The Energy to Keep Going

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, David Norse Thomas is curating a series featuring reflections on the 2019 National Gathering, which we held March 11-13 in Seattle. We’ll share the stories and insights of people who attended the Gathering in person and virtually (via our live stream), and experienced new life and a deeper sense of hope for the people of God we call the Church. What piece of the National Gathering has stuck with you? Where are you finding hope? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by David Norse Thomas

“This all sounds great, but I have to ask: how much were you working each week to make this happen?” This honest question, asked in the workshop I was co-leading on intergenerational ministry, was one that I wasn’t quite ready for.

As a church revitalizer of a small, older congregation in suburban Baltimore, I’ll be honest: I work long weeks. There are months where I’m focused on how to keep a sixty-year-old church building going, looking at how to save money so we can reduce our deficit, and rearranging our pews so our handful of children have enough space to play, while also being accessible to our deaf folks and our ASL interpreter, and folks adjusting to reduced mobility and walkers. It’s the important work of hospitality and leading a small congregation, and while it can be life-giving, there are moments that make my soul sing: visiting with folks in their nineties as they ponder what they want their legacy to be to the next generation of progressive Christians; meeting with someone who hasn’t been in church in decades, but who encountered Jesus anew in worship and wants to get involved; training leaders in community organizing so that we can partner with the Holy Spirit as they move the world from how it is to a little closer to how it should be. The two kinds of long days are interconnected, interwoven; the one not possible without the other.

When I arrived at Maryland Presbyterian Church, I knew that I was going to need practices that empower and energize me. Each week, I set time aside to meet with folks, both within and outside of our congregation, for relational meetings; 30-45 minutes where I ask about what keeps folks up at night, and what gets them out of bed the next morning to do something about it. I also share what kindles the embers within me, to keep going. This has set all of what I do, even the seemingly mundane, aflame with the holy fire that set the galaxy’s spinning.

I worked a lot the first year in my call, knowing that I had to lay the groundwork. Now though, I’m at a place where I take Tuesdays and Saturdays off to hike and practice Sabbath. But I also make time to do the work that gives me the energy to keep going.

The NEXT Church National Gathering is part of what keeps me going. I work a lot, but I also try to work on what gives me, and my congregation, life. I never thought that life was a fourty-hour-a-week gig. Instead of thinking of work-life balance, I think about being centered on being a disciple. That weaves me into a story, and an energy, that gets me through plumbing problems and deficits. I hope that this month’s blog ignites similar fires within you as well.

Rev. David Norse Thomas (he/him/his) is the pastor of Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson, MD. Known as “the little Church in the woods,” and “the Church full of badass, progressive Grandmas, and everyone’s favorite Aunt and Uncle,” MPC is a dream congregation for Rev. Norse Thomas to explore what radical hospitality and community organizing can unleash in the hands of loving followers of Jesus.

In Search of Sabbath

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 Adriene Thorne

I am sore afraid that the ruling elders in my church are working two jobs, at least – the one they get paid to do and the unpaid one they do to the glory of God. Too often, church looks like their second job – their second job with long hours and lots of demands. While I am grateful for the working relationships I enjoy with dozens of dynamic, creative elders, I am also on a mission to reclaim sabbath for us all. I hope you will join me.

I began feeling nervous last fall when an elder in my church told me that when she and her husband retire at the end of this year, they would probably take a break from church. I murmured, “Oh, visiting family and friends? Traveling abroad?” She replied, “No, I think we will take a break from church because… maybe we’re tired?” She spoke in a little chipmunk voice with her hands in front of her face as though she thought I would smite her! She went on to share that she wanted a break from lying awake at night wondering if the boiler would work on Sunday morning. She needed a reprieve from coming to church and answering questions about the building, the insurance, and the new church carpet. She wanted to be free of the burdens of doing ministry in a 200-year-old building that had spilled into her life over the course of more than two decades of service. She was in search of a sabbath, and I couldn’t blame her. Just listening to the many responsibilities she carried out made me want to take a nap!

It isn’t just my elder, and it isn’t just my church. Over the past six months I’ve queried lay leaders from a few churches around the country who have shared with me both their satisfaction in serving and their joy in finally being done. Elders I spoke with thanked God their time of service had ended. Every. Single. One.

As I attend conferences and connect with ruling elders from all walks of life, I am reminded that I signed up for this work, that I trained for it, and that I love it. It is my calling and my job. I take a sabbath rest two days of nearly every week, but many of my elders work all week at their paying job and then work many evenings and all weekend at their church job. A colleague recently said to me that church work, done right, is life giving. Yes, that is true, but I am also listening to the stories and looking into the faces of elders who look anything but alive.

I realize that the language I’ve heard thrown around in ministry that says lay leaders are unpaid staff, is problematic. First and foremost, lay leaders are members of the body of Christ entrusted to the care of their pastor. They, as much as any member, and sometimes more than most, need the pastoral attention of their teaching elder. And if the only or primary conversations we are having with them are about budgets and attendance and volunteering more of their time, then something is wrong. Where and what is sabbath for ruling elders?

I’ve started a self-scheduling calendar for elders at my church. They can put themselves on my calendar for an agenda free tea date as often as they need one. Occasionally, I will invite one or two or several over for dinner with me and my family and say bring your partner and kids. Sometimes I’ll grab a glass of wine with an elder at a local bar after I’ve put my kid to bed, and always when we gather, I’m creating sabbath. The only rule is that church conversations are banned. Often, we laugh, share stories, and learn something new about one another, and for that hour, there are no demands on us to accomplish anything more than the tending of ourselves. My elders love pondering where God is in their lives right now and what it is their soul needs. The hour leaves us feeling loved and fed.

We are all slowly starting to come back to life at my church. It is imperfect, and we still do too much. September is already jam-packed, but things thin out by Reformation Sunday. The best part is that we are doing a better job of being on the lookout for Sabbath and asking the questions that make ministry possible and most importantly, life giving and restful.

Adriene Thorne serves as pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn in New York City where the community seeks to tell God’s story of love and justice in creative and transformative ways. Find her on Facebook at Adriene.Thorne.Minister, on Twitter at @AdrieneThorne and on Instagram at revadriene.

Resist Right Now

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 Kathy Wolf Reed

Earlier this year I was fortunate to read Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Like many of Brueggemann’s works, the book is both brief and powerful, making it (somewhat ironically) an ideal choice for those in professional ministry.

Striking to me was Brueggemann’s description of ancient Egypt: defined by anxiety, overly concerned with productivity, and overcome with an idolatrous worship of commodity. This exhausting mode of existence is not only an apt description of modern day society but modern day mainline Protestantism as well. I suppose that’s why I have not been able to get this book out of my mind.

Amidst threats that somehow our hard-earned commodities might not be safe or our ability to be productive could become compromised, human fear propels us into overdrive. We believe that if we could just do or have more, we might attain the peace our hearts long for – peace that in truth comes only from relationship with God. In the church, the tendency toward commoditization manifests itself as measuring ministry in numbers: membership, budgets, baptisms. We look across the street at what others are doing and think, “Maybe we should start a new program for singles/coffee ministry/contemporary worship service.”

Brueggemann names the flaw in our logic, describing the “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough… yet” (page 13). He reminds us how in the Sabbath commandment, our God “nullifies that entire system of anxious production” (page 27). God gives us not just an option but a direct order to place boundaries on our inclinations to perpetuate anxiety.

“Such a faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance.” Brueggemann writes. “It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment” (page 31). He goes on to remind us how Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

I cannot think of a more relevant book for today’s world and church. I am grateful for the gift of a biblical framework through which to understand my own anxieties and the restlessness of the society and systems in which I serve. I recommend this book to all church leaders as we continue to navigate anxious times.

Kathy Wolf Reed has served as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL since 2014. The Mayberry-esque setting of Auburn provides a context in which Kathy and her family (co-pastor husband Nick and their three small children) can enjoy all the perks of small town life while the presence of a major university offers them constant opportunities to attend interesting programs and cheer on the Tigers from football games to equestrian meets.

Sabbatical Resources

“Sabbatical” comes from Sabbath, following the Biblical command to observe the seventh day of Sabbath. A sabbatical is an opportunity to step away from the many tasks of daily ministry to rest and be renewed by God. But preparing oneself and preparing a congregation for a sabbatical is a lot of work!

Pastors Roy Howard and Mark Greiner share resources that have helped their communities.

A Brochure about the Sabbatical for the Congregation Sabbatical Brochure to view and download.

A List of Sabbatical Resources (from CHARIS Ecumenical Center), including Sources of Information, Grant Sources, Programs or Informal Arrangements, Sabbatical Retreat Information, and Study Resources. SabbaticalResources to view and download.

A Template for the Contract with a Stated Supply Pastor  for use while the pastor is on sabbatical. Stated Supply Pastor Agreement to view and download

An Article about the Pastor’s Particular Need for Sabbath by Lisa Hess (from the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program at Duke Divinity)