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Wandering in the Desert

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Thornton

We were a people wandering in the desert – grieving, aimless, keeping to our own; bewildered after a season of dissention, debate, distrust, and dismissal. Eleven of our sister churches were gone, several more were discerning their futures, and we were left to wander brokenhearted.

We were a people connected by membership in a diminished presbytery. We were from Korean, Hispanic, Indonesian, Kenyan, Chinese, Anglo, African American, Taiwanese, Formosan, and Vietnamese congregations. We were from Not Church in Mexico and an RV Chapel near the Pacific Ocean.

We were so different. We were from churches large and small, rich and poor, long established and recently birthed, conservative and progressive. We worshipped in many styles. We read scripture through varied lenses.

How could we heal this wound? How could we fill this emptiness? How could we build trust? How could we bridge the theological divide? How could we arrive at the Promised Land? We did not know how.

We were a people longing to connect, aching for community, missing what had been, afraid, yet daring to hope.

We went to committee meetings and worked through the business. We came for presbytery gatherings that felt contentious, where groups competed for power, advocated for their own causes, and fostered an atmosphere of winners and losers. It felt wrong. We knew we could be better. We did not know how.

In the midst of our desolation, the Holy Spirit was on the loose. In the summer of 2015, a small task force was commissioned to study the presbytery meetings. They were too long, too boring, too impersonal. The group recommended:

  • Spend less time on business, more in worship.
  • Invite speakers to inspire and equip presbyters and congregations.
  • Focus on building relationships.
  • Create opportunities for conversation.
  • Establish a Presbytery Gathering Team to plan and implement gatherings.

The Spirit “blew through the wilderness” calling us a new way of being. Every minute of each gathering is now carefully planned around a portion of our vision statement. We gather around tables for more than a quick meal. We sit with people we do not know and share stories, answer questions prompted by special speakers, and provoked by careful listening. We are getting to know our brothers and sisters, acknowledging our differences and celebrating what unites us. We look across the table and see the image of God in one another.

We are on the mend. We dare to hope and to trust. We are still wandering, but we journey together and rejoice in our new and renewed relationships. We are on the way to the Promised Land. We are Los Ranchos.


Susan Thornton is a ruling elder at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and a member of the NEXT Church strategy team.

Cultivated Ministry: A New Approach

by Jessica Tate

A few years ago, NEXT Church convened some creative, talented leaders to talk together about the ways in which the church is collaboratively starting and supporting new ministries. In the room were leaders from large, established congregations, leaders from small upstart ministry ventures, and everything in between. There was energy in the conversation as we heard about ministries in places and with people often overlooked in mainline protestant circles. But the conversation got heated quickly when it turned toward resources, sustainability, fundraising, and accountability.

One talented leader of an exciting and creative new ministry likened it to The Hunger Games. “You come up with a good — even proven — ministry,” she said, “and everyone is excited about it. When you ask for help in paying for it, there are three larger churches and a couple of grant programs to go to and these creative ministries end up fighting each other to our own death to get any resources.”

A little while later, the pastor of a large congregation with a multi-million dollar budget said, “What I hear you asking for is a blank check and we simply can’t give that to you. In a season where we have many resources, but are facing budget cuts of our own and laying off staff, we have to justify every dollar we spend.”

Another leader chimed in, “Our presbytery has money to fund new ventures but we expect them to be growing numerically and financially sustainable within five years.” “What if we’re working in a community that is financially incapable of being self-sustaining?” was the immediate reply.

What became clear in the conversation is that there is much creativity and leadership in the present-day margins of the church. At the same time, the resources needed to fertilize that growth often rest in the established, traditional communities of faith and in denominational structures. Many of these traditional communities of faith are interested — even eager — to invest in the emergence of new faith communities that may look and feel radically different from their own. Yet these partnerships can become stymied because there exists no agreed upon metrics for measuring faithfulness and success.

Traditional metrics — such as membership counts, financial totals, and worship attendance — have proved inadequate for measuring the effectiveness of traditional communities of faith, much less emergent ones, but other metrics have not risen in their place. Thus, we revert to what we know, perpetuating a status quo that serves neither partner in the new church development process and hinders the leadership development and experimental learning the church needs now in abundance, if we are to make the move into new, thriving models of church life.

Over the course of the last eighteen months, with support from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and the Texas Presbyterian Foundation, we have convened a talented group of leaders to tackle this issue within the life of the church. What results is Cultivated Ministry: Bearing Fruit through Theology, Accountability, Learning, and Storytelling. Cultivated Ministry is a culture and process of ministry that does not rest on traditional metrics nor does it abdicate accountability altogether. It is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world.

This month, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall!

And a huge thanks to the talented team of people who have worked on this project:

Designers and Writers

Shawna Bowman, Pastor & Artist, Friendship Presbyterian Church
Chineta Goodjoin, Pastor, New Hope Presbyterian Church
Becca Messman, Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church
Frank Spencer, President, Board of Pensions, PC(USA)
Casey Thompson, Pastor, Wayne Presbyterian Church
John Vest, Professor of Evangelism, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Jen James, Cultivated Ministry Project Facilitator

Consultants

Andrew Foster Connors, Pastor, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church
Christopher Edmonston, Pastor, White Memorial Presbyterian Church
Billy Honor, Pastor, The Pulse Church
Charlie Lee, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church
Carla Pratt Keyes, Pastor, Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
Jessica Tate, Director, NEXT Church
Landon Whitsitt, Executive and Stated Clerk, Synod of Mid-America
Rick Young, President, Texas Presbyterian Foundation


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

The Future of Our Connectionalism

First things first: we hope folks have weathered Sandy OK. Be safe.

by Dr. Ed Brenegar

As the chair of the Stewardship Committee of my presbytery, I am concerned by the practice of congregations withholding of funds from the PCUSA as an act of principled protest.  Regardless of the reasons, I’ve come to see it as a political act that weakens our connectionalism. Here’s what I recently spoke during our recent presbytery meeting.

We are the Presbytery of […] . There is no “they.” Regardless of the presbytery you are in, it is essentially a volunteer organization of members from local congregations.   Look at your Nominations Committee list of those to serve on committees, councils and mission teams. They are men and women volunteers from churches.

Our Connectedness as a Presbytery isn’t just Spiritual, but Financial. My presbytery does not “charge” a per capita fee to churches. We, the presbytery, trust in the spiritual commitment of churches to make financial contributions to the support of the presbytery and the other councils of the church. In effect, what is happening is that small churches are funding the per capita payment of those larger churches who withhold funds. How ironic that in our modern day we see Paul’s perspective in 1 Corinthians 12: 22-26 gaining relevance.

On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Just to be clear, there are small churches who also withhold funds, and the large churches who are extraordinarily generous in their giving to support our presbytery’s work, including its ministry with small churches. Size is not the primary issue, connectionalism is.

Our Connectedness as a Presbytery isn’t just Financial, but also Missional. From my vantage point as Stewardship Chair, it is the shared mission work of our presbytery that is the heart of our connectionalism. It is the only thing that cuts across all the social and institutional boundaries of the church to unite people from large and small churches in the worship and service of Jesus Christ in the world.

Our Financial Future as Congregations and the Presbytery is not our Past.  We can no longer count on the tried-n-true stewardship practices of the past to sustain local congregations and presbyteries in the future. Developing a dynamic missional connectionalism provides a way for more members of churches to participate and contribute in the life and ministry of the church.  From this position, churches and presbyteries can adapt to the economic realities that we all will be facing in the future.


Ed-LIL2-2010-6Dr. Ed Brenegar is a life-long Presbyterian, a Tar Heel born and bred, teaching elder for three decades, a validated minister serving as a leadership consultant, a life / work transition coach, creator of The Stewardship of Gratitude strategy and The Circle of Impact Conversation Guides, occasional interim minister, honored blogger, speaker, and restless inquisitor of the impact of God’s grace in our time. Find Ed online at: Leading Questions blog and At The Table of Thanks: Presbyterian Life & Mission.