Tom Taylor, former pastor of Glenkirk Church in Glendora, Calif., now is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s deputy executive director for mission. Here are excerpts from a conversation Taylor had with the Outlook’s national reporter, Leslie Scanlon.
LS: Now that you’ve been in the job for a few months, what are some of your general thoughts on how it’s going?
TT: One of the first impressions I had in the first month or two was that I was surprised, really surprised in some ways, at how many great things are going in the life of this General Assembly. … One of the real challenges I’ve seen is our communications challenge, to make sure we tell those stories and get the word out.
LS: Why do you think that’s so important?
TT: There are a lot of reasons. One has been that people in a post-modern world seem to highly value relationships. … They want to hear those stories. What’s happening in the life of our church? What are our people doing in Asia and Africa and Canada and Thailand? What are we doing around the world, and what are we doing nationally and even locally? I just think they want to know those stories.
And second, I think they’re deeply touched by them. … Those are the things that are so powerfully life changing. When you hear them, they just move you to the core — you have this deep sense of “Yes, this is why I’m doing this. This is why this matters so much.” When a need comes together with a ministry that meets those needs, that’s just wonderful to see.
LS: What are some of your top priorities in the coming months?
TT: One of the things I was appointed to do … was to hire the six, and then it became actually seven, directors (who) are going to be under me. One is half in the Office of the General Assembly too. We just made an offer for the sixth of those seven directors — Hunter Farrell [named the PC(USA)’s director of World Mission.]
We’re just really excited about him, as well as Eric Hoey and Rhashell Hunter, (directors of evangelism and church growth, and of racial ethnic and women’s ministries.) We continue to interview candidates for the position of relief and development. It’s been a trickier one to fill in some ways. But we are really, really excited about those people who are coming.
Once they come, one of the jobs we’ll need to do is make sure we efficiently organize their areas. … We want to be able to organize them in ways that people can operate efficiently and effectively and, frankly, keep the passion and not just get burned out with what they’re doing.
Beyond that, though, one of the top priorities that I personally have, and that I want to keep always in front of the people in my ministry team areas, is to reconnect where we need to, and better connect where we’re already connecting, the life and the work of the General Assembly Council with local congregations and middle governing bodies — presbyteries and synods. I am just obsessed with doing that. When surveys tell us — what was it, 80 percent or something of Presbyterians didn’t know much at all about the General Assembly Council, there’s a disconnect. I am intent on doing everything I can to reconnect. I know there are great things going on here through the General Assembly Council. And I know there are great things going in the lives of churches and presbyteries. And I want to see those two get together. I want to do everything I can to be a networking agent who can help put those groups together, so we can really become a church of best efforts and mutual encouragement and mutual support.
LS: What do you think local congregations need from the national church, and vice versa?
TT: Depending on the size of the church, there may be a difference. I was in a very large church in southern California. We have some very large churches, and it’s very easy in those churches to begin to feel like, “I don’t need the denomination.” But the reality is it depends what you mean by that. If you mean, “I can operate from day to day in the life of our church without a denomination,” I suppose that may be true. But if it means that you want to be a church that has a worldwide impact on some of the most difficult problems and the greatest challenges that I am convinced Jesus Christ has called us to address as Christians in this day and age, you cannot do it without having some kind of connection to the larger, global church body.
When you have examples like 850,000 dead on the ground in places like Rwanda, or you have the AIDS crisis affecting millions and millions of families and orphans in Africa, even a few of the largest churches who combine themselves together are a pittance of an impact compared to what we can do together as two and a half million Presbyterians, linking with several million Lutherans, several million Baptists and Methodists, and other churches. … That’s where I really think the connectionalism can make a difference. …
Now, the smaller churches really more clearly need us. Many of them would like to be involved in, for instance, foreign missions. But they don’t have the ability to send a missionary over there. … So they can get involved, for instance, in foreign missions, or in relief and development down in the Gulf, or in international health issues. They can get involved in all those things through the General Assembly and feel like they’re having a national and even world-wide impact, even though they couldn’t afford to do it on their own.
LS: So smaller churches working together can have a big impact?
TT: When a lot of churches combine finances, prayer, and their creative ideas … that’s how we become a really effective church.
LS: How is the mission picture of the PC(USA) changing?
TT: People want to contribute their resources today far more directly to ministries than they did even say 20 or 25 years ago. They want to know the faces of the people they’re supporting. … They want to know and be able to hold accountable ministries that they’re supporting with their finances far more than they have in the past. … I want us to be responsive to that and positive about that and say, “Yes, we’ll work with you on that.” We want to have a can-do attitude about that.
LS: What impact will the changing configurations have on things — for example, the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, which is gaining some energy and starting to send out its own mission workers. Groups outside the denomination are doing their own mission sending. How does that change the picture?
TT: In many ways, groups like Global Fellowship — I’m very supportive of and want to work with them. I think in many ways they are just yet another example of the ways that people have been giving for a long time and engaging in mission for a long time. Churches throughout our denomination, from liberal to conservative, almost all give some of their mission money to and work through our missions right here at the General Assembly. At the same time, almost all of those churches also have some ministries that they support on their own, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or InterVarsity Christian Fellowship or what have you. So in some ways it’s not new. But what I think is new is the passion behind it and the desire to move forward in mission. I think that’s a good thing.
LS: You came from an evangelical church. Karen Schmidt, the new deputy executive director for communication and funds development, is coming from Jerry Andrews’ church in Glen Ellyn, Ill., which is definitely evangelical. What message does it send to the broader church that Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Council, is picking some people at the top levels of leadership who come from evangelical backgrounds?
TT: I think she’s doing her best to pick who she believes are the right people for the positions, on the one hand. On the other hand, Linda clearly seems to me to have a desire for healthy balance. At the same time she’s chosen us, she has also in many positions in the church expressed a real desire to also have a balance of progressive people. She herself is from Fourth Church in Chicago. There are others at high levels in our staff — and I think for a long time there have been — who are from more progressive traditions. … This may be sort of a rebalancing, I don’t know. But what I do know is that I personally, since I’ve come here, have felt a very warm welcome, from everyone. And I have felt fully included in the life of every aspect of decision making here at the General Assembly. And that’s been really wonderful. … Maybe it’s a new day that way.
LS: A challenge for mainline denominations has to do with changing demographics. A lot of the churches have memberships that are growing older and smaller and are white — really white. What are things worth putting energy into in terms of trying to make the church more diverse?
TT: I know from being a pastor, and a pastor preoccupied with evangelism … what a challenge it is to grow longstanding Presbyterian churches, much of whose population is older adults. But it can certainly be done. And you don’t always see it in the net effect, in the net numbers. Because very often you will have a population that’s retiring and moving away or is dying. But at the same time, underneath that, you can still be growing. … It’s tough, because you see your net numbers maybe still going down. But you can see growth and you see new ministries starting.
Now one of the ways that can happen is simply by taking steps to emphasize evangelism and church growth. I was delighted to see that was one of the four goals laid out by the General Assembly Council. … How do we tell all of our churches, no matter what stripe they come from theologically, to help their people share their faith in Jesus Christ with other people?
My experience is that we clearly across the nation are seeing churches getting preoccupied with church growth. Even those churches with older adults — I’m delighted to see that many of them are not satisfied to stay exactly where they are. They would rather leave a legacy of growth than leave a legacy of a dying church. It takes a lot of work. It takes change, and those two are often very difficult. But it can happen, and I’m hopeful with what I see in many of our existing churches.
To add to that, we are still doing a number of new church developments. We need more funds for that, and I really hope churches step up to the plate to add to those scholarships that started those churches. But we have some really wonderful ones that have been started and taken off. Churches like Church of All Nations in Minnesota, which has done really well. Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh is another. Highlands Church in Paso Robles, Calif. All of these three have just been wonderful successes, some of them focusing on racial ethnic, some of them focusing on cutting edge generational things, some of them just focusing on very unusual way to do things to accommodate their own community. But all of them are very successful, and they’re growing. That’s good news.
LS: It’s hard for a system to deal with that range of possibilities — to have both the rules and the flexibility needed.
TT: That’s right. But I’ve kind of come to believe over the years that there is sort of a genius flexibility in our Book of Order, if you’re willing to see it that way. That it really does compile a lot of years of wisdom in how to keep the church alive, and clearly, when it begins with the Great Ends of the Church, it’s preoccupied with the church continuing to be a growing and vibrant and live body. … If we follow that lead and we follow that biblical passion, we’ll be OK.
LS: Is there anything you’ve encountered since you came that you just really didn’t expect at all? We have this image of this big, lumbering, inefficient, out-of-touch bureaucracy, which sometimes it can be. But is that what you’ve found?
TT: I have been very pleasantly surprised by the passion and commitment of people, again, from all theological stripes, here. The building is filled with people who care deeply and in many cases are very skilled at the ministries that they’ve been called to do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by that, but I was. And it was a very pleasant surprise.