Joan Gray, a pastor from Atlanta, Ga., is the new moderator-elect of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She was elected June 15 at the beginning of the 217th PC(USA) General Assembly. She will serve a two-year term along with vice moderator-elect Robert Ervin Wilson of Huntsville, Ala.
Photo credit line(s) Presbyterian Outlook photo(s)
BIRMINGHAM — The 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has elected as its moderator Joan S. Gray — a pastor from Atlanta who spoke of God making a way “where there was no way” and said her experience ministering to congregations in conflict would help her build bridges in a deeply divided denomination..
Gray, 53, was elected on the third round of balloting, winning 307 votes, or 62 percent of the votes cast. She prevailed over three other candidates, all of them pastors: Deborah Block of Milwaukee, who earned 152 votes on the final ballot (31 percent); H. Timothy Halverson of Cape Coral, Fla., with 20 votes (4 percent); and Kerry Carson of Conrad, Iowa, with 19 votes (4 percent).
In the first round of balloting, Block drew the most votes — 143 (28 percent), compared with 139 for Gray (28 percent), 113 for Halverson (22 percent), and 109 for Carson (22 percent).
Block, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian in Milwaukee and a former co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, was the only one of the four candidates who said, in response to a question of a commissioner, that she believes the denomination should ordain gays and lesbians.
Asked what she thinks about gay ordination, Gray responded that “I have not yet been able to get my mind around the idea that homosexuality is God’s intention for creation. So I wrestle with this. This is not a comfortable place to be . . . I have gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Gray chose as her vice-moderator Robert Ervin Wilson, 67. He is a retired mechanical engineer and an elder from Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.
Gray said her most important work as moderator will be to help the church “”mend the fabric of trust that has frayed.”
“People are weary,” she said. “I know there’s a weariness in the church. The Bible is full of stories about people meeting God in the midst of pain and struggle. One thing I intend to do as a moderator is to go to places where people are in pain and listen.”
Gray said her candidacy turned out to be a “faith walk” — she has written that the suggestion from Edwin W. Albright Jr., the executive presbyter of Greater Atlanta presbytery, that she throw her name in the hat was “the greatest shock of my life.”
After her election, Gray thanked her husband of 31 years, Bill, who she said “fed me when I was making $500 a month in the ministry. So he is my strong right arm.”
Gray described herself to the assembly as a “polity wonk” — she is co-author of the textbook “Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers,” which many congregations use to train elders. But she told the assembly that “polity is not going to save us. There is one thing that will save us, and that is a faith in the God who makes a way where there is no way.”
She told, for example, of the congregation in Atlanta that started the city’s first night shelter. “It had 30 members and not much else,” Gray said. “Thirty members and a burning passion to keep people from freezing to death” on the cold winter streets.
When asked what passage of Scripture comforts her during dark times — she described it as “when I totally fall into the pit” — Gray recited the 139th Psalm by heart.
Gray — the first woman ordained as a church pastor in Atlanta presbytery, in 1978 — has had more than 25 years experience in the ministry. For the first two decades, she was a parish pastor, first in Butts County, Georgia (“she started her ministry in a small, country congregation where it was not unheard of for a dog to wander in and lie down in front of the communion table during the sermon,” according to a background piece she provided to the commissioners) and later in Atlanta.
And for the past seven years, Gray has specialized in interim ministry — often with congregations in transition and sometimes conflict. She finished her most recent term in February and has been preparing almost full-time for this assembly since then. “”As far as I can tell, this will be my day job for the next two years,” she said..
A graduate of Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., she also earned two master’s degrees — a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur and a Master of Sacred Theology in spiritual direction from General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in New York.
And she is a candidate for a Doctor of Ministry degree from Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist seminary in Washington, D.C. — with an emphasis in her work on healing following conflict in congregations.
During a question-and-answer session, Gray did not answer directly a question on the controversial report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA) — she did not make clear her position on that, but said the church’s polity is always “up for renovation.” Asked if she has a plan for reconciliation with those who may come out of this assembly disappointed and hurt, Gray answered succinctly: “I don’t have a plan. I have a deep desire to let God lead the way . . . I have led by being led.”
Gray also said she was involved for five years in Atlanta with a group called Common Ground, a group of ministers with diverse theological views who met for lunch once a month, talked about controversial issues but also about their families and ministry and walk with God, and who developed deep trust and affection for one another.
“It was contagious,” she said. “It changed the life of our presbytery.”