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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.

The CCC: Churches, Communities, and Challenges

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 Lee Nave, Jr.

By design, churches serve to enhance the communities they reside within.

During some of the most challenging times in recent human history, church leaders have worked within communities as leaders. These challenges, in some cases, were large in scope (civil rights movement), with implications on how certain populations within the community were treated.

Not every church can march on Washington but every church leader can support their community on Main Street. Church leaders are not just leaders of their church community but also the larger community that they reside in.

When I was eight, I had my first job cutting grass with my grandparents for members of our church one summer. My grandparents and I would drive around all day that summer, cutting the lawns for older church members who didn’t have anyone to do it for them for various reasons.

In order to increase our outreach, we worked our pastor to outline members of the congregation who may need assistance. Our pastor would give my grandparents a list with contact information of those in need. This list began to expand to include community members that were not a part of the church community.

This grassroots kind of community service, though small in scope, can play a massive role in how churches engage the community they serve. Using resources from church members, such in this case landscaping, can assist the lives of one of the churches’ most vulnerable communities.

1. Know your limitations/capacity/community as a church leader.

Churches, however, can’t be in charge of solving every issue that impacts the community. There is only so much a church can do considering their limited capacity (funding, time, volunteers, etc). And a second point is that churches can’t create a platform or action plan without community input.

A common disadvantage of international development is that organizations enter communities without assessing community wants and needs before starting a program. Therefore, churches have to assess directly from the community to discover what needs are and work with the community to create an action plan.

2. Capture the voices of community members.

Now, as a professional in the nonprofit space 20 years later, one of the most valuable methods of collecting community input I’ve seen and done myself is through focus groups. These small group conversations can be tailored around specific topics or just general community outreach.

Focus groups could be conducted in spaces that church members feel most comfortable in. However, there also needs to be spaces for those not as comfortable with church environments to still participate in such discussions. Recreation centers and other spaces could serve for those audiences. Especially when dealing with young people who may not feel as comfortable using their voice in this particular space.

3. Put actions into… well… action!

The action plan itself would be based off of the feedback gathered. For the focus groups to be successful and useful, they need to go beyond just the harms and problems within the community but also contain recommendations and actions a church could take.

For example, if forty community members need assistance with landscaping, there needs to be a plan on how those services will be rendered. It could involve asking a local landscaping company for discounted rates or a few motivated teenagers could be asked to deliver services like I did with my grandparents 20 years ago.

One of the most troubling results of having community discussions such as focus groups, is when participants feel like nothing has come from it. As much as possible, try to inform participants of all actions taken as well as engage them in the process.

As you continue to grow as a church leader, remember that the voices of the people you break bread with should all be valued and understood fully. Your work isn’t just to lead the church but to be a community organizer who harnesses the voices of community, to defeat all challenges.


Lee Nave Jr. is the Community Engagement Coordinator at Citizens for Juvenile Justice. He has over a decade of experience working with communities all over the country in the nonprofit space. He currently resides in Boston, MA.

Communities of Interpretation

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 Robert Williamson Jr.

When it comes to officer training, I imagine reading the Bible is pretty far down the list of tasks most of us consider urgent. There are issues that seem more pressing, like understanding our polity, or evangelism and church growth, or balancing the budget. Besides, we often think of pastors as the only “legitimate” interpreters of the Bible, leaving church officers and members to tend to other, more practical matters.

Yet the stories of the Bible are foundational to everything else we do. The Bible teaches us the language of the faith. It shows us how to be the people of God, living in the world and yet refusing to be conformed to it. It exposes false narratives that would keep us enthralled to Pharaoh. It declares the good news of resurrection life made possible in Jesus Christ, who came to let the oppressed go free and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor. In short, the Bible reminds us who — and whose — we are.

As such, immersion in the Bible is imperative for the life of faith. Without it, we cannot know what it means to be the church. We cannot understand the greater purpose that animates our polity, our budgets, our worship life, and our participation in God’s mission. We — all of us — need to become interpreters of the Bible.

All of Us Together

Our church structures can communicate that interpreting scripture is a task reserved for pastors and scholars. Too often, we hear the Bible read and proclaimed from the pulpit for 20 minutes on Sunday and scarcely think about it the rest of the week. But, properly understood, biblical interpretation is the work of the whole community, permeating our life together. We all have something to contribute and something to learn. While pastors and scholars have specialized knowledge that can illuminate the Bible in certain ways, each of us has our own experiences, insights, and questions that can enrich our common reading of the Bible in other ways. We read better when we read together.

In my work with Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a 1001 New Worshipping Community whose members are mostly homeless, we engage together in Bible studies that invite that insights and experience of every reader in the room. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour reading the week’s lectionary passage. We read slowly, paying attention to the details of the text, asking whatever questions occur to us, and finding the places where the text connects to our own experience. We open it up and walk around inside it just to see what we might see.

For instance, one afternoon we studied the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac as told in Mark 5:1-20. As a biblical scholar, I wanted to focus on the political implications of the demons calling themselves “Legion,” a term for a Roman military cohort. My Mercy friends, by contrast, related personally to the demon-possessed man. They understood what it was like to be inhabited by demons, though theirs had names like “Addiction,” “Depression,” and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” They understood what it felt like to be cast out of society and left to wander among the tombs.

Reading the story together helped us all to understand it—and each other—more deeply. I came to know more about what it’s like to struggle with demons. I even came to identify some of the demons that animate me in destructive ways — demons with names like Comfort, Success, and Prestige. In turn, my Mercy friends thought more about how their demons may themselves be manifestations of the political and economic structures of our time.

More than that, reading the Bible together helped us imagine what it means to be the church together. Like the Gerasenes, we have too often been taught to marginalize, shackle, and abandon those who struggle with their demons. Yet Jesus immediately set the man free, despite the protests of those in the community who were more concerned for their financial well-being than for the man’s restoration to wholeness. Like Jesus, we decided, the church should show compassion for the marginalized, even if it means being banished by those invested in the status quo.

But my Mercy friends saw something else in the passage that I had missed. They recognized that Jesus refused the newly-healed man’s request to follow him, instead sending him off to proclaim the good news among his own people. They suggested that those who have “been down through it” and have come out the other side have a special mission. As the healed man could proclaim the Gospel in a region where Jesus could not go, so too could my homeless friends witness to the good news in places and among people who would not listen to someone like me.

Becoming Communities of Interpretation

I tell this story simply to say this: reading the Bible with each other can change us for the better. It can help us see the world differently. It can help us to understand ourselves differently. It can shape us more fully into the people of God, bearing witness to resurrection life in a world too often shrouded by the shadow of death.

As church leaders — whether pastors, scholars, ruling elders, or deacons — we owe it to ourselves and to our communities to be immersed in the world of scripture on a regular basis. We need to find ways of reading the Bible together, letting the words of Scripture shape our sense of ourselves and our conception of what it means to be the church. As communities of faith, we need to live in the stories of the Bible, and we need the stories of the Bible to live in us.


Robert Williamson Jr. is associate professor of religious studies at Hendrix College and founding pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, a multi-denominational worshiping community welcoming all people, especially those who live on the streets. His latest book is The Forgotten Books of the Bible: Recovering the Five Scrolls for Today (Fortress Press, 2018).

Leadership: Our Faith Depends On It

by Laura Cheifetz

I don’t know if we can blame this on American individualism, white Christianity, or a misunderstanding of what Jesus did and how he did it. We have a habit of thinking single leaders will save us. Whether it’s deciding that the election of an African American stated clerk represents a turning point and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen (so what I’m saying is y’all better be showing up and doing your own work instead of waiting for the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson to magically transform the church by his lonesome). Or that an out gay Latino heading up PMA will be such an important change for the church (represents a change? Yes. WAS the change? That’s not how change works.). Or that hiring a charismatic white under-40 pastor will do for the congregation what the congregation has not been able to do for itself.

We are not a church of individual leaders fixing things. I mean, sometimes we think we are, but that’s not how we are set up. It is not how we flourish. It is not how we get things done.

Which leads me to the matter of leadership development.

We can’t, in fact, neglect leadership development in a church with no bishops. And we can’t focus leadership development only on the conventional choice (the young, the male, the outspoken). We need to develop everyone. You never know when you need someone to organize a group of people to march in a parade, corral knitters to make hats for preemies, or arrange the food pantry.

I hate being the youngest in the room; by the time I was in my mid-30s, I realized it is a chronic issue in many church circles. It’s a sign that we aren’t doing our job to find and cultivate leaders and make leadership development opportunities accessible. That’s not true anymore; I’m the second oldest on staff at my organization. I am delighted I can play my true heart’s role: grumpy older lady who knows some things. Every day is an exercise in leadership development.

That’s what church should be. A daily exercise in leadership development. The story of our faith in Scripture lays out a myriad of prophets, common folk getting things done, a community of people following Jesus and sharing the good news, scrappy early churches. We need people with the capacity to show up after their day (or night) jobs and be leaders. Our faith literally depends upon it.

This series of blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons.

Here is the lesson I offer.

Leadership development is training people up to love God, love neighbor, and have the strength to withstand being uncomfortable. You know what’s uncomfortable, at least at first? Difficult conversations. Leading Bible study. Talking with strangers. Speaking in front of others. Marching past counter-protestors. Antiracism work. Guiding a community of faith to learn more about and be inclusive of LGBTQ people. Being in a different cultural context. Learning new skills. Engaging in a community that is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating. Integrating people with intellectual disabilities in worship for the first time. Visiting people in prisons and detention centers. Being in community with people who live with addiction.

You know, being the church.

Church should be uncomfortable. Church should develop leaders.

Go and do likewise.


Laura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Deputy Director of Systems and Sustainability at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). Prior to that, she served as Vice President for Church and Public Relations at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, at the Forum for Theological Exploration, and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She and her partner live in Decatur, GA. If you were to be stranded in Atlanta, you could call them for a night on the couch, craft cocktails, a meal, lively discussion on politics or race or religion or whatever else we aren’t supposed to discuss, and dog snuggles.