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Remarks from J. Herbert Nelson

The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, was scheduled to join us this past January 25th, and was unable to be with us at our daytime event. He was able to send us this video to view at our luncheon that day, and we wanted to share it with everyone.

Rev. Nelson has some powerful things to say about the life of the Presbyterian Church, our role in the work of the Kingdom, and how we need to work together to know and share our story as part of that important work.

Feel free to share this video with your congregations, as we move forward in hope.

Focus on Leadership: Salt and Light

Courtesy of Worship Times

This past Sunday many of our churches shared Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount regarding what it means to be a follower in the world. Those who follow Christ are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill. In other words, our love adds essential flavor to life and should not and cannot be hidden.

Many people try to get through life keeping their heads down, avoiding anything that might cause conflict. Jesus says a characteristic of his followers is that they stick out. But we are not drawing attention to ourselves for our own sake or ego, but rather people see us and are drawn to us for our flavor and light. God’s love that fills us shines out in our words and actions.

We posted a piece on Facebook with remarks at last year’s polity conference from PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson talking about not getting stuck.

Doing what is familiar and comfortable is a trap for groups of leaders, whether things are going well, or whether you are dealing with a new problem, and want to feel safe and in control. Being people of salt and light means that we need to think through decisions with clarity, and some creative flavor.

Rather than blending in, going along with what is comfortable, we are called to be beacons of hope. Those who are ordained in the PC(USA) make a vow to pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We tend to lean on the previous vow, to further the peace, unity and purity of the church, by interpreting it to mean that we shouldn’t make too many waves, without understanding that both vows must work together.

Peace, unity and purity mean neither a lack of problems or conflict, nor an unanimity of thought. Rather, these speak to a wholeness of the church that cannot be achieved among people with different experiences and ideas without energy, intelligence, imagination and love. In order to come together, we must use our saltiness, we must make decisions that create a community that does not rely on common understandings of how the world works.

As Christians, we follow a Messiah upended the common understandings of the world – either fit in, keep your head down, don’t cause too much trouble or make sure you are at the top of the heap with no room for anyone else. In Christ’s view of the world being salt and light means both sticking out and making room for others.

So, let’s not get stuck, but instead let’s stick out. Let our lights shine as beacons toward a God and community that love differently, and use our saltiness to figure out new ways of working and being together.

Focus on Resources: Educational Opportunities for Students and Pastors

Clergy Renewal

The Lilly Endowment offers clergy renewal programs that are intended to build up both pastors and their congregations.

From the Lilly website:

Seeking to strengthen Christian congregations through renewal and reflection

Welcome to the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary!

Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Programs are administered by the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary.

Through its religion grantmaking, Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private philanthropic foundation, seeks to deepen and enrich the lives of American Christians. It does this largely through initiatives to enhance and sustain the quality of ministry in American congregations and parishes.

To this end, National and Indiana Clergy Renewal Programs provide an opportunity for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. Renewal periods are not vacations but times for intentional exploration and reflection, for drinking again from God’s life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry.

Details and application materials for the 2017 programs are now available. In the 2017 Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program and the 2017 Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations, eligible congregations will be able to apply for grants of up to $50,000 each to support a renewal program for their pastor. Up to $15,000 of the grant may be used for congregational expenses associated with the renewal program.

Scholarship Opportunities from the Synod of the Northeast

The Synod of the Northeast offers the Wurffel-Sills Student Scholarships & Interest Free Loans for undergraduate and seminary students from all the presbyteries in the synod.

  1. Application is open to any member of any church within the Synod of the Northeast’s 22 Presbyteries.
  2. Application is open to any under-graduate student and/or seminary student.
  3. Application deadline to apply is APRIL 1, 2017.

Download more information and applications:

2017-2018 Wurfell-Sills New Applicant Form

2017-2018 Wurfell-Sills Re-Applicants Form

Focus on Leadership: Showing Up

It’s the text. That one you were expecting. The one that always comes. Maybe a day before, maybe only a few hours or a few minutes before. “Sorry! [Something] came up, and I just can’t make it!” The text from that one friend or fellow volunteer. And that “something” is almost never an emergency. It’s usually an oil change, or a last-minute lunch with friends, or running to the store to pick up project supplies for their kids. Repeat: Not an emergency.

When you consistently break your prior commitments, you are telling your friends or fellow volunteers that they (and your work together) don’t matter much. Where you choose to spend your time is telling, and can be difficult to challenge. Work, family, friends, necessary chores – none of these are frivolous. And, yet so many of the conflicting commitments could be scheduled at other times.

In a friendship, and in the church, there is generally enough good will to give people the benefit of the doubt when they flake one time. But, if you consistently cancel on a friend or church events, they are simply a lower priority in your life. If these are things we really value, and say we value, we need to follow through by rearranging our priorities and commitments.

In a busy world, more of us are becoming this person, too. It’s so easy to fall into, especially when everyone around us is, too. Perhaps we could be the good example, instead of following the crowd.

Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’
Matthew 5:37

Show up.

When you say you are going to do something, show up. Do the thing.

If the commitment is a meeting or set of meetings that don’t work for your schedule, be honest about it. Either indicate which things you can commit to, see if you can change the schedule, or simply decline.

If you make a commitment and something comes up, assess whether the new conflict is a) really a higher priority than your original commitment, and/or b) can be done another time. Unless it is an emergency, stick with your original commitments.

If you show up people will trust you when you say you are going to do something. If you simply say no when you know you can’t follow through, people will respect that you have boundaries. If you tell people you can’t do something because you already have a previous commitment, they may start doing the same. You can’t build a friendship or get work done if you can’t get together.

If you want to build an amazing community, show up. The rest happens from there.

From the Top of the Pile: Do Something Else

Editor’s Note: We are introducing a new periodic blog series, with book reviews from our Transitional Director of Presbytery Ministries, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith. Like most of us, Barbara has a reading pile full of books of interest to others in ministry. She’s eager to share what she gained from this reading, and how your congregations might benefit.

The Presbyterian Outlook is hosting a 90-minute webinar with Nate Phillips, discussing where churches can find encouragement as we look forward and “stop doing things as usual.” Newark Presbytery will host a watch party at the Presbytery Center, if you are interested in the webinar.

by Nate Phillips (Cascade Books, 2016)

Do Something Else book coverFrom time to time as I have the opportunity to finish something in my reading pile, I will share my thoughts with you –

In his Forward to the book, Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that this “is NOT a book that intends to give a list of “how-to-do” church tips to save any particular faith location, but one that simply asks the question, “What if?” in order to inspire and give texture to the idea that the church is and can be so much more than we can imagine.  So read this book, not as a command to go and do something specific, but as a powerful encouragement to go out and be the church in ways that are specific to the community into which it is called to serve.”

Maybe it is because I visited MATE (Mission at the Eastward) in rural Maine a number of years ago that the beginning of this book immediately captured my attention.  The author – Nate Phillips – while he is now a pastor at Red Clay Presbyterian Church in Delaware – grew up in rural Maine in an old manse owned by local church.  He shared his experiences of church groups showing up to “do something” with their hands.  It taught Phillips that “the church can do something.  For a long time, it’s done the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time for it do so “something else.”

In this book, Phillips talks about different churches that have engaged in different mission, entered cooperative parish arrangements, and started new worshipping communities.  All excellent food for thought, but Chapter 4 is the one that caught my attention.  As I travel around the Presbytery, I hear a similar question over and over again – a question that wonders how to increase church attendance and, especially, attract young families.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been read a lot of these kinds of books and heartily agree that it’s time for the church to rethink itself, that Chapter 4 has the most yellow highlighting of any other.  Chapter 4 – “What We Mean When We Say ‘Church’” is actually written by Phillips’ colleague, Matthew Bruce.

A good read through and through.  But the icing on the cake for me was the Study Guide at the end of the book – one study guide for each chapter.  It is scriptural based and the questions are quite thought provoking.

This would be a good book for an adult study, or a visioning group!


Continuing Education Resources 2017

Whether your continuing education budget is practically infinite or non-existent, choosing where to spend your valuable time and budgets can sometimes be challenging. You may be looking to learn a brand new skill, grow in a particular area of ministry or just shake things up.

Harvard Business Review has some great advice that applies to ministry-based continuing education as well as it does for getting ahead in the business world. How do we choose which conferences and education events to go to?

Here is a list of more traditional PC(USA) and other events that pastors, educators and other ministry leaders continue to gain deep value from:


The Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators has courses and conferences that can be attended on an individual continuing education basis, or as part of a certification program.

Big Tent

Big Tent is actually a set of PC(USA) conferences all occurring at the same time in a common location so participants can choose one track, or sample different interest areas while also gathering with friends and colleagues from across the PC(USA). It alternates years with General Assembly.

Festival of Homiletics

The Festival of Homiletics is an ecumenical preaching conference. If you are someone who preaches regularly, or wants to, it is a great event that speaks to a multitude of styles and practice.


And here are some new ones you may have heard about, and wanted to know more:

NEXT Church

NEXT Church is a PC(USA)-based group thinking about the future of the church. They host regional and national gatherings as well as providing resources and conversation about the future of church and ministry on their website.


The Unconference is an ecumenical open-space ministry conference. Instead of relying on big-name speakers, Unco gathering topics and conversations are determined and guided by participants, sharing expertise gained through practice. The goal is not just to talk about innovative ministry, but to start and support innovative ministries.

The White Privilege Conference

Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, has suggested several ways for PC(USA) churches and members to face and talk about the consequences and benefits of historical white supremacy, in the United States, and in the church, including the PC(USA). This conference is one way we can do that work head-on.


In addition, PC(USA) Camp and Conference Centers and Seminaries are great resources for continuing education from pew to pulpit, covering a wide range of interests and learning styles. As the largest conference centers, Ghost Ranch and Montreat have been leaders in creative and varied events, but there are wonderful events offered throughout the country, so you can find the event, location and dates that fit your schedule and needs.

Major Camp and Conference Centers:

Ghost Ranch

Massanetta Springs



Stony Point

Zephyr Point

Our local camp, Johnsonburg, and other smaller camps and conference centers offer great programs year-round as well. The Presbyterian Camp and Conference Association has a full listing for locations beyond our local options:


PC(USA) Seminary main sites or continuing education links:

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Columbia Theological Seminary

University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary

McCormick Theological Seminary

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Princeton Theological Seminary

San Francisco Theological Seminary

Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary

shadow of person with outstretched hands on beach

Focus on Leadership: Caring for Yourself

shadow of person with outstretched hands on beach

How are you?

How are you? A question asked and answered almost daily by most of us that most of us rarely answer fully. It’s much easier to just say, “Fine,” than to lay out either our great joys or great concerns, or even simple, “meh.” But, it’s also a question we don’t answer honestly if and when we ask it of ourselves.

As leaders in the church and other areas of our lives, we tend to put others and their needs before our own. But what happens if we aren’t listening and responding to our own needs? How can we be any good to anyone else?

You may not be someone who makes resolutions for the new year. Resolutions are too often broken, dropped, or forgotten within weeks, days or even hours of making them. However, if there is one thing we all need to do better this year, it is to listen to yourself.

Take time each day to check in with yourself. In Christian tradition, there are many practices of prayer and discipline that include this check-in. The Ignatian Examen is a classic example of a daily spiritual practice that centers checking in with yourself. However you do it, being honest about what went well, what didn’t go so well that day helps us move forward to the next day.

Checking in with yourself and being honest in answering those questions are just first steps. If the answer to the question, “How are you,” is, “Not so hot,” do something about it. None of us are happy every day. We all have days where we seem to fail at every turn. If you are tired, take some rest. If you are overwhelmed, ask for help. If you just feel blah, try something new. And if the not-so-hot days are outnumbering the okay or good days, you might need something more.

Take care of yourself. The people around you want you to be whole and healthy for you, as well as for your ministry and leadership. And God wants that for you, too. Jesus spent a lot of time asking people how they were, and healing bodies, minds and spirits in response.

So – How are you today?

Focus on Leadership: Caring For One Another

After a tough week at work, including a conversation with an employee that revealed some deep hurts in his life, a Human Resources Director told her pastor, “I had never really thought much before about where an HR Director goes when she needs to talk to someone about difficult things at work.” Of course, she was talking to her pastor, which can be a great and confidential outlet. Having a good therapist on hand to talk to is also never a bad idea for anyone. But there was a lot of truth to her statement. Organizational leaders often don’t know where to turn when they need to talk through a difficult situation arising from the organization itself.

When you are at the top, you don’t (and often can’t) put the burdens of leadership back on people below you in the organization. And there may be no one above you to talk to, either. Keeping it to yourself may cause more problems. So, what can you do?

First, as Presbyterians we are blessed to have a system where no one person is at the top of our organizations. We have designed the system intentionally to share the decisions and challenges that come with being leaders in the church. In our churches, pastors are not the end of the line – we have sessions to make most of the decisions together with the pastors.

We too often think of our sessions as merely decision-makers, though. Ruling elders, especially those serving on session, are charged with the spiritual leadership of the church, not just the business of the church. This changes how we might view our work. It is not just important to be responsible stewards of financial resources, but to be in tune with other members and the pastor(s) to see if there are needs that are not being expressed.

As teaching and ruling elders, we have to care for one another. If one of us is having a tough time, or if a difficult situation is causing anxiety, anger, sadness or strife in the church, it is our responsibility to help lift the burdens others are carrying.

No leader can do our work alone, and without good conversation partners. And if we try to, we may end up hurting the organizations and the people who work in them, and who they serve.

We need to remind each other to get the rest we need. If someone is taking on too many tasks, we need to find ways of relieving them of some of that stress. If we need to take more time making a decision because it is clear that we are not ready, we need to take courage to voice that. This also works at the presbytery, synod and national church levels, not to mention in our other organizations.

If you are in a structure where the buck stops with you, think about how your experience within the church might help you seek out other leaders at your level that you can talk to. Think about who might be a helpful sounding board when you can’t talk to people in your own organization. Who might you help in the same ways?

And may you find peace everywhere you go this Christmas season.

Focus on Leadership: Listening

We live in a time where there is a lot of noise – information coming at us through news, fake news, social media, in audio, video and written forms. But how much are we actually absorbing? Quite a few studies have been done about confirmation bias – that we are more likely to listen to, agree with and pass on narratives that fit our predetermined understanding of the world. Whether or not those narratives are true or false. If something fits our idea of how the world works, we fit it into the picture. If it challenges our world view, we reject it.

And yet…we are preparing to celebrate an event does not fit into any understanding of the world. A poor, unmarried woman pregnant with a child who is both fully human and fully divine. A child who is fully divine, yet lives as a human, grows and learns, falls down, has bad days and good days, just like any human being. A child who will grow up to save the world, not in the way that past heroes, or any heroes to come, had conquered, but by showing that all the powers of the world could not defeat God. No humiliation, no silence, not even death could stop the Word of God from spreading, in stories, in actions, in transformed lives.

This event, the birth of Christ is celebrated each year not as a memorial, but as an ongoing reality. Though we talk about Jesus changing our lives as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, our change is not a one-time thing. Just as Jesus’ ancestors and Jesus’ disciples found their worlds being turned upside down not once, but many times, so too will ours if we continue to read, listen to and think about Scripture, pray, and connect with people in faith throughout our lives. How we think, how we live, how we behave will all be challenged again and again.

Our faith calls us to be open to these challenges and these transformations. Ecclesiastes talks about this so well. Life is compared to a vapor, which is often interpreted to mean that it holds little weight or meaning, but which is probably better understood to mean that we should not hold too tightly to anything. There is a season for everything. We have to be willing to let go of even things that we have always known as true or have worked for us in the past. It may not be true now or in the future. It doesn’t help us to hold onto it.

The biggest thing we have to let go of is assuming we know how others feel or think or what their experiences are. NPR political reporters reflecting on their work, especially in this last election season, said the biggest thing that helped them do good work is to ask questions without assuming what the answers would be. Then they actually listened to people answer those questions and tell their stories.

If we want to change how we respond to each other, if we want to continue to be challenged and changed through our faith, we can start by being good listeners. And hopefully as we model good listening, others will feel heard, and want to learn how to listen as well.

Focus on Resources: Sabbath With Those You Love

We don’t often think about this, but while we connect Sabbath to the creation story – on the 7th day, God rested – Sabbath was not part of the practice of the Hebrew people until after they were brought out of slavery in Egypt. We don’t know what their exact routines were before becoming an enslaved people in Egypt, but since they started as a family unit doing agricultural work, and were free, they likely had rest and leisure incorporated into their regular routines. (Even the hard work of farming has times when you have done all the work you can do, and must take a break.)

Upon leaving Egypt, the Hebrew people had grown from an extended family to a nation of people. And it was a nation of people who had only known hard work every day, on someone else’s schedule, not their own. They were a people without a rhythm of freedom.

Sabbath comes as a revelation. Even in the wilderness, God helps the people learn these new rhythms of freedom. They were a people who only knew fear. Their fear had caused them to wander for even longer than they had hoped. And perhaps they needed that time to completely shake off the fears of not having enough, of dying, of truly living, before they could live settled lives where they decided when and how they would work and rest.

In the wilderness, they had only God and each other. The 10 commandments Moses brought to the people and the laws stemming from those commandments are centered around the main themes to love God and love each other.

Planning our sabbath time is often centered around our personal needs and schedules, rather than being seen as a communal affair, but from its very beginning it has been a work of the people. Or, the rest of the people. And if we think about it, we truly need each other to make Sabbath a reality in our lives. In order to not simply fall into the same routine of every other day of our lives we have to communicate how we are changing our rhythms. We have to say no to some things people might want us to do that does not fit into the rhythm of Sabbath. And we should invite others to share our Sabbath.

God created us to be in relationship with other people, and not to do everything alone. Only in community could the Israelites learn to be free, help each other break the bonds of fear. Our Sabbath practice should not exclude our loved ones, but include the needs of those around us, and encourage one another to take a break and enjoy time with one another. Sabbath should be centered on God and God’s will for us to be whole in body, mind, spirit and relationship, which may look different than what we think we need.

Hugh Hollowell, the founder of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, NC, just wrote about missing his friends. As he was dreaming of and beginning to build Love Wins, a ministry that works with and has created a community among and for people experiencing homelessness in Raleigh, he drew support, comfort and creativity from regular one-on-one meet-ups and conversations with various people who are now friends. In the last year as Love Wins has been growing and successful in many ways, Hugh realized he hadn’t been taking the time to connect to these friends in the same ways. And he missed them. As Hugh says, it isn’t just the friendship connections, but that not taking the time to simply meet up and talk affects his work life, as these conversations helped create what Love Wins is today. If we don’t take time to step away from our regular, and important, routines, we wither.

You don’t have to throw a big party every week to celebrate Sabbath (introverts are breathing sighs of relief), but perhaps there is someone in your life you haven’t seen in a while that you would like to spend time with. You might have an activity your family enjoys doing that you never seem to have time for – take time to do that activity and simply be together. Don’t miss those connections – recreate them in your Sabbath time.