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Pilgrimage is Telling Our Story

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Greg Klimovitz is curating a series featuring those who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land with NEXT Church from May 19-27, 2019. So much of the biblical story, especially the narratives that surround the work and witness of Jesus, occurred en route somewhere and in a context of political occupation, social, ethnic, and economic divisions, and conflict with religious and political powers that be. This month, contributors will contemplate “pilgrimage is…” as they ponder: where did you sense “God with us?” Where was “God with Us” more difficult to claim? How did you imagine leaning into “God with Us” as you returned home? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, even as you make your own pilgrimages this summer and beyond. After all, life is pilgrimage.

by Ben Kane

Every group has one. They are best described by their actions: the last person on the bus, the one who lingers at each site, the person the leaders must monitor and make sure they get back on the bus. “That Person” best describes this person. I was “That Person” on the NEXT Church Holy Land pilgrimage.

It started before I left Tarboro, when I decided to take a nice camera to capture the trip. Good pictures require time and effort so during the pilgrimage I developed a particular route to get the best pictures. Quickly move to an outside wall, take a wide, circuitous route to scan the entire church and determine where to visit. We only had so much time in each church, requiring us to make decisions. Being in the Holy Land, though, made deciding what to visit immensely more complicated, resulting in my lingering longer at each site. This tactic led me to achieve my title of “That Person” at the Church of All Nations.

Church of All Nations (Ben Kane)

Once inside the church, I found the outside wall when a Catholic Mass in the chancel drew my attention. Everything else went quiet; every other sight ceased to exist. The priest and worshippers lifted their thumbs, touched their foreheads, then their lips, and then their hearts — their movements synced, seemingly guided by a common string. Witnessing this collective movement whisked me back to second grade at St. Bernard’s Academy. There I sat on the side, in the Protestant section of the school’s cathedral while the Catholic students stood in the center aisle practicing the liturgy to receive their First Communion the following Sunday. They would feel God’s presence in the Eucharist and the priest invited them to touch their forehead, lips, and heart. God is always with us, he told us, and we are called to acknowledge God’s presence. I have never been Catholic, but I have borrowed this simple prayer ever since; rarely do you see others praying it, though.

While in my spiritual trance I heard Iyad, our guide’s voice in my ear, “Where’s Ben?” “I’m right here, Iyad,” I said turning around, reminded the earpieces we wore were only one-way communication devices. I stood alone in a sea of tourists. God’s presence surrounded me, but my group did not. After five minutes of fruitless searching, Bob, one of our leaders, entered the garden area outside the church, found me, and like a petulant child, he escorted me back to the group. The group shook their heads, my wife giving me “the eye” and later telling me if I did not stay with the group she would make me wear one of those backpacks with a leash children wear at amusement parks.

On a busy street in Jerusalem I was officially crowned, “That Person.” I tried to explain what happened inside, but the honking buses, sweaty tourists, and a playfully annoyed group left me no time to explain myself; instead, I accepted my title, grabbed a water bottle, bowed to the group, and walked to my seat.

This blog series asks us to finish the sentence, “Pilgrimage is______.” Pilgrimage is telling our story. What we experienced begs to be told. We walked in the footsteps of Christ learning the realities of life for Palestinian, Arab, and Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews today. We now know what a refugee camp smells like, how a settlement inflicts particular views and values upon its residents and those outside the walls; our experience forces us to watch the news and read the paper without scales on our eyes. Because of our experiences, we laughed, cried, lamented, celebrated, wondered, and worried. And now we are tasked with the call to reveal what made us laugh, cry, lament, celebrate, wonder, and worry. And our stories will do just that.

My story involves around what occurred in the Church of All Nations. I felt God’s presence and when I think about our experiences, when I look at the pictures we took, and when I answer the simple question, “How was your trip?” I cannot help but talk about all the times I felt God’s presence.

On our final night the group walked the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea in Joppa. Bound by a common experience we knew would soon end, we wanted to linger and hold on to this trip. Pictures were taken, promises to keep in touch were made (imagine the last day of junior high, K.I.T.!), and expectations realized. I told a friend in response to her question, “How was this trip for you?” that after feeling God’s presence among everything I had seen and learned, I have a story to tell.

I did not get to tell the group why I was late leaving the Church of All Nations. Instead, I became “That Guy” on the trip. I wore (and still wear) that title with pride, because given the political, theological, social, and historical complexities of the Holy Land, I firmly believe we needed to laugh occasionally. We also need to make sure “That Guy” was on the bus where my fellow travelers had so many other stories to share.


Ben Kane is the spouse of Lydia, dad of Margot and Phoebe, lover of reading, writing, and running (so he can eat what he wants). He pastors with the good people of Howard Memorial Presbyterian in Tarboro, NC, a town that’s been called the “Crossroads of Western Civilization.”

A Space for Stories

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 Rachel Cheney

This year during Youth Sunday, a sixteen-year-old girl stood in the pulpit. She was barely visible, given her small stature. From my view in the choir loft, I could see her knees trembling. Getting her up there was a challenge, but now she stood before our congregation and shared about her struggle with mental health issues. I watched the faces of the people in the pews; many nodded their heads in agreement, others looked surprised at her openness. “Anxiety is a relevant and personal battle many of us face,” she said passionately. “We need to start talking about it in the church.”

The days that followed brought a flood of emails and calls from congregants who heard her message and wanted to express their own struggles with mental health. Her boldness opened up new possibilities for conversation in our church. It took courage and honesty on her part, but it also required that the church make room for her young voice to be heard.

One of the most impactful ideas from the NEXT Church National Gathering centered around the importance of giving our youth space to share their stories. In a workshop designed specifically for youth ministers and leaders, Shelley Donaldson led a candid conversation on the obstacles and gifts of doing youth ministry today. While the first part of the workshop was devoted to time for us to bond over our shared failures and frustrations, the latter half was spent thinking about ways to integrate youth ministry into the broader church. Too often, it seems that our youth programs are sequestered from the congregation. This only fosters the harmful idea that youth are not interested in church, and even worse: that the church is not interested in our youth.

Even though we did not arrive at any earth-shattering solutions for this problem, I left with a simple but profound insight: the church belongs to the youth today. It often seems that we are waiting for our young people to grow up, go to college, spend a decade absent, and then come back to church when they have a couple of kids. Instead, the church belongs to them exactly as they are today. It belongs to our sixth graders who exclusively ask unrelated questions, our eighth graders who feel endless pressure to fit in, and our seniors who want to act grown up but still love playing dodgeball.

When we listen to the voices of our youth, we communicate to them that they are a valuable and essential part of the church. Our congregations should be guided by the stories and ideas of our young people. Though this is impossible when our youth are rarely involved in our services. By creating an inclusive environment for our youth, we meet them wherever they are in their story.

I left the NEXT Church National Gathering committed to lifting up the voices of our young people, hearing and sharing their stories, and looking for opportunities for the church to grow towards them during their faith journey. This past Sunday, thirteen eight graders stood in front of the congregation. Each of them begged me not to make them share first. But, despite their trepidation, each one gave a part of their faith statement. It was a holy moment. Going forward I hope we can keep creating places for the stories of our young people.


Rachel Cheney is a Youth Director in North Carolina who is passionate about ministry with students, healthy living, and outdoor adventures.

2018 National Gathering Tuesday Morning Worship

Jess Cook, John Molina-Moore, and Erin Counihan provided testimonies during Tuesday morning worship at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering. The worship service theme: dying.

Here is the liturgy for the service.

Call to Worship

People of God, we have a story to tell
of life and death,
joy and sorrow
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of lives cut short,
of life-times fulfilled
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell of
our cities, farms,
and towns, desperately wondering
how they will begin again
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell
of heartache and brokenness in our bodies
as we live in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

People of God, we have a story to tell.
Surrounded by God’s Great Cloud of Witnesses,
we give testimony to our stories of grief and loss,
as we are sustained by water, songs and prayers.
We are living in God’s Holy Way.
God is with us, even when we fear.

Let us worship God.

Litany

“We are a resurrection people,” we like to say.
And we say it often.
It is true.
But resurrection doesn’t erase or replace
the real life that happens before, during and after.
The real life that we all know –
the places where we are broken,
where we are grieving,
where we are sad,
where we are angry,
where we are hurting,
where we are anxious,
where we are lonely.
For we are human – fully.
And we each carry around
the experiences of trauma, and loss, and hurt
that are a real part of life.
Those experiences live within us,
and they exist
before, during and after
resurrection.
Yes, we are a resurrection people.
But we are also human –
Fully.
And that means that we know death
just as surely as we know life.
Death is real, it is excruciating, and painful, and it is a part of life.
But God is not afraid of death.
God is big enough to hold us
in our hurt, in our brokenness,
in those places of death where we cannot hold ourselves.
When we find ourselves in those places,
when we cannot imagine
ever feeling joy again,
may we remember
that although God will not erase the pain,
God will hold us, God will stand with us.

Psalm 27 (from Ann Weems)

O God of my heart
it is your name I call
when the stars do not come out.
O God of my soul,
it is to you I turn
when the torrents of terror
drown me.
O God of mercy,
it is for your hand I reach
when I stumble
on the stones of sorrow.
O God of justice,
it is to you I cry
when the landslide of grief
buries me.
I stand beneath the night
where stars used to shine
and remember
gazing mesmerized
at the luminaries of the sky
until I could walk
the ink-blue beach
between their shining.
Then their shining stopped,
for they left the sky,
and you, O God,
left with them.
And I am left
alone
beneath a starless sky
with a starless heart
that barely beats.
Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again
speak of your mystery?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?
Will I never again know
the wonder
of the God
of star and sky?
O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Sung Response (from Psalm 27)

[O God], Will your stars
never shine again?
Will they never again sing
their songs
to my soul?

Unison Prayer

O God of my heart,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
my upturned face.
Let my eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let my heart bathe
in the stunning light
until my soul sings again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of my heart,
call me by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Scripture Reading

John 13:1-17

Invitation for Remembrance and Handwashing

As death approached, Jesus commanded his disciples to love.
even as denial and betrayal, rejection and unworthiness
was mixed-up in that love.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples ways to grieve:
a tender touch, washing with water, telling of a story,
being together in community.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.
As death approached, Jesus gave his disciples a place to be together:
a table, a water basin, a home.
Holy One, in washing and remembering, call us to love.

Unison Prayer

O God of our hearts,
peel back the night
and let the starlight
pour out upon
our upturned faces.
Let our eyes drink
a sky of stars.
Let our hearts bathe
in the stunning light
until our soul sing again
with the conviction
of the faithful.
In your mercy and justice,
O God of our hearts,
call us by name,
and the stars will shine
once more,
as they did
on that morning
when they first began
to sing.

Field Guide Preview: Storytelling as Assessment

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re sharing the fourth sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from another movement of the guide: storytelling as assessment.


Storytelling is central to the human experience. Without stories and those who tell them, our ability as humans to effectively build community and transmit culture would be nearly impossible. We depend on the power of stories to help us shape and structure our lives, both collectively and individually.

Stories help us understand where we came from. Stories help us discover where we’re going. Stories help us to connect with each other. Stories help us to make meaning of our lives amidst the looming complexity and uncertainty of existence. Stories help define us and set us apart. Stories weave us together in the inextricable web of mutuality that is human society and culture. Stories help us to truly know others and to be truly known ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, stories are how we come to know and experience the reality of God.

For these and many other reasons, the concept of story—the narration of events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing—has been central to the life of the church since the inception of Christianity. At the very heart of the gospel is the story of a God who loves the world. At the heart of Christianity is the story of Jesus Christ, who is the foundation of our faith. At the heart of Christian community is the story of how Christ died and yet lives, which binds us all together in love. Without question, Christians are people of story.

This long history of Christian story and storytelling isn’t just important to understanding who we are but it’s also pivotal to better communicating what we do and how we live as Christians. The art and practice of storytelling is vital to the work of cultivated ministry.

When we make cultivated ministry a priority, it becomes clear that not only do we need ways of gathering information about the effectiveness of our ministry, we must also learn to use that information to tell stories that matter: stories of impact and stories of transformation. Without these stories, we can collect all the data we want, but it won’t lead to the deep cultural and organizational adaptations we need to fulfill our mission in rapidly changing contexts.

Grounding our cultivated ministry work in both biblical and communal stories better enables faith communities to frame the context of their assessments and evaluations by telling the broader narrative of where we have been, where we are, and where we want to go.

As we seek to increase the fruitfulness of our programs and ministries we can incorporate storytelling at every step of the process. If we cultivate stories and tell them to one another as we cast our vision, use stories to invite others to join our plans and projects, reflect on the implementation of our ideas through story, and tell those stories when we evaluate our work, we will create opportunities for greater ownership and deeper connection for every ministry participant and stakeholder.


Editor’s note: The full field guide is now available for free download! Check it out –

Telling Stories That Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Shawna Bowman

Three years ago my congregation began the process of considering what God was calling us to next. Several years had passed since we had been through a major transformation: merging two congregations, closing and selling buildings, saying goodbye to faithful leaders and oversized structures, and starting a new congregation called Friendship Presbyterian Church. In the years since this new beginning, Friendship had fostered a deep sense of community, a thirst for justice, and an attitude of experimentation. Having been through such a radical transition, our capacity for risk was high and our faith that God would continue to guide us was strong.

We knew we needed to think about big questions like space and location as it related to our vision for a deeper connection to the communities we serve and the organizations we partner with. So we hired a consultant. And she came. And the first question she asked my people was: why do you come here?

Oh my goodness, their answers made my heart so happy. They said they came because this is where they are fed. They told stories about being stretched and engaged and invited to participate. They told stories about how they can be their whole selves here, about getting their hands dirty doing good work, about how this space has been a transformative one where they’ve experienced healing and God in new ways. Stories about how this is where they’ve begun to articulate a faith that makes sense, that holds up in the midst of conflict, fear, and doubt. Stories about how they can bring their family, no matter their needs, and feel welcome.

The consultant said, “Wow, you’ve got an amazing thing going here. Outside of these walls, who do you tell these stories to?”

And my people looked at one another, and they looked at the consultant and they said, “No one.”

My people were experiencing enriching worship, transformative conversations about their faith, and growth in their hunger for justice in the world but they did not have the words to articulate this outside the walls of our community. They did not have practice telling stories about their lives that connected to their faith. They did not know where to begin when it came to talking about matters of faith and their spiritual life because we don’t tell stories like that in the kiddo drop off at school or around the break table at work. We don’t often hear or tell stories about how God is working in our lives, softening our hearts or healing old wounds or whispering in our ears because these are brave and vulnerable and mystical stories and we’re way more comfortable with conversations about the weather than risking these revealing stories with friends and strangers.

If we only tell these stories inside our worship spaces and never outside, how can we expect to deepen our relationships with our neighbors? How can we expect to know and be known by organizations we hope to partner with? How can we share the transformative power of our little community if we don’t tell our stories?

And so we began to practice. We began by learning the art of storytelling, and we began to practice on one another in worship. During a series on “Meals With Jesus.” we told stories about our own kitchen tables. We brought place settings and table cloths from our homes and set the communion table each week and told stories about family meals, awkward meals, and last meals. We told stories about gifts during Advent and stories about letting go during Lent.

We also began to tell stories at session meetings that would inform our decision making and mission priorities. When we decide to try new forms of worship, we added a storytelling component to our evaluation process. Instead of simply asking folks what they liked and didn’t like after trying new forms of worship, we gathered together as community and we told stories. We told stories about what we stretched us and what challenged us, about parts of worship that gave us comfort and where we found ourselves disconnected. Hearing one another’s stories deepened our compassion and understanding for one another. It changed worship into the communal experience it’s meant to be, rather than a commodity for each individual.

When we came together to work on the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, we wanted to infuse the process with storytelling. We know we can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t know how to make sense of it or tell the stories of what it means, of how our ministries and mission are having impact, then the data doesn’t do us very much good. As you consider the stories that shape your communities and the lives of your participants you might ask these questions:

What are the stories that get told most often about your community?

Are they true? Are they encouraging or discouraging?

Who gets to tell them?

What are our stories of risk and failure?

What are our stories of resilience and our stories of change and transformation?

Many of our communities need practice in telling stories that matter. The good news is that many of us are hungry to hear and tell stories. We just need practice. Our Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry will include a storytelling process and examples from congregations. Our hope is that you will uncover these stories in your communities and that they will help shape your mission and vision. Even more importantly, we hope these stories will feed you when you’re in the midst of change and transformation.


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago and co-founder of Creation Lab, an art collective and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality and prophetic imagination. 

The Surprising Benefit of Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Casey Thompson

Once in first grade, my teacher asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we were older. Cindy said a fireman; Mark answered a teacher; Stephanie wanted to be a princess (bless her heart, it seems more unlikely the older we get). Then our teacher turned to me, “Casey, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

I said, “I’d like to spend my life propping up an institution on life support, squeezing out the last bits of life from it so that it can continue to over-serve the wealthy and under-serve the poor. In short, Ms. Cunningham, I’d like to be a pastor!”

In retrospect, I might have been a cynical child.

Photo from Wayne Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Perhaps you were as well. It would explain why the church of Jesus Christ seems to have a problem with cynicism now. Cynicism happens when our hopefulness deflates, and it seems to me much of the church’s hopefulness has deflated. We’re wondering how to do ministry when the tested, traditional methods don’t work anymore — or when those methods actively make things worse. We’re wondering how to keep this marvelous institution alive that introduced us to the very thing we love most in life. As it gets harder to do, we get more cynical.

I too am prone to cynicism, but I love pastors (most of us) and elders (more of you) and congregants (nearly all of them). I don’t want the church to lose hope.

So I agreed to try and help as I could. I joined the Cultivated Ministry team. We were called together to consider new ways of evaluating ministry, ways that considered numbers and storytelling, ways forward focused on theology and new learnings.

What I have discovered in my time working with this group is that there is an unexpected benefit to evaluation. Evaluation is not just a way to gauge the effectiveness of a ministry so that it might be tweaked toward perfection. Evaluation actually subverts the forms of our ministry. It actually returns us to the theological question at the heart of vocation, a question so fundamental that we start asking first graders so they’ll have enough practice answering it by the time it becomes pressing for them: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” How do you want to spend your time?

My genuine answer is that I want to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want people to encounter the gentle spirit that canopies the world, the shelter that is also the source of our being, and the incarnation of that spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. I want people to know of his love for the world and of his vision of justice and peace. I want people to know there is grace for our failures and consolation for our grief. I want people to know they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit is with them.

When I’m not re-addressing these fundamental questions I find that I drift from trying to serve the gospel to simply managing a slow decline of the mainline’s flavor of the church, staving off social trends with my own work and creativity — instead of the generative work of Christ. “We’ll try it this way this year,” I say. Or if there is less energy: “It was good enough last year. Just move on and get the sermon done.”

I’m going to lose the fight against the slow marginalization of the church in the United States. I think most of us know that now. It’s like trying to sell Blackberries in an iPhone world. It doesn’t fit anymore — even if there’s a dedicated group of users.

But serving the gospel? Yes. I know that serving the gospel is a worthy endeavor even if I fail at it.

Evaluation returns me to the core of why we do what we do in serving the gospel. Evaluation isn’t simply a tool to make your Wednesday night fellowship group run smoother, your Sunday school class more topical, or your Christmas Bazaar better than the Methodist church’s down the street. Evaluation asks why it’s important in the first place. It’s a reminder that the Wednesday night fellowship group helped a couple persevere through a cancer diagnosis for their daughter. It’s the reminder that the Sunday school class birthed a tutoring ministry that helped to close the achievement gap in the local school. It’s a reminder that the Christmas Bazaar raises funds for a church camp where pre-teens fall in love with God in a way that haunts them and enlivens them for the rest of their lives.

The surprising benefit of evaluation is that it prompts us to return to why we spend our lives how we spend them. In that, we see how God works through us and in us and we find hope for a future.

Evaluation, it turns out, is salve for cynicism.


Casey Thompson is pastor of Wayne Presbyterian church in Wayne, Pennsylvania. 

Cultivated Ministry at The Board of Pensions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Frank Spencer

Jesus never said check your intellect at the door and forget what you have learned outside the Church. Jesus praises the good manager in parables and chides those who waste or steal. We are obligated to make good use of our time, talent and treasure. Thus, we are called to excellence in all we do while extending the hand of hospitality and living in the grace of compassion.

Here at the Board of Pensions, we often say that the numbers can never define our values, but analytics must always inform our stewardship.

Jesus also talked a lot about vineyards and the hard work that goes into growing good fruit. He used that analogy to talk about fruitfulness in our lives. NEXT Church has furthered that analogy to explore new ways of assessing ministry effectiveness. A cultivated ministry exhibits the following four principles: theological reflection, constant learning, mutual accountability, and storytelling.

Asking the theological “why?” has transformed the Board and its programs. We began the change three years ago by developing a Theology of Benefits. That work allowed us to understand our mission as a vital part of enlivening the body of Christ in the PC(USA). It led us to understand benefits as wholeness, rather than a financial proposition. This theological understanding is embedded in everything we do, seeking well-being for those who serve Christ’s Church in the four critical arenas of health, spirituality, finance, and vocation. Those who have experienced the CREDO program know these focus areas well.

We believe in constant learning, evaluating and re-evaluating everything we do. To learn from past errors and identify future possibilities, we have had to be brutally honest about the current state of things. Some things like care for our members and investment of our assets we did really well and we affirmed that excellence. Other things, like information technology, flexibility, and cost control were not as good. By facing these challenges, we have dramatically improved how we serve and expanded whom we serve. But we are only just beginning because there will always be more to learn. Knowing that we can and will improve keeps us energized and hopeful for the future.

We practice mutual accountability with many levels of constituencies. We are of course accountable to our Board and have developed a culture of openness and honesty that has allowed us to work through problems together and take bold steps for improvement. We are accountable to members whom we serve in a consultative framework. We are accountable to the larger Church through the General Assembly and to each congregation. We have adopted a posture of complete transparency and have spent the past three years unmasking hidden subsidies and telling the Church honestly what benefits cost. We have scrapped hundreds of administrative rules trusting each congregation to make decisions that best fit its unique context.

And oh do we love the stories! We know our members personally because they call us and write us and meet with us. Some of these stories are wonderful triumphs of healing and wholeness. Others speak to the deep grief and disappointment that is a part of all of our lives. We always try to say “yes” but sometimes we have to say “no” and those stories are always the most painful. There is rarely a month that goes by without my being moved to tears of joy or sadness.

Cultivated Ministry implies a never ending cycle of assessment, reflection, input from constituents, and sharing of personal stories. Just as the vineyard is always in need of tending, so it is with every ministry. Staying centered in the face of constant change is a challenge. For us, prayer is an important part of staying centered. Every Executive Team meeting and every Board committee begins with prayer. We pray in thanksgiving for the honor of serving Christ’s Church. To remind ourselves of the community we serve, every prayer ends by lifting up another agency or organization of the PC(USA).

What a wonderful thing it is that sisters and brothers care for each other in the name of Jesus Christ. If you count all the active members and their families, retired members and their spouses, surviving spouses and children, and vested former employees, PC(USA) is caring for 61,000 individuals through the Board of Pensions. This ministry is well-planned, theologically grounded, ever reforming, and abundantly fruitful.

It is indeed a well cultivated ministry.


Frank Clark Spencer is the president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and served on the initial strategy team for NEXT Church. Before turning to full-time ministry, Frank had an outstanding business career which included leading his company to its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and being recognized by Ernst and Young as 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Southeast. Frank is the past Chairman of Montreat Conference Center and former President of Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. He was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, and earned his M.Div. at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. You may listen to Frank’s sermons and find out about his latest book at www.fspencer.com.

Field Guide Preview: Cultivated Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

Today, we’re excited to share the first sneak peek of the Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry, which we’ll release in full this fall. This preview is from the guide’s introduction, which debuts the concept of “cultivated ministry” and defines its four movements: theology, accountability, learning, and storytelling.


Cultivated Ministry

Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to describe God’s kingdom and our calling to participate in its growth. As anyone who has tried to maintain a garden knows, growing desirable plants requires intentionality and hard work. Growing nothing is easy. Growing weeds is easy. Growing delicious fruits and vegetables and beautiful flowers is much more difficult.

According to the Book of Genesis, from the beginning of human history God has called us to be caretakers and cultivators of our local contexts. The first commandment given to human beings was to be fruitful. This ancient calling provides the guiding metaphor for this field guide.

Cultivated ministry is a third way between toeing the line of traditional metrics and abdicating accountability altogether. Haphazard gardening is irresponsible and ineffective. Fruitful gardening involves mindfulness and discipline. A cultivated garden requires planning, ongoing assessment, learning when confronted with new challenges, and periodic pruning. Likewise, cultivated ministry insists that we undertake our work with a clear and purposeful understanding of how our activities contribute to God’s mission in the world. As practical theologians have long recognized, ministry requires seasons of reflection, evaluation, and evolution. From time to time we must slow down and ask critical questions about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we can do it better.[i] Without this discipline, our practices and methods become stale or out of touch with our rapidly changing cultural contexts. It is far too easy to rest on our laurels and allow existing ministries to outlive their original purposes or effectiveness. Unless we adopt open postures of listening, learning, and intentional discernment, we are prone to miss opportunities for the development of new ministries to meet the needs of new situations.

Cultivated ministry is more than a new set of metrics or a collection of plug-and-play tools. Rather, it is a commitment to four interlocking means of assessment, evaluation, and (re)design aimed at nurturing thoughtful expressions of God’s mission in the world. This is not a recipe to adhere to nor a linear process to follow—these four movements happen simultaneously, informing and supporting each other as an organic and coherent whole.

Cultivated ministry begins and ends with theology, with our belief that God is intimately engaged in the world and has called us to bear fruit that will last. In this work to which we are called, we practice mutual accountability to God and to each other. Along the way, we commit ourselves to constant learning and reformation. At every step, we listen for good news of God’s redemptive work through transformative storytelling.

This four-dimensional practice of assessment is neither focused on the past nor fearful of the future. It is time for us to regain control of our own narratives. We are much more than passive players in the unfolding drama of human history. With God’s help, we can shape our own future and tell our own stories. God has placed us in the world and has given us seeds to plant. Now, as stewards of God’s good creation, it’s up to us to step forward in faith. It’s up to us to practice cultivated ministry.

[i] Sarah B. Drummond, Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation (Alban Institute, 2009), 103-122.


Editor’s note: The full field guide is available for free download now! Check it out —

Skipping A Step: Resisting the Quick Fix and Embracing Evaluation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In this month’s series, we are excited to share some sneak peeks of NEXT Church’s forthcoming “Field Guide for Cultivated Ministry,” alongside articles and stories that reflect on the importance of mindfulness, discernment, and learning as crucial to the flourishing of ministry. We can’t wait to share the whole thing with you this fall! We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Charlie Lee

How can we fix it? This is a question posed in our congregations every day. Common elements of decline such as sagging attendance, diminished donations, or a general lack of excitement can create significant anxiety among church leaders and create a sense of crisis in our congregations. Well-intentioned church leaders who observe these crises are often quick to call for and implement solutions that are designed to directly address these problems.

This is what we did in my own congregation. We observed a decline in giving and attendance, the metrics that have traditionally defined a successful congregation. Therefore, we gathered leaders together to design a solution to our crisis. We started a new worship service, added a new staff member, and even made plans to remodel a portion of our building. While these steps were successful in granting us some temporary gains, in time we learned that our solutions were not lasting ones and eventually we found ourselves right back where we started.

So what went wrong? Why did our well-thought-out solutions not have a lasting effect on our problems? As we wrestled with these questions, we learned that we had skipped a step in our efforts to quickly address our congregational crises. We had moved directly from the observations of our perceived problems to interventions we thought would address them. What we failed to do was to put in place practices that might help us interpret our initial observations so that we might gain new learnings that could then be applied in the design and execution of future interventions.

My guess is that our congregation is not the only one who is skipping this important step as we struggle to adapt in these times of rapid change. However, we can no longer afford to do so if we hope to face the adaptive challenges that lay before us and remain faithful to God’s collective calling on our communities of faith. We must take on the task of developing practices of assessment and evaluation within our congregations, and if we do so they can help our congregations do three things:

  1. Discern: The metrics of attendance and financial giving have for too long defined the success or failure of a congregation. Vital ministry is about so much more than counting “butts and bucks.” It is about faithfully following the calling that God places upon us. Churches by nature are “heliotropic,” meaning that just like a plant leans towards the direction of the sunlight, a church will move towards the source of energy or focus that is present in the system. If we continue to focus on outdated metrics, then this will only continue to produce anxiety and a feeling of continual crisis in our congregations. However, if we utilize tools of assessment and evaluation, then we can better focus on continually discerning the dynamic calling of God upon our congregations, and therefore begin to define success in our ministries with an eye towards fruitfulness rather than fear.
  2. Learn: “You don’t know – that you don’t know – what you don’t know.” This was a favorite line of one of my undergrad college professors. He repeated it often to us in an effort to encourage our curiosity and inspire our learning. His point was that there are always new things to learn and opportunities to go deeper in that learning than we ever thought possible. The same is true in our congregations. Tools of assessment and evaluation are the key to opening up new realms of possibilities in our ministries. They help keep us from moving immediately to towards implementing solutions to problems and instead take a deep dive on the issues behind what we have observed. Often, in this process, we discover that the perceived problem we were so focused on in the beginning is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. It is these new learnings that make it possible for us to address not only the technical challenges of ministry, but the more adaptive and complex issues facing our congregations.
  3. Tell the Story: It has been a few years now since the congregation I serve began experimenting with different practices of assessment and evaluation. The most successful practice by far that we have adopted has been the practice of storytelling. An important part of assessment and evaluation is capturing data; however, if all the data that is captured is merely quantitative, then it will not give a complete picture of all that is occurring within a congregation. Numbers and statistics can only communicate so much. Qualitative data is required in order share those things that cannot be measured but can be observed. The assessment practices we put in place gave us the tools to begin asking our congregation to tell us their stories. As much as possible, we began sharing these stories in worship and through our publications so that all could hear the good news of how lives were being transformed through Christ and how God was at work in and through the ministries of this congregation. The practice of storytelling has changed the conversation within our congregation, enabling us to operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

I am grateful to the leadership of NEXT Church and the individuals who have worked so hard to produce resources for assessment and evaluation. I believe the utilization of these resources can help keep us from looking for the next quick fix and instead provide a consistent way for us to become more attentive to God’s calling.


Charlie Lee is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. He received a Doctorate of Ministry Degree in 2015 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. His primary focus of study was on the implementation of formative evaluation in congregations.

Sharing What’s Important

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Amy Miracle

Sharing that which is important to me with the people who are important to me is a big part of my life. That’s why I am always talking about my favorite podcasts. That’s why I gave so many of my friends the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast CD for Christmas. 

broad street ohioFor me that is what evangelism is all about. Sharing the most important thing in my life with anyone who will listen. Except that’s not quite true. Like the congregation I serve, I am reserved, worried about looking foolish and uninterested in being the center of attention. And yet I wake up every day with a burning passion to invite people into conversations about God and invite them to become a part of the life of the church of Jesus Christ. 

At Broad Street, the church where I am very, very fortunate to serve, I handle this tension in the following way. I talk about evangelism a lot. I encourage others to talk about it. We have periodic “Seasons of Invitation” when we encourage our folks to invite their people to church. Most importantly, we challenge people to articulate what it has meant for them to be a part of the life of the church and then share that understanding with others. 

Here is one Broad Street-er’s thoughts on the subject. He’s a husband, father of two young kids, who spoke to the congregation during one of our seasons of invitation.  This is how he concluded his words. 

“Broad Street Presbyterian is a gift. It is a gift to its community, to those it serves, and maybe most of all, to its congregation. It thoughtfully puts faith into action, faces up to the challenges of spirituality and Christianity without fear, and is a great place to spend Sunday morning. This church is a gift that deserves to be given to others who don’t yet know it is here.

It is an uncomfortable thing, inviting someone to church. I’m still working up the nerve myself. As I do, when I have doubts, I think about my own story, about what my life would have been had I not received that gift of an invitation. About all that has happened to me and in me and how much the poorer I’d be if I’d never set foot in this building. And that there are others in our community, amongst my friends and family, who deserve this gift, who may not yet know it, but belong in – and will thrive in – this church.

So please join us in these coming weeks and invite someone – or better still someones – you care about. They will be grateful for it. They will thank you for it.”

What he said.

 


Amy Miracle Head ShotAmy Miracle earned a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She served as associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and senior pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa before coming to Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio, in 2008 as  pastor and head of staff.