Three recent episodes of “Nourish” — the “Along the Road” podcast series for deacons and ruling elders — feature discussions about the manifold ways church leaders tend to the needs of their congregations, how writing can be a spiritual practice and how worshipers can become more involved in the weekly sermon.
Listen to each episode directly from the Mid Council Ministries section of pcusa.org or from podcast providers.
Nourish: Reflection on I Peter 5 (13 minutes)
Nourish host Martha Miller welcomes Ellen Crawford True, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Concord, North Carolina, for a reflection on I Peter 5.
Crawford True connects the text, “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it,” with her 27 years of ministry, including memories about ruling elders and deacons from her different congregations. She notes that 1 Peter 5 was written in Rome by an unknown author late in the first century — "in a time when it wasn’t easy to be church and do church. Sound familiar?”
The scripture encourages caring for others with the “diligence of a shepherd showing them the way.” Crawford True shares her memories of a congregation without a pastor being led by church members; a church session that showed love to her throughout a difficult process of the congregation leaving the denomination; and deacons setting the communion table five minutes before worship, buying grape juice at a corner store. One of Crawford True’s first calls was at a campus ministry in Eastern North Carolina where ruling elders and deacons served food to college students. “I was in awe of them,” she says.
The session at her current congregation is “embracing new opportunities and building new relationships in the community” — another example of creative, humble, gracious service by church elders.
“Ruling elders and deacons find a way to do all this with joy and love,” Crawford True says. That happens despite the obstacles they face, and because of them.
Ruling elders and deacons should rejoice in their service, and remember their strength in numbers. “There is never just one elder or deacon. It is not up to [one person] to do it all on their own.”
Nourish: Writing as Spiritual Practice (18 minutes)
Writing can connect us to God and each other and also transform us in ways we might not expect. Julie Hester, pastor and writer, shares how writing helped her in what she calls “a time of deep grief.”
When she was a young pastor, Hester lost a child. Five years later, she joined a writing workshop for bereaved mothers that included 13 other women.
“Something within me started to fall that day,” she tells Miller. “I began to figure out how I was going to move forward. Words worked for me. The writing unlocked something in me.”
That group of mothers has now been meeting for 20 years. Although the group isn’t faith-based, Hester says the meetings and writing in general “have become a spiritual practice for me.”
She recommends journaling, as opposed to writing for an editor or any other audience beyond yourself. Hester often starts with a writing prompt, which helps her “begin a writing journey to somewhere else.”
She also likes working off lists, such as a recipe about a souffle. That might lead to her writing about the challenges of cooking, or how to do things for the first time or how things rise. “I ask God to speak to me through the pages of my journaling that day.”
Hester says writing as part of a group often takes the writing to another place. The act of reading your own words to another, or listening to another’s words, can include learning about God. “We form a community together when we’re writing,” she says before encouraging writing groups to form inside congregations. If writing isn’t for you, explore other hobbies that can serve as a spiritual practice.
“Anything that matters to you is good to share with others — whether that’s writing or knitting. Sharing those things with others matters as much as words on an agenda.”
Miller mentions that Hester’s writing can be found in articles written for the Regarding Ruling Elders series. You can receive Hester’s weekly writing prompts and find out about her writing workshops at juliehester.com.
Nourish: Sermon as a Conversation (13 minutes)
Andrew Miller, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan and Martha’s husband, talks about what he calls “the sermon as a conversation,” where worshipers and pastor discuss scripture related to a sermon topic.
In Andrew’s case, the sermon-as-a-conversation involves reading a selected scripture three times during a service, with questions being discussed in small groups of three to five people between each reading.
He likes how the small group discussions involve the entire congregation — not just ruling elders and deacons, with the groups of “active learners” sharing their thoughts on what scripture means to their group and to their individual faith journeys.
The sermon-as-conversation format often leads to worshipers asking questions of Andrew as pastor. That can leave him feeling “a little bit on the spot” because he doesn’t know what the questions will be. But he likes how that vulnerability shows the entire congregation that everyone — including the pastor — is a learner.
The discussion format often results in church members talking about the sermon into the next week, not just on Sunday. The responses Andrew has received about the discussions have been overwhelmingly positive, including from visitors to the congregation.
Martha says that the sermon-as-conversation approach enhances the sense of community inside a worship space, with people in different pews turning to speak to each other.
“The people in the pews have the gifts and education to share their input,” Andrew says. “It’s a reminder to members that pastors don’t have all the answers.” He and Martha discuss how everyone at a church should see themselves as engaged in ministry.
Martha points out that the discussion format can be used outside worship settings, including during session meetings, Sunday school classes or church coffees. “We as church leaders have responsibilities to dive into the scripture and to listen for ways that God may be speaking to us.”
“Sometimes we have to try something different,” Andrew says, and not be afraid to be vulnerable or take risks.
Email Andrew Miller directly for specifics about the sermon-as-conversation approach.