LOUISVILLE – Once a year, moderators and moderators-elect of the presbyteries and synods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) come together for a weekend of training, worship, and connecting with the denomination’s national staff.
Through the course of the Moderators’ Conference, being held in Louisville Nov. 21-23, these 120 Presbyterians will learn the nuts-and-bolts of parliamentary procedure and get a sense of the big picture from J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the PC(USA), and Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
After dinner at the Moderator’s Conference Nov. 22, these church leaders had time to ask a few questions of the co-moderators of the 2018 General Assembly, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann – the answers to which might offer guidance to people who may be sensing a call to stand for moderator at the next General Assembly, which will commence in Baltimore in June 2020.
Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann described the symbolism behind the moderator’s cross and the stoles they wear – with Cintrón-Olivieri describing how touched she was as teenagers she met at the Youth Triennium last summer signed their names on her stole, at her request.
And Kohlmann described how the moderator’s cross – three crosses joined into one – reflects the denomination’s history of division and reconciliation. “We are a church that has historically stood up for people that others wanted to push away, that has sought to heal when lines of division are deep,” that has vision for the future, Kohlmann said.
What were their stories of feeling called to stand for co-moderator of the General Assembly?
Kohlmann, a minister and mid council leader, said she attended her first General Assembly in 2012 in Pittsburgh, and “I was hooked.” She thought as she watched that “maybe I could be moderator,” but as the 2018 General Assembly approached, the needs of the presbyteries she serves seemed too intense. “I put aside what had been a dream and cried about it,” Kohlmann said.
Then, in the fall of 2017, Nelson, the denomination’s stated clerk, flew to New Hampshire to support Indonesian Presbyterians facing deportation. Kohlmann was supposed to pick him up at the Manchester, New Hampshire airport – a relatively small place. But somehow, she lost track of the denomination’s stated clerk – she looked everywhere for him, even sending her husband into the men’s restroom, but couldn’t find him.
Turns out, Nelson had been picked up at the curb by a guy in a pickup truck who said, “I’m your ride,” thinking Nelson was someone else. Nelson hopped in and the two guys drove for some distance, chatting away before they realized something wasn’t right (which came somewhere around the time when the driver asked Nelson, “So, what do you do?” and Nelson replied, “I’m the chief ecclesiastical officer of the Presbyterian church”).
Finally, Nelson and Kohlmann connected – although the experience made it clear to Kohlmann that “he doesn’t know who I am.” The next day, driving along, she told Nelson how much she appreciated the leadership of the co-moderators serving then, Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston. Who will stand next, she wondered aloud.
His response: “It might be you.”
She said, “I can’t do it right now.”
Nelson said: “Now’s the time.”
Kohlmann’s husband, PC(USA) pastor Eric Markman, was riding in the back seat. He told Kohlmann: “You heard what he said. … It wasn’t him. It was the Spirit. You have to do this.”
She prayed about it, alone and with others, and told God: “If this is from you, you have to provide the person to stand with.” She also told God, “that person has to be Spanish-speaking,” and “it’s really important to me that that person be from Puerto Rico.”
Hearing that, one of her prayer partners said, “I know who you should stand with” – and gave her the contact information for Cintrón-Olivieri.
Living in Florida, Cintrón-Olivieri, a ruling elder and teacher, had been approached in the months leading up to that by people asking by phone, text and in conversation if she would consider standing for moderator. One person said, “I dreamed about it.”
When Kohlmann texted her, Cintrón-Olivieri recalled those encouragements and agreed to talk. They got on the phone and talked for a long time, eventually deciding to put their names forward as a team, although they had never met in person.
Cintrón-Olivieri told her husband, PC(USA) pastor José Manuel Capella-Pratts, that “I don’t know if our church will elect two more women” as co-moderators so soon. She had attended every General Assembly since 2006, working as a translator, and “I’ve seen a lot of things” at the assembly. “I’ve seen a lot of love and a lot of fighting.”
He told her that “your call is to be ready to do what the Holy Spirit needs you to do.”
Cintrón-Olivieri and Kohlmann did stand for co-moderator together, and, on the fourth ballot, the assembly elected them. What did they learn?
“The sense of call – it is not only personal, it is collective,” Cintrón-Olivieri said.
The call is to stand – to offer your gifts to the church, not necessarily to be elected.
“If God wants to do something through you, God will do that, in spite of you,” she said. “It is eerie. It is possible.”