Presbyterian Mission Agency Board joins online for a full and rich day

In between worship, reports and fearless dialogues, board members celebrate the ministry of PILP’s James Rissler

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis is Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022)

LOUISVILLE — Wednesday, the first of three days of online meetings for the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, began with worship and ended with a devotion. In between, board members heard reports, held fearless dialogues with the Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison and team, and celebrated the work and ministry of James Rissler, the president and CEO of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program (PILP), who is retiring at the end of the year.

The Rev. Canon Elise Johnstone of the Episcopal Church, an ecumenical partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), led the board in opening worship. On the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, Johnstone told the board the friar and deacon is probably “the most admired and least imitated of the saints.” Also on Wednesday, a more current Francis — Pope Francis — issued “Laudate Deum,” an apostolic exhortation on better care for God’s Creation.

“May God grant us the will and the power to do these things,” Johnstone prayed. “Amen.”

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022), offered a report of “where I’ve been and what I’ve noticed.” Speaking engagements included a Board of Pensions panel, a panel on womanist leadership, mid council and congregational gatherings, trips to West Africa and the Montreat Youth Conferences and to other noteworthy spots.

Starling-Louis, pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, said she’s seeing “a lot of stress and anxiety” in her travels.

“I think we are kind of stuck with levels of grief. People are anxious and at the same time know something is birthing and coming forward,” she said. “There is a desire for accountability in our spaces.” Many are on the lookout for “some kind of metric that shows we are becoming who God calls us to be.”

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” she told board members. “I’m grateful to minister alongside you.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett

The Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, the PMA’s president and executive director, said PMA leaders have been paying “close, prayerful attention to ways God is moving in our midst” throughout 2023. “Some inspirational things have emerged.”

Among those inspirations is a pair of journeys to Juneau, Alaska, the second of which begins this week, to issue apologies and reparations for the racist closure of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1963. Moffett plans to join those traveling to Juneau, as does the Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), the Rev. Bronwen Boswell. “This is the beginning of the work that needs to be done,” Moffett told the board.

The Matthew 25 Summit, set for Jan. 16-18, 2024, at New Life Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, has six confirmed speakers, and all the workshops have been finalized, Moffett noted. In addition, “we are committed to listening to mid councils and congregations about their Matthew 25 work,” and Moffett and others have visited the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii to learn more about Matthew 25 ministry in those varied settings.

To date, 1,151 congregations have joined the Matthew 25 movement, along with 82 presbyteries, 11 synods and 63 groups. “It really is a movement of the Spirit,” Moffett said. “A great big thank you for all of you who are making this happen. God is still at work, and she is doing marvelously.”

The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, the board’s co-chair, thanked Rissler, a corresponding member of PMA board, for his longtime engagement and commitment to the work of the mission agency. “We are sorry to lose you, but we know PILP is a very steady agency in the church, and we look forward to meeting whoever comes after you,” Vance-Ocampo said.

James Rissler is president and CEO of the Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program.

Rissler thanked the board for its support of PILP and its ministry, including approving “an expansion of the scope of lending that we do” as well as a new grant program “a few years back to allow us to lend money to congregations for urgently needed repairs. Your support has allowed the Investment and Loan Program to do more of the mission we were directed to do back in 1995.”

“For me personally — and this is a little harder — you have been so supportive of me personally,” Rissler said. “The welcoming culture you have has made this corresponding member feel like a member of the board … You have allowed me to open my eyes to new viewpoints, and what I have learned I have brought back to the Investment and Loan Program to do our mission better, and I’ve carried those lessons into my personal life.”

Asked “what’s next?”, Rissler said he plans to learn Spanish, sign up for piano lessons and take up cycling, as well as catching up with friends and family.

During a prayer, Vance-Ocampo offered God thanks for Rissler’s “amazing spirit and for his work among us, for his ministry to the larger church and all he’s offered us.” She asked the Almighty to “be with Jim in this time of goodbyes and hellos.”

After the board met with Ellison and his team in closed session to continue work it had done during a summertime board retreat at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center, board co-chairs Vance-Ocampo and the Rev. Michelle Hwang reported on their time in August attending a mission celebration in the non-geographic Dakota Presbytery stemming from an invitation from Madison McKinney, a fellow board member, who grew up attending First Presbyterian Church in Flandreau, South Dakota, constructed in 1869 and the oldest church in the state to still host worship services. This year’s mission celebration was the 150th gathering, with interruptions only for smallpox and the Covid pandemic.

Madison McKinney (Photo by Rich Copley)

It’s also home to one of four Native American residential schools still in operation. “We were very surprised by that,” Vance-Ocampo said.

Lasting several days, the mission celebration featured worship, talking circles and singing, sharing groups for men and women, and activities for the many children in attendance, many of them learning the Dakota language.

It’s unknown how many children died while in custody at the Flandreau Indian School. “It was an incredibly painful and traumatic experience,” Vance-Ocampo said. “A lot of language and culture were lost,” and no small amount of religious indoctrination occurred. Presbyterians founded the Flandreau school.

A children’s memorial has been erected, and Vance-Ocampo showed the board a photo of it. While the memorial has no names, “it acknowledges there are children there whose names we do not know,” she said.

“We left with the question of what does repair look like,” as well as questions of reconciliation and reparations, Vance-Ocampo said. She called their time there “an entry point into the community we were grateful to have.” McKinney invited the co-chairs “to stay in relationship and not allow this to be one and done.”

The Rev. Michelle Hwang (Contributed photo)

“Shannan and I wanted to find a solution immediately, and Madison wisely said come back and build a relationship,” Hwang said. Hwang shared she was especially taken with a naming ceremony they witnessed, which “encompassed all the themes we saw there” and involved “naming someone after you see their personality come to life, and the way the community embraced all those children.”

“I was so grateful for the care that Shannan and Michelle came with,” McKinney said. “Thank you for continuing to reflect on what the best way forward is.”

For McKinney, a highlight was the final day, when children were asked to share their artwork. “Both my nieces were excited to share. They got right up and remembered the stories that went along with the craft,” McKinney said. “You could see the ministry at work, and it was incredibly beautiful.”

The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board resumes its meetings at 11 a.m. Eastern Time on Thursday. Meetings are livestreamed and can be viewed here.

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