JH: Linda, four years ago, you called me, introduced yourself, told me you were a candidate to be GAC executive director, and asked for my thoughts. I blurted, “Only a crazy person would want that job.” Are you a crazy person?
LV: I must be. I have a huge amount of energy for this job. It has been such a privilege to be able to see church … in so many places and its wide array of ministries and – in the process – to see hopeful signs where God is working. All over the church. You weren’t the only one to say I was crazy. So I guess I am.
JH: Has it made you crazier?
LV: There are times when I think it IS crazy. It’s very, very complex. That’s part of who we are as a church: many voices, many passions, many constituents, many directions. We’re in a time of huge change and turmoil in the world, in the country, and certainly in the church. Keeping centered on why we’re here, why God has called us to this place, trying to discern and follow the will of God, and keeping our eye on Jesus Christ in all of this is what keeps us sane.
JH: Looking back over the past four years, what are you proudest of? What would you like to see change as you move into the next four years?
LV: In the Presbyterian Panel survey of May, 2005, 84% of respondents said they had little awareness of mission and ministry of the Presbyterian Church. A few months ago the Panel asked those same questions, and the awareness has more than doubled.
Some significant and profound things have happened in the church in the last couple of years, principal among those, the Dallas Mission Consultation. It has been described as a watershed — as a real working of the Holy Spirit — as Presbyterians from a broad range of perspectives formed a statement of mutual encouragement, of acknowledgement that there are many ways to carry out mission in the world, and that we are better and more faithful when we do it in cooperation and collaboration with each other. It has guided much of our work, principally in the realm of international, global mission.
Another marker is (that) the GAC, now GAMC, brought to the 2008 GA a call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” It has caught on in a lot of places, as an inspirational call that addresses on the one hand the concern about the decline in membership and loss of vitality in some area of the church, and at the same time recognizes that there are SO many places where congregations are transforming, people are engaging in mission, lonely people are finding a place in a church. It has helped us lift that up to encourage us to grow Christ’s church in evangelism, discipleship, diversity, and servanthood. GAMC is bringing that back to this year’s GA to renew that effort.
JH: How would you describe the personal leadership style you’ve been exercising in the building and in the larger church?
LV: That’s probably something that’s better for other people to describe than myself. I like to think that I do a lot of listening. I am by nature a curious person and genuinely interested in many, many things, and in what people are thinking, doing, and are concerned about. I listen a lot. And I listen for themes or resonances, aspirations, hopeful signs, that I can lift up and encourage.
When I first started, the GAC had just had serious budget reductions in staff in large numbers, had decided to dismantle the vision structure that had guided the organization for 15 years or so. They also downsized the council and reshaped its committee structure. So my first task was pure organization and restructuring of our life together. The changes have served us well. So what do I say (is my) leadership style? I have tried to follow the lead of Peter Senge, giving voice to common aspirations. A task of leadership is to cast vision, instill hope, and instill trust, and I try to do that as well.
JH: What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the national staff? What are you proudest of, and what would you like to see change?
LV: I think one of the greatest strengths of our staff is their sense of call and passion and commitment. And one of our challenges is their sense of call and passion and commitment. We know we are in a time of great change, we know our resources are changing both in amount and sources and trends. We know that the church is changing and leading change. But we’re humans. Change is hard. But I’m proud of how much openness and willingness there has been to move into new ways of working, into a renewed commitment to connect with the church, listen to the church and to be responsive. We have claimed our values to be collaborative, accountable, responsive and excellent care. We have more to do, but I think that these are important values that are playing out in all kinds of places.
JH: Introduce our readers to your new deputy executive director for mission.
LV: Roger Dermody has been the executive associate pastor at the Bel Air Church in California. Roger has, first and foremost, a deep faith and commitment to the Lord and commitment to the church. He has experience in a whole range of ministry areas: church planting, congregational life, working regionally, and working internationally. He also is a very good manager, a team builder, and has a pastoral heart that I think will be wonderfully received among our staff. I am really looking forward to having a partner in ministry that I can bounce ideas off of. I am really looking forward to having him on board.
JH: You’ve asked the GAMC to think about what kinds of things the national offices do best and which can’t be done by other levels of the church. What are some of those key functions?
LV: I raised those questions to help us look at what we’re doing. As we’re seeing our role as connecting, equipping the church, inspiring the church, we can find stories and lift them up to encourage and inspire others. We can connect people to resources. Perhaps that’s more important than necessarily creating resources. We have a tree top view from which we can see where there are issues to be addressed and some ways to pull things together.
For example, we realized that we have more candidates coming out of seminary than churches open and available to first call candidates. At the same time we have underserved congregations, including ones who can’t afford fulltime pastoral leaders. And so, connecting with an interested Foundation donor, we put these elements together to create the For Such a Time as This Pastoral Residency Program. Presbyteries will identify congregations needing pastoral leaders, we will work with new seminary graduates looking for a first call, matching them into cohort groups where they are mentored to learn and encourage each other. That’s one example.
JH: You’ve hired staff to do fundraising and have said it’s important for the PC(USA) to bring in new dollars. What are the biggest challenges the denomination faces in trying to raise new money?
LV: We have a very complex funding system that no longer is serving us well. Our plan for missions support, which is actually just a few decades old, once flowed funds from congregations to presbyteries, to GA, to international mission, but it has been declining considerably. By 2012 or 13, it will be half of what it was in 1999. Yet we’ve seen in the last couple of decades explosive growth of parachurch ministries such as World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Opportunity International, where I used to be associated, and these ministries tell stories, connect people to their work, engage, and ask for support.
The church needs to be doing the same. We see the asking as a part of our ministry. A number of donors … we’ve connected with in the last two years have responded with, “Thank you for asking. This is the first time the church has asked me to participate in this way.”
JH: What changes might come in your second term?
LV: Of course, it’s a second term only if the GA commissioners confirm me. If they do … well … I think that many pieces are in place and we’re gaining momentum on some of the matters we’ve already discussed the moving from being a resource generator, provider, a bank of experts to being connector, equipper, facilitator — continued growth of mission networks. The Haiti response, for example. Folks have given $9 million to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Organizations have partnered in unprecedented ways: PDA, World Missions, Self Development of People, the Hunger Program. We’re utilizing a much more multi-aspect approach to this situation. We also have been holding webinars. In the first webinar over 300 people participated who wanted to know what’s going on, who wanted to share their experiences, their prayers, wanting to know how we can help, when we can get involved, what’s the best way to be involved. So this is one way our ministries are coming together in more collaborative ways that has multi-parts in a more effective way.
We’re excited to be rolling out a brand new Web site before GA. One of the features of the Web site will be a lot more means for conversation. How do I tell my story? How do I get involved? Who all is doing such-and-such? Where are resources for something else?
We had a focus group conference call a few months ago with a number of church leaders about mission priorities and areas of concern. One of the participants said, “You should be speed-dial #1 for everyone in the church who wants to get involved in something, wants to know how to do something, and your role [speaking to the GAMC] is to point to others, to resources, recognizing that there’s a lot of expertise throughout the church that we can help people tap into.”
JH: Any final thoughts?
LV: I keep going back in conversations to that part of the Book of Order that says that Christ calls the church into being, giving it all that is necessary … for its mission in the world. So we’re living in times in which the economic conditions are so strained in many places. And, we focus because we have to, and face things that are going to have to end or do less of. Yet we believe in a Gospel of abundance, that Christ gives us all that is necessary for our mission in the world. And so I think we are making some important discoveries, gaining some consensus about ways to do mission with the resources that are available and that can be added when people are inspired and invited to participate. I see signs of hope all over the place where God is working, and it’s up to us to discover where God is working. I think we can.