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‘These are people doing real work together’

Leadership Innovation Team members join Moffett to explain the process and what Presbyterians can expect from a mission agency better aligned to do Matthew 25 ministry

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ben White via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — After 17 three-hour sessions which included homework assignments, the 36-member Leadership Innovation Team tasked with re-aligning the Presbyterian Mission Agency in the coming months to make it more able to carry out the ministry Jesus describes in his Matthew 25 parable has completed its work.

On Friday, LIT members the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis and Ruling Elder James Parks, who also serves on the PMA board, joined the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, the PMA’s president and executive director, to discuss the process and what lies ahead. Joining them online were this reporter and Leslie Scanlon, the national reporter with the Presbyterian Outlook. Kathy Melvin, director of Mission Communications in the PMA, moderated the 70-minute session.

Starling-Louis, pastor of Meadowlake Presbyterian Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, described the LIT work as creating “building blocks for systemic change.”

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis

“It was palpable [members’] hearts were in it,” Starling-Louis said, listing such qualities as presence, thoughtfulness and “empowerment to allow us to have systemic change. As a pastor to have those skills and that discernment feels like a huge gift.”

“I was skeptical at the beginning,” said Parks, a ruling elder from Baltimore whose devotional during last month’s PMA board meeting moved many board members and observers. “I have said I thought we have made wonderful statements and had great visions that went nowhere. I was concerned, hoping this wouldn’t be one of those times.”

The discernment tools brought to the LIT process by the team’s consultant, CounterStories Consulting, LLC, have proven valuable, Parks said. “It helps the leadership of the Church understand who and whose we are. Our role is to follow Jesus and try to be as much like Jesus as we can.”

For Parks, that’s a big part of the message that will be delivered to the rest of the church, which must “follow Jesus and be instruments of peace and love.”

21st century problems are often deadly serious, Moffett said, with the pandemic, white supremacy and racism, systemic poverty and global warming among the most deadly.

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, speaks during last summer’s Presbyterian Week of Action. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“It’s time for the church to reflect, discern and prepare itself for 21st-century ministry,” Moffett said. Almost from the day she arrived to lead the PMA in 2018 after 33 years in parish ministry, “I could see that our structure needed to be more nimble and more strategic.” The pandemic, she said, “gave us space and time to sit and pray, listen to the Spirit and to the people.”

Too often, Moffett said, re-envisioning an organization, well-intentioned as it might be, proves to be hierarchical and “reminiscent of structures fueled by white supremacy” and, in general, people who want to dominate others. “We wanted to create a space with board members and [PMA] employees, pastors like Shavon … seminary professors and ecumenical partners, to take time and soak in and sense what the Spirit is doing and what we are hearing.”

“We didn’t want to be an echo chamber. We know the challenges of the church and the theology of the cross, and we are willing to do that for the sake of following Jesus Christ. We will be advocating to be radically inclusive, and that’s not what the status quo is.”

People or agencies who understand themselves “begin to organize themselves and do things that help them come alive,” Moffett said. The three dozen LIT members “are busy people who have lives and who love the Church and love God … This group has been so life-giving to me.”

Asked about specific recommendations for what the process will call the church to do and to give up, LIT members agreed it’s too soon to tell. Starling-Louis discussed ways the discernment process can work at the local level.

“We are inviting the church to let go of how we have tended to be more afraid of the person with money who might walk out the door than we are of following Jesus,” Starling-Louis said. “That money is the idol, and the power and privilege connected to that person is the idol. We have to help our siblings see what our call is and how we value things differently. We came back to the gifts of Matthew 25 and what it means to be people of God in that beautiful parable.”

“We are going to build structures,” Starling-Louis said, “that give us signs of being fruits of the Spirit and being whole in places that have been part of the breaking and part of the evil … We are able to talk about systemic issues, including racism, sexism and homophobia — everything that prevents us from seeing the image of God in one another.”

“We have given in to powers and principalities in ways that we shouldn’t,” Starling-Louis said. “It’s amazing to imagine we can build structures to change that. To have everything on the table felt like a true shift,” including “putting structures and policy in place about removing the barriers that prevent us from loving Jesus.”

Leadership Innovation Team member James Parks, a ruling elder from Baltimore, is also a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board of Directors. (Screenshot)

“We are talking about a change in culture in the church,” Parks said. “We are right now a 90% white church. That’s who we are.” That percentage will drop, Parks said, as demographics change with increasing immigration and “people of color who are very much interested in being Presbyterian.” It’ll also result in changes “in how we follow Jesus.”

“It feels good to do charitable work,” said Parks, who began his career in community organizing. “What we need to start doing are things that don’t feel so good but are pursuing Jesus’ view of what justice is.”

“Getting together with people we don’t know and may not like — that’s where Jesus and God are, and that’s where we need to be,” Parks said.

“Thank God for those acting boldly and compassionately. When people are hungry, we need to feed them. We need to be healers because we follow a wounded healer,” Moffett said. However, “We cooperate with systems that create disparity when all we simply do is feed the person. What are the systems in place that prevent the flourishing? We are cooperating with a system that is not helping all Creation, all people, to flourish.”

As he healed people, Jesus “ran up against a system that said, ‘You can’t do healing on this day,’” Moffett said. “He had to advocate for those he knew needed healing. Jesus was very political in the sense that he had values and he valued people who were being mistreated. He would call it out … and people wanted to get rid of him. His message had resonance with people being healed who said, ‘Wow! We can live like that.’ People benefiting from the structure didn’t want to give it up.”

“We have to call into account the systems,” Moffett said, “and dream of a new world where all can flourish … We are our sibling’s keeper. I think the church may have gotten away from that.”

Parks said the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a “group of core people who do what we are talking about in their day-to-day lives.” But some need the opportunity to do the very same work in their local congregations, Parks said.

LIT members will collaborate with the consultants as they complete and edit the final report, which the PMA board will consider during its October meeting. The consultants “have the fulness of what we have done,” Moffett said. “They will use their skills to bring this together for us … after listening to us say, ‘This is who we are and this is what we need to do.’ From there we will talk about how we live into that.”

“There will be hard decisions, of course,” Moffett said, which she told the PMA board last month could include job losses.

Asked what restructuring the agency has to do with people in local churches, Starling-Louis said having a clear and well-defined mission will demonstrate to Presbyterians that “our Church is finally being honest about what we are about.”

“We think that if we stay nebulous we will keep more people at the table. But we don’t live in that time,” Starling-Louis said. “People want to know why they should be a part of something … If we get clarity, some people may not like that clarity. But if we are putting emphasis toward the kin-dom of Christ and not the kin-dom looking just like certain people, might we be the conduits?”

“How we have to be as Jesus’ followers looks really different than how it has in the past,” Starling-Louis said. “My dream is that the LIT process will become something our communities are used to — putting structures in place to get us to be who God is calling us to be.”

People may say, “I want God to bless me with a life without discomfort, but in Scripture, that’s not what life more abundant looks like,” Starling-Louis said. People will start to tell one another, “I have that scar” or “I have seen that demonic energy when you are standing up for Jesus,” Starling-Louis said. “There is a joy in saying, ‘I have been there too.’ These are people doing real work together. There is real joy seeing people on the road.”

Parks said his conversations with people at the presbytery level indicate that people often “would like to do more than they are doing, but they don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to do it. That’s where the PMA comes in.”

“We can say, ‘This is a way you can do it. Maybe there are others in your community trying to do the same thing. We can put the two of you together. Here is somebody at the national level. We can help you plan and work at it.”

“I think the PMA can be like a community organizer in that sense,” Parks said. “We can bring resources, but we can’t come in and tell you what you need to do in your community. You need to figure that out on your own, and we can help you get there.”

“The mission agency exists to serve the church,” Moffett said. “To the degree that the church understands who we understand ourselves to be, that will bring clarity and understanding.” Many Presbyterians don’t know much about the scope of the PMA’s mission, she said. “They may know different program areas, but they don’t have a full knowledge” of the agency’s overall mission.

“It’s not like we haven’t been invited before” to take up our cross and follow Jesus, Moffett said. “But we are doing it now in a way that is most authentic.”

Even small churches can see themselves “connected to the lager picture as they do their work in the local context,” Moffett said. The message is, “I know I matter, and we have to make sure local churches, mid councils and global partners come along and join us.”

Parks said the hard part is still to come, “translating this to congregations and presbyteries and bringing them on board. We understand that, and we have committed to do that as followers of Jesus.”

“Some of this,” Starling-Louis said, “is being who we have said we are, Reformed and always being reformed. There have been golden calves we didn’t want God to reform and change. God is up to a new thing, and we haven’t always perceived it … We are excited about this. It is Christ centered and it recognizes the story of Jesus as the reason we are called to be the church.”

“We are not called to be a club or even a good feeder of people. It’s good we do that, but that’s not our call. It’s the proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ, which incudes, ‘Why do they not have food?’”

Learn more about the Leadership Innovation Team by clicking here.

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