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PC(USA) mid council leader and seminary professor says post-pandemic ministry is akin to being launched from a catapult

The Rev. Dr. Beth McCaw sits down for a high-flying half-hour conversation on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Silvia via Pixabay

LOUISVILLE — Here’s the Rev. Dr. Beth McCaw’s current metaphor on where many church leaders find themselves these days: the pandemic has catapulted them into the air — maybe involuntarily — and they’re still airborne.

“The temptation might be to be overwhelmed by that and just close your eyes and brace for impact,” McCaw said during this week’s Leading Theologically broadcast, which can be heard here or here. “Or — and I really believe this — we can use this flight to start limbering up. We are going to land in a different place, unavoidably, and God is ahead of us in that place.”

McCaw’s unique perspective comes in part from her bivocational role: she’s both Associate Professor of Ministry at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and the leader of Glacier Presbytery in western Montana. She’s seeing a creative and entrepreneurial spirit among both her students and in the churches of Glacier Presbytery. “I watch lay people rolling up their sleeves to try new things,” McCaw told “Leading Theologically” host the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Funds Development for the PC(USA)’s Committee on Theological Education and the Presbyterian Foundation. “I’m seeing grassroots congregations have that sense of adventure and curiosity” as they discover new ways to become church. “That,” she said, “is a joy.”

One example is the Milk River Parish, five churches along Montana’s Hi-Line just south of the Canadian border. The churches have historic ties to the PC(USA), the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Without fulltime ministers, “they’ve caught the wind rather than hunkering down and being afraid and saying, ‘We can’t be the church like we used to.’ They’re throwing all their gifts on the table,” McCaw told Hinson-Hasty. Once a month, all five churches gather to worship together and share communion. They’ve just hired a Lutheran pastor to help build the team and are close to commissioning a Presbyterian to do lay ministry work.

The Rev. Dr. Beth McCaw

“Some churches might look at that and say, ‘Oh, this is just making do,’ or it’s settling to share staff,” McCaw said. “It really isn’t that. It’s a great witness in those communities.”

Along with “that idea of being airborne” is flexibility, “which can be an exciting thing” as seminary students work with faculty to tailor their education “to meet students where they are” with enough flexibility “to piece [their coursework] together in a way that matches the shape of their vocation,” McCaw said.

On the congregational side, McCaw said she’s hearing chatter among mid councils who are looking at fellowships and chapels as models for being church. One is the new worshiping community in Basin, Montana. A former gold- and silver-mining town, Basin now offers its radon mines to visitors who come from all over the world seeking their reputed health-giving benefits. A pastor visited, and at the invitation of Basin residents and visitors, began, with help from the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, “this core of Christians who meet every Sunday for worship and study and potluck,” McCaw said. “They made it their mission to be present for people arriving from Canada and Korea and Russia” and Amish communities.

Every time McCaw has worshiped there, “I thought, this is the kingdom of God,” she said. The presbytery is looking at allowing Basin Community Church to become a chapel of a larger congregation “that can benefit from that energy and that missional vision,” McCaw said. “That’s an example of the kind of flexibility of helping worshiping communities be exactly who they’re supposed to be for kingdom purposes.”

In the vows people in the PC(USA)’s ordered ministry take — promising to serve God’s people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love — it’s that third quality that McCaw especially appreciates.

“As we are catapulted, it’s easy to look back with longing rather than considering what is possible and letting new visions grow up,” she told Hinson-Hasty. “A lot of scripture is given to us in order to cultivate our imagination of what the kingdom of God looks like so we know what we’re leaning into.”

That kind of imagination “has placed some of our smaller churches on the cutting edge. They are compelled to not do church like we used to do church,” such as going out to “find a hired professional to keep things running,” McCaw said.

Ministry duties still range from proclaiming the Word to sitting with someone who’s dying to showing up in the neighborhood. “Look to the left in your pew; look to the right in your pew,” McCaw suggested. “Look in the mirror.” She said she relishes the work of watching the second or third sermons people have been bold enough to preach in their faith community. “What I shared at our mid council meeting was that it’s a beautiful thing to watch a preacher being born,” she said, “or to watch anybody discover their vocation.”

Faith communities have a unique role in the place they’re situated, she said.

“We show up to worship God knowing there are all kinds of stories of brokenness and fear and longing, and yet at the same time we open the scriptures and raise our voices and pray together so we can allow for grief and hold onto hope … and create spaces for both. I think the church is uniquely poised to be able to do that,” she said. “That gives us the courage to lament and hope, even in the messiness. It’s a unique gift of the church to the world.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

When asked by Hinson-Hasty to offer listeners a charge or benediction, McCaw included these words for the Advent season: “As we find ourselves traveling in midair, let us not curl up or look back. Let us keep our eyes on the horizon and be watching for God to be sparking curiosity and hope in one another — essentially to be keeping the faith, which God has given to us. May the inexhaustible grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the abundant love of God and the ever-sure faithful presence of the Holy Spirit be with us today, tomorrow and the next day — and always. Amen.”

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