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Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.


Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Re-post: Leadership: Our Faith Depends on It

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 February 6, 2018. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Laura Cheifetz

I don’t know if we can blame this on American individualism, white Christianity, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus did and how he did it. We have a habit of thinking single leaders will save us. Whether it’s deciding that the election of an African American stated clerk represents a turning point and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen (so what I’m saying is y’all better be showing up and doing your own work instead of waiting for the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson to magically transform the church by his lonesome). Or that an out gay Latino heading up PMA will be such an important change for the church (represents a change? Yes. WAS the change? That’s not how change works.). Or that hiring a charismatic white under-40 pastor will do for the congregation what the congregation has not been able to do for itself.

We are not a church of individual leaders fixing things. I mean, sometimes we think we are, but that’s not how we are set up. It is not how we flourish. It is not how we get things done.

Which leads me to the matter of leadership development.

We can’t, in fact, neglect leadership development in a church with no bishops. And we can’t focus leadership development only on the conventional choice (the young, the male, the outspoken). We need to develop everyone. You never know when you need someone to organize a group of people to march in a parade, corral knitters to make hats for preemies, or arrange the food pantry.

I hate being the youngest in the room; by the time I was in my mid-30s, I realized it is a chronic issue in many church circles. It’s a sign that we aren’t doing our job to find and cultivate leaders and make leadership development opportunities accessible. That’s not true anymore; I’m the second oldest on staff at my organization. I am delighted I can play my true heart’s role: grumpy older lady who knows some things. Every day is an exercise in leadership development.

That’s what church should be. A daily exercise in leadership development. The story of our faith in Scripture lays out a myriad of prophets, common folk getting things done, a community of people following Jesus and sharing the good news, scrappy early churches. We need people with the capacity to show up after their day (or night) jobs and be leaders. Our faith literally depends upon it.

This series of blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons.

Here is the lesson I offer.

Leadership development is training people up to love God, love neighbor, and have the strength to withstand being uncomfortable. You know what’s uncomfortable, at least at first? Difficult conversations. Leading Bible study. Talking with strangers. Speaking in front of others. Marching past counter-protestors. Antiracism work. Guiding a community of faith to learn more about and be inclusive of LGBTQ people. Being in a different cultural context. Learning new skills. Engaging in a community that is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating. Integrating people with intellectual disabilities in worship for the first time. Visiting people in prisons and detention centers. Being in community with people who live with addiction.

You know, being the church.

Church should be uncomfortable. Church should develop leaders.

Go and do likewise.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as assistant dean of admissions, vocation, and stewardship at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Re-post: Free to Journey Towards Home

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 September 4, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.” “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church. I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times. But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work. Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole. For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia. Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years. I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia. The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today. We are not in exile in Babylon any more. We left years ago and didn’t notice. And we’re unsure about how to make our way home. Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture. And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story. The post-World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church. Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure. Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom. We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news. Right? Well, yes it is. But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing. The dominant American culture has let us go. Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore. The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be. The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture. But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home. My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church traveling light. Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church. You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry. We could go on. Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light. The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.


Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

Re-post: The Challenge and Opportunity of Timely Adaptations

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 September 19, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Christopher Edmonston

I sat on the third pew and listened as Scott, the inspiring pastor of Saint Matthew’s, a Church of Scotland congregation, told us story after story of what ministry is like there.

St. Matthew's

Take a look at this picture. The place, the sanctuary, the space is huge.

St. Matthew's Front View

And far too often it is empty. Pews and balconies once brimming with gospel proclamation and ministry remain silent too much of the time. They are silent in spite of the fact that the pastor is an inspiring, dynamic, and amazing disciple of Jesus Christ. He is a faithful risk taker. I found myself marveling at his energy and integrity. I found myself listening to the invigorating work that he is doing. I found myself thinking: that is the kind of ministry I want to be doing! He is the kind of pastor I want to be!

For years I have said, in meetings public and private, that the future of the church depended largely on leadership. Here before me was the kind of dynamic and wonderful leader that I have long admired.

Even more challenging was this realization: every pastor we met from the Church of Scotland was theologically engaging, intellectually astute, and pastorally alive. They were each of them willing to be creative for the gospel. Compared to the churches I have served, some of the Church of Scotland congregations were years ahead of us in innovating new ways of being church.

And yet too often the church in Scotland struggles to find an audience for the beautiful message of the gospel in its cities and neighborhoods. Scott talked about feeling lost sometimes. He gave witness to the ecclesiastical depression that comes with empty pews, programs, and worship.

What happened to the church in Scotland?

Not being from there, the best I can offer is an educated guess. But here it goes:

The towns were changing, the culture was changing, attitudes about the relationship between church and spirituality were changing and the church was not adapting alongside the larger shifts. On Sundays people were going to soccer (across the pond – football) games, rugby matches, yoga classes – finding in these events and activities ritualized practices, community interactions, and authentic meaning. They were doing all these things and more, and going to church less and less or not going to church at all.

The statistics are sobering. Presented by Doug Gay from the University of Glasgow, we learned that during the two decades of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the Church of Scotland lost thousands of members. They saw it happening, and yet, they were paralyzed — paralyzed by the pain they felt as their faith communities dwindled. Big churches became empty churches. Downward trends became downward spirals. Budgets collapsed. It was a negative exodus.

Scott arrived at St. Matthew’s six years ago in the middle of that storm. The church has added 62 members since he arrived, which makes St. Matthew’s among the faster growing communities in the Church of Scotland.

This story may seem far off, across an ocean. But it is very close.

At White Memorial, where I serve, our Clerk of Session writes to the congregation annually. This year, our clerk, Laura, wrote about her sadness in sharing our congregation’s booming baptismal records with a church who had only one baptism in 2013. That church, the church of one baptism, is not across an ocean. It is here in North Carolina, in the Bible belt.

It is my experience that whenever things go wrong, people frequently start looking for causes. They start looking for something to blame in order to cut the source of decline from their midst (think: I am going to cut carbs out of my diet; or, we are going to stop wearing robes in worship).

But what if there is no one thing, or even no one, to blame?

I remember a church I once visited in New York. It was a Czechoslovakian Reformed Church, and for generations they worshipped using Slavic languages. As the neighborhood evolved and there were fewer and fewer Slavic speakers, fewer people came to church.   Keep in mind that their core membership still spoke in mother tongues. To change the language whole-heartedly would have been pastorally unacceptable and unkind.

But that pastoral reality did not stop the world from changing around the church. By the time I arrived in 2010, there were a dozen or so members in a church that once held hundreds.

I thought about the church with one baptism and the Czechoslovakian Reformed Church as I sat in St. Matthew’s.

As we look around, there is ample evidence of the church’s end if we deny ourselves a commitment to being adaptable to the changes in our midst. But it doesn’t have to be so. Nowhere in the great commission (Matthew 28) does Jesus suggest that the disciples are never to change or adapt. Indeed, by the Apostle’s reckoning, everything is adaptable in order to spread the gospel’s good news (1 Corinthians 9). In Scotland, I became convinced we are living, even in our strongholds of church (like Raleigh, NC), in an age of adaptation.

My new friend Scott is hopeful and passionate about his ministry. His is a faith in God to do all things – a faith tempered by trial and error and the realization that the status quo will neither save the church nor share the gospel in his context. In his hopefulness he has become an adaptable pastor in an adapting and adaptable church.

Am I?

Are we?


Christopher Edmonston and Amelia - DEP

Christopher Edmonston began ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in September of 2011. His primary responsibilities are preaching, teaching, pastoral care, membership development, staff development, and long term planning. Christopher has moderated Presbytery Committees, serves on the Montreat Retreat Association Board, and serves as the President of the Board of the Presbyterian Outlook. He is a contributor to the forthcoming Feasting on the Gospels and is on the national strategy team for NEXT Church, a renewal movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was recently recognized as a William Friday Fellow (2011-13). Christopher is a graduate of Davidson College, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Master of Divinity), and Columbia Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry).

He is married to Colleen Camaione-Edmonston, who is a 7th grade grammar and literature teacher at St. Timothy’s School here in Raleigh. They have three children, Patrick, Gabriel, and Amelia, ranging from sixth grade to first grade, all three of whom attend St. Timothy’s as well.

Re-Post: We’re a Praying Congregation

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 November 12, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Jim Lunde

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned about our church over the years, it’s that we’re a praying congregation.” These were the words shared with me by a church member during my first hospital visit in my new congregation this summer. At first I thought it was a sweet statement to make about one’s church, but (as you’re likely thinking) isn’t every church a praying congregation? Over the next few months I would plunge past sentimentality and learn the true depth of this statement.

One Sunday school class exchanges prayer cards at the end of each lesson and commits to hold that person in prayer throughout the week. This class also maintains a prayer blanket ministry. The congregation’s monthly prayer group compiles a list of prayer concerns and creates a “calendar” for church members to lift specific people and places in their prayer lives throughout the month. One of the most powerful moments I witnessed was a prayer vigil that the congregation held for a member before a complicated surgery. At a moment’s notice, forty people came to the church one evening to pray and support this member and his family. I learned that this is a long-standing tradition of this congregation, as they often meet in hospital chapels and in the homes of members before tests, surgeries and procedures.

This practice has even become a community effort. Recently our congregation has joined with four other faith communities in the South Knoxville neighborhood to engage in combined mission efforts. At our monthly meetings, we basically ask one another: How can we be in prayer for your congregation? We gather to support one another in prayer as we discern how God is calling us to serve the South Knoxville community together. In this way, we have become living prayers for one another as well.

As stated earlier, every congregation prays, so what makes this one so different? To me, the difference is that prayer has become a self-defining characteristic of the congregation. It wasn’t a pastor-originated effort, but came organically through the needs and circumstances of the community. Over the generations, it has shaped their common life together. To become part of this congregation means that you are committing to praying for the community and, perhaps even more difficult for some, you are willing to be prayed for.

Whatever size your church might be, I believe herein lies something that can be transformative for any faith community. Having recently served in a large congregation, I realize that such practices would look much different in their context, but there are some common threads which could nourish any community. I think the biggest one is that prayer is not a program, it’s a ministry. It’s not something you can advertise or use as a hope to “draw” in new members, but when a praying ministry becomes part of your missional identity, the result is truly transformational. Rather than catchy programs or even charismatic leaders, across different demographics, people are seeking communities who genuinely care about them. Communities where more people than just the pastor promise to pray.

Every congregation prays, but the congregations for whom prayer becomes a defining characteristic can truly be transformational by reflecting Christ’s love. Blessings in your ministry of prayer.


Jim Lunde is pastor of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN.

photo credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Re-post: The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

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 August 27, 2013.

by Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

Stillness, Silence & Simplicity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Rev. Michael McNamara

As I slowly and deliberately near the top of the climb, I am surrounded by emptiness. At this height the world is far away, and with the exception of a turkey vulture circling below me, all is small and still. At this height the wind envelopes everything, howling with such steadiness it becomes a blanket of white noise, producing a deep and profound silence. At this height the vastness, the void, the sheer expanse of space is overwhelming and in that moment simplicity reigns, for I can only focus on is what is in front of me: handhold, foot hold, pull up, the jingle of gear, the rope every so gently reminding me that it is there, the smell of chalk and sweat, rock dust faint in my nostrils. Whatever worries or thoughts or motives I brought with me to the base of the climb have been given over to this still, simple silence.
It is there that a clarity emerges, ever so fleetingly, it exists in a place beyond words. I am united with something impossibly expansive, a deeper self, a self in unity with this Ultimate Reality. Time slows into the moment and the sense of clarity begins to feel like eternity itself, as if all things flow through, into and out of this moment.

I once had a maroon t-shirt with the image of a imposing mountain face embossed with the words: “Somewhere between the bottom and the top is the reason that we climb.” The longer I climb, the more I appreciate the truth this shirt proclaimed. For the uninitiated, climbing may look like little more than a way to seek thrills, to tick off summits from a list. But the more one climbs, the more the joy comes from moments like the one described above. In the process, I would even go far as to say the joy really starts to come in the midst of the monotony of it.

The author approaching the south summit of Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Photo credit: Chris Peterson

Yes, believe it or not, climbing can become mundane. Imagine obsessing over subtle shifts in the texture of a rock face, checking and re-checking gear, the act of belaying (holding the rope with a friction device so the climber climbing does not fall to the ground) is often a practice in tedium, and this goes on for hours on end. But it is in that very monotony — as opposed to the “mountain top” experiences — that one can uncover these fleeting moments of clarity.

If this seems counter intuitive, think of the way the world is currently obsessed with “experience” — particularly the spectacular kind. Cruise through just about any social media feed and it is ripe with curated posts and selfies that feel almost like an arms race towards who had the greatest experience! This happens in the spiritual world as well: the perfectly lighted yoga studio, the wellness trips to beautiful destinations. Even in the church there has been a push for experience: the best praise band, the perfect background for slides, the “right” website, making sure the greeters are properly trained. There is a particular kind of seeking that seems to be looking for God in the profoundly extraordinary and miraculous.

The summit experience, when I began climbing, fit the bill as profoundly extraordinary and I undoubtedly chased after them for a while. After nearly 28 years of spending time in the mountains, I can honestly say that summits are now just a part of the journey, no longer the goal in themselves. The real transformation has come through being patient with the process and resting in stillness, silence, and simplicity. And if climbing has taught me anything, it’s that stillness, silence, and simplicity are best when they are internal states of being. In other words stillness does not need to be still, silence does not need to be silent, and simplicity can be found in even the most complex of tasks.

This isn’t a perfect parallel for the church, but there are similarities. For one, focusing on “experience” will only get a person so far. And if there is no one around ready to invite people past “experience,” someone with some familiarity with stillness, simplicity ,and silence, then the community will not get very far.

The good news is that one does not need to perch themselves hundreds of feet above the ground to discover stillness, simplicity, and silence. In fact, although I may have first uncovered fleeting moments of clarity in the mountains, it is through contemplative practice, through intentionally being present to God, that I am able to deepen those moments and expand those moments and to let those moments continue to transform and work through me towards a unity with the divine.

Amid the rampant anxiety of the mainline church at the moment, we need the counter-intuitive. There is a reflex in the face of dwindling membership numbers to be more attractional, getting caught up in providing an experience, to do anything to just get people through the doors. Maybe thats the starting place, maybe not, but if the church can not provide a pathway towards that deeper experience, in stillness, silence, and simplicity, then it will almost certainly fail, for those fleeting moments of clarity that come through practice and embracing the process and letting go into the undefinable vastness of God are where real transformation happens. Are you embracing stillness even when its dancing, silence even when its loud, and simplicity even when its nuanced and paradoxical? Where in the impossible expanse of God do you let go and rest into the still, simple silence?


Mike McNamara is a Presbyterian pastor serving Adelphi Presbyterian Church in Adelphi, MD, as well as forming a New Worshipping Community rooted in contemplative practice in Silver Spring, MD. Mike has a beautiful wife and two young boys ages 2 and 4. He has a particularly strong love of rock climbing and good coffee. Catch him at RevMcNamara.com and on instagram: @a_contemplative_life.

Bringing Contemplative Practices to the Congregation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Molly Hatchell

My sense of call has centered around bringing the vitality of the Christian contemplative renewal movement to meet the needs of our Presbyterian congregations. This movement is spreading across boundaries of denominational affiliations and geographical regions. It emphasizes the importance of cultivating a relationship with God so people can notice God at work in their lives and respond with a spiritual heart.

The relational aspect helps people to move away from a transactional response to God grounded on fear and duty towards an intimate, joyful, and grateful response to God. A deeper understanding of God’s love is realized. This experience, in turn, guides people in their outpouring of love, not only towards God, but towards others as well.

One pathway for integrating aspects of the contemplative movement into a congregation is to lead weekly contemplative prayer groups using the ancient Christian prayer form of lectio divina. During lectio, we hear the word of God through scripture, silently meditate, reflect, and share how we experienced God during the prayer. This prayer form has been particularly appreciated by Presbyterians new to contemplative practices because of its emphasis on praying with scripture.

I’m encouraged by the reception of the lectio groups I’ve been involved in.1 Many lifelong Presbyterians were not familiar with this type of “spiritual conversation” and were more accustomed to describing what they knew about God rather than how they experienced God. Yet they reported positive experiences:

“This is life-changing.”
“This is transformative.”
“You have taught us how to listen to God.”
“This is the first time my husband has attended church for years and he wants to keep coming,” and
“I really appreciate the connection we have with each other.”

The pastors of the churches also expressed value: “This is an area where the church is flourishing,” and “Through the contemplative prayer group, you’ve reached people I could not have reached.” The success of these groups are tied to the pastor’s support for this “new” type of ministry and the church’s discernment that it meets the current congregational needs.

Another way to bring the beneficial aspects of the movement to the congregation is by helping church leaders to experience the practices. When my colleagues who are pastors and church leaders expressed a desire to worship with privacy, yet in community, we started an ecumenical lectio group for leaders. The six-week commitment was renewed through seven months. The leaders expressed a growing sense of God’s companionship in their ministry.

The sense of God’s companionship in ministry aids a preacher’s development of an effective sermon. Backstory Preaching, an educational program for new or experienced preachers, emphasizes the spirituality in sermon preparation and hosts a weekly lectio divina online group for the upcoming lectionary.

Recently I led a clergy retreat on contemplative prayer where leaders enthusiastically swapped stories on how they see contemplative practices inviting new ways to worship together. Many of the seminarians at the Presbyterian seminary where I work are already familiar with the contemplative movement and eager to share the practices with their future congregations. It will be interesting to watch the ways the Holy Spirit will move in communities to help us deepen our faith.

The late Thomas Keating, one of the architects of the Christian contemplative renewal movement, expressed the mission of the church as the need to help one another “to bring into society, into whatever society you are in, an awakening of the great love of God for each human being and God’s desire to enter into a personal relationship with each of us.” I hope each of us can experience this awakening and guide others, in whatever way we are called, to understand God’s desire for relationship.

1My groups are modeled after the contemplative prayer groups designed by Tilden Edwards, an early leader of the Christian Contemplative Renewal Movement.


Molly Hatchell is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with a ministry focused on spiritual formation. She is certified by Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Contemplative Group Leadership and by Contemplative Outreach as a Commissioned Presenter of Centering Prayer Workshops. Molly serves as a spiritual director at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and as a leader of contemplative prayer groups and retreats in Central Texas.

Silence and the Oppressed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Therese Taylor-Stinson

People of color have engaged in contemplation since the beginning of time, though the term used in a broad sense for spiritual practice is relatively new. The Desert Ammas and Abbas were people of color from the Middle East who fled to the deserts to escape the empire and are not only known as among the first contemplatives but also the first psychologists, as they tested the limits of their human condition in the desert. Contemplation is defined as deep, prolonged thoughtfulness. A contemplative, then, is one whose life is devoted primarily to prayerful pondering, and there are two broad forms of contemplative prayer — apophatic and kataphatic.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

Apophatic prayer — noted as a higher form of communion with God by a 14th century anonymous monk called “the cloud” for his foundational book entitled The Cloud of Unknowing — is a willing surrender into mystery: that which cannot be fully known and is closer to the true nature of God. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of the unknown. Apophatic prayer has no content but is full of intention, such as with a practice called centering prayer.

Fourth century Roman Catholic Bishop Gregory of Nyssa wrote about “apophatic” ways of being. Gregory was born in Cappadocia (present day Turkey) and held his bishop’s dominion in Nyssa — both in the Middle East. So, Gregory was likely a brown person as well, whose central argument is that God as an infinite being cannot actually be comprehended by us finite humans. God is not a white dude with a long white beard who sits on a cloud and grants wishes, and wants your sports team to win. God is something transcendent and alien whose thoughts we cannot properly grasp or explain.

Kataphatic prayer, on the other hand, has content; it uses words, images, symbols, and ideas. Ignatian prayer, such as lectio divina, the daily examen, and the Ignatian process for discernment is mostly kataphatic. Other forms of kataphatic prayer may be writing, music, dance, and other art forms.

Medieval Spanish priest (now saint, as was Gregory) Ignatius of Loyola, a spiritual director, was a prominent figure in the Roman Catholic “counter-reformation,” during the same period or starting a little before the Protestant reformation. His most influential work was Spiritual Exercises, still used by many today. His prayer was “Soul of Christ, make me holy.” And he wrote of himself in Spiritual Exercises, “Without seeing any vision, he understood and knew many things, as well spiritual things as things of the faith.” So, Ignatius too knew apophatic ways of being with God, but his Spiritual Exercises was full of kataphatic prayer forms to assist in ushering oneself, as well as others, into the presence of mystery.

In both Gregory, whom begins with unknowing, and Ignatius, whom engages the mind, I see both an apophatic and kataphatic approach that leads to a fully embodied intention for the Holy. Gregory writes, “We know some things that God is not, but we are incapable of understanding what God is. However, we can observe God’s ‘energies’ projected into the material world by God’s creation of the universe and God’s grace or love entering it. It is just as in human works of art, where the mind can in a sense see the author in the ordered structure that is before it, inasmuch as he has left his artistry in his work. But notice that what we see here is merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work, not the substance of the craftsman. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of the substance but of the wisdom of Him Who has done all things wisely.”

As an example of a practical application of Gregory’s apophatic theology, he argues that slavery and poverty are unethical. The idea is that humans have a unique value that requires respect, because they alone are made “in the image of” the unknowable and unworldly God. Poverty and slavery are inconsistent with the dignity and respect due the image of God in all people. *[Referenced from an anonymous source.]

So, that brings me to the pervasive idea among white contemplatives who dominate the ideas of modern-day contemplation that for the most part, African Americans and other people of color don’t practice contemplative prayer, which they view as predominantly silence. Silence certainly has its place, but as the writer of Ecclesiastes notes in chapter 3:1, everything has its time: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” One of the few recognized black mystics, Howard Thurman, wrote, “Do not be silent; there is no limit to the power that may be released through you.”

This is an idea the oppressed understand well. In their contemplation, there may be seasons for silence, but there are also seasons and reasons for shouting, dancing, expressive emotion, and even protest, ushering in the presence of God to guide and protect; leaning on that God for constant direction; releasing toxic emotions.

For example, the enslaved taken from Africa across the Middle Passage and brought into chattel slavery were silenced from the time of their capture and separation from all others whom spoke their language and shared their customs. To be silenced is to cause trauma. On the slave ships, they ushered in the presence of God and community through the “moan” — the name given it by the slaveholders. The enslaved became one in their suffering by joining together in their sighs and groans of pain too deep for words. Their separation and silencing continued when they reached land, were warehoused, and sold to slave masters, separated from their children, spouses, and other relatives. Again silenced, they found ways to communicate their suffering and garner support through music, dance, and shouting, as they secretly met in the hush hollows, the abandoned shacks in the woods, and suppressed their sounds by shouting into barrels or pots, and sharing in each others suffering by turning the day’s suffering into song that was joined in a call and response by the others present. They were silenced. Their narrative was not known, but God knew, along with those gathered with them in subversion.

Albert Rabateau tells a story in his book Slave Religion through a third person about the silencing of the enslaved and their knowledge and faith in a Supreme Being. The observer notes how, though the enslaved could not read, they had ways of knowing God, and when they were finally introduced to the Bible, they already knew who God was! The observer also notes that some of the enslaved believed the Bible should not be read until after one has gained that inward knowing.

The oppressed around the world — mostly people of color — have been silenced from control of their own narratives, while the dominate culture dictates a narrative to be both disseminated to the world and absorbed by the oppressed that centers whiteness and devalues the lives and culture of people of color across the globe, leaving them silenced, oppressed, and struggling to know and to value their own heritage.

Silence may be needed in some cases among the dominant culture in order to allow the narrative of the oppressed to emerge; in order for them to come face-to-face with their own complicity in silencing people of color in order to enjoy the privileges of dominance. However, silence is not the only way to encounter God. Silence is not the only way to embrace Mystery. Silence is not the only way to deep pondering and profound prayer. Silence for the oppressed should be embraced on their own terms and their more kataphatic ways of being and prayer embraced more fully by contemplatives of every culture, unless it remains a tool to keep the narrative of the oppressed untold.


Therese Taylor-Stinson is an ordained deacon and ruling elder in the PCUSA. After serving as chair of the COM Care Team, Therese was tapped to serve as National Capital Presbytery’s moderator for an extended 3-year term. During her year as vice moderator, she co-founded and organized the Racial Awareness Festival, now going into its fourth year. Therese also organized a Confronting Racism Task Force for NCP in 2017. She now serves as Liaison for Race and Reconciliation, with a team of six members, under NCP’s Mission Coordinating Committee. Therese is a retired Fed, having served 32 years, leaving as a senior program analyst and the expert at the time in Federal Regulatory Activity. Therese has a private spiritual direction practice, which she began 14 years ago, and she is the Founding Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color (SDC) Network, Ltd. Therese was recognized in 2018 as a Collaborative Bridge Builder by Grace and Race, Inc., and as Author of the Year in the area of social awareness by the Indie Author Legacy Awards for her second edited work for the SDC Network, entitled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Stories of Contemplation and Justice. Therese celebrates 40 years with her husband, Bernard, on September 8, and they have one daughter and two granddaughters.

Of Asses and Raindrops

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Michael McNamara is curating a series that will explore the theme of Christian contemplative practice, which has been central to the formation and development of Christianity. We will learn from writers exploring spirituality from both the secular and the religious, embracing the paradox within that — a paradox essential to contemplative practice itself. How can this Christian or secular tradition impact today’s church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Melanie Weldon-Soiset

The water drop plopped on my brow, hovering over follicles.
I continued to work, my hands aflutter,
yet the water drop cried foul.
“I’m here! I’m heavy! I’m wet, and on your face!” it howled.
I flicked my hand toward my eye,
but paused

mid-air,

wondering Why this drop,
Why me,
Why now?
Like Balaam’s ass, this ball of dew demanded that I halt.
So I stopped my hand, stopped my work, and listened to that glop of rain:
It hummed and hawed on my temple,
Reeling and wobbling, a breath away
From crashing into my eye.

I wait under its weight, miniscule yet full.
And then,
only then,
do I discover the divine.


Melanie Weldon-Soiset is the Fellowship Program Director at Sojourners, and is a participant in the 2020 cohort of “Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats” with Shalem. Melanie is also a pastor, published poet, and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @MelanieWelSoi, and check out her work at melanieweldonsoiset.com.