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On Juneteenth, Black Presbyterian leaders share their thoughts on congregational stability and church financial reimagination

Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries hosts a conversation featuring pastors and denominational leaders

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — In a conversation recorded earlier and aired on Monday during the Juneteenth celebration, the Rev. Michael Lynn Moore, intercultural associate for Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, welcomed four panelists for an online discussion on “Forty Acres, No Mule: A Conversation of Black Presbyterian Leaders on Congregational Stability and Church Financial Reimagination.” Watch their hour-long discussion here.

The “40 acres and a mule” reference — at least the first part of that promise — came following a January 1865 discussion among Union General William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton, and 20 Black clergy in Savannah, Georgia, where Sherman was headquartered following his famous march to the sea, according to historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. But President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, overturned Sherman’s order that fall, returning the land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to the planters who had originally owned it, “the very people who had declared war on the United States of America,” as Gates writes.

Moore’s guests for “40 Acres, No Mule” were:

Moore began with these questions: Where are Black Presbyterian congregations after the pandemic? Are traditional forms of tithing, pledging and fundraising sustaining congregations? What are ways we can address financial issues?

Marshall said New River Presbyterian Church is the union of three historic churches in west Philadelphia with a combined 500 years of history. “My task is to help bridge and unite congregations, build upon historic legacies and live into a new future,” Marshall said. “This is a challenging season, but it’s also a season filled with so much opportunity. It will take a deep sense of call and mission to move forward as a church.”

Stewardship and sustainability “are first rooted in mission,” Marshall said, “a sense of real call to serve something greater than ourselves.”

Insurance proceeds from a fire at one of the three churches funded the three congregations coming together, Marshall said. “But even without these resources, we would not be able to move forward in sustainability without a sense of collective call. We’ve got to ask: Do we want to live? Or is it we just don’t want to die? If we want to live, there’s a sense of letting go and living into a new future.”

“We are dreaming and imagining revenue-generating ministries and programs. I like to think of sustainability as a three-legged stool” including tithes and offerings, revenue-generating income, and grants, Marshall said.

“I don’t believe tithes and offerings can sustain Black congregations,” Williams said. “There has to be an intentional effort to look at multiple streams around income.” New Life Presbyterian Church is constructing a community center “that will address the needs of the community around us. Much of that [construction cost] has come through grants and philanthropic organizations interested in social impact.”

“One of the most important things we have to wrap our minds around is our call for this present age,” Johnson said. “Far too many times, I engage congregations and presbyteries who are working on a mission statement they inherited.”

“You have to talk about your mission, inside and beyond the church,” Johnson said. “If we aren’t showing folks what we’re doing, the giving program won’t expand.”

“At the Presbyterian Foundation, we often start with, ‘What is your understanding of stewardship?’” Carr said. “We have made it synonymous with paying bills, but it’s a form of spiritual discipline and discipleship.”

Moore wondered: Can people be taught to manage their finances in a way that makes it possible to give?

“It’s a fundamental discipleship issue,” Marshall said. A mentor taught her: It’s not about equal giving; it’s about equal sacrifice. “We give to what we value. We give out of devotion. It’s not an obligation; it’s an opportunity. We are excited about what God is doing and we want to join God in that work.”

Williams said he entered into community work “and became part of the economic development authority so we could bring business and entrepreneurial opportunities to the community. We have put people in strategic leadership positions to make sure we have a voice at the table … For me, it was a systems approach outside the church that’s been helpful and beneficial.”

Photo by Samantha Sophia via Unsplash

“Far too often as we do our work, vitality is tied to church growth,” Johnson said. “When we talk to people about stewardship and vitality, it’s looking at the systems in the community that cause people to be in that situation in the first place.”

Faith communities “have to know what God is calling you to do as a congregation at this time,” Carr said. Marshall’s model of “collapsing three churches into one — sometimes that’s a model I truly wish we saw more of, combining resources and not always feeling the need to hang onto our individual identities.”

“Facilities has become a deep passion of mine,” Williams said. “When we are faced with a declining congregation, we often rush to sell property. Our goal [with a foundation-funded cohort] is to help congregations understand how they can reimagine and rework the gifts they have. We have all we need to be all we need to be.”

A lot of congregational success stories “come from a place of boldness and courage,” Carr said. “It’s a scary time, and our congregations are facing a lot of unknowns. It takes courage to do anything to your property — share your space, remodel your space, or provide open space that can be transformed for community events … When you put everything on the table, sometimes you’re surprised at what comes up.”

“Faith going forward is going to require a tremendous amount of energy … to really lean into what’s going right,” Marshall said. One new way of thinking can be “seeing the facility shift from a congregation-based to a community asset. We are not here for ourselves, but to be in relationship with our neighbors.”

“Thank you for showing up and doing this,” Moore told panelists. “I think this will be powerful for clergy and congregations. It strengthens my faith to see clergy and congregational leaders with hope and vision, encouraging us on.”

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