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A formative experience


Conference gives PC(USA) seminarians the gift of a week of formation for worship leadership

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Seminarians in formation for worship leadership attending the Presbyterian Association of Musicians conference at Montreat share a meal and conversation with, in the center, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell and, to his left, the Rev. Jenny McDevitt of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City and the Rev. Kendra Buckwalter Smith of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

MONTREAT, N.C. — Over the years while attending the Presbyterian Association of Musicians conference, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell has seen how the annual gathering has inspired and sustained two generations of liturgical reform in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“Those of us who take part in it every year know how much we learn,” says Gambrell, “and how wonderful it would be for those preparing for ministry to have this experience.”

So, this year, Gambrell, in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, has taken on a new role.  Along with the Rev. Kendra Buckwalter Smith from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Gambrell is the seminarian liaison.

Through a partnership with Presbyterian Mission’s Financial Aid for Service, six seminary students received grants to attend this year’s PAM conference for a week of formation for worship leadership.

“I’m so grateful for my Presbyterian Study Grant and  for this Presbyterian engagement opportunity,” says Kim Coyle, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary. “My heart has opened to God this week and broke in a good way.”

“I’ve so enjoyed the learning,” added Marilyn Panco from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. “The personal story in worship about Rodger Nishioka’s student — I was right there in her shoes.”

The Rev. Dr. Nishioka, senior associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, was preaching from John 11:17-36 about peace not being the absence of pain, but the presence of compassion. He shared this story of one of his student’s clinical pastoral education experience during Nishioka’s years teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary.

“Courtney was a student chaplain at a public hospital in downtown Atlanta. It was a hard place to work,” Nishioka said, “but miracles happened there every day.”

She walked into her first hospital room wearing her chaplain badge as she had been taught. “Hi, I’m Courtney,” she said to the older couple in the room. “May I spend some time with you?” The man looked up at her with contempt in his eyes and said, “Little girl, this is my wife of 62 years. I’m spent every single day with her. I’m 84 now, but she stopped recognizing me. If you can tell me why God allowed this, you can stay. If not, move on.”

“Well, what did you do, Courtney?” Nishioka asked her.

“I wanted to move on,” she said, “but when I tried to my feet were stuck.” All she could think of, she said, was her grandparents — and how much they had loved each other.  As she looked at the elderly man, she saw how much he adored his wife.

Unable to think of anything to say, she began to cry, watching her tears drop on the floor of the room. When she looked up, the man had tears streaming down his face as well. He reached out his hand to her and said, “Chaplain, I’d be honored if you stay.” That’s when Courtney’s feet moved. And for the next 45 minutes, she held their hands and cried with them.

When that story came up in the seminarians’ daily formation gathering, the students connected it with the kind of ministry that is required of liturgical leaders — providing, as Nishioka said, “a ministry of presence.”

Now in its second year at the PAM conference, this seminarian experience may be relatively new. But what’s not new, Gambrell says, is the conference itself, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. He wants seminarians to benefit from the deep history and vibrant creativity that make this event such a valuable opportunity for leadership formation.

In 1979, the Rev. Harold Daniels was so inspired at this conference that he scribbled notes for two days while his wife drove them from North Carolina to New Mexico. Those notes eventually became the process that launched the 1984–1992 “Supplemental Liturgical Resourcesand the 1993 “Book of Common Worship.” Daniels edited both volumes.

Since the “Book of Common Worship” was released, the PAM conference has continued to be a laboratory of sorts for church leaders to dream of ways to continue bringing about liturgical reform in the PC(USA). Gambrell says that, like Daniels, his own experiences at this conference very much fed the 2018 Book of Common Worship (co-edited by Gambrell and Rev. Dr. Kimberly Bracken Long).

The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Theology and Worship meets with the Rev. Jenny McDevitt, senior pastor of New York City’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

Why has this conference become the place of such inspiration?

“I think the best answer is that it’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” Gambrell says, “and what the Spirit does with the talented leaders, preachers, teachers, artists and musicians who gather every year.”

For the seminarians, this formative experience will guide them as they plan and lead worship for the churches they’ll serve.

“To sit and be able to worship for six days has been a gift beyond measure,” said Coyle.

“How grateful I am for mentors,” added Lauren Scott of Columbia Seminary.

The PAM conference runs through Friday. The conference’s theme is “Not as the World Gives.” It’s based on a verse from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, John 14:27 , where Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The six students participating in the formation for worship leadership are:

  • Eric Adamcik, Union Theological Seminary (New York)
  • Nat Amarquaye, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
  • Kimberly Coyle, Union Presbyterian Seminary (Richmond)
  • Marilyn (M.P.) Panco, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
  • Lauren Scott, Columbia Theological Seminary
  • Keith Thompson, Columbia Theological Seminary 

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