M.Div./M.A. Theology & the Arts
Traveling Fellowship Award Recipient '14: Union's highest academic achievement, awarded each year to the graduating senior who shows the highest promise for contributing to theological knowledge through teaching
Master's Thesis: Finding God in the In-Between: Towards a Postmodern Theology of Music & Art
Advised by Dr. John Thatamanil & Dr. Tom Beaudoin, Fordham University
Spiritual Formation Committee 2011-2014
Working closely with Fr. Roger Haight and other Union staff, maintained community-wide weekly prayer list, coordinated SpiritTalk round table discussions, planned semiannual student retreats, coordinated inter-seminary dialogues and sponsored events on vocational discernment and cultivating spiritual practice.
Arts Caucus Chair 201-2014
Provided on- and off-campus resources to help students develop their artistic talents and interests, make connections between theology and the arts, and explore the practical role of artistic expression and appreciation in spiritual healing and growth.
B.A. Communication Studies
Religious Trauma Studies Certification Program
Interfaith Dialogue & Gamelan Music in Indonesia, Dr. Paul Knitter & Dr. Syafaatun Almirzanah
Institute for Interfaith Dialogue at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Jogjakarta, Indonesia
Recipient of Henry Luce Foundation research grant to study interreligious dialogue in Indonesia, with a focus on the arts and the ways that different religious traditions have sought to integrate indigenous religious culture, particularly in light of an increasingly Westernized engagement with "the arts" and "religion." Learn more
One-month study abroad course at the Waldensian seminary looking at ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in Rome. Met with the Vatican's president of the Pontifical Council for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue, along with local Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. Learn more
I believe that every human being, by nature, bears within themselves a sacred call to be transformed by love, and to become part of God's dream for a world transformed by love. My goal is to help unleash the life-giving Spirit of creativity, imagination, and healing at the heart of every person, so that they may hear that call, and bear the light within themselves to the world.
Roman Catholic priest and author of Without Buddha I could not be a Christian
“Kristen has a way of stating things creatively and provocatively. Her contributions are both pointed, raising complex issues, but also gentle, inviting further discussion. For an old-timer like myself, it's so good to know that there are those who, with conviction and patience, are carrying on."
Biblical scholar and author of A New New Testament and In the Beginning was the Meal
“Kristen regularly produces steady investigations of Biblical texts through her spectacular efforts in research, writing, and thoughtful analysis. She demonstrates patience in holding herself and her conversation partners accountable to coherence and perspective, and is a gifted interpreter of Scripture."
Dr. Samuel Cruz
Latino pastor and author of Christianity and Culture in the City: A Postcolonial Approach
“Kristen demonstrates superb analysis concerning the sociological and theological dimensions of each problem she engages. She has the ability to state things sharply, but in a way that assures her listeners that she wants to engage them in further conversation."
Lay Minister for Adult Spiritual Formation & Liturgical Development
Educational development and teaching of classes, workshops, and retreats on both "inward" and "outward" expressions of Christian spirituality, with a desire to draw meaningful connections between the spiritual life with the work of social justice
One-on-one spiritual direction, especially with those who are estranged from the church or institutional religion, and those who have experienced any kind of spiritual or religious trauma.
Ongoing development of new adult spiritual formation curriculum for parishes that integrates liberation-based teachings on the Bible and Christianity with group-based learning experiences that connect our "inner" life of prayer, worship, and spiritual practice with our "outer" sense of call to community service, systemic change, and new ways of being in relationship with ourselves, one another, and God.
Assistant Director of the Servant Leadership School (now Second Breath Center)
Curriculum development & planning, coordinating, and teaching classes, retreats, workshops, and special events in collaboration with program director, adjunct faculty, and staff
Led weekly centering prayer practice group in a hybrid in-person/online format
Designed course materials including graphic design and A/V materials, as well as course brochures, social media content, e-news updates, and website development.
Supported re-branding phase through market research, grant writing, visioning, and strategic outreach through mailing list and ACS database development.
Ministry Intern for Liturgy & Music
New York, NY
Led paperless congregational singing during Sunday worship, composed new chants for the church in a paperless style, and led workshops on singing as a spiritual practice
Planned and led weekly evening prayer services and assisted with liturgical planning and design, visioning, special events programming, and liturgical fabric installations
Bookstore Manager, Sacred Garden Bookstore
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church & The Servant Leadership School of Greensboro
Visioning, development, and management of an ecumenical Christian spirituality bookstore that served as a "hub" for The Servant Leadership School, offering books, resources, classes, and events
Managed daily operations including inventory, ordering, advertising, coordinating classes and special events, and building relationships with local authors and artists.
Cultivated safe, sacred space for theological and spiritual inquiry, by staying up to date on new releases and publishing trends in progressive Christian spirituality, offering listening presence and pastoral guidance on appropriate resources for spiritual growth
Interim Administrative Consultant
Managed day-to-day communication and administrative needs of the church while performing a year-long administrative audit in order to update and improve organizational efficiency; ACS database customization and implementation, roles and communication analysis, updated filing systems, staff procedures and training
Special Collections Assistant Archivist
Burke Theological Library at Columbia University Libraries
New York, NY
Organized, preserved, and processed historical documents containing first-hand accounts from the 19th-20th centuries of Christian missionary efforts and Western colonization during this era.
Musician & Liturgical Assistant for Nightwatch Youth Program
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
New York, NY
Led communal singing and worship for interdenominational youth groups from around the country; liturgical setup and cleanup, including canvas labyrinth assembly
Production Support Manager
Coordinated festival production team of 8 staff and 23 support volunteers to provide sound and stage management for five stages over a four-day festival for progressive Christian leaders
Graphic Design & Communications Consultant
For more information visit www.kristenleighmitchell.com/design
Based in NC
Offering services to churches, non-profits, and individual freelancers in visioning, brand identity, graphic design, social media content, website design and development, and print production
Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and adult Christian formation consultant
“Kristen's workshop affected me profoundly. She skillfully incorporates a variety of modalities that allow all present, young and old, to engage fully in the work. More importantly, her focus is always on the participant, rather than just on the teaching modality itself."
Presbyterian pastor and co-founder of The Servant Leadership School of Greensboro
“Having facilitated classes with Kristen on several occasions, she has a clear understanding of the pedagogy and content of the Servant Leadership School. But most of all, she lives the spirit of servant leadership - through her teaching, her art, and her work with others in spiritual direction."
Deacon at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Salisbury, NC
“Having participated in several of Kristen's classes and workshops, I've found her to have a creative and holistic approach to spiritual formation. She invites people to reflect on their lives as well as engage in their service to the world."
Modern Metanoia, November 23, 2020
Modern Metanoia, July 13, 2020
Caminando with Jesus, November 3, 2019
Modern Metanoia, April 1, 2018
Modern Metanoia, September 24, 2018
As the Kroe Flies, July 30, 2018
Modern Metanoia, April 3, 2017
Published in Quadrant: Journal of the C.G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, vol. 2
Published in Theology and the Marvel Universe, ed. Gregory Stevenson
Fortress Academic Press, 2019
Presented at The Concept of Beauty in Patristic & Byzantine Theology, ed. John McGuckin
Theotokos Press, 2012
Presented at Shaped by Beauty: Music, Art, Theology, Ethics, and Spirituality in Conversation
Heythrop College, London, June 2014
Presented at Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Europe Conference
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, April 2014
Presented at Sophia Institute Center for Orthodox Thought & Culture Annual Conference
Union Theological Seminary, December 2011
Spiritual Formation Resources
Printable packet created April 2020 with readings, reflections, and suggested spiritual practices for each day of Holy Week, to be adapted for home use during quarantine. This resources was shared freely and used widely.
A resource for introducing individuals and groups to the basic steps for practicing Centering Prayer, including a description of the "three deep breath" guided meditation that I use to begin classes and spiritual direction sessions.
Created as a resource for a women's retreat at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, NC. Print on cardstock and cut out to use for meditation on the lives of faithful women from the Bible to today.
For use in classes, workshops, and retreats that focus on "call," as well as spiritual direction sessions relating to discernment; outlines inner and outer "markers" for identifying one's own sense of call.
Created for the Servant Leadership School to connect the "inner work" of understanding the human personality (using Enneagram theory) with the Biblical narrative's description of our "outer" struggles for love and justice in human community. Jesus serves as a model for overcoming the inner habits that prevent us from living into God's Kingdom in our outer lives.
Resource for those who attend my "Singing as a Spiritual Practice" workshop, which draws on John Chyrsostom's guidelines for singing in Christian community, and introduces "paperless" singing and chanting from a variety of sources
In 2011, I painted a Chartres-style labyrinth on the roof of the McGiffert residential building at Union Theological Seminary, as part of an independent study on the history, mythology, and liturgical/spiritual uses of the labyrinth.
*For a complete list of spiritual formation offerings, please visit my classes & workshops page.
Co-created with The Rev. Joe Mitchell for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church; held annually on the Winter Solstice.
Co-created with The Rev. Joe Mitchell for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church; held once a month during Winter season.
Designed in collaboration with Franciscan friar Fr. Luis Canino for St. Francis Springs Prayer Center's annual Advent retreat; program included a brief teaching on the history and practice of Taizé chant, followed by the direction of congregational singing as well as a small chamber ensemble.
Episcopal priest, Rector of St. Andrew's by the Sea in Nags Head, NC
“Kristen's teaching gave me a new lens and a new language with which to look and think about the sacredness of all kinds of music. Her thoughtful and gentle approach to teaching strengthened my liturgical sensibilities, as well as my pastoral responses to questions around music."
Professor & Adjunct Music Faculty,
UNCG School of Music
“Kristen is a consummate collaborator and leader. I have known her in the context of teaching classes at the School of Music at UNCG. She is especially good at knowing her audience and speaking to them where they are, while helping them to see where she is, gently and collegially."
UCC minister, Senior Pastor at Orchard Ridge UCC in Madison, WI
“Kristen is deeply pastoral and her workshops are very impactful. Having someone to call on who is at once a visionary artist, an academic-level theologian, and the best progressive Christian educator I have encountered, has truly enhanced my ministry."
Describe a moment in your recent ministry that you recognize as one of success and fulfillment.We all remember the chaos, confusion, and upheaval of Holy Week 2020. In our Diocese, it was only five days prior to Palm Sunday when we got word that there would be no in-person gatherings for Holy Week or Easter. In the small, conservative town where my husband was serving as Rector of the only Episcopal church in the county, we had many parishioners who were very upset that they would not be allowed to gather for Easter (the Bapist and nondenominational churches in town were all carrying on business-as-usual). A significant number of church members were also having an extremely difficult time navigating their computers in order to access online worship, and most of them refused to do Zoom. With my husband being the only clergy and full-time staff person, filming church services for Holy Week and Easter seemed neither plausible, nor the best way to offer real spiritual support and guidance during this time. Knowing that many of our parishioners were unfamiliar with the liturgical traditions surrounding Holy Week, I was inspired to create a "Holy Week 2020 Spiritual Resources Guide." It was a simple black and white booklet of readings, reflections, and spiritual practices for each day of the week that could be printed or viewed as a PDF, and adapted for use by single individuals or families. The focus was on simplicity, encouraging people to use whatever they had in in their homes, in order to reflect on what mattered most and embrace an embodied experience of the Paschal Triduum during quarantine. Realizing there were probably a lot of clergy in small churches all over the country that were in the same position as my husband - with neither the staff, time, technology, or resources to put something together at the last minute - I put out an offer on social media to share this resource with anyone who might want to use it. I was overwhelmed by the response! It ended up being shared widely and used in congregations of several different denominations all over the country. It was a wonderfully fulfilling moment in the midst of an incredibly difficult time. I was very grateful that the Spirit led me to to create something that both lifted the burden of exhausted clergy, and also seemed to genuinely deepen the experience of Holy Week for the individuals who used it, helping them understand the importance of the season and embodied spirituality in a new way.
Describe your liturgical style and practice.The term "broad church" seems almost an understatement when it comes to my liturgical style and practice. Because of my widely eclectic experiences of church growing up, my undergraduate studies in comparative religion, my own lived journey from a secular agnostic to a committed follower of Jesus, and my training at Union Theological Seminary, where we looked at liturgy within the broader context of anthropology, psychology, and ritual studies (and where I had the benefit of attending and planning worship services alongside Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Mennonite, Baptist, Black Pentecostal, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, UU, and Wiccan faculty and students) I interpret the term "broad church" in perhaps the broadest sense possible. That said, I fell in love with the Episcopal liturgy at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. As an artist, I appreciate thoughtful contrasts, and multivalent liturgical actions that speak to the paradoxes and mysteries of our faith in nonverbal, multisensory ways. The unique synthesis of high gothic medieval aesthetics and ancient liturgy, paired with down to earth preaching and warm, relational hospitality is the liturgical context in which my soul feels most at home. That said, I have worked and worshipped in all kinds of churches, and as a trained leader of paperless congregational singing, I often find myself preaching and/or leading worship in smaller communities that invite a more casual and participatory posture. When it comes to leading worship, I am probably most at home in such contexts. My work at St. Mark's in the Bowery in New York City had an especially profound impact on my ability to see how radically different liturgical styles could coexist and blend in meaningful, effective, and reverent ways. I truly believe in the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi - that our ritual actions are formational, and should therefore nurture and deepen our theology and our spiritual lives. For that reason, while I am open to a variety of liturgical experiments and models, I believe that liturgy should always be approached with a strong sense of intentionality, purpose, humility, and respect for tradition. Rather than defaulting to doing things because "that's the way we've always done it," or because it might "look cool," or because "those are the rules," I think it's best to approach all aspects of liturgy thoughtfully and thoroughly. To read more about my approach to liturgy and music, visit my music and liturgy consulting page.
How do you practice incorporating others in ministry?While I enjoy working independently and often have a strong personal sense of vision, I tend towards a collaborative approach in almost everything I do, just as a natural part of my personality. I strongly value relationships, and I am also acutely aware of my own limitations as a singular human being. I especially value the input I receive from others who differ from me in terms of their social location and/or life experiences, and my work with the Enneagram has also attuned me to the inner differences that exist between people beyond just social demographics. I know that everyone has a unique story to tell, and that everyone has something unique to offer. I believe that diversity is God's will, and that it always makes us better, helping us to expand our vision. I believe that at the heart of the Christian life is the challenge to learn how to be with those who are different from us in meaningful, supportive, and life-giving ways. Our liturgy allows us to "practice" this within the context of ritual space, but learning how to do this in our everyday lives and relationships is the hard work of formation. Therefore, I believe all forms of church ministry should ideally become contexts in which we invite in diverse perspectives and seek to grow in our ability to grapple with differences in healthy ways. It is always my desire that others feel seen, heard, and valued, and particularly in the context of ministries with the poor, I think it is especially important that we begin to teach people how to shift from "power-over" models of charity to "power-with" models of solidarity. I'm also a strong advocate of emergent strategies and approaches that support new life and vitality, enabling God to do "a new thing." It is important to take the time to help people listen for an authentic sense of call. I do NOT believe in "voluntolding" people, or any other form of coercion that "shoulds" people into getting involved in ministry work of any kind - liturgy, formation, or social justice work. If no one feels particularly called to take on a particular ministry, then I think it's worth asking whether it is something that God is calling this particular community to at this time. The reality is that often times older ministries may need to end or "die," in order to allow for something new and vital to emerge. Churches desperately need to learn how to approach this process as Christians, taking our cues from Jesus and looking at it through the lens of death and resurrection, rather than clinging to our old wineskins.
How do you care for your spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being?As an introvert, one of the most important ways I care for my spiritual, emotional, and physical health is through the practice of maintaining healthy boundaries and learning when to say "no." Whether it is choosing not to attend a particular social function, taking some time in the middle of the day just pause and step outside, managing my time wisely so that I am not spread too thin, or making sure that I regularly incorporate times of retreat when I need to "re-charge," these are all practices that I have learned to develop over the years and that I honor more and more as I get older. I am also nourished spiritually by a number of contemplative practices - centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the daily examen, etc. However, the two practices that consistently allow me return to an awareness of God's presence almost immediately are being alone in nature, and experiencing the Eucharistic liturgy, especially in the context of the Episcopal church. I am grateful to have a wise and loving partner with whom I can have fun and be completely authentic. He offers a wonderful combination of compassion and support, as well as helpful nudges and challenges that enrich my self-awareness. I also maintain a large network of friends (especially women friends) with whom I pray, vent, process, and receive wisdom, solidarity, and support. I have had many years of both spiritual direction and psychotherapy, and particularly in therapy I have worked through a variety of modalities, including psychodynamic therapy, CBT, somatic experiencing, IFS, ACT, and trauma-informed care. This work has been monumental in helping me to integrate my most difficult experiences, so that I can maintain healthy self-differentiation and boundaries even while drawing on the wisdom I've gained from those experiences in order to be with others who have had similar experiences in a genuine way. As far as my physical well-being, I enjoy hiking, swimming, disc golf, lifting weights, and breaking blocks with lightsabers using my VR helmet.
Describe your involvement in either the wider Church or geographical community.It is my hope that everything I do is, in some sense, an expression or manifestation of my Christian faith, and in that sense I tend to think of all my work - whether it occurs in religious or secular contexts - as being part of my involvement in "the wider Church." In terms of the Episcopal Church specifically, however, I have sought a variety of ways to develop my relationship with the institutional church body, most recently my participation in the Special Task Force on Liturgy and Prayer Book Revision, as well as my efforts to introduce a new approach to adult spiritual formation within the Episcopal Church. I also regularly attend Diocesan Conventions as a way of staying up to date on the larger mission, goals, and initiatives of the Episcopal Church, and as a way of staying in relationship with my larger network of ministry colleagues. Most of my work, though, has been at the threshold of the institutional church - particularly in terms of supporting and enabling a sense of call among laypeople, and seeking to build bridges of understanding between the church and those who have felt estranged from it. My background in communication studies has made me acutely aware of the strategies that conservative evangelicals have used over the last few decades to dominate the American public discourse on Christianity. My social media work seeks to counter this by introducing theological and Biblical perspectives that have often been inaccessible to the general public, and striving to counter disinformation about the Christian church in evangelical "exvangelical" spaces. My spiritual direction work, meanwhile, seeks to create safe space particularly for those who long for a deeper relationship with God and/or the church, but who are reluctant to engage due to past religious or spiritual trauma. In terms of engaging my geographical community, as a singer/songwriter and artist, I am always staying connected to people in the local arts scene, and often connect with people through my music in contexts that collapse the traditional boundaries between sacred and secular. In some ways, the underground grassroots punk arts community will always feel like "my people"... even if I'm a bit of an odd duck now for being a Jesus follower who genuinely loves the church and loves to talk about random desert monks from the 4th century. I sincerely appreciate the unexpected moments of grace that often emerge about these things when I am in conversation with folks at bars and restaurants. I often feel like that's the best form of "evangelism." Just... genuinely talking to people about faith.
How do you engage in pastoral care for others?My experiences offering pastoral care and spiritual counsel to the customers who came into the Christian spirituality bookstore I used to manage on behalf of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and the Servant Leadership School played a huge role in my call to attend seminary. It became clear to me during this time that there were many people who were deeply interested in exploring issues relating to the Christian faith, but who (for a variety of reasons) would never darken the door of a church, or bring their questions and doubts before a "clergy" person. But they were willing to speak vulnerably and honestly with me, a fellow layperson and someone they perceived to be "just like them," and who just so happened to be knowledgeable about the available resources on their topic of interest. These kinds of experiences continue to inform my decision to remain a layperson, as well as the way I think about "pastoral care" in my spiritual direction and formation work. I greatly value the level of vulnerability that I am able to invite and access, and the kind of healing that can occur when those who have felt shamed by religion or the church risk bringing their truth into the light of loving relationship, and experience the simple grace of not being judged. This work often builds a bridge of trust that eventually does lead to connecting with clergy. Because of this, I understand that "pastoral care" can happen in any context - not just in hospitals or in times of acute distress or grief. I seek to take a pastoral approach in all that I do, remembering that each person has a story to tell, and is a bearer of the light of Christ. Understanding the relationship between trauma and spirituality, I also know that it is always best to "transcend and include," helping someone grow into a better theology, rather than trying to "throw out" a bad one. For that reason, I never "correct" what I might perceive to be "bad theology," whether or not someone appears to be in an acute state of suffering. I always try to stay curious about the role that a certain idea about God or certain spiritual interpretation of events is playing in a person's life and psyche. Then I simply listen for moments and opportunities where I might be able to constructively build a little more nuance into their perspective, or introduce another way of seeing it. Usually if I am patient, the Holy Spirit will always present just such a moment. When approached in this way, we can help a person grow and expand their spiritual vision without re-traumatizing them by taking away their sense of safety and agency.
Tell about a ministry project that exists because of your leadership. What was your role in its creation? Who can be contacted?In the summer after my first year at Union Theological Seminary, I embarked on the somewhat ambitious quest of painting a 7-circuit Chartres-style labyrinth on the roof of the McGiffert residential building. This project was inspired by my time at Grace Cathedral, where I first encountered the labyrinth, as well as my work at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which had a vibrant labyrinth ministry for which I maintained a wide selection of labyrinth-related books, gifts, and other resources at the bookstore I managed. Given my awareness of the growing interest in labyrinths, I was somewhat perplexed as to why a progressive, ecumenical seminary like Union in New York City did not have one on hand. I was also interested in learning more about the history of the labyrinth. So I put together a team of professors to oversee an independent research project, to study the mythological origins of the labyrinth and its use in churches throughout the Middle Ages, while also reviewing the contemporary literature on the spirituality of labyrinths, and working my way through the practical logistics of how to create a full-sized Chartes-style path myself. Thankfully, after some initial hiccups the project was a great success. I spent my remaining three years at the seminary leading guided walks, teaching my fellow seminarians about the history and theology/spirituality of labyrinths, and offering practical advice to those who wanted to construct labyrinths at their churches. The labyrinth ministry I established at Union ended up "seeding" many more labyrinth ministries at the churches where my colleagues went to serve, and many people have contacted me about it in the years since I've left. As I understand it, there are still students who appreciate finding a mysterious labyrinth on the roof, and have made use of it for prayer and meditation, without ever knowing the artist or the story behind its origins. The faculty who oversaw the project (both now retired) were: Janet Walton, email@example.com Troy Messenger, firstname.lastname@example.org You can read the full story of the creation of the McGiffert roof labyrinth here:
How are you preparing yourself for the Church of the future?I strongly believe that an interactive, integrative, and transformational approach to adult spiritual formation - with a focus on developing and supporting a sense of "call" among laypeople is going to be absolutely critical not only to the church's ability to thrive in the "post-Christian" 21st century, but to its survival. "The young people" are not going to come back to the church just because of trendy aesthetics or even the best of our social justice initiatives (since there are plenty of secular organizations who do this work just as well, if not better). As an artist and a social justice advocate, I believe that both of those things are important, and I know how important they are for younger generations. But I also know that what ultimately draws people back into the church is the genuine discovery that it bears a wisdom tradition with the power to authentically support and transform individuals and communities in a sense of real purpose. Young people, in particular, are drawn to the church when they encounter elders whose lives bear a wisdom that is rooted in an authentic sense of purpose, and a faith that allows them to sustainably engage in the hard work of love and justice without despair or burnout. For too long, the work of Christian "formation" has stopped at young adulthood. Offerings for adults have been rooted in passive forms of information acquisition, and one-off programs, events, and series. Conversations about the inner work of prayer and spiritual practice have largely been presented as separate from conversations about the outer work of social justice. have As a result, too many adult Christian carry within themselves an incredibly elementary understanding of Christian faith and the Bible. As Richard Rohr writes, "Being informed is different from being formed, and the first is a common substitute for the second." The church has historically been so focused on the formation of children and youth that it has often forgotten that it is precisely in the second half of life is when the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection becomes most relevant and the Gospel becomes most alive and applicable. It is also usually in the second half of life that people have the time to reflect on their experiences and start encountering the bigger questions that drive them towards a longing and a need for a deeper kind of wisdom. It is crucial that the churches of the 21st century invite adult learners who are serious about their faith into an experiential and relational learning context that addresses both the inner and the outer aspects of Christian life together, in order to help them to embark on an authentic journey of spiritual discernment - listening for the voice of God within them in order to discover what it truly means for them to embody the life of Christ in the world.
What is your experience of conflict involving the church? What is your experience in addressing it?Personality-wise, I am more likely to move into conflict than away from it, mostly because of the value I place on relationships and reconciliation, which cannot realistically occur without first reaching a place of understanding where all parties feel safe and "heard." Tensions and anxieties are usually indicators of places where attention and healing is needed. However, people are not always ready or willing to confront those places of tension. My undergraduate training in conflict mediation and systemic group dynamics has made me aware of the contextual ways in which power operates, as well as the most common systemic dysfunction patterns, such as triangulation, projection, negative peace, etc. Because of this perspective, I am not afraid to identify unhealthy patterns when I see them (as the NYC Subway reminds us, "If you see something, say something!"). But I like to think that my observations are always in the service of strengthening relationships and healing ruptures. One instance of handling conflict within the context of a spiritual formation class occurred during our "Servant Leaders in Action" course, which invited community leaders to talk about their work on a variety of social justice issues. The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a well-known leader in racial and economic justice, who had been targeted by the KKK during the 1979 Greensboro Massacre and was the founder of the Beloved Community Center as well as the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission, had been invited to speak about his work. While talking about the difficulties he faced getting white local pastors to join him in this work, he mentioned off-handedly that he had made a phone call to the white pastor at First Lutheran Church in 1989, and that he never received a call back. A group from First Lutheran Church happened to be in the class, and were angered and confused by what they heard. They felt that Nelson had publicly singled out and slandered their beloved church community. After the class, they complained to their pastor, who then contacted the Servant Leadership School's director to communicate his distress. I was asked by the director to offer an "apology" on Nelson's behalf during our next class session. However I was also able to understand this within the larger context of race relations in Greensboro as a classic case of white fragility, and so I had no intention of saying anything that would make it seem as though Nelson had said anything wrong. Rather, I reached out directly to the pastor of First Lutheran Church in order to clarify and contextualize what was said. I reminded him of similar disappointments that Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," when he lamented about the lack of response he received from moderate white pastors in his own time. In this way, I was able to help him see that Nelson's comment about not getting a call back from the pastor in 1989 in no way reflected on the church or its pastor now, nearly 30 years later. I invited the him to consider that Nelson might even appreciate receiving a call of solidarity and support from him, knowing that history. I do not know if he ever reached out to Nelson, but I do know that he took it upon himself to speak to his own folks about the incident and that he seemed to assuage any lingering defensiveness among the folks in that group. I was very grateful that I was able to resolve that conflict in a way that eliminated any further escalation of conflict, while also refusing to participate in the vilification of a prominent Black leader, or to enable white fragility around racial issues.
What is your experience leading/addressing change in the church? When has it gone well? When has it gone poorly? What did you learn?By whatever accident of fate or destiny, my spiritual formation as a Christian has been shaped by some of the most forward-thinking organizations, individuals, and churches in the country - people who are imagining new ways of being "Church" with a big "C." My deep affection for the Episcopal Church began at Grace Cathedral during Alan Jones' time there, and I decided to become an Episcopalian after returning to my home Diocese of NC and hearing our then-Bishop Michael Curry preach. Through my involvement with The Servant Leadership School, the Wild Goose Festival and the Emerging Church community, Union Theological Seminary, and St. Mark's Episcopal Church in the Bowery, I have been exposed to such an expansive and progressive vision of what the church can be at its best, and I understand how it must change in order to survive and thrive in the future. Because of this, I have, at times, underestimated the level of resistance that I would encounter to such change, especially at the parish level. When I first moved back to North Carolina after seminary, I was perhaps a bit overzealous in my desire to share what I had seen and experienced in New York, and unprepared for how genuinely threatening the concept of change would feel to older generations of parishioners, who were raised with such a different concept of what it means to be "church," and what it means to be "Christian." When I got married, I moved down to the church where my husband served as Rector, which just so happens to be the only Episcopal parish in one of the most conservative counties in North Carolina. During my 5 years there, I committed myself to developing a deeper understanding of "traditional" parish life, in order to gain a better sense of how to more strategically and effectively introduce change on "the front lines." I have come to appreciate the immensity of the challenge we are facing at this particular moment in human history - not just as a church, but as a species. Older generations, who were raised in a world where compartmentalization was still possible, feel genuinely unsafe talking about things like politics and social issues in the church. There is a sense that ritual space should be separate, and set apart. Meanwhile, younger generations - raised within a context of globalization, the internet, climate change, and now AI - often tend to feel genuinely unsafe if people are not talking about these issues in the church. For them, ignoring the realities that people are facing in their daily lives within the context of sacred space feels like spiritual bypassing. As a geriatric millennial - the last generation who remembers a world before the internet - I feel like I am constantly standing on the edge of a vast chasm, trying to build bridges of understanding between what came before and what will come after. In navigating this position, I have learned how to be more thoughtful, intentional, and flexible in my approach - with people of every age group. I have learned to stay curious about people's stories, and I understand now the importance of establishing a sense of safety and trust before expecting anyone to open up, become vulnerable, learn something new, or truly retain new information. I have learned to take a "yes, and..." approach in being a leader for change, building on existing models rather than trying to come in and replace them with something that may have worked elsewhere. I have learned that people live into new ways of thinking and being slowly, through alternating between action and contemplation and by making repeated passes over the same content again and again. I have learned to apply the old writer's adage of "show, not tell" to Christian formation, understanding that humans learn mimetically, and that we should not expect others to do what we cannot (or will not) model ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned, as George Harrison sang, that "you can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink." There will always be some people who neither want nor need to ask deeper existential questions about the church, Christianity, God, or their spiritual and communal lives. There are people who are perfectly happy just showing up every Sunday, tithing their 10%, attending an occasional class or concert, and socializing with their church friends. There are a variety of reasons why some people do not want to engage with the spiritual journey any further than that. And that has to be okay. The invitation to "go deeper" must always be exactly that: an invitation. This means that there will always be the need for a "tiered" approach when it comes to adult formation. In that sense, I feel the the most important thing we can do as leaders in a changing church is to wholeheartedly put our trust in God, to help us discern the best way to respond as Christians to changing and emerging conditions as they arise. We must learn to improvise well, drawing on the roots of our Christian faith just like a jazz musician draws on their knowledge of chords and rhythms to imrpovise a new melody. This wisdom of trusting in God to always lead us in the direction of creativity, curiosity, and compassion is the unchanging core of our faith, and I feel like as long as we stay true to that, we can move through even the most radical changes as Christians with the dignity, humility, and grace of the saints.
Ministry Portfolio Questions
Executive Director, Second Breath Center
Former faculty colleague at The Servant Leadership School of Greensboro
Union Theological Seminary
Colleagues in Church Governance
Rector, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA
Former Rector, St. Mark's Episcopal Church in the Bowery, NYC
Chairperson, Diocese of NC Liturgy Committee
Colleagues in Ministry
Retired Presbyterian pastor
Co-founder of The Servant Leadership School of Greensboro
Senior Pastor, Hancock UCC, Lexington, MA
Union Theological Seminary colleague
Head Verger, Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, NYC
Fellow Musician & Liturgical Assistant, Nightwatch Youth Program