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The Morning After…

Whether you are blue or red, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, whether you were with her or with him, whether you support the popular vote or the electoral vote, this is a morning that calls us all to stop and pause. Some rejoice, others lament. Some hearts are heavy, others are jubilant. Some see nothing but blue skies ahead and others feel as gloomy as this morning’s skies. My friends, it is apparent that we are a deeply divided nation. We can vow to find ways to stay divided, or we can work for the peace of the city where we are planted.

As I reflect on this “morning after,” I can’t help but believe that all of the anti-racist, anti-white supremacy conversations in which I have been involved at both DisGrace in early October, and Fall Polity just last week, is timely not only for our country, but for the Presbytery of Newark. I can’t help but believe that the Spirit was moving when the VAB included a new Presbytery goal for 2017 – Actively engage the racial divide in our society as it relates to Newark Presbytery and its community.”

Friends, my call to us this day is to focus on the one thing that unites us rather than the many that things which divide us. One of my favorite passages of Scripture has always been Jeremiah 29:11, where Jeremiah assures the people that God does indeed have a plan for them – a plan not for harm but to give the people a future with hope.

As this day begins, as we look ahead as a people of God in a divided nation, I pray that we can find assurance and hope in the realization that someone greater than any of us rules our hearts and minds.

Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Smith
Transitional Director of Presbytery Ministries

Focus on Leadership: Non-Anxious Presence

unhappy-389944_640-smIn an election season riddled with anxiety (so much so that there is a podcast about it from WNYC), and in a rapidly-changing Christian denomination headed toward an unknown future, it can be difficult to remain calm and collected as a leader in the PC(USA).

Even if we are not ourselves anxious, anxiety seems almost like a free-floating contagion these days. It’s not that we do not trust in the stable democracy of the United States, but we seem to be having a hard time helping others see that. Likewise, in our churches it can be hard to help people see the good in change that only seems negative – declining membership, closing churches, communities completely changing.

It can be easy to get frustrated, to want to have easy answers to questions that will require a lot of difficult and long conversations. And yet, this is our call. This is why we are here – to proclaim hope in the face of an unknown future. To proclaim hope even if that future is the end of the PC(USA) itself. In fact, our own Book of Order talks about this in the very first sections – F for Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. From F-1.0301: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.”

Actually, in these anxious times, re-reading this first section of the PC(USA) Book of Order is a balm for the raw emotions all around us. It isn’t long – only about 13 short pages – and it reminds us what we are about, where the Church belongs in the world, and where Christ belongs in the Church. We are reminded that our triune God has this thing in hand – whether world events or where we are headed as a church, denomination or the whole enchilada – the entire Body of Christ.

We are also reminded that Jesus Christ as the head of the Church does not mean that we are free of responsibility. We are called to work, called to speak hope, called to love neighbors – whether friend or enemy – no matter what the outcome. Because even when things seem bleak, even when the risks are great, the world needs what we have to offer and we are not alone.

It is easy to lose our way, to forget who and whose we are. We need to get in the practice of reminding ourselves – reading Holy Scripture, reading the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions, reading other books and articles that enlighten and enliven us, asking and discussing questions raised – by ourselves and together with other leaders. We need to share the gifts we see in each other and in our communities, within and surrounding our ministries.

Anxiety thrives on the vacuum created when we forget our foundation and our call, when unanswered questions become a worry instead of an adventure. And we are founded and called by Jesus Christ, whose love knows no bounds. The way we are in the world – our posture, our attitude, our reactions to problems, small and large – changes when we remember we are surrounded by that love, always.

Think about something that is making you anxious, or something that is making everyone around you anxious, which then makes you anxious as well. Put it aside for a bit and take some time to read your Bible, read through section F of the Book of Order, have coffee or a meal with the least anxious person you know, pray – then go back to what was making you anxious. How do you feel about it? You will likely find that you are breathing easier, and that you can see and offer a new perspective. You can be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. Which is exactly what our world needs right now.

Focus on Leadership: Reflections from the DisGrace Conference


Reflections from DisGrace
Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Smith
Transitional Director of Presbytery Ministries
Newark Presbytery

As I was struggling on where to begin to talk about the DisGrace conference I was privileged to attend last week at Montreat Conference Center, the following article appeared in the Presbyterian News Service feed. So while I won’t repeat what Strange and Brekke have reported, I will admit that I came home from Montreat a different person. I went to Montreat eager to learn. I came home from Montreat eager to do – something, anything – to work toward equality and respect for all of God’s people.

Newark Presbytery is in a unique position to be confrontational. The tightness of our twenty-three-square-mile geography places us – instead of too close for comfort – too close to not be uncomfortable!  As children of God created in God’s image, we have the undeniable responsibility to squarely confront fear, to live in lament, and disrupt our comfort.

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, in his Tuesday morning lecture, lifted up Jeremiah 29. In considering that text, he reminded us that the Israelites exiled in Babylon were to seek the welfare of the city where they found themselves. They were to seek peace in the city where they didn’t choose to be. Running away was not an option.

Running away wasn’t an option for the Israelites then, and it is not an option for us today. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the racial divide that our brothers and sisters of color face day in and day out. At least I can’t. Who wants to join me?



DisGrace conference challenges PC(USA) to confront privilege, injustice
by Gail Strange and Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service 

LOUISVILLE – More than 400 individuals from throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered for the DisGrace conference at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina to address the issues of embedded and structural racism in the church and culture with the hopes of moving from disgrace toward solidarity.

The diverse group of conference attendees included PC(USA) Co-Moderator the Rev. Denise Anderson, former Moderators Heath Rada and the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, executive presbyters, pastors, national church staff and church members. Attendees took a deep dive into conversations to examine the causes of divisions between people and communities, unaddressed discomforts and hidden histories of racism.

The keynote speaker for the event was Melissa Harris-Perry, the newly named editor-at-large for and the Maya Angelou Chair at Wake Forest University. Harris is the executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center on gender, race, and politics in the South.

To begin the difficult conversation of race and racism, the conference opened with two sessions, one for whites and one for people of color. A session titled “White Fragility” was led by J. C. Austin, vice president for Christian leadership formation at Auburn Theological Seminary, addressed church leaders’ and congregations’ struggle of how to engage the systemic issues of racial injustice and the strong resistance of many whites to the notion that they are the benefactors of and participants in racially unjust social systems. He asserted this resistance has become so prevalent across this country that it has acquired the name white fragility.

The second session, “Not my People: Exploring the ways internalized racism makes solidarity difficult,” was led by Jessica Vazquez Torres, an anti-racism, anti-oppression and cultural competency workshop leader. This session, exclusively for people of color, not only offered individuals the opportunity to explore the unique and distinctive ways of internalizing racism, “but also the ways in which overcoming our collective internalization can help us build solidarity across people of color groups; a solidarity that is restorative for people of color and challenges white supremacy.”

“I was impressed with all of the speakers as well as the panelists,” said Vince Patton, Manager of Diversity and Reconciliation for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “After hearing Melissa Harris Perry’s presentation and Bruce Reyes-Chow, Jessica Vazquez Torres and Denise Anderson in a panel discussion, it occurred to me how radically different we may need to be church.”

Patton continued, saying, “After Melissa Harris Perry’s presentation, Richard DuBose asked her how the PC(USA) should attempt to try to become more racial ethnically diverse given the fact that the PC(USA) was 91 percent white. She turned and asked, ‘Where do you [the PC(USA)] want to go?’ DuBose said, ‘Presbyterians are quiet and white.’ After a couple of minutes, she replied, ‘The whole denomination can join a collective effort that could attract people of color. The PC(USA) could be about more than just the PC(USA). The church can join other spaces.’ She implored us to do more by ultimately asking, ‘What do you stand for?’”  Patton led a workshop titled “Living Out the Belhar Confession and Becoming a Fully Inclusive Church” as a part of the conference.

When asked about the ways white privilege was addressed at the conference, Chip Hardwick, Director of Theology, Worship and Formation, for the PMA said, “White privilege was a central theme throughout the conference. One particularly powerful moment came when Dr. Althea Butler said that she was weary of having to explain to white people why our actions often hurt people of color. Not only does society give lots of advantages to white people that people of color do not receive, we whites often then expect people of color to relive the pain the lack of advantages cause them by explaining to us where we have gone wrong. While my colleagues at the PMA have explained this to me before, it hit me over the head like a lightning bolt this time around.”

Hardwick said a challenge posed by Butler was asking white attendees why they would continue to attend a church that hasn’t mentioned the Black Lives Matters movement over the past two years. The importance of addressing structural racism, she said, lies with whites choosing to engage the movement rather than ignore it because they feel it doesn’t affect them.

“The call of the Gospel, however, is to open our eyes to the destructive power of structural racism and to work against it,” Hardwick said. “I spoke with one white man of retirement age who had never thought this through before attending the conference; he spent most of our conversation processing what he could do to make progress against this type of racism, where everyone is nice and is a good person, and yet the structures of society devalue people of color.”

What will it take for the church to change this trend? Hardwick believes it rests in a majority of the church addressing the disgrace of racism to hear how it can be more inclusive and learn new ways of being.

“The call to action that is important to me is for me to do the hard work of understanding white privilege better, and then using the opportunities I have to help explain the advantages we receive, simply from being white, that other people of color do not receive,” he said. “Rather than expecting people of color to carry this freight for me, and thereby burdening them again, I want to learn how to be the best ally I can be.”

Focus on Leadership: Compassion

rock-friends-smIf your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary for your Sunday worship Scriptures, you may be reading from and hearing sermons about texts from 2 Timothy, where the apostle Paul speaks about his suffering. We know from his letters that Paul suffered both from being imprisoned several times and from physical ailments, the two not always unconnected. But when Paul speaks of his suffering, it is not simply an update on his current state of mind or health, but to make a larger point. He does not diminish his own suffering, but he recognizes that his work, and the work of all faithful Christians, will lead to some sort of suffering.

Often it is because of the relationships we seek and build as Christians that will cause us suffering. Paul knows his friends who have heard of his imprisonments and physical pain will also be in pain, especially if they are far away and cannot lend assistance, because of their mutual love. When people we love are hurting, we hurt, too. And as our love increases, reaching more and more people as we are called to do, our opportunities to suffer alongside them will increase, as well.

Paul doesn’t lead us down an easy path, saying our faith will make everything better, or that we will be able to fix what is causing the hurt through faith. Instead, he points out that as Christ suffered with us, for us, those who follow Jesus will also suffer. Together. Compassion, which is from Latin roots, meaning to suffer or bear with. The same Latin root that gives us ‘passion’ also gives us the word, ‘patient.’ Patience, suffering – you will recognize these as major themes throughout Paul’s work. And it is always work we do together.

We tend to think of passion as joyful, as energy around something we care for deeply. If you think about it, this is not so wrong. Passion is not always joyful – pursuing a passion can be very difficult at times. But when we love together, suffer together, the key is that we do it together. There can be joy at the end of a difficult journey, or right in the middle of the slog, if we are with people we love.

Many of us live in neighborhoods and in towns that are suffering from economic uncertainty. Some of us live in places where violence is too familiar. And as we begin to learn of the devastation that Hurricane Matthew is wreaking upon Haiti, the Bahamas, and possibly our own coasts, we remember how we and our neighbors even closer to the coast were affected by Hurricane Sandy, and we pray. We hope to know how we might be a comfort – in thought, word and deed.

Compassion is not easy. Loving others never is. But we are called to it again and again. As we look around us, as we see suffering in the world, we pray that we will not turn away. We pray that we will know how to follow faithfully. We pray that our love will continue to be overflowing.

Focus on Leadership: Discipleship

runners-635906_640Discipleship sounds so…tedious. When we think of discipleship, we often think of discipline – either as punishment, or as a rigid set of conduct or rules.

Discipleship does require practice – just as we might associate discipline with the military, discipleship in following Christ is not an ends in itself, but a means to make us prepared for situations that will test us. Rather than facing a fight on the battlefield in a war, however, our tests come every day, and often in the places we least expect. The tests of our faith are often pop quizzes, and like any pop quiz, it pays to be prepared.

Reading, listening to, interpreting, absorbing, even memorizing Scripture is one of the first things we think of when we think of practices of discipleship. This is not simply so we can answer obscure questions, but so that we are immersed in the story of our faith.

The generations of people in Jesus’ lineage or in the books of Chronicles or Kings are not simply part of a long list of funky names, but real people who lived in history, were called by God to follow, and answered that call with varying success. People who faced real challenges that we still face – friends and family who do not live up to their promises, choices about how to use one’s wealth, what and who to stand up for and what and who to stand up against.

We bolster our intellectual knowledge of the story by seeing how we face these similar challenges, and through prayer and community. We are called into a Body of Christ, in which we are only one member, because we cannot do it alone. And we are called into relationship with our Creator, our adoptive Parent, our Friend, our Inspiration, because even with others, we humans cannot do it on our own.

We build these relationships through thoughtful listening, thoughtful questions, thoughtful conversations, and then following through with our actions – both with the other members of the Body and with God. Call it prayer, call it discernment, call it mindfulness, call it all three, practice makes us better at relationships.

Giving of our resources – sharing our money, our material goods, our time – on a regular basis helps us see where they fit into the overall picture. They are necessary, but also can become so much more meaningful when shared with others. If we keep them to ourselves we might not see the many ways our resources are gifts to us beyond keeping us fed and clothed.

Serving others changes our positions and attitudes toward one another. We spend so much of our time trying to “get ahead” to be “successful,” that we can think we are not very valuable if we do not succeed in the ways measured by salary, rewards, raises and promotions, and think ourselves more valuable than others if we do gain prestige, wealth and awards. Choosing a real practice of service can bring us closer to people we may not encounter in our everyday lives. We build relationships with those serving alongside us, and with those being served. We tell stories, we hear stories, we care about what happens next for the people around us because your stories become integrated during that time. And giving of oneself where one does not have to be “in charge” (though you might be called to do so even in the role of a servant), or an “expert” (though you may use or gain valuable skills), or “the most successful,” but simply to be faithful, is very different than the success we seek elsewhere.

women-697928_640Discipleship changes how we engage with the world. Discipleship prepares us to meet people where they are and to see where we are. Discipleship allows us to find God in places we were not expecting, even in the most trying of times. Discipleship shapes us and changes the shape of our hearts, thoughts and actions.

When we think of discipleship, let’s think of Jesus’ disciples – called, unprepared, from where they were, stumbling, making mistakes, but continuing to follow and learn. It was not just trials and tests, but they also developed deep friendships – with Jesus and with each other. They ate together, laughed together, cried together, wrestled with next steps together. And they shared what they learned. They were able to face difficult tests, even death, and yet were “successful.” We know that because we know their stories. We know The Story.

How is discipleship changing the shape of your heart? How can we invite others into a discipleship that is rich and meaningful, not tedious, even when challenging? How do we expand the characters this grand Story we share?

Focus on Resources: Spirituality

Desperately Seeking Spirituality: A Field Guide to Practice

By Meredith Gould

DSSMeredith Gould, the author of church communications books The Social Media Gospel and The Word Made Fresh, has come out with a new, more personal reflection on the practice of spirituality. Desperately Seeking Spirituality is a fresh and funny take on spiritual renewal. Whether you are hoping to add practices to enrich your spiritual life, or are feeling stuck in your current practices, Gould offers practical, warm and helpful guidance to explore and be renewed. You can purchase it in hard copy, or an e-book for Kindle.
As Fall begins, routines are shifted back from Summer rhythms, and the weather gets a little cooler, many of us will refocus on the rhythms of our spirituality as well. This book is a great resource for individuals and churches to take a new look at spiritual practices, whether new at them, or an old hand.
Silhouetted hand holding a 2-inch glass ball with the sky reflected in it

Stewardship of Creation

Silhouetted hand holding a 2-inch glass ball with the sky reflected in itAs we continue to think about stewardship, stewardship of creation often comes right behind (if not before) financial stewardship. After all, it’s right there in the beginning of the Bible. The very first thing God tells us is that we have power over creation.

Wow! God isn’t subtle here. We have extreme power over the world around us, which we see as the movement of humanity throughout the globe has changed the very shape of mountains, rivers and fields, not to mention the health of the water, land and everything living on the planet. We need to use parts of creation in order to survive, but if we do not take care of it, we won’t survive. It is a delicate balance.

In order to do our part in caring for creation and ourselves, the PC(USA) encourages churches to become Earth Care Congregations. They have resources on why caring for our environment is so important, liturgy and more information at the Environmental Ministries page of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and more information about becoming an Earth Care Congregation. You can even go deeper, and join the Environmental Ministries Action Network or become an Eco-Steward. There are ways to jump into creation care at any level you and your congregation are ready for.

You can learn what other congregations are doing to be responsible stewards of this great power God has granted us. In fact, First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell is an Earth Care Congregation, first certified in 2014!

Stewardship of creation is deeply tied to food sources and security, which is why Environmental Ministries is part of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, so you may also want to check out what FarminaryFarm Church, Mercy Junction and Stony Point Center are doing around food justice and security. There are plenty of non-PC(USA) groups like Bread for the World and Garden Church doing more good ministry around food, reclaiming land and building community.

What does it look like to be good stewards of creation in your neighborhood? Are there empty or run-down lots that could be reclaimed? How can we look at meeting the needs of the hungry in ways that are sustainable? Do we have a community garden bounty that we could share with neighbors that may be living in food deserts? How does caring for the creation we see everyday help ourselves and others?

From the beginning we were called as caretakers to God’s creation. How are we answering the call?

Focus on Leadership: Generosity

kids small featuredFor many of us in churches it is, or will be, stewardship season. This is a good time to consider our practices of generosity and discipleship. In fact, these concepts are inextricably intertwined – to be a good disciple means to live a life of generosity, and to live generously helps us become better disciples.

In John 10, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he encouraged people – his disciples, the crowds in synagogues, in the hills, and along the roads, Pharisees, tax collectors, friends and enemies – to live abundantly, generously. This summer the Revised Common Lectionary had texts both warning us what our lives will look like if we do not share everything we have been given (given, not earned), and what it looks like to share all that we have and all that we are.

Whether Hebrew prophets, Paul and other apostles, or Jesus, the message is consistent – there is a big, generous, overflowing life to participate in, but like the manna in the desert, if one tries to hold onto or hoard it for oneself, it rots. There are several points here – 1) God gives us everything we have – it does not belong to us, 2) God gives to us because God loves us and wants us to be taken care of, 3) God has specifically called us to steward what we have been given, 4) God tells us that part of stewardship is making sure those around us are also cared for, given what they need out of what God has given to all of us. A life of abundance means a life together where no one gets overlooked.

Being generous is not just about food, clothing and shelter, it is also about seeing each other, including each other, comforting one another when someone is hurt, grieving, or has messed up. We see it in the Bible as feeding the hungry, caring for and healing the sick and injured, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger, sharing what we have, sharing in feasts with the whole community, forgiveness.

The common element in all of these actions is that they cannot be done alone – these are all activities that involve two or more people. To live an abundant life means to live a life with others. As we think about how we will give in this stewardship drive, or just as everyday disciples, these are our stretch goals – give a little more financially, be better listeners so that we might know what is going on in the lives of those around us, and respond by spending time – feeding, visiting, welcoming, work to be graceful to someone who has messed up, engage in community fellowship.

Go out and live life abundantly. That’s what Jesus tells us, over and over. He sent his disciples, and we continue to be sent in the name of Christ to share love and life throughout the world.

Focus on Resources: Financial Stewardship

start sign The Fall marks the kickoff not only of the typical school year for our children, parents and teachers, and parallel church programming – regular Sunday School and other weekly activities and Christian Education programs – but it is also a time when many churches focus on stewardship.

From Wikipedia:

Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, etc.

We are called, from the very beginning of creation, to be stewards of what God has created. In churches this often looks like budgeting, and collecting the financial resources to support that budget. On Thursdays in September, we’ll be looking at stewardship that goes beyond money – creation, time, space, spirituality – all resources we need to care for and use faithfully.

As many churches get ready to dive into a season of financial stewardship, here are some resources that can help you think about, plan and execute a stewardship campaign that not only fulfills your budgetary needs, but engages congregations in thoughtful and faithful giving as growing disciples of Jesus Christ.

Here are some helpful online Presbyterian and ecumenical resources that talk about financial (and beyond) stewardship and how to do it well:

The Presbyterian Foundation has a long history of helping congregations and individuals think about how their financial resources can be used to build the future of the church. Many churches and members are thinking about maintaining the current buildings and programs, especially if they are thriving. But what will the church look like in 500 years? How can we think differently, and support a future of the church we not only won’t be around to see, but also probably can’t even imagine? The Presbyterian Foundation can help you think about investing in an unknown future, not just creating a legacy for the present church. The Presbyterian Foundation can also help you with online giving, and they have a monthly newsletter you can subscribe to.

Other online resources for stewardship planning are:

The Lake Institute goes beyond simple stewardship resources, and trains people to be fundraisers.

Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate, by J. Clif Christopher (founder of Horizons Stewardship), is a book that has been helping congregations think about approaching the stewardship conversation in new ways. The income, lifestyle and expectations of our parents is not what many of us have experienced, nor what our children are or will experience. Yet, we still see that when people have the opportunity to give of themselves, they want to share. That has not changed. Instead of assuming that because different generations do not give in the same ways does not mean that they are generous in different ways, but rather that we need to adjust how we talk about giving and discipleship. This is a positive thing because it gives us an opportunity to examine our own inherited and learned inherent ideas about stewardship, and challenges us to do things in new ways that might feed our souls as well as provide for the church, community and world around us.

If you want to talk about how your money is used beyond your congregation, within the PC(USA) and in world mission, an excellent source of information is the PC(USA)’s Special Offerings page. You can also look up more information about mission and PC(USA) budget, but Special Offerings gives a good snapshot of the priorities and mission of the PC(USA).

drawn image of a hand on silhouetted head, silhouette of Jesus on the cross

Focus on Ministry: Central Presbyterian Church, Montclair

Central Presbyterian Church spireMany of the churches in our presbytery are the oldest churches in their communities, not to mention the nation. Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair may be a relative newcomer compared to some of the historic East Coast churches, but it is the oldest continuously worshiping community in Montclair.

However, being a long-standing congregation doesn’t mean they look like they did almost 200 years ago. As they state of themselves:

Members of Central Presbyterian Church come from five continents and several island nations. The founders of our Church in 1837 might never have imagined a church family as diverse as we are. While our worship remains traditional, we are open to the Spirit of God leading us in new directions. We are “Reformed and Reforming”.

In fact, Central Presbyterian is one of the Newark Presbytery congregations that have used New Beginnings to guide conversations about identity, mission and the future. Coming out of these conversations, Central has decided to focus their community outreach efforts on families of young children, birth to three years. What that looks like is part of the next stage of conversations.

Often Presbyterians are accused of talking things to death, and that can be true if there is no action to go with discussion. However, without these on-going conversations that examine how we are fulfilling (or not fulfilling) our mission, how we can continue to change, adapt and grow as the Spirit moves, we may miss the work of the Spirit altogether.

Thank you, Central Presbyterian Church, for being a community willing to examine yourselves, and act to continuously be reformed by God, not getting stuck.