Posts

New Questions for a New Paradigm

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Fernando Rodriguez

There are questions that open up possibilities and inch us closer to a better understanding of the community around us, and, ourselves. Then, there are questions that simply mess you all up. Mike Mather’s Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, finding abundant communities in unexpected places has not only pushed me to ask questions, but has changed my paradigm for community and ministry.

I met Mike during the early years of my ministry serving as a church planter in a Latinx community in Indianapolis. His ministry at Broadway United Methodist Church influenced me tremendously early on. Now, as an associate pastor leading mission and outreach efforts of a suburban high steeple church, his book has pushed me to continue wrestling with what it means to see and be a part of an abundant community.

Two of the most foundational questions one can ask as a church planter are “What are the needs of the community?” and “how can the church provide for those needs?” The ultimate purpose is to engage the community and hopefully grow the new church. Based on these questions, we developed programs like tutoring, dental clinics, etc. Many of these programs were successful as they provided for a perceived need the community had while creating opportunities for us to develop relationships with neighbors. However, this engagement was transactional and did not always lead to more people in worship.

The stories shared through the pages of Mather’s book offer different questions. Instead of asking what the needs are in the community (as real and pressing as they may be), the questions should be, “What are the gifts and talents of those in the neighborhood and what does it look like to build community around them?” They focus on what the community has, not on what it lacks.

The first time I considered these questions I was both excited and worried. Excited, because I knew that everyone in the neighborhood I was serving was a child of God, and consequently, was given gifts that build community. I was worried because it changed the paradigm from one that built a church to one that built community. These questions messed me up. They were convicting. They challenged all my pre-conceived notions of church, engagement, and community building.

Even today, as I serve a very different context, the questions persist. My current church is one that seeks to fund efforts such as those in my first ministry. We are constantly discerning what the best way is to invest in ministry outside the walls of the church. We serve as volunteers in local community organizations and have even developed a non-profit that brings music programming to public schools in the neighbor city of Pontiac.

Though the context may be different, Mather’s book reminds me not to stop asking questions that focus on seeing abundance in communities that are often thought to have nothing. The challenge now is to think if/how the programs we are funding are building off of the existing gifts and talents in the neighborhood being served. Although we have had good results with getting people to serve in local community organizations, a next step would be to ask: what has this engagement looked like? How are relationships being formed beyond the “service?”

Questions abound when exploring how to live into community in a way that celebrates true God-given abundance. The questions that Mather’s book raise for us are one’s that not only affect the church, but also socio-economics, health, education, etc. These questions are bigger than us. However, our calling is to ask them and “follow the story” that comes from them.


Fernando Rodríguez currently serves as Pastor for Missional Renewal and Stewardship at Kirk in the Hills in Michigan and has also pastored churches in Indiana and Delaware. He enjoys laughing with his wife and two children and screaming at the television without regard during FC Barcelona futbol matches.

Building Relationships through Mission and Pastoral Care

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

by Sue Williams

This February, when I learned that I may be experiencing another diagnosis of breast cancer, the first person I called was my husband. The next person I told was my Pastor, Rev. Jane Summey Mullennix.

Jane became my go-to person as she offered me pastoral care along this new cancer journey. The trust I had in Jane came from the many times that we worked together in various groups, she as the staff liaison and I as a lay leader.

One committee that we both serve on is the Mission Committee. My heart and passion for mission opportunities is one of the reasons I volunteered to serve on our Mission Committee. In November 2005 and several years thereafter, I joined members of my congregation as we traveled to a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance site in D’Iberville, MS, to help in the recovery and rebuilding of that community after Hurricane Katrina. It was during these experiences that I witnessed firsthand the deepening of relationships not only with those that I served beside but also the people of D’Iberville. I longed to see our church engage in outreach to other communities struck by natural disaster. In the spring of 2017, I shared my desire with Jane and the Mission Committee, and they encouraged me to see what opportunities might be available in my home state of South Carolina.

I had the energy and vision and researched our options. Jane offered her support, and together through collaborative leadership we planned a 2018 intergenerational spring break mission trip to Summerton, SC. We had 12 volunteers planning to go on the trip, ages 11-75, with a wide variety of abilities.

When I learned of my diagnosis in March, only one month before our mission trip, I was concerned that I might not be able to participate. It was around that time that one of our most skilled volunteers discovered that he would not be able to go. Needless to say, I was quite discouraged and thought we might have to cancel the trip. When I found out that my medical care could be put on hold for a week, I spread the word that the trip would still happen! This met with great enthusiasm, especially from Jane.

While on the trip, we shared many memorable moments. Jane led the way in showing us that taking the time to listen to someone share their story brought about a sense of healing and hope. Together we shared laughter, tears and sometimes even frustration. Through God’s grace, our humble, enthusiastic group was able to complete the tasks that were assigned to us. I told Jane that our week in Summerton is what I envision the Kingdom of God being like. She responded, “It was a kingdom adventure. In many ways, our group was kind of a representation of the kingdom with all our quirks and differences, but united in our love for God, neighbor, and one another!” We eagerly anticipate an opportunity to return and serve together again.

I attended a workshop at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering entitled “Leadership Essentials for Laity.” During that workshop the presenter, Dr. Ann A. Michel, stated that “Trust is the foundation of constructive engagement.” I believe it was the trust Jane placed in me to plan and organize this trip that has led to a rich and rewarding relationship with her as my pastor. As Jane continues to walk with me on this journey with cancer, I can’t wait to see what God has in store for our next adventure!


Sue Hicks Williams serves as a Deacon, Stephen Minister, and Mission Committee member at Oakland Ave. Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. Sue is a Special Needs educator in the Rock Hill School District. She enjoys long walks, reading and spending time with family and friends.

Establishing/Maintaining a Working Relationship with Your Pastor 101

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

by Barbara Cannon

Having been a member of five Presbyterian churches, I have some experience with new pastors, either my being new to the church or the pastor coming on the field of my church. There are a number of pastors and their spouses with whom I share longtime friendships and insight into the relationships they experience within their congregations. These circumstances have led me to want a close relationship with my pastor and family.

Initial meetings are important. After a period for settling in, schedule a brief appointment to introduce yourself. This is an excellent way to begin your relationship. Express support for his/her ministry and a positive attitude about the future of the church. Avoid posturing, recitation of personal accomplishments, and litanies of church problems. Ask “How can we together accomplish the mission of the church?” Don’t expect the pastor to remember your name after this meeting. When you next see each other, give your name again.

Establish a personal relationship as soon as possible. Invite the pastor and their family into your home. If the pastor is new to the presbytery, use the opportunity to invite other local pastors in the presbytery or community. I have done this on several occasions and found it a good way for the pastor to make contacts that will benefit them throughout their tenure in the area.

Written or electronic notes to the family are appreciated, especially on special occasions. I send a note of thanks to the family on the yearly anniversary of my pastor’s arrival at the church. Notes of encouragement or congratulations after a particularly meaningful sermon or a contentious problem are most appropriate.

Recognize the knowledge and education of your pastor. I remember asking my minister Randy Taylor, former Moderator of the General Assembly, the meaning of a word he used in a sermon. I increased my vocabulary and he recognized there were worshippers who were listening intently.

Remember the spouse and children. They are often left out of the early assimilation. On one occasion, an ex-officio position on the Coordinating Team of Presbyterian Women was created for the wife of the new minister. The pastor called to express his gratitude. She met and worked closely with a group of women in this capacity. A bond was formed almost immediately. Children can be invited for play dates or birthday parties. Their parents will be grateful for these gestures.

Encourage the pastor to fulfill his/her duties to the broader church. Often a pastor is uncertain if a congregation is supportive of the mandate for a pastor to serve in the broader governing bodies. Pastors need to be with their peers, especially if they are in isolated areas.

When you have things to discuss with the pastor, make an appointment. Respect his/her time, keeping a list of items to include in the meeting. Wait until you have several topics before you meet. If there are items the pastor needs to prepare, mention those when you make the appointment. I am often guilty of trying to give information to the pastor or ask questions of the pastor at inappropriate times (at a bereavement reception for instance). If this is truly necessary, write it down for him/her. I am working on this.

Do not be a tattletale unless you are the one confessing.

Say yes when your pastor asks you to serve the church.

All of these suggestions, simple though they be, will establish a relationship that will serve you and your pastor well. If the time comes when either of you feels a need to provide constructive criticism, you will have the mutual respect that allows the exchange.


Barbara S. Cannon is a ruling elder, not currently on the session, at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, Huntersville, NC. She is a former Moderator of Charlotte Presbytery, formerly Mecklenburg Presbytery. Her service to Presbytery includes serving on the Permanent Judicial Commission, Christian Education Committee, Preparation for Ministry Committee and presently the Committee on Ministry.

Human Resource

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, we’re curating a series on NEXT Church resources. Members of the NEXT Church communications team, staff, and advisory team are selecting resources already on our site and sharing the ways they have (or would) use them in their ministry context. We pray these will be of use to you in your own ministry! Have other ideas for resources you’ve used from our website? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Charlene Han Powell

I’ve been involved in the NEXT Church movement since the beginning-ish. It used to be a small group of people sitting around a few tables talking about what the church could be. Fast forward to a few years later and now it is comprised of hundreds of people around a number of tables across the country talking about what the church is already becoming. Dreams have become realities. Hopes have been realized. NEXT Church is a movement that is making a difference in the church.  I can personally testify to that.

When NEXT Church was in the early stages of its ministry, so was I. Not yet ordained. Not yet called. Not yet employed. I didn’t even know what resources I needed to be a good pastor. I just knew I needed some support and fellowship for this long and often lonely journey. I have found that in the NEXT Church community. Every regional gathering I attend, every conference I go to, every workshop I participate in, I walk away feeling less crazy and less isolated in this vocation.  The most valuable resource that NEXT Church has offered me are the people I have met and the relationships I have formed.

But the human resource I have found in NEXT Church is more than just companionship. When I needed to reimagine officer training* this past year, I reached out to my network of colleagues I have met over the years at the National Gathering. When I was navigating a recent job transition, I connected with those in NEXT Church who had gone through the same thing. When I am stuck in any sort of ministry-related rut, I rely on the wisdom and experience of this amazing community of passionate and capable leaders.

The best part about utilizing this valuable resource within NEXT Church is that all YOU have to do is show up. Next time we are in your area, show up. If there is an online roundtable that piques your interest, show up. When registration for the National Gathering goes live, SIGN UP and then show up. And get ready to reap the unbelievable benefits of this fantastic movement.

*Stay tuned – we’re offering a blog series on officer training next month! 


Charlene Han Powell is the Executive Pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in midtown Manhattan. Originally from California, Charlene is a proud New Yorker raising two young girls on the Upper West Side.

This Connectional Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Angela Ryo

The first time I attended a NEXT Church National Gathering was three years ago. I was in my first call as a resident minister — a two-year position for recent seminary grads to explore every aspect of ministry in a large congregational setting. Going to the National Gathering was a natural progression of what I wanted out of ministry: to imagine a different church, a different set of tools for ministry, and life-transformative outcome and not just soul-draining output.

So I went for the first time, looking for others who were doing ministry differently and wanting to learn and connect with them. That particular year, there was a workshop titled, “Do Something Else.” Perfect. Just what I was looking for. It was led by three very energetic (I mean, “exactly-how-many-cups-of-coffee-did-you-have-this-morning?” energetic!) pastors who were doing ministry differently. They sure LOOKED crazy! But as crazy as they were, by the end of the workshop, I remember looking at one of them in particular — Nate — and thinking, “how cool would it be to work with someone like him, who can imagine a different way to BE the church!” But he was all the way from Delaware and I was in Michigan — fat chance that would ever happen!

The next time I saw Nate was the following year at the National Gathering. He had accepted a call at a church in Michigan and he was looking to put together a team. I had my first informal interview with him between workshops. And yup, you guessed it — he’s now my head of staff. That’s just a prime example of what NEXT Church is all about: bringing total strangers together in surprising and awesome ways!

This year, I came to the National Gathering with my boss — the one I met at a National Gathering two years ago. We dreamed together as we watched Ignite presentations about Pres House and Serve GR and asked each other, “Why aren’t we doing this at our church?” During David Leong’s keynote, we thought about how we can help our church be at the forefront of change by lifting up artists as prophets and adding fuel to their imagination. Having enjoyed my time with old and new friends, I left the National Gathering feeling rejuvenated and refreshed with a renewed hope for the Church.

I am no longer a resident minister whose job description is to be curious and to dream and experiment. In the busyness of everyday ministry, curiosity and imagination often take the back seat because they feel like luxuries I can’t afford. However, reflecting on my experience from the National Gathering, I am reminded of the importance of practicing the following in my ministry:

  1. Interaction with ALL KINDS of people (even those you think had too many cups of coffee!).
  2. Integration of what I learn from them into my daily life as well as my ministry (workshops are great at that).
  3. Imagination of what the church OUGHT to be and CAN be (Ignite conversations will do that for ya!).
  4. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformational rather than transactional in all of our relationships both in our church and community (David’s keynote hit the spot).
  5. Invitation to others to join and dream with me in my ministry and vice versa (that’s NEXT Church, y’all!).

I hope you will keep dreaming with me until the next National Gathering! And who knows? You might end up meeting your head of staff there just like I did!


Angela Ryo is an assistant pastor for Christian Formation at Kirk in the Hills in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her previous life, she was a high school English teacher in Chicago, where she grew up. She loves to watch food documentaries and horror movies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell which is which.

Journeying Through the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.

Power as Fluid

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Kathryn Lester-Bacon

Power is absolute. Power is permanent. Those who have power, deserve it. Those who are without power, deserve it. Nothing will change. All is set in stone. It’s useless to try to change things.

These are the dictums about power that I’ve absorbed over the years. From history lessons, political rhetoric, movie narratives, and other places, we often receive this underlying narrative: there are protagonists and antagonists, right and wrong, the revered and the reviled, the powerful and powerless. And we all fall in place behind one or the other.

Yet, this view of power is not accurate, it is not helpful, and, most particularly, it is not biblical.

Power is not absolute. Instead, power is always situational and fluid.

My work in the NEXT Church community organizing certificate (offered through Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, in partnership with Metro IAF) has shown this to me. Through case studies, bible studies, and on-the-ground experiences, we’ve explored the dimensions in which power comes and goes, the ways in which power can be claimed and lost and reclaimed again.

This challenges me. “Power Is Fluid” challenges my theology and my way of seeing the world. This exposes how often I approach certain narratives and dialogues — be they religious, civic, political, familial, professional, etc — as fixed things, as discourses locked into templates of absolute power/ powerlessness.

Understanding power as fluid changes this. Understanding power as fluid means that I can never be certain of my own inherent “rightness,” even if I’ve ended up with the power in a situation. Power as fluid means I cannot understand an issue only by closing myself away in my office to think deeply about it. Power as fluid means that I must continually engage with others who are involved in an issue, looking around to learn from them, to learn who has power, who needs to get power, and how that exchange might unfold.

When power is framed as situational and fluid, those without power are invited to figure out ways to claim their power. Likewise, those with power are forced to confront that their own standing is temporary, impermanent.

Of course, those exchanging the power can block others from joining the exchange, block them from joining the board or the party or the informal golf dates. In this way, from the outside, power can look like something that is fixed and inherent.

But it is not. It is not. It is not.

Power is not absolute. The lowly shall be lifted up and the mighty brought down from their thrones. In Christ, all our earthly power is impermanent.

Yet, as a Christian, I must admit that there is one exception. The only power in the universe to remain absolute, fixed, inherent is the love of God in Christ revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit —and even God is always “doing a new thing!”

This adapting, “try a new thing” principle is brought home to me by the IAF stories — oh so many good stories! — of what it takes to get “to the table,” to get into a one-on-one relational meeting, to hold a decision-maker accountable. Clearly, it takes adaptation, agility, creativity, and failure.

Power is grasped when people understand that power is not absolute. Power is exchanged when people gather together and free themselves from the idea that power is a locked-up, locked-tight, done deal.

Our power is in knowing that all power is fluid — except for the inherently creative, abiding, loving, transforming, all-consuming power of God.

Thanks be.


Kathryn Lester-Bacon is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA. She is currently finishing up NEXT Church’s Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership. She enjoys life in the city with her husband, Michael, and daughter, Josie.

A Theology of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Cristina Paglinauan

A few weeks ago when a wicked nor’easter blew through town, “Do you have power?” was a common refrain.

Thinking about power is something I find myself doing a lot these days. Perhaps it’s because of the seemingly never-ending examples of abuses of power, rampant in the news. Perhaps because, as a parent and as clergy, knowing how to responsibly and appropriately use the power I have is paramount. Perhaps it’s simply because power, as a theological concept, is both interesting, relevant and important to noodle over and wrestle with.

The passage from scripture that first comes to my mind when reflecting on a theology of power grounded in the Christian tradition is from the second chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This idea/concept/image, of the fullness and power of God, the Source of all things seen and unseen, emptying Godself into human form — the limitless, infinite God becoming limited, finite, human — in the service and for the sake of humankind, lies at the heart of traditional Christian theology.

Alongside this central image arise other images of power associated with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit: the power that flows through Jesus to cure the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48); the power Jesus commands to silence the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25), to restore sight to the blind (Mark 8:22-26, Luke 18:35-43, John 9:1-41), to raise people from the dead (Jairus’ daughter: Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26; Lazarus: John 11:1-44); the power of the Holy Spirit that alights on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), to inspire them to spread the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection; indeed, the very power of God to raise Jesus from the dead and to conquer death for all time.

It feels important to note that in performing healing miracles, Jesus acts in response to requests put forth to him by others, or only after having asked someone, “What is it that you would like me to do for you?” and listening to the response. In other words, Jesus uses his God-given power to heal in respect of and in accordance with the free will and free choice of a human being; Jesus’ power is relational.

Flickr photo by Dallas Epperson

Today’s most popular contemporary myths and stories centering around power, and the right use vs. the abuse of power, mirror a similar theology of power presented in scripture: power used in the service of and for the benefit of others, to heal, uplift, and empower them, in harmony with their own desires, free will, free choices, and self-identified needs, is “good”; whereas power used to control, manipulate, harm, take advantage of, abuse or oppress others, against their own free will and self-determination, is “evil.” Darth Vader and the Emperor in Star Wars mythology, and Voldemort in Harry Potter lore, are evil precisely because they view and use power as a tool to dominate and control others for their own self-aggrandizement, against individuals’ free will.

Power that empowers and uplifts others, to be able to “love one’s neighbor as oneself”, is Godly and goodly power; power that is accumulated for the purpose of being shared, given away and multiplied, for the healing of individuals and communities, likewise, is Godly and goodly power. Power that is accumulated, hoarded, and centralized in the service of a select individual or an elite group, at the expense of and against the free will of others, is not of God.

Lately, I have enjoyed learning and thinking about power through a new lens: the lens of community organizing. Thanks to a week-long training last fall co-sponsored by Metro IAF, NEXT Church, and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and the work I’ve been engaged with through BUILD, the Metro IAF affiliate in Baltimore, I have come to understand an additional perspective of power. Power “in the world as it is” (as opposed to the world “as it should be”) = “organized people” and “organized money.” Further, the accumulation of power around people’s shared values and common self-interests — “self-interest” having to do with the true “essence” of each human being — and where these interests align, can lead to effective action, moving the “world as it is” bit by bit towards the realization of “the world as it should be.” In my view, this new understanding of power complements and helps to “ground” and “bring down to earth” the theology of power that I understand through the lens of Christian scripture. It provides a practical “how to” approach, to help realize more pockets and places of “heaven on earth” for all of God’s people.


Cristina Paglinauan serves as Associate Rector for Community Engagement at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore, MD. She enjoys spending time with her husband David Warner, their two children Grace and Ben, and their feline child, Olmsted the cat.

Organizing in Esther

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Angela Williams

A sermon preached at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Scripture: Esther 3:12-4:17.

To the king’s satraps, to the governors over all the provinces, to the officials of all the peoples, to every province, and to every people: I hereby order you to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day…and to plunder their goods.

What would you do if you heard this message? How would you respond?

No, these words do not come from Hitler’s regime during World War II, but they do come from the Bible (Esther 3). But the question remains, how do you respond? What do you say when such a decree is proclaimed in your community? How do you respond when a city enacts a “stop and frisk” policy? What do you say when your state legislature passes a “show your papers” bill? How do you respond when a state wants to legislate the bathrooms people can use?

The text tells us that Mordecai, a Jew living in exile in Persia, responds by tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes, going through the city, wailing with a loud, bitter cry all the way to the king’s gate. And he is not alone.

There was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and lamenting. The targeted and oppressed people took their communal lament to the streets, disrupting the law and order of the empire.

They were activists. Perhaps you’ve heard their lamenting today in the chants of “Black lives matter!” or “Water is life!” or “No human is illegal!” or “Love is love!” or “No ban, no wall!” or “Enough is enough!”

I invite you to read this story of Esther through the lens of activism and community organizing. Activism is when people with loose relationships and shared ideals gather in a vigil or march against an idea or person who is not physically present. Activists try to shift public opinion and absolutely have a place in the public sphere. The work of activists can create an atmosphere where it is easier for organizers to create change. Community organizing, on the other hand, builds long-term relationships with people and organizations. It uses specific tactics to create change with powerful people at the table. Organizers build power to create a desired change.

Back in Esther, the Jews’ chants sounded in the king’s court. There, Queen Esther heard about her uncle Mordecai in his sackcloth and ashes publicly mourning at the gates. This distressed her, and she, with the best of intentions, wanted to fix the problem. Clearly, Mordecai just needed more clothes. Then he could stop causing such a ruckus. Then he could keep his respectable reputation. Then the queen would not be embarrassed by his antics.

When Mordecai refused the clothes, the queen sent someone to learn more about the situation. Hatach, the assistant, came down from the queen’s quarters to the open square outside the gate to deal with Mordecai. Mordecai told him exactly how Haman bribed the king for the edict condemning the Jews; he gave him a copy of the executive order. He beseeched Hatach to show it to Esther, the foreigner who was married to the most powerful man in the country.

In this moment, Mordecai shifts from being an activist in the streets to being a community organizer working to create change for his people. Reading the story of Esther through a hermeneutic of community organizing, it becomes clear that principles of organizing are also biblical themes.

Community organizing is people and money coming together in relationship to change the world as it is closer to the world as it should be. Theologically, we can say that the world as it should be is the kingdom of heaven flourishing on earth. Organizers work to build power. Notice the similarities between the English word power and the Spanish verb poder, to do. Power is the ability to do, and building power involves organized people and organized money. Organizers start by building relationships. They know that in the world as it is, everyone acts in their own self-interest, and that is ok. By tapping into folks’ self-interest, organizers build to a specific action with the goal of getting a particular reaction. They agitate and create tension in order to get that reaction. Through each action the moral arc of the universe bends just a bit closer to justice.

In the Jewish community, Queen Esther clearly has the most power to change the king’s decree. She has access to organized money and organized people in the court, and she can create change. Mordecai has a relationship with Esther. He asks her to leverage her relationship with the king to save the lives of her people. At first, Esther is resistant to Mordecai’s request. Anyone who goes in to see the king without an invitation will be killed. It is not in her self-interest to approach the king. Mordecai does not accept this and agitates her. He pushes back to create tension.

Mordecai identifies what is really at stake. Up to this point, Esther has kept her Jewish heritage a secret. The Persian king is only supposed to marry virginal women from prominent Persian families. If her secret is revealed, she will be killed for her deceit and due to the genocidal decree. But her silence means violence for her community.

If death is inevitable for Esther, why not at least die trying to make the world better for her people? Perhaps she has come to royal dignity for such a time as this.

Eventually, Esther acknowledges and accepts her identity as a Jewish woman who has the power in the palace to change the situation for her people. She recognizes that her self-interest is to keep her life and help to save her people from genocide.

Still, she cannot do this work by herself. Queen Esther needs a broad base of support. The community prepares themselves spiritually by fasting for three days and nights. The community includes not only the Jews in Susa but also Esther’s maids, who most likely were not Jewish, making it an interfaith community. Esther needs the support of organized people from many different places in order to successfully run the action on the king, which saves her people from destruction.

As the story continues, Esther confronts the king and corners Haman in his malicious plot. Esther, an orphan Jewish woman living in exile rises up to become Queen of Persia, exposes a corrupt plot to commit genocide, convinces the king to reverse his royal decree, and saves the Jews.

Let’s return to the question posed above. What will you do? How will you respond? Will you be an activist in the streets calling attention to injustice? Will you be a silent bystander in the Empire? Or will you organize to move the world as it is closer to the world as it should be? How is God calling you to act in your community?


Angela Williams is training to be a community organizer and a pastor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, TX. She finds life in experiencing music, listening to podcasts, and exploring creation.

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Julia Pearson

A sermon preached at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and we’re preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Throughout the season we’ll hear about a baby in a manger, Mary and Joseph and the Three Magi; so why do we begin the season with these dark, apocalyptic readings? It seems a bit morose, doesn’t it? I think it’s because Jesus’ birth was about a lot more than a baby in a manger, and these readings are calling our attention to that. We’re being reminded that all is not what we think it is, and we’d better start paying attention or we’ll miss the whole point of why we’re here.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of incarnation is Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun who specializes in science and religion. She writes, “In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a new God-consciousness of love becomes radically expressed in a way that departs from other religions. This new religious consciousness evokes a new way of action. Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution, an explosion of love that ignites a new way of thinking about God, creation and future.”

She continues, “Jesus’ God-centered life shows a way of relating to others that makes things whole where there are divisions. His love gathers and heals what is scattered and apart. He draws people into community and empowers them to live the law of love.”

Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution? That’s a far cry from a sweet little baby in a manger, and that’s what today’s readings are trying to get us to see. It’s a wake up call to see reality from a different point of view – to, in fact, see it as it really is.

As of this morning, there have been 319 murders in Baltimore this year. That’s more than last year, and we still have a month to go. This past Thursday I walked in the Harlem Park West neighborhood with leaders from our outreach ministry BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. When I heard about the murder of Detective Suitor in that same neighborhood several weeks ago, my heart broke, and I know many people in the city felt the same way. It’s why we were there on Thursday.

I saw block after block full of vacant houses, with maybe two occupied houses on any given block. People hear gunshots every night. I talked with a woman named Talia who has a 15 year old son and she won’t let him go outside after dark. She has only lived in the neighborhood for five months, and in that time she knows of five people who have been killed, one right across the street from her. I listened to her story and I felt the despair of Isaiah’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” I pray that her son will make it out of that neighborhood alive.

And that’s just part of our current reality. We hear a new story almost every day of another man accused of sexual harassment or assault, as centuries of treating women as objects rises up to be healed and transformed. But that’s a subject for another sermon. What’s capturing my heart right now is what’s happening in our city, which we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Recently at a BUILD Strategy Team meeting, we were looking at people’s responses to questions about what is causing the violence in Baltimore. Overwhelmingly, answers from throughout the city were lack of opportunities for youth. Many people also mentioned drugs, but when you added up lack of jobs, the closing of rec centers and lack of after-school programs, lack of youth opportunities was the top reason. As we dove deeper into the conversation, a youth member of the team spoke up. She said, “You know those guys who were picked up in Federal Hill recently? I know them. I grew up with one of them. He saw someone murdered right in front of him in his living room. We can’t begin to imagine what these kids have experienced in their lives.” And in that moment we all knew that we had to start telling a different story about the youth in Baltimore.

The disenfranchised neighborhoods of this city aren’t the Wild West, they are a war zone, and everyone living in them experiences the trauma of this on a regular basis. We need to address the trauma at least as much as the violence, because they go hand in hand. This isn’t to excuse the violence – violence should never be excused under any circumstance – but addressing trauma is the only hope we have of getting at the root cause of the violence.

Three years ago Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gave a TED talk about the adverse health affects of childhood trauma. She talked about how she used to look at childhood trauma either as a social problem to be referred to social services, or as a mental health problem to be referred to mental health services. This is how she was trained.

She started working with kids from a poor and underserved neighborhood in San Francisco, and a lot of kids came into her office who had been referred to her for ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But when she did a thorough history and physical exam on them, the diagnosis didn’t fit. Most of these kids had experienced severe trauma, and something wasn’t adding up.

One day a colleague handed her a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and it forever changed the way she practiced medicine. This study asked 17,500 adults about their exposure to what they called adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. These include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you get a point on your ACE score.

It turns out ACES are incredibly common. 67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.5%, one in eight people studied, had four or more. The researchers also found that there is a direct correlation between ACES and health: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. Dr. Burke Harris explains why this is: “imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, ‘Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!’ And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.

Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Identifying a direct link – through scientific evidence – between childhood trauma and health was groundbreaking. Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said at one point, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” For Dr. Burke Harris, this was exciting news because it was easy to test for, which made it possible to address holistically. If we know someone has a high ACE score, we can provide wraparound services that help to mitigate the long-term affects. She expected it to become a routine test in every doctor’s office. But that hasn’t happened.

Here she is again: “You know, at first I thought that we marginalized the issue because it doesn’t apply to us. That’s an issue for those kids in those neighborhoods. Which is weird, because the data doesn’t bear that out. The original ACEs study was done in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian, 70 percent college-educated. But then, the more I talked to folks, I’m beginning to think that maybe I had it completely backwards.” She continues, “Even in this room, this is an issue that touches many of us, and I am beginning to believe that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”

This is where our Advent call to “keep awake” breaks in like a splash of cold water. How can we be present with all that we are, and all that we feel, without either disassociating from it or running away?

To sit with what makes us uncomfortable – to not look away, to not run away, to not numb ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, or shopping. It’s practicing unconditional presence. This is what I hear Jesus saying when he implores us to “keep awake.” We have to be willing to feel our scariest, darkest places if they are to be transformed. Because in the staying, the abiding – the surrendering – God does break in, and transforms our suffering into something new. Our surrender is our participation in the divine workings of God. It’s letting ourselves be the clay in the potter’s hands, and it’s how we become active participants in creation. But we have to be willing to stay with it. This is where contemplative practices like meditation are so helpful, because they train us to stay present through consistent, steady practice. Because if we can’t be present to our own pain, how can we possibly be present to the pain of others?

When we try not to think about what’s going on in East and West Baltimore, isn’t it just a symptom of trying to avoid our own dark places? When we avoid eye contact with a homeless person, aren’t we really afraid of what we’ll see in ourselves? If we’re going to be Christ in the world today, we have to understand these connections, because that’s the example he lived. This is what it means to “keep awake.”

So how do we apply this unconditional presence to others? We listen to people’s stories, and we share our own stories with them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We let go of thinking we have all of the answers, making assumptions, and stereotyping people, and we just listen to them. We work to “gather and heal what has become scattered and apart” by embracing others as our own brothers and sisters because they are our brothers and sisters, and they are also our children.
There is a program in East Baltimore that has been doing this for the past sixteen years. It’s called The Club in Collington Square. It is an after school and summer program that currently serves 90 children with a waiting list of 40.

Its program director, Vanessa Williams, is an incredible woman. She is a specialist in urban education and knows how to develop children as both learners and leaders. The kids call her their grandmother. Most of her staff of teachers and assistants are from the neighborhood, and they are passionate about giving back to their community. The program includes academics, enrichment activities like dance and martial arts, play, and homework help. They also provide a snack and a hot dinner every day. It is a structured, loving haven in a very tough neighborhood, and it works. If we had programs like this all over the city, it would transform the fabric of our communities. But even this one is struggling to survive. I highly encourage you to take a look at their video – I’ll make sure there’s a link to it on our Facebook page.

Programs like The Club give us hope, and as people of faith we have a unique relationship to hope. We hold it deep within us, and right now we need to let it shine like a beacon for this city because we are in a state of emergency. Just this week school officials in Carroll County have halted all school related trips to Baltimore, because of the violence. So the Francis Scott Key High School Marching Band won’t be playing in the mayor’s Christmas parade this afternoon. It’s bad. This problem affects ALL of us, and it is in all of our self-interests to help heal this city. We can’t wait for the mayor, or the police, or elected officials to fix this. It’s going to take all of us.

To that end, your voice matters, so today during the offertory, members of the cathedral’s BUILD Core Team will be handing out a card containing two questions about the violence in the city. PLEASE take the time to fill it out – we’ll collect them as you leave today. The team will be bringing the cards to a BUILD meeting this Thursday, where we will begin addressing the violence in the city based on our citywide listening. If you are moved to get involved with this effort, talk to someone on the BUILD Core Team, and come to Thursday’s meeting if you can. Team members all have BUILD logos on their name tags today.

I’m going to close with a poem by Jan Richardson, who did the artwork on the cover of this week’s bulletin. It’s called Blessing for Waking.

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.
Amen.


Julia Pearson is Canon for Evangelism at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a student at the Living School, studying with Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley. The program emphasizes an embodied lifestyle made up of practices that deepen a more conscious union with God, and empowers students to express that union actively through works of engagement and compassion in the world.