Transformative Learning at the National Gathering

by Jen Kottler and Leslie Mott

For the last several years, NEXT Church has been inviting its National Gathering participants into a new way of thinking about and doing church, challenging us to live into Christ’s calling in ways that are life giving and life affirming. NEXT Church is not about change for change’s sake as much as it is about missional change, rethinking what it means to be the church in the 21st century.

This year, we are National Gathering attendees to re-think – or at least consider – what it might look like if we used our time together to practice a new way of being with one another.

We won’t give you a system or process or list of do’s and don’ts. (We hate that kind of stuff personally.) As pastors and yogis, we have been processing how we bring the most transformational elements from our yoga practice into our work as ministers. We wonder what might change if we thought of our faith as a practice rather than a set of beliefs?

During our time together, we will introduce you to a simple yet transformational way to re-think our work in the church. How would our meetings or worship services be different if they began with a clear intention that moved us into engagement and on to reflection that did more than evaluate what was done, but really challenged us to go deeper and shift our original intention?

As people in ministry, our personal and professional lives overlap, so the questions of the heart, our intentions, our engagement and our personal and professional reflection have much to inform each other.

What do you wonder about? Bring those thoughts with you. Share them with others. Be open to meeting new friends and having a few heart-to-heart conversations – ones where you are listening to connect and grow through sharing with others.

Someone once proclaimed to Maya Angelou, “I am a Christian,” to which she replied, “Already?” We wonder how our churches might change if we focused on loving people into discipleship with the challenge of living out our faith on a daily basis, worrying less about what that looks like, and more about a fresh appreciation of wonder.  In essence moving from the ‘how’ to the ‘wow.’

This is what happened to the woman at the well. Because she was open, because she listened and wasn’t afraid, she had a conversation that transformed her life. Indeed, it transformed not only her life, but the lives of others – and is one that can continue to transform our lives even today. You are still welcome to come to the National Gathering with your to-do list and set of tasks for learning that you wish to accomplish. But we also hope that you will come with an open mind, an open heart and a desire to connect deeply with others.

Jen Kottler and Leslie Mott are pastors, spiritual directors and yoga practitioners who love Jesus, are passionate about the church and will be inviting all attendees of the 2017 National Gathering to consider a different way of being together during our plenary time at the conference this March.

Changing the Culture of Connection

by Jessica Tate

There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]

 — Gil Rendle

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.

Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.

120-next-20140402-114712Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.

Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.

Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:

Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?

After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.

[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like.