PITTSBURGH, July 1, 2012 – The 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has elected as its moderator Neal D. Presa, a teaching elder from New Jersey who encouraged Presbyterians to live in the “healthy tension” of being a denomination with considerable theological differences.
Presa is a 35-year-old Filipino-American who for the past nine years has been pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in Middlesex, N.J. He was elected moderator June 30 on the fourth ballot, earning 338 votes or support from 52 percent of the 653 commissioners present and voting.
While he led throughout the balloting, the assembly on its first ballot was fairly closely divided – with both Susan Davis Krummel of Illinois and Robert Austell of North Carolina earning about a quarter of the votes each on the first ballot. A fourth candidate, Randy Branson of Texas, trailed throughout the voting, earning just 9 percent of the votes on the first ballot.
The office of moderator of the General Assembly is the highest elected position in the PC(USA). The moderator presides over the General Assembly, then acts as an ambassador for the denomination for the remainder of his or her term.
All four candidates in this year’s election are teaching elders.
After his election, Presa walked into the plenary hall holding the hands of his two young sons, Daniel and Andrew, and with his wife Grace by his side. – they recently celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary. He told the assembly that his parents traveled nearly 8,000 miles from Guam to be with him.
Presa’s sons, ages 9 and 7, both led prayers at his installation, with Andrew asking the Holy Spirit to protect his daddy during his travels – and to protect all who are in danger in the world.
“Please help the church with all the changes that are happening,” the boy said. “Help us pray when we are scared, mad or confused.
“As we put it in Twitter, OMG,” Presa told the commissioners after he was handed the moderator’s cross. “Wowie, zowie.”
Presa has previously served at top levels of the church – most recently as chair of the General Assembly Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism. He has also been active in the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
He is a former vice moderator of what was then the General Assembly Council. He proposed to his wife during a council meeting.
Presa has a doctorate in liturgical studies and liturgical theology from Drew University, a Master of Divinity degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He describes himself on his website as “Filipino American, Pacific Islander, husband, father, pastor, ecumenist, liturgy scholar, Jesus lover, doctor of the Church, coffee aficionado, tennis player, dog owner, avid runner and reader, Cub Scout Den Leader, soccer coach, parliamentarian, traveler to 6 continents.”
He said at a news conference after his election that a weakness might be, “I get too overly ambitious.”
Presa spoke to reporters of the importance of seeking unity in the bond of peace, not asking people “to subtract or diminish their convictions,” but to move humbly together with Jesus Christ leading them.
As a pastor, ecumenist and liturgist, Presa said, he wants to lift up that “we are a worshipping body,” that in worship liberals and conservatives put aside their differences and gather together in song and around the baptismal font.
Asked how he will conduct himself as moderator of an assembly confronting an agenda stacked with controversial issues, Presa said: “I bring great love. I am a pastor who listens, and I have a non-anxious presence.” Although he is a trained parliamentarian, “I will use the gavel sparingly . . . Let’s have a full debate. Let’s not call the question right away.”
Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly, presided over the election – and was given a standing ovation when thanked by the Committee on Local Arrangements. Bolbach is in treatment for cancer and she did her work sitting in a wheelchair, wearing a dapper fedora. She will leave the assembly July 1, for a vacation at the beach with friends.
In an hourlong question-and-answer session, the commissioners fired fastball questions directly at the candidates – the first one being about same-gender marriage.
Jeff Krehbiel, a teaching elder from National Capital Presbytery, said he is pastor of a church in the District of Columbia, a jurisdiction where same-gender marriage is legal. A candidate for ordination from his congregation is in a same-gender relationship and plans to marry next summer.
“I can preside over her ordination service, but not her wedding service,’ Krehbiel said, asking the candidates for their views on that issue.
Distinctions were immediate.
Branson described the issue as “the elephant in the room” and a matter of “how far can we trust each other.” Krummel said she would want to turn to scriptural authority and to hear from the commissioners, because “we have not prayed together about this topic yet. We have not discussed it.”
Austell said the issue directly affects people he knows and cares about – “people I love, people in my church. “ He also said, “God’s word has convinced me that God desires marriage for a man and a woman,” even though his pastor’s heart urges him to be “weeping with those whose hearts break at that news.”
To some extent, Presa answered the question about two weeks ago.
His vice-moderatorial candidate, teaching elder Tara Spuhler McCabe, made headlines when she acknowledged that in April she had signed the marriage license of two women who married in the District of Columbia and at whose ceremony she had officiated. Presa issued a statement saying that he and McCabe disagree on that issue, but that they could model for the PC(USA) a way to work together despite theological disagreements.
The assembly will vote July 1 on McCabe’s election.