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PC(USA) pastor shares her experience with intentional pastoral transitions

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta is this week’s guest on ‘Leading Theologically’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner

LOUISVILLE — To learn more about what goes into successful intentional pastoral transitions, the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty turned to someone who’s recently undergone one: the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner, who left Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago last May and is now senior pastor and head of staff at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Listen to Hinson-Hasty’s 31-minute conversation with Kershner on his “Leading Theologically” broadcast here or here.

Kershner said she’s learning from just about everybody more than six months into her stay at Central, including the children. On the same Sunday, one boy came down front for children’s time sporting an icebag after bumping his head during Sunday school. He asked his new pastor to hold it atop his head while she spoke to the children. Another child couldn’t find her grandmother, and so she asked Kershner to help her.

“I’m so honored by their trust and their claiming me already,” Kershner told Hinson-Hasty. The congregation is “quick to ask questions, quick to love and quick to laugh,” she said. “You don’t have to be quiet in church. Baby and children noises are welcome. It’s a great ‘problem’ to have.”

Besides Central and Fourth, Kershner has served Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas, The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church in The Woodlands, Texas, and Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, North Carolina. One lesson she’s learned interviewing with five pastor nominating committees “is to be your full self” in every interview and correspondence, “and not try to be who you think they are looking for.”

“I made some mistakes early on interviewing at a larger church. I was trying to act like I knew what I was doing, and it was not authentic,” she said. “I learned a lot through that and was grateful for that hard experience. I promised myself after that I would always be my full, strange, quirky, honest self in all the conversations I’ve had since then, and I think that has borne fruit. I always felt like the call was the call when I arrived.”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty

Hinson-Hasty, the senior director for Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Foundation, noted that between 700 and 800 PC(USA) faith communities are in some stage of searching for their new pastor. “So many pastor nominating committees are on the look. Fit is so, so very important. There’s no time to waste trying to be something you’re not, and that problem goes for both sides,” he said. “Congregations should be the same way.”

When she began her time at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago — a church of nearly 5,400 members that Kershner served as senior pastor and head of staff — “what I needed to say to myself is, ‘Can administration be ministry too?’ You have to have order and organization to be able to mobilize folks, take care of the operations and finances, and supervise staff. All of that takes time and energy,” she said. “It was something I said yes to nine years ago, and it’s something I spent a lot of time doing over nine years.”

She said she missed knowing the names of the preachers on youth Sunday, teaching the new member class, being at hospital beds, being able to spot a visitor and knowing who’s missing from their regular pew. Owing to the size of the congregation, “that was not something I was able to do, nor did I have the time,” she said. “I have come to the sense I am a redevelopment pastor at heart. I had this sense the ground had been tilled with that congregation and staff and others and with me for the next leader who would bring them into their next season of growth. I knew it was time.”

Leaving a congregation intentionally requires effort and candor on the part of the departing pastor, Kershner said.

“We pastor types don’t always do a great job receiving gratitude and celebration. Let folks show you your ministry meant something to them. You can reciprocate and let them know how much you learned from them and how grateful you are for who they’ve been in your life,” she said. “Letting folks celebrate you well is important, and it’s the same with the hellos. Be yourself. It’s sounds simplistic, but it can also be nerve-wracking to be vulnerable.”

Part of her focus in ministry has been “about bringing more chairs to the table,” she said. “If a door opens and I’m able to step through, I’m going to keep it open for someone else.”

As pastors transition into serving a new faith community, “it takes time to let your body settle from one place to another,” she said. “Grief sneaks up on you. You are nervous about proving your worth. It’s not just leaving a job — you invest so much of yourself in the community, and they invest so much in you. It’s a hard thing to say goodbye and say hello, all at the same time.”

Central is a place with “huge” opportunities, she said. “This place has such good bones: an energy, joy and enthusiasm, and an intentional openness for folk to find their place in the life of the congregation and to contribute. We are more diverse than you might think, and we have always been up front on human sexuality and welcoming all of God’s people for who they are.”

“We have a ways to go in terms of being a more diverse group politically, racially and socio-economically. All of that remains something we need to grow into, but the will and the energy are there,” she said. “We will see what God can do with us as we keep moving forward.”

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