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Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

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 Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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 John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Mindfully Anchored in the Word: Nurturing Ministry in a Complex Environment

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 Rick Young

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the fabric of our churches and denomination is a constantly changing reflection of our current national climate. This is something we must not only acknowledge, but address directly. I have had the privilege and honor of pastoring four congregations over the past four decades. Each was different, yet the same sort of blessing in so many ways. A pastor plays many roles — and not always the ones we’ve been trained for. While seminary provides a strong foundation, our most important lessons are taught in the trenches of modern day ministry. There are a few things we need to keep in mind as we work together to nurture ministry in today’s complex environment:

  1. The Church is not an easy place to work and play.

This couldn’t be truer today. Recently, one of my colleagues not-so-jokingly said, “I love the ministry, it’s just the people I can’t stand.” As pastors, we enter into the ministry somewhat idealistically, believing that with our leadership, the kingdom of God will be at hand.  

Then reality sets in. A member of one of my former congregations said, “The pastor’s role is to be a medic in a war zone where everyone on both sides is wearing the same uniform.” We are called to be compassionate, healing servants to all of God’s people. As I was preparing to leave one of the congregations, a dear member and friend handed me a framed poem that she had written entitled, “God’s Firefighter.”

The poem read…

“One of God’s great miracles is fire, sent to us on earth. Another of His gifts is a person who understand its worth. Fire can be vicious, it can rage, destroy and consume. It can be gentle, bringing warmth and light to a cold draft room. An evening round a campfire or in front of a hearth ablaze, can bring a peaceful end to even the most stressful of days. A good firefighter knows when to let a fire burn and when to control, when to light a fire under people or down deep inside their soul. I met such a firefighter when my world was full of strife.  He helped me find the fire, and the way to turn around my life. No matter where time takes us, or how many miles we are apart – I will always have God’s fire and His special firefighter in my heart!”  

In my experience, many times the wars were brutal and even unchristian, and the fires ravaged lives and left devastation behind. But with God’s help, we made it through, and so can you. As I said, the Church and congregation can be at times a rough place to play and work.

  1. The denomination is divided, and we must forge ahead together.

The last five years have brought this to bear for many of us, as we have seen dear friends and colleagues depart the denomination. The process has been painful, and the scars are both deep and fresh. There have been arguments, hurt feelings, truths, and untruths told on both sides of the divide. This is a painful divorce, and sadly there are no winners and many losers.

The division has been expressly felt in the state of Texas, where the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) is headquartered. Presbytery memberships have decreased by as much as forty percent. TPF exists to enable and expand mission — together, which is not always easy in this frayed and tattered environment. But we hope to lead by example. Truly, we’re all on the same side. We stand in the middle waving a flag of neutrality and God’s mission. Why? Because it is what God asks of each of us. We are not naïve enough to think that neutrality protects us from the need to take a stand in the denouncement of evil, as well as the relentless search for peace going forward. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we keep the door open to help facilitate reconciliation and create pathways for future conversations.  

It’s time. We need to pick up our medic bags, bind up the wounded, and unroll our fire hoses to control the fires that destroy while tending the fires of love and compassion that simmer in our souls.


Rick Young is the President/CEO of the Texas Presbyterian Foundation (TPF) and served four pastorates along the way.

Sustained Radical Racial Reconciliation

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!

Today, NEXT Church executive team co-chairs Shavon Starling-Louis and Lori Raible close the month’s reflections with a conversation.

SHAVON: Can NEXT Church be a place of sustained radical racial reconciliation?

Societally and denominationally there are many places in which the thought of racial reconciliation is celebrated. But it is often relegated to the incremental “not too much, not too fast” fashion. It often can feel that communities of leadership (read: committees) are created in the paint-by-numbers vein (i.e. “ we need to find __ black people… __ Latin American… __Native American… __ Asian Americans so we won’t be all white”).

Unfortunately, what is desired to be a place of diversity often quickly becomes a place of tokenism in which a people’s diverse phenotypical presence is valued but the gifts of their culture, individual life, and experiences are not.

My hope is that NEXT Church can be something different. NEXT Church has core values grounded in relationship and authenticity. So, yes we have a hope of 50% + of people of color in our leadership teams, but it only makes sense to me because I know it comes out of a hope for drastic systemic change in who is at the leadership tables.

And while this goal may seem to minimize the intersectionality of diversity, I think we wanted some goal to hold us racially accountable for the leadership relationships we cultivate.

At its core, NEXT Church believes that in real relationship, significant transformational changes in how we live life together are possible.

I have watched us be stretched, struggle, and be blessed by our way: being community which is grounded in real experiences of life together. In both joy and hurt, we are made more faithful and more just.

It’s not that we get it right but that we lean in when it’s hardest that excites me about NEXT Church. I have noticed that when I expose my heart to the other, I experience the grace and challenge of my identity in Christian community and I sense others do too.

I think that in our work together we see that being the kind of community that is open to hear the impact of racism on our life together and then prayerfully discern how to respond in our actions towards healing is a treasure and a sign of the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. And I sense this is true because we are committed to being vulnerable with each other. We have a level of trust because of our desire for real relationship.

And what seems to be a Holy Spirit gift of unbelievable proportion is that this is a common thread of those engaging NEXT Church at every level. And while I know we are all in different places in how we articulate the role of racism in being a sinful barrier to faithful relationship with the other, when I connect with new friends through NEXT Church, I get this overwhelming sense that this person has the intent to build up – and not tear down – the body Christ and the global community at large.

I discern that in our racialized and polarizing times our type of commitment to relationship at NEXT Church is radical work. It is radical because by being in real relationship, we are naturally cultivating organized, faithful, theologically grounded work for the healing of the person-to-person and systemic impacts of racism.

So Lori, what do you think?

LORI: Your thoughts, Shavon, make me question what it really means to belong at NEXT Church.

NEXT Church believes God is always calling the Church into the future. Cultivating leaders and congregations by equipping and connecting them to one another will strengthen the relational fabric of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and promote God’s transformation of our communities for the common good.

Belonging is easy to talk about, but hard to do. So hard in fact, it’s biblical. Which of course as people “in the people business,” we all know but hate to admit.  The 2017 National Gathering hosted about 600 leaders. For 220 of them, it was their first time at a NEXT Church Gathering. Every year we host an orientation conversation about NEXT Church. This year I remember mentioning that NEXT Church hopes to express the Kingdom of God to the world in an honest way that reflects the creativity and diversity of that Kingdom. Easy to say. Hard to do. As Shavon mentions, it requires deep trust, a willingness to give one another the benefit of the doubt, and an openness to listening. The National Gathering sets the tone for this work, with an expectation that we must then act in the world in a way that is congruent with what we proclaim together about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

During orientation we also mentioned that our National Gathering is designed as a bountiful feast, not a prix fixe 5-course meal. Were there parts of the Gathering that did not resonate with me personally? YEP. Am I grateful for the good people that gave of their time and gifts in leadership? YEP. Was I challenged and inspired? Absolutely.

Some folks have a hard time believing it, but NEXT Church has a seat at the table for every leader in our denomination. We are not a club. We do not take sides. We try desperately not to be exclusionary. The tables throughout our gathering space in Kansas City reflected these claims. If you will sit at the table and engage, then you are encouraged to speak up and share your gifts for the greater good of our denomination. The workshops were meant to reflect this claim.

And yet serious questions about belonging were raised during the National Gathering: Can I trust NEXT Church will welcome my unique perspective for what it is? Can I trust that NEXT Church will not be yet another organization unwilling to recognize the marginalization of women, LGBTQ leaders, and leaders who do not identify as white? How is NEXT Church reconciling institutional habits of exclusion and racism and avoiding the appropriation of cultural expressions of faith? How can I trust NEXT Church honestly values my conservative understanding of theology? Do they really care about what I have to say as a part time or non-traditional pastor? A traditional large steeple pastor? A seminarian? A leader in the last years of ministry? An educator? A ruling elder?

It makes sense that some are skeptical of the claim that there is a seat for everyone at NEXT Church, especially when personal experiences may inform a necessary level of self protection. But there is a seat. To be clear, we do not always agree, we do not always get it right, and we do not claim to be experts at the work of radical belonging. But together, we are trying. The National Gathering in Kansas City was a celebration of unity, not sameness. We commit to having the hard conversations, taking risks, and holding ourselves accountable. We also practice the art of giving one another the benefit of the doubt with grace and trust.

Most days I am simply trying to remain faithful to the people I serve. Between sermons, teaching, hospital visits, budgets, meetings, and parenting, I get tired. Bone tired. In the midst of a tenuous American culture, sometimes I doubt my ability to proclaim the Gospel with integrity and boldness. It gets isolating. So yeah, I need community. I need colleagues and friends to keep me honest and focused, but NEXT Church is about more than friendships.  If we are interested in collecting our voices and harnessing the power of Christ’s Church for God’s Kingdom, then our gathering space cannot be an echo chamber. What would it look like for the PCUSA to express the Kingdom of Heaven to the world in an authentic way that embraces and celebrates our diversity?

Seriously. Think about that for a minute.

We cannot afford to waste time bickering or managing our losses when there is a surplus of committed, diverse, and creative leaders, each worthy of investment. Also, we must not wait for support structures and institutions to catch up. Christ is alive in the world, NOW. While in humility, we claim the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ when we missed the mark. With all hope, you were inspired, challenged, engaged, and nourished by those you found in your midst. Having learned and grown together, we will step boldly into the future again next year with commitment, passion, and a renewed sense of faith.


Shavon Starling-Louis is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI. Lori Raible is co-pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Both are co-chairs of the NEXT Church executive team.

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.

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Racial Awareness & Mindfulness Festival

Therese Taylor-Stinson and Glenn Zuber of National Capital Presbytery give an Ignite presentation on the first-ever DC Racial Awareness & Mindfulness Festival at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Called To The Uncomfortable Place

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Brandon Frick is curating a series about the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. The series will feature insights from the writers and conveners of the group. What are your thoughts on the Statement? How might you use it in your context? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Layton Williams

I sometimes struggle to figure out where I belong in the church. I am an openly bisexual woman and a strong advocate justice for those the church has historically neglected. At times, I dream of being one of those unapologetically radical liberal Christians, who pull the church forward by refusing to compromise their ideals. But over and over, I find myself at the table instead, trying to remain true to my convictions and bring people along at the same time. It’s a role I can’t seem to get away from, though I am not always comfortable with it.

So, when Jessica Tate reached out to me last November and asked if I’d be interested in joining a task force to work on a new statement of faith in response to our current reality, I told her I needed to think about it. And then, I immediately sent a message to my friend Brandon, who Jessica had told me was the person who had sparked the idea. I asked Brandon, “Can you promise me this isn’t just a statement to force unity or appease people? Can you promise we’re really going to dig into the hard stuff and wrestle to figure out what our faith is saying?”

Brandon said yes, he could promise me those things. So I said yes to Jessica too.

The reason for my hesitation is pretty simple, and when — on our first group call — we explained to each other why we had signed on to work on this statement, my reason for hesitating was also my explanation for why I said yes. I told the others on the team that I had seen the church fail to show up when it really counted on more than one occasion and this time, I wanted to be a part of the church doing better and really showing up.

On the far end of this experience, with the Sarasota Statement making its way into churches and conversations, I am proud of our efforts to show up in the way I had hoped we would. It was not easy process, and the statement is an imperfect document, but I know that it was the result of hard faithful wrestling between people of different perspectives.

At one point, I told one of my colleagues on the team that I had never been so aware of both my privilege and lack thereof as I was during this process. My race, gender, and sexual identity combined with my traditional Presbyterian education and my untraditional non-parish job placed me uniquely and intensely in the midst of the various identities represented in the group.

I was acutely aware of the need for those who were people of color in our group to be heard, respected, and trusted. I knew, too, that it is unbelievably rare for a bisexual voice to represented in a conversation about the church, faithful living, and justice. I found myself constantly pushing for us to be more outspoken that we were entirely comfortable with; I kept saying I wanted the document to be “an equal opportunity squirmer.” Meanwhile, I spent much of my energy in the group helping folks keep dialoguing, reframing, hoping, and trusting that we would find our way forward together — into a document of which we could all be proud.

It was an incredible experience to be a part of this writing team — humbling and encouraging at the same time. It was also as uncomfortable a place as it has always been for me — fighting for us to be bolder and more just while trying to do so in a way that many different people could hear and be convicted by. I suppose it will always be an uncomfortable place — to be at the table — but I’m so glad it’s where I’m called to be.


Layton E. Williams is an ordained PCUSA teaching elder currently serving as the Audience Engagement Associate for Sojourners in Washington D.C.. Her work combines data analysis, creative communications, new media strategy, and relationship building to grow the Sojourners community in both breadth and depth. She is also a writer, focusing on intersections of faith, justice, politics, and culture with an emphasis on sexuality and gender. She previously served as Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and received her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

2017 National Gathering Testimony: Glenn McCray & Charlie Scoma

Glenn McCray and Charlie Scoma provided the first testimony of the 2017 National Gathering on Monday afternoon.

 

Glenn McCray is a multi-ethnic, first generation American and “Seattle-ite” whose mother is from the Philippines and father from Louisiana. Glenn is happily married to Rev. Natasha Iwalani Hicks McCray, who serves as the pastor of Mt. View Presbyterian Church (Seattle), where he also attends and serves. Glenn and Tasha coach girls varsity basketball for their local high school and share a heart for reconciliation to God, self, and others. Vocationally, Glenn serves as the Director of Church-based Community Development with a Christian community development organization called Urban Impact. Glenn has spent more than a decade developing youth and education programs, serving as a chaplain for youth in juvenile detention, and working closely with other local organizations, schools, and local churches.

Charlie Scoma brings many years of experience in chaplaincy, ministry and education to the Seattle Police Department. He is an experienced counselor and trained in Critical Incident Stress Management. He has served in the fire service for over 13 years, he’s passionate about caring for others, and he is an instructor for an accredited chaplain academy, training other chaplains in the Northwest. He is an ordained pastor in the PCUSA and has an MSW from Rutgers University. Charlie coaches baseball and enjoys fly-fishing.

Prophetic Theology From a Non-Theologian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Teri McDowell Ott

James Baldwin was not a theologian. He, in fact, left the church after a friend helped him realize he was only going because he was too afraid to leave. The church shaped him, though. His father was a preacher whose unsuccessful ministry took his family from church to church where he would show off young James’ singing voice. For me, Baldwin’s essays, particularly those in Notes of a Native Son, reside in the realm of prophetic theology because of the extraordinary way they describe and illuminate the African-American experience and call to account those of us who live in privileged ignorance.

In the “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning of Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin shares what could be read as his personal mission statement: “I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

Baldwin himself, who began writing essays and novels in the 1950’s, perhaps never imagined the lasting mark he would leave. But today he is constantly quoted when race relations boil over and a relevant voice is needed. One reason why Baldwin’s words have been so influential is because of his honesty and his “enormous humanity.” He is fair and just, giving advice to other writers that “you do not have to fully humanize your black characters by dehumanizing the white ones.”

In this fair, honest approach, Baldwin is able to articulate and describe the human experience in a way that you, as a reader, know to be true, but could never articulate for yourself. In his introduction to Notes, Edward P. Jones describes reading Baldwin as wonderful: “We read [him] and come across passages that are so arresting we become breathless and have to raise our eyes from the page to keep from being spirited away.” This was my experience of reading Baldwin and why I recommend him so highly. He will take you places. He will take you to places of honest self and social examination, to places of epiphany and insight and crucial connection. Reading Baldwin is simply divine—and necessary for those seeking to be faithful.


Teri McDowell Ott is a Presbyterian pastor who currently serves Monmouth College (IL) as chaplain. After serving in parish ministry for 13 years, Teri now feels called to the liminal space between the sacred and the secular, the church and the ‘nones,’ the traditional and the contemporary. Teri feels called to build bridges between these spaces, especially through her writing and blogging. She has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.


I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”