The Spirit Comes to Washington… A Reflection on the DC/Richmond Regional Gathering

by Stephen Smith-Cobbs

We began out on the side porches of The Church of the Pilgrims with coffee, bagels, and a gentle but persistent breeze that was a portent of things to come in more ways than one. While we all were more than aware of the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Sandy and her high winds and heavy rains, I am not sure we were as aware of the coming of the Spirit. But the NEXT church leadership conference, “Dynamic Church in a Time of Change,” was one occasion when the Spirit came.

With song and a choral reading of the Pentecost story from Acts, pastors Jeff Krehbiel and Ashley Goff of the Pilgrims church welcomed the participants and shared the story of the worship life of their congregation. Just as the story of Pentecost came to us from all directions in the choral reading, the worship life of Pilgrims seeks to involve worshippers in multiple ways. Worship at Pilgrims strives to be EPIC (experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connectional). The Pilgrims congregation believes that God is calling them to be a community of transformation that engages newcomers, especially young adults, in the practices of Christian community. At this NEXT church event, the whole day was itself a reflection of this kind of worship experience … as the Spirit came.

Jud Hendrix

Jud Hendrix, Coordinator of the Ecclesia Project, a ministry of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, used images and poetry as he shared reflections on leadership. As we did throughout the day, participants broke into triads for sharing impressions and thoughts about what was presented. Judd used several poems that became the basis for examples of and lessons in leadership. He spoke of prototyping, which he defined as a short-term experiment for the purpose of learning – as opposed to the way some use the term “prototype” to speak of a kind of model for solving a problem. Jud closed the morning with the “Broken Toaster” game, in which we might take apart a toaster, and then, instead of trying to put it back together exactly as it was, we instead ask what the Spirit wants to do with all the component parts. What can the Spirit do or create with these parts? And the Spirit came …

During lunch we used an “Open Space” approach to breaking into small groups. Individuals who wished to lead a discussion were invited to share the topic they wished to discuss (like “Biblical Story Telling,” “How to Make Friends in Church” and “Creating Relationships and Community in Worship”). These leaders stationed themselves at various tables in the fellowship hall and participants brought their lunch to a tables according to their interest. Of course, some only wanted to share fellowship and conversation over lunch and several did just that.

We returned from lunch to hear Jud share the remarkable story of the Ecclesia Project and how God used some unlikely folks to help begin new communities of faith in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery. One important leadership distinction Jud mentioned was how, rather than funding one large project with one large set of funds, the Ecclesia Project used one large set of funds to make multiple small grants for wildly different initiatives, trusting the same Spirit of Christ that spoke in many different languages at Pentecost to work in many different ways in their presbytery. And the Spirit came …

The final theme for the day was mission. Andrew Foster-Connors and Jessica Tate shared their experiences of how community organizing had made a difference in the ministries of their congregations, as well as their own personal ministries. The very definition of the word “mission” was transformed for them through broad-based organizing in their congregations. Where mission had previously been defined as “helping the less fortunate,” mission now meant “sending.”

In their experience, broad-based organizing provided a framework for living into God’s mission as it shifted the church from a maintenance culture to a relational culture. They spoke of the changes organizing had brought as their churches shifted from groups to actions, to having a higher accountability to outcomes and results, and from doing one thing from eight different directions instead of doing eight different things superficially. They closed with a challenging question: What would need to happen in your church to begin to shift you from a culture of maintenance to a relational culture of action? I’m guessing one thing for sure would need to happen: the Spirit would need to come…

We concluded the day gathering around the table. Literally. Everyone got up and out of the pews and gathered (as Jeff Krehbiel put it, “by gather we mean crowd”) all around the Lord’s Table in the center of the sanctuary. There several elders from Pilgrims church, along with their pastors, led us in the communion liturgy of word and song and then shared the elements among us all. After sharing the communion, we all gathered in a large circle and held hands as we sang the John Bell hymn:

“Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I can be;
Set your strength upon my heart and live through me.”

Speaking for myself, it was a great and grand day to share with disciples of Jesus. I left refreshed, renewed, and fed – both body and soul. I left hopeful for the NEXT church. For, indeed, the Spirit had come. And I am confident that the Spirit, just as Jesus promised, will come again.

——

Stephen Smith-Cobbs is one of the pastors of Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, VA. He is a native Texan and graduate of Austin College in Sherman, Texas and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before coming to Trinity in 1997, he pastored two congregations in Texas. His current ministry passions include “what unites us as followers of Jesus Christ and what it means for us to be the church in the 21st century.”

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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Tent-makers, part-timers, and the future of congregational leadership

by Stacy Smith

Ten years ago, when I was in college and first considering seminary, I was blessed to be part of substantial and dynamic ministries that encouraged me to pursue ordination. As an Austin College ACtivator and a leader in various PCUSA events, I was told that I was the future of the church. The PCUSA was only going to survive if people like me looked at that 7% statistic square in the face and said, “I’m young, I’m cool (relatively speaking), and I want to be a pastor.” There are a lot of us who felt the same way and many of my friends and future colleagues signed up for seminary. Some thrived, some dropped out, some realized soon enough that seminary was not perpetual church camp, and some, God bless ’em, landed that job at Mo Ranch or Montreat and figured out a way that it could be.

What struck me at NEXT, and has continued to challenge me in the past few months, is how it seems the narrative has shifted. Now, instead of “Go to seminary and save the church!” the narrative seems to be “Go to seminary – but don’t expect a job when you’re done.” The financial challenges of the church, and the whole country, have created a situation in which older folks aren’t retiring and younger folks have fewer job options – a situation that is certainly not unique to the church. But there are a lot of young seminary graduates who face a significantly different church than when they started school. Without a full-time church job, it can be much more difficult to get ordained, and programs like the Lilly Endowment’s Transition-into-Ministry (of which I was a participant) enable young leaders to pursue ordination but don’t guarantee employment when the program is finished. If we keep going this way, we face the possibility of many dedicated, excited young people who will spend years struggling to serve in the capacity to which they were called and for which they are trained.

The answer is not, I believe, that we need more paid positions. That answer is neither practical nor particularly biblical. Instead, we need to reexamine our expectations for teaching elders, reconsider how and why we ordain people into ministry, and provide opportunities for stronger lay leadership. We (and by we, I am including myself and my colleagues) need to stop thinking that the Holy Grail of PCUSA Ordination is $50K as an associate at a big steeple church, eventually leading to $150K as the senior at said big steeple church. Instead, we should think creatively and expansively about how we can “pastor a church” while earning our income from someplace else. Thousands of ministers do just that, especially in smaller denominations and independent churches. By thinking differently about how and where we serve, we can learn new skills, enjoy greater flexibility in our ministries, and gain better understanding of those dedicated ruling elders who struggle to balance their work commitments and their commitment to congregational leadership.

This is not to say that we need teaching elders to spend more time working, working, and then, in their free time, working at little bit more. In fact, finding new ministry opportunities for lay leaders and tent-makers can positively impact the depressingly bad statistics of clergy health. By shifting our expectations, reimagining our leadership structure, and encouraging young teaching elders to think a little differently about ministry, we can take necessary steps toward a dynamic and financially-sound PCUSA.

Stacy Smith is a parish associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church and the manager of faith community outreach at the Church Health Center in Memphis, TN. With Ashley-Anne Masters, she is the co-author of “Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman” published in 2011 by Chalice Press.

What’s in your head?

Author’s note: In the effort to spark some conversations, the following is in response to a prompt, “So, you have attended a NEXT Church event! What did you learn in Dallas (or Indianapolis or Durham or another regional gathering) that has informed your thoughts about ministry today?” Since I raised this question, it is only fair if I answer first. If you would like to share, please send your post to taylortroutman@yahoo.com

A confession: Wayne Meisel is in my head.

This is not a bad thing, really, because I found him to be delightful and engaging in Dallas at the 2012 National Gathering. Yet he challenges me too. He is at once comforting and unsettling, simultaneously reassuring yet provocative. The reasons for such paradox are found in my own story.

You see, I was born in 1981, which many designate as the cut-off between the Generations X and Y. What an auspicious year to be born, particularly if you decide to make a career in the mainline church. I look young enough to be mistaken for a member of Generation Y and, admittedly, my Birkenstocks and shaggy beard are in some ways meant to evoke such a characterization. But I grew up in a denomination that was built to appeal to Generation X, a model that was itself a continuation of baby boomer preferences. As a result, I often find myself on the cusp, pulled between this and that. I want to work for change, but don’t really want to rock the boat; I appreciate the tradition, even as I feel the burden of keeping an institution alive.

So after I left Dallas, Wayne Meisel has taken up residence in my head, stubbornly refusing to allow me to brush these contradictions under the rug. During his presentation, Meisel challenged the “next church” to listen to the younger generation. Let them lead!

Sound great, huh?

As Meisel spoke, I remember looking around, noticing that my older colleagues were nodding appreciatively. Good for them, I thought, I hope they do empower people.

That’s about the time when I realized that I could not identify with either the older or the younger generation, neither the listeners nor the talkers! And so, I felt a burden of being stuck in between. I am aware that the following is somewhat of a caricature, but as an illustration, I am too inexperienced to pastor a tall steeple church yet too imbedded in this culture to start a hospitality house. What’s “next” is neither something for me to hand down nor to pick up, not about handing over the car keys or enrolling in driver’s ed or, for that matter, learning to skateboard in skinny jeans.

What, then, is my role? What about those of us who, in many ways, have been trained to replace the old guard, except now we are all aware that, unless things change, there is not going to be much left to replace?

Wayne Meisel, that voice in my head, pushes me to be a change agent as a facilitator. I think it is inevitable that institutional transformation is painful, but perhaps from my vantage point in between, I can provide a little space for transition.

After Dallas, I came back to my presbytery and got involved with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Yes, dear reader, I am aware that joining a committee is not exactly the most revolutionary act that comes to mind. I don’t need Wayne Meisel to tell me that. My wife, who is Generation Y, teases me plenty!

But, in this role, I can work directly with seminary students, support them, and provide connections. Most of all, I can learn from them, and then help interpret their passion for my senior colleagues. As a transition agent, I do not view my role as gatekeeper, but rather someone who issues an invitation. Here’s where we are and some idea of where we would like to be. How can you help us? What new direction would you take us? Finally, the crucial “next” step: How can we learn from each other?

I am in between the generations; my perspective is a paradox. Perhaps my goal, then, should be to raise questions, not necessarily to answer them. Maybe such work is even a calling. Thank you, Wayne Meisel.

What’s NEXT: From the Pew to the Pulpit

This summer, we are inviting leaders and participants from the 2012 gathering to share what they’ve been thinking about or working on since Dallas. Where are we seeing seeds of the NEXT Church? What ideas are taking root?

The following was submitted by Andrew Taylor-Troutman:

Emily, one of the elders at the church I serve, took it upon herself to design new and updated welcome cards to be placed in the pews for the benefit of Sunday morning visitors. These stylish index cards included a picture of our small sanctuary nestled in the middle of farmland and listed a few of our activities. But Emily did not stop there. For everyone in attendance, there is a “Pew to the Pulpit” card that serves as a means to alert the pastor and elders about pastoral care needs, such as hospitalizations and deaths. There is also space to indicate a desire to volunteer for a committee or request a pastoral visitation. Finally, there are blanks spaces to ask questions about the service and indicate preferences for worship, including sermon topics and hymn selections.

In Dallas, I led a workshop about best worship practices based upon what I’ve learned from the input of my congregation. Through our discussion, we moved beyond the tired, old “worship wars” and shared ways to make the experience of worship reverent, joyful, inspirational, and thought-provoking. The key discovery was that changes in the service should come from the bottom up, rather than from the top down–from the pew to the pulpit. As preachers and worship leaders, we fill our sanctuaries with words week after week. But it is also instructive to listen: to let the people speak and be intentional about offering opportunities for feedback. It seems to me that the NEXT movement is about promoting such investment by congregations into the daily life of their worshipping community.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is a teaching elder at New Dublin Presbyterian Church, a congregation founded in 1769 in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has written a book about his first year as their pastor, Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir. More information about the church and the book, including his blog, can be found at www.takemyhandmemoir.com.

Do you have views to share of “What’s NEXT”? We want to hear from you! E-mail our volunteer editor MaryAnn McKibben Dana at maryannmcdana (at) gmail (dot) com.