DENVER (Outlook) – Shannon Johnson Kershner is senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. She will speak during the final plenary session at the 2017 Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual national event in Denver, where more than 600 are attending, and preach during closing worship on Jan. 28. She talked with the Outlook’s associate editor Jana Blazek on Jan. 27 about the importance of education in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Outlook: The theme of this year’s conference is “God with us in the chaos.” What word do you think our Reformed theology has for those facing chaos?
Kershner: For me, I think the emphasis on sovereignty of God is a pretty strong word. But there is this sense that what is chaotic to us right now, especially in these days, that it’s not like God has abandoned ship, but somehow we’re still all under the providential care of God. That doesn’t mean that we get to opt out or that we get to hide under the covers and hope that it all sorts itself out, but we go into the continued work of being faithful to the gospel and working for God’s freedom and justice and mercy for everyone – knowing that God is still in the middle of all of it and in God’s time things will be well. So, I think it’s both eschatological hope as well as sovereignty of God. When I can breath that in, I can take some solace from that. We say, “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” and that people of good faith will differ in that, [so] we need to exercise mutual forbearance and show each other respect. I think that continues to be a strong word for us as we navigate such times of divisiveness.
Outlook: Where are you finding hope and peace in the chaos of ministry?
Kershner: [Laughter] You can tell them, “she laughed.” I find a lot of hope – and I don’t know if I’d call it “peace” – but, hope and laughter with my colleagues and those on staff. We are, most of the time, rather playful together and I think we help each other not take ourselves so seriously and remember why we do what we do. I find hope and peace in being with my kids and my husband and the regular daily route of life. And in making sure that I continue to make sure how important that is – to be present for the regular daily routine of life. I find hope and peace in our services of worship.
Emily Heath has a new book called “Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.” She’s a United Church of Christ pastor and I’m going to quote her in my plenary. She said that compulsory Christianity is dead. So people are there because they want to be. I’ve walked around our neighborhood in Chicago on a rare Sunday morning when I’m not preaching, and there’s a lot of other stuff one could do. There’s some good brunch. There are some good things going on. And yet, all of these folks are coming in to worship. The sanctuary is full. And that, to me, provides me with a great deal of hope: Even if we may not agree on what the exact response to chaos might need to be, we’re all in there trying to figure it out.
Outlook: What role do you think education plays in the Presbyterian congregation of 2017?
Kershner: I think it’s a tremendous role. For us in the PC(USA), education has the potential to help us grow deeper in our own discipleship, be able to articulate more clearly what we believe and why and how that then translates into our everyday actions. That is also what I’ll talk about a little bit in plenary. I think, in some ways, we might have lost language of discipleship. So, we know that we do a lot of really important work out in the world for social justice and for healing, but we may not be able to speak exactly how that translates to our faith. Like, what is the motivation? What does that have to do with being a follower of Jesus? I think educators are on the frontlines of helping us learn how our story and the biblical story (what we know of God) intersect. And people are starving for it. Especially in moderate to progressive congregations, I think people are starving for it. Education – if we can help [educators] continue to do what they’ve always done –it’s going to be a tremendous call. I know it’s difficult, because there are so many churches who cannot afford a full-time educator plus a pastor, but boy, the ministry of education and equipping and discipleship is absolutely critical!
Outlook: What is your favorite part of the APCE conference and why?
Kershner: My favorite part is there are people here from every season of my life. I have people who knew me when I was a child who are here. My youth group director when I first sensed the call into ministry is here. I have kids – well, they were kids in the youth group that I led – who are here now as educators or as ministers. Educators who I’ve worked with in previous congregations are here. So, every single season of my life, there’s someone representing that here at ACPE. So, it’s being able to understand the fullness of the Presbyterian household and that I stand on their shoulders. The only reason I do what I do is the love and care they’ve shown to me over the last 44 years. Definitely the community is my favorite part.