The Presbyterian Outlook asked those standing for co-moderator or moderator and vice moderator to share their sense of call as well as their vision of what God may be calling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to do and be in the years ahead. We are grateful to each of these candidates for their willingness to serve, their honest responses and their faithfulness to seeking God’s will. The moderator or co-moderators will be elected Saturday, June 16, 2018.
OUTLOOK: Why do you feel called to stand for moderator/co-moderator?
BERTRAM JOHNSON & ELIANA MAXIM: We have been friends for over 15 years. That’s longer than we’ve been ordained. We’ve witnessed each other grow into our calls as pastors with fear, doubt and wonder. We have supported one another to stand in courageous places, making our faith public, striving to honor God by naming social and racial injustice. We both have full lives surrounded by many obligations, joys and dreams. Neither of us thought to stand for co-moderator on our own. In fact, we both replied, “No, thank you” when the idea was first presented. But after much prayer, consultation with trusted colleagues and loved ones and a bit of wrestling with God, we humbly submit ourselves to stand as co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly.
True to tradition, our denomination is in a season of reformation. As our society moves further away from familiar religious expressions and neighbors become more estranged from neighbors, we see the PC(USA) actively seeking, reframing and sometimes struggling to discover creative and prophetic ways to be church and live faithfully into the justice, kindness and humility God requires of us.
In a spirit of trust and obedience to the voice of God as we hear it, we offer our gifts, experience, our love for God and the church and a desire to see it grow. We hope to be ambassadors of all the ways God is redeeming the world and our bonds as a denomination through imaginative, faithful and culturally transformative ministries. We rely upon God’s spirit to provide energy, wisdom, endurance and hope to serve this call faithfully.
CHANTAL ATNIP: In April 2016, during worship, I was struck with an amazing sense of hope and confidence that God is at work in our church, our denomination and in me. This experience is difficult to describe, but it filled me — body and soul. Even more remarkable was “hearing” an imperative to take this message to our church by standing for election as the moderator of the PC(USA). Frankly, I’ve been waiting for God to let me off the hook since then, but it hasn’t happened.
I feel we are at an interesting time in the Christian faith, not just Presbyterianism but Christianity as a whole. It’s not like the ‘50s or ‘60s. We are, I think, in a time of Acts chapter 2, where we need to determine what it means for us to be Christian in this time and place. We need to individually and corporately listen to God’s call for action, even if it takes us out of our comfort zone.
KEN HOCKENBERRY: I continue to believe, as Isaiah 42 and Habakkuk 2 read and our old hymn sings, “God is working God’s purpose out, as year succeeds to year.” God works these purposes out mostly through changed individuals and groups. In getting to know Chantal and the spiritual movement she has experienced, I resonate with her renewed sense of hope and confidence, which is at work in our church and in all of us. I share this profound hope, that God has and will continue to use our efforts, including the work of the PC(USA) and the 223rd General Assembly, to work out God’s good purposes for the whole creation. As Christians and Presbyterians, we can hold on to this hope, looking forward to the day “when the earth will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.”
VILMARIE CINTRÓN-OLIVIERI & CINDY KOHLMANN: We feel called to this ministry together to embody a spirit of love, justice, reconciliation and hope, proclaiming what God is already doing in and through our congregations, and as witnesses to God’s grace in our lives and ministries. We are called to stand side by side as a ruling elder and teaching elder, showing through our partnership the shared leadership that the PC(USA) embraces at the core of our polity. We are called to live into the diversity that we desire for our denomination, bringing together our different cultures, different languages, different experiences and different vocations. We feel called to offer the gifts God has given us to the church Christ has invited us to serve through the urging of the Holy Spirit with a deep sense of commitment and a profound love for God and neighbor.
OUTLOOK: What is the most pressing issue facing the denomination and/or congregations?
ATNIP: Simplistically, I would say we are missing a sense of identity — what it means to be Presbyterian and connectional. People in the pews need a deeper understanding of what a presbytery is, what a synod is and what the PC(USA) does through our six agencies on their behalf.
The one thing that I would promote aggressively as moderator is to help us reclaim what it means to be Presbyterian — to be connectional. We’re becoming increasingly congregational and each congregation is feeling isolated.
The large questions before the General Assembly of structure and our funding model (per capita) need to be framed in an understanding of who we are as Presbyterians, and with a vision for how to be a people of faith in our world.
HOCKENBERRY: In our local congregations there is a lessening of hope and confidence for the present moment and the future, particularly in churches facing a decline in membership and giving. Too often we do our mission and ministry with an attitude of less — less people to help, less money to spend. At the root of this is a theological question, the same one asked by the children of Israel when they thirsted for water, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7). On our own, we cannot bring the needed water; only God can do that. On our own, we cannot guarantee the future of the church, or its mission and ministry; only God can do that. We need a renewal of faith and hope in God’s abundance.
CINTRÓN-OLIVIERI & KOHLMANN: We believe the most pressing issue facing our denomination and our congregations is the division within the body of Christ that has hardened into a false separation between belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior and the prophetic call to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. The commandment to love God above all and to love the neighbor as we love ourselves is both a mandate to put God’s grace first and an invitation to do so by following Jesus’ example to be at work in the world.
In a highly politicized environment, it can be easy to forget the heart of our identity as reformed Christians: God’s grace and love towards humanity and how we are partners in the building of the kingdom/kin-dom. In many ways we have divided into separate camps, some claiming the saving work of Jesus as more important, and others focusing on the call for justice as more important — positions that become viewed as contradictory and mutually exclusive. Though the saving work of Jesus and the call for justice are not on opposing sides, we are struggling with the tension between these values, seeing and treating each other with suspicion, as each side claims “to love God more” or to be “more faithful” than the other. The message of Jesus is not an “either/or” message, but a “both/and”: Because Jesus Christ, the son of God, was born of a woman, lived and died in our midst for our sake, healing, feeding, teaching and forgiving, we are also called to extend the same care to our neighbors, giving equal attention to feeding, healing, teaching and forgiving.
As a reformed church that is always being reformed according to Jesus’ word and way, we need to transcend the division of partisan politics and remember we share this mission together. Each congregation is called to discern God’s will in its context and to live into both the commandment of loving God and the commandment to love all neighbors. We must continue our efforts to understand and listen to each other as we lead by example, being church together. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
JOHNSON & MAXIM: It seems that some of us have forgotten that following Christ and living as his church demands we allow ourselves to die and be made new daily. This means we must surrender our attachment to complacency, culture and comfort. We believe the church needs to reclaim its place at the edges and cracks of society, not at the seats of power and privilege. Our mission is not simply to survive, but to serve even at the risk of dying. We state this with full confidence that we are resurrection people, and need not fear death of what was, but rejoice in the new things God is doing in and through us.
Our congregations cannot rest in the way things have been. If we really want to move into new, true relationship with God and neighbor, we must become honest and broken. If we want to share in God’s healing of our communities and ensure all are fed, sheltered, welcomed and truly free, we must rely on humility, prayer and repentance, and we must commit to a theology of reparations that empowers all to experience God’s beloved community here and now.
OUTLOOK: What do you see in the PC(USA) that inspires you and gives you hope?
CINTRÓN-OLIVIERI & KOHLMANN: Many PC(USA) congregations are reflecting their communities with greater diversity, speaking languages from around the world, and combining the best of who we are as reformed Christians in the Presbyterian tradition with new expressions of faith and worship. New worshipping communities are springing up across our denomination and, alongside long-established churches, are getting to know their neighbors, not for the sake of better numbers but in order to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and to care for one another in real, tangible ways. Communities are being blessed by Presbyterians who are following their promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love to break down the systemic barriers to living abundantly. While wrestling with issues of racism and white supremacy, poverty and injustice, climate change and immigration reform, we see congregations clearly and emphatically claiming the good news of the gospel as the starting place for conversations and action.
Within the denomination, programs like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Young Adult Volunteer Program, among others, provide that collective and connected arm of service and aid to communities across the country and the world. God’s people are stepping out in courage, faith and conviction, being church, and the results are miraculous and messy and filled with the glory of God.
JOHNSON & MAXIM: We see signs of hope, growth and faithfulness!
There are churches and ministries advocating justice and mercy for all of God’s people through word and deed. There are Presbyterians committed to embodying the fruits of the Spirit in their own communities. They are servant leaders living radical, extravagant love in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
- Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, has been actively involved in the sanctuary movement for years, providing hospitality, safe space and support to immigrants whose lives and families are threatened daily. They are transforming their region through their presence and partnership with the alien and refugee.
- Seattle Presbytery’s partnership with the North Coast Presbytery of Colombia has taken on a whole different meaning, and mutual relationship is the number one objective. Teaching, preaching and accompaniment is provided by both presbyteries to each other in their ministries of contextual reconciliation.
- Allison Creek Presbyterian Church in York, South Carolina, was willing to confront its community’s white supremacist history in all its pain and violence as well as commemorate the courage of early civil rights leaders. It restored a long neglected slave graveyard and created opportunities for the congregation and its neighbors to learn their history as they work toward reparations and equity.
We are encouraged and excited by the growing diversity in age, gender identities, ethnicity, nationalities and sexual orientation of church leadership throughout our denomination. We joyfully view this as a growing and fuller representation of the beloved community and the kin-dom of God.
ATNIP: First, I see a shift of spirit at the General Assembly to one of hope and looking forward. This will be the fifth General Assembly I have attended, and the dramatic change of atmosphere and energy at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, is cause to celebrate. That is not to say that we don’t have serious issues, but that the willingness to abide by our polity – to embrace the belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in each and every commissioner at the General Assembly – is truly inspiring and cause for hope.
Second, I know we are touching lives in the world. At my church, Pine Street Presbyterian Church, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, we have several outreach ministries, including a soup kitchen, daytime drop-in and night shelter. I think that we as Christian communities need to be willing to look outside our doors and hear what God is calling us to do in our neighborhood. And we see this throughout the country and world — truly inspiring and cause for hope.
Ultimately, we are reformed and always re-form-ing. The church we are becoming is looking different than the church we grew up in. I am hopeful for a new and vibrant future.
HOCKENBERRY: I am inspired by the increasingly inclusive stance of the PC(USA). We are getting closer to living out the hymn refrain, “All are welcome — all are welcome in this place.” Some in our congregations are still struggling with this stance, as I once did. Because of this courageous and I believe faithful stance, I am inspired to help the church live this out, and to calmly and gently work with those who continue to struggle.
OUTLOOK: What issues beyond the PC(USA) do you want Presbyterians to address in the next two years?
ATNIP: If we take the great commandment to heart, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then our mission is unmistakable. The three issues that are at the forefront of my mind are:
- Race relations/privilege. How can we work to do “kin-dom” building in this difficult area? What does it mean to be “inclusive,” yet respect differences of culture and history? How do we truly become brothers and sisters of Christ?
- Gun violence and the opioid epidemic. What can Presbyterians do to respond to these problems that affect our neighborhoods? How do those of us who have not experienced these problems firsthand support those that live this reality?
- Immigration and relationships with our Islamic and Jewish communities. For immigrants, how do we stand for the “least of these”? How do we do “kin-dom” building with our Abrahamic brothers and sisters?
HOCKENBERRY: I am currently working in a PC(USA) congregation located in Skokie, Illinois, one of the most diverse communities in the Midwest. In the current kindergarten class in Skokie, there is no majority ethnic group; this future reality for our nation already exists in Skokie. Likewise, our community is religiously diverse. In our local pastors’ group, we gather with Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams. How can the PC(USA) help address and support the increasing dynamics of ethnic and religious diversity, in a manner which lessens fears and increases mutuality toward the common good of all God’s children? I believe we have a hopeful message that can address this reality.
JOHNSON & MAXIM: We are inspired by the foundation laid by our current co-moderators through study and conversations around racism, white privilege and poverty. Sharing in their vision, we wish to encourage the denomination to embody dignity, equity and inclusion for all God’s people. It’s not enough to preach good news from the pulpit on Sunday. As PC(USA) congregations, mid councils and denominational agencies, we must establish and support kin-dom structures, processes, policies and ministries that will bless, equip and empower all, not just some. We believe this can strengthen our voice in education, law enforcement, corrections, immigration and voting rights — where white supremacy continues to prevail.
We also need to live more fully into the vision Jesus set in Matthew 25. We cannot just serve those impacted by the effects of poverty. We must dismantle systems and structures that perpetuate economic oppression. A faith community that worships the Son of God who ensured all were fed and cared for cannot in good conscience turn its back or close our eyes to sisters and brothers lacking real opportunities for abundant life.
Lastly, we believe the church cannot remain silent on the topic of gun violence and the senseless deaths it causes. We welcome opportunities to organize with other faith traditions on the proliferation of guns and easy access to them in our communities. We worship a God who created humanity in God’s image, yet we have allowed politicians and corporations to put a higher value on the possession of military grade weaponry than on the lives of human beings. These are difficult conversations, but necessary ones for all who profess to call Jesus the prince of peace.
CINTRÓN-OLIVIERI & KOHLMANN: In the next two years, we would like to see more Presbyterians investing in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and working toward addressing the systemic divisions in our society. We’d like to see congregations and the church at large providing safe spaces to engage more in meaningful, eye-opening dialogue and ventures with siblings from other denominations, faiths and creeds. We all live in the same communities and share the same spaces, yet oftentimes we don’t see “the other.” The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, breaking down barriers between men and women, between countries and languages, between past and future, so that all could be welcomed in; we are also called to break down barriers that segregate and divide. Through the spirit, we are called to build bridges. There is still need to live into the notion that community is “ours” not “mine,” to meet people where they are, to show grace and love, to listen to each other, and to make the extra effort to understand and not condemn. In order for that to happen, we have to address social injustice, systemic racism and inequality, and confess and confront where the church has benefited from those divisive systems. The calling of the church is, in part, “to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.” We also claim through one of the great ends of the church that we must work for “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.03). If all of our congregations, ministers and ministries embodied the good news of the gospel through evangelism and a commitment to social justice, our neighbors would be able to say that the kingdom/kin-dom of God has indeed drawn near.
About the candidates:
Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri is a ruling elder endorsed by Presbytery of Tropical Florida. She lives in Miami and teaches English as a second language.
Cindy Kolhmann is a teaching elder and resource presbyter in the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Northern New England.
Chantal Atnip is a ruling elder and the synod treasurer in the Synod of Trinity. She lives in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Ken Hockenberry is a teaching elder in Chicago Presbytery and interim pastor at Carter-Westminster United Presbyterian Church in Skokie, Illinois.
Bertram Johnson is a teaching elder serving at Riverside Church in New York City in the Presbytery of New York City.
Eliana Maxim is a teaching elder and the associate executive of Seattle Presbytery.