In the midst of a rancorous election season, public service as a calling of faith sounds like a contradiction of terms if not an impossibility. Our public discourse is often harsh and sometimes downright crude. Within the polarized halls of government, discord rules the day and spewing vitriol to trash one’s opponents is not an unusual occurrence. It’s hard to imagine how anyone —even a person of faith — could be involved in the public square without getting hopelessly mired in the toxic sludge. Surely no decent, orderly Presbyterian ought to go there.
And yet, God loves the whole world and is concerned with every aspect of life — even the messy political places. But still, we wonder how we could ever make a difference in those places.
Our Reformed roots offer guidance: Calvin believed public service was not just any calling, but the highest calling. James Watkins, referencing Calvin, writes in his work, “Living Faithfully in the Public Square” that “the state (government) is a special gift of God” through which we might do justice in and for God’s creation. We are not to compartmentalize our lives into sacred and secular spheres, but are called to be in the world, including the world of public policy and service, engaging it with the values and principles of our faith.
Presbyterians who have served in the public sphere can also guide us. They tell a story far removed from the mainstream political narrative, a story shaped by our Reformed heritage and the call in Micah to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God — a way forward that is faithful and effective in the midst of discord.
Faith on the school board
Bob Norwood served four terms on the school board of Rock Hill, South Carolina, from 1996-2012 and was chair of the board during his last two terms. Norwood recalled those years as a time of “unbelievable growth,” when enrollment increased significantly, spurring the construction of many new schools.
Norwood, a lifelong Presbyterian and a ruling elder who teaches Sunday school and serves as finance chair on the session at First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill, said he doesn’t separate faith from daily duties, including those in the public sphere.
“When you grow up in the church, your faith is not something you hang up at the door. Wherever you go, it has its place if you’re dedicated.”
Even though faith can be a guide for those serving on a school board, Norwood acknowledged that controversy over the expression of faith in the public schools can be a complicated issue for school boards.
“We’ll never have a school board where separation of church and state doesn’t come up,” he said, “but the school board’s job is educating children. Getting caught up in arguments can be detrimental to that mission.”
During Norwood’s tenure on the board, challenges arose over the tradition of using prayer at the start of football games and to open school board meetings. In both cases, the opening prayer was replaced with a moment of silence. Another challenge involved the content of a valedictorian’s graduation speech, but in that case the board chose to allow references to personal faith in valedictory and salutatory remarks.
The board also grappled with whether to continue calling the midyear school break “Christmas holidays” and eventually renamed the break “winter holidays” — a change Norwood did not support. Despite the changes in policy, Norwood believes there is “no way to take prayer out of school if you teach your kids to pray wherever they are. You don’t need to pray out loud, but can pray continually, anywhere,” as he did during school board meetings.
As for public service being the highest calling for a Christian (as suggested by Calvin), Norwood believes that applying Christian values and principles to the responsibilities and decisions that come with serving the public might make that service eligible to be the highest calling. The critical aspect of public service for Norwood is remembering we are called to “engage the world with our Christian values.”
Faith as a city manager
Carey Smith spent 42 years working as a professional manager in municipalities across South Carolina and in Florida, serving as the city manager of Rock Hill for eight and a half years before retiring in 2010. Smith grew up in the First Baptist Church in Greer, South Carolina, but attended the Methodist church for several years before he and his wife, a cradle Presbyterian, joined First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill. He served as a ruling elder at First Presbyterian and recently was a member of the pastor nominating committee.
Though Smith and his wife always made their faith and church attendance a priority, early in his career he did not consider his job in public service to be a calling of faith. He “came to the belief of it being a calling after a while,” as he realized how the practices of prayer, Bible study and regular attendance and involvement at church were helping him do the essential work of a city manager: guiding a community to make good decisions.
“I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, but I was not afraid to let people know my faith is a part of how I make decisions. I always felt good about that. Over time it became more evident that it’s an important part of what I do.”
When Smith was asked in an interview about his daily schedule, he took the opportunity to share his practice of getting up each morning in time for a physical workout and a spiritual devotional. He received positive feedback for that response, but since beginning his career in the 1970s, he has seen criticism of faith become more prevalent and more negative. Given that climate, he is grateful for his years in Rock Hill, a progressive city with a strong faith community and a reputation for doing things well. Even with a city council split between Democrats and Republicans, the focus was consistently on helping the city, not on political ideology.
No matter what issues the city faced, Smith understood the importance of giving people a respectful audience for their concerns.
“There has been a decline in listening and treating people with respect on the national level and really in the ability of government to accomplish things. I enjoyed government at the local level because you are closer to those you are serving. You can also see the benefit of working together to achieve good things.”
Smith acknowledges that the calling he didn’t recognize at first was eventually fulfilled through God’s guidance and with the assistance of his staff, elected officials and volunteers in the community.
“The Bible says there is no authority in place that has not been placed there by our all-powerful God, who at times has even used tyrants like King Nebuchadnezzar to achieve” God’s ends. “Today, I do believe public service is a high calling — to have that responsibility is a real challenge and a duty to do your very best … the results are enhanced when we see the will of God for our nation and guidance for all our leaders. I like to think that communities I have served are better because I was there, while always acknowledging my trust in the Lord and the help of so many others.”
Faith on the county council
Murray White (no relation to the author) served on the York County council in South Carolina for 14 years in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when politics was not as rancorous as the current scene.
“It was before anything got mean-spirited. We had some great councils and a lot of respect for each other and each other’s opinions,” White said.
White, a ruling elder at Unity Presbyterian Church in Ft. Mill, South Carolina, who also serves as the moderator of the administration ministry team of Providence Presbytery, believes the desire to serve in public office might be “in the Presbyterian DNA, but you also have to be a little bit crazy to go into politics — it’s like putting yourself in a glass bowl,” an enterprise that requires mental toughness and thick skin.
But the bent to serve despite the challenges may be due to more than DNA. The Presbyterian sense of call is also a factor, according to White.
“Presbyterians have a long history of seeing call as more than something that applies only to ministers. Presbyterians are called not only to the ministry, but also to other vocations and to public service.”
Was his own decision to run a calling of faith?
“I think so. If I remember correctly, Calvin said something to the effect that the most noble calling is public service. When you take out of a community, when it has provided you with a living, you have an obligation to put something back.”
For White, that obligation included answering the call to serve his community and then trusting God to guide him through difficult moments in the public eye.
“Especially when I was chair, there were times during meetings I would offer up a silent prayer when things were getting awkward — and it worked,” he said.
White believes integrity is the most important characteristic officeholders need for faithful service in the public sphere.
“People of integrity — that’s what we should look for in candidates for public office. Integrity that comes through our faith — the result of having strong faith in our maker and following the example set by Jesus.”
Although White believes public officials have a responsibility to abide by the separation of church and state set forth in the U.S. Constitution, religious values still have a place in the process of governing, he says.
“Christian values and principles of faith can certainly guide decision-making in the public square, but public servants have an obligation to respect people of all faiths and ensure that all people have equal access to government.”
For White, public service comes down to keeping the commandments of Jesus to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“It’s about being concerned about your neighbor as much as yourself. It goes back to respect of others.”
Faith in local service
Kathy Pender has served on the Rock Hill City Council for the past 13 years, after previously serving on the school board. Pender became a Presbyterian when she “married into a Presbyterian family” and found those faith traditions to be a good fit. She currently serves on the session and as chair of the personnel committee at First Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill.
When Pender first decided to run for the school board 25 years ago, it was with both a sense of calling and an understanding of how Presbyterians have long valued the importance of education.
“It was a way I could serve God through serving the community. A good education for every child is the backbone of a strong community and nation.”
Pender says she agrees in the broad sense with Calvin’s assertion that government is a gift from God.
“An honest government, people who serve their fellow citizens with integrity, is an important part of living in community. I’m privileged to have served locally with other people who also value serving faithfully with integrity, even though we sometimes disagree on how best to serve.”
Inherent in disagreement are the challenges of finding common ground and disagreeing with love and care.
“If we let disagreement inform us, we can learn from one another and identify what we hold in common. Being open to others on council and listening to what they have to say, focusing on common goals and how we can build a better community — those are key parts of leadership.”
Another aspect of leadership is listening to the “ideas, complaints and worries” of constituents. Pender believes public servants have an obligation to help people “use their passion and enthusiasm and channel their ideas into positive things for the community.”
“We’re stronger when we’re inclusive of a lot of voices, but it’s messy and hard. In politics, we’re dealing with what is close and dear to people — their children, livelihoods, neighborhoods and community.”
Pender says her faith grounds her as she continues to live into her calling to serve her community by listening to the concerns of colleagues and constituents and seeking to use resources wisely.
“How do you live out your faith in a way that is effective and treat others well? It is acontinual challenge to work in the public sphere and be the person God wants me to be.”
In the midst of a rancorous election season, the words of Frances Taylor Gench in “Faithful Disagreement” take on greater urgency: “Indeed, conflict provides the opportunity to bear witness to the fact that the gospel makes a difference in how we deal with those with whom we disagree — an important witness to make, crucial to our vocation in a world of increasing polarization and violence.”
Into the midst of this world, Presbyterians are called to make a difference.
Ann White is the interim associate presbyter for education and resourcing in Providence Presbytery. She is a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Union, South Carolina.