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Focus on Leadership: Letting Go

As we get ready to enter Holy Week, many of us are preoccupied with the details of the week – worship services to plan and prepare for, a different schedule, Easter egg hunts, extra people in our sanctuaries and halls. We can forget to take it all in for ourselves – walking with Jesus into and through Jerusalem, eating with the disciples, following Jesus out into Gethsemane, and then into a jail, to his trial, and finally to the cross and the tomb.

We can so easily lose sight of what it’s all about. Not just the individual days, and events of the week, but why Jesus did all of it in the first place. Even when we take each day as it comes – truly diving into the practices of Lent, ending with the deep prayer and solemnity of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and not skipping too quickly to Easter – we can miss the point.

The point being, we are called to submit to God’s will. Submission can be a difficult word. Too often in the church it has been used to abuse others. Slaves, women, people in colonized nations – all have been told to submit to God’s will, but a will defined by people who desire control and power over other people’s lives and bodies. This is not the example we see in the life and death of Jesus the Christ.

It is important to be very clear and very precise when we are talking about Christ’s submission to God’s will. For if we read only the conversation in Gethsemane, if we only hear Jesus’ words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we miss most of the story. We think that God’s will was for God’s Son to die. But death was not the will, rather it was the inevitable consequence of challenging the prevailing viewpoint of the world.

The values of the world are: Get more, Do more, Be more. Our pride, our ego, our self-worth are all tied up in making sure we are “successful.” But Jesus says: Love more, Love more, Love more. Love God more, Love your neighbors/enemies more, Love yourself more. And putting more love into the world generally means putting yourself out in front less (turns out loving yourself more is directly tied to loving others more).

We must let go. Let go of our pride, let go of our worries, let go of our need to succeed. Loving others does not always mean a happy ending. Human beings have a way of messing up the best things. But God loves us still. And that is what we are submitting to. A love that never ends. We can’t make ourselves perfect – through money or success or a perfect prayer life. We will mess up. And God will love us still. God will bring us back from the dead and breathe life into us again. Our submission is accepting an unconditional love, and letting go of the things that prevent us from accepting that love.

Focus on Leadership: Saying No, Saying Yes

A couple years ago during this same week of Lent, Lutheran (ELCA) pastor Nadia Bolz Weber wrote back-to-back blog posts on the spiritual practice of saying, “No,” and the spiritual practice of saying, “Yes.” The spiritual practices, indeed arts, of saying no and saying yes are applicable throughout the year, but Lent is an especially good time to focus on our priorities.

Do All the Things meme

From All the Things Meme (origins of this meme)

Lent is a time of examination, a time to shed old, destructive habits, and create practices that foster new life. A particularly destructive habit in our American culture is the habit of busyness. We spend so much time talking about how busy we are, how we never have enough time for ourselves, for our friends, for our families, even to practice our faith well. In truth, we probably both are overly busy and we like to think that being busy makes us important, that the world would collapse without us doing ALL THE THINGS.

Bolz Weber talks about our self-imposed pressure and anxiety to do all the things. To say yes to everything asked of us, especially as Christians who are here to help people, right? If we say no, people might think we are rude or selfish, so we keep saying, “Yes!” And this might work for a while, especially if you have a lot of energy and an open schedule. You can probably say yes to a fair amount of little things with a few long-term commitments, and sail along just fine.

Until you can’t. Until your family or work life adds additional or unforeseen demands. Until you can’t cross off some of those little things as you wait on other people, and they pile up. Until something unexpected comes us, throwing your whole tightly-woven schedule out the window. Until you realize you never should have said yes to that thing you couldn’t or simply didn’t want to do.

We feel so much shame around the things we say yes to and cannot complete. What if we started saying, “No?” People might be disappointed (getting volunteers is often not easy), but it is better to say no up front to something we likely cannot accomplish, than to say yes, and not be able follow through.

You can start being honest with yourself about your time, your abilities and the limits of those abilities. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you can or should do that thing. Perhaps if we can’t find enough volunteers for something we need to rethink how we are doing it, or whether we need to do that thing at all. It can be a great opportunity for the people and organizations (including the church) around you to think about their own priorities and limits.

Saying no also leaves room to say yes. Yes to new opportunities, yes to things you want to learn or try that you didn’t have time for before. Yes to challenging projects that will take more time and concentration than you might have if you didn’t say no to a few things. Yes to simply taking time to stop and breathe, to remember why we do all of this anyway (hint: God – and right at the top of God’s commandments is the commandment to observe the Sabbath).

Lest you think this is a modern problem, consider the references in Scripture to making your yes yes, and your no no – Jesus in Matthew 5:37, Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:17, James in James 5:12. This is not simply about not being busy, but about being truthful about our boundaries so that we can be true to our yes, we will not let ourselves and others down, which can harm relationships, and so that we can live life in abundance – both taking time to enjoy God and what God gives to us and be ready for new adventures. And it is clearly a human problem, not a modern human problem.

Let us say no. So that we might also say yes.

Focus on Resources: Mental Health First Aid

One would think that if there was anywhere we could show exactly who we are and talk about our deepest joys and deepest struggles, it would be the church. And yet, so many ideas of who we “ought to be” as Christians become the standard of what we expect people to be within our church communities.

Instead of being vulnerable and honest around issues of relationships, addiction, insecurity, job loss, sexuality, mental health and financial security, we tend to pretend everything is just fine for the sake of not upsetting one another. How can we pray for and support each other if we don’t even really know each other?

While the Christian community has become more communicative around sexuality and our physical being, mental health is still a topic to be avoided, as it is in the world beyond our churches. Instead of waiting for the world to lead the conversation, wouldn’t it be great for the church to once again be at the forefront of conversations that lead people away from shame and secrecy into a practice of being whole together?

If your friend broke their leg, you would want to help as they needed, right? The same goes for mental health. If you know you could help your friends and other neighbors be full members of the community, wouldn’t you want to try? Also, if you were struggling, and you didn’t know why, wouldn’t it be a kindness to have a friend notice and work together to find answers?

These are some of the conversations church leaders are having, but with few tools to address conversations around mental health, much less long-term mental health need or immediate crises. As the Newark Presbytery Leadership Training Team discusses educational opportunities to offer, talking about mental health was a clear need.

Doing a mental health first aid training specifically for our youth leaders was a good place to start because there is already a cohesive group of youth leaders within the presbytery. We have been working to build a support system and programs for the youth and youth leaders in the presbytery, and offering such a training was a good next step.

Newark Presbytery has many small churches with volunteer youth leaders, part time youth leaders and elders in charge of youth programs. These leaders don’t always have the opportunities for Continuing Education or training that full time and ordained staff might, including and especially dealing with mental health. This training is accessible and available to anyone who works with youth. We encourage you to join us on April 8th. You can find more information on this event on the event page.

The Leadership Training Team is interested in partnering with other people and groups in the presbytery to support, enhance and publicize training events like this one. If you would like to share an idea, please email Rev. Mike Capron.

Focus on Leadership: Take a Breath

It’s Lent. What does that mean to you? Are you giving up chocolate or doughnuts? Adding in an act of kindness each day? Some other practice? No practice? Perhaps Lent stresses you out because you just want to do it “right” as a leader in the church. It’s time to take a breath.

Teaching elders and ruling elders bear equal responsibility of caring for the spiritual health of a congregation, working together to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, seeking out the lost, and setting the course of spiritual well-being. None of us can claim a perfect spiritual life, but too often our leaders are so busy making sure everyone else has what they need, we forget to take care of our own spiritual needs.

Sometimes we just need to stop. Stop everything we are doing, and take a break. We need to simply breathe, rest and take time to reflect. Prayer, reading Scripture, engaging (not leading) worship, resting our minds and bodies – these practices are necessary for us to be grounded in God and become whole. We can be doing all the “right” things, and feel completely disconnected from God’s joy because we do not remember why we are doing the “right” things in the first place.

So, take a breath. Remember what brought you to this place. What were all the small and great joys along the way – in worship, in fellowship, in service – where you felt the call to leadership in the church. Strip away all that doesn’t need doing today, and simply breathe.

Putting it into Practice

Let us lead this Lent by being people who take a breath, people who truly practice Sabbath. What about all those extra things that need to get done this holy season?

What about that new small group? Go, but let the members find their own calls to leadership in taking on new roles as facilitators. (Help new leaders breathe by encouraging them, and reassure them when silence crops up. Sometimes we just need to have some space to think.)

What about extra worship services during Lent? Do you need to fill every moment with active liturgy? Perhaps give more space to simple sitting and quiet contemplation. We all need more time to just be. (Help your members relax into this by encouraging breathing in and out, slowing down, quieting the thoughts in their heads.)

What about community meals? How will we make sure there is enough to eat? How many church meals have you been to where there hasn’t been enough food? (Help your hospitality committee breathe by grabbing some family-size cans of soup to have at the ready if need be. All will be well.)

Perhaps this Lent we give up perfection. We create a little more space for each other. Let go of the things that don’t need to get done TODAY, let there be times of silence, forgive ourselves for failures to get it “right.” Because, isn’t that what this faith is about? Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, and when we get it wrong, take a breath.

Lent 2017

Lent begins March 1st, with Ash Wednesday, and concludes with Holy Week, April 9-15. We wanted to share some resources for worship, study and practice this Lent as well as what churches around the presbytery are doing this Lent.

We will post Holy Week schedules closer to Holy Week, as churches add Holy Week events to their schedule.


From the PC(USA)’s Lent resources page:

The season of Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and self-examination in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord at Easter. It is a period of 40 days — like the flood of Genesis, Moses’ sojourn at Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Jonah’s call to Ninevah to repent and Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. (The Sundays in Lent are not counted in this reckoning of the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, as every Lord’s Day is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.)

In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil. In many communities of faith it remains a time to equip and nurture candidates for baptism and confirmation and to reflect deeply on the theme of baptismal discipleship.

The PC(USA) is also offering a new curriculum aimed at youth to explore the theology and practices of Lent. Find more information on ‘Pray, Fast, Love’ here, and free downloads available in English and Spanish.

Carol Howard Merritt, a PC(USA) pastor, speaker and writer, has a new book out that is part memoir and part travel guide to healing spiritual wounds. Healing Spiritual Wounds takes you through Carol’s journey of faith, including the hurts and also healing found within. Questions in the book help guide you through your own path toward healing spiritual wounds, and there is a study guide that can be used on your own, or in a group.

LEAD, a ministry organization dedicated to building up, educating and encouraging leaders in the church, offers a wonderful blend of resources each season of the church. Art, devotions and liturgy for church and family use. Check them out here.

Lent Madness is just a little fun for Lent, started by a group of Episcopal priests, and is a “competition” based on the NCAA’s March Madness, pitting saints of the church against each other. Popular voting determines the outcomes, and you learn a lot about the saints of the church along the way. Not just for church history nerds.

Newark Presbytery Lent Schedule

Here are Ash Wednesday and Lenten activities happening in Newark Presbytery.
Contact the churches for more information and to confirm participation in meals or small groups.

Bethel Presbyterian Church
East Orange, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
Wednesday, March 1

Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green
Bloomfield, NJ

Lenten Small Groups
Soup and bread meal and lectionary study
5 Sessions:
Sundays, 6:00-8:00pm (March 5 – April 2)
Or –
Thursdays, 12:00-2:00pm (March 9 – April 6)

Central Presbyterian Church
Montclair, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
March 1

Lenten Soup Suppers
Meal, Fellowship and Worship
Thursdays, March 30, April 6 and 13

First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell
Caldwell, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
March 1

Grace Presbyterian Church
Montclair, NJ

Ash Wednesday Worship
March 1

Presbyterian Church of Livingston
Livingston, NJ

Ash Wednesday Worship
March 1
12:00pm at Presbyterian Church of Livingston
7:30pm at Livingston United Methodist Church

Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair
Upper Montclair, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
March 1

Prospect Presbyterian Church
Maplewood, NJ

Ashes To Go
March 1
Maplewood Train Station

Ash Wednesday Worship and Meal
March 1
Soup Supper at 6:30pm
Worship at 7:30pm

United Presbyterian Church of West Orange
West Orange, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
March 1

Wyoming Presbyterian Church
Millburn, NJ

Ash Wednesday Evening Worship
March 1

Focus on Leadership: Making Room

How much time do we spend complaining about traffic? About the crowded streets, about other drivers, about how it is slowing us down? When you are in that traffic, is your tendency to think about other drivers as adversaries or partners?

If we see them as adversaries, we are probably less likely to give people the space they need to merge or switch lanes. We might cut others off before they can do it to us, and we will definitely yell at them for whatever infraction they might incur. If we see them as partners in getting where we are all going, we might pay more attention to what other drivers are trying to do. We anticipate sticky spots where you know many people are entering onto one side of the highway, and will quickly need to exit on the complete opposite side, and make space for them. Likewise, we will pay attention to those entering or exiting, and make room or adjust our speeds to accommodate them.

It is likely we all are guilty of being adversaries on the road at one point or another. (And some wise people who know that they tend to be overly aggressive on the roads choose to use public transportation.) This doesn’t just apply to traffic, of course. We see this behavior on sidewalks and in grocery store lines, anywhere there is a group of people who all have their own ideas about how and when to get where they are going. It is usually exacerbated by our own busy schedules, too.

Does it ever feel like this in your church life? When you are in a committee meeting, session, or Bible study, does it seem like everyone has their own agenda? We aren’t really paying attention to the needs of other individuals, and assume that my needs apply to the whole group? If we see each other as obstacles to our desired outcome, we find ourselves in the same traffic jams we encounter on our busy roads.

Just as driving becomes smoother, and less stressful when we work together to get where we’re all going, seeing each other as partners in ministry leadership helps us all get where we need to go. Paying attention to the needs of those around us – in churches, on presbytery committees, in outside ministries – helps us make room for each other.

We may not all have the same hopes and needs on Sunday morning, Wednesday night, or other times we gather. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together to all get where we need to go.

Take some time to think about those around you as partners in growing and living out your faith every day, inside and outside our ministries. Really listen to one another, and see how we can help each other get where we are going. This might mean active encouragement, or simply creating space to experiment without judgment. We may find that our own needs were less important than we thought, or fulfilled in a different way than we imagined.

We will probably still be guilty of being less-than-pleasant in traffic or in line at the grocery store when we are in a hurry. However, we might find that we can get where we need to be in plenty of time, both in the church and out when we simply make some room every day.

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.