Louisville, Kentucky – As the institutional church continues to change – in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing declines in levels of religious participation, Christian nationalism, economic stresses and more – church leaders today serve in a time of both considerable challenges and of opportunities.
Those realities wove through the conversations at the 2022 Moderators’ Conference — at which about 145 presbytery and synod moderators and vice moderators gathered in person and online Nov. 10-12 for the hybrid conference.
At the end of her sermon during opening worship Nov. 11, Shavon Starling-Louis – co-moderator with Ruth Santana-Grace of the 2022 General Assembly – pronounced a blessing on the moderators. “You are claimed in the waters of baptism by the God of all creation,” Starling-Louis said.
She told these elected church leaders: “I’m proud of you, siblings. I’m grateful for you.” And also: “Thank you for saying yes to leading God’s people in these days.”
Starling-Louis and Santana-Grace have chosen as their watchwords the phrase “Unbounded We Thrive” — which Starling-Grace described as freedom from fear and anxiety, from “places of blame and shame that might shut us up,” from unrealistic expectations. And a living into the abundance that comes from following where God leads; from respecting the dignity of all people and all creation; from exercising self-care; from seeking wholeness, repair and truth.
Starling-Louis preached from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the Beatitudes – saying that the word beatitude conveys the idea of a blessing, and that mid council leaders both provide a blessing to others through the work they help to shepherd and are themselves deserving of receiving a blessing, even in complicated times.
In the church, “mourning is real,” when some who used to sit in the pews and presbytery meetings no longer are there. Even when Presbyterians realize “the buildings have never, ever, ever been the church,” the temptation to think that way lingers, Starling Louis said.
While Jesus in the Beatitudes offered words of compassion – blessing those who mourn, who yearn and work for peace and justice, who are poor in spirit – he also pointed to the work necessary to make the world more just and equitable, Starling-Louis said. The liturgy included this language interpreting the Beatitudes: “We forget that you have taught us that those who scrape the pots and pans of desperation – the hungry and the thirsty – will be filled and nourished.”
Starling-Louis cautioned against complacency or “cheap grace” in a world full of disparities.
“The kin-dom of God is both now and not-yet,” she said. Sometimes the Beatitudes have been used to oppress and abuse folks, telling them: “You just deal with this bad stuff now because you are going to be OK in the by and by.” Starling-Louis challenged the moderators to work for peace and justice “right here and right now,” to put their faith into action to advance “the coming of things to be.”
She also acknowledged that church leadership is hard and sometimes contentious.
“Take care of yourselves, siblings,” she told the moderators. Find your people. Set boundaries. Make time for rest. Recognize that “we live in a broken world,” and someone will always be mad at them about something.
“It is not your hustle” that pleases God, or the level of applause the mark of worthiness, she said. “Blessed are you because you are seen and loved and named and claimed” by God.
Throughout the conference, there was plain talk about the difficulty of ministry in these challenging times.
“Where the rubber hits the road is in the life of our mid councils in this denomination,” said J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “You are not just mid council leaders. You are ministers of the gospel. … It’s the toughest job you’ll ever come to love.”
In workshop sessions, presbytery moderators gave a glimpse of the realities in their regions.
One woman, who did not publicly identify herself, spoke of the importance of upgrading technology – “sharing equipment that’s in those closets” – and expanding training for commissioned ruling elders. She suggested developing preaching academies to help get the pulpit supply lists “a little more robust” for congregations that don’t have full-time pastors or seminary-trained leadership. “The pandemic caused a lot of hardship, but it also gave a lot of opportunities,” she said.
Sally Newhall, from the Presbytery of Northern New England, said her presbyter has a lot of small congregations increasingly being served by commissioned ruling elders or lay pastoral leadership — so training and support for those leaders is vital.
valerie izumi, assistant stated clerk and manager for General Assembly nominations, acknowledged that many moderators will be responsible for making appointments or nominations for people to serve on presbytery and synod committees and commissions. Some may dread “having to beg people to say yes to serving,” izumi said.
But she encouraged the moderators to make those appointments collaboratively with others serving in leadership in their mid councils, and to bear in mind “the rich diversity” in the denomination including in age, ethnicity, geography, theological views, professional and practical experience. In making nominations, consider not just technical skills “but also other soft skills,” such as experience in intercultural settings, she said.
“Representation and participation are not the same,” izumi said. Groups doing the work of the church need to be representative and inclusive of the broad spectrum of differences in the PC(USA), but also provide an environment in which each person is valued. “I should not have to leave my authentic self at the door in order to sit at the table,” she said.
During one evening session, the co-moderators – seated on tall stools in the chapel of the PC(USA)’s national office building in downtown Louisville – answered questions from the mid council leaders. Santana-Grace and Starling-Louis spoke of their strong sense of call to serve as co-moderators — with Starling-Louis expecting the session of the congregation she serves, Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, to maybe say no when she floated the possibility (she’d only been pastor there for three months). Instead, she and Santana-Grace kept getting affirmation of their call to serve. “They’re all saying ‘Go, go, go!’” Santana-Grace said of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, where she serves as executive presbyter.
“The thumbprint of the Lord has been all over it,” Starling-Louis said.
What are they seeing out in the church?
Among pastors, “I am watching burnout after burnout after burnout,” Santana-Grace said. After getting through the pandemic, churches are feeling the economic impact of declining membership. “Our smaller churches – and those are most of our churches – will have difficulty calling an installed pastor,” she said, adding that the PC(USA) needs creative models of collaboration.
Starling-Louis said she sees “on one level exhaustion, fatigue. … On the other side, we are feeling a leaning in, being excited that the rules that used to be are no longer.” She sees a concern for children and youth — not in terms of how to get more young people to come to church, but “how do we go out and be with the youth,” to be in relationship?
Santana-Grace said she’s watching what’s happening with seminaries — including the calling of two Latino presidents (presidents (Victor Aloyo at Columbia Theological Seminary and José R. Irizarry at Austin Theological Seminary) and a Black Baptist president (Jonathan Lee Walton at Princeton Theological Seminary). “[Walton]is more Reformed than most Reformed people I know,” said Santana-Grace, who has served on the board of trustees at Princeton.
She also described the seminary students she’s meeting as “extraordinary. God keeps calling, and individuals keep saying ‘yes.’ They know it’s not going to look like their parents’ church,” but they want theological education. “Seminaries are wrestling with what it means to make leaders who are more agile, flexible.”
This was the first time the co-moderators have been together in person since the assembly adjourned in July.
“What I love is seeing stories of people of faith who are weary, but hopeful,” Santana-Grace said. “God’s on the move, and there are people willing to go with God on the journey.”