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New PC(USA) congregation ordains leaders of worshiping communities as ruling elders

Presbytery of San Fernando charters Cultivate Church

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

DECATUR, Georgia — On Nov. 13, leaders from Presbytery of San Fernando gathered at Kirk o’ the Valley Presbyterian Church in Reseda, California, to ordain and install elders to Cultivate Church, a new congregation comprised of leaders of that presbytery’s new worshiping communities. San Fernando’s Executive Presbyter, the Rev. Juan Sarmiento, sees the chartering of Cultivate Church as an expression of the presbytery’s strategic direction passed in 2018 that “we will seek to pass on a faith that is Reformed in theology, Presbyterian in governance and multicultural in scope.”

Leadership development has been one of the main ways identified to do this. “Cultivate is a way of helping the presbytery develop closer relationships with the leaders of several of its new worshiping communities,” Sarmiento said, “by welcoming them into our ecclesial structure.”

According to Sarmiento, the presbytery has emphasized developing new churches for two decades. The group of people spearheading this emphasis “has been primarily brought together through a semi-autonomous ministry called Cyclical, led by the Rev. Nick Warnes, who is also a teaching elder and part-time staff at the presbytery.” Warnes’ primary conversation partners were the presbytery’s Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dave Wilkinson, and the Rev. Richard Poole, moderator of the presbytery’s Evangelism and Church Growth Committee. The presbytery has launched more than 40 new worshiping communities and recently voted to spend $200,000 to support them.

 ‘What if we did this?’

The idea for Cultivate blossomed during a Zoom meeting with mid council leaders across the nation. “What if we did this?” Warnes messaged Wilkinson as they were considering how to give leaders of the new worshiping communities a “voice and a vote” in the denomination.

Cultivate Church ruling elders are installed Nov. 13 at Kirk o’ the Valley Presbyterian Church in Reseda, California. (Photo by Gloria Fanchiang)

Warnes and Wilkinson were wrestling with the current polity that worshiping community leaders could not become commissioned ruling elders unless they were members of a chartered congregation and serving on the session at the time. The meeting discussed the overture proposed to the 225th General Assembly to create a task force to explore the theology and practice of ordination for ruling elders and recommend any changes to the 226th General Assembly (2024). In July 2022, several amendments and motions were considered by commissioners and advisory delegates to the 225th General Assembly who ultimately approved overture MC-10, as amended by the Mid Councils Committee. It specified that the task force will include representatives who identify as BIPOC, represent immigrant congregations and new worshiping communities as well as those from the Committee on Theological Education and leaders of middle governing bodies.

Looking for a solution now, Warnes and Wilkinson had the idea of a cell church comprised of leaders of new worshiping communities that is chartered as a congregation by the Presbytery of San Fernando. With the chartering of Cultivate Church, member ministry leaders can be elected by the congregation to serve on the Cultivate session, which will meet at least four times a year in accordance with the Book of Order. According to Warnes and Wilkinson, the session is for the sharing of ideas and coordination of the ministries. It is also able to extend assistance to ministry areas in need.

Members of Cultivate Church’s session pray before a meeting. (Photo by Gloria Fanchiang)

There is no pastor or regular moderator. The role of moderator of the Cultivate session will be rotated among those elders approved by the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry for this purpose. The first moderator is Elder Ryan Brown. Elder Eric Chen is the Clerk of Session. The new worshiping communities are not members of Cultivate, but some of their people are. Each new worshiping community that has members who are part of Cultivate maintain their current freedom of action for ministry. If any of the new worshiping communities decide to charter, Cultivate will transfer the membership of the participants to the newly chartered congregation.

A way to involve people

“We were looking for a way to meaningfully involve people,” said Wilkinson in a promotional video produced by Cyclical and the presbytery, “without driving a truck through Presbyterian polity.”  He believes this action will significantly involve the members of the new worshiping communities in the life of the larger church, noting that “they have a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and we can use that.”

Full citizenship and housing allowance access

“We don’t have an opportunity for the new worshiping communities to be full citizens,” said Poole, who served on the administrative commission for Cultivate Church. Warnes echoed this sense of equality and justice in his assessment of the benefits of the arrangement. “Now our presbytery has the opportunity to include the voice and vote from these new worshiping communities. For our new worshiping communities, this gives them access to being a part of a church family, access to housing allowances and access to becoming leaders in the Presbyterian Church.”

As the executive presbyter, Sarmiento issued a recorded thank you to members of the presbytery and the new worshiping communities that engaged in finding a solution and approving the church’s charter, an invitation for existing members to mentor new leaders and a pledge of commitment: “We are in this for the long haul. It’s a lifelong process of learning. The exciting thing is that we now get to learn together.”

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