‘This seems to be the right tool at the right time’

Presbytery leaders join the Being Matthew 25 broadcast to swap stories and share their hope for the PC(USA)

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Emmett and Clara Wise of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, participate in Austin’s annual Martin Luther King Day Walk. This image graces the cover of the 2021-22 Presbyterian Planning Calendar. (Photo by Elise Ragland)

LOUISVILLE — Two presbytery executives who have seen firsthand what the Matthew 25 invitation can do to make ministry and evangelism more effective and more inclusive joined the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s president and executive director, the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, Thursday for the second edition of Being Matthew 25. The conversation is hosted each month by the Rev. DeEtte Decker, the Mission Agency’s social media strategist. Watch Thursday’s episode here or here.

For the first half of their conversation together, Decker was joined by the Rev. Dr. Floretta Barbee-Watkins, transitional executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Detroit, and the Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Southern New England. Both are also members of the PMA Board, with Vance-Ocampo serving as the chair-elect.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation invites congregations, mid councils and groups to work on one or more of three focus areas derived from Jesus’ Judgment of the Nations found in Matthew 25:31-46: building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.

“This seems to be the right tool at the right time,” Vance-Ocampo said. “It’s rooted in gospel values, it’s highly intersectional and it isn’t shirking from the hard things around us.” It also “deepens our core areas of discipleship,” both personal and corporate, Vance-Ocampo said.

Barbee-Watkins agreed and called Matthew 25 “an indictment.”

The Rev. Dr. Floretta Barbee-Watkins

“It calls us to be faithful because we haven’t been,” Barbee-Watkins said. “Jesus came not to comfort, but to rouse some things up, and Matthew 25 embraces that.”

“Those of us on the margins have been pushed to the edges, even in our denomination,” Barbee-Watkins said, noting that at the time of her ordination, she couldn’t be an open and affirming about her sexual orientation. Fast-forward to today, when “I’m excited about how [Matthew 25] manifests itself in the Presbytery of Detroit.”

The Matthew 25 vision and the shift it’s encouraging “is the opportunity to live into that ‘always reforming’ part of who we are as Presbyterians,” Decker said before asking her guests what they’re seeing in their presbyteries as churches and individuals act on the Matthew 25 invitation.

“Our hunger ministry has been thriving,” Barbee-Watkins said. “Congregations are coming together in geographic ways, combining to do ministries.” First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, calls itself “Everybody’s Church.” “It’s a big-steeple white congregation saying, ‘We are everybody’s church,’” Barbee-Watkins said.

Vance-Ocampo said the Presbytery of Southern New England hasn’t officially signed on as a Matthew 25 presbytery, “but we are working on Matthew 25 initiatives all the time.” There’s been a big push to do antiracism work, she said, aided by a consultant the PMA has also used, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Congregational vitality work has come in part by reorienting the work of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, using Theology, Formation & Evangelism’s comprehensive tool 8 Habits of Evangelism.

The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo

“We want to focus on leadership development. That is our niche as Presbyterians,” Vance-Ocampo said. “How do we diversify and find new people who have never served before” and “get them to think in ways we have not thought before, as a governing body and as a ministry body.” More than 60% of churches in the presbytery have welcomed new leadership in the past 4½ years, she said, which “has a force and energy of its own. God is shaking things up and making things happen.”

While some Presbyterians are uncomfortable even talking about evangelism, “it is our call to go and make disciples. We have a story to tell, and it’s a good story,” Vance-Ocampo said.

Evangelism is telling the good news, and Barbee-Watkins had a culinary example to illustrate how best to tell it.

“If I found out lobsters were on sale for $5 each, I’d tell everybody — once I bought 10 for my freezer,” she said. “We will trip over our own feet half the time” trying to live into our calling, she said, “but we get the chance to say how things are in this time.”

What she’s hoping is that someone will soon write a confession about how to be faithful during a pandemic. “We need to take back the narrative of Christendom,” Barbee-Watkins said. “The answer is still Jesus. It still is.”

The Rev. DeEtte Decker

“Matthew 25 is saying, ‘Let’s do the work,’ Decker said. “We have talked about it for a long time. Now let’s do it.”

At that point, Moffett joined the broadcast, saying that forging something new “requires the Spirit of God transforming us.”

“I do not welcome the pandemic at all. It has been devastating,” Moffett said. “But one thing God is squeezing out is that God is letting us know that the church is about people. I’m not saying buildings aren’t needed, but what’s really needed are those inside the building, people becoming a re-presentation of Jesus. You start knocking on doors” once the pandemic allows for that, “and it’s so fulfilling when you do the work.”

A viewer asked this question: “Do you think Jesus saves us from sin and offers us eternal life, or inspires you to do social justice?”

“Matthew 25 takes us from a place where we know and trust Jesus as savior to ‘How do we put meat on those bones in our messed-up, complicated lives as people living on this planet in the midst of a pandemic and all the other things going on around us?’” Vance-Ocampo said. “We need to say who Jesus is for us as Presbyterians and who we are as a church, and Matthew 25 gives us a doorway to do that. Be the church and be relevant! So many aren’t, and that’s why folks are walking away.”

“Matthew 25 says, ‘Hey! When did you see me? And what are you going to do about it?’” Decker said. “I see Matthew 25 calling us to bring heaven to Earth.”

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, speaks to the PMA board before the pandemic. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Matthew’s gospel is about hearing and doing. It’s not enough just to hear,” Moffett said. “It’s about transformation and consciousness. When you see people being marginalized and siblings being dismissed and oppressed, that is a challenge for you to stand up … [In Matthew 25, Jesus] is judging systems that oppress others who are fearfully and wonderfully made … Jesus lived in that kind of oppressive system. He knew about being locked up and falsely accused.”

Thursday’s broadcast included a video updating the Matthew 25 work undertaken by Knox Presbyterian Church and its partner, Third Presbyterian Church, both in Cincinnati, and a Channel of Disturbance Prayer that starts at the 48th minute here.

“We hope Matthew 25 will help us become a channel of disturbance and disruption in a good way, to wake folks up,” Moffett said. “I hope you’re ready to work with others to help heal God’s people as we look at systems that are oppressing them.”

“Thanks to those of you,” Moffett added, “who have already made the commitment to join us on this journey.”

The next broadcast of Being Matthew 25 is scheduled for 1 p.m. Eastern Time on March 17. Look for it on the PC(USA)’s Facebook page.

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