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Confronting the Dominant Gaze of White Culture

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In his keynote at the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah discusses the changing landscape of our culture, how that affects our churches, and how the dominant gaze of white culture continues to divide and disconnect us from our neighbors. Dr. Rah’s keynote would be a great resource for a committee, session, or team to watch and discuss, or even for a youth group as a way to dig into the surrounding culture.

What changes in the culture do you see in our world? In our country? In your neighborhood?

Dr. Rah describes two commonly used images of diversity:

  • Great American melting pot
  • Salad bowl

What are the images you have heard? As you reflect, how are they helpful or harmful?

Dr. Rah discusses how the dominant gaze defines everybody else – that culture is defined by the dominant group. Those not in the dominant group are either viewed as a pet or a threat.

Where have you seen people of color viewed as a pet? Where have you seen people of color viewed as a threat?

Can you think of examples where dominant culture saw a pet become a threat? How did the dominant culture react? How did you react?

Dr. Rah says that white dominant culture isolating itself has created a loss of connection and that the church needs to step in. He leaves the audience with two challenges to consider:

1. What is the world you have surrounded yourself with?

The last 10 books that you’ve read – who are the authors?
The last 5 people you’ve had in your home – what race and culture were they?
The furniture in your home, how would you describe it in terms of culture and ethnicity?
What are the books on your coffee table?
Who are the main stars in the top 5 tv shows that you watch?
What other questions might you ask to examine yourself?

2. Who are those who have shaped you? What race and ethnicity are the mentors in your life?

What step might you take to intersect with cultures different from your own? How will you hold each other accountable to take this step?

What it Takes to Transform

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In their testimony at the 2019 National Gathering in Seattle, Heidi Husted Armstrong and Scott Lumsden talk about the story of First Seattle Presbyterian Church – a church that went from being one of the biggest churches in the country to total membership collapse. This 30-minute video is a resource for any church group – the session, committees, or teams – to dig into what it takes to transform into the new thing in which God is calling them.

Heidi talks about three things that keep her “hanging in there.” Consider those three things below.

1. I have never been more free to say “I do not know what I’m doing.” How many 5 year plans have been run through this place? Like I’m going to come up with the one that works?! The phrase solvitur ambulando has been attributed to Saint Augustine, which translates as “it is solved by walking.” It means to just take the next step, and the next step, and God will show the way.

What is the hard thing before you in ministry that you need to take the next step toward? What might be an initial first step?

2. Letting go of “churchiness” so that I can embrace the quirkiness, the uniqueness, and the messiness that is in this place. Let me be present for what you have for us today. Let me show up. Help me show up for what is.

What is quirky, unique, and messy about what is in your place? How might you be more present to show up for what is?

3. Remember God is a God of resurrection. Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing (Frederick Buechner). Being in a struggling church mean there’s lots of room for God to show up! There is one Lord of the Church who is still in the business of raising from the dead what is dead in us. Raising what is dead through us. Raising what is dead around us. Raising what is dead in spite of us.

What is dying around you? What might God be resurrecting and raising up in your midst? What are the spaces in your context where there is room for God to show up?

Scott closes their testimony by saying that the church has to admit we no longer have all the answers and instead need to start asking questions of ourselves, of our neighborhoods, and of God.

What questions do you need to start asking of yourself, of your neighborhood, and of God? What questions keep you up at night?

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.

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.

Recognizing We All Have Gifts

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 Marsha Somers McElroy

When we ask how we grow working relationships to meet the needs of a ministry, we have only to look to the text in Ephesians 4:11-16. There are many gifts and God calls us to many types of ministry. We often forget that no gift is more important than the other. Do we really think the pastor is the only one who can amplify scripture reading, the only one who can pray (or ask a blessing!), the only one who can comfort and support grieving families? If we believe in the priesthood of believers then, of course, those statements are untrue. However, I have heard on many occasions an elder say, “I’m just an elder.” Is that said to abdicate responsibility or because one really feels inferior? Healthy working relationships will first need to break through this wall. There are many gifts and those gifts are to be used to serve our Lord.

Part of breaking the wall is learning about the gifts of others. Within the last several years I was recruited to chair a committee to discuss ways we might use our church plant during the week to serve a community need. As a social worker working with older adults, I had interests and skills related to this area of need in the community. So I was keen to be a part of this discussion. The pastor recruited others with similar interests and some with skills and interests around the needs of children. Our discussions were lively and all over the map till we began to narrow our focus. We now have a bilingual preschool meeting in one of our buildings that is used only a little during the week. We learned a lot in the process and continue to rejoice at the work God is doing. Using our gifts as the Spirit worked among us!

Many years ago I was in a civic club and served as an officer. The first time we gathered to make plans for our group the president’s first question was “What do I need to know about you so that we can work together well?” I thought that question was brilliant. I remember that as a fun and rewarding year. That leader respected us enough to want to know our perspective and that engendered our respect for her and for one another. Along with respect was trust that we would work together for the health of our group. This experience is nothing different than being on a local governing body.

Volunteers and staff have other essential roles to fill. What is it like to walk in the shoes of staff: There are many bosses, right?! Members of the congregation who are quick to point out flaws and eager to triangulate staff to “solve” issues… Staff regularly sees persons who are sick, angry, dying, and grieving and persons with lots of questions. The sadness must be overwhelming at times. Church officers have similar experiences but with less intensity and frequency. Here is the opportunity for mutual support. Who doesn’t relish empathy in the midst of turmoil or deep sadness? Who doesn’t need to be encouraged to carry on or to be reminded that God is with even when things are messy?

Along with support and empathy, working relationships are made much stronger with expressions of appreciation. The simple “Thank you” is very powerful. Finding ways for expressing simple gratitude is necessary and can be a powerful support. And, of course, this is mutual – staff to volunteer; volunteer to staff.

The actions are simple really – listening, learning about one another, showing gratitude, recognizing and using gifts, respecting, supporting, encouraging. There is time involved and a certain amount of intentionality. But strong working relationships are faithful and essential to the health of a congregation.


Marsha Somers McElroy is a ruling elder at Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Marsha received her BA from Queens College and MSW at UNC Chapel Hill. She has served as director of Christian education, serving churches in North Carolina for 21 years. She also served as a social worker with older adults, primarily as a caregiver support specialist. She lives in Long Creek with her husband, Bill, and cat, Max.

Ready or Not, God Calls

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 Todd Muldrew

Just over two years ago I received a phone call from my pastor. She wished to know if I would serve as an elder. Honestly, it’s flattering when a leader at your church calls to ask if you’re willing to lead, too. But I was uncertain.

I was relatively new to Presbyterianism, but I was at a point in my relationship with my church where I was willing to step up when called. I spoke with my wife, a lifelong Presbyterian and elder. She explained the commitment to me, both in faith and in time. I was ready. I was excited.

Image from Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Because I was working often with our mission group, I assumed that is where I would plug in. But instead, I was asked to serve on the Christian Education and Formation committee – which includes a major focus on Sunday School. Now, I will admit to being a sporadic attendee to the Sunday School hour. But I said to myself, “This is where God must need me, so I will have faith that it’s the right place for me to be.” Then I went to my first meeting. By the end of that meeting it became clear that I was not just going to be on the committee – I was being asked to moderate the committee. My heart skipped a few beats. Who was I, as a part-time Sunday School participant, to moderate such an important part of the life of our church? Had there been a mistake?

The very next month, I was asked to give the devotional at our first meeting of the new session. In doing so, I found both guidance and peace. I discovered an article entitled “Wait Until You Get to the Corner.” It’s about a young pastor who is anxious and uncertain about what God has in store for him. An older pastor counsels him to walk the path before him with God, and not to worry about where the corner is or what’s beyond it until God reveals it. “Take the task He gives you gladly, let His work your pleasure be.” The author counsels us at the end: “There’s a line in a song, ‘I will go, Lord, where you want me to go.’ We might add, ‘And I will stay, Lord, where you want me to stay.’ And when we know that we are at a place and in a position because God has put us there, it takes a lot of stress out of it.”

It does indeed. God knows my strengths and my weaknesses, and yet here I am. I have faith that I am playing a role in God’s plan for our congregation, regardless of my inability to see around the corner.

As I took this leap of faith, the pastors and staff have been incredible partners in our work. Our children and youth programs are growing rapidly. This growth is wonderful, but it requires an evolution in our priorities and new commitments from our congregation.

One of the biggest challenges we face is awareness and buy-in. My first year, I took time to observe the process of this committee as I stepped gently into my role. Much decision-making seemed to take place with just the moderators and staff. When I listened to congregation members not privy to these meetings, I heard people complaining that such-and-such wasn’t happening in their child’s Sunday School – when, in fact, such things were happening. There was a disconnect between perception and reality.

This year, we have widened the circle of people who are involved in the committee’s work. Consulting with the pastors and staff, we have both solicited and personally invited interested and concerned members to our visioning meetings. This not only increases our awareness of the different needs of our members, but also gives us a conduit back to the congregation to explain what is going on – and why. The response has been rewarding, both in new ideas and greater understanding from the congregation.

I am prayerful that this momentum will continue to grow in the years to come. In the meantime, I remind myself “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord!” Ps. 27:14. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for us next.


Todd Muldrew is member of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He gladly serves as an elder and moderator of the Christian Education and Formation Committee of the session.

Removing “Just” From our Vocabulary

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 Lisa Raymaker and Heather Newgreen

Growing up, pastors were always on a pedestal – set apart by God, always doing and saying the right things, seemingly without fault. As we get older, perspectives change. Set apart by God is still true, called for a special service is true… AND we are ALL set apart, we are ALL called for a special service. Responding to that call sometimes makes us feel inadequate.”But I’m just a layperson, how am I equipped to answer that call?” God doesn’t pay attention to the “just.” He/She gave each of us particular gifts and calls us to use them, regardless of whether we think we’re up to the task.

We’ve been able to believe this more because of our relationships with our pastor. He treats us as an equal in the body of Christ and encourages us to lead where we are called. In the beginning, it’s normal to feel that we need to be careful with our words, to put our best foot forward. We are in a church, after all. As we work together more as the hands and feet of Christ in our faith community and in our city, we can become more comfortable being our authentic selves, for better or worse. We have learned that it’s alright to question the way things are done; to speak the truth in love; to challenge each other to think, love, and serve more deeply. We learned that our thoughts and ideas are valued, and that the diversity of our thoughts is exactly what the church needs.

The relationship between a pastor and an elder can be summed up in one word: equals. We should be listening to each other, questioning each other, and trusting that we are capable to serve in the roles where God has placed us. When a congregation sees that the elders they elected are working in partnership with their pastor and not for their pastor, they can trust that their voices are being heard.

We believe there are three components to making a teaching elder and ruling elder partnership successful (of course, there are three – thank you, Triune God): always making room for the Holy Spirit to move and lead us, the teaching elder valuing and encouraging the work of lay leaders, and the ruling elder believing in and using their spiritual gifts. God’s call comes in many different forms and at different volumes. It can be a burning bush and it can be a whisper. It can be to serve as a pastor and it can be to use your skills as a business person to help lead your faith community into uncharted territory. If we listen, if we respond, if we work together as equals in the body of Christ, if we get rid of the “just” in our vocabulary, God will lead us to amazing places.


Lisa Raymaker is a member of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC, and a ruling elder. After serving a 3-year term on the Session at Caldwell, she is chairing the Hope Committee, which is part of the new Gambrell Social Justice Fellowship program, and the Touchpoint Committee, which focuses on Caldwell’s outreach to the Charlotte LGBTQ community. Lisa works in the insurance industry and her husband, Patrick, is a musician.

Heather Newgreen was born and raised in the Presbyterian Church. She was ordained and installed as an Elder in 2009 and recently reinstalled in 2018. Heather currently serves as the Chair of Christian Formation where she oversees the education programs from infants to adults for Caldwell Presbyterian Church. She has remained an active volunteer in many of the church’s educational programs such as Godly Play, Youth Sunday School, and Confirmation. Though she holds a degree in music, Heather works for a non-profit that provides financing to small businesses. Her husband Kyle, and their two small children, James and Emily, are her greatest blessings.

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.

Just Getting Started

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Kukla

In his writings and teaching, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh often tells an old Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

He uses this to talk about the dangers of habit-energy that keeps us dong the same things over and over again, often spinning our wheels in the process; the dangers of inner turmoil and busy-ness; and the dangers of forgetfulness. He stresses the need to stop. Calm. Rest. Heal.

Our own tradition gives us these same resources in the practice of Sabbath. The need, not the luxury, to stop. The need, not the luxury, to let the world turn without you. The need, not the luxury, of realizing our worth doesn’t lie in production. The need, not the luxury, to be idle and rest and abide in the presence of God’s good creation, free of agenda.

We have been over a lot in the last month that I hope is helpful for you as you prepare to become, or continue to be, an officer of the church. And this final post is supposed to be the most practical and give you further resources to equip you and your community on the ongoing journey of fulfilling God’s calling as a community of faith. But first I want us to stop and remember that if we are simply riding more horses, in more directions, with greater speed… we are helping no one.

More church does not make better disciples.

Sabbath remains a foundational resource of faithfulness — so lead in sabbath for God’s sake, for your sake, and to the benefit of your whole community. Let these ideas percolate in you, let them inspire in you, let them settle in you…and then take a big deep breath. Pray. Remember. Listen. Abide.

God has called you to the most monumental of tasks: being nothing more and nothing less than the Body of Christ in this time and your place. And yet… God already sees in you the gifts and abilities to accomplish this task well. Trust God by trusting yourself. And enjoy the ride. Your joy in leadership may just be the greatest gift of all, and to that end I leave you with these words that Eugene Peterson quotes from Phyllis McGinley in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

“I have read that during the process of canonization the Catholic Church demands proof of joy in the candidate, and although I have not been able to track down chapter and verse I like the suggestion that dourness is not a sacred attribute.”

Further Resources for Officer Training
The following resources were collected through various crowd-sourcing efforts. This list is barely scratching the surface of available options but will, I hope, help you make the next step in digging deeper into the transformative work of being a church leader.

The Book of Order
As a whole, even with the new form of government, the Book of Order is a long and winding document; but it holds great treasures and perhaps none better as a starting point than The Foundation of Presbyterian Polity. Once you collapse white space it’s only a dozen pages and a rich foundation of why we do what we do the way we do — and you could design an entire course around this section of the Book of Order itself.

The Book of Confessions
As with the Book of Order, we often neglect the richness of The Book of Confessions because taken as a whole it’s an overwhelming resource. But there are many ways to engage our confessional documents to feed our leadership. Two strategies: using excerpts of confessional statements to start discussion at the beginning of each meeting, and assigning different confessions to each officer and having them report back to the whole with a summary of context, primary message, and take-aways.

Ordination Questions
We hope everyone gets a chance to engage our ordination questions (found in the Book of Order) beyond answering them publicly during their ordination. Some congregations have found them a helpful way to engage training, doing a deep dive into them: “We always discover something we hadn’t heard in them before, and it often leads to very fruitful conversation. Especially around the confessions.”

Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers by Joan Gray
This is an old favorite. One church leader adds, “We read this every year. We love it for how she encourages officers to nurture their own spiritual life as a way to grow their gifts for leadership. It helps us to frame the work of the church with prayer and study. Her image of a sailboat church (one led by the Holy Spirit) as opposed to a rowboat church (one whose members decide on their own where they want to go and work themselves to exhaustion to get there) has been so helpful for our discernment.”

Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman
Friedman’s work is important, and multiple churches report using the book. The book as a whole can be too much to digest as one part of a larger training, so some recommend using this short video introduction: “It has helped the leaders I’ve worked with lead with more courage, make principled decisions even when it might stir conflict, and be better prepared to absorb anxiety in the church rather than fuel it.”

Making Disciples, Making Leaders by Steven Eason (author) and E. Von Clemans (lesson plans)
A very appreciated and well-worn book for many, specifically geared for the PC(USA); it has a ready-made leader copy for a four-session training course.

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana
I’m pushing this one, and it has nothing to do with having gone to seminary with MaryAnn…it has everything to do with the power of “yes, and….” Pick this one up, soak it up, and share it profusely.

The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on its Gifts by Luther Snow
A good application of asset-based community development theory to the congregational visioning process.

Cultivated Ministry (NEXT Church Resource)
Cultivated Ministry was developed to move away from old metrics of ministry (like membership numbers) without losing any sense of accountability or measurement of how we are progressing, and fulfilling’s the mission has God for us in the world.

Theoacademy
A project of the Synod of Mid-America. There are a growing number of great video resources for the life of the church including a thirteen-video series available on-line on ordered ministry that is great for the training of elders and deacons.

PCUSA Ruling Elder articles
An ongoing procession of articles put out through the Office of the General Assembly to nurture the leadership of Ruling Elders in our churches.

And lastly…let us never be done. Training for everything in life is never really over. We are in the constant play of practice-reflection-learning-new practice. Consider, if you do not already, adding a training aspect to every session meeting. We do so at FPC Boise under the name: Theological Imagination Session. And there are always new resources to continue to feed our imagination, our playful faithfulness, and our fearless failure to be the Body of Christ in this time and this place.

So what resources did we miss? What would you add to this list? Please share in the comments as we feed each other in the process of being fed by God’s Spirit that is alive and well and coaxing us onward every day.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

Leadership Potential Left on the Margins

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mathew Eardley

I sit at a lot of tables. And wear a lot of hats. Don’t you? They keep me busy. And it keeps me isolated. What I mean by “isolated” is that when I’m busy, I find it easier to do things myself, or ask those that are already deeply invested alongside me to do ‘it.’ This is unfortunate, though, because it leaves a lot of potential leadership in the margins.

This truth I live causes me to reflect on two important questions that every leader and leadership body should be asking.

  • Who has been included in leadership?
  • Whose voices, perspectives, and insight are not being heard?

In our current world of nominating committees, diverse representation, and overbooked schedules, it is easy to default to the status quo for what leadership is and who is involved. It is a trap that congregational leadership can easily fall into: that leadership starts and ends with church officers. In reality, leaders are constantly being formed around me – and you – each and every day by example, whether it be in the church, home, classroom, workplace, or anywhere (and everywhere) else. That leadership potential is often lost by neglect. How can we take seriously the task of forming new and broader leadership within our congregations?

I submit to you that one area where there is lost opportunity is “Intergenerational Leadership”. It seems to be an ethereal, confusing, and somewhat overwhelming topic. How to do it? Who’s qualified? Who’s not? What can people do? What should they do? What is the organization’s or community’s needs?

I am fortunate (privileged, even) to have been invited into leadership positions since I was young. It wasn’t always invitational, however. There were times when I had to elbow my way into the room or around the table. Other times, I was rejected for an opportunity I thought I was perfectly suited for me. And this is still the case. Why do I tell you this? I say this because I don’t think I am alone. Engaging many people in leadership, no matter the identifier or demographic, is a challenge for most people, organizations, and communities. In the words to come, I don’t claim to have ‘the answer’ or ‘the way’ but I instead hope to suggest to you where I have felt most invited and how we might choose to think about and engage others in our respect roles, organizations, and communities.

My philosophy to address this is simple; first, understand the needs and opportunities for leadership and engagement and, to follow that with, observation and invitation.

Understand the Needs

Each of our communities have needs to be filled. They are everywhere, from an under-filled committee, open session seat, volunteers in children or youth ministry, etc. You could probably list at least five off the top of your head. Take a mental note of these, know them, think about them, reflect on what would strengthen or add to each of them. Put simply, be aware of the need. Really, it’s that simple.

Observe

Look closely at those around you being attentive to their gifts, skills, and abilities. They may not be perfect or completely refined (who’s are?), but simply inherent and evident. And I don’t mean to say that you only observe those you like or those that seem to fit a stereotype, it means to be aware and attentive of everyone, no matter their age, demographic, or other identifier. Ask yourself, “Who do I see that could do this?” As I have reflected on that question I have become more aware of the dept and breath of the gifts and talents present in our community. As an aside, I think it is important to call these out and celebrate them as often as possible. It is empowering to be affirmed.

Invite

I imagine you know where this is heading. If we are keenly aware of the needs which are present and have made note of the gifts, talents, and abilities we observe in others it becomes easy to begin inviting a diverse and capable group of people to consider engaging in the capacity that fits them best. This could mean inviting them into a particular role or laying a few options on the table. The danger is to type-cast and assume. Too often I hear stories of people only being invited into roles that match their profession. That isn’t fair. Maybe that is where they want to serve, but this is the challenge of the previous two bullets. Are we taking the easy route of only asking “teachers” to teach the VBS or LOGOS bible class? Or are we only inviting the musicians to be on the Worship Arts committee? The invitation can be daunting, but done well and in an invitational way it can be empowering, rewarding, and transformational (ironic, right?).

It sounds so simple but can be challenging. I am not good at this. I continue to wrestle and try to practice this. Living into this philosophy isn’t designed for one person – the pastor – to do alone. It takes the entire community, particularly those in leadership (all leadership, not just committee chairs or seated officers), to do this. Think of the power that comes from a session (let alone an entire congregation) noticing, lifting up, and celebrating a community’s gifts, talents, and abilities. Add to that the personal invitation into leadership and I think something special can happen. I suggest that, when done right, we get away from labels (youth elder, female deacon, etc.) and are flexible and empowering of everyone in the community. I hope you will join me in understanding our respective community’s needs, observing those around you, and extending the invitation to leadership.


Mathew Eardley works at Jitasa, a company in Boise, Idaho that provide accounting services to non-profit agencies. He is a graduate of Whitworth University and a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Boise. Mathew has served on committees at every level of PC(USA) including recently completing service as a member of the Way Forward Commission of the General Assembly.