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Re-post: Free to Journey Towards Home

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on September 4, 2013. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Steve Willis

home smallThe elder said to me, “It feels like the church is in exile, like ancient Israel, away from home and in a foreign land.” “Sydney” is an amazing elder, a professional mother of two great young kids, extremely well educated and remarkably committed to her church. I’ve heard her exile description of the church since starting seminary over two decades ago.  Of course I have used it myself many times. But this time it struck me as a metaphor that doesn’t work. Let me explain why.

Part of the reason for my change of heart has been getting to know Sydney, the other elders of her church and the congregation as a whole. For six months I’ve been serving her church, a 1,000 member congregation located in a beautiful, leafy old suburb in Lynchburg, Virginia. Probably a bigger part of the reason for my change of heart is that I have been serving small, mostly rural congregations for eighteen years. I also serve a remarkable congregation of 45 members in a beautiful, Appalachian hollow near Buchanan, Virginia. The shared ministry between these two very different churches reminds me of how the church is changing and also makes me wonder about the church in exile metaphor.

Let me suggest an alternative telling of the covenant peoples’ story for today. We are not in exile in Babylon any more. We left years ago and didn’t notice. And we’re unsure about how to make our way home. Ironically, our captivity was due to our success in the American culture. And the mainline church became a willing partner in the mythology of the American success story. The post-World War II boom of the successful suburban programmatic church was simply the fruit of seeds sown since post Civil War industrialists financed the creation of the first prototypes of the mega church. Our situation today when read through the eyes of this American mythology can only be defined as the opposite of success – failure. Yet through the eyes of covenant faith we may describe it as freedom. We are free to love God and neighbor and know ourselves by the light of the Gospel.

So it’s good news. Right? Well, yes it is. But freedom is a wonderful and fearful thing. The dominant American culture has let us go. Or more to the point – really doesn’t care about us much anymore. The good news is that this is the opportunity to become more of who we really are and more of what we hope to be. The challenge is that this requires traits like the ones the empire resisting St. Columba prayed for – courage, faith and cheerfulness.

If we are still in exile, then the implication is that we are waiting to return to our former success and status in the American culture. But if we have left the exile of our captivity to the American success story, then we are already on our way home. My mom likes to say, “When you’re on a journey, always travel light.”

Perhaps a large suburban programmatic church and a small rural family church sharing a pastor is one example among many of the church traveling light. Multiple models for ministry are being created and reclaimed at the grass roots of the church. You’ve heard them before: shared ministry, bivocational ministry, commissioned ruling elder ministry. We could go on. Embracing and cultivating a pluralistic view of ministry models helps the pilgrim church travel light. The growth of these models embody the reality that our home is not our social location in the American culture.  Our home is the God of Jesus Christ.


Steve Willis is the author of Imagining the Small Church: Celebrating a Simpler Path (Alban Institute).

Hills of Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s holler, not hollow
where I live
On the farm in the hills
Of the Appalachian mountains
The land is our soul
Not just our property
Settled generations ago
The spirits of my ancestors
Are all around me
As I work the soil
My hands cracked from toil
Just like theirs from hard days.
Living in poverty ain’t easy
It’s not because we don’t work
We work our hands
To the bone
Cutting wood for fires
Clearing land of thickets
Planting gardens
Hoeing, weeding
plowing, harvesting,
Storing, drying,
Freezing, canning
And food in the winter
is our pay.
It is our work.
It is our job.
Yet, others say
We are lazy, sorry
We could move
We could go
Where there are jobs
But to leave
Is more than just moving
It’s leaving our world
Our family, our culture
Our music, our faith
Our land, our heart.
It’s not like moving
From one place to another
It’s giving up everything
That one knows and loves
To move to strange ways
Strange lands, strange cultures.
Mysteries and wonders
of Appalachia
Cannot be known
By driving freeways
And reading about it
One must turn
Onto windy roads
Traveling deep
Up and down craggy hills
through lush forests
Sometimes
Five or six roads
Off the main road
To find the places
And see the people.
Sit on the porch
Eat at the table
Stay for a while
To listen to the
Stories as only
The teller can tell
With laughter
And tears
Fables filled
With wisdom
And truth.
One must look
Into the eyes
Of weary souls
To see hearts
Burdened by
Hard times
Hard work
Hard lives
Yet alive
With God’s grace
Love’s steadfastness
Spirit’s power
And faith
That endures
Hoping beyond hope
That others remember
And will not forget
The stories
The faith
The love
The lives
The beauty
The hopes
The dreams
Once they drive on
From the hills of Appalachia.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

Holding Tight to the Rhythm of Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elise Neal

It was a blessing to grow up as a native West Virginian with small town roots and a sense of community. In my hometown of Philippi I was baptized and confirmed and ordained — all in the Philippi Presbyterian Church. This church took its baptism vows seriously and helped to nurture my faith that has led me to be an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the past 9 years. But ministry looks a lot different now in West Virginia.

Photo from First Presbyterian Facebook page

Currently I serve as the pastor the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It too is a small town by today’s standards — but it’s much larger than Philippi where I grew up. In 2015 this congregation celebrated 200 years of ministry and in 2016 they celebrated 100 years in their current building, but these celebrations come with much sadness. As with many of our congregations, membership has shrunk, but in West Virginia the numbers are staggering. My current church was built 100 years ago, during the industrial age, and this congregation had more than 1200 members. There were three worship services and educational opportunities for everyone. Many of my members remember these glory days of times past, when the church was the center of both the community and of social life. They were children during this time and they long for those days to return. But the reality is that this will never be. As the need for coal decreased and the railroads moved west, so too did companies and industries. The jobs and people followed.

The current economic state in West Virginia has only continued to diminish as companies continue to leave the area — and nothing takes its place. So the congregation that was 1200 members is now 150. My home congregation, Philippi Presbyterian Church, has 12 members where there used to be more than 100. Those that stayed owned local businesses or worked as teachers, doctors, professors at local colleges, coal miners, and in local government. These people are the members of our churches. They grew up with the traditions of the church and hold tight to the rhythm of ministry that they remember from years past.

The challenge for these churches moving forward will be to embrace a new understanding of ministry in rural Appalachia. Will they be able to move towards new ministries the reach people in their local communities, communities that are vastly different today? Most of these churches won’t be able to make the shift and will not survive. It is a story that is far too common in West Virginia and it’s sad to say, the little church that I love, the little church that nurtured and raised me will likely be one of those that doesn’t make it.

But there is hope! With every death there is a new life that arises. There is always the opportunity to grow and nurture relationships in community around West Virginia. In the future it may mean that these groups form around music gatherings or at a little diner for a weekly meal. Regardless of where we meet, ministry will continue to take place as God strengthens our faith and relationships with others. The big question is — who will we invite to join us?


Elise Renee Neal is a native of Philippi, West Virginia, and has served the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont for the past seven years. She recently accepted a new call to serve as the pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas.

2017 National Gathering Ignite: Ann Hartman

Ann Hartman gives an Ignite presentation at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering about her experience interning at a Presbyterian church in Yukutat, Alaska.