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Minding the gap in the Presbytery of New York City

The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams accepts a temporary call to lead the five-borough presbytery

by Jim Nedelka | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams (Contributed photo)

NEW YORK — This past summer, on the heels of bidding “Happy Retirement” to its executive presbyter, the Rev. Dr. Robert Foltz-Morrison, the Presbytery of New York City launched a search process for a transitional/interim EP ahead of an anticipated search for a “permanent” EP.

In the meantime — or “gap period” — the presbytery has brought in the Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams as the “gap executive presbyter,” the baton of leadership passed to her in mid-September by Acting EP Yzette Swavy-Lipton.

On a December afternoon, we caught up via Zoom with Newbern-Williams in her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“I’m standing in the gap,” Newbern-Williams said, “working with our presbytery moving forward and doing its work and being engaged in ministry knowing that this is quite a transitional period.”

Newbern-Williams embraces her somewhat unusual job title and the challenges of her role: a short-term leadership position following the shorter-term “acting” position, a precursor to the welcoming of an “official transitional EP” ahead of the planned “called EP.”

“It’s a way to serve,” she acknowledges. “It’s a different way to serve,” adding, “a more familiar term for some might be ‘interim interim.’” In any event, she favors “the creative term.”

For Newbern-Williams, most interactions with the presbytery will be handled by phone, text, email and/or Zoom, along with “a couple of (road) trips a month.” She sees no issues handling most situations remotely: her on-camera experience was honed at Omaha’s KPAO television station, and she’s become well-versed interacting via videoconference as covenant pastor of Richmond’s First United Presbyterian Church, some two hours from her home by car.

Of high importance is her focus on the ongoing supporting, loving and being engaged with the 14,000 members spread among the more than 90 congregations and fellowships of the Presbytery of New York City.

“We are continuing, and shall continue, to be creative in how we conduct ministry and how we engage others in ministry,” Newbern-Williams said, adding, “we will, can and should revitalize and provide congregational vitality.”

“Often, when communities change, our churches and their makeups do not keep up pace with the communities.” Newbern-Williams cites instances across the width and breadth of the denomination where communities are very different than they were even 20 years ago.

Among the things Newbern-Williams would like to see during her time in the presbytery: “More connection with some of our Synod [of the Northeast] and … [national] staff people who are engaged in congregational vitality. We have done some of that. I’d like for us to do more and to take a look at how we act upon the policies we have — how we work those policies in the presbytery to enrich our congregations.”

Newbern-Williams sees her role not as one simply “keeping the lights on” but as a commitment to actively helping prepare the presbytery for the arrival of the “interim/transitional” EP. In essence, this track is akin to the mission review process required of congregations seeking to hire new pastoral leadership.

‘In neighborhoods that need them’

Newbern-Williams lights up with enthusiasm as she says, “I believe there is room for every single congregation that exists right now to flourish. They’re in neighborhoods that need them. There are people there who have needs the church can provide.”

“Re-visioning or taking a deeper look. Doing soul searching — I love that phrase! — is an opportunity to take a deep look within ourselves as Presbyterians,” she explains, “to see what things have changed, how will we adjust to that change, what will we make of our future and how will we enrich, support and work together with our congregations. There are many different methods and different programs that can bring us to that point.” In bringing Foltz-Morrison on board as EP, the PNYC travelled a similar pathway in late 2011, chronicled in the two-part Presbyterian News Service series “Presbytery in the mirror” and “Presbytery in the mirror … and furthermore.”

Adding to the changes in their neighborhood’s demography for a significant portion of congregations within the presbytery, as well as for many other congregations across the denomination, is the continued aging — advanced in many instances — of their church buildings.

Whether the choice is called Hobson’s or Solomon’s, diverting mission or endowment dollars to the upkeep of the bricks and mortar is the type of “real world” problem that keeps pastors, church officers and some members up at night.

Citing grants and other denominational programs at the national, synod and local levels, Newbern-Williams points to “the real issue for us in not to worship the building or forget that time continues to move on and that 20, 30 years from now our communities will look different.”

“One of the most creative experiences in a different presbytery,” she recalls: A church with a long history had winnowed down to a handful of members who were unable to do the same type of ministry they had been doing when the congregation was flourishing. Meanwhile, the African American congregation that was renting space was attracting a younger demographic and growing by leaps and bounds. Newbern-Williams remembers the pastor and session sitting down with the young, dynamic pastor of the tenant congregation and that church’s board.

“The Presbyterians knew the burgeoning (tenant) congregation didn’t have a lot of money, but knew they loved the old church building,” Newbern-Williams said.

Through a team effort among the presbytery, the congregations and some community efforts, the burgeoning congregation was able to purchase the building with the Presbyterians renting the chapel and other space in their former home for their congregation’s activities.

“Several of the members from the (Presbyterian) congregation often stayed for the African American church’s worship service,” she said. “[Today] that particular church is completely full on Sunday mornings, and that presbytery has taken pride in saying, ‘It’s not a Presbyterian church, but ministry still continues.’”

“My prayer,” says Newbern-Williams, “is that churches in these communities begin to see ourselves as people with common interests and a common love and need. Jesus did not separate the needs of the community and the people from the spiritual life. Blending those together can only make things go well. That’s what re-visioning, or soul searching or taking a deeper look at where our congregations —and our presbyteries — where we are today.”

The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams sits for an interview with Jim Nedelka. (Screenshot)

In the wake of diminishing membership within some congregations, Newbern-Williams cites the upshot of some of these self-probes: the closing or combining of congregations and the merger of some presbyteries.

But, while the suggestion box may be overflowing with ideas about how a congregation can remain vital, she points to one factor that cannot be overlooked.

“We must absolutely mentor, partner, coach and walk this journey with our young adults and our youth and those who are going to succeed us,” Newbern-Williams said. “If we don’t, we will lose them all, too, so many other faiths will see their gifts and make use of them.”

“We’re not going to be in these positions for the next 50 years,” she continues. “We can’t afford to walk away without bringing someone along with us.”

Newbern-Williams likens this approach “to the concept of Sankofa, drawn from the Akan tribe in Ghana, [symbolized by] a bird looking backwards with an egg in its mouth, meaning, ‘You take the best of your past and your history and move forward with new thoughts, new ideas, being able to birth creative new ministries and ways of operating that will always respect where we have come from.’”

Starting young

One of her childhood church experiences involved being old enough to walk the block and a half to Sunday school with other neighborhood children but without any grownups. While the distance was short and the need for the children to be wary of vehicles on the two streets they needed to cross was minimal, neighborhood parents would stand by their doorways, watching the children.

“One morning, coming up after Sunday school, one of the adults said to me ‘OK, I need your help today. Here is the collection plate and I need you to stand with me and do what I do,’” Newbern-Williams said. “The first time I had to do it I was only six years old!”

She recalls the whole collection process: “Take the plate, move down. Pass it to the next row. Take it when comes back, pass it along and keep going!” While it’s a vivid memory, she didn’t realize it was the beginning of her leadership training, which progressed to being a greeter: hand out the bulletin and show people to their seat. “They said, ‘It’s very easy. Just do what I do,’” she said, “and I said, ‘OK.’”

From there she was leading youth groups, training others to do what she’d been shown how to do.

The future of worship?

As the conversation drew to a close, the fact that we’d been comfortably Zooming along prompted this thought: will we Presbyterians ever return to solely live-and-in-person events, including worship?

“I feel we’ll always do a hybrid,” she said, mentioning that she’d been developing the March Stated Meeting with the presbytery’s General Council. “[It] will absolutely be hybrid because there’ll be some people who just won’t be able to come. That’s probably going to be the wave of the future.”

Like life after Covid for so many congregations, Newbern-Williams’ congregation in Richmond still conducts hybrid services. While hybrid may not be every congregation’s cup of tea, there is excitement on both sides of First United Presbyterian Church’s videoconference, especially among a group of worshiping friends in Nicaragua that hosted Newbern-Williams and a partnership team some years back.

“They are so excited! It kind of broadens ministry as we see it. I have a friend who is a mission co-worker in Africa and she has joined us in worship.” Newbern-Williams smiles when she adds that members of her family have also worshiped via Zoom on occasion.

While Newbern-Williams is no stranger to hiccups in the technology, “I do feel we can make the most of this and have successful ministry this way as well.”

A retired journalist, Ruling Elder Jim Nedelka is a member of avenue church nyc, endowed by Jan Hus Church. He’s been a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service since 2007.

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