Reflections on the Next Conference

Non-Presbyterians, thanks for standing by as I engage in a bit of inside baseball.

I wasn’t able to attend the Next Conference, but I followed the Twitter feeds and am making my way through the videos. Several good friends were involved in the leadership, so I have a bit of insight into what this group is about. From their website:

“New occasions teach new duties,” the old hymn suggests.Β  For some months a group of friends and colleagues across the church have been in conversation about the “next” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). We have focused less on denominational controversies and other matters and more on vital, faithful and connectional congregational ministry. We held an initial gathering at the 2010 General Assembly to spark a larger conversation. There is strong interest in continuing and expanding the conversation to explore the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and God’s intention for the future of the Presbyterian Church.

This gathering in Indianapolis is open to the whole church. We will join with friends and colleagues, old and new, who care about the future of Presbyterian witness. Together, we will seek God’s guidance in discerning how to move forward in a rapidly evolving church and culture. Join us in Indianapolis for the important work of reflecting on such topics as:

  • How do we live and work together as a connectional church?
  • How do we engage the gifts of our members in Christ’s mission?
  • How do we identify and nurture leadership for the future of the church?

The Next Conference is really about conversation, so this post is very much offered in that vein. Other bloggers are reflecting on the conference too, providing helpful stuff. I also resonate with Jan Edmiston’s pre-conference reflection. Jan’s post, on listening to a variety of voices, was prescient: while the Next Conference was meeting, Rob Bell was essentially being tried for heresy on Twitter and his book dealing with heaven and hell was moving to #21 on Amazon—and it’s not even out yet. (I’ve preordered my copy for Kindle, you?)

I also have to say that, as much as being Presbyterian is the air I breathe, and I’m married to a “genetic Presbyterian,” I’m not as grounded in deep love for the denomination as many are. I am interested in the flourishing of the PCUSA because I am interested in the flourishing of those congregations that make up the PCUSA. But I do not have the deep Presbyterian roots and, perhaps, the nostalgia that some do. For what that’s worth.

One of the threads of critique I heard on Twitter (and sympathize with) is the demographic makeup of the leadership. One person estimated that of the 23 leaders on the podium during the conference listed as leaders in the conference program, 5 were female. [UPDATE: see comments for more context on this number] And the crowd was overwhelmingly white. Much of this is to be expected—the PCUSA is overwhelmingly white. And this conversation began with tall-steeple pastors, and the sad reality is, women are incredibly underrepresented among those folks.

However, this conversation began almost two years ago, if I’m counting right. This thing needs to get blown open, but quick, if it is to foment a truly faithful conversation about what’s Next. And when I say blown open, I don’t mean that we need women and people of color and small church pastors (which, of course, make up the bulk of the pastors in the PCUSA) to talk around the edges on blogs and social media, but on the platform in Dallas next February, when the conference meets again. Women outnumber men in our seminaries. Multiethnic churches are growing while historically white denominations are shrinking. And tall-steeple pastors are vastly outnumbered by the pastors of small churches. We need to hear from these groups, not to kneel to the gods of political correctness, but because that’s what’s next in the church of Jesus Christ.

Of course the gender piece is near and dear to my heart, but it’s the small church piece that’s really on my mind… for obvious reasons. I agree with whoever it was at Next who said that some little churches need to die—especially if the resources used to prop them up can be funneled into new church development and supporting already strong congregations.

That said, I also find hope in church guru Kennon Callahan, who writes, “The 21st century is the century of small, strong congregations. More people will be drawn to small, strong congregations than any other kind of congregation… Around the planet, the vast majority of congs will be small and strong, and the vast majority of people will be in those congregations.” That’s from David R. Ray’s book, The Indispensable Guide for Small Churches. Other recent books speak to the potential of small churches for being intimate, nimble, authentic and effective… indeed, a great gift to the world.

But let’s be honest. People are not going to spend their precious time and con ed money to come and listen to pastors whom nobody’s heard of. They want to hear Scott Black Johnston and Tom Are.

So here’s my modest proposal—a dialogical, dialectical format next February. What if the planning team surveyed presbyteries to identify churches of 200 members or less that are growing? What about partnering one of these small-church pastors with one of the “big names” around each of the conference topics? What if the dialogue took place right there on the stage in addition to small groups?

What about putting a new church development pastor together with a pastor of a historic congregation?

What about a seminarian with a pastor nearing retirement age?

What about an “ecumenical advisory delegate”—like we have at General Assembly? This would be a pastor or leader in another denomination that has made some of the same shifts we’re discussing, and can give us some of their wisdom. (I nominate the UCC; they are incredibly tech savvy and “get” a lot of this.)

A final suggestion: a conference “presscorps” that would liveblog and tweet the conference and serve as curators for social-media discussions.

Offered in a spirit of wanting this discussion to continue…

Image: what came up when I google-imaged “next church.”

34 thoughts on “Reflections on the Next Conference

  1. Jeff Lehn

    Thanks for this, MaryAnn. Great suggestions for next year and for the next several months leading up to it. I do recall meeting a pastor of a new church development who lead one of the small group sessions, but that’s it.

    1. MaryAnn

      And thank you Jeff for your blog post too! I had to live vicariously through friends and colleagues on this one… not that that kept me from forming opinions of course πŸ˜€

  2. Marci Glass

    I hope to go next year. Heard about it too late to fit it in this year. But I wonder about how you define “small” churches. You mention 200 and under, but in Boise Presbytery, with 16 churches, I bet that only 4 of them are over 200 members. And I’m not sure how “tall steeple” is defined any more either. There certainly are no tall steeples in this presbytery. I think our very terms may also need to die so that the next church can be born.
    And if you haven’t read Adam Copeland’s post about the meaning of church membership, that might play into this too.

    Our church is slightly over 200, and feels very much alive to me. But we’re also in the midst of discussions about “doing” church differently. Maybe even looking at the house church model. The traditional structures just aren’t seeming to bring life–anyone really want to go to a committee meeting?–but I just can’t quite see what is around the corner. And there’s some anxiety in that.

    Hope to see you there next year!

    1. MaryAnn

      True enough… I chose 200 somewhat arbitrarily, though informed by the average PCUSA church size: 195. I just looked up the median, which is probably more meaningful for our purposes: 97. So maybe I ought to ratchet my number down.

      Here’s my point: I would love to hear from the pastor of a 100-member church that was 70 members five or ten years ago. Or to hear from a pastor of a small congregation who baptized more adults than babies last year. Or a pastor of a small church that manages to pull off some amazing loaves-and-fishes mission to the community. Surely they are out there. That’s going to be immensely helpful to me and, one would assume, to the **50%** of PCUSA congregations who are below 100 members.

      I took note of the fact that one of the presenters opened his talk by saying that his church wasn’t as large as the others represented. He even referred to it as his “little church.” Its membership is 310. The fact that 310 would be considered “little” in the context of this conference is telling. Tall steeple is my own (perhaps unhelpful) shorthand for the fact that the organizers of the conference are mostly well known and have a national profile. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. But having these voices direct the conversation colors where the conversation goes and, I believe, limits its relevance and reach. That’s all I’m saying.

  3. stephen

    Many of your ideas/concerns were shared during the plenary session yesterday morning before the event concluded. I encourage you to talk to your friends who are on the planning team and share your ideas with them – especially with regard to who is on the platform (though it was WONDERFUL to have many younger pastors preaching/sharing in leadership) and also the idea of having the dialectical/dialogical format with pairing different folks together for presentation and discussion. And there were a small handful of evangelical folk there who I found to be open to begin more discussion across theological lines and with no assumptions about what it means to be a denomination in the 21st century. Oh and of course, I met a bunch of people who know you and believe that you absolutely rock! (As do I!) πŸ™‚

      1. stephen

        I definately do NOT consider myself among the “younger” folks at all! I knew I should have been more clear about that in my post … What I should have said was it was good to see folks up front who were not old grey heads like me – especialy a few who were children of mentors of mine. With regard to women, I can second and affirm that women were most definately MORE than half of the leadership in their various forms – and there were a good number of people of color in worship leadership as well (most of whom were seminarians).

        1. MaryAnn

          Sorry Stephen–when I said “we” I meant my contemporaries at the conference and myself. Our shelf life for being young is pretty limited… except in the grey PCUSA I guess πŸ™‚

  4. Karen

    I’d say the big/church small church observation and the ethnic diversity comments are mostly on the mark. But I admit I’m very confused by the estimate of only 5 women in visible leadership at NEXT. Women were over half the planning team, preached, presided at communion, wrote and led liturgy, and facilitated a great many of the small breakout groups. I really can’t figure out how anyone who was there could come away with that estimate.

    1. MaryAnn

      Hi Karen!
      I’m so glad you came by to comment. And thank you and your compatriots for giving us all good stuff to talk about.

      Here is what the tweet said:
      “Of 23 speakers, small grp ldrs & moderators listed in the #NextChurchIndy program, 5 were women.”

      Of course without the program I can’t verify the veracity of those numbers. But perhaps the program gave a more lopsided portrayal of things than was the reality. At any rate, I’ve changed my post to reflect the content of the tweet as accurately as possible.

  5. Roy Howard

    I was impressed with the people in my conversation groups from across the country and relatively few from LARGE congregations. In fact, I would say LARGE congregations were the least represented. I noted many of the regulars were not present at this conference. Rather newer voices and younger ones took their place, which I found invigorating particularly the preaching and leadership. I counted from my program to confirm my intuition and there were at least 12 women leading worship, either preaching or praying.

    What surprised me was the sameness of the music dominated by the organ, the absence world music and immigrant communities.

    I was also surprised that “Exile” was the primary theme. I first heart that announced by Bruegemann in 1986. One might think that theological conversation would be a bit different after 25 years. The leaders of the conversation groups were content to led the conversation meandering along, sometimes into chattiness way from the theme. It think a bit more guidance would have taken us deeper.

    I like the idea of dialogue on the podium with folks from a variety of congregations.

    1. MaryAnn

      But Roy… if you read my response to Marci’s comment… your congregation of 345 members IS large, compared to a majority (perhaps even a supermajority) of PCUSA congregations.

  6. shannon

    Hey friend! I really like your ideas and will love to take those to our next planning session. I will say that the tweet re: gender was wong. 9 of 19 on planning team are women. 6 of us led small groups (12 men lead small groups). And then, 3 of us were in plenary leadership. And that does not include the women who wrote and led liturgy. I am only being that specific because I read some of those tweets.

  7. shannon

    Sorry…I messed up with my phone. I really think u are on to a great way to bust open the conversation which is exactly what I hope happens. Thank u MA!

  8. Jeff Krehbiel

    I thought the leadership was pretty diverse too, Mary Ann, especially in regard to gender. But I agree with Roy– the worship didn’t feel very “next” to me. I found myself wondering– what would it really look like if they had rounded up a gathering with more theological, ethnic, and stylistic diversity. It felt pretty much like a Covenant Network conference to me. Not bad, but not a stretch.

  9. MaryAnn

    Woo! I haven’t gotten this many comments in ages! Par-tay!

    Karen Sapio was kind enough to send me the program… which is gorgeous, by the way.

    So here’s my teeny attempt at citizen journalism:

    I think I see where the tweeter got her numbers. Rather than go through all of the orders of worship, she went through the schedule of plenaries/small groups/worship on the first few pages. (That would get the primary worship leaders but not liturgists, communion celebrants, etc.)

    My numbers are different from hers–I count six women and thirteen men, counting each person once. (I wonder if she thought Chris Chakoian was a man???)

    And then, because I’m anal-retentive and wanted to get a fuller picture, I did a quick rundown of liturgists listed in the orders of worship, trying to count people who hadn’t already been counted. Counting quickly, I got six “new” men and ten “new” women.

    So, that would be sixteen women and nineteen men total. Certainly a nice mix.

    I think when it comes to issues of representation, we all see what we are conditioned to see. Many of the commenters here, whom I trust, had a different picture than the tweeter. I appreciate that and probably would have felt similarly had I been there.

    All of this said………..

    I hope that the fixation the citation of one gender statistic (which again, was only a second-hand report) does not obscure what I hope are some helpful suggestions/things to think about for next year’s conference. Which I hope to attend.

    If it were not a worthwhile event and conversation, nobody would care about ways to make it even better. I hope people know that my comments come because I do care, and appreciate the beginning of this generative conversation. And although the planners of this event are probably tired and maybe not ready to hear critiques, it is a testament to the momentum of the event that people want to debrief it right now, while the energy is high.

    My two cents.

    1. Shannon

      MA – I totally know and completely appreciate that your comments are coming from a place of caring and honesty. And yes– speaking as this planner, I am tired and probably defensive– but the whole point of this Next thing, whatever it is, is this kind of conversation and letting it go where it goes. So I get over my defensiveness pretty quickly πŸ™‚ Thank you again for putting this out there!

      1. Joe Clifford

        MA–Thanks for the conversation. Another thing that needs to be said is that all of the planning for the conference was bascially, “Whose willing to do this?” We volunteered as requests were made for help.

        I’m looking forward to exploring what “next” worship might look like in Dallas. Would you like to help with that?

  10. Andrew Foster Connors

    I nominate MA to lead one of the sessions at the next next.

    Agree with Jeff on worship music – lots of others commented on the same thing. In our post-event planning team evaluation, we discussed this as well.

    I love your ideas, MA for format. You know this whole thing started because a couple of people decided that instead of standing around complaining about what our Church isn’t doing, they wanted to start a conversation about where God is leading us. I think we have to be open to that which also means the leadership has to open, open, open all the time or else we just repeat patterns of insider/outsider again and again and again. As one of those in leadership, I, like Shannon am committed to that, but we also have to encourage people frustrated with old patterns of leadership to get engaged and offer their gifts.

    Finally, I hope NEXT isn’t the only conversation that happens or the only place. In fact, I hope it can be used to highlight a lot of the stretching stuff that you and others are already doing. My biggest hope is that the conversation can move us toward some collective hope together.

    Peace, power & love to all!

    1. Stephen

      Thanks Andrew, Shannon, and Joe for all you did to make NEXT Church happen. This whole thread seems to me like one “adjacent possibility.” πŸ™‚ And I believe MA would be an excellent person to lead a session at the next next. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for our church “next.”

  11. Joe Clifford

    It might be interesting to think about simulcasting worship to satellite gatherings and synching the liturgies and featuring speakers from different venues over the course of the conference. I can imagine a D.C. site, a LA site, a Chicago site, etc. I’ve never participated in a simulcast event, but I think it would be a way of expanding the number of people who might not be able to make a trip to Dallas.

    1. MaryAnn

      Now that is a cool idea. Powerful to think about!

      People were watching the event across the country anyway—we could host a few “watch parties” in certain areas. Those watch parties then become a small group that processes what is said. Social media would be even more critical because of course we want to capture salient ideas from all the satellites.

      I know in my case, I had the time but not the $$$ to attend. So this idea has appeal for me.

  12. landon whitsitt

    If I may, rather than simulcasting (which always feels to me like a reinforcement of the notion of “bringing in an expert”) might the model of TEDtalk conferences and the attendant aggregating website be more apt?

    I’ve actually been thinking about this all day, trying to see if I could come up with a cut rip-off. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design” with the tagline “Ideas worth spreading.”

    I came up with “SET: Spirituality, Ecclesiology, Theology – Good News worth Proclaiming.”

    1. MaryAnn

      That’s interesting. I see TED as much more expert-driven, and the satellite notion (at least as I understand Joe) as communities of people scattered across the country, talking among themselves and to one another.

      Love the TED/SET spinoff idea though.

      1. landon whitsitt

        Okay, rereading Joe’s comment, I see that I misunderstood what was going on. Thx for the pushback.

        I’ll totally claim my stuff and acknowledge that I think I’m just suspicious of anything that feels top-down or universalized.

  13. rsupinger

    The NEXT church appears to be happening on your blog, MaryAnn. Thanks for your succinct and insightful comments.

    I noticed that both Andrew Foster Conners and Scott Black Johnson made significant pieces of their remarks about small churches. Andrew declared that he pastors one. It was on the radar at least.

    The “testimonies” were the things I got the most out of. Maybe in the next 12 months more of those could be solicited, recorded, and put on to sort of prime the pump for the next gathering.

  14. Mary Harris Todd

    MaryAnn, many thanks for this post. I am enjoying following your blog. I am a pastor down in New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina and have served my small flock (40-50 in worship) since 1990. The term “small” is definitely relative–50 seems big compared to the tiny Kirk in which I grew up. All I know is, God is doing amazing things among us, and it’s even more exciting here than it was when I started 20 years ago. Easter this year is going to be a humdinger with three adult baptisms, a confirmation and a new member–and we may even have a fourth baptism. I do believe that small congregations living by the power of God’s Spirit are a big part of what’s “next” for the PC(USA). I welcome conversation from any and all who are interested in this. I invite you to visit me at my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal, Blessings to all!

  15. Jeff Lehn

    Thanks for facilitating this discussion, MaryAnn. Great stuff. I agree with rsupinger (sorry I don’t know your name) about “testimonies.” Most moving part of NEXT for me. Might it be possible to incorporate these testimonies into worship next year along the lines of Lillian Daniels’ “Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony”? It has been powerful in our limited use of it in my ministry context.

    One other thought: one thing I desire for the PCUSA is more mentoring. Pairing more experienced elders/pastors with less experienced elders/pastors. Is there someway this could be encouraged or facilitated next year? It could be as simple as putting people willing to mentor in touch with people wanting to be mentored.

  16. Sarah

    love this conversation – not much to add at this point b/c I haven’t taken/had time to view more of the sessions – but really love the format ideas.Some of the seminarian comments I heard around the dinner table at CTS on Friday were about the worship, btw as not being “next” anything – although it was received as good/solid/traditional worship.

    Timing would make it hard for me to be there next year but knows…and love being a part of a church in the midst of (ongoing) change.

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