Reading as Good Leadership

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jessica Tate

“What have you read recently that has been worth passing on?” the leadership coach asked.

I sighed and thought to myself (only half jokingly), “Oh, wow. I remember reading… Back before I was a parent and moved and worked a (more than) full time job and tried to have some sort of social life and tended to extended family.” These are constraints, of course, and they are very, very real.

It’s also real that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership. And secondly, that passing on what has been worthwhile is also a mark of good leadership. NEXT Church is committed to developing leaders and to continual growth and learning in the context of community. We hope this month of blog posts will offer some good food for thought as we put reading/learning back on the front burner. To kick us off, here are five titles that I read (or re-read or read most of!) this past year that are worth your time.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown
Brown’s work is like no other leadership book I’ve read. She pulls together lessons from community organizing, science fiction, the natural world, poetry, and her own experience. At times it reads like a stream of conscience, and it is rich. She argues for an adaptive and relational way of being that becomes a strategy “for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions.” That seems to me to be the sweet spot for the church – transformation on the small scale in individual encounters, sermon by sermon, prayer by prayer, project by project that is connected to a more complex and strategic system to change the world. Perhaps my favorite line of the book is quoted from a sign in the home of the late Grace Lee Boggs: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.” How do we lead in ways that shape community so that our communities and the world around us find abundant life?

Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work by Brené Brown
I’ve been a big fan of Brené Brown’s since I read The Gifts of Imperfection about five years ago and listened to hear TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. This new book pulls on all the previous work and research of Brown and her team and puts it directly in the context of work and leadership at work. She illustrates how vulnerability works (and doesn’t work) at work. She talks about what it takes to lead with a whole-heart. She unpacks what shame does to colleagues in the work place. I’m finding that her research and its applications are pulling together the best of what I have learned through the disciplines of community organizing, the work of Cultivated Ministry, and what I’m learning about dismantling racism. It’s not a theological book per se, but helps me embody (I pray) a servant leadership and the best of what is meant by our call to lose our lives to save them.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
“Well, that explains a lot.” That has been my consistent reaction to DiAngelo’s book on why white people have a hard time engaging and dismantling racism in a serious and lasting way. She has helped me understand systems I work and live within, the reactions of people around me, and (most importantly) helped hold up a mirror for me to see myself and my own reactions more clearly. It’s not been a particularly comfortable read, but I believe it is a sanctifying discomfort in service of a more honest view of myself and a commitment to repentance in the fullest theological sense of going a new way.

DiAngelo mixes it up with helpful frameworks for understanding systemic racism and the “pillars of whiteness” alongside tangible examples of what it looks like in practice to build up my racial stamina, to be willing to enter discomfort for the sake of honoring the experience of people in marginalized groups, and to take every opportunity to learn. The NEXT Church Strategy Team read and discussed this book this fall. We are working toward building racial stamina in the white folk in our leadership and to work together to ensure that people in marginalized groups are not undercut by practices that diminish all of us.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
We ask the participants in our certificate for Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership to read this book and I’ve been re-reading it along with them. Thurman argues that the Christianity most of us have been taught does not deal much with those who stand “with their backs against the wall” at a particular moment in history, other than to have them be the beneficiaries of our “mission.” Further, he reminds us that Jesus – in his personhood – is one who speaks Good News directly to and for those with their backs against the wall. It’s a good reminder to de-center my own experience as I think about what is next for the church. I am also seeing more clearly in the text this time around the importance of the liberating work of Jesus to a “weary, nerve-snapped civilization.” Thurman wrote these words in 1976, but goodness they seem an accurate description of our culture today.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1953-63 by Taylor Branch
In all fairness, I’ve been reading this book for the last TWO years. At 1088 pages, it is a tome, but it is also an illuminating look at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The level of detail paints a much fuller picture than the broad brushstrokes that colored much of my knowledge of the movement from history class. I am finding it a helpful read because it giving me broader perspective on the current political and cultural moment in the United States. This is significant for several reasons. First, there are different philosophies and strategies and tactics for social and cultural change. What can feel like dysfunction in the current social movements is human nature and has been part of this work all along. It’s part of the struggle. Second, organizing for effective social and cultural change is messy and hard. This perhaps is obvious, but it has ben a good reminder that the Montgomery Bus Boycott wasn’t simple to pull off. It required a lot of coordination, grit, and huge sacrifice by the folks who participated. I shouldn’t expect that social change today would require any less sacrifice of me. Third, the role of the church! The church (and mostly the Black Church) played a huge and important role in supporting, equipping, training, and praying for this movement. The church was essential to the movement. I pray the church today is seeking to have such impact.

Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

Practicing Vulnerability

At the 2016 National Gathering, Roy Howard and Shelby Etheridge Harasty led a workshop called “Practicing Vulnerability – God and Us.” The description of that workshop and its accompanying slides (in PDF format) follow:

What does the vulnerability of God teach us about faithful practice at the crossroads? We will combine theological and Biblical reflection with the insights of Brené Brown to develop models of Christian practice that display vulnerability and courage. The practical ways that vulnerability can influence pastoral leadership and congregational ministry will be explored. Finding courage to be vulnerable – as God is – can deepen the ways we lead our congregations and live our lives.

Vulnerability Through Writing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Shelby Etheridge Harasty is one of our workshop presenters for the 2016 National Gathering. Learn more about the workshop at the end of her post. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Shelby Etheridge Harasty

When I first graduated from seminary I was not looking to preach. Ever. It humbled me, challenged me, and frankly, terrified me to the point that I did not enjoy it. Thankfully, that has changed.

As an associate pastor I preach once a month, maybe twice if it’s a month that includes Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, or another mid-week liturgical event. When the head of staff at our church went on sabbatical over the summer, all that changed. As the acting head pastor I was preaching almost every week, and even when I wasn’t preaching I was still writing liturgy and studying the lectionary to craft the order of worship and work with guest preachers.

There’s something about preaching, about praying, studying, writing and saying your own words out loud that allow for moments of vulnerability that don’t happen much in “regular life.” While my knees still shook every time I walked to the pulpit, I felt the preciousness of sharing something I had written, something I had labored over, put my heart into with people who are both strangers and friends.

379812751_96ea577a0e_oNow that the head of staff is back from his sabbatical and I am back to my “regular” preaching schedule, I miss that weekly opportunity for vulnerability. As odd as it may sound, I treasure the that moment of fear and awe that overtakes me when I start to say that first word of the sermon.

Writing has been a great way for me to continue to challenge myself to be vulnerable. Even though I’m not preaching nearly as much, I can still write. I can still write every week, even every day when time allows. Pressing “send” on a blog post offers that same thrill of fear and awe and vulnerability as that preaching moment.

When I first started in ministry, I didn’t realize that I would find so much grace and strength in vulnerability. Brené Brown is at the forefront of this vulnerability revolution, and she talks about it in her newest book, Rising Strong. She says “Revolution might sound a little dramatic, but in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance. Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people—including yourself. One minute you’ll pray that the transformation stops, and the next minute you’ll pray that it never ends. You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time… brave, afraid, and very, very alive.” [1]

And that’s how I feel when I write, when I let words take life and flow from my fingertips. Brave, afraid, and very, very alive.


[1] Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY, 2015. page 254.

photo credit: 7/365 5.2.2007 (self): Notes on Takayuki’s workshop via photopin (license)

Shelby’s National Gathering Workshop: Practicing Vulnerability

What does the vulnerability of God teach us about faithful practice at the crossroads? We will combine theological and Biblical reflection with the insights of Brené Brown to develop models of Christian practice that display vulnerability and courage. The practical ways that vulnerability can influence pastoral leadership and congregational ministry will be explored. Finding courage to be vulnerable – as God is – can deepen the ways we lead our congregations and live our lives. Offered Tuesday during workshop block 2. Learn more and register here.

Shelby Etheridge HarastyShelby Etheridge Harasty has served as Associate Pastor at Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, since 2013. The recipient of the Presidential Leadership Award from Union Presbyterian Seminary, she is especially interested in the intersection of art, prayer, practice and justice. She blogs at Courage in the Cracks.


Peace Like a River… A Reflection on NEXT from a Graduating Seminarian


By Molly McGinnis

Being a seminarian in the middle of Texas while high profile churches and presbyteries debate schism means that I hear a lot about church conflict. I’ve been following the NEXT movement for the last few years, and the Minneapolis conference was my second gathering. To me, the spirit of NEXT is to move us out of the malaise of being an institutional church and refocus our hearts on being the connectional church that we claim to be. After months of waiting for and hearing big news out of Dallas and Houston, the NEXT conference offered a welcome reprieve from debating church unity and the future of our denomination.

As a graduating senior, I am growing impatient with theory, and I’m ready to go out into the world and explore what this wild and wonderful calling will look like. When I arrived in Minneapolis, my head was filled with this enthusiasm and curiosity. But when we gathered for worship on that first morning, a hole of fear and anxiety opened up in my heart. Asking the question, “What’s next?” changed from an exciting idea to a crippling uncertainty.

Worship ran longer than expected that morning, and the already packed schedule advanced at a rapid pace. Over those first two days, my excitement and energy returned as we heard about the wonderful things people are doing in ministry across the country. We learned about new worshiping communities, revitalizing congregations, and reimagining mission. We talked about the conversations that are and are not happening, who is at the table and who is not. While these things were inspiring and helpful, the thing that struck me most about this gathering was the level of vulnerability.

On Tuesday, we closed the day with an evening prayer service. The whole assembly gathered in the balcony, which wrapped all the way around the sanctuary. Draped over the center pews below were long sheets of silky fabric in various shades of blue that fanned out like a river. At the beginning of the service, we wrote down the things on our hearts that were erecting barriers between us and God. The cards were collected in bowls and read aloud as we each placed lit candles on stone tiles at the mouth of the silken stream. Hundreds of prayers were offered for various people and things, but amidst our diversity were two consistent themes—fear and anxiety. Suddenly, I wasn’t ashamed of the hole in my own heart because I was reminded that we are all broken. What’s next is not figuring out how to fix the holes but allowing the Holy Spirit to move in and through those fissures in our souls. Prayers were read, candles were lit, and vulnerability was shared. And all the while, God lay still and shimmering like a river—a body big enough to hold all of our broken bodies.


IMG_7521Molly McGinnis is a graduating MDiv student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She grew up in Arkansas, where she developed a love for the PC (USA) and an interest in ordained ministry. She has a mind for liturgy, a heart for worship, and a zeal for progressivism. She seeks to merge the traditions of the Christian faith with the needs of a changing church and culture. She currently serves as the seminary intern at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. Molly likes to travel around the world with her camera and her love for food culture. She is also the proud mother of a Corgi named Culpepper.


Photo: members of the Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church pause by the “river” prior to Tuesday evening worship