energy that keeps us dong the same things over and over again, often spinning our wheels in the process; the dangers of inner turmoil and busy-ness; and the dangers of forgetfulness. He stresses the need to stop. Calm. Rest. Heal.

Our own tradition gives us these same resources in the practice of Sabbath. The need, not the luxury, to stop. The need, not the luxury, to let the world turn without you. The need, not the luxury, of realizing our worth doesn’t lie in production. The need, not the luxury, to be idle and rest and abide in the presence of God’s good creation, free of agenda.

We have been over a lot in the last month that I hope is helpful for you as you prepare to become, or continue to be, an officer of the church. And this final post is supposed to be the most practical and give you further resources to equip you and your community on the ongoing journey of fulfilling God’s calling as a community of faith. But first I want us to stop and remember that if we are simply riding more horses, in more directions, with greater speed… we are helping no one.

More church does not make better disciples.

Sabbath remains a foundational resource of faithfulness — so lead in sabbath for God’s sake, for your sake, and to the benefit of your whole community. Let these ideas percolate in you, let them inspire in you, let them settle in you…and then take a big deep breath. Pray. Remember. Listen. Abide.

God has called you to the most monumental of tasks: being nothing more and nothing less than the Body of Christ in this time and your place. And yet… God already sees in you the gifts and abilities to accomplish this task well. Trust God by trusting yourself. And enjoy the ride. Your joy in leadership may just be the greatest gift of all, and to that end I leave you with these words that Eugene Peterson quotes from Phyllis McGinley in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

“I have read that during the process of canonization the Catholic Church demands proof of joy in the candidate, and although I have not been able to track down chapter and verse I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.”

Further Resources for Officer Training
The following resources were collected through various crowd-sourcing efforts. This list is barely scratching the surface of available options but will, I hope, help you make the next step in digging deeper into the transformative work of being a church leader.

The Book of Order
As a whole, even with the new form of government, the Book of Order is a long and winding document; but it holds great treasures and perhaps none better as a starting point than The Foundation of Presbyterian Polity. Once you collapse white space it’s only a dozen pages and a rich foundation of why we do what we do the way we do — and you could design an entire course around this section of the Book of Order itself.

The Book of Confessions
As with the Book of Order, we often neglect the richness of The Book of Confessions because taken as a whole it’s an overwhelming resource. But there are many ways to engage our confessional documents to feed our leadership. Two strategies: using excerpts of confessional statements to start discussion at the beginning of each meeting, and assigning different confessions to each officer and having them report back to the whole with a summary of context, primary message, and take-aways.

Ordination Questions
We hope everyone gets a chance to engage our ordination questions (found in the Book of Order) beyond answering them publicly during their ordination. Some congregations have found them a helpful way to engage training, doing a deep dive into them: “We always discover something we hadn’t heard in them before, and it often leads to very fruitful conversation. Especially around the confessions.”

Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers by Joan Gray
This is an old favorite. One church leader adds, “We read this every year. We love it for how she encourages officers to nurture their own spiritual life as a way to grow their gifts for leadership. It helps us to frame the work of the church with prayer and study. Her image of a sailboat church (one led by the Holy Spirit) as opposed to a rowboat church (one whose members decide on their own where they want to go and work themselves to exhaustion to get there) has been so helpful for our discernment.”

Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman
Friedman’s work is important, and multiple churches report using the book. The book as a whole can be too much to digest as one part of a larger training, so some recommend using this short video introduction: “It has helped the leaders I’ve worked with lead with more courage, make principled decisions even when it might stir conflict, and be better prepared to absorb anxiety in the church rather than fuel it.”

Making Disciples, Making Leaders by Steven Eason (author) and E. Von Clemans (lesson plans)
A very appreciated and well-worn book for many, specifically geared for the PC(USA); it has a ready-made leader copy for a four-session training course.

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
I’m pushing this one, and it has nothing to do with having gone to seminary with MaryAnn…it has everything to do with the power of “yes, and….” Pick this one up, soak it up, and share it profusely.

The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on its Gifts by Luther Snow
A good application of asset-based community development theory to the congregational visioning process.

Cultivated Ministry (NEXT Church Resource)
Cultivated Ministry was developed to move away from old metrics of ministry (like membership numbers) without losing any sense of accountability or measurement of how we are progressing, and fulfilling’s the mission has God for us in the world.

A project of the Synod of Mid-America. There are a growing number of great video resources for the life of the church including a thirteen-video series available on-line on ordered ministry that is great for the training of elders and deacons.

PCUSA Ruling Elder articles
An ongoing procession of articles put out through the Office of the General Assembly to nurture the leadership of Ruling Elders in our churches.

And lastly…let us never be done. Training for everything in life is never really over. We are in the constant play of practice-reflection-learning-new practice. Consider, if you do not already, adding a training aspect to every session meeting. We do so at FPC Boise under the name: Theological Imagination Session. And there are always new resources to continue to feed our imagination, our playful faithfulness, and our fearless failure to be the Body of Christ in this time and this place.

So what resources did we miss? What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments as we feed each other in the process of being fed by God’s Spirit that is alive and well and coaxing us onward every day.

andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

Ministry at the Meeting of Trauma and God

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 Remington Johnson

Folks like to ask me about my call. What did it feel like? How did I know?

I struggle to answer and blush a bit to give as honest and succinct an answer as I know how: I went to seminary because I thought I was called to be a really fantastic preaching pastor helping to motivate, shape and encourage large swaths of people. I got to seminary and had a mostly unpleasant time. Everything felt too slow, too pedantic and too flat.

It mostly wasn’t the professors’ faults. Rather, it was that my calling wasn’t to be found in parish ministry. The education was focused on the good and worthy work of preparing me to serve a church and despite these meaningful aims, I struggled. I was bored.

During a January class session, I found myself interning as a chaplain in a local hospital and had that deep feeling — where you know you are supposed to be right where you are and nowhere else — more often than I had ever felt before.

So, I changed my focus and chased down a chaplain residency. After seminary I had the luck and blessing of landing a job starting a top tier cardiac hospital’s very first chaplain program.

At that phenomenal hospital, my place in ministry is to show up at some of the very worst and most poignant events of a person’s life. It is in these moments of crisis and suffering that my call finds its roots. There in those heavy places, I help to create a safe space for folks to feel loved, for them to be reminded of hopes, of lives well lived, of dreams yet met, and perhaps most importantly, a space for them to wrestle and wander with the pain of the experience as they seek to make sense and find the right path forward.

Hospital stays are some of the very hardest places to process health events and seismic life changes. The processing and meaning making that takes place begins at the bedside in the hospital and it extends far beyond the discharge. Walking with people while they process a major life event offers the church a place to ground itself in the life of its peoples and to find fertile ground for shared sacred experiences.

There is an iteration of the Post Traumatic Model of Growth that highlights the vital role of the church body in the recovery and healing process. In this model, the church is where space is created for folks to question the deep existential concerns that a trauma can stir up and it is in this safe place of pot lucks, Gospel readings, and parking lot conversations that folks are given the opportunity to begin to heal from their experience.

The intersection of my work with parish ministry sits right in the midst of that painful and confusing time after a seismic event. I cannot follow my patients and their families’ home. I have faith that their churches and their people will continue the good and heavy work of holding them, listening to them, and cautiously awaiting the long slow work of healing. Just as I stand as the one of the church’s emissaries of love in the midst of very heavy times, the church body continues that work long after a family has left the hospital.

My service as a hospital chaplain has been and continues to be a remarkable source of joy and meaning. I get to share this joy with those I care for and with. When I guest preach, I can bring this joy and meaning back to the congregations.

In a way, those I care for helped save my soul: they showed me who I was and where I needed to be. Their stories of God’s hand in their lives reminded me of God’s love for me and all peoples.

This work is wondrously mutual.

Remington Johnson is the manager of Chaplain Services at a leading cardiac hospital. Along with her service as a medical chaplain, she serves as the chair of the ethics committee and assists families in navigating difficult decisions. She also tends to the growing palliative care program. Outside of the hospital, Remington raises a young son, imagines a delightful future with her girlfriend and builds beautiful things out of wood. Most every day at 5pm you can find her sweating out her feelings at one of those gyms where they lift heavy things and run around to feel alive.

And A Child Shall Lead Them

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gretchen Sausville

Her name is Lily. She is a bright eyed, fair haired ten year old who began worshipping with us 6 years ago. When Lily and her parents first came to Westminster, we knew that this was not an average four year old. Lily was unafraid and outgoing in church, completely comfortable with her surroundings, endearing herself to everyone in the church family. She boldly spoke during time for children, enthusiastically sang hymns, chatted about the sermon to her parents during worship, and was less than thrilled to miss any part of the Sunday morning festivities.  Lily brought her parents to all church events, and knew everyone’s name in the congregation by the time she was five. If she didn’t know your name, she made sure that you knew hers!

child reading bible smallAs Lily grows, so does her faith and presence. Lately, she plays the Steinway piano in the sanctuary as folks traipse out into the hall for coffee hour, as her younger friends run through the sanctuary. She is the first to raise her hand when questions are asked, the first to draw a picture for the worship bulletin, the first to help the now 4 year olds navigate worship stations or “the good stuff” at coffee hour. She prays boldly for friends and pets and gives sermon feedback regularly. Not every child is like Lily, yet Lily has encouraged every child to be themselves at church. She has inspired a younger generation to be known, to be proud, and to be kids in church. In so doing, Lily has inspired the older generations too, reminding them that church is where every age and stage are welcome. She has chosen church members as her “grandparents for the day” at school, and calls up Granny Annie, who lives across the street, to take her to worship when her parents are unable. Lily loves church and the church loves Lily.

Recently, I received a call on a Friday evening, that Lily was in the hospital, the fever had come on quickly and she was very sick. As Lily sat in the hospital that night, her body fighting infection and fever, she prayed boldly, and she requested her parents call the pastors and Granny Annie. Little did she know, they already had, and prayers for this little one where being shared and lifted up amidst the congregation. Lily’s prognosis was pneumonia and several more days in the hospital. When her fever broke, Granny Annie and I went to Children’s Hospital to see her.  We had to wear gowns, masks, and gloves, a sight that made Lily laugh. As I prayed, she prayed too, clutching the hand of one of her favorite church people, Granny Annie. There in a tiny hospital room, the generations of the faithful were gathered, led by a child’s faith.

On Sunday, Lily’s absence was palatable. Her many adoptive grandparents were concerned and asking what kind of cookies to make her, her teachers planned their visits, and Lily sent a text stating how sad she was to be missing church! Later that evening, the call came that Lily was home, she had taken a turn for the better, and the only thing her parents could attribute it to, was the prayers of the church community.

Lily is special to our church family, as are all of our young ones. The young ones remind us how to be children of God and lose ourselves fully into God’s love and community. They remind us how to reach out to one another, unafraid to share our hurts, our fears, and our joys, as an act of worship. They remind us of our need for a church family and that donuts are always good at coffee hour!

gretchen sausvilleGretchen N. Sausville serves as Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, CT.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she is passionate about preaching and creative worship, helping people think about faith outside the box, and developing interfaith conversations and partnerships between Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  When not at work she is often performing on stage, traveling abroad with her backpack, cooking, or practicing yoga. Gretchen lives in West Hartford with her puppy, Beaken, and blogs at

When You Don’t Know What to Do

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month will focus on the art of coaching and the practice of ministry. Some posts will layout insights or frameworks of coaching and some will be stories of coaching that transformed a pastor or congregation. We hope they will inspire you. We hope that inspiration will turn into actual movement in your own life and ministry so that we might move closer to that vision of the church we long for, closer to the vision of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by JC Austin

“I don’t know what to do.”

That was how a lot of pastoral conversations began for me when I was a congregational pastor. People would come to see me because they were wrestling with some significant question that they wanted to answer, needed to answer, but didn’t know how. My child is really struggling emotionally at school, and I don’t know what to do. My job is eating away at my soul, but I can’t afford to quit, and I don’t know what to do.  My aging parents can’t take care of themselves anymore, but won’t accept help, and I don’t know what to do.

next stepFor a long time, therapeutic counseling has been the default mode for the practice of pastoral care, to the point that it’s often taught as “pastoral care and counseling.” And I’ve never really been comfortable with that. Not because I have an inherent problem with a therapeutic approach, but because it is a tool for a particular set of problems, but as the saying goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” A therapeutic approach is a particularly effective tool for addressing a particular set of problems, usually ones involving spiritual and emotional healing from some form of trauma or brokenness. And that’s great, except those problems are only a portion of the kinds of things which people seek the help of their pastors to address: “I don’t know why I feel/act this way” is a very different problem from “I don’t know what to do.”

The names themselves help illustrate the distinction. The word “therapy” come from a Greek word for healing: recovering from some form of injury or illness and returning to wholeness. But the word “coach” comes from the name of a town in Hungary that invented and produced a new kind of horse-drawn carriage that had a free-floating suspension, allowing it to absorb the shocks of going over bad roads at speed. These “coaches,” as they came to be called (after the town that created them), enabled people to get where they were going much faster and more safely than they could otherwise, often on roads that they simply couldn’t have traversed otherwise.

That’s why I wish I had known about coaching when I was a pastor; I think that coaching can have a real impact on helping people get “unstuck” and moving forward when they are facing an important problem and don’t know what to do. The basic goal of coaching is to help someone take action, to get where they want to go; thus, it is particularly well-suited to helping people whose primary question is, “I don’t know what to do.” A coach helps someone articulate the problem they’re trying to solve, envision possibilities and evaluate options and resources for moving forward, commit to a particular course of action and be accountable for it, and evaluate its effectiveness.

When done well, coaching can help catalyze astonishing transformation in people. Recently, I was talking with a pastor who had just completed a course of coaching for some leadership challenges he had been facing. “The truth is,” he admitted, “I was really looking for an exit strategy. I felt like my congregation needed a cultural transformation, and that it just wasn’t willing to change. I felt like I had tried everything and nothing worked, and I didn’t know what to do other than get out.” But after only a short time with his coach, it was he who began to change. “Coaching helped me see possibilities that had never occurred to me before, and then figure out how to try them. When I did, suddenly things began to click, because I started finding ways to help people explore change that didn’t require them to give up their whole identity in the process. I haven’t been this excited about ministry in years!”

That’s the kind of help that many people are seeking from their pastors, as well: moving from “I don’t know what to do” to finding a faithful way forward in the direction they feel called to go. And that, in a sense, is not a new form of ministry but a very old one. In the days of the early Church, before disciples of Christ were called “Christians,” they were called “followers of the Way.” As pastors, we are partners for people on the journey of faith, helping them along the Way into the abundant life which Christ intends for all of us. Coaching can be an extremely helpful way of fulfilling that sacred vocation.

JC Web 1

JC Austin is Vice President for Christian Leadership Formation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

Greatest Hit: Prayer by Text Message?

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on worship as pastoral care is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

text message

photo credit: IntelFreePress via photopin cc

There was hesitation before hitting the “send” key. Was I really about to become “that kind of pastor?” The kind of pastor who would send a prayer by text?

It’s not like I woke up one day and it happened. The move to that place was a slippery slope. It happened bit by bit.

In 1997 I was called to my first church. A little church in rural West Virginia. I could count on one hand those who had cell phones, and I wasn’t among them. The church didn’t even have a functioning answering machine or email address. Pastoral Care meant on-the-ground, in-the-home, sitting-in-the-hospital-room visit.

Seventeen years later, there I was, getting ready to text a prayer to a parishioner in the hospital.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

In 2014, it’s not so clear. I’ve had more than one person tell me that my invitation to meet with them in their home caused them concern—what had they done wrong?

Hospital stays aren’t the same, either. You can argue whether shorter hospital stays increase or decrease the efficacy of that stay, but you can’t argue that hospital stays are shorter than they used to be. And in my experience, they’re busier, too. I can’t remember the last time I visited someone in the hospital and just sat for an extended visit.

I also find that people are hungry for their pastoral care to have a longer spiritual half-life. How will something that is said in prayer, or a scripture that is read, be recalled when they are awake at 2:00 A.M. in the morning?

Visits are always accompanied with a piece of card stock, now. I have stacks of prayer cards and psalm cards that not only contain helpful/comforting/challenging words (I have enough that I can choose one that speaks to the situation in which I am visiting), they also include my name and the church’s information.  Good for that 2:00 A.M. blood pressure check that leaves them wondering (aka: not sleeping).

And while it was a huge advance in technology to buy my first church a modern answering machine and get them an email address, I hardly use voice messaging anymore. It’s mainly a way to make sure people have my cell phone number, so they can call, or text me, with updates or questions or concerns. Logistics, that’s what texts have mainly been about.

Or at least they were until I texted that prayer. A parishioner was in the hospital, being prepped for surgery. It was unlikely I would get there before he went in, and even if I did, he was already surrounded by family. Maybe too much family. There was enough commotion and busy-ness around him. What he needed was a connection to something bigger, deeper, and quieter that transcended the moment. I could have called, but would he have heard me? Would he have been able to talk?

I typed the prayer, heartfelt words for this beloved child of God, and after pausing for a moment’s hesitation, hit “send.”

He told me later that he read the prayer then, had his wife read it after surgery, and then read it again in the middle of the night, when he awoke, afraid.

The prayer wasn’t a work of art or genius, it was a doorway to the Holy Spirit that, once open, allowed for grace to arrive and then to arrive again.

Is texting the same as face-to-face visiting? No. But it does leave a trail. And sometimes it’s not only an acceptable choice, it’s the better, more faithful, choice.

The old days were easier. It was easier to know what to do. I knew what was expected of me.

The 21st century is more fluid. It requires more energy to connect and more attention to discern what is a hunger and what is a desire. But if what is expected is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” then the door is open. I feel a little bit (a lot) like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but hold fast to Romans 12:15 and the belief that it’s the water that matters, not the cup that serves it.


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

Looking for more? Here are more resources from NEXT:

Greatest Hit: Worship as Pastoral Care in an Intimate Church

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on worship as pastoral care is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Esta Jarrett

Every Sunday, during the final notes of the last hymn at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton, NC, I walk from the chancel to the center aisle of the sanctuary and invite the congregation to join me. We form a long, loose circle (as best we can, with the odd walker and wheelchair). We join hands, or rest our hands on our neighbors’ shoulders, as I speak a charge and benediction.

photo credit: padesig via photopin cc

photo credit: padesig via photopin cc

This moment of laying on of hands, friend to friend, daughter to mother, veteran to child, has become a highlight of the week…for me as well as the congregation. Our joined hands create a circuit through which the Holy Spirit jumps and sparks. The hairs on our necks stand on end.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what I say in those moments. (Trying to read a scripted benediction is a mite impractical when holding hands.) I think the words tie in with the words of the last hymn, which relate to the scripture and sermon (hopefully), which connect to the church season.

Mostly, though, I just talk, and keep it simple. The benediction voices God’s longing and love for these people in this moment and in the week ahead. It’s something along the lines of, “Remember that you are loved.” Such ordinary words can hold such great power.

We started doing this a few months ago because we desperately needed to feel connected to each other. Our congregation has suffered significant losses this year, with far, far too many loved ones dying and moving away. It has sucked, at times beyond the telling of it. These blows to our part of the body of Christ have left us reeling.

We’re an intimate congregation (using the excellent terminology of Erik DiVietro, in his October 2010 blog post “Shifting from Small to Intimate”), with average Sunday participation of 20. Everybody matters. Everybody’s gifts and presence are valued. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.

There’s been a lot of hurt lately.

In response, we look for ways to love on each other and build each other up in everything we do. Our worship services have become a form of pastoral care.

In addition to the laying on of hands during the benediction, we really enjoy passing the peace. It’s sacred chaos for a few minutes. Everybody gets hugged. Some of our members who live alone confess that these may be the only hugs they get all week. Sometimes there’s so much laughter that people don’t realize I’ve introduced the Gloria until our organist starts playing. (I’m totally okay with that. What is a Gloria if not holy laughter?)

Later in the service, we spend a few minutes talking about a faith-related topic. We used to call this the “children’s sermon,” but the adults (who now threaten that they want to come sit on the steps like the kids) love it too, so now this is simply a time for open conversation. We talk about fear, and hope, and the meaning of Advent, and the origins of Santa Claus…whatever is relevant and engaging.

This pattern of connection in worship sprang out of our deep need for Christ. It all began in a moment of prayer in September, when the session gathered for our own service of healing and wholeness. We went around the circle, anointing and praying for each other, praying for Christ to heal us and use us in our brokenness.

Ever since, we have felt and seen the Spirit at work, binding us up, making us one. We are given inordinate amounts of courage and hope, so that we can go out and feed homeless kids in the schools, visit the home-bound, and share God’s love throughout our little town. Our enjoyment of worship spills over into our daily living.

And, I can’t deny that all this feeds my spirit too. As we laugh, and hug, and celebrate being a church – as we minister to each other – my heart is filled with gratitude. God is faithful. God is using us, as we are, who we are, here and now. It’s a blessing to be part of it.


esta jarrettEsta Jarrett is the Pastor at Canton Presbyterian Church in Canton NC, through the “For Such a Time as This” small church residency program. She is a graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary (although she still calls it Union PSCE in her head).

Looking for more? Here are more resources from NEXT:

Saints of Diminished Capacity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook

By Milton Brasher-Cuningham

saints of diminished capacity

I only saw the words written,
requiring me to infer tone;
to assume either compassion
or conceit; to decide if the poet
mimed quotation marks when
he said, “diminished capacity,” —
or saints, for that matter —
if he even said the words out loud.

Either way, the phrase is
fragrant with failure, infused
with what might have been,
what came and went,
what once was lost . . .
and now is found faltering,
struggling, stumbling,
still hoping, as saints do,
failure is not the final word.

Forgiveness flows best from
brokenness; the capacity for
love is not diminished by
backs bowed by pain, or
hearts heavy with grief.
Write this down: the substance
of things hoped for fuels
those who walk wounded:
we are not lost; we are loved.

MB-C-Headshot-Version-2Milton Brasher-Cuningham is a writer, chef, teacher, minister, small urban farmer, musician, husband, and keeper of Schnauzers who lives with his wife, Ginger, in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs at, sharing both reflections and recipes.

Christmas Graces

By Patti Snyder

Thank you,

Giver of all good gifts and One who shapes order out of chaos, for…


women and men whose lives are formed by your grace

and who are finding ways to grow;


the magic of ideas born into action

and carried out with energy;


faith strong enough to speak the truth in love;


the circle of care created when friends share

struggles, hopes, laughter, and tears;


three- year- old wonder

20- year- old persistence,

and 60- year- old depth;


colleagues formed through thoughtful interaction

and respectful support;


families strong enough to risk appearing weak by showing affection;


the gifts of freedom and responsibility challenging us to care

for your children and earth with

our votes, voices, and priorities;


and the miracle of Immanuel not just at the birth of a child,

but at each time and in each very particular way God is with us.


Thank you, powerful and caring God,

for the continued reminder offered by the arch of the sky

to turn and return to you.


Thank you, God of hope and justice, for each new season and day-

every one a new chance for people and places to embody your ways.

Peace to you, Amen.

photo credit: rabasz via photopin cc

photo credit: rabasz via photopin cc

written by the Reverend Patti Snyder

for an Agnes Scott College newsletter, December 1992

Giving Permission

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook.

By Jenny McDevitt

In elementary school, I had a brief but intense career as a Christmas criminal.

My third grade class was scheduled for a field trip to see The Nutcracker at the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. It was mere days before Christmas break, we didn’t have to wear our school uniforms, and there would be hot chocolate afterward. I was nearly delirious with eight-year-old holiday anticipation. My friends and I were in agreement: this would be the Best Day Ever.

There was only one problem: I forgot to get my permission slip signed ahead of time. On the day it was due, I looked down in horror at the blank line where my mother’s signature should have been. I grabbed my pen, glanced around furtively, and signed her name with a flourish. Just like that, I gave myself permission to travel with my classmates.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. We can’t always do it for ourselves. So this Christmas season, we, who work in pastoral care, are giving you a gift: we’re giving you permission.

We’re giving you permission to be sad.


photo credit: hjl via photopin cc

Holidays can be tough times. Christmas carols insist that this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many people, that just isn’t true. After all, a season that emphasizes friends and family can sharpen the ache we feel over a loved one who isn’t at the table for Christmas dinner. A season full of angels singing and bells ringing can intensify the silent struggles of our hearts. So hear this: if you aren’t in a celebratory place, that is okay. Whether your grief is brand new or years old, give yourself space to honor your feelings. The Light of the World is coming. Jesus isn’t offended by your sadness. After all, he comes to redeem a broken world.

We’re also giving you permission to be happy.

This sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? Who needs permission to be happy? You might be surprised. “I feel like it’s not fair for me to be happy,” she said. “When I find myself laughing or enjoying something, I catch myself. How can I be happy when [my husband] isn’t here? It feels like being happy would mean I don’t miss him anymore.” This isn’t an unusual comment. So often, those who are grieving feel as though any spark of joy dishonors their loss or their concern for others’ pain. Know that this is not true. It’s okay to find happiness. It doesn’t lessen your love, your loss, or your concern. It is a reminder of the gospel truth we claim: there is a Light that no amount of darkness can overcome.

We’re giving you permission to be however you are this Christmas season. Christmas is coming. Whether we are happy or sad, delighted or angry, grateful or frustrated, ready or not. Christmas is coming, and Jesus will meet us where we are. That’s what incarnation is all about. And that’s very good news.

McDevittJenny McDevitt is pastor of pastoral care at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.

Pro-Active Pastoral Care

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook.

By Anna Pinckney Straight

In my current call, we are asked to write an annual self-evaluation in preparation for our annual review.

I’ve written eight of these, and there is one thing every single one has had in common.  “I’d like to work on non-crisis pastoral care.”



When I moved here, wise colleagues cautioned me.  “In a larger church, you can’t go find the pastoral care needs, you need to devote your energy to the needs that come to you.”

It was good advice.   And true.

And yet, it is a truth I can’t accept, for it’s an incomplete equation.  It leaves out those who can’t find their way to the phone or to my door. It leaves out those who have questions they don’t know how to ask — questions that can’t be found directly, but are revealed in the course of a conversation, in the course of a faithful relationship — the kind of relationship brothers and sisters in Christ can cultivate.

I’ve tried six ways to Sunday to get at this issue.

  • I bought index cards and tried to keep track of each encounter with a church member, hoping to be able to identify those with whom I hadn’t met or seen in a while.
  • A lay-visitation course was developed.
  • Deacons call their neighborhoods, with special emphasis on the aging-in-place members.

All of these things have helped, but none of them, in my opinion, have addressed the deeper issues, the real issues.

I know that there are those who are being missed.  Who are hungry for deeper engagement in the life of faith.

In one of my favorite blog posts of all time, Gordon Atkinson shared these words about pastoral care (it’s no longer online, but you can find other of his writings here:

Now you understand. You’re not Jesus after all. You’re a man who is good with words and who feels things very deeply. You’re a dreamer and a silly person, like all the other silly people at church. You cannot love everyone, and you cannot be all things to all people.

Welcome to the human race, preacher. Now you are ready to begin.

You will love some people deeply. Others will receive lesser kinds of love. Some will get a handshake and a kind word. Their journeys are their own, and they may have to get what they need from someone else.

Love the ones you can. Touch the ones you can reach. Let the others go. If you run out of gas, sit down in the pew and point to God. That might be the greatest sermon you ever preach.

You cannot love anyone until you learn you cannot love everyone. You cannot be a real live preacher until you learn to be a real live person. 

I’ve begun to think that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Instead of trying six ways to Sunday to find ways to track and connect with all of the members of the congregation, should I be asking, instead, how have pro-active pastoral care needs shifted in the 21st century?

Have they shifted away from the pastor’s office and found a new home in the pews, in the communities that form among people who worship and pray together, week after week?

In the gatherings that happen among parents, waiting together while their children are in choir practice?

The evening supper tables at retirement communities?

Is living in your community becoming the new proactive pastoral care?

For clergy, is pastoral care leaving the office, leaving the parlor?  Is it now found catching up in the grocery store, while getting coffee, while out to supper?

Jesus went, Jesus waited, Jesus listened, Jesus prayed, Jesus wept.

What’s NEXT for the church in the world of pastoral care?


APSAnna Pinckney Straight is an Associate Pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Wife of Ben. Mom of Sarah Allan. She serves on the NEXT Church Advisory Team.