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Ready or Not, God Calls

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Suzanne Davis is curating a series highlighting the working relationship between ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament (or teaching elders). We’ll hear from both individuals and ruling elder/pastor partners reflect on the journey in ministry they’ve had together. How do these two roles – both essential to our polity – share in the work and wonder of the church? What is the “special sauce” that makes this special partnership flourish? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Todd Muldrew

Just over two years ago I received a phone call from my pastor. She wished to know if I would serve as an elder. Honestly, it’s flattering when a leader at your church calls to ask if you’re willing to lead, too. But I was uncertain.

I was relatively new to Presbyterianism, but I was at a point in my relationship with my church where I was willing to step up when called. I spoke with my wife, a lifelong Presbyterian and elder. She explained the commitment to me, both in faith and in time. I was ready. I was excited.

Image from Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Because I was working often with our mission group, I assumed that is where I would plug in. But instead, I was asked to serve on the Christian Education and Formation committee – which includes a major focus on Sunday School. Now, I will admit to being a sporadic attendee to the Sunday School hour. But I said to myself, “This is where God must need me, so I will have faith that it’s the right place for me to be.” Then I went to my first meeting. By the end of that meeting it became clear that I was not just going to be on the committee – I was being asked to moderate the committee. My heart skipped a few beats. Who was I, as a part-time Sunday School participant, to moderate such an important part of the life of our church? Had there been a mistake?

The very next month, I was asked to give the devotional at our first meeting of the new session. In doing so, I found both guidance and peace. I discovered an article entitled “Wait Until You Get to the Corner.” It’s about a young pastor who is anxious and uncertain about what God has in store for him. An older pastor counsels him to walk the path before him with God, and not to worry about where the corner is or what’s beyond it until God reveals it. “Take the task He gives you gladly, let His work your pleasure be.” The author counsels us at the end: “There’s a line in a song, ‘I will go, Lord, where you want me to go.’ We might add, ‘And I will stay, Lord, where you want me to stay.’ And when we know that we are at a place and in a position because God has put us there, it takes a lot of stress out of it.”

It does indeed. God knows my strengths and my weaknesses, and yet here I am. I have faith that I am playing a role in God’s plan for our congregation, regardless of my inability to see around the corner.

As I took this leap of faith, the pastors and staff have been incredible partners in our work. Our children and youth programs are growing rapidly. This growth is wonderful, but it requires an evolution in our priorities and new commitments from our congregation.

One of the biggest challenges we face is awareness and buy-in. My first year, I took time to observe the process of this committee as I stepped gently into my role. Much decision-making seemed to take place with just the moderators and staff. When I listened to congregation members not privy to these meetings, I heard people complaining that such-and-such wasn’t happening in their child’s Sunday School – when, in fact, such things were happening. There was a disconnect between perception and reality.

This year, we have widened the circle of people who are involved in the committee’s work. Consulting with the pastors and staff, we have both solicited and personally invited interested and concerned members to our visioning meetings. This not only increases our awareness of the different needs of our members, but also gives us a conduit back to the congregation to explain what is going on – and why. The response has been rewarding, both in new ideas and greater understanding from the congregation.

I am prayerful that this momentum will continue to grow in the years to come. In the meantime, I remind myself “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” Ps. 27:14. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for us next.


Todd Muldrew is member of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He gladly serves as an elder and moderator of the Christian Education and Formation Committee of the session.

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.

Theoacademy
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.

Communities of Interpretation

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 Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

A Quest of Fearless Failure

by Andrew Kukla

As a pastor, there are certain questions you get very used to being asked. Not the fun questions I don’t tire of answering, like “why does the Apostles’ Creed say ‘descended into hell?’” from which I usually embark on a conversation about radical grace. No, I’m talking about routine questions revisited because people don’t like the answer you give, questions that get you jaded and…worn. One of those for me is “can we get more training?” It’s a question that comes from a new member, a Sunday school teacher, a communion server, a deacon offering homebound communion, a new ruling elder; it’s a question that comes regularly and from all corners of the church. And the question is genuine. I remind myself of that every time.

But I think the question is often the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong ― I’m not adverse to training. However, I can no longer abide training as downloading data to empty vessels. The problem with training people in very particular trivia that apply to something that they don’t regularly do is that it just doesn’t stick. Why would it? It’s not that it isn’t relevant at all, it’s that its relevant to something so rare that when you finally need it you have long forgotten it. And much of the ins and outs of our polity has absolutely no correlation to the everyday life of our church leaders. So, what is worth taking time to train for?

This gets us to one of the hard realities of life in any job formation/training question: you won’t know what you don’t know, and therefore need to learn, until you get in there and muck it up. You are going to have to make some mistakes. You are going to have to wrestle with applying information to life before you can sort what parts of the information are even helpful. There is an old line I love: failure is a diagnostic tool.

If I could train people in only one thing, it would be learning to fail well.

And this is the real rub. People don’t want to make mistakes. For all our wonderful rich theology of grace, we still imagine ― more often than we admit (like all the time) ― that mistakes at church feel like they have eternal consequences. And so, we are terrified of doing things “wrong” and doing things “unsuccessfully” and we simply don’t trust ourselves to lead.

This is the real question I think people are asking? Its not more training per se, but “how do I trust myself with this task I see as vitally important and consequential?” What absolutes can you tell me that will give me the confidence to believe I’m doing it right? What information can I jot down on a piece of paper so that that this paper will lead me when I don’t trust myself to do the job? The answer to that is that I cannot… and I will not. The starting point to all of this needs to be, “You will be wrong, you will fail (as will everyone else). Get over it, and then we can get started.”

When we engage in training, what I want to do is less about teaching information and rules and more about freeing our imagination… to remind people that our job is to listen and wrestle with our calling as this small part of the Body of Christ at this time and in this place… and imagine that we can see what God is seeing for us and with us. That constantly doing this task allows us to risk the church in daring to make that imagination come alive in what we say and do together here, at home, and everywhere in our community. That’s what I want us to do…and to train for that? We need to unlearn as much as we need to learn; we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, rather than the easy or typical questions; and we need to be playful as much as studious.

Ideally… we might even manage both.

So, for the next month, for all that we are talking about officer training, let us remember that we are not trying to fill up church leaders full of things they need to know. We are hoping that together, through prayer, study, fellowship, and mission, we are falling in love with God more deeply ― day by day. Let us spark our collective imagination as a bunch of church leaders to think about what it means to embark upon a quest of fearless* failure as we endeavor to make God’s calling on us come alive in flesh and bones.

In the next month we will focus on what I’m calling the three tasks of imagination:

Feeding our Imagination: Exegeting our World View
Enabling Fruitful Imagination: Cultivating a Space for Fearless* Failure
Focusing Our Imagination: Remembering Our Goal

I believe this is the role of church leaders: less officers of the rule of law than those who blaze trails the Spirit guides them to, encouraging others to follow. And yes… there are some ancient, old, and contemporary guides in how to travel those trails that will be helpful ― Books of Order and personnel manuals ― but let those be tools, and not masters, of our task. The world needs people alive with God’s imagination far more than it needs a plethora of people steeped in by-laws. And while I do not believe that’s an either/or scenario, I do know where I want to start and what needs to stay front and center.

Without further ado…let’s find the second star to the right and go straight on till morning!

*by fearless I do not mean we won’t have fears. I’m a pretty fearful person. What I mean by fearless is that fear will not be our master. We will overcome our fears, not the other way around.


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.

Viewing the Rules Through the Eyes of Love

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Krystal Leedy, associate pastor for campus ministries at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, considers Robert’s Rules of Order and Presbyterian polity. How might parliamentary procedure enable you to make a difference in your church or denomination? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.