‘These are trying times, but we come from people who have survived trying times’

The Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly will be prayerfully supporting the work of discernment required during GA225

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart and the Rev. Gregory Bentley, Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly, were the guests Thursday of the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett and the Rev. DeEtte Decker on Being Matthew 25.

LOUISVILLE — Two days before commissioners to the 225th General Assembly will elect their successors, the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly, the Rev. Gregory Bentley and Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart, took to the Being Matthew 25 airwaves to discuss, among other topics, what they’re praying for during the lead-up to the Assembly, which begins Saturday. Their conversation with the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Rev. DeEtte Decker, the PMA’s acting senior director of communications, was pre-recorded. It can be viewed here or here.

“I think we need to put some ardor into our order. You can have both,” Bentley said. “I’m not just a brain walking around or feelings walking around. I’m both,” said the pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, before addressing what he called “the elephant in the room”: Presbyterian “classism and elitism.”

“We have a reputation for being a highly educated group of people, and we are,” Bentley said, saying he knows people who have been barred from leadership positions in churches and mid councils “because they don’t have degrees. That’s ungodly, and the church is poorer for it.”

“I’m pro-education. I have three degrees myself,” Bentley said. “But education doesn’t get rid of sin. That’s a matter of the heart. I think we need to address elitism and classism head on, because I think it’s a huge barrier to growth in many of our congregations.”

Street-Stewart, the executive of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, said she’s praying for safe travels and that commissioners “will arrive well-prepared and able to do the job.”

“Each General Assembly receives what previous General Assemblies and personalities have brought to it,” she said. “I’m praying that people who have spent thousands of hours to make it happen will feel appreciated and valued and respected. We know every time there is a problem, that problem is there so we learn how to do it better next time.”

Bentley said he and Street-Stewart were convinced two years ago that the Matthew 25 invitation was “the vehicle that God has given us to lead us into the future. We are more convinced now than ever that is the case. My prayer is there will be even greater buy-in, greater support coming out of this assembly for Matthew 25. We feel that strongly about what is happening and especially about the leadership of the PMA, the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett. We really feel this is how the Spirit is leading us, and we hope commissioners agree with us and become evangelists for getting people on board with that.”

The Co-Moderators also reflected on their two years in office, a time fully bracketed by the pandemic.

“Building relationships without hugs has been the challenge,” Street-Stewart said. “We were elected by the General Assembly, but we wear other hats. We’re real humans. We have other responsibilities, and we know you do too.”

“Don’t see us as people set apart from you,” she told viewers. “The relationship is built on equity and our engagement directly with you as partners.”

“Elona is basically my sister from another mother,” Bentley said. “It’s eerie the connection and how our values align with one another … God ordained that we come together when we did.” Among his prayers for the upcoming assembly is, “Will we work to let that relationship flourish to all God wants it to be so we can experience the fulness of the abundant life God wants us to experience?”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett is president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“I am grateful to God for both of you and for the lives that you lead, both as Co-Moderators and in your respective positions as pastor and synod leader,” Moffett told them. “You all know that I’m all about relationships.” Exegeting Matthew 25 briefly, Moffett noted the parallel with Jesus’ teachings. When James and John seek a special privilege, Jesus tells them they must be “a servant to all … Social privilege didn’t mean the same thing for [Jesus] as it did for others. Being in charge to him meant you were really serving people.” She then asked the Co-Moderators how they experienced servant leadership during the pandemic.

“Two words come to mind: ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptability,’” Bentley said. “As this thing has dragged out, folks are beginning to wrap their minds around the fact that it’s not going to get back to the way things used to be … How do we bring the best of in-person engagement with the best of virtual engagement? In spite of the challenges, I think there’s some real opportunities to do church in a different way.”

Moffett noted that Bentley frequently sprinkled his responses with “we.”

“Gregory and I both brought a lifetime of experience about being a servant leader in our family, our community and our jobs,” Street-Stewart said. “We were already equipped to serve and present ourselves in that way … The living church really needs people who understand how interconnected they are.” She talked about her role as “the pastor’s wife,” one who’s called one moment to mow the church grounds and the next minute to clean out the refrigerator or teach a Sunday school class, “or anything else the day required.”

Two years ago, the Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly chose the Sankofa as their symbol.

She and Bentley “are there to help, listen and be a part of the people. That’s why we chose the Sankofa image, this bird flying with her head turned back, grabbing an egg to carry forward, what you’ll need to survive into the future.”

Servant leadership “is also saying, ‘We’re going to remember where we came from and how we made it this far, and we’re bringing that with us into the future of the church. We’re going to wrap a towel around our waist and get down and do the dishes because that’s what the future church is going to require.”

“We’re honored to be serving,” Bentley said. “But it’s also an honor for the Church to have us serving in this position because of the communities we represent.”

The Rev. DeEtte Decker

As the Co-Moderators leave office, Decker wondered, “What do you long for the world to see about God and our faith?”

“I hope it’s that sense of belonging,” Street-Stewart said, “for the Church to continue to see its future purpose is to understand that sense of belonging. So many of our wiser ancestors have addressed that issue, that all the gifts you’ve been given are not for you — you’ve been given them to use for others … The people working at GA, preparing now for GA, the people who will be reading and studying and praying together — that’s all of us. The Church is us. My hope for the future is we have this appreciation for what it really means to belong.”

“You all have that prophetic imagination. So many of us need to have that, especially as we are dealing with so much change in the world,” Moffett told them. “You mentioned the word ‘adaptability,’ Rev. Gregory. As humans we are so uncomfortable not knowing. There’s a natural kind of anxiety that arises.” She asked: What signs of hope do you see?

“I think folk realize that business as usual won’t get it done,” Bentley said. “There’s a critical mass of people saying, ‘We’re ready to go forward, and we’re ready to let the Spirit lead us … That’s an important word Elona used, ‘belonging.’” He noted the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman once said, “a person must feel at home somewhere before they can feel at home everywhere.”

“Our communities launch us into the world. They give us a sense of self and ‘somebodyness’ so we can engage the world — not as deficit people, but as people who bring gifts and want to share those gifts with others,” Bentley said. “I think we start at the wrong place. We start with belief, but belonging is the right place to start.”

“The Church itself is to be aware of who it is and how it is perceived in the world,” Street-Stewart said. “If we are the hands and feet of Christ, we have to make sure that witness really is exactly the way Jesus would be and have us be. These are trying times, but we come from people who have survived trying times.”

“Jesus was making it pretty simple: These are the things I am expecting of you. You’ve got to be good people and doing good is this stuff … Gregory and I have continued to say … that the Church is being Reformed and is resurrecting itself from the darkness into the light.”

Two years ago, during the first plenary session that Bentley moderated, “we spent two hours wordsmithing one paragraph that at the end of the day we were not going to do anything with,” he said. “Oftentimes we take so long to say the right thing that we never get to the doing.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t love God with head and heart. All I’m saying is there has to be congruence,” Bentley said. “If a house is on fire, we don’t spend time arguing about what type of bucket we’re going to use or who’s going to be at the front of the line. No, no, no. Let’s get together and put this fire out.”

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