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Co-moderator candidates speak about racism, climate change, inclusion and more

On June 6, 2024, Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott sat down with #GA226 co-moderator candidates. Catch the conversation, if you missed it, here.

On June 6, the Presbyterian Outlook hosted a panel with the four pastors standing for co-moderators of the General Assembly. Outlook Editor/Publisher Teri McDowell Ott spoke with Marian McClure Taylor and Danny Morales, who are standing together, and CeCe Armstrong and Tony Larson, who also are standing together. 

Each team, as a pair, had three minutes to answer questions. This bonus Faithful Conversation offers you the opportunity to hear the candidates’ thoughts around racism, climate change, inclusion, and the ways the PC(USA) is evolving and discerning new ways to move forward as people of faith in an ever-changing world. 

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full thing, you can access a recording here.


Introductions

Teri: We are really grateful to have two talented and faithful co-moderator candidate teams with us tonight. Rev. CeCe Armstrong from Charleston Atlantic Presbytery and Rev. Tony Larson from the Presbytery of New Harmony are joining us tonight as a team along with the Rev. Dr. Marian McClure Taylor from Mid Kentucky Presbytery and the Rev. Danny Morales from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida.

Marian, since you announced first, I’ll give you the honor of going first. Introduce yourself and tell us where you’re Zooming from and what has led you to stand for candidate as co-moderator of the 226th General Assembly.

Marian: I love that you’ve coined this new expression, “the faithful four,” from your lips to God’s ears. Thank you, and thanks to all of our colleagues at the Outlook.

I live in Shelbyville, Kentucky. My husband, Stephen, is a physician and his practice is in Louisville, but for the last 18 years, my work has taken me east toward Lexington and Frankfurt. So we located in a place where we could split the commuting. Let me just mention that all four of us helped to create a packet that’s available on Pc-biz.org. You can see photographs and have a lot more information about us if you read our packets.

I came to Kentucky to attend seminary at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and I stayed. But I had studied political science before that. I did research for my doctoral dissertation in Haiti, and then lived in Mexico and worked for a foundation there.

In all these life experiences, I’ve been anchored by God’s love and concerns for how the church can increase justice in the world and reduce suffering. My motivation for standing for moderator entirely has to do with my love and gratitude for the PC(USA). It’s the context where I found faith as a teenager, where I learned Scripture mostly by singing it in choir. I learned to oppose racism at a synod-sponsored event for youth when I was a teenager. I served as a youth advisory delegate to an assembly as a young adult. I’ve been inspired to study the church’s role in the world because of this church.

And it’s where I was ultimately nurtured for my call to serve first as a denominational executive, then as an ecumenical leader with the Kentucky Council of Churches, and then kind of the culmination for me serving as a pastor of a congregation at South Frankfort Presbyterian Church. My experience with PC(USA) partnerships and programs makes me a quick study on some of the partnerships of the church, and that could come in handy as a co-moderator.

I have a pastor’s heart to listen and encourage and inspire. 

I have a pastor’s heart to listen and encourage and inspire. — Marian

Danny: Thank you for taking time to spend with all four of us to get to know us and to hear what gifts we bring to this role.

I’m Danny Morales, I’m a native of Miami. I’m the youngest of five children. I was born to Cuban immigrants. My family came from Cuba over 50 years ago, and they settled here in South Florida. I’m a multi-vocational pastor serving the Miami area as pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, which is our presbytery’s oldest Black congregation. I serve as a hospice chaplain for VITAS Healthcare, and I also serve as a wedding pastor for a local UCC congregation.

My standing for co-moderator came to be as a vision that someone had for me. So thank you to the Rev. Scott Prouty, who serves alongside with me on the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.

I’m standing in response to God’s call to serve the broader church to share my gifts as a motivational leader, as I have done with my congregation. —  Danny

I’m also standing in response to God’s call to serve the broader church to share my gifts as a motivational leader, as I have done with my congregation. I was just recently installed as moderator of our presbytery. When Marian approached me, I thought, “Oh, wow, yeah, that’s, that’s a big leap from moderator of a presbytery to co-moderator of the General Assembly,” but my father had a way of comforting me with wise words, and I recall asking myself, “What would Dad say if he could speak to me right now?”

And I remembered one of those Scripture passages he would often share: “Whatever you are capable of doing, do with all your might” and, he would add, “with all your heart.” Suddenly, it became one of those moments where all I could say was a convicted, strong and resounding, “Yes, Marian, absolutely. I will stand with you.”

This is a denomination that I treasure and that is near and dear to my heart. I owe that also to my home congregation of Riviera Presbyterian Church, where my faith was nurtured and I was able to see that as an openly gay man, I can actually serve in the church. So, thanks to the wonderful, heartwarming welcome of Riviera and their pastor at the time, the Rev. Dr. Lori Krause. Here I am.

CeCe: I am the Rev. Cecilia D. Armstrong, lovingly called CeCe by most of my friends. And so, that’s all you all now. I am grateful for the opportunity to share with you a little bit about me.

I am a cradle Presbyterian, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and baptized at Calvary Presbyterian Church where my youth group leader was the one who kept saying, “Now you go do this cause you got it. You go do this cause you got it.” That happened all of my life. I was encouraged by those around me to see gifts in me that I didn’t know existed. I just knew that I enjoyed being used in those ways. Later in life, I discovered that this affirmation was God’s way of directing what I do. These people could see how God was acting and using me. 

This opportunity to stand as a co-moderator with Tony came out of the exact same thing.

He received confirmation and through a conversation, and the Rev. Dr. Ella Busby said, “Let’s call CeCe.” Our conversation ended with “Pray about it.” And so I did. I asked God, “What am I being called to do?” God’s response was, “I didn’t ask you to do a whole lot of planning. I just asked you to stand.” 

God’s response was, “I didn’t ask you to do a whole lot of planning. I just asked you to stand.” — CeCe

I’m now living in Charleston, South Carolina, where I serve as the associate pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church on the lovely James Island, and I invite all y’all to come down whenever you want to. They’ve got good food and we have wonderful music, and we love the Lord, and I enjoy being able to share that with all of those who love the Lord as well.

Tony: I grew up in North Carolina, and the story of my life’s call has been similar to what others have shared: other people seeing gifts in me and calling me to share those, even before I knew what my gifts were growing up in the Rocky River Presbyterian Church, part of the Presbytery of Charlotte. When my family settled about two miles from the church, it was the church that my mother grew up in, and she began bringing me to church.

I was often the only child in that very old sanctuary, and that church paused to add a moment for children in the service and for me to go up and have a one-on-one chat with the Rev. James Murray. When I was in middle school, there were some other kids around, but I was going through that middle school phase where getting up on Sunday and going to church wasn’t the thing I most wanted to do.

They knew I liked electronics and computers so they lured me to keep coming to church by giving me control over the sound system for the church and kept me engaged in that way. As a high school sophomore, I was approached by an elder and asked if I would take up the mantle of being a Sunday school teacher to the 3rd to 5th graders. The way I’ve gotten into most things is the way I became a candidate for co-moderator: somebody saw gifts and asked me to offer them to the church.

The way I’ve gotten into most things is the way I became a candidate for co-moderator: somebody saw gifts and asked me to offer them to the church. — Tony

My wife Heather has been excited about our run for co-moderators and she has been learning along with me all the steps that go along with it. Then, it’s been a true joy to connect with CeCe and know that I’d be standing in partnership with someone on this journey.

The role of co-moderator

Teri: How do you understand the role of co-moderator? What privilege does the role carry? What limitations? What can you do and can’t do as a co-moderator? What do you expect the joys and challenges to be?

CeCe: The co-moderator role is to be the ambassador, the storyteller, the carrier of the news that’s generated from the General Assembly. We do that with a neutral understanding of allowing the assembly to do the work that the assembly does.

We don’t go in as the think tank for this body. We go in holding hands, walking side-by-side and journeying through whatever we’re being challenged with in the deliberations that we have to have.

The privilege of being a co-moderator is that we get to extend our pastoral role, walking alongside those who make decisions and think through the discernment process of what God is calling the church to do.

The privilege of being a co-moderator is that we get to extend our pastoral role, walking alongside those who make decisions and think through the discernment process of what God is calling the church to do. — CeCe

I’m sure there are limitations. I don’t know what they are. And what I mean by “I don’t know what they are” is: I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and well and that we will be convicted by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in all we do.

Tony: We have talked some about the role of moderating the actual proceedings and how important it is to make sure all the voices are heard, and [in] those discussions and deliberations and the parliamentary process that we sound like the love of Jesus with one another into the world.

Marian: I must say, Tony and CeCe did a wonderful job of mapping out the basics of the role. What the moderator cannot do is speak for the whole denomination in the way that the stated clerk does, but rather speak on behalf of this one most recent assembly that will meet this summer.

Challenges: As we’ve listened to current and former moderators and co-moderators, they say that sometimes people expect the moderators to fix something or fix everything. And that’s just not an expectation that’s a good fit for this role. I do think, anticipating the year ahead, there’s a certain divisiveness in national politics. The national staff are going through a unification process that I think is difficult. So there will be a pastoral role for us there in the area of joys.

Paul, in Romans 1:11, said, “I’m longing to see you so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” I love that because it speaks to partnership. People often say Presbyterians are connectional, but I think we’re more than just connectional, we’re in partnership.

[Former moderators] say that sometimes people expect the moderators to fix something or fix everything. And that’s just not an expectation that’s a good fit for this role. — Marian

Danny: Echoing what others have said, this role allows us to be ambassadors to the church on national and at a global level. Psalm 105 talks about giving thanks to the Lord and to call on his name and then it ends by calling readers to speak about what God has done. In this role as co-moderator, we have the opportunity to lift voices and stories and even some of challenges and to remind congregations across the country that they’re not alone.

And similarly, across the globe, it is my hope that as co-moderators we can be calming and assuring and a prayerful presence to our global partners.

What I think might be some of the challenges is we might not be able to get to everybody at the same time. We might not be able to visit every church or every synod or every Presbyterian or perhaps every global partner.

The apostle Paul said, “I want to be all things to all people,” and that sounds lovely, but that’s probably not very possible.

In this role as co-moderator, we have the opportunity to lift voices and stories and even some of challenges and to remind congregations across the country that they’re not alone. — Danny

Small church ministries

Teri: At the Outlook, we’ve been talking a lot about small churches. The Presbyterian Mission Agency has prioritized congregational vitality, yet many of our churches are struggling. Two-thirds of PC(USA) congregations have fewer than a hundred members. What can the national church do to recognize and support our small churches?

Marian: I do think that in this era, the middle governing bodies, the presbyteries and the synods, become all the more important because there are some things that they can do to help the smaller congregations, like, for instance, youth activities: youth want to be with other youth.

Middle governing bodies, the presbyteries and the synods, [are] important because there are some things that they can do to help the smaller congregations… — Marian

You can help compensate for the size of congregations by having youth activities at the presbytery level. Easy-to-use curriculum can take the burden off the smaller number of people who are tapped to help lead classes. Training for ruling elders and grants can also help. South Frankfort Presbyterian Church received a synod and presbytery grant so we could have live-streaming equipment.

Leadership development for pastors is also very important. Fellowship for pastors is essential so they don’t feel isolated. Executive presbyters can facilitate some of that. In-person visits from presbytery leaders. Presbyterian research says that more than half of ministers in a call do not meet monthly with other ministers.

Danny: I serve a small congregation. When I arrived at New Covenant six years ago, they barely had enough money to pay me and the light bill. So, over time, it was important for me to acknowledge that it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve assured the congregation that with patience and persistence, with tenacity and perseverance, it is possible to obtain growth and transformation. One of the things that I think would be very helpful for small church pastors is to create small church cohorts for congregations and pastors alike.

In doing so, we’d be [reminding] them that they’re not alone.

One of the things that I think would be very helpful for small church pastors is to create small church cohorts for congregations and pastors alike. — Danny

These cohorts would serve as a great opportunity in these communities of faith and their leaders to be sounding boards for one another, to share best practices, what works in ministry, what doesn’t. Oftentimes, we want to create something for our congregation, but we don’t know where to start.

Maybe some partner across another state might actually have a similar idea. We’re not in competition with one another. It’s absolutely okay to share ideas. Creating opportunities and spaces for small church pastors and their congregations to share in fellowship with other small churches would be one great way to get us started.

CeCe: Danny and I served in the same presbytery, and while I was in Tropical Florida Presbytery, I served a small church as well. I was placed there through a program the national church had begun for smaller churches. The program was called “For Such a Time As This.” And what they ended up doing is partner brand new seminarians who needed calls with congregations who needed pastors and leadership.

What made this such a wonderful experience was that I was given a mentor and there was a cohort of pastors in similar placements, and we gathered and met on a regular basis.

Then we got excited about social media and we started hanging out there. What it began was that same thing that Danny was speaking about: this collection of individuals sharing ideas and acknowledging what it is to be the church, the connectional church that we are, the partnerships that we share, all the things that we do collectively.

And the friends that I’ve made through that are still my friends today. So that must have meant something because some of them aren’t even clergy anymore, yet we’re still friends because God does what God’s gonna do.

Tony: My first call to ordained ministry was to a 60-member church on the east end of Long Island. The church was a small church of folks who had been out there 12,13, 14 generations and … had in many ways become disconnected from their new neighbors. One of the joys I found in that call was getting to know the fabric of that small community and getting to know my colleagues. I think there were seven Presbyterian congregations within 20 minutes of each other.

We formed the Eastern Presbyterian Parish and we had events together. We’d get together and have fellowship meals and enrichment, and share stories that needed to be told.

Churches, even if they’re small, are doing vital ministry. — Tony

Churches, even if they’re small, are doing vital ministry to their congregations. Telling those stories helps to inspire ideas and to give just that bit of spiritual encouragement.

Violence in our world

Teri: We do want to talk about the violence that we are lamenting today in our world and we can’t escape. Gun violence, school shootings, the wars in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine, hate crimes, domestic terrorism. What is the church’s role in peacemaking?

Tony: It is crucial and it is timely because, often if you’re paying attention to current events, there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of violence and, and we wonder, “Where is the church in this? Where is Christ in this? How did Christ function as a peacemaker?”

One of the stories that I come back to is the lawyer who asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, which has lots of layers to it.

One of the crucial things for me is that the Good Samaritan stopped when he encountered violence. He didn’t necessarily know how that other person ended up in that predicament, but he stopped his planned journey to attend to that immediate pain. 

And in the story that Jesus told, there are other layers of isolation and division in society. And at the end of that story, the person who asked the question to him is, “Which one behaved as a neighbor?” and his response is telling: “The one who showed compassion.”

When people are hurt in our communities, we have to attend to it in the immediate. — Tony

When people are hurt in our communities, we have to attend to it in the immediate. We need to get involved in our neighbors’ lives and our neighborhoods. We can use our voice as an assembly to speak to larger issues, but we can be peacemakers within our congregations and to our neighbors. 

Danny: We have to wholeheartedly embrace the fact that we’re called to be peacemakers as the church.

Jesus did say blessed are the peacemakers, not the peace lovers. Everybody wants peace. And quite frankly, the world is looking to the church for this. What are we to do? What are we to say? How do we address all this violence? I think one of the ways that church can be actively at work in the role of peacemaking [is] to get out of the pews. Let’s get into the communities. 

What are the needs of our communities? What are the challenges of our neighbors across the street from the church? Do we know the neighbors across the street?

Jesus did say blessed are the peacemakers, not the peace lovers. — Danny

What are they missing? What do they need? You know, the church cannot solve all these problems or all the problems of the world, but we can certainly engage in meaningful conversations with our neighbors and that right there will show our community that our congregations are genuinely intentional about engaging in this kind of work.

Marian: The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program is excellent, and one of the insights they’ve shared with the denomination is that we have to start with our own hearts.

I recommend the “Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement” because often the violence of the world kind of starts in our own attitudes.

Our mission efforts have been creative in coming up with [accompaniment programs] like Witness for Peace, Reconciliation and Mission, certain programs for collaboration with Central Americans. Guns to Gardens is a new thing, an accompaniment program, there’s even something called Guns to Guitars.

Advocacy is important. — Marian

Advocacy is important. Making sure that our communities have adequate police oversight. We have to show up when we see that something is going awry. In Louisville, the Muslim community wanted the zoning board to let them have their own cemetery, and there were some people pretending to be neighbors of that cemetery place who really just wanted to oppose it.

And so a lot of us showed up at the zoning board meeting. I spoke on behalf of the Kentucky Council of Churches. It changed the temperature of that issue in the town and that’s very timely intervention that we can all just show up for.

Pastoral support

Teri: The burnout that many pastors and pastoral leaders in our churches are dealing with may be related to the state of the world and the divisiveness in our culture and the anxiety. We’ve got the changes in the Board of Pensions plan that are causing a lot of anxiety in our Presbyterian community. How can pastoral leadership be developed and supported for ministry?

Marian: This felt like two questions about adjustments that are needed in training and leader development on the one hand, and on financial models for support of congregations on the other side of that.

The seminaries are seeking to provide more diverse field education placements because we need to graduate people who don’t just know how to serve established congregations. Even international field education placements are very helpful because they shake us out of our private view of religion into a freer sense of evangelism that other people might have.

Seminaries are seeking to provide more diverse field education placements because we need to graduate people who don’t just know how to serve established congregations. — Marian

This summer’s assembly may call for a study of the entire preparation for ministry process and the ordination exam system. That’s a golden opportunity, if that gets passed, to really examine [the ordination process]. I would ask everyone to contribute your stories and insights to that process if it does get started.

Danny: Ministry has changed, the church has changed, [and] so has the country. Times have changed. As the church changes, so will our infrastructure, so how we operate the church will also change.

Change is inevitable. I think one way to help pastoral leadership is to make space for out-of-the-box ways in which churches can, perhaps, generate revenue to sustain ministry or how to do church differently.

Change is inevitable. I think one way to help pastoral leadership is to make space for out-of-the-box ways in which churches can, perhaps, generate revenue to sustain ministry or how to do church differently. — Danny

I led our [church’s] session through some intentional and difficult conversations against the backdrop of their dire financial situation during COVID, [which] then made it possible for us to have conversations about, “Okay, how will we be the church in the coming generations?” We discovered that if we maximized every square foot of our property, we could find ways to generate revenue for the church that would help us move away from relying on pledges and tithes. The church could be self-sustaining.

That might not be the case for a lot of congregations, but the key is to help pastors and congregations find pathways toward sustainability.

CeCe: One of the things that I think might make sense is to recall some of the things we’re already doing. 

The Board of Pensions offers what’s called CREDO, and it is an opportunity for those within the program to participate in an opportunity to retool and reset and be reinvigorated to step into the work they are called to do. The late-careers portion of it allows that [reinvigoration] to happen. … there’s also an early career CREDO for the newly ordained or recently ordained; they go through that. Through CREDO, the Board of Pensions is finding a way to highlight and lift up our pastors so that they can retool.

Even a worn crayon still colors. — CeCe

One of the ideas that I walked away from my [CREDO] experience with was that even a worn crayon still colors, and that’s something that we need to remind all of our pastors, right? You still can color. A broken crayon still colors, right? One that doesn’t have paper on it still colors. So when we are empowering pastors and encouraging them to do the work that they need to do by making sure that they take care of themselves, then we have a better opportunity to assist those in congregations to become catalysts for change in the communities where they are.

There are always ways we can grow and change and make better opportunities…. We change, ministry changes, everybody ages. One of the things that I’ve heard ancestors and elders say to me was, “If you’re not learning, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’re dead.”

So what are the ways that we’re growing? How do we highlight [our growth] and make that better? How do we write the stories that we were talking about earlier? How do we combine and work with congregations across all the lines?

I recall very vividly an experience with St. James. We were going to go on a choir tour to another city and they said, “Well, pastor, who do you know there?” I said, “I don’t know anybody there, but if they’ve got that Presbyterian symbol on it, we can go to them and turn up.”

We connected with a congregation there and made things better. So I think that part of growth for all of us allows us to do that together, collectively.

Commissioned ruling elders

Teri: We’re talking a lot about the role of commissioning ruling elders. Do you all have any thoughts about how to support those pastoral leaders specifically, especially as we also talk about small churches?

Tony: Here in South Carolina, our five presbyteries partner together to offer – and the name has changed recently – the lay school of theology or the South Carolina School of Theology, and there is a track for those who are interested in growing their base of knowledge about Old Testament, New Testament, preaching, worship, but also those who are on that track as ruling elders to seek a commission.

In New Harmony Presbytery, part of our recent visioning process was to offer more support to those in that process, financial support to get that training, and also to move the way that we prepare those folks and the oversight of it from our Committee on Ministry to our Committee on Preparation so that those folks who we’ve identified as having the skill of walking alongside our inquirers and candidates to be teaching elders are the same folks who are walking alongside our ruling elders who are being prepared for commissioned service as pastors in congregations.

We’re also doing a better job in New Harmony of making sure that those folks who get commissions are partnered with teaching elders so they have mentoring and connection. — Tony

We’re also doing a better job in New Harmony of making sure that those folks who get commissions are partnered with teaching elders so they have mentoring and connection.

Marian: I would really challenge all teaching elders to befriend the commission ruling elders and make it clear that they are part of the collegiality of presbyteries. We don’t need to have different layers. We need to be in the collegium together. That’s the heart of the Presbyterian system.

I would really challenge all teaching elders to befriend the commission ruling elders and make it clear that they are part of the collegiality of presbyteries. — Marian

Danny: I would just say empowering ruling elders to partner ministry with pastors, especially those of us who do small church ministry. It’s helpful for empowered commissioned ruling elders who feel that they are also partners in ministry and that it’s not the role of pastor to do everything.

Having partners in ministry is very helpful.

Having partners in ministry is very helpful. — Danny

Changes in the church

Teri: Where do you see the biggest change for the church?

Danny: This is a great question, And one that all churches and church leaders need to wrestle with because we know the most constant thing in life is change. The flip side to that, however, is that the church doesn’t like change. In theory, it sounds lovely. Dreaming about what can be sounds beautiful, but when we get down to the nitty-gritty of it, we don’t like it.

And so I think our churches need to be comfortable with change — change is what propels us to move forward. Our unwillingness to let go of the way we used to do things is what keeps us from shaping our future.

I hear folks talk about the fact that the church is dying. I don’t buy that one bit. What’s dying, and what should probably die, is the way we did church 50 years ago because it no longer reflects the life of our parishioners. — Danny

In my opinion, the church is in competition with other means of entertainment and leisure on Sunday and we have to accept that. I think the biggest change for the church is that we need to become more open to doing church differently, different than how we did church 50 years ago. I hear an awful lot of folks talk about the fact that the church is in decline or it’s dying or it’s irrelevant.

I don’t buy that one bit. I don’t think any of it is true. What’s dying, and what should probably die, is the way we used to do church 50 years ago because it no longer reflects the life of our parishioners today.

We’re halfway through the second decade of the 21st century. How we do church today needs to reflect what life looks like today. Five, 10, 20 years from now, we’re going to have to do the same exercise. Does the way we do church reflect current times?

Marian: We’ve lost a huge number of members and congregations. A big part of that is changes that are affecting all the churches, big changes in the culture around us. So as a person with a lot of cross-cultural experiences in my life, I see that as a challenge. I’ve had a number of times in my life when I’ve been immersed in a place and had to figure it out.

I think we need to study our own environment as if we were newcomers. I read about Rev. Grace Kim, a Korean American PC(USA) pastor in Appalachia who serves the Wild Goose Christian Communities, one of the new worshiping communities. And I’m just assuming that she went in knowing that she needed to learn, that she had to make a study of her new environment for ministry.

Well, I think we all need that attitude and we need the tools to do it for the future. That’s a real challenge for us and I do want us to stay on the path of courageous love.

We need to study our own environment as if we were newcomers. — Marian

CeCe: Things are always gonna change. Nothing’s ever stayed the same. None of us are in diapers anymore because we’re no longer babies. We are growing. We’re constantly doing something new and/or different. But no one knows what tomorrow brings either.

So our only goal ought to be to prepare the future — not care for the future, but to prepare the future.

Why aren’t we training our replacements? [For] everything we do in the church, train a replacement. You’re not going to be here always. You’re not going to always stick around. And so if you are training a replacement for yourself, then you get to do what the elders, in the traditions of Africans, do: you get to be an elder and watch the folks doing the work and commend them for the work that they’re doing because you’ve trained them to replace you.

If we go into things with the mindset of knowing that we are not going to be here always, then we don’t set up camp and make plans to stay the exact same way without making a change, without making some kind of difference. I love the fact that I get to spend time with young people and youth all across our denomination because in my mind I’m training my replacement.

The Sankofa bird is the one that gives me the most empowering piece in part of our church.

Why aren’t we training our replacements? — CeCe

This bird takes flight but never forgets the pebble on its back as a reminder of what was. It reminds us not to get too far ahead of ourselves. 

Our church can do that [investment in the future] through our young people. I’m even leery about calling them ‘young people.’ I’m just ready to train the replacement. They can be older than me if they want to be. I just want to train the replacement.

Tony: We’re a resurrection people. Part of change is acknowledging that some things in the church need to stop to make space for the Spirit to do something new. As resurrection people, we have the ability to acknowledge loss, to acknowledge things that served the church faithfully once upon a time but no longer bring vitality. (Rather, they take energy to maintain.) We can honor these previously vital things, letting them die for something new to happen.

Part of change is acknowledging that some things in the church need to stop to make space for the Spirit to do something new. — Tony

GA and the hybrid model

Teri: On the topic of all things changing — I want to talk about the General Assembly. How we gather as a General Assembly has been a real topic of conversation ever since the all-virtual assembly in 2020. What do you think we should prioritize about these gatherings? What aspects of the hybrid model do you think we should keep? And what needs to change further?

Tony: We believe as Presbyterians that when we gather as the national church in this way it is our most representative gathering of the church and where there is the greatest opportunity for discernment. Some of what’s happened with the assembly because of the pandemic and necessity are good in terms of being stewards of our environment. The development of tools that make less paper a part of the process, for instance. But it’s also important that we gather together.

And when I think about the heart of a General Assembly and the gathering of commissioners together along with staff and committees and advocates and the local church — at the heart of it is: “How do we pick up to help one another in ways that are honest and clear and loving and true and visionary and prophetic?”

“How do we pick up to help one another in ways that are honest and clear and loving and true and visionary and prophetic?” — Tony

And how, through that communication, are we bringing ourselves into alignment with what God needs, what Christ needs from his church? How do we use this opportunity to gather to build relationships?

The technology will always change and evolve and the needs of the moment may be different, but at the heart of our General Assembly is that communication, seeking God’s will for us at that moment in that season and building relationships to sustain us as God’s people.

CeCe: Just like cars, they always change, right? We go from one car to the next. We can use a different kind of car as long as we are traveling. And so I think that’s where we hang on to this. Our car is just that communication: alignment with God’s will and relationships. 

Marian: I noticed in an article, and it might have been an Outlook article, that the GA Procedures Committee will be hearing a recommendation to reserve a space for ten days in Milwaukee.

So I don’t know if that means we might be edging toward being fully person again or inching in that direction.

But even if it doesn’t mean that, I’m very hopeful. Danny and I agree that this outcry to bring back some version of the exhibit hall experience is a priority.

Danny and I agree that this outcry to bring back some version of the exhibit hall experience is a priority. — Marian

We need that family reunion experience for a lot of reasons. The communication was greatly enhanced by the kinds of interactions that people could have around the edges of the General Assembly meeting. Programs were able to elucidate and answer questions and recruit people.

That’s one thing we’d really like to see brought back one way or another. The other thing is while we think that Zoom and related technologies have actually been very helpful, I have also heard some lament that the variety of voices that reach the committees has become narrower as a result of this system. I think there may be some ways to improve that even if we stay hybrid.

Danny: My very first General Assembly was in 2012 in Pittsburgh and what I enjoyed most was the themed exhibit hall because it gave us an opportunity to come together. It was a time of fellowship. I got an opportunity to make new friends. I think for the broader denomination, it gives you an opportunity to connect with old friends to make new ones to put aside the work to just be with one another. Some might consider this aspect of our coming together as a big expense, but I feel it’s an opportunity to engage with and fellowship with each other.

We might also want to look at ways our General Assembly can be a resourcing opportunity. — Danny

We might also want to look at ways our General Assembly can be a resourcing opportunity for congregations, for elders, for deacons, for lay leaders, for pastors.

Yes, the business of the assembly is important, but I think equally as important is equipping the members of our denomination, our congregations, our respective leaders.

And as far as the hybrid model, I definitely appreciate being able to do committee work online and remotely — considering that all commissioners serve on their own time and availability. These aren’t paid positions, which means most if not all folks have to sacrifice their own vacation time to participate.

LGBTQIA+ inclusion

Teri: Another topic of conversation in this General Assembly that’s really gotten a lot of conversation going: We are returning to the question of LGBTQIA+ inclusion. It’s been 14 years since the door was opened to the ordination of LGBTQIA+ people in the PC(USA). Where do you think we are as a church on LGBTQIA+ inclusion and what work do we have to do?

Danny: Incidentally, a couple of weeks ago, [Presbyterian Historical Society] posted an Instagram post.

It was the 50th anniversary of the General Assembly in which the Rev. David Sindt stood on the floor of that assembly with a poster that read, “Is anyone else out there gay?’ 50 years ago. You know, since then, not only have we seen progress in the church, but we’ve also seen progress in society at large.

Has it been easy? No. Is it perfect? By no means.

But we have made significant strides. The mere fact that I’m standing to serve as your co-moderator and that if elected that would make me the first openly gay co-moderator to serve, that is a testament to the progress we’ve made.

But it’s also important to state that both my candidacy and my possible election don’t mean that we’ve achieved this state of utopia. That’s like saying, well, we elected Barack Obama as the first Black president, so all race-related issues are suddenly taken care of.

For all the progress that we’ve made, there are still LGBTQIA+ siblings who have been unable to live into their calling either as ministers of Word and Sacrament as elders or deacons because of their sexual orientation and their gender.

So that tells me that there’s still more work to do. I think that we can get to this point where we’re examining candidates on the basis of their qualifications, their gifts, their preparations and their ability to fulfill the roles for which they are being considered.

For all the progress that we’ve made, there are still LGBTQIA+ siblings who have been unable to live into their calling either as ministers of Word and Sacrament as elders or deacons because of their sexual orientation and their gender. So that tells me that there’s still more work to do. — Danny

And when we’ve learned to look beyond gender identity and sexual orientation, maybe then we can sit down and talk about whether there’s more work to do or not.

Marian: We’ve been meaning to mention that our theme verse for standing together is from Isaiah 43.

“Do not remember the former things. Or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

And I think this matter of greater inclusion is one of those rivers in the desert. God refreshing God’s church and giving us new life. One of the ways that I’ve seen that at work is at South Frankfort Presbyterian Church. The dynamic was that the adults loved the youth and the children so much, and when the youth came out or were working on issues of identity, the adults stayed with them and loved them. That was so educational for the adults and such a deep drink of water for the church.

I think this matter of greater inclusion is one of those rivers in the desert. — Marian

Tony: I share in celebration with Danny that the church is not today where it was and that the church is still on this journey. I was ordained into ministry in 2009. Shortly after my ordination, the General Assembly discerned — it was probably past time but for us, it was the time that we were going to open the door and be that more inclusive church and open that possibility up that had been closed. It has changed churches. It has changed minds as open hearts and has been a part of building relationships and equipping people for ministry that previously was not allowed if they were true to who they were.

I have rejoiced and celebrated with that every step of the way. I know at this moment, with what’s pending before the assembly,  there are a lot of thoughts and feelings and anxiety about how communities are going to be treated.

Some of that conversation has gotten pretty sharp in online forums. As folks standing for co-moderator, it’s not really our place to comment on that particular business, but what I do say is I think all of us are committed to making sure that those conversations happen in a way that allow those who need to be heard a voice, whether that is telling stories about their road to inclusion and their talent or their challenge to accept that inclusion. I fundamentally trust that God has called the commissioners we need to gather in Salt Lake City to help the church navigate where we are now and continue moving that work forward.

I fundamentally trust that God has called the commissioners we need to gather in Salt Lake City to help the church navigate where we are now and continue moving that work forward. — Tony

I have been celebrating the LGBTQIA+ Equity Advocacy Committee and their comments on things and trying to read up and learn. I’m so grateful that we have that resource for all the commissioners as we prepare.

CeCe: The only thing to add is, a tagline that I use for Faithful Fridays and opportunities with others. And that is, “I love you. And there’s nothing you can do about it” And that I believe is exactly how God sees all of us. God loves us and there’s nothing you can do about it.

God loves us and there’s nothing you can do about it. — CeCe

Climate change

Teri: In what ways are you encouraged by the church’s efforts regarding climate change, and where we could do more?

CeCe: It has come to my understanding that there are way more congregations now than there have been that are Earth Care Congregations, that are picking up the mantle of “How do we become better stewards of what we have. And how can we continue that process?” We both are encouraged by the number of churches that have this particular mantle. Do we still have work to do? Of course, we do. We always got work to do. Nothing’s ever complete and finished.

I think the urgency of [environmental activism and action] is for us each to begin in our own particular churches…. What are we doing in this moment to make things better? Then, how do we share that with everyone else? — CeCe

But those who are working in that arena have been very faithful at doing that work, and that process is making [the world] a better place. I think the urgency of it is for us each to begin in our own particular churches right where we are. What are we doing in this moment, in space and time that can make things better? Then, how do we share that with everyone else? Look at the number of community gardens that have come up in neighborhoods that are also ecumenical, that are also interfaith — like talk about being the body of Christ for real! Oh my gosh, these spaces and places that are doing these things are not only bringing us together and allowing us to communicate with one another, it’s also building those relationships. It’s also training our replacements and it’s also keeping us aligned with the will of God for our lives.

We will align ourselves with the faithful work that the assembly does to bring that urgency to mind in the hearts of others. 

Tony: And I know we’ve got voices, working through [Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy] and many other places, calling our attention to the urgency of [climate change] and wanting us to look at how the church uses its significant resources to engage in conversations to help bring entities and corporations larger than us into alignment with our vision for doing something about climate change while there’s still time to do it.

I look forward to engaging with the other commissioners and discerning how to utilize our voice with energy, intelligence, imagination, love and wisdom.

I look forward to engaging with the other commissioners and discerning how to utilize our voice with energy, intelligence, imagination, love and wisdom. — Tony

Marian: You know there’s a humorous way to approach when you’re going to correct someone and you say, “I only gave you one job,” and the fact is that the one job God gave to humankind in the Genesis creation stories was to be stewards of the earth.

Of course, it was really the Industrial Revolution that changed the balance so much, and I’m delighted that PC(USA) is as awake as it is to the urgent challenge. Co-moderators can gather and retell the stories of change, and I think that’s important because this is such a huge topic, people feel overwhelmed.

Co-moderators can gather and retell the stories of change, and I think that’s important because this is such a huge topic, people feel overwhelmed. — Marian

There’s a congregation that didn’t just put solar power panels on their church, but shared the surplus energy with neighbors who need help with their energy bills. The church I served installed sensors so that lights would go off automatically. There are a lot of things that people are trying.

Advocacy is one of those real strengths for the PC(USA). And so this question, for instance, of how to best leverage change in the powerful fossil fuel sector is one of those issues.

I would really like to see an assessment tool that presbyteries could use to figure out who in our midst is most vulnerable to two things. One is climate change — and that work is being done — but the other one is the change in the economic sector of energy because that’s going to affect a lot of people and we need the tools to figure that out and to serve those people.

Danny: When it comes to the climate, I think we are beyond urgent. We are approaching a situation that is akin to an existential crisis.

I’m in Miami. One of the first potential places of landfall for hurricanes in the continental United States. This is one of those situations where we as a church, we need to ask ourselves, what can the body of Christ do? 

And again, I also think this is one of those situations or issues where the world is also looking at the voice of the church in the middle of all this. We should be more vocal, not just about our divestments, but also in practice and what we do in our communities.

The climate crisis is not a religious crisis. It’s not a crisis of faith. It’s also not a political crisis as the national narrative might have you think. This is truly an existential crisis, and it requires a healthy dose of civic engagement and hands-on work. — Danny

The climate crisis is not a religious crisis. It’s not a crisis of faith. It’s also not a political crisis as the national narrative might have you think. This is truly an existential crisis, and it requires a healthy dose of civic engagement and hands-on work.

I’m encouraged that there are more congregations joining the Earth Care Congregation movement. And I think every congregation should be actively pursuing ways in which to minimize our carbon footprint. We should also be engaging and partnering with local communities to do the work. But the church definitely has a big role to play in this.

Racism and systematic poverty

Teri: The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s priorities include dismantling structural racism and eradicating systematic poverty. Where have you seen the church effectively challenging sinful systems and structures in ways that create faithful change? And who can be involved in this work, and how?

Danny: The Matthew 25 initiative is an incredible initiative of the church that all congregations ought to participate in, if they’re not already. We need to wholeheartedly acknowledge the sin of structural racism, which consequently contributes to systemic poverty. As a church, we need to be honest about our complicity in this and then make bold and unequivocal steps to make change.

As a church, we need to be honest about our complicity in [the sin of structural racism] and then make bold and unequivocal steps to make change. — Danny

My congregation, New Covenant, is a small and aging congregation, and throughout my tenure there, they’ve always felt like there’s not much that they can do because of the realities of their limitations. And yet, we’re actively doing this work. When we leased our education building, we leased it to a Black-owned and operated nonprofit organization called The Smile Trust that has organized grassroot movements and programs addressing issues of climate gentrification, which is a thing here in Miami, especially in a community that’s less than half a mile away from our church in an area called Liberty Square.

They’ve also spoken or addressed issues of food insecurities in under-resourced communities. The immediate community around is considered a food desert area. There are no big chain supermarkets where the community can access fresh produce and a wider selection of food.

Smile Trust also has programs empowering Black youth, Black men and women throughout the community in addition to homeless feeding programs. 

That’s where I see the work of the Matthew, 25 initiative come to life right now, and while New Covenant might not have the able bodies to do all this work, I always tell them the fact that the organization is housed in our facility means that our congregation is a conduit by which these programs are creating impact in Liberty City.

Marian: The Presbyterian Mission Agency has done, I think, a very powerful thing by calling out the existence of these structures and systems. The American myth of individualism and of a level playing field has been used to intentionally blind us to the existence of these structures and systems and it’s been difficult, we’ve had to walk on eggshells to even talk about systems.

PMA is normalizing that way of talking and thinking, and I’m extremely grateful.

Ecumenical work has long been one of the most effective avenues for calling out these sinful systems and working on them. — Marian

Ecumenical work has long been one of the most effective avenues for calling out these sinful systems and working on them. When our own congregations may not be as integrated or diverse as we would like, we can join hands with denominations and movements ecumenically that are historically Black or perhaps more diverse in some other way, and we can advocate for change. The Poor People’s Campaign comes to mind. State councils of churches come to mind. These are organizations that are eager for us to pitch in and volunteer and help out. 

I love the Presbyterian Hunger Program. They’ve been training grassroots advocates on these issues for a long time and even helped organize tomato pickers.

CeCe: So for my particular church, St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the lovely James Island, we are active in a program in a group called the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. It is one of the sister organizations of the Direct Action Resource Training, which is a national group for justice ministry, specifically. Now in that particular organization in our particular area, there are a couple of Presbyterian churches, lots and lots of everybody else, a whole lot of other faith organizations. It is a grassroots organization and we actually hold what’s called a Nehemiah Action every year where we bring public officials to the mic and ask them the questions that will make our society more just.

Congregations can do that in partnership. We seem to do the Micah 6:8 thing real well. We walk humbly with God because we go to church 52 times out of a year at least, and we love mercy and we give away to charity ministry. 

But when it comes down to doing justice, it is not something we can do alone. We have to do it in collective settings. And so when you join in particular places like that, you get the opportunity to serve. 

When it comes down to doing justice, it is not something we can do alone. We have to do it in collective settings. — CeCe

Tony: CeCe and I both serve in presbyteries that were formed at the time of reunification and formed in that coming back together. Each of them had a presbytery that was primarily African American and a congregation that was primarily White. And the story of New Harmony Presbytery is the people who were putting the maps together said, ‘There’s no way that’s gonna work. That presbytery is just gonna blow up.” And maybe it’s because South Carolinians can be a little bit stubborn and we don’t like being told we can’t do, it has worked.

Has it always been perfect? No. But New Harmony has held together. We do have harmony in New Harmony as we continue to talk about that history. South Carolina is the state where most enslaved people came, through the Port of Charleston, and we’re still living with telling the truth about our role and the church’s role in [this history] and how it built systems that we are still dealing with and that are still holding people back, denying them the right to live into the fullness of who God has called and created them to be and the relationship that we’re called to have with one another. 

And the Matthew 25 initiative is to me this courageous idea that says to the church: “You will find new life and vitality in ministry when you commit to dismantling structures that hold people back.” — Tony

And the Matthew 25 initiative is to me this brilliant, bold, courageous idea that when you really boil it down it says to the church: “You will find new life and vitality in ministry when you commit to this justice work of dismantling these structures that hold people back, dismantling systems, systemic poverty and racism.” When the church is visible in that work, new life will come into the church, and that is part of our resurrection as a church. As we are engaging our neighbors in that way and building relationships, communicating the truth of it — I’m excited about this initiative and the way that Presbyterians and congregations are embracing it and starting to experiment with living it out —  with all the pushback that sometimes comes from that.

I like this gamble that we’ve been given. This big bold idea that this is what will bring vitality to our churches, to our ministry, to our witness.

Tell us about your co-moderator partner

Teri: So let’s close with a light one, shall we? Tony, tell us about your co-moderator partner and why CeCe would be great in this elected role?

Tony: CeCe will be phenomenal. You can’t be around CeCe without sensing the depth of her trust in God, her reliance upon the spirit, her energy, her creativity, and her passion. I heard about CeCe, from all kinds of people who we actually had a chance to meet.

You can’t be around CeCe without sensing the depth of her trust in God, her reliance upon the spirit, her energy, her creativity, and her passion. — Tony

We’re only about two hours away from each other, but she’s been talking to Presbyterian Women’s groups in our region for a long time. When I first mentioned that I was going to be going on this journey to stand with CeCe, I heard all these things about her and they didn’t even start to scratch the surface of the gifts from ministry that she brings and that she is willing to offer the church.

Cece: Thank you, Tony. I know I’m going to sit up straight now. My posture has changed, because he has described all of that.

Thank you. One of the joys that I have gotten out of meeting Tony and discerning this call with him and going on this trip with him is his phenomenal ability to be pastoral in everything. All kinds of things are happening. I’m not going to speak for Marian and Danny, but when something like this comes up, everything else seems to go crazy.

And in all of that, Tony has this ability of just saying “And how are you?” And it’s this whole relief of — oh my goodness. His pastoral presence and his passion for all of this, the passion for the polity, the passion for making sure it’s done. 

He meets deadlines. I might not. But because he has all of that and brings all that to it, it allows us to be naturally who we are.

One of the joys that I have gotten out of meeting Tony and discerning this call with him is his phenomenal ability to be pastoral in everything. — CeCe

There’s no tension between us. We haven’t disagreed about anything, which I think is one of the greatest joys about partnerships in the work that we do, that we are seeking a common goal together, and he has that joy of allowing that to happen. He lets my energy be my energy, and I’m all excited about that and I’m grateful that we get to do that — plus he has a wife, and so I told her that I’m going to claim her, too, and a dog and a cat and they’re mine, as well, and he’s got a grandbaby — and that’s my new grand-niece — and we just became family immediately. He allows that and, for me, that’s what allows us to be the body of Christ connected at all points.

Teri: I think this is my favorite question. All right, Marian and Danny, you get to share about each other. 

Marian: I want to build on what CeCe just said. Danny has a wonderful cat, too, named Aria, which I want to see every time we are on Zoom together. And a lovely husband, Ebert. I spent a few days in Miami visiting and he quickly became a real favorite.

I would urge everyone to read the letter from Danny’s New Covenant Congregation about him that went into our packet for the commissioners. It made me tear up, because it perfectly captures Danny’s warmth, his encouraging heart, his patience, and I hope you felt it this evening.

Danny’s experience with the GA Ecumenical and Interreligious Committee gives him the big view of partnership and that’s crucial to being a Presbyterian.

He’s a great person to go first as an openly gay man into this moderatorial role because his journey led him past one church’s prejudices and into an affirming PC(USA) congregation. And I can just see him helping many more people to have that experience of welcome. 

But above all, the most important thing is his faith in God’s providence for the church.

Danny [is] adamant that if we turn to God and make ourselves relevant to this world, God is not going to abandon God’s church. Oh, I’m for Danny! — Marian

When we were talking about the dilemmas facing congregations, especially struggling with size and resources, Danny was adamant that if we turn to God and make ourselves relevant to this world, God is not going to abandon God’s church. Oh, I’m for Danny!

Danny: Thank you, Marian. My dearest Marian is extremely pastoral, compassionate and she’s empathetic. She’s kind, she’s a gifted listener, not because she wants to jump in to give an answer or an opinion, but because she strives to understand where you’re coming from, her way of being empathetic.

She’s an incredible calming presence with her charming smile. And frankly, as we look at the road ahead, the work ahead of us though daunting it can appear at times, nothing is more encouraging and more motivating than to be led by someone whose mere presence provides an incredible sense of assurance and hope. In addition to her depth of knowledge of the denomination that she brings to the table, she also brings an incredibly passionate heart for the gospel and how our denomination continues to live into that calling to be the body of Christ out in this world.

In addition to [Marian’s] depth of knowledge of the denomination that she brings to the table, she also brings an incredibly passionate heart for the gospel and how our denomination continues to live into that calling to be the body of Christ out in this world. — Danny

I honestly think Marian’s gifts would serve our denomination tremendously well for such a time as this and I’d only be honored to serve alongside her as well.

Teri: You all are certainly the Faith Four. I feel like our church is in good hands, no matter who of you are called to this role. Thank you so much for your time and your faithfulness and the way you’ve prepared for this and answered all these questions.

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