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Breaking brave new ground toward a theology of repair

Mid Council Financial Network concludes two-day property stewardship conference with diverse presentations, robust conversations

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart is Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020).

LOUISVILLE – If “Zoom fatigue” is really a thing, the nearly 200 participants in the second day of the Mid Council Financial Network’s (MCFN) virtual conference showed no traces of this pandemic phenomenon.

On the contrary, the two-day conference — which was sponsored and programmed by the Presbyterian Foundation and the Presbyterian Mission Agency — provoked such heightened engagement that the unseen conference attendees were equally as attentive to each other in the “chat box” as they were to the speakers onscreen.

Organized around the theme, “Property Stewardship: 21st Century Mission Challenge,” the network’s Dec. 14–15 conference, primarily geared toward mid council leaders and others working with church property and finances, sought to explore current trends in property sales and the transfer of wealth while raising the larger question of faithfulness in the use of church properties.

The first day of the conference was designed to focus on the “nuts and bolts” or “science” of property transactions, leaving the second day to an exploration of the “big picture” or “art” of the matter, namely asking what God is calling the church to do and to be with its resources.

As the noted author, researcher and pastor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, promised in her keynote address on the first day, the second day moved into an important discussion of reparation and reconciliation.

“This second day was amazing,” wrote Ruling Elder Conrad M. Rocha, stated clerk/executive of the Synod of the Southwest in an email at the conclusion of the conference. “Rather than be a mundane conversation on property and property sales, we took a deep dive into how this affects our collective commitment to repair our relationship not only with our Indigenous siblings, but also our siblings of African descent, whose forbearers were brought here as enslaved people. It took us into a conversation about what are the possibilities in addressing these and other property-related issues and how that might inform how we reform the way we witness as church.”

The stage for the dynamic speakers and the ensuing robust conversation among both the speakers and the attendees was set by the Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, chair-elect of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, and general presbyter for the Presbytery of Southern New England.

Vance-Ocampo was introduced by day two’s host, Bryce Wiebe, director of Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog for the PMA’s Mission Engagement and Support ministry area, who offered a brief prayer and reflection on 2 Samuel 7, in which David proposes building a house for God only to find it’s the other way around.

“This story suggests that God is engaged in the exciting work of building us a home where we might reckon with the truth that we are connected, and yet we experience deep division and disconnection,” said Wiebe. “It’s a daunting task to think of the places we inhabit — their histories — and think about where that might be for us.”

The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo is Chair-Elect of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.

In her devotion, Vance-Ocampo, who previously served Albany Presbytery before accepting her current call, contrasted those two very different mid council experiences with several striking examples. While Albany Presbytery was “saddled with hard-to-sell properties, including a camp,” she characterized the Presbytery of Southern New England, by comparison, as a “hotbed, now on fire,” where property sales are quick, easy and lucrative.

“What is the nature of our connectiveness,” she poignantly asked, “where some mid council futures are secure while some will be bankrupted? How do we talk about this?”

Vance-Ocampo suggested that one way to begin such conversations is to study “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” by Edgar Villanueva, the book commended to the church by the co-moderators the 224th General Assembly (2020). She said Villanueva’s book could be instrumental in helping the church address and assess how and where property is being used in “life-giving and restorative ways” versus where it is being used “to perpetuate sins.”

“Perhaps,” she said, alluding to the name of the new online program hosted by the co-moderators on Facebook Live, “this is the ‘Good Medicine’ we need.”

the Rev. Paul Timothy Roberts is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary.

As the program continued, Wiebe reintroduced Lindner, who was joined by the Rev. Paul Timothy Roberts Sr., president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Together, Lindner and Roberts took up the challenging conversation on the second day’s theme, “Allocations from Property Sales: An Opportunity for Stewardship, Mission and Witness.”

Roberts described the seminary that he serves as centered on issues of justice, specifically the work of equity and repair, to which he said God is calling not only his institution but the whole church.

Paraphrasing Isaiah 58, which Roberts said he “resorts to time and time again,” he said, “I’m tired of your formalism, your perfectly-appointed worship, you do everything by the book — except my people are suffering. All of the structures that are in place … procedures, policies, theologies, they mean nothing if my people suffer. Only until you turn to me shall you be called ‘repairers of the breach.’ That is the lens I am employing at Johnson C. Smith to use in the way the Holy Spirit is leading us. The whole theology of repair has significant meaning for such conversations as these.”

Lindner, in her initial response to the day’s topic, also thanked Vance-Ocampo for calling the church’s attention to the dilemma it faces. “We are on the one hand caught between the sublime and ridiculous,” she said. “We have property that we can’t give away, where the burden is falling increasingly on presbyteries. Then we’re down at the other end, where every time I think of property, I think of Habbakuk saying, ‘Wait for the vision and then write it big so even the runner can see what you’re up to with your property.’”

Noting that between $150 million and $200 million will accrue from church property sales in 2021, Lindner asked, “What is the faithful thing to do with that 200 million dollars? Or do we only talk about connectionalism when we think about property?”

As the lively conversation continued, both leaders agreed that property, once “the star in our crown” is now more of a burden — a burden that Roberts said Johnson C. Smith no longer carries.

“I come to this conversation as an institutional leader whose institution has no property,” said Roberts in explaining that the seminary gave up its campus in 2014. “We walked away from all of that … It is dawning on people that property can be an asset and it can be an albatross. For organizations trying to take seriously their mission, some of them may find benefit in finding wise ways to shed their property to more effectively do mission. It’s also about repair.”

the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner

Added Lindner, “We started this session by calling the names of the [Native] people whose land we occupy. More than a mere acknowledgement, it’s a way of reminding ourselves and holding ourselves to account that egregious acts have taken place on these lands and those things need to be repaired. One way to address repair is to think missionally about the property that we hold. What’s the big vision for this largesse that we have in this land, and that we have the free agency to be stewards over that set of resources?”

At the end of their roughly hourlong exchange, Lindner and Roberts suggested that the conversation be continued at the national level, and that the church shift its language and its thinking toward a theology of abundance rather than scarcity.

“We need two things,” Lindner said, “concrete technical assistance at the local level for tired people and belabored mid council people, but we also need a bigger vision than we’ve ever dreamed before. Let’s write the vision big!”

The afternoon continued with remarks from and dialogue among three mid council leaders: the Rev. Scott Lumsden, co-executive presbyter, Seattle Presbytery; Ruling Elder Dr. Lisa Allgood, executive presbyter, Presbytery of Cincinnati, who is also an immunocytochemist; and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the PC(USA), and synod executive, Synod of Lakes and Prairies.

Lumsden described the challenges that he and Seattle Presbytery have faced around property and financial management during his 12 years of leadership there.

the Rev. Scott Lumsden

 

“For all of the work that we’ve done to be good stewards, to utilize the funds [from property sales] for new ministries, I can say, at 12 years, we still have a ton of work to do and the issues have only gotten more complex and deeper as we’ve gone,” Lumsden said. “This conversation is timely and necessary. Presbytery leaders will be coming in facing the same difficulties we faced 12 years ago, but to add to that, to have resources and to be able to draw on a conversation that has been started already could be of great help and support to new leaders coming in.”

Commissioned Ruling Elder Dr. Lisa Allgood is executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Cincinnati. (Contributed photo)

Allgood began by recounting the story of the only church that Cincinnati Presbytery has thus far closed during her tenure. “The church had an arrangement with a Black, non-PC(USA) congregation, who was buying their building,” she said. “We then forgave the mortgage, saying, ‘You can build God’s kingdom better than we can in this place.’ That was my first foray into property. The congregation is now building a children’s home there.”

She said that the presbytery is exploring new ways for its church properties to better serve the needs of the local community. “We are looking at reparations, nonprofit, equity-based affordable housing,” said Allgood, “all of those nascent efforts, to which we have tied ourselves, heart and soul.”

As the conference’s final speaker, Street-Stewart — the first Native American to serve as a moderator as well as a synod executive in the PC(USA) — opened her comments by saying that “her people lived where the Presbyterian Church started.”

“So, when we address these issues of property, you’re speaking to a Nanticoke person here,” she said. “These are not ancient stories, they are current. More than issues of property, more than real estate, we’re talking ‘land.’ That’s why you want to talk to me.”

Asserting that the church must address issues of reparation, Street-Stewart noted that there is “no blueprint around these issues on a national scale,” whether in the church or in civil society.

“Name one sanctuary that is not built on land that wasn’t exploited or stolen,” she said, citing the Native American liberation theologian, George Tinker. “This is not reconciliation — the church could not have grown if Indigenous people hadn’t been removed. Let’s talk about the real wealth of the church, the capital assets of the church. We need to be able to recognize that there wouldn’t be any denomination here if we don’t look at what’s been exploited in terms of labor. The millions and millions of acres that were taken from us and reduced to these small confined areas, that’s what Native people think of our place in the church, when, in reality, that’s what you owe us.”

For Street-Stewart, although such conversations are happening “way too late,” she said she is more than eager for Native people to be at the table where decisions are made in future.

Said Roberts, “I don’t know much about the Mid Council Financial Network, but perhaps this is a network by which we can really talk seriously and build the kind of momentum that would lead to reparations and a wise, resourceful disposition of property that would lead to the kind of mission work we are all talking about.”

In exploring possible next steps, both the speakers onscreen and the participants in the “chat box” mostly agreed that if there are to be any further conversations, they need to be both national and local.

Noted the Rev. Joey Lee, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Jose, in the ongoing dialogue in the chat box, “The last General Assembly does not give me confidence that conversations/actions at the national level will go well. This needs to be grassroots, from congregations and presbyteries.”

Whatever and wherever any future conversations may take place, Street-Stewart affirmed the commitment she and her co-moderator, the Rev. Gregory Bentley, share on upholding the denomination’s Matthew 25 invitation, especially its focus on congregational vitality. “Gregory has said that we can’t address [the other foci] if we are anemic,” she said. “We need to be able to latch onto this vision of Matthew 25 and vital congregations to say that’s why we’re in this conversation around property.”

In conclusion, Roberts opined that the PC(USA) may be “in our own Pentecostal moment as we think about the work of repair.”

“That’s what excites me,” he said. “I have seen enough to know that there are pockets of conviction and enthusiasm all over the country. If we can find a way to marshal all of that so that we can go about it comprehensively, that makes sense. We would host a get-together, a conversation, a gathering to see how the voice in that Pentecost moment would lead us.”

“Let’s all keep talking,” added Lindner. “Let’s all talk wherever we are. Let’s save ourselves from our worst instincts. I am so very grateful that three years of research [on the sustainability and management of church property] today maybe feels like it was worthwhile.”

the Rev. Deborah Swift

In closing the conference, the Rev. Deborah Swift, pastor of South Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, said hers was a “transitional” or “rebirthing” rather than a closing prayer.

“Be with us Lord in the days and weeks ahead,” Swift prayed in part, acknowledging the liturgical season. “Help us as leaders to pray that dangerous prayer, ‘put us where you want us and show us what you want us to do,’ even if what you want is for us to revamp our denomination or let go of cherished property, to lament over our collective sin and rejoice in your promise of Christmas. These are the times when we welcome the Christ spirit into the Bethlehem of our hearts.”

See resources from the property stewardship conference here.

Emily Odom is mission interpretation strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Send comments on this article to her at Emily.Odom@pcusa.org.


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