Union On The Hill Pictures

Union On The Hill Pictures

Gay Bars & Drag Queens

Gay Bars & Drag Queens


By Ryan Phipps

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
— Benjamin Franklin

A few weeks back, I was invited to the launch party of a new talk show written and produced by a friend of mine.

The venue, called “Hardware” in Hell’s Kitchen, was an interesting place. Though it’s listed as a gay bar on Yelp, I was unaware until I got there that it’s also one of the hottest spots in the city for drag shows.

I grabbed a drink at the bar and thought to myself, “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

The place was packed, standing room only (an introvert’s nightmare). I found a group of mutual friends along the wall and did my best to disappear in the shadows.

The house lights went down and my friend appeared on stage to a roar of applause.

As I stood along the wall sipping some syrupy concoction of four dollar rum and punch, he said some opening words about the night. He followed it with something I was totally unprepared for. He looked me straight in the eye, extended his hand, and said, “I’m so happy my pastor is here tonight.”

People started looking around the room, and this bald, unkempt, straight, white, 40-something felt his face flush.

The first episode that premiered that night was insightful, heartwarming, hilarious, and peppered with just the right amount of crassness. It featured an interview with two well-known NYC drag queens.

I’d never heard stories like theirs before. What’s more, I realized I’d never even applied myself enough in life to be in a context where I could. I laughed, teared up, and gasped as they talked fashion, faith, love, dreams, and everything in between.

I was getting a glimpse into a world I’d never seen before.

As the show ended to a standing ovation and people began to file out of the venue, more than a few drag queens hugged me and thanked me for being there. Some of them were even faces that I recognized from church.

Who knew? I had no idea.

I left the venue that night realizing something I didn’t when I walked in. This marginalized, courageous, beautiful mass of people had welcomed me—the very kind of person that had been the cause of so much of their suffering and marginalization.

I thought about how many times each of these precious children of God had been politely tolerated in (or worse, turned away from) houses of worship by people just like me. And yet, there was not a hint of tolerance or rejection being shown to me in their house—only a welcoming love. It felt like family. It felt like…well…what I want church to feel like for every person who enters.

The festivities finally ended. I walked outside, the words of John’s epistle playing on a loop inside of me.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
— The Apostle John

I hailed a cab, got in, and texted a friend of mine.

“I just left a gay bar and saw my first drag show. What a courageous, beautiful, welcoming group of people. My heart is full.”

I suppose a pastor’s best teachers are often the people they’re pastoring.



Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City. Forefront is a vibrant, growing faith community dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian Faith in New York City and around the world. Ryan also serves as the Director of Communications at Convergence, a parachurch network building a multi-denominational movement of progressive congregations and leaders. In his spare time Ryan can be found at his desk writing for The Huffington Postcomposing music, or designing things.

Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com

Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part II

Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part II


By George Mekhail

(Read Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part I here.) 

Our consumer-centric culture has produced a term you may be familiar with: "Church shopping." Perhaps, like me, you have participated in the practice at some point or another.

Similar to actual shopping, where you might compare the price or quality of a product from one vendor to the next, church shopping is concerned with questions like, “How inspiring are the sermons?” or “How much fun will my kids have?” and even “How large is the congregation?” This development within American Christianity has been widely examined in various blogs and books. For our purposes here, I want to explore how this fuels ambiguity.

In response to the "church shopping" phenomenon, church leaders often adjust to the desires of the church consumer. If they don't, they risk losing "market share," which ultimately sustains their community and their employment. This development in the church world has largely gone unchecked. Rather than church direction and policy being discerned through godly conviction, we've drifted into a sleepy appeasement of the masses, sometimes at the expense of Truth.

In the actual marketplace, there are laws which protect consumers from misleading business practices. For instance, a store cannot advertise a pair of jeans for $50 in the newspaper, while the price in the store is $100. They would be reprimanded, fined and in some cases maybe even sued for false advertising. For a business, so-called “bait and switch” tactics are justifiably against the law.

Churches are unique organizations in America. They are recognized by the IRS under the distinct status of "Tax-Exempt 501(c)(3) Religious Organizations" and enjoy tremendous benefits as a result. In exchange for these tax exemptions, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. From the Catholic Church all the way down to the church plant that meets at your local middle school, churches have received these public subsidies without much scrutiny or question. There is really no accountability that they are earning that subsidy, let alone following basic practices we expect from most other organizations. This is simply the way its always been since the creation of the IRS tax code itself. With these enormous benefits, the average citizen, and even more so those who invest time and resources into these churches, are entitled to a certain level of accountability and clarity. At the very least, the standard of “truthful advertisement” should be as basic of an expectation for churches as it is for businesses.

Beyond the assumed responsibility that comes with tax breaks, churches also have a simple obligation to the God they profess to worship, and the people who belong to the communities they inhabit. As we explored in Part 1, I believe that among the most important of these responsibilities is to clearly communicate the policies they are actively enforcing.

There are over 191,000 Evangelical congregations in America. Many of them are considered "sovereign," "independent" or "non-denominational." The creation of these types of churches has been a mostly positive development for the church world and our constitutional right to freedom of religion. It is critical, therefore, to preserve the rights of these churches and not to limit the creation of new expressions of faith to an institutional process. For instance, it would impede on our freedom of religion if a church could only be started with the blessing of the Pope, or through the charter of a denomination. However, this level of autonomy has also created an environment which is ripe for ambiguous policy and misleading practices. In capitalistic terms, churches lack much needed regulation. Consider the clarity that is inherent in your local Catholic parish. For better or worse, they are governed by one body which is easily discernible and consistent across the entire Catholic world. Case in point, in 2016, Pope Francis declared that divorced Catholics were now allowed to partake in Holy Communion. This policy change was enacted and enforced immediately at every parish around the world as the consistent Catholic policy.

cThis is not the case with independent Evangelical Churches. Policy can vary from local church to local church. More critically, communication of policy can be designed in such a way that would violate the most basic "false advertising" laws in the for-profit world. Why do we allow this to take place in our churches, yet cry foul when such violations occur in the marketplace? Are the stakes not much higher when it comes to spiritual matters? Is a clearly communicated policy an unreasonable expectation?

We'd love to hear your answer to the question "Is Clarity Unreasonable?" - tweet us @togetherthis or email us at info@wearetogetherinthis.com

George is the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation at The Riverside Church in The City of New York.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, George's family immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Growing up as a Coptic Christian before landing at various Evangelical Churches, has helped cultivate a desire for broader inclusivity in the church. His goal is to see the work of Together In This reach a broad audience in Evangelicalism through storytelling, resourcing and advocating for Clarity.


Who Sinned That He  Doesn’t Have Health Care?

Who Sinned That He Doesn’t Have Health Care?


by Robb Ryerse


It’s a classic story on the Sunday school circuit: Jesus and his disciples are walking one day and see a man begging on the side of the road, a man who had been born blind. The disciples take this opportunity to ask Jesus a gossipy question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question betrays a common belief at the time, namely that sickness was the result of sin. If someone had a debilitating disease of some kind, someone had to be responsible for it. Maybe his parents had done something which caused the blindness. Maybe the man himself had sinned in some way, bringing on the ailment.

Either way, the man was sick and it was his or his family’s fault.

When we read this now, we probably think, “Aren’t Jesus’ disciples so quaint?” We look back with bemusement that people would think that someone’s health was directly tied to their character. Do the right thing and be healthy. Do the wrong thing and be sick. We know now that it’s just not that straightforward and simple.


Recently, Congressman Jason Chaffetz suggested that people who cannot afford health insurance under the proposed plan that repeals and replaces the Affordable Care Act will have to make a choice between buying health insurance and buying a new iPhone. It was a regrettable comment for a number of reasons, and Chaffetz has subsequently tried to walk it back.

However, Chaffetz’s comment betrays a common belief of our time, namely that poor people can’t afford health insurance because they have sinned. Being poor is a sin. Whether they would say it outright or not, many believe that people are poor because they lack discipline, they are lazy, or they don’t have enough faith. Sin is the cause.

In the politicized evangelical world, it is not uncommon to hear people who receive government assistance disparaged, “The Bible clearly say, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat.’” Obviously, someone who would be so foolish as to buy a new iPhone rather than health insurance has sinful priorities or some kind of character deficiency.

Who sinned that you don’t have health care? It’s either your fault or your family’s.


Getting back to the biblical story about the man born blind, Jesus completely rejects the premise of the disciples’ question. His answer is unequivocal – neither are to blame. And then, Jesus, rather dramatically, covers the man’s eyes in mud made from his own spit and sends him off to wash it clean and be healed from his blindness.

There are two significant things we can learn from the example of Jesus in this story.

First, we need to stop blaming poor people who can’t afford health care. 

Sure, there are unquestionably people who are lazy and undisciplined. However, poverty in America is far more complicated an issue. Generational poverty, income inequality, rural underdevelopment, and lack of access to education and opportunity are all much more likely reasons for someone to be unable to pay health insurance premiums. Not being able to afford health care is not a sin problem. Jesus didn’t judge people needing health care, and so neither should we.

Second, if Jesus took responsibility for other people’s health care, then so should we. 

Jesus didn’t just see people in need and pass them by. Over and over again, the Bible tells us stories of how he did what he could to help, which often meant miraculous healing (which isn’t going to be an option for us). But many evangelicals I know tend to shirk taking responsibility for others, emphasizing instead the notion of “personal responsibility.” And yet the example of Jesus – a willingness to take responsibility for other people’s health care – might very well mean that we prioritize people’s health care over lower taxes.

Far from being a cute Sunday school story, maybe this story has one deeply relevant and radical message. Evangelical Christians need to take their cues not from political leaders but from Jesus.

Robb is the founding pastor of Vintage Fellowship in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the author of "Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn't Lose My Faith." 

He blogs at robbryerse.com


Beauty From Ashes

Beauty From Ashes


Meditations For Lent


Forefront Church is an interdenominational faith community in New York City, dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian faith. Learn more about Forefront here.


Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part I

Is Clarity Unreasonable? Part I


By George Mekhail

There are a variety of expressions of Evangelical churches in America, ranging from extremely “conservative” to socially “liberal”. The assumptions that are often made about churches tend to generalize them as similar to one another. This assumption ignores the “independent” nature of these churches.

Which ones believe in the Trinity?

Which ones provide fun environments for kids?

Which ones will baptize my Gay brother?

You may have noticed that the 3rd question stands out for many reasons. The biggest difference is that this question addresses policy. What I've observed in my experience, and through the stories I've heard has led me to believe this nuance for clarity is essential. Whether motivations for ambiguity are innocent or malicious, is not the question nor do I presume to know anyone's intent. Beliefs and approaches to scripture is not the question. Simple bottom line organizational policy is what we’re talking about. Policies which are currently enforced. Will your church hire at lesbian woman? Will your pastoral team officiate a wedding for a gay couple? Is a woman allowed to preach/teach at your church?

These are the types of questions that I believe churches have an obligation to answer directly, proactively and with clarity. Unfortunately, many churches neglect to make these simple disclosures when it comes to the policies that they are actively enforcing. As a result of this ambiguity, many individuals unknowingly attend, invest and become members of churches under false pretenses and misleading rhetoric.

To be clear (<—word of the day), this shift in my approach includes the acknowledgement that I have been unfair in the past towards churches who are NOT "open and affirming". I addressed this during my message on Sunday at EastLake, but its worth repeating here. For the times I have harshly criticized these churches, I am sorry. I hope that my newfound posture can contribute to a much needed solution for our divisions. See, I'm beginning to respect churches on either side of the theological spectrum who are simply clear. When it comes to LGBTQ inclusion for instance; if your church believes in a traditional view of scripture and you hold that marriage is between one man and one woman - fantastic! I still disagree with you, but as long as you have been explicit that this position means you will not baptize, hire or marry members of the LGBTQ community, then I can respect your conviction and appreciate your clarity. If your church, however, touts mantras such as "all are welcome", and does nothing to explicitly clarify your policies, I believe this creates too much opportunity for people to be mislead, and potentially hurt. As I continue to engage with pastors on both sides of the theological spectrum, I’m finding that we have common ground on this matter. Pastors who disagree with my theological convictions, have acknowledged and agreed with the diagnosis of ambiguity as a real problem. Others agree, and are struggling to know how to move forward towards clarity. I want to engage with pastors in both categories. I believe that Together In This can be a resource to assist these churches move towards clarity - regardless of where they land.

Clear policy is the bottom line. Specifically, policies that impact real human beings. For our purposes, it is of little value to seek clarity on a church's "beliefs" or their "theological positions". While such questions can be interesting for some, they are less harmful than an ambiguous policy. If your pastor believes in penal substitutionary atonement theory, no one is going to be harmed in a scenario where this is potentially misunderstood after months or years of faithful membership. However, a gay man who has heard nothing but "loving and welcoming" rhetoric for months or years of faithful investment in the life of a church, is a much different scenario. If this man eventually puts his guard down in such a setting, he stands to be humiliated, shamed and hurt once he learns that his church will not baptize him or affirm his relationships. The latter example can be avoided with simple, up-front clarity of policy.

I want to emphasize that this isn’t a call for churches to CHANGE their policies or theological constructs. This is about the policies which already exist at every church, whether they are communicated or not. Pastors and church leaders have to make decisions every day as to who they will baptize, who they will hire, who they will allow to preach, etc. Policies already exist and they are enforced. Since that is the case, my question is whether or not people should know and understand these policies and how they are being enforced. If the idea of clarity matters at all, it must be understood by ordinary people like us who attend, support and invest in these churches. We must first decide if the desire for a clearly communicated policy is in fact a reasonable expectation.


George is the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Innovation at The Riverside Church in The City of New York.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, George's family immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. Growing up as a Coptic Christian before landing at various Evangelical Churches, has helped cultivate a desire for broader inclusivity in the church. His goal is to see the work of Together In This reach a broad audience in Evangelicalism through storytelling, resourcing and advocating for Clarity.


Letting Go & Letting Come

Letting Go & Letting Come


By Joshua Adam Scott

This year I created a litany for our Ash Wednesday gathering at MCC. I felt compelled to do this, because many of the confessions that are available (to my knowledge) tend to be anti-human. They play into a negative and unhelpful theology that says being human is a bad thing. Yet, in the scriptures, God calls being human good! I’m more and more convinced that bad theology creates bad anthropology. When we misunderstand who we are, and how God sees us, that can lead to toxic theologies that don’t contribute to our healing, wholeness, and flourishing.  

Our problem isn’t that we are human; our problem is that, often, we treat one another in ways that are subhuman. Gossip, hate, greed, and all of the negative and painful ways we can live, aren’t examples of just “being human.” Instead, they are examples of things that happen when we live beneath our humanity. So, below is the text we used during our gathering last Wednesday evening. I wanted to create a sense of acknowledging the ways we’ve lived sub-humanly, and then also opening ourselves to what could be, if we choose, with God’s help, to live into the fullness of our humanity.  

Note: The underlined text is intended to be read corporately. 


Our Source and Ground of Being,
In you we live, move, and exist.
In your image we have been made.
You celebrate the goodness of our humanity,
and call us to live fully and love deeply.

Yet, today we confess that, in many ways,
we choose to live beneath our good humanness.
In things we have done, and things we have left undone,
we have neglected our calling to be your image bearers
to all of creation.

We confess, Lord.
We have dehumanized others by refusing to love them, by gossiping about them, and by making fun of them.

We confess, Lord.
We have dug our heels into us versus them thinking that makes it easy to condemn entire groups of people that we do not know.

We confess, Lord.
We have been reactionary, allowing fear to control us and dictate our actions.

We confess, Lord.
We have sought an eye for an eye, instead of loving our enemies.

We confess, Lord.


We have closed our ears to the cries of the poor and oppressed,
the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow among us.

We confess, Lord.

We have been greedy, and in our lust for more we have closed our eyes to all the opportunities to share out of our abundance with the hungry, the naked, and the stranger who are in need.

 We confess, Lord.
We have failed to steward creation responsibly, thinking only of ourselves and not of future generations, or the One who gifted us such a beautiful world.

 We confess, Lord.
And in the process, we have dehumanized ourselves.

We have willingly defined ourselves as consumers, and taken our identity and worth from how much money we have or what we possess, instead of grounding our identity in our calling to bear your image.

We confess, Lord.
We have been hypocritical, judgmental, and angry;
All of these are destructive, not only to others, but also to ourselves.

We confess, Lord.
We have used our religion as a weapon of exclusion, 
instead of building a bigger table for all.

We confess, Lord.

Give us eyes to see,
ears to hear,
and hearts that are open.

Let it be, Lord.
May we live into the fullness of our humanity,
the humanity that you called “good.”

Let it be, Lord.

May we live with hands open in generosity toward God,
our neighbor, and even our enemy.

 Let it be, Lord.
May we take seriously the call of Jesus to embrace our crosses, 
instead of seeking crosses for our enemies.

Let it be, Lord.
May we steward the earth, and our brief lives here, with gratitude and care.

Let it be, Lord.
May we tune our hearts to the music of the Spirit, 
following her lead as we take the next right step on our journey.

Let it be, Lord.
May we live lives that imitate Jesus, being broken and poured in love for others.

Let it be, Lord.
May we practice resurrection, here and now.

Let it be, Lord.
May we experience the full and abundant life, 
to which Jesus invites us, here and now.

And everybody said,


Josh began vocational ministry in 1997, and has been on staff at MCC since March 2005. Shortly after moving to Morgantown he married Carla, and they have an amazing son, Cohen. Josh has an MA in Religious Studies from Western Kentucky University, and he also has a B.A. from Eastern Kentucky University. In addition, he teaches religion courses at both Western Kentucky University and SKY KCTCS. Some of his favorite things are: spending time with his family, watching The Office, drinking good coffee, and cheering for the West Virginia University football team. You can follow his thoughts on his blog.

Source: https://joshuaadamscott.com/2017/03/03/letting-go-letting-come-an-ash-wednesday-litany/


She Is Ordained

She Is Ordained


By Vanessa Ryerse

I grew up in Fundamentalist Christianity, and that tradition does not allow women to be ordained or to have a leadership role that would result in women teaching men.  I am not a part of this tradition any more and have not been for more than a decade.  I find myself wondering at times what my life might have looked like if I had not been required to take such a scenic route to my life's work, but ultimately I come back to a place of gratitude for my journey.  I married into ministry because that was the only on-ramp there was for me, and I "so happened" to marry a truly egalitarian man who never bought into the constraints placed on women, even in the early days when we were both committed fundamentalists.  I always served shoulder to shoulder with my husband in our churches, even in a church that tried very hard to limit my involvement, telling me they didn't expect a "two for one deal."  I suppose that was honorable of them, but those years were frankly miserable because I was cut off from what mattered most to me: tending to the well-being and health of the church.  Back then, I wormed my way into being church secretary just to stay as close to the action as I could. 

Nothing pleases me quite as much as accurate words. I long for a specificity that must be exhausting for people around me to watch me snatching at. In the years while we planted Vintage, it was always awkward to find a word or phrase that expressed what I was in the church, and my people struggled with me. They introduced me to their friends as "My Pastor's wife. But more than that. My friend. And also....Kind of my pastor too."  I chalked it up to the ever-bizarre role of being a pastor's wife, which always seemed to me to be only really like a First Lady in its level of involvement. But in time, and after a variety of experiences where words failed me, I came to the realization that the reason the words "Pastors Wife" didn't accurately describe me was because I was more than that and always had been.  It would be another three years before I could put meat on the bones of that realization

The church has a tradition of recognizing people who stand out in their midst for their ability and calling to lead them.   The process of ordination is different in various denominations and has various levels of intensity.  Many mainline denominations like Episcopalians, Anglicans, etc. require formal training in a seminary to be ordained, while most "low church" gatherings only require the ability to successfully navigate an ordination council convening with them to examine their life and doctrine.  In my case, based on my twenty years of experience serving the church,  my requirements were to present a paper citing my belief system and a defense of that paper in an exam that was lovingly dubbed "a witch trial" by my charming congregants.  A small group consisting of a three teachers and two former pastors served as my ordination council.  They reviewed my paper and prepared follow-up questions which I answered in a public forum. When their questions were exhausted, the public crowd was allowed to ask some questions. That was a fun night!   I didn't know the questions ahead of time, so just before hand, I got nervous and started cramming, but once the questions started coming, I was just having fun.  The council recommended my ordination to the Oversight Team that serves like trustees, deacons or elders of Vintage and they formalized the ordination with an installation service. 

I'm fond of exaggeration to prove a point, but I use no hyperbole when I say that the day of my service will live in my memory on par with my wedding day.  My husband and children were fully supportive and present.  A friend from a former church came for the weekend to celebrate with us, and a series of video greetings took my breath away with their words of confirmation, encouragement, excitement and participation.

For many years, I joked that if I ever met Brian McLaren in person, I would punch him in the face.  His book A New Kind of Christian was the match that lit the fuse that exploded our life as fundamentalists. The resulting destruction sent us hurling into life in Arkansas with a house in foreclosure and my imagined future burned to the ground. Not even my irony-loving soul could have guessed that a few years later, Brian would be sending a greeting, speaking words of blessing and confirmation not to my accomplished husband, but to me, as a pastor in my own right.

My fellow enneagram 4, Mark Scandrette sent a message, giving me the beautiful phrase, "spiritual midwife" as a description of my calling.  Mark has been a friend for years now, and his books have helped us give birth to new ways of thinking and gathering.  But maybe most important to me, Mark has always talked to me as an equal, even before I realized my own calling.  In all our visits, he included me in the conversation.  This might not seem like much, and I suspect he didn't even know he was doing it, but for a girl who grew up in the shadow of men, being included and welcomed into theological conversation about the life of the church meant a great deal to me. 

The room lit up when Jerusalem Greer appeared onscreen.  Not only is she a friend of Vintage, she is a role model, a source of joy and inspiration, and a personal friend.  This Preacher Lady, author and fellow Arkansan caught my eye years ago at a conference and I quietly began stalking her blog.  There is no doubt that her simply being Jerusalem made space for me to crash through the glass ceiling in my mind.  I finally let her in on the secret that I am "totally picking up what she is putting down" when she came to speak at Vintage a year ago.  I played nicely with others and shared her with my friends, but hearing her heart and just chatting for a short time told me that this was a sister, a colleague, a companion on a journey that I needed.  Our lives in the work of church prevent us from all the time it would take to have all the conversations that reveal all the ways we would end up saying, "Me too!"   But sometimes you just know a member of "the tribe that knows Joseph."  Go read her new book. Get to know her.  She's delightful. 

My high school English teacher went on to become an Anglican priest and was recently ordained herself. What was the mad respect of a student for one of the best teachers ever has bloomed into a grown-up friendship.  Her greeting reminded me to "listen, listen, listen," which is really to love my role as student like I reveled in being a student in her classroom years ago.  A private chat later revealed that we share a love for some of the same authors and for the exquisite beauty and reverence of liturgy.  When someone who has known you as one kind of person but makes room for you in their imagination to be something else, that is a special grace. 

My college roommate is one of the most generous souls I have ever known.  She is a world of kindness and still has the best sense of humor, which is a rare combination. She rejoiced with us, spoke such wise and loving words to our church, and was the single person to recognize my husband for the role he played in being the kind of man who actively encourages his wife to  have her share of what he has enjoyed all these years without the slightest hint of insecurity.  She noticed and she rejoiced. Not everyone who "knew me when..."  can or did or would be so excited with me.  This too is grace. 

And then my siblings showed up like an Army of Enthusiasts.  My sister-in-law, Cathy, who is as loyal as Samwise Gangee and fifty times as strong and brave. My brother, who hinted at the feeling of a wedding again when he toasted me as "high voodoo princess" followed by my sister, whom I adore for so many things, not the least of which is being Nadia Bolz Weber's doppleganger in appearance, strength, and vocabulary. Finally, my youngest sister brought down the house with a custom remixed tune played on her ukelele. (Her original debut album was just released by the way.) They have known me the longest. They have the most reasons to call my ordination a joke.  But instead, they showed up with support, love, laughter, and song.

The ordination council and Oversight Team laid hands on me and prayed over me after presenting me with my framed certificate, and tears fell down the protective glass.  These people believe in me, recognize me, support me and agree with what the Holy Spirit has brought about.  They are the witnesses, willing to invest their time and energy in formalities, recognition and a thirteen page paper to boot. 

They join me in recognizing more than anything that people who have left a narrow Christianity behind are still going to need a pastor.  People who can't go to a church that teaches that only men have a calling to teach need a pastor.  People who can't sit under a pastor whose teaching bears the ugly, poison fruit of authoritarianism and abuse are going to need a pastor.  People who celebrate an end to slavery and the end of inequality as equal progress are going to need a pastor.   People who look another person in the eye and don't mentally categorize them as "dangerous" are going to need a pastor.  People who have released their own mental idols of how God has to act are going to need a pastor. People who have studied scripture for more than fifteen minutes without wearing patriarchy-tinted glasses are going to need a pastor.  They will need a pastor who believes that when we pray "Your Kingdom come"  it doesn't mean we keep acting like the Kingdom will be split into traditional gender roles for all of eternity.

And I am that pastor.

I am a wife and mother of four children, three biological, and one adoptive. All of them have been surprises, but maybe the last one, a decade younger than her siblings, was the biggest surprise.   I am an introvert, a coffee-drinker and a thinker.  I am rebellious, relentless and creative in my hope for a world that actually is what it should be, physically and spiritually, which has led me to the work of planting a church with my husband, finding and selling vintage items to redeem and making broken china mosaics. It makes me unhappy when something is ugly, but I prefer ugly and honest to anything that is fake. I believe that God has broad shoulders and bottomless grace and that He is drawing us all toward the best that is to come. 

They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

By Paula Stone Williams

Our family didn’t come together until the days after Christmas, which is pretty typical for a ministry family.  Cathy and I were alone for a relaxing Christmas Day.  During the afternoon I began reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior, and finished it a little after midnight.

Glennon wrote about having been taught the word for woman in Genesis was a word meaning “helper.”  She was surprised to learn the word actually meant strong and benevolent.  It profoundly shifted her perspective.  The most striking paragraph in the book appears shortly thereafter:

While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope.  They keep showing up for their lives and their people with the odds stacked against them and the weight of the world on their shoulders.  They never stop singing songs of truth, love, and redemption in the face of hopelessness.  They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless co-creators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing.”

The passage made me think of several of my friends and family, though not of my self.  There are aspects of womanhood not assignable to me.  I have not spent decades as a female, taking in all of the subtle and not so subtle signals about acceptable behavior.  I have not given birth, nor have I been the primary caretaker of children.  However, now that more of my time is spent with mothers, I am beginning to understand the overwhelming truth of her paragraph.

As I have said many times, there is no way an educated white American male can know how much the culture is tilted in his favor.  He cannot know because it is all he has known.  I got a job as a radio station disc jockey at 16.  I thought everyone had those kinds of opportunities.  It did not occur to me that none of the girls in my school were offered similar jobs.  I was offered a university scholarship in broadcasting.  No female classmates were offered a broadcasting scholarship.  I had done precious little to earn my privilege other than having been born a white male, into a family of relative privilege.

Recently I watched the movie Hidden Figures, about three brilliant African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s.  The three were critical to the success of America’s earliest manned space flights.  In this powerful film you catch a tiny glimpse of how difficult life was for women in the 1960s, especially women of color.  I thought about how much things have changed, but lamented how much they remain the same.

After we watched the movie, my daughter-in-law, who is Indian, talked about how often she must fight for her rights as a woman of color.  Until a few years ago I would have had no frame of reference to understand her struggle.  Even today I can only understand in small measure what she has experienced on a daily basis.  The same is true of Jael, the daughter Cathy and I adopted from India when she was two months of age.  I am only beginning to understand how difficult her life was in the very white world we inhabited.

I cried when the protagonist in the movie is helped by a white man of power.  If it had not been for the kindness of one straight white male, Mark Tidd, I question if I ever would have preached again.  I understand the difference an ally can make, especially when that ally comes from the world of the empowered.

Limited as it is, I am grateful for my newfound understanding.  I am grateful I can now see a little bit of what women have gone through for millennia.  I can better appreciate the description of mothers provided by Glennon Doyle Melton.

As someone no longer in a position of cultural power, I do not know how much I can do to elevate the status and influence of women in our culture, but I will try.  These are perilous times for women and minorities.  We were so close to placing a mother in the most powerful position on earth – so close.  But as that goal fades from our immediate view, we must work as never before to challenge the grip of misogyny that still holds America, and replace it with the kind of understanding so beautifully worded in the pages of Love Warrior.

For 35 years I worked with the Orchard Group, a church planting ministry in New York. For most of that time I was Chairman and CEO.  For 12 years I served as a weekly columnist and Editor-At-Large for Christian Standard, a leadership magazine.   I was also a teaching pastor for two megachurches.  Those responsibilities ended when I transitioned to live as Paula.

I currently serve as a pastoral counselor, church and non-profit consultant, writer and speaker.

I am a runner, hiker, and avid mountain biker.  The first two are relatively safe.  The third, not so much.  Still, I pedal.  Cathy and I have been together for 42 years.  She is a retired public school teacher and a practicing psychotherapist.  We have three children and five grandchildren.

You may contact me at paula@rltpathways.com.

What Jesus Says About Prisoners

What Jesus Says About Prisoners


By Doug Pagitt


“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Parent is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

Matthew 5:43-48


Three weeks ago I was in jail. It was a difficult and unnerving and life-changing experience. 

I was part of an action to protest our country’s policy of killing people held in custody, which I believe is morally wrong and against rule of law.

In short, I was one of 18 people who held a banner on the steps of the United States Supreme Court that read STOP EXECUTIONS. That act precipitated the Supreme Court Police placing me and 17 others under arrest for “Parading, Assemblages and Displaying” on Supreme Court Property. 

I was in the custody of the Supreme Court Police, the Washington, D.C. Police, and the United States Marshals for 32 hours. Unlike many of the people who are jailed in this country, I had a pretty good idea that my arrest was coming, and I had planned for it, leaving me with more resilience and resources than many who are arrested. In spite of that, my time in jail was challenging in ways I couldn’t have expected.

To be clear, I was not in prison. I was in custody and central processing in Washington, D.C. I only experienced the start of the process of prison. I have visited prisons and talked with prisoners. My own father was a prisoner. What I experienced was a fraction of what the women and men who are incarcerated for long periods endure.

Though my time was short, the experience left me with a deeper sense of empathy for those arrested and a deeper anger and skepticism toward the system of arrest and confinement we use in the United States. It showed me how embedded the use of power, violence, intimidation, isolation, and dehumanization is to our Criminal Justice System. While there were a few individual officers who were quite humane to me, and I know that those people exist throughout the system, exceptional actions by these few cannot eliminate systemic brutality. 

This system creates a separate category, “criminal,” that allows us to treat citizens, ourselves, as sub-human. And we cannot ignore the fact that the arrest and detainment system is rank with racial and class discriminations, which allows prejudice power. 

What I realized after my arrest and confinement is that awareness of these issues is directly related to one’s contact with the system. Too often those without direct contact simply do not know or notice the conditions that affect their fellow citizens. 

But to be clear, there are a whole lot of us directly impacted by it. According to FBI statistics: “Nationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 10,797,088 arrests in 2015.”  Think about that, nearly 11 million times in 365 days someone was arrested in this country. That is 29,581 arrests per day. More than 1,200 arrests per hour every hour of every day. That is a stunning number of people who have found themselves in contact with the “arrest and detainment system” in the United States.

There are also a huge number of people on the arresting side. There is in excess of 900,000 “sworn law enforcement officers” in the United States who have the ability to arrest and detain a person. 

When you consider the families of those arrested and those doing the arresting you begin to see the scope, the number of people impacted by what is referred to as “the industrial prison complex” in the United States.

Those of us who are not part of the 11 million arrests or the nearly 1 million people doing the arresting may think that the Criminal Justice System does not impact us aside from “keeping us safe,” but I would argue that it makes a indelible mark on the spirit and conscience of our society. As long as the dehumanization of any of our citizens is possible, we are all at risk and implicated. Moreover, our system is adept at creating repeat offenders, which does little to improve safety.

We allow for the dehumanization by categorical distinctions which excuse the mistreatment of people. Those distinctions are present in the way we refer to those who have been in the Criminal Justice System. Notice this week when you hear and use language that reinforces this difference and distinction—words like “criminal,” “convict,” “prisoner,” “felon.” Try instead to see all people as part of the “us” we are called to love and work this week to stop reinforcing the false narratives of us and them and live in the reality of All of Us.

My encouragement for us this week is to consider the teaching of Jesus that “God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” And that we are called to love all the same - enemy and neighbor; those who love us and those who don’t; those who violate our laws and statues and those who don’t.

Let us believe and live as Jesus says: Complete in our love just as our heavenly Parent is complete in showing love to everyone.



What Your Bible Says About The Treatment Of Immigrants

What Your Bible Says About The Treatment Of Immigrants


By Ryan Phipps

Finding the information for this post wasn’t difficult. A simple search on any Bible site or in any Bible software will spit it out this same data for you in a matter of nanoseconds.

Though many Americans identify as Christian, we often cherry pick Bible passages to support what we already believed prior to reading the scriptures in the first place. Many of us don’t read the Bible to be challenged, changed, or deconstructed. We read it to reinforce what we were already thinking.

That’s not good.

This is why I’m always leery of folks who say, “Everything I believe is founded on the scriptures.” Really? Because you’re slurping oysters, eating bloody steak, wearing cotton-poly-blends, devouring pork chops, and working on the Sabbath. According to the scriptures, you are detestable to God. And on that Sabbath bit... oh my... you’re supposed to be put to death.


Believe you me, I do all of these things myself, but I’m not bound by inerrancy and infallibility like you are, so I’m off the hook.

Anyway, below is what the Bible says about the treatment of immigrants.

If you are an inerrant-ist or infallibilit-ist (yeah, those aren’t real words, but you get my point) sorry to flip over your theological canoe, but you’re about to fall into the river.

And mind you, much of this is from the Old Testament, where a God who (in many instances) makes Lovecraft’s Cthulhu seem like a cuddly house pet.

You may already object, “Yeah, but that was the Old Testament. It doesn’t apply anymore.”

Yeah, sure, not until you want to quote it to support the death penalty while simultaneously demonizing women who have painfully, regretfully terminated a pregnancy to stay alive to mother their children that are already living.

Anyway, end of rant. I’ll let scripture do the rest.

Here’s what all Bibles teach about the treatment of immigrants.

From The Old Testament

“The Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49)

“Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other!” (Zechariah 7:10)

“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9)

“You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] father and mother are treated with contempt, and the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you” (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)

“‘I will come to you in judgment, and I will be ready to witness against sorcerers and adulterers; against those who swear falsely; against those who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and cheat the wage earner; and against those who deny justice to the foreigner. They do not fear Me,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 3:5)

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3)

“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

“When you have finished paying the entire tenth part of your produce on the third year—that is the year for paying the tenth-part—you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full” (Deuteronomy 26:12)

From Jesus (You know him, right? God Incarnate?)

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

From The Book Of Hebrews (No one really knows who wrote it, but well, it’s in the Canon).

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)

And from Peter (on whom Christ bestowed the task of building His Church)

“Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11)


Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City.

Forefront is a progressive faith community dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian Faith in New York and around the world.

Ryan also serves as the Director of Communications for Convergence, the umbrella organization comprising The Center for Progressive Renewal, The Open Network, and The Form Network.

Learn more about Forefront Church at forefrontnyc.com.

Learn more about Convergence at convergenceus.org.




By Joe Carson

Trump’s Election Evidences “Progressive” Christians need to be resolute, including redemptive suffering, to the Suicide Machine

I am NOT a Christian religious professional, as are many others in OPEN/Convergence.  So why am I here?

I desire, in obedience to God, to advance the redemption of the world.  In 2016, in my opinion, this entails our unprecedented global civilization sustaining to year 2100, despite the unprecedented challenges it faces.  For this to happen - for our civilization to avoid large-scale, if not near total, collapse in coming decades - I believe that “loving one’s neighbor as oneself,” a central value of Jesus’ Good News, must become the central value in the framing story by which the crew of planet earth stewards our common home and its life support systems, natural and man-made.

Brian McLaren’s 2007 book, “Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (emphasis added),” is what drew me into the Convergence Movement.  It describes our planet’s current systems and framing story as a “suicide machine.”  I agree with that description, given present facts and trends on planet earth, which are also outlined in the book.  (Brian’s most recent book, “The Great Spiritual Migration” continues to use “suicide machine” as a metaphor for our civilization’s current global (dis)order.) 

We call ourselves “progressive.”  An axiom of “progressives” is that trustworthy societal institutions are necessary for a flourishing society.  Donald Trump’s election, just as recent Gallup polls, demonstrate a widespread – and growing - anti-establishment sentiment – a sentiment that also manifested in recent years in things as diverse as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Many people voted for Trump, not because they are racist homophobes, but based on the perception, “The system is rigged - society’s institutions cannot be trusted - they advance the interests of the elites who run them to the detriment of common good.  Government, particularly justice, is bought and paid for by the rich via their corporations.   Trump says he will turn over the money tables, while a vote for Clinton is a vote for the corrupt establishment.”  

This reasoning, to the extent it is valid (and I agree that the elites who run society’s institutions often, if not almost predictably, put their professional standing and economic security ahead of their duty to the common good), is the aspect of Trump’s victory for which “progressive” Christian organizations, in my opinion, should accept some ownership.  Progressive Christianity - just as other “progressive” movements – advocates, indeed presumes, societal institutions, including government agencies and corporations, can be trustworthy vehicles to advance the common good.     

I am now both a “prophet” and “public theologian” in my profession of engineering and federal civil service, secular as both institutions are. Neither is adequately trustworthy at present, in my opinion, for those born in 2017 having a good chance of getting to die a natural death.  I can assure you that “colliding” against institutional evil comes at cost, and I think “progressives” should comport themselves to “redemptive suffering” as a necessary part of advancing and defending a “progressive” agenda against the suicide machine. 

For a quarter-century now I have been in collision – in a “but not through me” non-violent confrontation -  with the suicide machine in my profession of engineering and federal civil service.  How?  Likely you guessed -  by whistleblowing about institutional law-breaking that kills people and confronting, via rule of law, the resultant workplace reprisal. Where is “progressive” Christianity?  My testimony is that it is in the same place as other strands of Christianity – on the sidelines, calling to mind the quotes of Martin Luther King, Jr., "There comes a time when silence is betrayal," and "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Christian progressives, my plea is that our leaders and aligned institutions confront, non-violently, but in a resolute “but not through me” way, the suicide machine by NOT bystanding to: 

1) established legal records of institutional law-breaking, by corporations or government agencies, that harms or kills people.

2) the bystanding of Christians employed by such law-breaking institutions and who (silently) witnessed (if not worse) their law-breaking

3) to well-evidenced claims of such corporation or government agentcy law-breaking

4) to the redemptive suffering – the “suffering persecution for justice’s sake” -  of any Christian (or non-Christian) employed by corporations or government agencies who experience workplace retribution for their non-violent resistance to such institutional evil (i.e. their “whistleblowing” about it). 

I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts via this blog post.  Anyone who knows the particulars of my life knows how privileged (and pleasant) it has been, relative to the vast majority of the 100 billion or so humans who have lived or are alive today.  I even get to hold the privileged/burdensome thought that what I am trying to do via this blog post (as other efforts) may perceptibly “move the needle” for the redemption of the world. 

Joseph Carson, PE, Chairman OSC Watch Steering Committee, multipletime “prevailing” whistleblower in Department of Energy

Yes, Aleppo Is Your Problem.

Yes, Aleppo Is Your Problem.

By Ryan Phipps

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”

(The Gospel of Matthew)



I was taking out the recycling late last evening. Like many buildings in New York, there is a room at the end of the hall on each floor where the residents take their recyclables. There, they separate the paper from the plastic, then the building staff make their rounds and gather it to take out to the street.

There’s a certain ethical code that residents and building staff share. It’s considered rude for residents to leave disposed plastics filled with liquids or food, to discard broken glass, or to leave boxes in the recycling area without disassembling them first.

I try my very best to abide by this code. I feel that this is respectful and part of being a good resident of my building.

Tonight, I found the recycling area on our floor filled with boxes that were not disassembled. I worried that maybe Andrea or the nanny got in a hurry earlier in the day and decided not to abide by the code, so I picked up one of the boxes and looked at the shipping address on it to make sure that they weren’t ours.

When I saw that they weren’t, I thought, “How rude! Why didn’t this person show some consideration to the building staff who take out the garbage? They’re just making more work for someone else! How dare they!”

Then I thought to myself, “Well, not my boxes, therefore not my problem.” So I left the boxes as I found them.

On the way back to the apartment, I heard a voice in my conscience say, “This is exactly how you are responding to what’s going on in Aleppo. You think it’s someone else’s transgression, and therefore not your problem.”

I turned around, walked back to the recycling area, and disassembled the boxes.

Thank God for those boxes.



We are people of feeling. We are people of conscience. We give love, we receive love, but we often fail to really feel another’s pain by placing ourselves in their shoes.

Why? Because it hurts. It takes work.

We share shocking images of all that’s going on in Aleppo with our opinions housed in the captions on social media, and in doing so, we feel (strangely) absolved, as if we’ve done our part by clicking “share, post, or tweet.”

Thus, the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy is inactive. Empathy is active.

My spouse sent me this video the minute it was released and said, “This is what the church ought to be busy with.” And she’s right.

But all too often, we, the church of the glorious West are too busy managing our own Christian comforts. Did I like the sermon? Did the music give me tingles? Was the coffee good? Was my seat comfortable? Was the sanctuary at the right temperature?

We pray our prayers, we read our books, and wonder why God doesn’t feel close any longer, so we just keep scavenging for the Divine in all the same places.

Here’s a thought.

Maybe God isn’t close in those moments where we’re all wrapped up in the spiritual circus that is Western Evangelicalism.

Maybe God is over there where all the pain is.



Like the ethical code of recycling in my building, there’s also certain ethical code to being human.

We are to look out for each other. We are our brother’s keeper.

We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to oppression and suffering, but we shouldn’t just stare at it without getting involved either. The staring ought to tug at that spot deep within us- that spot from which we fall in love, hurt for another, and feel things that are far deeper than superficial comforts.

Prayer is good. We should be praying for the people of Aleppo, but if all our praying doesn’t move us to act in compassion, then what avails it?


P.S. - Our family has decided that the best way we can help those suffering in Aleppo is by lending support with our dollars to organizations who are fighting the good fight there. If you are moved to do so, here are some organizations doing good work there, right now.

Doctors Without Borders

The White Helmets

Oxfam International

International Committee of the Red Cross

Save The Children

P.P.S. - I also highly recommend taking a look at this article that is filled with other ways that you can help. 

Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City, a vibrant, growing faith community dedicated to cultivating a just and generous expression of the Christian Faith in New York and around the world. He also serves as the National Communications Director for Convergence, the umbrella organization comprising The Center for Progressive Renewal, The OPEN Network, The FORM Network, and The Catholic Network. Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com

Taking Another Way

Taking Another Way



I have not chosen the easy way.

Following Jesus to the place where I affirm and advocate for my transgender and gay and bisexual and lesbian and queer friends has been one of the most challenging and at times painful things I have ever done. It certainly hasn’t been a “feel-good” path.

And I am not where I am because I don’t really know the arguments against same-sex marriage. A member of my family literally wrote the book on those arguments, and I made them myself for many years. Sincerely, and with a desire to be both faithful and loving.

I am also not here because I think I’m smarter than the Scriptures. I’ve sought a good education in the Bible and theology – from a highly respected conservative seminary – and my respect for the gift God has given us in the Bible has only grown. So has my awareness of the assumptions we bring to it, and I want to do my best to engage what’s been given to us on its own terms rather than mine or anyone else’s.

I do believe I know things now I didn’t know before. I’ve met people, loved them, and lived life alongside them. I’ve realized that many things I once believed are only partial truths – there’s more. And I know there’s more than I know now. The more I learn, the more aware I become of how much I don’t know.

Life was simpler before, and easier. But also smaller.

There are many people I love on the path I chose to leave, and I know they don’t understand. The thirty year old me wouldn’t have understood either. I would’ve thought I understood – that this me was rebellious or at least deceived. That this me had to have lost the faith to stay faithful. There was no other explanation. Looking at where I am now, I would have thought I must have sacrificed truth to emotion.

I get it. I do. Which doesn’t mean it hurts any less to be judged in that way.

I wish those who do not agree or understand could trust my love for Jesus and my relationship with him. I wish they (you?) could continue to trust the work of God you’ve seen in my life all along, even if you can’t understand how it’s brought me here. I wish you could trust the fruit of the Spirit in me – the increasing love, joy, peace, faith. The shalom – wholeness and integration – that has blossomed. The way that as love has grown and expanded in me, fear has diminished.

I wish you could see, but I understand why you can’t.

Just know, it wasn’t the easy way.

Jennifer Ould lives in Chicago, works in theological higher education, and volunteers with Center for Inclusivity, working for peace at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.

With a BA from Tennessee Temple University and an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, her journey has taken her from hardcore fundamentalism through conservative evangelicalism to a much more open faith. She currently serves in leadership and occasionally preaches at Trinity Church in Highland Park, IL.

Read Jennifer's blog at: jennifereould.com

End Time Stories by Nancy Butler: Dear Riverfront; Opening Reflection from Jeff Miner

End Time Stories by Nancy Butler: Dear Riverfront; Opening Reflection from Jeff Miner

About five years ago, I got a call one afternoon from a complete stranger.  She introduced herself as Nancy Butler, founding pastor of Riverfront Family Church in Connecticut.  She told me she’d heard about the church where I minister – LifeJourney Church, Indianapolis – in a roundabout way and thought our churches had a lot of similarities.  She said she felt called to help Progressive Evangelical churches find each other and raise their visibility.  What followed was a wonderful conversation, as we dreamed together about possibilities.

Soon thereafter, Nancy took the lead in creating The Association Of Inclusive Evangelical Churches (TAIEC).  At first, it was just a handful of churches.  But then Nancy heard about Convergence’s vision of creating a similar, larger network, and we had the privilege of participating in the brainstorming meetings that led to the creation of OPEN in the spring of 2015.  For me and my church, it felt like a homecoming – to be in fellowship with likeminded churches, instead of toiling alone.

When I heard about Nancy’s ALS diagnosis, it was a punch in the gut.  But she has navigated through this disease with the same initiative, courage, hope, and grace as I’ve seen in every other area of her life.  Nancy is one of my spiritual heroes.  I will be forever grateful that she helped me and my church connect with a larger movement of God’s Spirit in the world.  “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”  Matthew 25:35.    

-Jeff Miner


Dear Riverfront,

I have decided to go off my feeding tube and vent this week and . . . how should I put it . . . die. I knew my suffering would reach this tipping point and caring for me would become impossibly demanding. What I didn’t know was whether or not God would want me to suck it up for some unseen purpose or end my life this way.

I am a little surprised God is confirming this decision. Nice to know He isn’t a sadist. He is oh so tender right now. He tells me my work is done and it’s the right time to come home. Remember what God told me in my Sure Hands ceiling lift that squeezes me tight? He said, “I gotcha” every time I went up in that lift. I missed that feeling when I had to switch to a sling a few weeks ago. After I made this decision to stop the feeding tube feedings, I was cruising from my bedroom to my bathroom in the usual uncomfortable slump, head hanging down, wrists tied up with scarves, when God reassured me. Just as the mythical stork carries a newborn into this world in a sling, I am going to carry you out of it.

This feels like God’s timing because family had already made plans to visit overThanksgiving. I have been able to bask in the noon sun nearly every day this warm fall.  Last Friday, I enjoyed an extra long time in the sun and sensed this would be my last time communing with nature. Sure enough, I couldn’t get out Saturday and the weather turned with my intentions on Sunday.

The scripture that keeps coming to mind is the story of Jesus puttingcompassion before rules. In Luke 14, the religious leaders give Jesus a hard time for breaking their Sabbath rule and healing on the Sabbath. He explains why—compassion. He said, who among you would not immediately pull your ox or your child out of a pit, even if it was the Sabbath? After considering my situation over and over again, asking God for wisdom, I kept coming to the same conclusion. I am choosing compassion. So, I am filled with peace, resolve, and a last minute surge of energy to pen these words.

I long to be with you every Sunday. I have no idea how it will be on the other side, but if my spirit can join you on Sunday mornings, I will! Here is what I would do in my new body. Get here at 9:30 am so I can participate in FamilyTime. Jen, you know how much I miss being with you at FamilyTime! Of course, I would be up front with the kiddancers and Doodle praising God through dancing and singing. I would probably be frustrated I can’t do the word segment myself. I would laugh at Seamus, the famous Scottish rapper. I would relish the spontaneity and honesty of our children and be surprised every week. I would not make small talk in between services. Instead, I think I will play and talk with my grandchildren alongside Greg. I am tempted to join the Worship band, but I think I will simply raise my hands and bask in God’s warmth and light.

During boring parts of the service I will be impish.  I might wag my finger at Greg for playing on his phone instead of listening. I will pick up Arunan’s guitar pick and whisper good job while I am at it. I will give Liza a long hug. I will freak Colin out by touching his elbow. I will peer through Rich’s camera lens with him and share his joy. I will high five Amy. Which one? Both! I will give Tiffany a thumbs up for being a good pastor’s wife. That joke never gets old. I will pat Ben on the back and remind him we love him just the way he is, he doesn’t have to pretend. Also, God is well pleased with his service. I will ask the Holy Spirit to come teach and touch Willa. I will applaud when Kris’ daily conversations with God spill out into a new power in his service.

Back to the service. When truth is proclaimed, I will shout, “Preach it!!!”  When the message lacks the preparation of prayer and obedience, I will grab a hook and drag you off to go back to your prayer closet. Hehe.  I will tap shy people who experienced God to share during testimony time. I will finally memorize the common purpose that I wrote.

Riverfront, you are one of a kind. Draw your strength from your prayer closet and fulfill your calling. I love you more than words can hold.

Your Pastor Nancy


Thankful Realism

Thankful Realism


By Ryan Phipps

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.

Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln


On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I score as an INTJ.

In nutshell, this means that I am energized by being alone, I am ruthlessly pragmatic, and I am constantly tormented by all the things in the world that are not working as they should (or could) be.

Being thankful is difficult for me. It feels unproductive. It feels like a waste of time and energy.

Why should I pause to be thankful when so much of the world is still broken?

The truth is, the more we fix in the world, the more we uncover other layers that need fixing. It is (to crib Weber) like, “the slow boring of hard boards.”


As I continue to age, I’ve learned to accept the “usefulness” of being thankful for the things in my life.

Some of them are little things:
- that point where my laughter becomes uncontrollable
- the perfect cup of coffee
- discovering a book that I know I will read more than once
- my children hugging my legs when I walk in the door
- a pub that has Boddington’s on tap

Some of them are larger things:
- a friend’s surgery that was successful
- being a part of a church family that is committed to a life beyond their own wellbeing
- laws that uphold the freedom of expression
- organizations that care for the poor and the marginalized
- Mandela, King, Douglass, Carter- and yes, Lincoln

It’s important to take time to pause and look up from the screen, the lathe, or the plow, and acknowledge the good that has been accomplished by our efforts.


It’s also important to thank those who helped us along the way.

There is great power in “thank you.”

If you don’t believe me, try it over the holidays.

Stop whatever it is you’re busy with at the moment, turn to someone in your life, look them straight in the eye and say, “thank you for ____________.”

Depending on their personality, they’ll either light up or become uncomfortable, but that’s okay. The words will sink in. There will be a quickening and bond that you will sense beneath the surface of the the visible world.

This is the power of “thank you.”

It says, “I see you. I acknowledge you. You matter. I noticed what you did.”


Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation is a good example of “thankful realism.”

He is, without apology highlighting all that is still broken, but he’s also saying that we need to pause and be thankful for all that has been improved.

His words are as relevant to us today as they were in 1863.

There is still a lot of work to be done in our country and in our world, but there’s also a lot of good that has been accomplished.

So we will keep working, making frequent stops along the way to rest the engines. We’ll look at the road behind us and those standing beside us, thankful for the entirety of the journey.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City where serves as the primary teacher and visionary overseeing the direction of the congregation and equipping the staff.

Ryan also serves as the National Communications Director for Convergence, the umbrella organization comprising The Center for Progressive RenewalThe Open Network, and The Form Network.

In his spare time, Ryan can be found at his desk writing for the Huffington Post.

Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com

You can email Ryan here.


The Paradox Of Pastoring

The Paradox Of Pastoring


By Ryan Phipps


I had a few meetings last week that went like this:

Meeting 1: 
“I love you, Ryan, but I’ve decided to leave the church. I’m just not excited about my faith anymore. My small group feels dead. I also don’t like your sermons. Nothing that you say ever applies to my life and I don’t feel like I’m growing spiritually.”

Meeting 2: 
“I am so lucky to have found this church. My small group is one of the most life-giving bunches of people I’ve ever gotten to know. Your sermons on Sunday are amazing. It’s like you’re up there talking directly to me about what I’m going through in my life. I’ve never felt myself growing so much spiritually.”

Meeting 3: 
“Social justice! My God, that’s all this church ever talks about! Can we please get through a Sunday service without having to address the rights of the LGBTQ community or some other minority? I just want to study The Bible!”

Meeting 4: 
“Why doesn’t this church care more about social justice? What about minority groups who feel alone and are struggling? Why don’t we ever talk about that at church?”

Some of you may have laughed when you read those accounts. Others of you may have groaned. Both responses are completely appropriate.

We pastors straddle a strange craft.

We have the high calling of helping people make sense of a life that, for the most part feels like a pendulum that never stops swinging between extremes. (And lest we forget, we live our own lives on the same pendulum).

When I was a younger bloke in this line of work, I would take praise and criticism far too seriously. I’d spend weeks stewing over things, trying to find a way to make good things even better, or how to make people in my congregation happy with me who weren’t.

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s clerical inertia, but over the years I’ve learned to just embrace the paradox for what it is. Heck, I’ve even learned to see the paradox as a sign of good leadership.

The truth that young ministers are never told in the early years is that if you’re doing a good job as a pastor you’re going to make a lot of people happy. You’re also going to piss a lot of people off.

And that is okay.

This is normal.

This is the job you signed up for and took the vows to do.

A lot of our disappointments and doldrums have to do with our egos. We may think that we have the answers that everyone is seeking, but we don’t. Answers don’t come from us. They come from the God who lives in the people that we sit with, talk to, preach for, and pray with. We must do a better job of helping people tap into that instead of promising them answers by pursuing external things... evenif those external things are our churches.

The wise, old wandering sage, Lao Tzu said it this way in his magnum opus, “The Tao Te Ching.”

“Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Just do your work, then step back. This is the only path to serenity.”

The apostle Paul said something similar in his letter to the church in Galatia when he wrote:

“Am I trying to please people? If I was, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Neither of these spiritual giants were being apathetic when they wrote these important words.

What they were saying is that we should work diligently, faithfully, and with compassion, while not being disquieted if the fruits of our labors don’t result in our approval.

We must learn to work without clinging. We must learn to give counsel without grasping for control. We must learn to love more completely. That’s the primer of this odd line of work.

Whatever season you are in in your pastorship, remember that you are up to good work, even if it’s confusing at times.

When you doubt yourself, that’s okay.

When you think you’re saving the world, you’re not.

You’re just a pixel, and your pixel matters. So just be faithful with it.

Some will love you. Others will despise you. Love them anyway.

You serve the people under your care the very best when you serve God to the uttermost.

So hold your chin up. Be ready for lots of hugs and lots of insults. They will come in waves.

This means that you’re doing a good job.



Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, New York City where serves as the primary teacher and visionary overseeing the direction of the congregation and equipping the staff.

Ryan also serves as the National Communications Director for Convergence, the umbrella organization comprising The Center for Progressive RenewalThe Open Network, and The Form Network.

In his spare time, Ryan can be found at his desk writing for the Huffington Post.

Learn more about Ryan at ryanphipps.com

You can email Ryan here.

Processing Grief After The Election

Processing Grief After The Election


I woke up this morning with a very sad heart. Like many of you, I have so many emotions, fears, and anxieties about the future of the country that we live in.

I'm thinking about the five stages of grief - denial, sadness, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. 

My thoughts are mostly with those who are experiencing an even deeper fear today. As our friend Cameron Trimble put it, "Black and brown people, for Muslims, for women, for LGBTQ people, for immigrants… the list is endless… feeling unsafe in our communities and even in our own families."

Sitting on my couch last night, the reality of our situation became clear to me. I said to Shelley, "I feel like my life's work now needs to be a direct response to this." She responded, “What does that mean?" "I don't know." I said. 

I still don’t know, but I’m going to add "engagement" to my own grief process.

I believe there is much soul searching for us to do as a country and for those of us who are pursuing, proclaiming, and calling others into a just and generous faith. 

My friend Adam put it this way today, 

“I feel like this is a step back. We have had nearly a decade of two-steps-forward, and now we are taking a step back. This is due, in part to the breakneck speed of change and progress that has been very hard for many traditionalist people in our culture. And they have felt left behind, mocked and forgotten.” 

I agree with Adam. 

He has benefited from the right to marry his husband. 

We have all cheered on the attention brought by Black-Lives-Matter and changing demographics. 

Many have been helped by ObamaCare and so many other two-step-forward policies. We should cheer these changes. They are right. They are real, and they need to be permanent.

And then there is the step back.

A hate it. I disagree with it. I want to (and will) work against it, but it is ours to grapple with.

I believe that the kind of faith we as a network want to express is the right way to move forward, and in being recipients of this “step-back” we might gather a sense of how we are personally, as communities of faith, and as a network finding our “such a time as this”.

I look forward to being together as we take courageous steps forward.

A Young Girl and a Powerful Man

A Young Girl and a Powerful Man

By Vanessa Ryerse

As a freshman in college, I was cast in the lead role of the play Antigone.  A week ago, today,  I was back on campus with my husband and my daughter.  We toured the campus and visited all the important places, even gaining entrance into the costume room where members of every cast would sign the wall. That play changed my life. It was the door that would open my heart and mind to who I am today. 

Later that day, we were settling to bed at a hotel, watching the breaking news about Trump's terrible (albeit not surprising) conversation, recorded eleven years ago. Talking heads were going insane, suggesting this was the end for Trump, that he would back out of the race, etc. etc. I was so tired. I went to sleep. 

Back at home, I attempted to settle back into my routine, but my mind grew increasingly troubled as I watched Trump's version of an apology and the resulting commentary that followed from people I know...some of them even part of the cast of that play that so altered my life. My stomach ached. I couldn't sleep.  I obsessively read article after article on Facebook.

Their reaction goes something like this:  Well, yeah. What he said was bad.  But we've got to think about the Supreme Court. We've got to have pro-life judges! We've got to have judges that believe in traditional families!  Besides, it's only words.  Women don't seem to mind trashy talk in dirty books and movies and tv shows.  Kind of hypocritical, don't you think?

Antigone is a Greek tragedy.  We utilized a translation that had been modernized.  I found it online and read the whole thing through, hearing it in my memory in our own young voices.  The gist of the story is that Antigone has two brothers who have killed each other in a civil war. Their uncle Creon has taken power and to settle the matter, gives one brother a hero's burial and one brother is left to rot, unburied, as an example to the people.  Antigone is young and engaged to Creon's son. She has her whole life before her. But leaving her brother unburied meant that his soul would wander forever and he would have no rest in the afterlife.  Knowing it would cost her life, she buries the body and defies the king.  They exchange a lengthy debate, but ultimately, she cannot be dissuaded.  Decency and human dignity must be upheld.  Even if her brother was not a good man.  It is a moral double-bind.  A logic vs. heart decision. 

At the time, we planned to create allusions to the pro-life movement within the production, but as rehearsals went on, the idea was dropped.  We hoped that the words of the play and the story itself would be enough to say that dignity of human life was worth protecting, even dying for, in the face of powerful leaders who would not uphold it. 

There are important political agendas and there is basic human decency and you cannot skip one to get to the other.

"What a person can do, a person should do."  Antigone says flatly. 

Trump's words and actions have ripped open a wound in the souls of women. An article about Kelly Oxford's Twitter question to women (here) left me nearly paralyzed by memories and shame. But for women like me, who grew up in the evangelical/fundamentalist church, there is a something especially venomous about this.  You speak of being pro-life.  How we must hold our noses and vote for Trump because of the babies.  But please, can somebody tell me, who of you is standing up for women? 

For years, you told us that women shouldn't go to work. Our duty was homemaking and taking care of the children. You told us we can't teach the Bible to boys older than twelve. You told us we could never be pastors. You told us that we must be modest because our brothers in Christ were relying on us to “not cause them to stumble.” You had us kneel down before you to measure our commitment to God...or our skirts...we didn't know the difference. You made us so self-conscious that when we looked in the mirror, we learned to be a little plainer, a little uglier, a little less. You told us that we were the keepers of our purity, while the boys scaled the walls to gawk at us in the locker room from the ceiling. When the girl got pregnant, she had to get up in front of the whole school and apologize. When the man molested girls in our school, you gave him a love offering and sent him quietly on his way "for the sake of the gospel." And he molested again. When the missionary abused the missionary kids, you told the girl it was her fault. And he abused again. When we got to Bible college we talked to the other girls: "At your Christian school, too?” You told us over and over again that we could never really be equal because of the curse. And when we got married, you expected us to be attractive, but never sexy. You told us to never say no to our husbands, especially on Saturday night so that he wouldn't be lusting after other women in the church on Sunday morning. You created a collective culture of ignorant mistreatment, inequality, abuse, assault, and objectification, in the name of Jesus.

And now, you would lead those women to vote for a man to lead the whole country in that tone.  For the greater good, of course. 

In 4th grade penmanship class, I practiced my cursive writing with this quote: "It's never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right."   -Dr. Bob Jones Sr.  The repetition of penmanship practice led to the permanence of the idea in my mind. 

And that is the crux of the thing for me.  I have friends who will vote for  Trump because of finances or military concerns, and I'm ok with that. But for those of you who want to believe that you will achieve some greater good for the Kingdom of God by voting for someone who denigrates other human beings,  in the words of Antigone, "I spit on that." 

This is not about who you vote for.  It is about what you think you are accomplishing.  Do not assume that the Kingdom of God is the same as the empires of men.  It is not built on the backs of those who can be assaulted into submission.

You can't make the world safer for babies by making it more unsafe for women.


Vanessa has been amused and amazed by Robb for over 20 years now. Together they have had many adventures, not the least of which have been parenting, pastoring and church planting. Vanessa is the mother of four children, and she is an introvert, a coffee-drinker, and a thinker.