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Four generations of Presbyterian mission: From potted plant to garden

Mission co-worker Cobbie Palm on the blessings of a family calling

by Cobbie Palm | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Great-grandfather J. Vernon Bell, pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Dubois, Pennsylvania. (Photo provided)

DUMAGUETE CITY, Philippines – If there is a revered profession in my family, it is a life given to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. In 1884, my great-grandfather J. Vernon Bell began his ministry as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Dubois, Pennsylvania, almost 100 years to the day that I entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

In 1915, my grandfather Ralph Waldo Lloyd boarded a train to travel west to accept a calling to serve in mission at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in 1922 to serve as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ossian, Indiana.

In 1956, my father, James E. Palm, sailed on a ship with my mother, Louise, to the Philippines to serve for 18 years in mission through the Presbyterian Church.

In 1989, I boarded an airplane to the Philippines, where my wife, Dessa, and I continue to serve to this day. My family represents four generations and 133 years of mission and ministry with the Presbyterian Church.

I did not have the opportunity to meet my great-grandfather, but I did have the privilege of knowing my grandfather and recall moments around the dinner table at his home in Florida. The Presbyterian Church and mission were always favorite and colorful topics. We lived in different periods of Presbyterian mission and, with my father in the mix, our perspectives on mission reflected mission in the early 1900s, mid1900s and late 1900s. We each defended our own perspective and argued with a passion.

Looking back on those conversations, I have come to think of Presbyterian mission as the continuing and evolving story of the “potted plant.” My grandfather saw mission from the perspective of the “empty lands,” places around the world that had not been touched by the gifts of Presbyterian mission. During his time even Salt Lake City was just being introduced to Presbyterian mission. For my grandfather, the role of mission was to be “founder,” and as founder to be “authority” merited by the responsibility of being the carrier and provider of the programs, knowledge and form. From this perspective, he understood the value of decisions over the recipient “mission field” coming from offices in New York, through the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, and the “leadership” of the mission in the field to be held by the more “qualified” Presbyterian missionary.

Grandfather Ralph Waldo Lloyd (front center) with mission teacher colleagues at Westminster College, Salt Lake City. (Photo provided)

The image that comes to mind is of a Presbyterian missionary carrying a potted plant named “Presbyterian” and placing it in empty places in the mission field determined by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in New York and ruled over by the more qualified Presbyterian missionary to ensure quality control and faithful obedience to Presbyterian norms. There was much success, and the “Presbyterian” plant began to grow in these pots set in empty lands around the world.

My father, who arrived in the Philippines in the late 1950s, saw a different situation. The “Presbyterian” plant had now been growing in the pot for over 50 years, and it was bearing fruit; but confined to the pot, it could not grow much further. The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations (COEMAR) had now replaced the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions as the sending body for all international mission work of the Presbyterian Church, and a new paradigm for mission was emerging. This new paradigm used words like “contextual” mission and “fraternal worker,” implying an openness to the possibility that the mission field might have something to contribute to the “Presbyterian” plant. But the plant could not touch the breadth of culture and indigenous music of the mission field because the plant’s roots were bound up by the pot. There were indigenous leaders of the mission field whose voices were not heard and their expertise not used because leadership was understood to be that of the missionary only. This was now all changing.

James E. Palm, missionary in the Philippines, with his son and future missionary, Cobbie. (Photo provided)

The image that comes to mind is that of the indigenous leaders and the “fraternal workers” of which my father was part taking a hammer together to break the pot open so that the roots of the “Presbyterian” plant could finally touch and draw nutrients from the soil of the mission field. Finally, the culture, music, symbols and language of the mission field could be drawn into the “Presbyterian” plant, nourishing it, transforming it in a way that enabled it to speak to the heart and soul of the mission field. This was “contextual” mission. Finally, the missionary would step back and make space for the indigenous leadership to hold responsibility as “fraternal workers.”

In 1989 I was sent to the Philippines by the Presbyterian Church through the Worldwide Ministries Division, now World Mission. The paradigms of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and COEMAR were now of the past, and what I saw upon arriving in the Philippines was the image of a beautiful garden of Filipino “Presbyterian” — a plant variety that had rooted in the mission field and drawn nutrients from the colors and contours of Filipino culture and indigenous leaders who were planting, pruning and harvesting. The garden had reached self-reliance and was self-propagating, and a new paradigm of relationship in mission was needed. Filipino Presbyterians did not need a missionary leader, they did not need foreign authority for guidance, they did not need a hammer to break the pot; they needed the respect of being an equal partner in the building of God’s reign.

Mission co-worker Carlton ‘Cobbie’ Palm with Bishop Jaime Moriles, a mission partner in Leyte. (Photo provided)

Sitting around the dinner table with my grandfather and father, I realized it is not easy to let go of the paradigms of our own time. We argued with passion for our understanding of mission — my grandfather for missionary authority and quality control, my father for the contextualizing and turning over leadership, and I for partnership relations where equal respect is given to the partner church to determine its own priorities and needs. However, every day that I live in mission here in the Philippines, I am reminded by the evidence all around me that the pot-bearing planter that my grandfather defends and the pot-breaking fraternal worker that my father defends were essential pieces in God’s great design that have brought us to where we are in mission today. Potted plants are now gardens, mission fields are now partners, and Presbyterian mission is alive and well.


Carlton J. “Cobbie” Palm is a mission co-worker and director of spiritual formation at Silliman University Divinity School. Dessa Palm works as artistic director for Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts.

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This article is from the Summer 2017 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.

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