Philadelphia Presbytery breaks the mold

After two rejections, presbytery  looked inward —   and found a candidate who sensed God’s call.

Ruth Santana-GraceWhen Ruth Santana-Grace looked across the room at her first meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, this is what she saw: a Korean-American woman as moderator; an African-American stated clerk; herself, a Latina woman, recently selected as the new executive presbyter.

She perceived this too: The oldest presbytery in the United States had concluded its search for new leadership after six years of trying. The reason it took so long: In two failed searches, candidates politely but firmly said, “Fix the problems first.”

This is not an easy time for mid councils in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Churches are leaving, congregations are aging and growing smaller. Meanwhile, the world around the PC(USA) doesn’t look or sometimes even think like the people in the pews. The leadership of Philadelphia Presbytery — which is on the cusp of celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2017 — has developed in this trying environment a cautious optimism, a sense that hard work and honesty about the problems may be leading the presbytery in a new and faithful direction.

While each mid council is distinct, each with its own ethos and challenges and history, sometimes there are lessons in the individual journeys too. “There is a sense that we are ready to figure out what it means to be a presbytery in the 21st century,” said John Willingham, pastor of Doylestown Presbyterian Church and moderator of the executive presbyter search committee.

As the presbytery’s website states: “That we live in times of great change is a reality we cannot control. What we make of that change is something we are able to influence for good or for bad, for hope or for despair.”

Santana-Grace has just moved to Philadelphia after eight years as executive presbyter of San Gabriel Presbytery in California — traveling east in January from a mild winter into the heart of a snowstorm. She loved California and had not planned to uproot her family.

“I liked the weather and the pool in my backyard,” Santana-Grace said. “But something stirred” in her conversations with the Philadelphia representatives.

By the time she accepted the job, Philadelphia Presbytery had been searching for a new executive for six years. Two earlier searches had failed when prospects declined the job, suggesting the presbytery needed to focus first on its internal difficulties. In the previous searches, “they really got told some hard truths by the candidates, and they decided they really needed to do some work,”  said Santana-Grace.

Under the leadership of the most recent interim executive, Lucy Rupe, the Presbytery began doing the work, Willingham said.

“Lucy really helped us deal with those larger themes, such as budget realities,” he said. “We had worked our way through our reserve fund to a place where the reserves literally were gone. We changed the staff configuration to better reflect the budget realities we were facing” — a polite way of saying the staff was pared back, never easy. “I think there were some real intentional efforts to provide people within the presbytery who had felt hurt or ignored, to give them an opportunity to share those experiences and those feelings as a way of speaking the truth in love.”

The Presbytery also made a physical shift, moving from its offices in historic downtown Philadelphia to a new, energy-efficient building with adequate parking, proximity to the rail line and a more central location for the mid council’s 133 congregations. To foster a sense of community, it also created four regions within the presbytery and scaled back to three full presbytery meetings each year, with other meetings held by regions within the four counties the presbytery encompasses, so Presbyterians in those areas can build stronger relationships.

There’s also an emphasis on nurturing mission partnerships — such as the decade-long relationship Langhorne Presbyterian has established with Promised Land Ministries in Guatemala, or the presbytery partnership with two PC(USA)-related denominations in Zambia.

When the presbytery got ready to conduct its third search for an executive, representatives of the nominating committee contacted people in every presbytery and synod and the presidents of every PC(USA) seminary, seeking recommendations. They sent letters and followed up with phone calls. “They really wanted to reach far and wide,” Santana-Grace said.

In the end, that persistence and enthusiasm, along with a growing sense that she should pay attention, made her start to consider the possibility. She began calling people familiar with the presbytery, and “people were telling me if you’d called me two years ago, I would have told you to hang up the phone,” Santana-Grace said. “Instead, everyone was saying, ‘Something’s happening there.’ ”

She stayed in the conversation, exploring what might happen, because she’s learned “if you’re in a dialogue, play it out. I think as women we don’t do that as often.” When she was offered the job, her colleagues in San Gabriel told her: “How do you argue with God? It feels like God is in this — it has felt like this from the beginning.”

Among the open questions for Philadelphia presbytery is how it will move into a future in which Presbyterian demographics are very different than those of the U.S. Many presbyteries see those shifts too — such as San Gabriel, where half of the 44 churches worshiped in languages other than English. San Gabriel ordained the first Hispanic woman as a teaching elder in southern California, Santana-Grace said, and now “she’s in a community that’s all Chinese.”

One of the learnings for Philadelphia presbytery has been how to blend its sense of history and tradition with an openness to the challenges of a new day. Santana-Grace said one of her priorities in her first 100 days there — the journey to her installation in May — is to meet with Presbyterians involved in urban ministry, in immigrant leadership, in working with young adults.

“Philadelphia is a tough, racially complex place,” she said. “These churches are struggling, a lot of them. They’re finding themselves in buildings that can’t be sustained. What are the options before us? It’s not unlike the questions we ask around the country. Do you have a vibrant core of people who are feeling called?”

The answers won’t come easily — more work lies ahead. Philadelphia could be “stereotyped as the epitome of heritage and tradition,” Santana-Grace said. She hopes it’s also becoming a place “to build anew.”