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The Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson finds beauty and synergy among the PC(USA)’s ‘many moving parts’


Ministry Engagement and Support’s new director approaches transitions, learning curves and economic realities with grace, aplomb and optimism

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson

LOUISVILLE — While the Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson appreciates that all large organizations have “many moving parts that all work together” — just as the Apostle Paul’s scriptural metaphor of the “one body” would have it — he did not expect that his family would be among those parts that kept moving.

“For me personally and for us a family, Covid clarified our desire to be in one place,” said the new director of Ministry Engagement and Support (MES), who most recently served as pastor and head of staff at  the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia prior to joining MES on May 8. During the four years that Wilkinson served at Chestnut Hill, his wife, Bonny Claxton, chief financial officer for Rochester Presbyterian Home, had remained in their family’s Rochester, New York home.

“Given that Bonny and I were ready to be together again, I began to do some discernment around what might be next,” Wilkinson said, “and being quite open to the Spirit’s calling, I was put in touch with this opportunity, which felt very natural and not easy, but clear.”

In truth, “not easy, but clear” could very well be Wilkinson’s watchword for his first 90 days as MES’s director as he continues to navigate his new role and its place within the larger PC(USA) ecosystem.

Among the joys — and the challenges — that he has already begun to experience in the early days of his tenure are the pleasures, intricacies and interconnections among the organization’s many moving parts.

“I work with a really good team in [the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Corporation’s] Administrative Services Group (ASG),” he said, “and the three clusters of people in MES, all of whom have very particular tasks, are really committed, good at their jobs and love their work.”

Wilkinson’s observation references both MES’s move from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) to ASG on Jan. 1 by action of the 225th General Assembly (2022) as well as the three, distinct offices that compose MES, namely Relationship & Development Operations, Special Offerings/Presbyterian Giving Catalog and a team of Ministry Engagement Advisors.

“Although I didn’t really have much of a background on the move from PMA to ASG, I find myself in an interesting role where I can connect with both the PMA side and the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) side,” he said. “And because of my previous service in congregations as well as my work denominationally and theologically, it’s been fun for me to reconnect with people, some of whom I haven’t seen for 10 or 20 years, and some whom I’ve worked with in other contexts but now have an opportunity to work with in my new position.”

And as Wilkinson continues to become better acquainted with the people, agencies and systems that inform and intersect with his work, he does so with characteristic humility.

“There’s a lot of information out there, and, as with anything else, one question leads to another question,” he said. “I’m also learning as much as I can about the culture — or cultures — because different parts of the ecosystem have different cultures, spoken and unspoken.”

A full plate

One major goal that Wilkinson looks forward to accomplishing as quickly and expediently as possible is the hiring of an associate director for Special Offerings, a critically important responsibility that is assigned to him until a new colleague joins the MES team.

“I love the Special Offerings,” Wilkinson said. “Because they’ve been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, I think the intergenerational quality of them is compelling. They are also a unifying element within the denominational family, in that people and congregations of all stripes and sizes and shapes are drawn in and can find themselves. It’s also telling that churches are using their valuable worship time or Sunday school time to promote the Special Offerings because they are worth promoting.”

Wilkinson added that another strength of the Special Offerings is their ability to live up to the tagline, “when we all do a little, it adds up to a lot.”

“Because the world is kind of a scary place right now, One Great Hour of Sharing especially — but truly all of the Special Offerings — are tangible handles on which people can hang their thoughts about the big world out there,” he said. “Presbyterians may tell themselves that they’re probably not going to figure out climate change all on their own and maybe not even in their congregation, but that a gift to One Great Hour of Sharing to support sustainable farming, for example, joined with other gifts from across the Church, can make a real difference.”

In fact, One Great Hour of Sharing — which will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2024 — has been making just such a difference since 1949, which Wilkinson said is remarkable.

“Although much has changed in 75 years, much is still the same,” Wilkinson observed. “As we continue to go out and tell the stories of the countless lives that have been transformed through Presbyterian generosity, we are also telling the story of why the Special Offerings still have great relevance in today’s world.”

Today, One Great Hour of Sharing stands as the single largest way that Presbyterians come together to bring their first fruits to benefit God’s world. In 2022 alone, the program has raised over $3.1 million in grants disbursed by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in the United States and 15 countries. Its impact has seen 80 grants offered by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, impacting 23 countries worldwide.

Wilkinson sees this impact as an especially strong opportunity for using images, not words, in telling the story.

“The storytelling aspect of our work is really important, letting people know where their money is going and what difference it is making,” he said. “People want to invest in something that they know is making a difference.”

Toward that end, Wilkinson is particularly eager to get a sense of the bigger picture into which the whole of MES’s ministry fits.

The Ministry Engagement & Support team is pictured at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. (Contributed photo)

“There are big systemic issues floating around in the ecosystem, some of which are obviously [PMA and OGA] unification related, while others pre-existed unification and will keep going on in the life of the Church,” he said. “For example, what’s the Church going to look like as we keep moving through the 21st century in terms of its mission and program, not just at the denominational level but locally? And, from MES’s point of view, what are the best ways to fund that mission? How can we invite people into generosity in what feels like a project that still has purpose and still provides meaning but that is also still very much in flux?”

In a recent book that Wilkinson found to be particularly insightful, “The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community,” the Rev. Stephanie Spellers speaks about how Covid and the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor served as a two-part disruption to a church already in numerical decline.

“We had two things happen at once that further magnified the change that mainline Protestantism was already in,” he said, “and I certainly don’t think the implications or ramifications of Covid are over for local congregations and certainly not the rest of us. And then, however congregations engage in the conversation on race, racism and the Matthew 25 trajectories, at some point money comes into play in those conversations. For MES, as the ones who are charged with identifying funds and encouraging congregations and mid councils to have conversations about stewardship, we can support that work.”

Finally, in his first 90 days — or not long thereafter — Wilkinson plans to embody that support by being on the road. He already has several trips planned, including visits with the presbyteries of the Twin Cities Area and Milwaukee as well as attending the annual Stewardship Kaleidoscope Conference in Minneapolis this fall. In each case, a ministry engagement advisor (MEA) will likely accompany him.

“I think that the relational, ambassadorial, in-person touches matter,” he said. “Having the MEAs go out and say thank you to congregations and mid councils is important. There’s a power in itinerancy, in someone caring enough about you to come show up at your place. And yes, at the same time, we also want to invite financial support for Shared Mission, Per Capita and the Special Offerings. We also want to ask, ‘What do you need from us? How can we help you? What great stories do you have to tell?’”

And while Wilkinson said that he’s not wearing “rose-colored glasses about the Church,” he still believes it has value in communities, in people’s lives and in the world.

“At the same time, I also realistically acknowledge that we are in an uncertain economic moment that I won’t try to gloss over,” he said. “Yet even as I acknowledge that, I know that we all have choices to make, and I think that giving to the PC(USA) is a really good choice. You tell the story, you invite people into generosity, and you see where the Spirit leads. That’s why I love this job.”

Celebrate special anniversaries of three of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings and the Presbyterian Giving Catalog by viewing and sharing our new video!

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