On the evening of Saturday, June 14, candidates for moderator of the 221st General Assembly in Detroit will be placed in nomination, will deliver five-minute speeches and then will respond to questions from the commissioners and advisory delegates. Then the advisory delegates will vote their preferences — as advice — and the commissioners will cast their votes for the person who will moderate their deliberations, will serve as chief ambassador for the denomination through the next two years and will make pivotally important appointments to special committees and task forces as well as committee chairs and vice-chairs for the 222nd GA (2016). If no one musters more than half the votes, the ballots will be cast again (and again) until one of them does.
The Presbyterian Outlook will present the “coming-out party” for the candidates in a luncheon at noon on election day.
In order to introduce the candidates to the commissioners, delegates and all Outlook readers, we have posed five questions for each of them to address.
OUTLOOK: In your opinion, what is the most urgent need in the PC(USA) over the next five years?
Kelly Allen: The most urgent need is to encourage local congregations/worshiping communities to embrace the spiritual gifts they have and to reach for the resources that will enable them to be Christ’s body in their communities. Our focus is too often what we lack, who is not inside our buildings and what resources we do not have. Let’s uncover the gifts of the spirit we have, walk the blocks of our church neighborhoods, meet neighbors and build relationships and be humble enough to seek wisdom from outside the congregation, even our tradition. This will feed inspiration into congregations and bring new insights for ministry.
Heath Rada: We must reclaim our understanding of who we are as a denomination called to follow Jesus Christ. That means being open to the power of the Holy Spirit as it moves us in directions that are pleasing to God. To recognize and celebrate diversity in our churches, to not be just hospitable but assertive and creative in welcoming ALL of God’s children is essential. Simply put, the most
urgent need in the PC(USA) over the next five years is to faithfully adapt to changes in our local churches, our middle judicatories, our General Assembly and national offices.
Until we have altered our focus so we can affirm new ways to minister to a changing church in a rapidly changing society, we spend too much time protecting the past rather than being open to the future.
John Wilkinson: I am grateful that the theme of this General Assembly is “Abound in Hope” (Romans 5). Our most urgent need is to reclaim and cling to the promise of that hope. Christ is alive! God has called us to share the good news in an extraordinary moment in our church’s history. We are called to be hopeful — not complacent, or fearful, or anxious. In Scripture, every time we are fearful, God’s voice tells us not to be afraid.
With a sense of urgent hope our conflicts can be engaged differently, the facts of numerical decline will not hinder us and the uncharted waters of the 21st century will not baffle us. Boldly and with innovation, we can be light and leaven to a broken and fearful world. God is not done with us. Believe that promise and live in that hope.
OUTLOOK: In your opinion, what is the most controversial matter coming before this General Assembly, and how do you propose that the assembly respond to it?
Kelly Allen: I believe the most controversial matter coming before us will be the proposal to add to the existing PC(USA) divestment list three companies whose products are used by the Israeli Defense forces for non-peaceful purposes in the Occupied Territories. I agree with this proposal. As with any issue involving Israel/Palestine, this question surfaces the competing and overlapping narratives of pain and oppression that define each group in this conflict. Our discussions as a denomination concerning this conflict involve the interests, economic realities, faith traditions, and political commitments of groups beyond the PC(USA).
I hope the assembly will respond to this matter by modeling a form of dialogue that the world can look upon with admiration. Then, the assembly needs to make the most faithful decision it can to further our already strongly articulated commitments to peace between Israel and Palestine, which includes great concern for the disproportionate current experience of suffering of Palestinians economically, politically and physically.
Heath Rada: The most crucial issue we face at this assembly is how to stand for justice. We must accept diversity and learn how to disagree in a spirit of love.
Divestment, Palestinian-Jewish relations, same-gender marriage issues, and Biblical interpretation are significant. But they must be debated in the context of the basic message of our faith. Instead of focusing on love as modeled by Jesus Christ, we have chosen to focus on what drives us apart. We follow paths of anger and divisiveness rather than ones of reconciliation, love and what it means to be one body.
I will always stand for justice. But that does not mean I always know what is just. This assembly should focus on how we, in spite of our differences, can love one another while being open to hearing differing positions. Let God be the judge. That is not our role.
John Wilkinson: Marriage, and particularly same-gender marriage, is an issue facing the church and culture. Marriage matters as we live together in the church and in God’s world.
Marriage is not only a civil or legal matter, but also a profound theological one, speaking to God’s gift of human companionship and the promise and power of covenant.
As we approach marriage theologically, may we also do so pastorally. I hope that this assembly, through the work of a discerning committee, can provide us with room for pastoral latitude, particularly in those states where marriage is legal. At the same time, I hope we can find space for thoughtful conversation about our understandings of marriage, both theologically and culturally, moving ahead together as a church.
Like all controversial issues (marriage, the Middle East, fossil fuel use), how we decide is as important as what we decide, as we seek both clarity and unity.
OUTLOOK: What do you believe are the causes of conflict in the PC(USA), and what do you hope this General Assembly will do to help bring resolution?
Kelly Allen: Social scientists teach us that we human beings exaggerate the goodness of who and what we already like and exaggerate the badness of who and what we already dislike. Though we speak of different views of Scripture and theological worldviews, I think it comes down to our unwillingness to see in “the other” the goodness we attribute to ourselves. Add to this a layer of anxiety that permeates our existence, and you have a recipe for conflict. Conflict cannot be eliminated nor should it always be feared. A General Assembly can help by rooting us in spiritual practices, directing us to honor gifts that emerge among us from and offer us open spaces and boundaries for dialogue where creativity and dignity may be demonstrated.
Heath Rada: This was addressed in my answer to the second question, but other causes are also relevant. Cultural and informational change, technological advancements, generational differences, antagonism toward central authority, an unwillingness to listen or to tell the truth and numerous non-profits engaged in humanitarian services once addressed primarily by the church have all combined to elicit conflict.
Questions being asked: Are institutions like the church still relevant and important to our society? Does all ministry need to be Christian based? Are we able to adapt and to change as quickly as our society is doing, or should we?
The 221st General Assembly will be unable to resolve such a broad set of issues, but with the help of the Holy Spirit we can devise new ways to be the body of Christ in a complex and challenging world of change.
John Wilkinson: We are moving into a new era in the life of our Presbyterian family as we address our conflict in a new way. The issues are well-known; the causes have been less well understood. In general, I believe they have to do with our inability to build communities in our presbyteries and in our denominational family. Relationships matter — building trust across all kinds of boundaries, embracing diversity and difference while claiming the deeper unity we experience in Jesus Christ.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana and I look forward to opening up opportunities for conversation at our General Assembly meeting even as we utilize the best of Robert’s Rules. Such opportunities will not resolve conflict. Yet can we, as we worship and deliberate, model a better way? MaryAnn and I look forward to offering leadership as we find community in our shared baptism and ordination vows, serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.
OUTLOOK: What are your goals for your moderatorial years, and what strengths do you bring to the task?
Kelly Allen: My goals are to:
- Announce with my own life that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near;
- Interpret and connect the important decisions of the General Assembly with the lives of congregations and Presbyterian ministries everywhere;
- Celebrate gifts in all corners of the PC(USA) and urge generous and cheerful sharing of these gifts;
- Demonstrate solidarity with communities who have lived at the edges of the denomination: immigrant and indigenous communities, racial/ethnic minority communities, people who are LGBTQ, as well as those who might now feel more “at the edges” than before, such as those who claim the label “evangelical conservative”;
- To participate in our church’s efforts to foster peace, reverse our devastation of the environment, reform our criminal justice system and support immigrants in our midst.
My strengths are:
- A joyful spirit;A willingness to invest in difficult conversations;
- A sense of humor;
- Mediation skills;
- Local pastoral experience of 22 years;
- Planning worship, training events and developing new community and congregational ministries;
- International experience and interfaith knowledge;
- Strong written and verbal communication.
Heath Rada: My professional and volunteer responsibilities have often equated to being peacemaker or mediator. With the American Red Cross, I was assigned to intervene in difficult situations in San Diego, the Twin Cities, and Ft. Worth. I have chaired and resourced administrative commissions dealing with churches considering withdrawal. I have served as liaison between our denomination and South Africa during the apartheid years, and Israel and Palestine in recent years. Many people have expressed a desire for someone with such experiences to serve to moderate and mediate Jesus’ love, a person whose skills and passions are to restore peace within the church. Doing so would be my primary goal.
Part of that commitment is to explore more fully how our local churches and the other bodies within the church can work together in mutually beneficial ways, to refurbish our model for theological education and to be more up to date in finding funding to support our work.
John Wilkinson: To the moderator task I bring the strengths and gifts of humility, patience and humor and a deep commitment to the “peace, unity and purity of the church.” As one with theological passion and denominational experience, I approach this task with the heart of a local church pastor.
I will rely on my leadership experience to moderate the General Assembly meeting itself effectively, providing space for voices to be heard and decisions before us to be clear.
MaryAnn and I will then enthusiastically travel throughout the church. Great things are happening across our denomination. We want to connect with them and showcase those stories throughout our common life. As we interpret the actions of this assembly, we will also travel to places where the denominational connection might be under stress, to listen and to connect.
We will do all of this with a sense of great gratitude and hope.
OUTLOOK: Please tell us about your vice-moderator running mate.
Kelly Allen: Leslie King is pastor of First Presbyterian, Waco, Texas, after having served as pastor of Osawatomie Presbyterian Church in Kansas from 1994-2012. She earned her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary and D.Min. from St. Paul’s School of Theology.
When I met Leslie, I had the immediate sense that she is a leader who could enter the most complicated situation and offer creative, reconciling leadership. Leslie is a “rooted” pastor who describes herself as “first and foremost a student in the classroom of the local congregation.” Leslie is a committed presbyter. She chaired the Administrative Commission for churches seeking separation for five years in Heartland Presbytery. She served Committee on Ministry in two presbyteries and on a Vision Planning Task Force. In her ministry, Leslie works toward a “consistent integration (in pulpit, classroom and idle conversation) of all the disciplines of hard and soft sciences, local and global politics, literature and the arts into conversation with Scripture.”
Heath Rada: As a white, older, layperson, male from the South, I am acutely aware that I do not represent the face of diversity which is indicative of our nation and is needed in our PC(USA). I need a partner who can help me affirm and understand the church we are becoming.
Larissa Kwong Abazia is that person. Her experiences as a Chinese American, young adult pastor and serving a smaller congregation in New York City have exposed her to the positive and negative effects that others can have on one’s sense of identity. She is passionate about God’s call to a beloved community where individuals are invited to bring all that they are to the Table.
A graduate of Rutgers University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Larissa has served our denomination in many causes for justice, while maintaining a spirit of love and compassion for those who think differently.
John Wilkinson: MaryAnn McKibben Dana is, first and foremost, a good friend and valued colleague with whom I am grateful to share this journey. She is a gifted pastor, a noted writer and speaker (theblueroomblog.org) and an innovative leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Ordained as a teaching elder in 2003 and a member of National Capital Presbytery, she has served as Pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, Virginia since 2009.
A native Texan, MaryAnn graduated from Rice University and Columbia Theological Seminary. Her award-winning book “Sabbath in the Suburbs” has resonated with people of faith who are seeking what it means to live as followers of Jesus in our changing 21st century context.
I first connected with MaryAnn as we’ve shared leadership roles in Next Church. I so appreciate her imagination and creativity — a gift to the whole church! MaryAnn and Robert are the parents of three school-aged children.