Love and Truth-Telling

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Beth Goss

I’m a second career pastor who spent my first career in public accounting with a large firm that had clients and business relationships around the world. It was a twelve-year heady immersion into business practices and culture and a marvelous experience for me. I learned a lot about myself as well as about the way large organizations do business — successfully and unsuccessfully. So when I began following a call to ordained pastoral ministry, I kept thinking about business practices and the way our peculiar Reformed tribe’s heritage has influenced our own structural (infra-structural) ways — the business of church.

Churches in North America often look to the successful business practices found in modern Western corporations with a mixture of admiration and skepticism. Our own Presbyterian heritage has put us in close parallel to the development of capitalist corporations and their best management practices. This is partly because the power and leadership in mainline denominations have often overlapped with the leadership in those same corporations. Think of the famous Presbyterian business people you know: Andrew Carnegie, Ross Perot, Sam Walton — all of whom had significant influence in the church at one time or another. Yet Presbyterians remain suspicious of worldly success. Not infrequently do I encounter a voiced objection to adopting business best practices into church management. “We’re a church and we shouldn’t do things the way businesses do,” is the way it’s stated. Because I have seen them up close and personal, I have similar reservations about corporate personnel policies, designed first and foremost to protect corporate objectives: making money for shareholders, sometimes sacrificing employees in the process.

So when I found myself as a solo pastor in a small church, I was in the same conflicted state. Best practices in business don’t translate easily into church settings. My dilemma was how to handle an employee whose behavior had become more and more difficult over a long tenure that preceded mine. For a variety of reasons, the prior pastor and leaders had not taken steps to address it. For at least seven years, I had not taken definite steps, either. The employee was growing less and less effective in the position, partly as a result of age, and partly as a result of failing to keep current in their field of expertise. The person had also seemed unaware of their own declining ability to do the job.

After several years of poor evaluations, and several offers for honorable retirement, the person had steadfastly refused to step down, and instead engaged parishioners (not involved in the process of personnel evaluation) in conversations about how “the powers that be” were poor judges and “out to get me” because there was “no decline in my abilities.” Not surprisingly, that behavior created a lot of distress both for the employee and the church leadership who could see what was happening, to say nothing of those church members who were unaware of the full picture. Those of us in leadership put off confronting the situation, instead hoping that the employee would eventually step down. We felt it was the loving thing to do.

Finally, it became clear to me that the situation could no longer be ignored. This happened about the same time I found an opportunity to participate in peer group coaching. My colleagues in the group gave me the opportunity to share my frustrations and clarify my own leadership role in the quandary: How could church leaders and I behave in such a way that the employee’s own distress could be acknowledged and dealt with in love, and, at the same time, fill a critical position on the church staff with a person who could do the job we feel needs to be done in this moment in the life of the church? The church had been trapped by a picture of ourselves as “loving,” thinking that failing to tell the truth — to either the employee or ourselves — was the way to express that love.

What we needed to learn was that there are spiritually healthy ways for churches to relate to employees that don’t undercut our values as a community of faith. Sometimes these ways are remarkably similar to business best practices. Truth-telling has to be part of it. We had to acknowledge our own failure to be honest and forthright about past employee evaluations, and we had to admit we had not been clear about employee expectations. We have taken steps remedy both, and put in process a way to fill the position. “What would Jesus do?” is still a valid question and an aspiration. Our read of the gospel helps us see that love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Jesus actually practiced both all the time. And we’re trying to as well.

Beth Goss is pastor of Church of the Covenant in Arlington, VA.

Are We Serious?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Pete Peery

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

That is what Jessica Tate, director of NEXT Church, declared in her blog post to kick off this current series. And I believe it is true. NEXT Church knows deeply the eschatological reality declared by Luke, “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29).

Yet NEXT Church strives to reflect this reality within the sea in which it swims, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And for all our talk about diversity, here is the reality of this communion we love and to which we are committed:

  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is 93% white, 3% African-American, 2.3% Asian, 1.2% Hispanic, .2% Native American.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the fourth most financially successful religious group in the USA. In 2016, 32% of Presbyterian (U.S.A.) households had incomes of $100,000 or more. In the Christian Church, only the Episcopalians are richer (35% of their households are at $100,000 or more). The top richest religious groups in the country are first, Jews, and second, Hindus.
  • In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 64% of adults members are college graduates and 26% have post graduates degrees, one of the most educated communions on the planet.

My experience in this communion for seventy years — forty-three of those years serving in ministry of Word and Sacrament — is that as much as we talk of diversity, when one enters a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation, little diversity is evident.

Congregations certainly are one of the only intergenerational communities we experience today. They are also a place where people of different professions and backgrounds gather. But I wonder how often in our communion do we see a sign of when people of different races or economic status or cultures intermingle. I have seen that it is so. I have rejoiced when entering a congregation where I have found that to be true. But I have only seen that very occasionally.

I wonder how comfortable is it for a person who is of very modest means, of limited higher education, of a different racial/ethnic background than the vast majority of the members of a particular Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation to enter into worship and fellowship in our communion? How high stands the emotional threshold to our congregations?

If we are serious about reflecting the eschatological reality of the church, I believe we have to take very seriously the present reality of our communion. We have to take this present reality seriously even as we love, deeply love, the actual people within our congregations right now. Thank God they are there! Yet, even as they are there, how are we nudging the body toward the reality of the church God has in mind?

I’d love to hear a discussion about ways, practical ways, leaders in our communion are facing these two different realities of the church: the eschatological reality and the present reality within the PCUSA.

A couple of teasers I share in conclusion about such ways.

First, hymnody. Instead of primarily singing hymns by WDEM (white, dead, European men) or by 1970’s or 1980’s Christian rock groups (again, mainly white) sung so often in the genre of so called “contemporary services,” how about reflecting in the hymns we sing the eschatological reality of the church? Our new hymnal Glory to God has a vast number of hymns, choruses, and responses from many cultures in this country and around the world.

Second, staff. When the time comes for a search for a senior staff person — pastor, associate pastor, educator, church musician, youth, or children’s ministry director — dare we press to reflect on our church staff a glimpse of the eschatological reality of the church?

If out of faithfulness to the Lord of the church we are serious about striving for diversity, let us be serious about it not just on boards and agencies of the church. Let us be serious about it in the very congregations of which we are a part — for the glory of God.

Pete Peery is the relationship developer for NEXT Church. He formerly served as president of Montreat Conference Center and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC.


Living Into It

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During May, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Nate Phillips is curating a month of blog posts exploring models of shared ministry, inspired by his pitch for an IGNITE presentation at the 2015 National Gathering. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Nate Philips (featuring a film by Joni James)

Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the end of “Veep: Season 3,” I’m about to ruin it for you.

Credit Lacey Terrell/HBO

Credit Lacey Terrell/HBO

Perfectly set in an unkempt bathroom, Vice President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) breaks this news to Gary Walsh, her assistant and hopelessly devoted “bag man.”

“Gary, I’m going to be President.”

“Oh, of course you are.  I mean there’s always hope, ma’am.  We have plenty of hope in this world.”

“No, no, no.  I mean, POTUS is gonna resign and I’m about to become President of America.”

Then a small trickle of blood emerges from Gary’s nostril and he sets off on this really weird combination of convulsive laughter and lament.

“Why is the inside of my nose bleeding?” he moans through his hysteria.

Gary’s entire identity is so wrapped up in Selina’s dream that he nearly combusts at her good news.

He makes us laugh because we love Gary and we know him.  He is the endearingly loyal helper that would jump in front of a sneeze for the Big Cheese. He actually does that in the show.  In the Presbyterian Church we wouldn’t call Gary a “bag man,” of course.  We would call him an Associate Pastor.

Ok, I admit.  That’s too provocative.

But consider this scenario.

When I first began my ministry as an associate, l was handed a preaching schedule that honored the promise that I would preach once a month, but included only the lowest attended Sundays.  I was informed which day off would be mine depending on the (sometimes finicky) personal preferences of the Senior Pastor.  I was also told that if the Senior Pastor left the church for any reason, I was to uproot my family and go too.  But what really got me was when I was told that, ultimately, my work in the church was meant to enhance the reputation of the Senior Pastor.

It seemed to me that all of this was a far cry from message of that Isenheim Altarpiece that Karl Barth was so fond of – the one where John the Baptist takes a long finger and points to Jesus.

The Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512-15 (oil on panel) Grunewald, Matthias (Mathis Nithart Gothart) (c.1480-1528) BRIDGEMAN (GIRAUDON)

The Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512-15 (oil on panel) Grunewald, Matthias (Mathis Nithart Gothart) (c.1480-1528) BRIDGEMAN (GIRAUDON)

It goes without saying (but obviously needs to be said) that the role of the Associate Pastor should never be more Gary Walsh than it is John the Baptist.

Many times it isn’t.

But sometimes it is.

And, when it is, it has to stop, don’t you think?

There are any number of ways to retool our staffing patterns to better honor the gifts and abilities of all pastors.  There are no rules that state that we are stuck with rigidly hierarchical pastoral staffing patterns.  For us, change meant leveraging allowances in the New Form of Government that make way for Associate and Senior Pastors to shift into a Co-Pastorate.  Everyone told us it was doomed to fail, but it hasn’t yet.

Here is our story:


Nate PhillipsNate is co-pastor at Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.  He is the author of the upcoming book for churches and leaders, “Do Something Else” and a devout Red Sox fan.



JoniJamesJoni James is a filmmaker and photographer from the mountains of western Maine. When she’s not behind the camera, you can find her homeschooling her crazy kids, or outside watching her adorable chickens. See what she does for churches and families at


Changing the Vibe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During May, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Nate Phillips is curating a month of blog posts exploring models of shared ministry, inspired by his pitch for an IGNITE presentation at the 2015 National Gathering. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Nate Phillips (featuring a film by Joni James)

“We’re going to lose him.”
“She’s going to find something better.”
That becomes the mantra of almost every church when they notice they have a good pastor – especially when it comes to an exceptional younger pastor. It doesn’t take long either. Younger pastors begin hearing that kind of language in the first months of their ministry and, as soon as they do, they begin wondering if their parishioners are right. Maybe they are exceptional. Maybe they could do better. Maybe they shouldn’t stay for long.
That was certainly a possibility for John Molina-Moore.  I can remember interviewing him for Director for Youth position (eventually it transitioned to an Associate Pastor position).  Our Director of Music was at the interview because, as everyone knows, the Director of Music is the real boss, and he said even then, “Hire him right now, before he gets away.”
John could “get away” at any time and someday he will.  Wherever he goes, the church will be fortunate to have him.  In the meantime, we’ve tried to be creative about helping John stay at our church, continue to grow in his ministry and, as a bonus, develop a partnership with a smaller church in a changing community that has never (ever!) had a pastor anything like him.
The video below by Joni James tells that story of shared ministry.

JoniJamesJoni James is a filmmaker and photographer from the mountains of western Maine. When she’s not behind the camera, you can find her homeschooling her crazy kids, or outside watching her adorable chickens. See what she does for churches and families at