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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.

Focus on Resources: Sabbath Space

blur-1846131_1280-featuredWe don’t often think about space when we think of Sabbath. We think about it figuratively, as in making space in our lives for Sabbath. And this makes sense because we tend to think of our time as a commodity – to slice it up into pieces, and parcel it out to work, family, chores, play, spirituality, sleep. We think of it as a physical thing that we can get a hold of and manage.

Perhaps this is because time is not manageable. It is abstract. It ebbs and flows, moves quickly like a rushing river, then slows down like molasses on a cold day. We want to control it, but it seems to control us. We neglect some of the things we can control, or at least touch and grasp in reality. Like the physical space and objects around us.

We may not have the ideal space. We may dream of a bigger house, or an office with a door that closes. We may want to live in a forest, but are surrounded by streets. We may share our space with more people than is comfortable. Or be uncomfortably lonely.

Sometimes we fill our space with endless trinkets and toys, or clear all the clutter away in a fit of KonMari cleaning, hoping to find meaning in the things, or in the lack of them. We dress up our space or dress it down. But what if for Sabbath we simply gave ourselves a break?

A Sabbath idea of space might be to look around at a less than ideal space and find the good things about it. Or, in a place that is perfectly comfortable and familiar, to take some time to remember all the reasons we love being there.

In Judaism some families choose to follow stricter guidelines, making sure to finish preparing their Sabbath meals before sunset on Fridays, not using electricity throughout the Sabbath, walking instead of driving (these are just a small sampling of possible practices), while others incorporate more modern interpretations of Sabbath into their practice. The point is not be oppressive, but to give rest to even the objects that do work in our lives – in the past this might mean your donkey, today it could mean your car.

Changing how we use the physical things around us changes how we see them. If we decide not to drive, we can only go places we can walk to, and we will see things as we walk that we do not see when we drive, or we will see them at different angles, for different amounts of time.

Regardless of whether or not a Jewish family chooses to use electricity over the Sabbath, the lighting of the candles before the Sabbath evening meal is a common ritual among practicing Jews. Eating by candlelight changes the appearance of the room, the food and the faces around the table. It feels intimate and warm even in cavernous or crowded spaces. We cannot always change where we are – we do not always have the means to move or travel – but we can change how we use or see where we are.

During Advent and Christmas, Christians spend a lot of time transforming our spaces. We put up decorations, bake Christmas goodies, hang greens in churches and homes, and move furniture around to accommodate guests and gifts. We light candles for Advent and Christmas Eve, put Christmas lights on trees and houses and throughout the streets, build fires in fireplaces and yards – light in the darkness that reminds us of the hope of Christ.

For many people Advent is the Sabbath of the year. It can be busy – preparing for Christmas, celebrating Christmas, recovering from the preparation and celebration – but it is also a time set apart when we also change around our physical spaces and engage our senses in new ways, all to prepare our hearts to be changed. Again. The gift of this faith is the chance to do it all again – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time in between the festivals, and through it all, Sabbath. A chance to change how we see the world every week.

So, turn off the lights, light a candle, and look around.

Focus on Leadership: Peacemaking

dove-183267_640The way of peace is not an easy one. As the Confession of 1967 lays out, “Wise and virtuous [people] through the ages have sought the highest good in devotion to freedom, justice, peace, truth, and beauty. Yet all human virtue, when seen in the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is found to be infected by self-interest and hostility. All [people], good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God and helpless without…forgiveness.”

As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So often when we attempt to do good, we cannot do it. The problems are too big, or we get afraid, or our ego gets in the way. As leaders, how can we lead others in the ways of peace, if we ourselves cannot accomplish peace?

Fortunately, it is not up to us alone. Our faith reminds us that while even humans trying to do good will stray from the path, we were not created to do this by ourselves. We have a Savior and Encourager in God, who can guide us when we mess up. We are reminded that taking on big problems requires many small steps, that we are not alone when we are afraid, and that it’s not about our ego, our reputation, our goals, but rather we follow that goals of Jesus Christ, we live into the reputation of Christ.

Another entry in our Book of Confessions, A Brief Statement of Faith, states this so well: “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

We are also reminded that not only is God with us, as our Creator, as the One who guides and saves us, as Encourager, but we have a whole team of peacemakers – others who believe as we do, that we are called to reach out and seek reconciliation with our neighbors and enemies. That the ways of peace mean that we have to face comments, insults, perhaps injury or death from those who profit from strife and warfare, those who thrive on chaos, those who think peace is a myth. But we face them together.

Just one person sharing acts of peace can encourage and embolden others to join them. Justin Normand, of Irving, TX, found this out last weekend when he decided to spend some time near a local mosque with a sign of peace and friendship for his Muslim neighbors. A picture of him with his sign was shared across social media as a sign of light in a discouraging time when so many acts of hate happening. This week Mr. Normand shared how his faith, as a Presbyterian, compelled him to do something, anything he could to show his neighbors they were loved.

This was a powerful witness kicked off by just one person. And how many spirits were lifted through his actions? How many others will join him in sharing love for their neighbors because of his simple act? And he learned to do it through the teachings of our faith. In churches just like ours.

We cannot do this without the work of the Holy Spirit, or without the saving grace of Christ, but our words and actions matter. We can do this work of peace, with God’s help, one step at a time.

Some resources to share with your congregations to talk about and live out peace and peacemaking can be found on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s page and also on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s website.

Focus on Resources: Sabbath Time

sun-122982_640-featuredWe are continuing with our Sabbath theme for Thursdays, which will go through Advent, as life gets busier, and time to breathe gets shorter. Last week, we linked to this article on Facebook, and this week we wanted to share a bit about how to get into (or back into) the practice of Sabbath rest.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote Sabbath in the Suburbs as she and her husband realized that though she herself was a pastor, though they were committed Christians and church members, they were neglecting this commandment of God to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, which was causing their family to feel and actually be less rested, overwhelmed and disconnected from each other. It turns out that even pastors have a tough time with this commandment.

It can be difficult to imagine how we could possibly set aside a whole day for Sabbath rest, which is where Rev. McKibben Dana’s book can be instructive. She talks about what Sabbath looks like for her family, as well as how they changed their thinking and practice in order to create a space in their schedule for Sabbath. She names the difficulty of wrapping your head around carving a whole day out of a busy schedule, and some ways you can create space for a Sabbath that you will actually be able to maintain, and perhaps increase to a full day as you begin to experience it.

Taking this time for Sabbath means that our thinking needs to change, that we will have to give up some things – Sabbath is time away from striving, to accomplish work or chores, for recognition, for purpose. We may have to let go of the fact that we didn’t get everything done when we wanted to get it done, which may compel us to change how we get things done, or help us to let go of the need to get things done. And to practice Sabbath has meaning and purpose in itself, it does not need to strive for further meaning.

Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t currently devote a whole day to Sabbath, that defeats the center of Sabbath rest. Do think about how you can make some space in your schedule, on a regular day and time, to simply enjoy God and enjoy your people and life. Take some time to step back and appreciate what we have, and set aside anxieties about your present and your future. This may seem like the ultimate privilege or luxury you can’t afford, but remember that God gave this commandment to the Hebrew people who were wandering around a desert, uncertain and afraid about what was ahead, not completely sure why they had left Egypt, and completely unaccustomed to having time to just spend in rest and enjoyment of life. God commanded the people to do this right when they least knew how or if they could do it, and right when they needed it the most.

You can see a bit of how Rev. McKibben Dana and her family approach their Sabbath day in this short interview on PBS.

Focus on Leadership: Doing a New Thing

new-thing-sqIn a couple of weeks, Advent will begin. Here in the United States, the season of Advent follows closely on the heels of our celebrations of Thanksgiving, which seems quite appropriate. The national celebration of Thanksgiving is not without controversy. The stories we tell about the origins of the celebration tend to center a mythical peaceful shared meal, and flatten out the real stories of the interactions, personalities, ideals and ideas of those involved, whether European settlers or indigenous occupants of the land being settled. Likewise, the stories we tell during Advent can flatten out the realities of a difficult story, as we remember the joys and the angels, and forget that that joy was a surprising gift in the face of a difficult new reality.

Advent is about the preparation it takes to do something radically new. The preparation of individual hearts, a family, a community and a world. And even with God’s own messengers delivering the message, “Do not fear,” it did not mean that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were going to have an easy life. Before the birth of Jesus, they have to confront their own feelings of inadequacy, confusion and worry over reputation. After the birth of Jesus, they have to undertake a harrowing road trip to a faraway land, not certain when or if they would be able to ever see their families again. All of this for two young people who had likely never gone further than Jerusalem.

Beginning something new tends to come with more questions than answers. We have never done it before, so it can be difficult to know if we doing it the right way. If there is a right way. The church in the United States is on the edge of something new. That, we know. What it will look like, what we will look like, afterward, is something we are not sure of yet. It is tempting to tell easy stories – to reach into the past to find comfortable models of doing church that worked then, or to assume that all people who follow Christ will be able to find a common way of working together simply because we have the same ultimate goal.

The reality is that none of this is easy. Our Advent scriptures do not let us off the hook, either. But, they give us an excellent guide on how to deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. They tell us to prepare ourselves because we cannot know how we will react when we meet strangers who do things differently, who may not like the same foods or speak a different language. We are told first not to fear. We are told to prepare our hearts – not to harden them, but to leave them open, soft. We are told that we will take the familiar ways of life, and turn them on their head. We have to be ready for how we think the world works to be overturned. And we have to be ready to meet the fears, anxieties and differing expectations of what that means or looks like.

These are the things that do not change, however: our God loves us no matter what, and calls us to join in loving all creation and created beings in the same way; part of that love is looking out for your neighbor – if we are not making sure your neighbors are safe, have food, aren’t lonely or sick, we aren’t doing it right; change is coming – will we continue to extend our love, or will we try to hoard what we have and hide? Be prepared – be awake, look for God, love others. It is both the oldest command, and part of bringing in the new thing God is creating in our midst. We are going to find ourselves doing many new things, doing old things in new ways, and becoming new people. How will we respond?