World Mission Initiative panel at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary focuses on leading through disruption

An ecumenical group of pastors gathers for the McClure Lecture to discuss what they look forward to as the pandemic ends

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The W. Don McClure Lecture took place Friday and Saturday through the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

LOUISVILLE — Saturday’s conclusion of the W. Don McClure Lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s World Mission Initiative included a thoughtful panel speaking on “Leading Through Disruption.” Rose Schrott Taylor, interim associate editor at the Presbyterian Outlook, moderated the panel, comprised of:

Asked what’s been burned away and what’s been refined over 31 months of pandemic, Goff said of the former it’s “the veneer of unity in the church. The last few years have revealed the divisions that are there,” and “there’s a refining aspect to that. We need to do harder work to understand one another.”

“Normal is what got us into this mess in the first place,” DeBruce said. “We want to have a mission overseas when we won’t even walk across the street … There are now more nonbelievers than believers. We have a plentiful harvest.”

“What’s been burned away, I hope, is a sense of smugness and self-sufficiency,” Carver said. “We realize we are pulling on the same rope here, even with people with whom we have deep disagreements theologically.” What’s also been burned away is “my patience for people who want to use Jesus as a mascot to baptize their own ideology.” Among what’s being refined: “We are in part of the city with an abundance of young people,” Carver said.

Rose Schrott Taylor, far left, moderated the panel, which included, left to right, the Rev. Brenda Henry, the Rev. Bryce Goff, the Rev. Edward DeBruce II and the Rev. Dave Carver. (Screenshot)

“I’m going to carry on this fire analogy,” Schrott Taylor told the panelists. Tree seeds sometimes need fire in order to open and grow. But when the fire burns too hot, forest caretakers must plant new seeds. Which seeds need to be planted in churches today?

Seeds of understanding and acceptance, Henry replied. “We are all made in God’s image, and yet we have a hard time accepting the diversity God has made us to be.” That involves more than merely “opening your door to worship as long as [newcomers] worship the way you do … Diversity isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s us being willing to step into uncomfortable places and saying, ‘Can you help me understand something I don’t understand?’”

How about planting some seeds of justice, Goff suggested, “the realization that Jesus’ ministry had strong implications for justice.”

“We are doing better getting people in [the front door], but we can do better with discipleship,” DeBruce said. “If we get that model right, there’s a lot of other stuff that will fall into place.”

Carver said during the pandemic he found an unidentified audio file on his computer. It turned out to be a sermon he’d preached in 2018. As he listened, tears began to fall. “I was weeping because I heard in the background babies crying and children laughing and mothers and fathers shushing. I realized how lonely the sanctuary had become,” Carver said. “A seed that needs to be replanted … is planting and pursuing intergenerational friendships. The church is one of the only places where a child can go up to a trusted adult and invite that adult into his or her life.” Among the congregation’s favorite greeters are “a nice older deacon named Janet” and a 6-year-old named Levi who’s not related to Janet but loves her nonetheless, and she him. “It allows children to see that ‘I have more adults in my life than I thought I did.’”

Asked if they had further advice as we near the end of the pandemic, Carver suggested church leaders should invest more in stamps.

“There’s something lovely about getting a handwritten note in the mail,” Carver said. A while back he got a call from the mother of a college student and member of Crafton Heights who was moving out of her dorm room. The mother wondered if her daughter wanted to keep a small shoebox. “Don’t throw that away!” the daughter replied. “Those are letters from Pastor Dave.”

“The other thing we have to remember,” Carver said, “is that ministry is messy and inefficient.” That messiness “is at the core of what we’re called to do.”

“In the busyness of the schedule,” Henry said, “we have to realize that when we are in conversation with someone, they are the priority at the moment … Jesus sat with individuals and allowed time for conversations without letting the to-do list get in the way.” When you get the urge to call someone, “stop and do that,” Henry said. A friend of hers had moved to another state a while back, “and she and her daughter were on my mind.” When Henry phoned the woman, “I could hear the tears in the daughter’s voice.” Her friend told Henry, “You don’t know how much I needed this call.”

“I didn’t,” Henry did. “But God did.”

Asked how faith communities can keep the spirit of flexibility and experimentation alive once the pandemic has concluded, DeBruce assured those listening both online and in person that “the Holy Spirit will give you the unction to get in there.” Cater to both the in-person and online congregations, he advised. “I don’t believe in stream-shaming. God can work anywhere. If you want to hear God’s word in your pajamas, we shouldn’t be stream-shaming.”

Before Crafton Heights began streaming worship, “services used to be tightly planned,” Carver said. “Now we stop when we lose the internet, and that’s OK.” Interruptions were a big part of Jesus’ ministry, Carver noted, “the opportunity for love and grace to be revealed.”

In the past few weeks, “I have been invited to [officiate] more funerals. Strangers will say, ‘Can you come and speak a word for us?’ Send your pastor to any funeral you can do. Don’t begrudge funeral homes,” Carver advised. “Be that person in the room.”

Read a report of the keynote address by the Rev. Eugene Cho, president and CEO of Bread for the World, by going here.

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