NEXT Church, PC(USA)

How Will #nextchurch2015 Know If It Worked?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for examplehere,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

Here’s my second question:

Here’s my third question:

And now my fourth question . . .

How will we know if NEXT Church 2015 was a success?

There will be over 600 people there. Is that success? There’s a program full of recognizable names–preachers, speakers, and workshop leaders who are considered “experts” at what they do. Is getting them success?

Maybe you only know if gatherings like this worked much later, when people who were there trace their transformation back to it as the moment they learned something new or started important relationships or made a vocational decision or encountered God’s grace. Maybe if enough people do that it worked on a church-wide scale.

Evaluations will tell you if your thing worked as a thing: was the food good? Did the content connect with peoples’ expectations and experience? Was your communication clear? But we want our thing to move the needle in ways that don’t show up on evaluations. How do we know if that’s happened/ing?

NEXT Church

What Impact Will Young Adults Have on #nextchurch2015?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for examplehere,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

Here’s my second question:

Now my third question: what will be the impact of young adults?

The Mainline Protestant landscape is largely absent people in their 20’s, a fact that has been analyzed by multiple studies. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not exempt from this reality, but it boasts a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program that each year commissions young adults to a year of service in a couple dozen sites in the U.S. and across the world. The PC(USA) is crawling with recent college graduates eager to impact the world, then. They’re just not in congregations.

NEXT Church national gatherings have featured young voices from the beginning, and I wonder if this one won’t do that to a greater extent than before. A Young Adult Volunteer is on the planning team and has already shaped much of what will happen. McCormick Theological Seminary’s innovative Center for Faith And Service will be on hand in the person of the incomparable Wayne Miesel, who has done more than anyone to shape the church’s thinking about ministry with young adults. One of the seven Ignite presentations will feature a trio of YAVs (see their pitch below).

Young adults–including those in seminary–will have lots of opportunity next week to connect, share, and even organize around their vision for the next embodiment of the Presbyterian Church.

There’s a YAV from my congregation coming next week at my insistence, so I’ve obviously got high hopes that NEXT Church 2015 will provide her and her peers with both an imaginative environment for discerning their place in the PC(USA) and a platform to constructively shape its future.

NEXT Church

What Can Non-Pastors Do with #nextchurch2015?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for example here,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

And now my second question:

Will this gathering equip non-pastors to lead in the church?

There will be significant leadership at this event from educators, non-profit executives, and entrepreneurs. NEXT has always lifted up the importance of Ruling Elder leadership, ever since the first gathering in Indianapolis, when the late Cynthia Bolbach–herself a Ruling Elder and General Assembly Moderator–pointed out the overwhelming majority of Teaching Elders (pastors) in attendance.

Are we getting closer?

George Srour is a Ruling Elder from Indianapolis who will describe the organization he’s built that is constructing school all over Africa.

Anita Ford is an elementary school principal who will help explain how her school partnered with a church to create a children’s music program. Charles Kerchner, an academic who specializes in public education, will also be part of that presentation. Charles is one of five Ruling Elders coming from the congregation I serve.

Bill Habicht is a pastor, but he calls himself a “common good and social media conspirator,” and he spends a lot of time working with non-pastors to form things like art collectives and coffee shops.

It certainly feels like a opportunity more attuned to the particular leadership gifts of those for whom ministry is not their job, so I’m eager to see what all the non-pastors will do with it. How many do you know who are coming?

Four Questions For NEXT Church 2015, NEXT Church

Will #nextchurch2015 Move The Church Toward Racial Justice?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for example here, here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

So, my first question:

The fouled up racial reality of the American context is more clearly in focus today than it has been for years, at least as measured by the mainstream media discourse. Michael Brown and Eric Garner are household names, and #blacklivesmatter is necessary to state now. How will the urgency of racial justice inform what happens next week?

A colleague shared this in an email yesterday:

I still have my same concerns about the church in general and about NEXT in particular. The events of the past six months, especially events around Ferguson, have even heightened my sense of concern for organizations that are predominantly led and and membered by privileged white people, including organizations like the PC(USA) and NEXT Church. I’ll be interested to see if your conference makes any movement this year compared to the last several years I’ve attended.

One way to measure movement toward racial justice in a gathering like this is by looking at who’s up front. NEXT has always work hard at diverse racial representation among its leadership, even if the PC(USA) is a mostly white palette from which to draw.

Among others, this year’s gathering will hear from Chineta Goodjoin, the Organizing Pastor of a new African-American church in Orange County, as well as Tiffany Jana, who heads a consulting firm with her husband Matt that helps organizations harness the power of diversity (watch her TED Talk below).

This year’s theme, “Beyond: Our Walls, Our Fears, Ourselves” lends itself well to addressing the church with urgency to explicitly address its witness to a world in which police officers openly send racist emails, fraternity brothers at a prominent university chant “hang ’em from a tree” with glee, and young black men are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police.

It’s on us to push things in the direction of justice and reconciliation. I expect next week’s gathering to offer concrete ways to do that.

NEXT Church

NEXT Church Minneapolis: Leadership, Prototypes, and Infrastructure

The fourth NEXT Church national gathering ended yesterday, so here are my takeaways.

I said in some posts leading up to the gathering that I was looking for NEXT to articulate some ideals for leadership, to share prototypes of new ministries, and to continue its trajectory of constructive, infrastructure-heavy work of building the next iteration of the Presbyterian church in the United States.

  • Leadership: This was a strong emphasis of the gathering and was carried largely by a presentation and workshop led by Mark Ramsey and Kristy Farber of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Asheville. The two drew a very helpful distinction between leaders who invest in strategic planning and those who invest in strategic thinking. The former wants to produce a plan, a course for the future that will ensure viability through the following of articulated steps. The latter wants only to develop the capacity for the church to evaluate the present moment and its opportunities in light of its shared mission, values, and commitments. You accomplish the former with a committee and a document. You accomplish the latter by, in Mark’s great phrase, “funding the theological imagination” of the church. The opportunity is not to set a course for all to follow, but rather to invest in the people of God’s ability to discern which way God is turning us in our day-to-day reality.
  • Leadership (II): Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright said something that stopped me in my tracks. Best practices are dumb. At least in an adaptive challenge, best practices won’t help you. Because best practices are other peoples’ methods for successfully accomplishing defined aims and solving technical problems. But we, they argued, are in a situation where the aims aren’t clear and the problems aren’t technical. We shouldn’t waste another minute coming up with best practices for being the church today.
  • Prototypes: Ignite presentations gave participants seven minutes each to pitch something. Some pitches were mini sermons, while others really were descriptions of prototypes. Rob Ater described the Presbytery of Milwaukee’s new relational meeting format: prototype. Leanne Masters of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, described the food forest their church is starting: prototype. And Landon Whitsitt, the Executive and Stated Clerk of the Synod of Mid-America presented Theocademy, a completely free, completely online video curriculum for officers and members going live next month: prototype.
  • Infrastructure: I doubt NEXT’s leadership envisioned it this way, but Casey Wait Fitzgerald’s Biblical storytelling in the event’s worship services and her testimony about the role it plays in her ministry and in her life was all about infrastructure. Casey has completed a certification in Biblical storytelling through an academy run by the Network of Biblical Storytellers. Now she’s got a repertoire of stories that she tells in worship, at conferences, on retreats, and even at home, to share the good news. It’s narrative infrastructure, perhaps the most important kind for a church swimming in a pluralistic postmodern setting.

Two and half days is a long time, and you can cram a wagon full of content in there. NEXT’s organizers did just that. For a more complete picture of what went out, read up on Leslie Scanlon’s articles in The Presbyterian Outlook, which are always artful and informative. John Vest has posted a really thorough reflection on it too. Also, you can spend some time with the event’s hashtag.

NEXT 2014 was reflective, challenging, and hopeful. I’m certainly looking forward to the next NEXT gathering (in Chicago!), but more than that I’m eager to start experimenting with the insights and ideas I got at this one.

Were you there? What’s the biggest thing you got out of it? Were you hoping to get something out of it but didn’t?



NEXT Church

NEXT Retrospect: Charlotte

next-churchThe fourth NEXT Church national gathering is next week in Minneapolis. I’ve been to each of these gatherings so far, and I’ve come away each time with lots to think about and experiment with. This week we’ll look back at the first three NEXT gatherings and suggest things I’m looking forward to at this year’s gathering.

The NEXT experience in Charlotte was rich in worship (led by Theresa Cho and her merry band). It was also the first national gathering run by a National Director, the incomparable Jessica Tate. Top to bottom, Charlotte was as good as it gets.

My two posts about the gathering are here and here.

A year on, the thing from the Charlotte gathering that has made the most difference in my work is the worship stuff. Ashley Goff’s plea for a more improvisational sensibility in preaching in liturgy has been in my mind every time I’ve preached in the past year. I tried her “Yes! Let’s!” benediction the very first chance I got. Also, Casey Wait Fitzgerald’s performance of Biblical story telling encouraged me to bring something of a Godly Play feel to Scripture reading in worship and in my work with students, and I put that to work right away.

Pleas for creativity, risk-taking, and even failure were abundant in Charlotte, and I expect that trajectory to continue next week. NEXT has always succeeded at putting those sensibilities on display though, and not just dangling them as ideals that most people (and churches) can’t reach. When people like Aisha Brooks Lytle and Joe Clifford describe the things they’re trying, you come away with concrete ideas. It’s constructive.

What I’m most looking for in Minneapolis is the development of a school of leadership within NEXT. I’m eager to hear distilled some broadly agreed upon ideals and practices among people leading churches in a NEXT-y way. Chad Andrew Herring, I’m looking at you.


Church, NEXT Church

NEXT Retrospect: Dallas

next-churchThe fourth NEXT Church national gathering is next week in Minneapolis. I’ve been to each of these gatherings so far, and I’ve come away each time with lots to think about and experiment with. This week we’ll look back at the first three NEXT gatherings and suggest things I’m looking forward to at this year’s gathering.

I posted two reflections on the 2012 Dallas gathering here and here. They were heavy on prototypes and process modalities.

A prototype is a rough-and-ready incarnation of an idea. It’s not fine-tuned. It’s still riddled with bugs. It’s a learning tool, a beta test. The prototype sensibility seems to me to have very rapidly lodged itself into our cultural consciousness, mostly through our experience with digital technology. Every new technology is a beta, and the frequency of updates and bug fixes is the most critical factor in its success. It’s the opposite of It’s local, small-scale, and, often, by invitation only (by the way, I have four invites left for the private beta of the Aviate launcher for Android. Let me know in the comments if you want one).

NEXT 2012 lifted up a bunch of prototypes, mostly experimental Christian communities in mid-Kentucky. But a prototype doesn’t have to be a new community. It can be a new expression of Christian education in a particular church. Or an Executive Presbyter job description. Or a Synod-wide Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort, like the one I’m agitating for in my synod. It can be a sermon. The critical components are 1) invitation and 2) intentional learning.

NEXT is itself a prototype.

I’ll be looking for examples of prototypes in Minneapolis, for sure.



ECO, NEXT Church

NEXT Retrospect: Indianapolis

next-churchThe fourth NEXT Church national gathering is next week in Minneapolis. I’ve been to each of these gatherings so far, and I’ve come away each time with lots to think about and experiment with. This week we’ll look back at the first three NEXT gatherings and suggest things I’m looking forward to at this year’s gathering.

[Also, as I’ve said before, I love Chad Andrew Herring, and he’s one of the event’s organizers]

The inaugural gathering was held at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis in 2011. Its timing coincided with the publication of a white paper by a group of pastors that later came to be called The Fellowship of Presbyterians and that, within a year, had launched an alternative Presbyterian denomination. Many assumed that NEXT was a reaction to those developments. It wasn’t, but it may as well have been.

I wrote three posts related to the 2011 gathering. A basic summary, a testy defense, and throwdown with Landon (there was also this comparison of NEXT with The Fellowship) There was a great deal of hand-wringing at the lack of racial, gender, and officer diversity on display, and some participants criticized NEXT’s ambitions as too “like-minded.” I wrote in response:

…I don’t think any association of individuals who are trying to change an institution can get very far with an unlimited plurality of opinion. It just won’t work. I’m no slave to the mantra of efficiency, but conversations like NEXT and the Fellowship PC(USA) are after some kind of concrete change. That requires a modicum of like-mindedness.

The concern for diversity has been front and center at the three subsequent NEXT gatherings, and I expect nothing less in Minneapolis. The diversity of participants in this movement is one of its great strengths, even as it remains a constant need.

The 2011 event broadcast NEXT’s intended direction in Tom Are’s opening remarks, when he asked, “Why don’t Presbyterians build hospitals anymore?” Speakers then shared insights gleaned from community organizing and entrepreneurship to suggest that institution building need not simply be a chapter in the denomination’s past. This trajectory has characterized NEXT from day one: movement toward the building of structures, processes, and relationships that are constructive. From alternative ordination tracks to administrative commissions, NEXT has largely been about sharing ways of building infrastructure for a church fit for the 21st century.

I’m eager to see how the fourth gathering takes this trajectory forward. The workshop schedule features conversations about leadership, which is where you’ll find me.

Were you in Indianapolis in 2011? What do you remember about it?

Are you going next week? What are you anticipating?


ECO, NEXT Church

“I Don’t Know How To Lead People”

Last week a friend said to me, “I don’t know how to lead people.” He’s a pastor– been one for 10 years.

Last month an Elder scribbled a note during a meeting of our Christian Education and Leadership Commission and slid it to me: “We’re not training any leaders!”

Yesterday I read this on the blog of ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination full of disgruntled former PC(USA) churches and leaders: “Churches rise and fall with their visions, and the vision usually hangs on the passion of the leadership teams.”

The question of leadership won’t leave me alone. On good days I almost relish the un-heirarchical structure of elected Ruling and Teaching Elders and the checks Presbyterian polity places on the lone leader’s freedom. But on bad days I despair that I’m not really leading and that mainline Protestantism as a whole is decaying from the inside out for a lack of leadership.

I know what I reject. I reject the ideal of the leader who casts a vision for her church, who produces with a select team a vision statement in which the bullet points all begin with the same letter, who pronounces a slogan and then single-mindedly rallies the faithful to follow it. To me, “Vision Casting” just feels . . . yucky.

There are other ideas about leadership out there that tickle me. Peter Block’s thing about leaders crafting and curating space for transformative conversations is compelling.  Missional Leadership trusts that “The future of the people of God is among the people of God,” and that feels right. The Adaptive Leadership school’s focus on technical vs. adaptive challenges and the need for leaders to know the difference is hard to argue with. Edwin Friedman’s insistence on self-differentiation as a primary leadership trait rings very, very true. And, of course, the community organizer style of leadership promoted by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is concrete and full of powerful potential.

But what is this? A buffet?

I hear my friend’s confession about not knowing how to lead people, and I wonder if our training hasn’t in some sense failed us. On the whole, I don’t see a lot of enthusiastic leadership development in the mainline. Evangelicalism seems much more clear about what its leaders are supposed to do: cast a vision for ministry and rally followers. Frankly, evangelicalism also seems more effective at producing leaders who do that very thing. But that feels to me like a very bland version of leadership. I don’t like it. I want something else.

Is there a style of leadership for the NEXT iteration of mainline protestantism? Or are mainline leaders left to pick from the Amazon “Leadership” section? Is the IAF the best thing going for training leaders in mainline churches?

What’s the model of leadership for the mainline for, say, the next two decades?



NEXT Church

NEXT, Galvanize, and Institutional Change

Reading this article about alternative tech education a day after John Vest lamented NEXT Church’s apparent unwillingness to “rethink theology and ecclesiology in the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in 21st century postmodern, post-Christendom North America” is making some synapses fire.

First, John’s objection: three years into its existence, NEXT seems no more willing to grab hold of the institutional levers of the PC(USA) than it did at its inception. Leaders in the organization continue to recite a “we don’t know” mantra when asked hard questions about what they want to build. What it is contributing–and this is undeniably valuable–is “a platform for innovative and creative leaders to share ideas and best practices” (just hours after John’s post went up, NEXT’s blog published a post by D.C. pastor Jeff Kreibehl celebrating that very thing).

My first thought was to wonder why such a platform can’t be considered a tool for the rethinking John is eager to see. I wonder how else that “hard work” gets done? Position papers? Overtures to GA?

Now come to the Time article about start-up tech schools. Here’s the money quote from Jim Deters, who started Galvanize in Denver:

“In most cases, people are wasting their money on traditional education. The future of employment is small businesses that will be forced to figure things out for themselves.”

This sounds a lot like the “they-didn’t-teach-me-this-in-seminary” you hear from pastors of all stripes. Deters threw a ton of his own capital into a new school–one that teaches techies how to figure things out for themselves (my “traditional” theology professors would have said they were doing the same thing: “thinking theologically” they called it).

Let me land this plane. The platform that NEXT is constructing has lots and lots of space for men and women in theological training; the national gatherings have scholarshipped seminary students every year, and seminary presidents are prominent participants and speakers at these gatherings. John’s desire to see a more assertive direction from NEXT mixed with Roya Wolverson’s description of these new schools makes me wonder if NEXT couldn’t galvanize this kind of thing for Presbyterians.

What if:

  • NEXT grew its partnerships with Presbyterian seminaries to develop courses that help students practice the kind of relational and innovative “figuring it out” today’s context requires?
  • NEXT cultivated communities of students on seminary campuses to lead within the organization?
  • NEXT held one of its regional or national gatherings on a seminary campus?
  • NEXT inserted itself into the emergence of new seminaries, like the one sprouting in my neck of the woods, to offer courses and seminars and other events?

These are just a few ideas sprouting in the slowly fading afterglow of NEXT 2013. Of all the things NEXT is offering to today’s church, an infusion of practical and entrepreneurial learning into Presbyterian education may be the most valuable.