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What’s connecting the connectional church?


Grace, gratitude — and risk-taking service 

By Gradye Parsons

Polity is the “plumbing” that holds our denomination together.

The last 22 years of my ministry I spent in governing body work — six years as a presbytery executive, which included synod leadership, and 16 years in General Assembly work. I have a pretty good knowledge of the working plumbing (polity) that holds our denomination together.

So, when after my retirement as Stated Clerk in 2016, the Board of Pensions asked me to write a book about the connectional life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I agreed. I sought to discover how well our connectional life was holding up. This led to a six-month journey of interviews with teaching elders, mid council leaders and seminary teachers, where I discovered that the “plumbing” was working at different levels of well-being depending on where you are. This is not news.

What I did find, though, was that the real connective tissue living in our Presbyterian ethos was one of grace and gratitude, which was growing as congregations engaged more in the community.

For example, I heard how the small but mighty Spring City Presbyterian Church went out its church doors to minister to youth in Spring City, Tennessee, while First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta partnered with another congregation to tutor children in a nearby school.

I also discovered a Presbyterian ethos of asking questions and risk-taking operating like a giant underground aquifer. There are different ministers drawing from this same aquifer for a variety of reasons, resulting in different ministries.

Take, for example, the Revs. Liza Lopez, Shawna Bowman and Shannon Kershner. These women are all teaching elders in Chicago, yet their congregations could not be more different.

Lopez is at small Christ Presbyterian Church, where there is a good example of a congregation that has learned to be multicultural. Bowman is at Friendship, a congregation that only wants to rent — not own — property, with a mission to try things and see what works. Kershner is at mighty Fourth Church, with its impressive building and historic witness in Chicago.

These three ministers came from different places, went to different seminaries and came to their calls by different paths.

When you talk to them, though, you hear what connects them. They are drinking from the same aquifer — one that encourages communal decision-making and risk-taking.

I have heard this in conversation after conversation across the PC(USA), which brings me to the revelation that the connectional life of our church is not wholly based on our polity. (I hope people who know me were sitting down when they read that sentence.)

Our connectivity is based in our relationship to each other as we live out our communal worship — a worship that has us confess together before we all, with educated brains, engage the Word; a communal worship where we come to the table together and meet the Christ who has died for us all; a communal worship where we all pledge to raise our child together.

 The PC(USA) is a church made up of a variety of people and places. We are urban and rural. We are small and large. We have fancy worship and simple worship.

But my six months on the road researching this book, and 39 years of ministry, have shown me there is an ethos (beyond polity) that serves to nurture us in a very strong way that, in turn, connects us at a whole different level.

And, for the three-fifths of the church, like me, who were not born into a Presbyterian cradle, we are falling in love with the church that is being shaped by that ethos — a church where grace rules and gratitude flows into service.

Gradye Parsons is a retired Presbyterian minister living on a farm in Kodak, Tennessee, with his wife, Kathy. Parsons served two congregations as pastor and later served as the executive presbyter in Holston Presbytery. He worked in the Office of the General Assembly and served as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly from 2008 to 2016. Gradye Parsons’ book, Our Connectional Church: The Hopeful Future of the PC(USA), can be purchased at

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Presbyterians Today.