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What’s next?

Fresh off a sabbatical, the NEXT Church director has some views on where we’re headed

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Jessica Tate

LOUISVILLE — If you want to know what’s next in the life of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations, the director of NEXT Church is a good one to ask.

That’s what the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education at the Presbyterian Foundation, did Wednesday during his “Leading Theologically” podcast. His guest was the NEXT Church director, the Rev. Jessica Tate, who’s coming off a three-month sabbatical having found, she said, a sense of joy and gratitude that had become sometimes difficult to locate before her sabbatical.

“I am a convert to Sabbath,” Tate told Hinson-Hasty during the half-hour interview, available here. “I wish we could find ways in church and culture to honor that more broadly.”

Asked where God is calling the church even as COVID-19 surges and in the months that follow life altered by the coronavirus, Tate said the pandemic “has helped us see that things are going to be different — and that doesn’t have to be a crisis.”

“We need to get clear on what God is calling us to be and grieve what is no more,” she said. “I think this is a moment of midwifing,” a time to reconsider “recent ways of being the church,” including committee structures, graded Sunday school classes and structured worship at a specific time.

“How do we take seriously all the ways the world has changed?” she asked, noting the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte and the Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), points out that even our grocery stores are now different. Some grocery outlets offer childcare, and others a place to enjoy an adult beverage.

“How has the church changed? Hmmm. Not a whole lot,” Tate told Hinson-Hasty. “Something is amiss there.”

“There’s a real opportunity during this pregnant time,” Hinson-Hasty said, “if we are to give birth to this new thing.”

Through an audit of its own practices, NEXT Church has taken on antiracism work, Tate said, which has helped reveal “the image of God in you and me, the very basis of who we are,” she said. “We’re curious to see how we can help infuse the practice of being better humans” in a denomination whose membership is nearly 90 percent white.

Another task that churches are facing is to create real community in virtual space. “I don’t think we will go back to church as we were before,” Tate said. She remembered how when she was pregnant, midwives took the time to explain the changes going on in Tate’s body and that of the baby. “I think that’s a lot of our work now, teaching and learning what we will be about in an ongoing way,” she said.

And as the Body of Christ, Hinson-Hasty said, “we need to pay attention to what is happening in our bodies — where there is disease and where there is wholeness. If we pay attention to the church as a body, we can be a better witness, a better church that’s more gratifying to God. That’s the work for congregations and mid councils. We need time and space to do that, and that’s what the pandemic allows.”

“The pandemic has unveiled a lot,” Tate replied. “We have seen in the economic crisis how fragile so many are in our society. We’ve seen Black and brown people continue to be killed, protests, racism, the crisis in health care — all of these are taking the veil down.”

“We have pretended those things aren’t there,” she said.  The pandemic “gives us the opportunity to act differently.”

She recalled her seminary days studying under the legendary Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Seated in Cannon’s office one day, Tate was “lamenting the state of the world.” She asked her professor, “How can we make it better?” Leaning over her desk, Cannon told her, “Jessica, you know the hope is in the struggle.”

“I did not know that then,” Tate said. “But the older I get, the more I see the profound truth in that. We can confront [injustices] and imagine a new way of being.” It’s helpful, she added, to “think of the creative Spirit of God being among us.”

Tate put in a plug for the NEXT Church national gathering, a free live-streamed conference set for March 5-7, 2021.

“For 10 years we have met in person. The fact that we get to shift it into virtual space means it expands access,” Tate said. “We hope it’s an opportunity for a lot more folks to get involved and get connected to leaders and thinkers.”

“We look forward to the experimentation,” she added. “We hope to shift the national gathering so we use it to develop leaders and congregations, not as a stand-alone event you attend and then go home.”

“Maybe God is calling us to take more risks and dig deeper,” Hinson-Hasty told her. “There is a lot of ministry to do. We need courageous leaders such as yourself.”

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