“Try to be as much like Jesus as we can” — Presbyterians discern a vision for the church

A church that centers those on the margins.

A church that is willing to challenge structures of inequity — to not just feed the poor, but ask why people are hungry, why the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and to figure out what needs to change.

A church that’s not afraid to make donors and people with power in local congregations unhappy.

A church that stands for what Jesus stood for.

“Jesus was very political” – wiling to criticize the structures of power, said Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). “If people were being exploited, if they were being mistreated, he called it out.”

Moffett is helping to lead the PMA through a year-long process of discernment that is expected to result later this year in a restructuring of the agency, with a vote by the PMA board on the new plan expected in October. Starting in April, that process has involved a series of in-depth conversations by what’s known as the Leadership Innovation Team or LIT – roughly 36 people, including 8 PMA board members, 17 PMA employees, and others including pastors and mid council leaders.  In recent months, LIT members have participated in 17 discussion sessions, three hours each, led by consultants David Hooker and Allen Hilton.

On Aug. 6, Moffett and two representatives of LIT – Shavon Starling-Louis, pastor of Meadowlake Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and James Parks, a member of the PMA board and a community organizer from Baltimore – spoke with reporters about what they hope the PMA restructuring will mean for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Diane Moffett

Why restructure?

“It is time,” Moffett said. “Look at the time we’re living in,” at the challenges all around. “We’re in the midst of the pandemic still. We still see some light at the end of the tunnel, but quite frankly it’s going in the wrong direction right now in this nation.”

Racism. White nationalism. Division. The influence of social media. Global warming, already causing devastation around the globe. Migration.

“The church has a great role to play.” She cited Isaiah, chapter 61: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed.”

Moffett said when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she could see the need for the church to be more nimble, more strategic. The pandemic forced changes in how congregations used technology and social media. “It forced our churches to understand that it’s not the building. We are the church. The people are the church.”

A lot of times a reenvisioning process is hierarchical and top-down, fueled by the values of white supremacy, she said (the idea: “There’s these people who know and should dominate over others”). This time, there was space for prayer and to listen to many voices – from young adults to ecumenical partners – “to soak in and sense what is the Spirit doing and what are we hearing?”

Starling-Louis spoke of the value of “the real work of discernment with and for the church. I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I’m like, hmmm, I’m not sure anyone is listening. Or I’m not really sure we’re about the co-creation of the kind of just world we feel called towards. And I didn’t feel that at any point” in this process.

The consultants helped the participants develop skills to work for systemic change, she said. “As a pastor, to have those skills and that discernment under my belt feels like a huge gift too. To watch what it means to see the church dream together.”

James Parks

Parks acknowledged that “I was a skeptic in the beginning” about the process. “I have said over the years that I have thought we have made some very wonderful statements and had some great visions that went nowhere. So I was concerned,” hoping this wouldn’t be another time “that we play church.”

What happened instead, Parks said, is that “I found the discernment to be valuable, in the sense that it helps the leadership of the church understand who we are. Who we are and whose we are. That our role is to try to follow Jesus, and to try to be as much like Jesus as we can.”

Moffett also spoke of the cost of making change.  If the church is following Jesus, “then we will run up against systems and structures,” she said. But churches don’t want to do that” – and sometimes pastors who call for systemic change face opposition from their congregations or are forced out.

When the church starts “advocating for the justice and love of God towards all creation, to become radically inclusive, that is not what the status quo is right now. … It’s time for us to put our feet down and say who are we? Who are we? And determine from who we are, this is what we will do.”

In the months to come, the LIT is hoping to invite congregations and presbyteries to have those same sorts of conversations about what it means to live out the PMA’s commitment to being a Matthew 25 church.

Starling-Louis said she believes “the spaces where we’ve been most stuck and unable to do the gospel are the exact intersections where white supremacy culture has dominated.” Instead, she said, through this process Presbyterians are being invited to say “we will choose Jesus. The living of how Jesus lived. The way in which Jesus navigated and cared for the marginalized.”

In this process, “I heard it down to my toenails,” Starling-Louis said, that those “conversations disappear” if the church doesn’t build structures that allow people to live out in practice what they say they believe.

Shavon Starling-Louis

“We tend to be more afraid of the person who has money who might walk out of the door than we are of not following Jesus. When that is the case, that money is the idol. The power and privilege connected to that person is the idol. … Jesus’ ministry must be at the center.”

The church needs to recognize its own contributions to injustice too, Moffett said — for example, its complicity in following the Doctrine of Discovery, which provided theological support for colonization by Christian explorers, and the support of many Christians for slavery.

At times, “we’ve been part of the breaking. … We’ve been a part of the evil,” Starling-Louis said.  “Our job is to be repairers of the breach,” to work to make the gap of how the world is and how it should be smaller.

The consultants still are working on specific recommendations, which the LIT group then will discuss and perhaps reshape before presenting them to the PMA board, and which may involve some loss of jobs.  Parks also spoke of demographic and cultural changes. What does it mean for a 90% white denomination, he asked, when the nation is becoming much more diverse?

Some Presbyterians do work for justice in their day-to-day lives – but don’t see it as the realm of the church, he said. Or they feed the hungry, but don’t ask “why they were hungry in the first place,” or why some use their wealth to ride rockets into space “when there are people who are starving to death.”

Moffett said: “We cooperate with systems that create this disparity when all we do is simply feed the person, when we don’t ask what are the systems that in place that are preventing the flourishing, the fullness of life, that Jesus talks about.”

The PC(USA) may need to reenvision what it means about being a connectional church, Starling-Louis contends. “We’ve been more a club at times than we have been a church and followers of Jesus,” she said.  “It has actually ended up being exclusive often-times.”

If Presbyterians stop being nebulous about what they stand for – if the PC(USA) is direct about its commitment to change structural inequity – some will say the church is too political and they don’t want to be aligned with that, Starling-Louis said.  Others will draw strength – a new sense of connectionism – from a shared willingness to get in the trenches together and do the work of justice, encouraging each other and showing their scars.

PMA’s role in all this: to provide training, resources and connections for those who do want to do justice work in their own communities, Parks said.

“The harder work is yet to come” – to convince congregations and presbyteries to come along, Parks said. He grew up in western North Carolina, where sometimes people stop their cars at the top of the mountains to take in the view. “At this point, we have a beautiful vision” at the top of the discernment process. “There’s still a very curvy and rocky and dangerous road to get to the bottom of the mountain,” to see who’s waiting there, willing to do the work.