General Assembly Day 5: Peace and Justice

During General Assembly opening worship $47,000 was collected to support The Bail Project’s mission to combat the mass incarceration epidemic by paying the bail of low-income, non-violent offenders who are languishing in our jail systems. Marching from the convention center to the courthouse, hundreds of Presbyterians participated in a demonstration of peace and justice for the citizens of St. Louis.

The Hands and Feet Initiative recognizes the impact thousands of Christians can have upon a city, so instead of simply going about our internal business, we need to engage and leave a positive impact on the places we gather. These are just first steps in continuing to fulfill our call to witness to God’s love in and for the world.

Newark marched:


And so many others:

We also reposted videos from the march on our Facebook page, shared from the Presbytery of Southern New England. New Jersey ended its cash bail system, but there are many other injustices happening in our local communities, and this action shows how together we can actually make real change happen.

General Assembly Day 5 Daily Digest

General Assembly Day 4: Process and Procedure

The first full day of committee work can be challenging. Churches and presbyteries do use Robert’s Rules of Order for the parliamentary procedure that guides our meetings. However, rarely do we see amendments to amendments or substitute motions or other complicated procedural moves that help us clarify and hone our words and actions. The details can get confusing and seem tedious, but we know from experience that our words matter, so we want to be thoughtful and careful in crafting them, which takes time and attention to detail. Warren McNeill spoke with Megan Hansen of Worship Times about that and what helps committees learn to do this work well. You can watch that conversation on our Facebook page.

One of the things that Warren and Megan spoke about is the importance of centering our work around prayer. For those participants (voting or not) who need some extra time and space for prayer, there is always a room set aside for quiet, contemplation and prayer. This year the prayer room has items evoking the words of the song the St. Louis GA Committee on Local Arrangements commissioned, Draw the Welcome Circle Wider, which some of you may have sung in your worship on Sunday.

In addition, there was a beautiful round, windowed room in the convention center that was the perfect space for a labyrinth.

[soliloquy id=”9434″]

GA223 Day 4 Daily Digest

General Assembly Day 3: New Co-Moderators and Committees Begin

Sunday at General Assembly

Barbara Smith

Worship this morning was spread among the churches of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, our hosts for this Assembly.

This evening the commissioners and advisory delegates move into their respective committees where they will consider the business assigned. While Committee meetings are normally open to anyone for observation, traditionally Sunday evening meetings are closed so the group can get to know one another. To get an idea of what Ruth, Lorraine, and Emma will be doing –

Teaching Elder Commissioner Ruth Boling, is assigned to Committee #9 – Peacemaking, Immigration and International Issues. One of their Overtures to consider, from the Presbytery of New Hope (NC),  calls upon the PCUSA, in part, to: 1. …in faithfulness to the God of justice, mercy, and compassion—to take actions in defense of God’s creation and our own security, which is inextricably bound to the security of the rest of the world, to take all actions such as might be effective in requiring full U.S. compliance with the obligation to achieve nuclear disarmament under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 2. Renounce the false god of nuclear security with its promise of catastrophic consequences. 3. Renounce any policy that threatens the death of millions of God’s children in any land with a single command and a single warhead. 4. Join in ecumenical discussion at the highest level to develop a collaborative strategy with Christian and other faith communities to effect the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.

Ruling Elder Commissioner Lorraine Cuffie is assigned to Committee #13 – BOP (Board of Pensions), PILP (Presbyterian Investment and Loan), PPC (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation), and Foundation.  One of their Overtures, which has some effect on the Presbytery of Newark since we are within the geographic scope of the Jarvie Foundation, calls for the PCUSA, in part, to: 1. Assess the current placement, management, and location of the Jarvie Commonweal Endowment Fund (now valued at $90 million). 2. Assess the current placement of responsibility for supervising the provision of services to the recipients of the prescribed generous Jarvie Service assistance. 3. Assess the current PC(USA) Presbyterian Mission Agency and Foundation organizational responsibilities for both the services and the endowment of the Jarvie Fund.

YAAD Emma Gritsch is assigned to Committee #7 – Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. One of their to consider, from the Presbytery of Carlisle (PA), calls for the PCUSA, in part, to: 1. Affirm and embrace the religiously diverse nature of the United States of America and the call of the Christian faith to love all of our neighbors—including those of other faiths—as we love ourselves; and 2. Condemn all religiously inspired and motivated violence, prejudice, discrimination, and hate speech, in particular, those actions based upon anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behaviors and language.

As always, keep not only Ruth, Lorraine and Emma in your prayers, but also all commissioners and advisory delegates who are faithfully serving their presbyteries and this denomination this week!


GA223 Day 3 Daily Digest

General Assembly Day 2: Everything Starts

Barbara and Megan Hansen from Worship Times caught up on what was happening the first full day of General Assembly 223 in St. Louis right after opening worship. You can watch it on our Facebook page.


Barbara’s husband also gifted she and Warren with Newark Presbytery Fire Department hats to celebrate the good, but challenging work that presbytery staff do every day, which often includes putting out fires:


Barbara shares news from tonight’s moderator’s election:

Saturday Evening from St. Louis

Barbara Smith

This first full day of GA223 began with amazingly inspirational worship. The co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly – Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston – preached a joint sermon as they conclude their moderatorial term. Hundreds of voices were joined in prayer and song, we affirmed our faith with words adapted from the Confession of 1967, and we were fed at our Lord’s table.

This evening, commissioners once again gathered in the traditional Saturday evening activity – to elect the leader(s) of the 223rd General Assembly. Three teams were elected to stand – two co-moderator teams and one team of moderator/vice moderator.

Ruling Elder Chantal Atnip from the Presbytery of Carlisle presented herself as candidate for moderator. Chantal chose as her vice-moderator candidate, Rev. Ken Hockenberry from the Presbytery of Chicago.

Rev. Eliana Maxim, Associate Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Seattle, and Rev. Bertram Johnson from the Presbytery of New York City, presented themselves as co-moderator candidates.

Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, Presbytery Leader of the Presbytery of Northern New England and Boston, and Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida also presented themselves as co-moderator candidates.

After a 5-minute time of introduction by each team, the commissioners engaged the candidates in a 45-minute question and answer period, 3 minutes at a time.

The advisory delegates advised, and then the commissioners voted. To be elected, the winner would need 50.1% of the votes, or 262.  On the first vote, Atnip and Hockenberry received 45 votes, Maxim and Johnson received 250 votes, and Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri received 229 votes.  On the second vote, Atnip and Hockenberry received 18 votes, Maxim and Johnson received 256 votes, and Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri received 248 votes. Is the third time the charm?? Apparently not. On the third vote, Atnip and Hockenberry received 9 votes, Maxim and Johnson received 252 votes, and Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri received 261 votes. On the fourth vote, Atnip and Hockenberry received 5 votes, Maxim and Johnson received 253 votes, and Kohlmann and Cintrón-Olivieri received 266 votes.

Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri, and the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann , co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly of the PC(USA). (Photo by Michael Whitman)

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri is an ESL teacher and a ruling elder at First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami. She served in 2017 as moderator of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida.

Cindy Kohlmann has been pastor of congregations in Ohio and Massachusetts, and currently serves in the newly designed position of resource presbyter for the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Northern New England.

Please keep our denominations new co-moderators, Cindy Kohlmann and Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri in your prayers!


Day 2 GA News Digest

General Assembly Day 1: Pre-Assembly

Thursday and Friday are the days when most of the General Assembly participants arrive and prepare for the work. National, synod and presbytery staff people, commissioners, advisory delegates, volunteers, exhibitors – arriving in St. Louis and getting ready. The exhibit hall opens on Friday, so Barbara and Warren spent some time seeing all the booths, reuniting with our friends from all over the country, and collecting the good swag. (And a couple meetings, as it goes at GA.)

Barbara stopped by to see the creators of our website and digital ministry providers, Worship Times, and wanted the team to say hi to all of you at home:

Barbara, Megan Hansen, Michael Gyura and Susan Gyura – our Worship Times team!

General Assembly kicks off tomorrow with opening worship (you can live stream all full assembly worship and plenary events at the GA223 site), and we will elect a moderator team tomorrow evening, so we’ll update you on all of that tomorrow.

Friday’s GA Digest

paper stars with glitter tossed over them

Doing the Work: Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School (VBS) takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of organization, time, preparation, volunteers, snacks, space, glue sticks and energy. It will be one of the most exhausting weeks of your life. And…it is worth every bit of it. The relationships built between the children, between your adult volunteers, between the children and volunteers and, definitely not least, the relationship between the children and Christ, are powerful and lasting.

But not every church has the resources to do a full-on VBS every summer. Or, you’ve done VBS for years and love it, but you need a new leader or new format. How can you dive into this ministry and still love Jesus at the end? We have some suggestions.

If you are a pastor– Be there. You don’t have to be there the whole time, you don’t have to lead the crafts or make the snacks, but show up. Be there every day at the opening or closing sessions, or both. If you do have the time and passion for a particular part of the rotation, join in! Teach the story, interact with the puppets, head up the games, or shepherd a group around. Whatever time you can put in shows that the ministry and the children and volunteers participating in that ministry are important to you and the church. Just showing your face each day and singing a silly song before you go do sermon prep or home visitations will make all the difference.

If you are on session– Show up. Like your pastor(s), it’s great if you can volunteer during the week of VBS. But maybe you work during the day, or have physical limitations or are involved in so many other ministries you really can’t and shouldn’t take on one more. You may not be able to volunteer for craft duty, but you may be able to help set up for the crafts ahead of time. Or decorate the hallways, or make snacks to keep the volunteers going throughout the week. Maybe you can show up at the closing worship at the end of the week to cheer on the participants as they share the songs and stories they learned. If you show up in one of these ways, you will help make VBS happen.

If you are a small church with some kids, but not enough human capital– Join with another church or several other churches. Get together with neighboring PC(USA) or churches of other denominations in your town. Plan and staff VBS together. Maybe make a rotating schedule so different churches get a chance to host each year, with all of the churches coming together to make it happen. VBS is a lot of work, but it is really true that many hands make light work. Also, when we partner with others, it can be fresh and exciting to do that hard work.

If you are a church with plenty of resources, but few children– Invite the neighbors! Advertise your VBS in the local newspaper and local parenting groups and with banners on the streets (what gets the word out best in your context?). Basically, make sure people know you’re throwing an awesome Jesus party and people will come. You might even have a few bored teenagers wander in, so think about how to engage them in leadership or their own program. (Trust us, the Holy Spirit will send people – we’ve seen it time and again.)

If you have done VBS forever and need to shake things up– Try changing the schedule or the structure. If you have dwindling numbers for a week-long, daytime VBS, maybe shorten it, or do it in the evening when you can tap into a different pool of volunteers, or do a summer-long VBS on Sunday afternoons or Wednesday evenings. Any of the suggestions above might bring some new energy to an old VBS, too. Get new partners, invite your neighbors, make sure your leadership is fully engaged.


And, it’s ok to simply say you don’t need to do a VBS if the leadership and energy simply isn’t there. The Bible speaks not only of Sabbath days, but of sabbatical seasons. A break or an end of a ministry can bring about creative energy for a future attempt or other mission areas of the church. The Bible does not command us to have Vacation Bible School, and the Holy Spirit will lead us where we are going next as we rest and listen for God’s call.

But if you have a Vacation Bible School scheduled for this summer in any form, we know Jesus will show up in major ways. Blessings on the work and the volunteers and the love that you are pouring into the program and into the children and youth who will be there.

Let us know about your VBS, your bright ideas, innovations, and anything else you’d like to share about VBS. And, show ‘em Jesus!

beach ball in a swimming pool

Focus on Leadership: Summer “Break”

Summer is almost here. (The weather seems to have arrived before the season.) In the summer, the rhythms change in our ministries. Worship times change, services are combined, and the choir might sing less regularly. Sunday School may go on hiatus or take a different form. There are camps and conferences and Vacation Bible School. And, speaking of vacation, many of our members will travel in the summer, or they will bring friends and family visiting them. Attendance can vary wildly from week to week, not to mention the holidays.

Summer can be a time for the church to take a breath, for committees to take a break or do some leisurely long-term planning. Pastors might spend some time in contemplation for the busyness of fall, anticipate the next church year, and what kind of study leave will help them grow and guide the congregation through it. Many pastors who are taking well-earned sabbatical time take it over the summer months. Other leaders might be resting up for new challenges ahead. Summer can mean time to do necessary rest and reflection. But the one thing we don’t put on break is our faith.

How do we adjust to the different rhythms of summer, get the rest we need, and not just put God on hold? How can we fully engage our faith life within those rhythms?

Summer can be a great time for a short study. It could be lighter fare, meandering through a fun small group study with friends, or maybe a deep dive into a particular topic re-energizes you instead of adding stress. There are myriad book and Bible studies that fit into the timeframe.

2 Corinthians is coming up in the Revised Common Lectionary, and makes a great summer preaching series. Having your church follow along with the preaching could bring up some interesting conversations. We like this devotion and small group study, A Heart for Reconciliation, that also has sermon thoughts. Good for individual and group study.

If you or a whole group of you are up for a challenge, you could read the Bible in 90 days together. If you or your church hasn’t done this before, it can help you look at the Bible in whole new ways, truly seeing it as a whole, and not just a bunch of disparate pieces. What are the themes that run throughout? Which of the stories we’ve read so many times will surprise you? And, reading together creates accountability and a team to climb Mt. Bible.

For those looking for simple ways to renew and engage your faith, you might look to Living Every day as Disciples’ (LEAD) Summer Intentions. You can go to their website each day, or you can sign up to have them delivered to your email each day. Daily devotion and practice that shakes up your normal rhythms, while fully engaging and enjoying the summer.

Maybe you want to try on a new prayer practice – walking and praying every day, journaling or writing letters to God, lectio divina. Or you might want to try something else new. Memorize scripture, learn unknown hymns and praise songs, or write terrible (or wonderful) poetry. There are so many ways to encounter God that we probably haven’t explored deeply. And we grow as disciples and leaders each time we try something new, even if it’s just for the summer.

How will you spend your summer “break?” And how do you want to meet God along the way?

man and woman sitting on yoga mats on a wooden floor, stretching while leaning toward one side

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges: Communities

Discipleship is not just for individuals and ministry teams – your church or ministry community needs to be growing, together. The same practices that you use in your individual lives and ministry teams can be engaged by the entire community. However, a whole community tends to have an even wider range of ages, interests and experience with Christianity and Christian practices than you or a smaller ministry team might have. How can you engage and grow together, not just as individuals or small groups?

First, it is important to see your community as one body – not a bunch of individuals or age groups with separate but equal missions. Whoever you are and whatever your mission, it shouldn’t exclude a particular subsection of your community. For example, if your church is all about being out in your neighborhood, don’t just practice what you preach with able-bodied adults alone, but find ways that small children and older or those with differing skills and abilities can be fully part of that mission. That is how we all learn how to be who we say we are, by doing it.

When churches were full of people, all busy in their little corners, it can seem like we are doing good work. The truth is, creating individual programs for particular groups has never been a very healthy model for building community, but the flaws were hidden by the numbers of people in our churches. As church became less about “what was expected” than a faithful choice, we could see the deep cracks in our communities. We have small groups doing great work near each other, but not with each other. So how do we bring them together?

There are several church-based intergenerational initiatives with the goal of creating holistic mission and ministry for congregations, instead of the program-driven model that we have been operating under for too long. The specific language and activities of these initiatives may be different, but the basics are the same – congregations need to be spending time together sharing about their lives, praying, reading and discussing Scripture, and talking about how to apply what they are learning in their everyday lives. Not just the youth group talking to each other, or the 3rdgrade class, or the adult lectionary class, or the Presbyterian Women circle, but all together. The third graders need to be talking to the retirees and the teenagers need to be talking to the preschoolers and the young parents need to be talking to the grandparents.

How different churches create space for that to happen depends on the congregation. It could be during worship, or the Sunday School hour, or on Wednesday nights. Figure out where and when those intersections can happen best. Evaluate what you are doing currently and decide if you still need to be doing it. You may need to say goodbye to a beloved, but worn out, program.

Let’s Kill Sunday School (Before it Kills the Church), from Faith Inkubators, has some great case studies of churches doing this work in a multitude of ways. The provocative title speaks to the pain that might be felt initially upon giving up some of the things we’ve “always done.” But, ultimately, these congregations found that the pain was worth the transformation in their congregational life. Discipleship is not easy and involves tough choices about what is good for us versus what is easy and satisfying for the moment, but not for the long-run.

Who do you say you are as a community? Are all parts of your community participating in that mission? Are they participating in that mission together? Are you praying together and eating together and talking and laughing together? Do your 80-year-old members know the name of the 15-year-old members and vice versa? Do they talk to each other?

If your church feels like a collection of hit songs that don’t fit on the same album, your work will not be sustainable. Figure out how to be together and grow together, even if it means stretching beyond comfort zones and taking a few risks along the way. The journey and the destination are both worth it.

people sitting on beach, stretching their hands in the air while looking upward and focus on one man in foreground

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges for Ministry Teams

We recently talked about personal discipleship and how growing as a disciple means stretching beyond what is comfortable and safe. God keeps calling us to go further, which sometimes means relying on faith to walk on water. But we do not practice discipleship in a vacuum. We are called together to do God’s will.

We work together to discern God’s will and to carry it out. When we see the great need for healthy and abundant food, we may just drop off some food at the food bank. But we realize that if we want to end hunger we cannot simply address the symptoms of the problem as individuals, we need to work with others to discover and address the root causes of the problem so that it doesn’t exist anymore. This is how most of our ministries begin. People coming together with common values and a common cause.

Even successful groups and ministries can experience a sense of lost purpose or meaning over time. Sometimes the most successful ministries experience it because they have accomplished what they were called together to do. Then it’s back to discernment. Has this ministry fulfilled its call? Is there a different need related to our original purpose that this group is equipped to meet (or can become equipped to meet)? Are we being called to something entirely new?

We don’t need to wait until we get to a major transition to ask ourselves these questions. If we are regularly asking ourselves these questions we can see the path ahead more clearly. Or, even if the next steps are unclear, move forward with faith and joy into whatever comes. Is what we are doing meeting our mission? If it isn’t, what do we need to start or stop doing? Do we have the right partners to fulfill our mission? To help us have conversations about it?

Asking these questions is just part of keeping our ministries vital and centered on Christ. Just as in our individual lives, our ministry teams need to develop discipleship practices together. Prayer, study, acts of service, eating meals together – these simple acts done regularly and as a group helps you grow together. These acts prepare your ministry teams to live out their values and central missions because everything they do is centered on faithful practice.

A team that is growing in faith together, getting to know each other and trust each other more deeply works better together. When you are facing difficult decisions, when you are looking at your direction, when you are uncertain of the future, when you are ready to make a big change – a team growing in faith will be able to face these with hearts and minds ready to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit.

So, where is the growing edge for your ministry or ministry team? What do you need to let go of? What is a risk you need to take with faith? What are the steps you need to take to answer these questions together?

man bent over in downward dog yoga pose

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges

“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~Hebrews 12:1

“Run in such a way that you my win [the race]. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” ~1 Corinthians 9:24b-25

Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews both use this metaphor of an athletic competition to describe the life of faith. We do not stop once we have received the gift of faith, but rather we keep going, running even, to the finish line. They do not just speak of running the race, but of training to compete.

Even the most talented runner cannot simply run a race and win. They must train regularly, not just running, but warming up with the appropriate stretches, lifting weights, eating the proper foods. If not, their bodies will not be prepared for the challenge ahead. Faithful disciples are growing disciples, and growing disciples are ones who keep training, learning, stretching, just like athletes do.

In order to train and prepare, we have to set goals. And in order to grow, those goals have to make us stretch. What is an area in our spiritual lives where we feel the tug of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we are feeling a call toward teaching, but we don’t have much experience or confidence in our skills. Or our prayer lives could use some renewal. Or you have been asked to lead something you have never led before. Or to fundraise when asking for money makes you incredibly uncomfortable. If we aren’t a little uncomfortable with what the Holy Spirit asks, we probably need to stretch a little more. How can we meet these challenges faithfully, without fear, and also grow as we answer the call?

If you are called to teaching, you can see if someone is willing to partner with, mentor, and/or train you. If you are hoping to pray more regularly, or engage it more deeply, you can use simple tools to schedule prayer time, like this author suggests, or try new prayer practices. You can do this with available resources, or you could consider engaging a spiritual director. You can use similar practices to engage scripture more deeply. If you are being asked to lead something unfamiliar, or raise money for a passion project, think about what partners you can engage in the work. We don’t have to do any of this alone!

Learning is often about doing. We learn best on the job, so to speak. So, actually teaching, praying, leading, fundraising, singing, doing mission. It will be challenging. We will make mistakes. But leaders are people who invest in their own growth so others may also grow. Trying, failing, and trying again are part of the process. If we are not being stretched, if we are not making mistakes, if we are not frustrated sometimes, we are probably not learning or growing.

Desiree Linden, the 2018 Women’s winner of the New York Marathon has this pinned to the top of her twitter feed:

“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.”

Where is the Holy Spirit calling you to stretch and grow? What is the growing edge of your faith? What are ways you can answer that call and meet the challenge? These are questions we need to keep asking ourselves in order to be faithful disciples and leaders. So, let’s go seek some answers to these questions together!