Posts

Black Congregations Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gregory Bentley

A high school classmate and clergy colleague of mine, Reverend James Ross, argues that the African American experience can be seen through the lens of five ‘Ps’: property, problems, performers, purchasers, and paranoia.

  1. Property: For 250 years African Americans were seen as chattel and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to enrich the slaveholding class in particular and the nation in general. This is the foundation, along with the genocide of the Native people and the theft of their land, for the wealth of America and its super power status today.
  2. Problems: After Emancipation, what do we do with these four million ex-slaves? Houston, we have a problem, so let’s enact Black codes and vagrancy laws, keep them in their place with terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and return them to a form of neo-slavery called sharecropping.
  3. Performers: Well, they sure can sing and dance and play ball. So let’s use them as entertainers for our amusement.
  4. Purchasers: Some of them have some money and want badly to spend it with us, so let’s do away with this pesky thing called segregation so that we can have unfettered access to their pocketbooks.
  5. Paranoia: Y’all see racism in everything. If you learn how to follow the rules, work hard, and be people of high character, you will make it in America. Stop blaming everything on racism. Y’all have had enough time to get your act together.

These five ‘Ps’ still persist in our day and time and are seen in the dynamics of the various responses to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and many others like it. It seems that the legacy of another legal case associated with Missouri – the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially concluded that no Black person in America had any rights which any white person had to recognize – still haunts us to this very day. So what is the Good News in light of this persistent and pernicious reality relative to the PCUSA? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? Yes there is! That balm is love and the application of that balm begins with affirming that BLACK CONGREGATIONS MATTER!

This love of Black congregations must be expressed in concrete, tangible ways in every council of the church from session to presbytery to synod and General Assembly. These councils must be intentional about serving as “Paracletic ministries” to come alongside Black congregations to equip and empower them to be the mission stations and face of the PCUSA in our local communities. And yes, that means putting the critical question to struggling Black congregations that Jesus put to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be made well?” Those who answer “Yes,” let’s put every resource available toward that end. Those who answer “No,” allow them to die with dignity so that we can focus all of our energy and effort on those who will and not those who won’t. The challenges facing our communities are too daunting and dreadful to be preoccupied with a self-referentialness that doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is right in front of us. Another way of putting this is that we’ve got to love our communities more than we love being Presbyterian.

I believe there is still a vision for the appointed time if we would but summon the courage to see and to seize it. The choice is ours and I hope we move forward with the spirit of an old hymn of the church, “A Charge to Keep I Have”:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify
A never dying soul to save and fit it for the sky,
To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill,
May it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.


Gregory J. Bentley has served the Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since January 2012. When not juggling one of his many roles in local political and civic affairs, he enjoys good music, reading and playing chess. Rev. Bentley lives in Huntsville with his wife Diann and his daughters Miriam and Johari.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.


Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

Deeply Moved by Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jarrett McLaughlin

It was a rare moment of thinking ahead when I submitted my bulletin information for Sunday, February 18th, a full NINE days ahead. True confession though – it wasn’t actually me thinking ahead but rather the fact that our administrator was out of the office at the beginning of the next week and so the deadline had shifted.

At the time, all I knew was that I was preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 and that in my initial reading of the text, I was particularly struck by the emotional journey Jesus takes. As I would later observe in the sermon to come, John’s portrait of Jesus shows us a son of God who is so confident, so unflappable, so maddeningly divine. He never seems to get angry or sad but rather floats above those human emotions. At the beginning of the chapter he even speaks so mechanically about the death of his friend. But then he comes to Bethany and Mary is weeping and everyone is weeping and he’s face to face with real death and real grief and something inside of him breaks. John then gives us the shortest verse in all of the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” Christ’s tears are so important that they receive an entire verse just to highlight this moment of extreme pathos. It’s almost as if John shows us a Jesus who is learning what it means to be human and this scene is pivotal.

I hadn’t articulated all of that when I submitted that bulletin information, but even a cursory reading of the story shows Jesus in the midst of a profoundly emotional encounter. And yet he is not simply one who grieves and wallows in that grief. Instead he is moved by that grief – John specifically tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He was moved to act – and this is when he performs his seventh and final sign – the raising of Lazarus and his haunting command to his disciples and to the Church in every time and place: “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know when I sent the bulletin in was that the next Wednesday, seventeen students and educators would be shot and killed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. What I didn’t know is how profoundly I would be affected by that shooting, especially as I sat with this text where Jesus is deeply moved by real death, moved to act. What I didn’t know is how I would be haunted by this Jesus who – when his disciples are standing speechless before Lazarus who is literally tangled up in the trappings of death – says to them “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know was how poignant the words of the Sarasota Statement would be – chosen nine whole days before they were spoken aloud, five days after another deadly mass shooting.

We are people of hope who confess Jesus is Lord over a kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone.
So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist.
Furthermore, we are incited to act and to be vehicles of change through which God’s kingdom breaks into the world and our earthly lives. Our commitment is to acts that feed, clothe, instruct, reconcile, admonish, heal and comfort – reflecting the power of God’s hope and an eagerness to see the Kingdom made manifest.

There are days when I am so tired of that kingdom’s absence. I’m tired of the flags flown at half-staff and the endless debates about guns and mental illness that never go anywhere. I’m tired of looking at pictures of tear-streaked mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends discovering their loved one is no more. I’m tired of flowers and ribbons and candlelight vigils. I’m tired of this kingdom’s palpable absence and I do feel moved. A statement of faith is just that – a statement. But at least it tells me and this community I love that when we are greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – maybe we’re not so far off from the Christ whose love is stronger that death, whose passion is as fierce as the grave.


Jarrett McLaughlin serves with his wife Meg Peery McLaughlin at Burke Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington DC.  This is a blog post about the Sarasota Statement, but it’s also a blog about a mass shooting in an American school, so perhaps this background is worth sharing: “During my first year of high school in suburban Raleigh, NC, a fellow student was shot and killed in the park next to my school – a student not even involved in the altercation but who came over to ‘watch a fight.’  That story and the trauma to the student body that followed forever shaped my views on guns and their place in society. As you read this post, you should understand this about me, because all of our stories shape who we are and how we react to any given situation. This is my story and these are my reactions – nothing more, nothing less.”

Comforted and Challenged

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Frances Wattman Rosenau

Passing the peace can be the most uncomfortable part of worship. You know, the time when some congregations invite everyone to stand and even get out of their pews in order to shake hands and greet other people who have gathered in worship. It’s not just uncomfortable because there are those inevitable awkward church people who pass the peace with exuberant enthusiasm and purpose. It’s awkward because of, well, the other people.

Greeting other people, indeed touching other people in worship, forces us out of our God-and-me bubble. If we came to worship to escape the world, we find ourselves right smack in the middle of it anyway, shaking hands with strangers. It’s so much easier to slip in quietly during the first hymn, sit unassuming near the back semi-anonymously, and pretend we’re there to be with God. We know what to do.

But other people just get in the way.

The Sarasota Statement offers us an encounter. Through the claims and stances in the statement, we may very well find ourselves “both comforted and challenged.” Like passing the peace in worship, we get the opportunity with the Sarasota Statement to be changed both by radical affirmation as well as boldly facing the truth.

In this phrase “both comforted and challenged,” I hear an echo of the oft-repeated call to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Religious leaders have latched on to this phrase as a battle cry — our purpose as Church. These words, from Finley Peter Dunne, were originally written about the role of newspapers in public life.[1] And yet, it seems such a great fit for the Church, when we are our truest selves.

Indeed the Sarasota Statement does comfort and challenge. We are all here in this statement: no matter our identity or what side of what spectrum we’re on. We are heard and accompanied in experiences of being excluded. We are challenged in our own privilege or our histories of exclusion. We are called to something better.

The whole endeavor gets to the core of what church is for. Why don’t people sit at home by themselves, sing songs to themselves and read the Bible by themselves? I mean, maybe some people do. My suspicion is that it isn’t very fulfilling, and certainly not very transformational.

Those of us who engage in church, and who value a vibrant faith community do so to be a part of something bigger than what we could do on our own. We need other people, as awkward as they are, to comfort and challenge us. That’s what the Sarasota Statement has done for our congregation when we have used it in worship: it amplifies the truest purpose of church. Through voices long-silenced and calls to action, the Sarasota Statement enriches worship to its greatest call – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – in order to move boldly forward as the people of God.

[1] https://www.poynter.org/news/today-media-history-mr-dooley-job-newspaper-comfort-afflicted-and-afflict-comfortable


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. 

Race, Relationship, Repentance

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Foster Connors

Like most worthwhile things, the NEXT Church strategy team’s initial commitment to become 50%+ non-white in our leadership was born more out of Gospel idealism than out of competency. We believe that the “next Church” will reflect the culture in which the PC(USA) is situated, a culture that will be 50%+ non-white by 2042. God will make that a reality and the PC(USA) has an opportunity to be a part of it if we choose. I believe Paul’s words to the Galatians subordinating the divisions that we take for granted to a unity in Christ that is as clear as the color of the water in our baptisms. But as a Calvinist, I also know that racism coats everything in America. It warps the way we see each other. It’s warped the Church, too. There is no way to dismantle a sinful system that’s had generations to percolate, without a “gird up your loins” gritty commitment to abide with each other through the crap that we all swim in.

As you would expect, living into that commitment hasn’t been easy. One example of the way this came to the fore at the 2017 National Gathering was the Tuesday morning “crowd-sourced band.”  Steve Lindsley, a talented musician (and pastor, too!), had about as “nexty” an idea as you could come up with: to create a music team entirely off social media. The band would play well known “secular” music that would carry the worship service. It was risky, participatory, and agile – all values that NEXT Church has trumpeted as essential qualities for church to get beyond institutional rigidity. Steve was sensitive to a playlist that reflected diverse genres within the organizing idea. Then a member of our group raised the important question: was this going to be a bunch of white people leading “we shall overcome?” What about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (both on the playlist)? And could two white guys really rap “Where Is the Love?” with any kind of worship integrity? Of course, having never met each other before we had to first find out, “Are we all white?”

When we discovered that we were, in fact, all white, some uncomfortable questions arose. Should we remove “Redemption Song” and “We Shall Overcome” to avoid cultural appropriation? Should we actively seek out persons of color to make the group less white? Should we try to contextualize each piece? Should we call the whole thing off? Immediately we were face to face with the ongoing, glaring sin that we all live with in the Presbyterian Church: we are whiter than God would have us be. We solicited some second opinions and came up with a plan. We would drop the white guys rapping “Where Is the Love” in favor of a video montage. We would add some context to the “We Shall Overcome” piece. Originally we were also going to add context to “Redemption Song” and to the other pieces, but in rehearsal it started to feel stilted, even defensive. We scrapped that plan, and added a few sentences of context at the beginning.

Evaluating the worship experience later, our diverse strategy team commended the group for some of our choices, but also critiqued the decision not to add context for the Bob Marley piece. One member of the team raised a question that was completely outside of my field of vision – whether the word “band” subtly signals “white music.” Could adjusting that one word result in a musical group with more diversity? Maybe. Maybe not. As we discussed other experiences of worship beyond Tuesday morning, an African-American member of the team was almost apologetic in her response: “It pains me to share my reaction with you. I don’t often share this kind of feeling in this kind of a setting.” But this strategy team member did share that feeling. And I am grateful for it.

Two things I’ve learned over the years as a person crossing racial boundaries (and other types of boundaries, too): healing is only possible when relationships are strong enough to handle the pain that comes to the surface; AND forgiveness and repentance (not perfection) are the only foundations on which to build real relationships. We’ll never grow as a church if we’re afraid of doing things that reveal our racism. We have to build relationships that are able to handle difference and division when they arise, calling out the racism that warps us, and moving forward together with courage and deeper trust. These are some of the conversations we’re having in NEXT Church leadership. With God’s grace, we’ll keep having them, building a broader community, and the church will move a little closer toward God’s dreams for us.


Andrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD – www.buildiaf.org), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. He serves on the executive team of NEXT Church. Andrew holds degrees from Duke University and Columbia Theological Seminary, was the 2001 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preaching Award, and was named 2016 “Marylander of the Year – Runner Up” along with two other BUILD colleagues for their work negotiating the largest Community Benefits Agreement in Baltimore history. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. They live in Baltimore with their two children.

Some New Code Words

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Stipp-Bethune

My 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering began while I was still “on the way,” when I met a turn in the road overshadowed by a billboard:

“DIVERSITY” is a code word for #whitegenocide

I hadn’t caught my breath when a couple of curves later revealed another, larger billboard, listing all the white supremacy TV channels.

I didn’t want any part of this! I pinched myself, attempting to ensure I wasn’t dreaming, because I instantly identified with the Magi for whom a “dream” invited them to return home “by another way,” and I had already begun re-plotting my post-conference route!

I simply don’t get this yearning some have for being so divided, so “anti-diversity,” claiming a Christ who causes division and suffering rather than leading the great, diverse, Kingdom of God in all its glory. This lust for white power and domination is wholly and entirely inconsistent with what I know of Jesus that I secretly pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” as my own code words for “my Jesus is coming to kick your Jesus’ a$$.”

I’ve always believed “America” (that presumptive code word for the United States) is at her best when we are an open, diverse, color-filled people who share equality and freedom. Much more so, the Church. Part of the language I’ve been taught was “a great melting pot,” but that’s just a code word for “white-washing” everyone so to see ourselves with no marks of difference or diversity—a way of hiding this ugly ingrained racism that robs us all of our identity. Especially the Church.

One of the images I encountered at the National Gathering was a promise born from an ancient people trying to live into “an incarnate Kingdom of God.” In a conversation about the transition from a first-century Hellenized meal called a symposium to the meal we claim as the Eucharist, my friend and colleague Jeff Bryan reiterated the view that the banquet of the Lord would never fail to bring everyone to the table—literally, the whole stinking community. You would find yourself, quite unwittingly, dipping your bread in the hummus with someone else, not just wholly unexpectedly, but with whom you could never allow yourself to be associated with. Yet you’re already guilty by association, because you’re at this dinner party together with Jesus.

I’ve always had this idea I really shouldn’t want to dip my bread with a bunch of white supremacists.

I live in Arkansas. And while I don’t want to disparage the whole state on account of those here who espouse the anathema of racial purity led by white people, it’s definitely true that enough people here are as prepared as ever to fight for a way of life that I want no part of—i.e. segregation, uniformity, monochrome, black and white, separate but equal. And when I say “fight” I don’t mean the way we fight about what scripture means or the color of the new carpet for the sanctuary.

And some of those people are in our churches regularly!

And I struggle to know exactly what I need to be doing about it.

Because “church” is one of the places where we have a history of being divided by issues of race.  Maybe that’s why in the new-to-me-congregation I’m serving, one of the “rules” has always been “check your politics at the door—we don’t talk about these things in church.” Code words for “we know we disagree and if we have to admit it, it leads to division.”

But it’s either the meal of the Kingdom’s freedom, joy, diversity, and love; or it’s not.  “Jesus, bread, and wine” are—or should be—code words for living together—not because we agree, but maybe because we don’t?

Because “church” is one of the places we think or believe we should be more “at one” with each other, “communion” is another code word we use to demonstrate oneness in Christ, downplaying difference and diversity because we must be “a part of the same.”

But maybe Jesus had another idea. That a part of loving one another is not based on agreement.  But that we are at table as the Psalmist says, “even in the presence of our enemies.”

The Lord’s Table: code word for Christ’s holding the different together.


David Stipp-Bethune has a passion for most things PCUSA, thinks General Assembly should still meet at least annually, and currently serves First Presbyterian Church El Dorado, Arkansas as pastor, having arrived in November 2016 and after pastorates in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Arkansas, and Nebraska.