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Hope For What’s Next

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jeff Bryan

Who am I to summarize the blog posts from this month? Who am I to conclude these thoughts? I can only say, “Amen!” Amen to Liz Crumlish, our sister from the Church of Scotland, who said it so well: “We are engaged in a movement not a programme.” Amen to Yena Hwang, articulating a theology of death and rising, while summarizing ministry so succinctly: “So, what we do is just that: we show up. Be present in people’s discomfort as they experience the church existing in a different way, not in the way it used to be.” Amen to the vulnerability of these contributors, sharing their personal experiences in the difficult work of the faith. I could go through each of this month’s blog posts and find something to “Amen,” but I’ll spare you the systematic approach. Instead, I’ll simply say I’m grateful to be in such fine company.

I’m also impressed by the restraint of our blog contributors. They have chosen to engage the content of the conference with honesty and integrity, whereas I have rewritten this paragraph 400 times, deleting screed after screed. The mid-twentieth century, White, Anglo-Saxon, male-oriented, culturally-cozy, Main Line church, and it’s perceived loss of privilege and status… I could just scream! But not our writers. They have better, more faithful things to do.

If we are in a desert, it truly is a desert in bloom. So much good is happening out there! Almighty God is still Sovereign. Jesus Christ will never stop calling forth a church to worship, grow in faith, support one another, and serve the ones he called “the least of these.” The Spirit of Christ will continue to send us out, abiding with us every step of the way, comforting, encouraging, and challenging us. That is, until we reach that glorious country where “there is day without night, light without darkness, and life without shadow of death forever.” But there I go preaching again.

When I hear Presbyterians digging into the faith, thinking critically about ministry in their local (and often difficult and painful) contexts, and doing their very best to follow Christ, I feel inspired. I feel hope. I feel my heart yearning for whatever’s next, with all the NEXT Church puns included.
Here’s to whatever God has planned for us today. Here’s to taking it one day at a time, making the next best decision, and keeping our eyes open for the presence of God. Here’s to the future and the NEXT Church.


Jeff Bryan is senior pastor of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, SC. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Jeff has also served churches in Ann Arbor, MI, and suburban Philadelphia. He enjoys spending time with family, and has an embarrassingly large music collection.

Letting Anxiety Go

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mads Benishek

We find ourselves in the wilderness for all kinds of reasons: to sulk (Jonah), to hide (Elijah), to mourn (Ruth), because we are called there (Jesus), and because we have no other option (Hagar). We don’t go there willingly most of the time. The church didn’t choose the wilderness. Indeed, we’ve feared it and puffed ourselves up, shunning it and pretending that we have all the answers and have no need of the wilderness. Yet the wilderness could care less about our self-importance and best-laid plans.

So here we find ourselves: plunged into, deposited, or chased out into the wilderness. After panicking a bit, we sit on the ground with our back to a tree trunk and stare into the sky for a while, thinking, “Now what?” Our defenses drop. We look and for once really see what’s around us, if only because we no longer have anything to distract us, out here where the sky is huge and rocky cliffs rise in the distance. It’s then that the wilderness surprises us. We notice a spring of water coming up from dry ground, a deer leaping for joy, the wind whispering, “What if…?” and “Look!”

The wilderness surprised me in small ways at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering: a corner with pillows for sitting on the floor during keynote and worship, communion stations that seemed to pop up all around the room, roadside markers throughout for us to leave notes or mementos or just things we’d forgotten. The spirituality studio where I played with paper, scissors and glue for a while. As I noticed and explored these treasures of the wilderness, giving my curiosity free reign, I felt my fear and anxiety melt away, becoming humble, open, learning.

I wonder if the church is starting to do this too. I wonder if we’re realizing that we have so many wondrous things to learn once we let all our very adult-seeming anxieties go and we fumble around, ask questions, listen, explore, and thereby discover gifts, insights, tools, and beauty that our very self-important gaze, with our very adult-seeming blinders, would have overlooked.

At the Gathering we learned from community organizers, academics, artists, deacons, elders, businesspeople, and musicians in addition to pastors and academics. The Spirit is in the wilderness, stirring up these prophets, apostles and teachers in and beyond our midst. The Spirit is in the wilderness and at the Gathering I saw the inklings of the church stepping out to follow, a child-like and humble church with big eyes and an open heart eager to learn, to try, to wonder, and even to play. I hope the church, that is each of us, follows our childlike curiosity, that we open ourselves to being surprised by each person, ordained or not, churched or not, and by each place where we find ourselves. Then, together with our siblings in all walks of life, we’ll wonder at and celebrate and join the Holy Spirit at work all around us.


Mads Benishek (he/him/his) is a recent seminary graduate and candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. Currently Mads leads an LGBTQ+ dinner church in north-central New Jersey and is starting a young adult group focused on spirituality, the environment, and local food.

Veering Off the Holy Way

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Debbie Fagans

The NEXT Church National Gathering has always been a rejuvenating experience for me. As a gray-head, seeing all the young pastors and lay persons gives me hope for our denomination. Maybe God is doing a new thing in us after all.

This year’s gathering did not disappoint in this matter. I’m not sure I went believing that I personally was in a wilderness and had to die and rise again. But who can listen to Billy Honor with his vivid stories of fire engines or ice cream cones being shared – take a lick – and not realize that there is a spirit awakening our staid Presbyterians?

Or who can hear Jennifer Barchi with her hilarious story of taking her youth group on a camping trip and yelling for Cliff, the other adult, to come out and save them and not realize that we too, like Jennifer, are adults and need to rise to the occasion.

While all the speakers moved me with their stories, whether humorous, serious, or learned, it wasn’t until the last speaker, Kathryn Johnston spoke, that I heard what I think God brought me there to hear.

The Isaiah passage had tickled my mind throughout the conference.

“Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

As I grow older and look back on all I can’t do anymore, it is a comfort to feel that God will strengthen my weak hands and my very feeble knees. I need that strength both literally and figuratively. As we take on new responsibilities in starting a free, after school tutoring program in a low-income area of our city, I need to hear the Lord telling me to be strong and not fearful. God will be with us in this endeavor.

But hearing Kathryn’s humorous story of their car breaking down in a part of our country not known for its liberality and that she almost missed seeing that the “mom & pop” who helped them were people traveling on the Holy Way because she was on the “holier than thou” way, really struck a chord.

“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way…”

How often – especially now in our political climate – have I been on the “holier than thou” way? I’m afraid to admit, even to myself, that it has been way too many times. I can be very judgmental. Why can’t “these” people see how awful the present occupant of the White House is? Or why can’t “those” people realize we need to cut carbon emissions? We only have one planet. Or why can’t “those” women realize we’re not pro-abortion? We’re pro-choice.

I’m so busy trying to be right that I don’t notice that I have veered off the “Holy Way.” I miss seeing the humanity in the people I put down. But even here, God comes to my rescue.

“…no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”

What a comfort that is, Lord! I am often such a fool. Help me to realize when I have fallen off the Holy Way. Help me to get off my high-horse and look at those who travel with me and are loved by you as much as I am.

And together we can “come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon our heads;
we shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


Debbie Fagans is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church of Albany, NY.  She is also the volunteer executive director of the South End Neighborhood Tutors, also known as Wizard’s Wardrobe. She has a background in education and taught elementary school in PA and NJ. She also worked as program coordinator for literacy volunteers and trained adults to teach adults in Troy.

The Wilderness Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Liz Crumlish

Two years ago, I left a pastoral charge in the Church of Scotland to work on a project that seeks to transition congregations from maintenance to mission and from survival to flourishing.

Through a network of residential conferences, mentoring and learning communities, we seek to journey together, discovering God already at work in our communities and taking up God’s invitation to join in. Support, collegiality, and accountability are built in as we do theology together and as we respond to God’s mission in our many different contexts. We are engaged in a movement, not a programme.

That was why the theme of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering, The Desert In Bloom, struck a chord. I was keen to find out how others were grappling with themes of dying and renewal in the church.

I was not disappointed. It was refreshing and encouraging to be with other church leaders who are not afraid to grapple with how to be church in the wilderness of today’s culture while remaining “rooted in the institution” of church, working out what wholeness looks like in community in the knowledge that “whole people heal their own communities.”

In opening worship, it was stated: “The church is in a searching season of wilderness. This is a message not of despair but of hope,” and “Stop complaining about the church you are part of and start being the church you envision.”

Throughout the gathering, there was an honesty about wilderness being an inevitable experience of leadership. And, in communion, there was the assurance that “We are held by a love we are not required to deserve.”

David Leong urging us to consider the “abandoned places of empire,” in their decay, becoming “fertile soil for renewal and rebirth,” and our call to spread the gospel through “compelling not conquering,” encouraged me to allow such places to “act as a mirror of what we really believe about our life together.”

Jonathan Walton’s words, “When it comes to Jesus, every act of grace is accompanied by an uncompromising critique of corrupt systems,” are the words with which I am currently wrestling, as I seek to speak “not just truth to power but truth to power in love.” And then there are Kathryn Johnston’s words in worship: “Every time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side.”

While there was a comprehensive selection of workshops, it was the in-between conversations, the connections made, the stories told, the testimonies shared that really made the trip across the pond worthwhile. I am profoundly grateful to all those who welcomed me and allowed me to be part of a journey of hope in the wilderness and signs of the desert in bloom.

And I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation and the pilgrimage.


Liz Crumlish is a minister in the Church of Scotland currently working on a National Renewal Project in the church. She lives on the west coast of Scotland and blogs about her work at: www.pathofrenewal.blogspot.com Liz writes for Spill the Beans, is on the board of RevGalBlogPals and contributed to the book: There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.)

Wandering in the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Megan McMillan

Back in September, I read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Just like all of her other books, TED Talks, and podcast appearances, I was in tears by the end. Brené Brown is basically my personal life coach. Thus, I have been ruminating on the idea of wilderness for a few months. In her book, Brown tells us that the wilderness is a place of belonging and a sacred place, “[The wilderness] is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, it’s the bravest and the most sacred place you will ever stand.”

Thanks to Brown, I feel the wilderness is a place that can be lonely and terrifying, yet it can also be so beautiful and exciting. The scripture we focused on during the gathering reassured us of that. “The wilderness and dry land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35: 1).”

As a denomination, the PC(USA) has been wandering in the wilderness for a while now. As a seminary student, I am so sick of hearing people say that the church is dying. Prior to my seminary career, I served as a youth director for six years. People always say that the youth are the future of the church, but I firmly believe that young people are the church right now. How can anyone possibly think the church is dying where you are amongst 6,000+ youth at Presbyterian Youth Triennium? How can anyone think the church is dying when you’re sitting in Anderson Auditorium with over 1,000 college students at Montreat College Conference? How can anyone think the church is dying when our seminaries are full of eager twenty-something’s ready to serve our church? If you think the church is dying, you are looking in all the wrong places. We are simply wandering in the wilderness.

I really resonated with the sermon on Tuesday night by Jennifer Barchi. Rev. Barchi shared my feelings in that the wilderness is not always an undesirable place. The church is merely evolving into something different. As people of God, we must evolve with it and transform it into something new. There is death in the wilderness, but that gives us the opportunity of holy rising. This dying will not kill us. This dying will resurrect us. As a denomination, I have full confidence that we will use this death as an opportunity to rise into new, hopeful, and creative people of God. “The Church is dying, thanks be to God!” As we continue to wander in the wilderness, thank you NEXT Church National Gathering for renewing my hope in this church that I love so deeply.


Megan McMillan is a student at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Currently, she is serving as the Chaplain Intern at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch in Hunt, TX, for her SPM until the end of the summer. She will then head back to Austin to finish her final year of seminary. A graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, Megan also served in Columbia, SC as a youth director before her seminary career. She has two adorable dogs that love the outdoors as much as she does, and is an avid South Carolina Gamecock fan.

Journeying Through the Wilderness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Erin Hayes-Cook

“And sometimes dying is rising. Sometimes dying sparks a new thing, becomes possibility, potential, the fallow ground where new life slowly takes root, unfurls, grows wild.” Call to worship, Tuesday, at the NEXT Church National Gathering. I’ve kept these words in my spiritual pocket for the past few weeks. They have shaped how I move about in this ministry world in which I find myself.

I came to face dying and rising in my ministry context, vocation, and life. For I feel like I am a leader in the wilderness carving meaning out of rock and claiming the God of transformation while listening to the grief of God’s people. To say it is hard work would diminish the cost of discipleship.

At the National Gathering, I named the dry and desert places with colleagues and heard from David Leong who asked us the question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal and rebirth?” His question stirred in my spirit and imagination. What if the leaders of the church are called to go to the abandoned and neglected places and find resurrection? To me that is a calling.

On the other hand, I heard stories from Sheri Parks and Betsy Nix about the Thread program in Baltimore who walk with young people who need a community to support them. Or the woman who stood up during the presentation and shared about her presbytery holding a racial awareness festival. Blossoms kept springing up.

John Vest presented an imaginative way to move through ministry challenges and find those blossoms with the Cultivated Ministry approach. The shared tools and rubric helped me find another way to claim the God of transformation in ministry. I look forward to using it in the future.

The final challenge for me was Jonathan Walton’s keynote speech, “Be Suspicious of Praise.” He claimed that it is easier to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a prophet. Jesus’ biggest temptation was not found in his interaction with the devil in the desert, but when surrounded by his people who gave him praise. As I try my best to listen to the Spirit in the midst of the wilderness my hope is that I may answer yes to the second question, “Are you one with the age? Or are you being what our age needs right now?”

I’m grateful that my experience at the NEXT Church National Gathering gave me space again to claim with joy the call to journey through the wilderness.


Erin Hayes-Cook is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Rahway, NJ. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (’05), she served two churches in the Philadelphia area. She finds community at her Crossfit Box and coffee shops nearby.

The Dream of Our Future

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shirley Dudley

I am a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a life-long Presbyterian, and a minister’s wife, confirmed over 70 years ago. I have attended many conferences through the years, especially the ones with the Presbyterian women, but this was my first time at the NEXT Church National Gathering. What struck me throughout the conference was its INCLUSIVITY. Everyone was at the table in every aspect of this conference – top leadership, worship leadership, worship space arrangements, workshop participation and leadership, worship music, entertainment, etc. Also, people were not afraid to laugh at themselves and they did not take themselves too seriously.

The next thing that grabbed me was the INNOVATION. It was like we were living in “the dream of our future” at this gathering. I am not only talking about the big things but the little things, too, like the cardboard box altars where people could leave mementos and congregate. I did not know that there were so many ways to get people out of their comfort zones in a church-related situation. My husband was a professor of Church and Community in several seminaries and I know he would have been stimulated, as I was, with Dr. Leong’s discussion of race and place. I am in a multi-cultural downtown church with people who come from everywhere else but the downtown. It is freeing for us to have to mingle and worship together, but it requires a time commitment that we are sometimes not willing to give in order to make a dent in the crises of our city. So even if we are not bound by our individual places, we are bound by our “place” in a troubled city.

Since I returned home, I was asked to share my experiences from the conference with my session and offer some concrete ideas for our future. I described all of the above, the worship theme, the main speakers, the energizing testimonials from Baltimore, workshops, and some of the fun things that happened to me personally as I reconnected with old friends. Then they asked me for concrete ideas for our church. Here are a few of those:

We are a small church that could definitely benefit by intergenerational opportunities. There are moments when we could share in small groups with each other in the worship service itself. We have many small tasks that could be spread around and the children could be more included in decorating our sanctuary, even finding pictures for the pastors to use on Sunday morning in our screen.

We don’t have to be so serious all the time. This conference seemed to give permission to “lighten up.”

We work diligently with hunger problems, but digging deeper in our local community for partners in ministry would work well for us – especially as the city of Hartford is becoming a place of change and more young people.

I was also moved by the Florida groups that were supporting the students affected by the massacre. We too can take part in the efforts to win more gun control.

We also have DACA leadership in our church and they need support.

And on and on… Yes, with the help of God, we will try to do our own “rising” in a wilderness church with inspiration from a life-giving conference.


Shirley Dudley an 85 year-old mother of 5, grandmother of 9, and was married to a Presbyterian minister and faculty member of McCormick Theological Seminary (and Hartford Seminary), Carl Dudley (now deceased). She served as first full-time registrar and assistant dean at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1976 -1993. Shirley presently lives in an Active Life Care Senior Center in Bloomfield, CT, and attends a downtown Hartford Presbyterian Church.

Sustenance to Bloom

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Eliana Maxim

In a busy season of ministry, the opportunity to attend the NEXT Church National Gathering popped up on my calendar quite unexpectedly. I remembered the enthusiasm with which I had registered back in early winter, but now with to-do lists multiplying magically, I wasn’t sure I would find the time or “head space” to engage.

I am so glad I did.

The theme of “The Desert in Bloom” appropriately described what many of the pastoral leaders with whom I work have been experiencing. The realities of ministry can certainly make one feel as if you are in extended wilderness time. And that you are doing it alone.

In order to bloom in said desert would require sustenance, at least for this pastor. A desert in bloom means hope above all else.

My first interaction in Baltimore was attending the Sunday evening People of Color get-together. This group met again at the conclusion of the gathering. And in both of those meetings, I found the space where we could speak frankly about the ways the church has moved towards greater inclusion and equity, and how much further is has to go.

I was challenged by Rev. Jonathan Walton’s keynote talk on pastors being suspicious of praise and the church’s complacent comfort in a safe Jesus. “Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than to accept the challenge of a moral prophet.” And I took comfort in Rev. John Schmidt’s vulnerability as he shared his wilderness testimony as a Biblically conservative pastor guiding his congregation to stay in the PCUSA and remain engaged missionally where God is calling them, which includes ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS.

I was nurtured by impromptu coffees, lunches or happy hours with old friends and people yet to become friends that provided informal opportunities to check in, celebrate, grieve, and dream together, regardless of where we came from or what our ministry contexts might be.

At a time when many are wandering the desert, wringing their hands in despair over the church we are no longer, the NEXT Church National Gathering provided space and energy to rejoice at the new things God is doing. We acknowledge the demise of what we were, but rejoice at what is yet to be. Is it scary? Anxiety producing? Of course! But we navigate this new terrain together and most importantly with the assurance of God’s presence among us and God’s sovereignty.

As a member of the Way Forward Commission, a body created by the 222nd General Assembly to review and make recommendations on the structure of the denomination for this next season of ministry, I have intentionally sought out the blooms of the church we can be. I caught glimpses of it at the National Gathering.

And as a member of the Seattle Presbytery, I am beyond excited to know NEXT Church will be coming to our neck of the woods in 2019. I look forward to the inspiration and continued sustenance I am confident will be offered. And I look forward to seeing you there! Praise be to God!


Eliana Maxim is the Associate Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Seattle. Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, Eliana also serve as the vice-moderator of the PCUSA’s National Hispanic/Latinx Caucus. You can usually find Eliana hanging with her husband Alex, daughters Sacha and Gabi, and spoiled-rotten Boxer Lola the Dog.

Lori Raible — Wilderness (Sermon)

Using the image of wilderness, Lori reflects on the difficulties of living in community at the regional gathering in Durham on August 18, 2012.

Lori is the Associate Pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC.