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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Minding the gap in the Presbytery of New York City


The Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams accepts a temporary call to lead the five-borough presbytery

February 10, 2023

The Rev. Dr. Mary Newbern-Williams (Contributed photo)

This past summer, on the heels of bidding “Happy Retirement” to its executive presbyter, the Rev. Dr. Robert Foltz-Morrison, the Presbytery of New York City launched a search process for a transitional/interim EP ahead of an anticipated search for a “permanent” EP.

In the meantime — or “gap period” — the presbytery has brought in the Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams as the “gap executive presbyter,” the baton of leadership passed to her in mid-September by Acting EP Yzette Swavy-Lipton.

On a December afternoon, we caught up via Zoom with Newbern-Williams in her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“I’m standing in the gap,” Newbern-Williams said, “working with our presbytery moving forward and doing its work and being engaged in ministry knowing that this is quite a transitional period.”

Newbern-Williams embraces her somewhat unusual job title and the challenges of her role: a short-term leadership position following the shorter-term “acting” position, a precursor to the welcoming of an “official transitional EP” ahead of the planned “called EP.”

“It’s a way to serve,” she acknowledges. “It’s a different way to serve,” adding, “a more familiar term for some might be ‘interim interim.’” In any event, she favors “the creative term.”

For Newbern-Williams, most interactions with the presbytery will be handled by phone, text, email and/or Zoom, along with “a couple of (road) trips a month.” She sees no issues handling most situations remotely: her on-camera experience was honed at Omaha’s KPAO television station, and she’s become well-versed interacting via videoconference as covenant pastor of Richmond’s First United Presbyterian Church, some two hours from her home by car.

Of high importance is her focus on the ongoing supporting, loving and being engaged with the 14,000 members spread among the more than 90 congregations and fellowships of the Presbytery of New York City.

“We are continuing, and shall continue, to be creative in how we conduct ministry and how we engage others in ministry,” Newbern-Williams said, adding, “we will, can and should revitalize and provide congregational vitality.”

“Often, when communities change, our churches and their makeups do not keep up pace with the communities.” Newbern-Williams cites instances across the width and breadth of the denomination where communities are very different than they were even 20 years ago.

Among the things Newbern-Williams would like to see during her time in the presbytery: “More connection with some of our Synod [of the Northeast] and … [national] staff people who are engaged in congregational vitality. We have done some of that. I’d like for us to do more and to take a look at how we act upon the policies we have — how we work those policies in the presbytery to enrich our congregations.”

Newbern-Williams sees her role not as one simply “keeping the lights on” but as a commitment to actively helping prepare the presbytery for the arrival of the “interim/transitional” EP. In essence, this track is akin to the mission review process required of congregations seeking to hire new pastoral leadership.

Newbern-Williams lights up with enthusiasm as she says, “I believe there is room for every single congregation that exists right now to flourish. They’re in neighborhoods that need them. There are people there who have needs the church can provide.”

“Re-visioning or taking a deeper look. Doing soul searching — I love that phrase! — is an opportunity to take a deep look within ourselves as Presbyterians,” she explains, “to see what things have changed, how will we adjust to that change, what will we make of our future and how will we enrich, support and work together with our congregations. There are many different methods and different programs that can bring us to that point.”

A retired journalist, Ruling Elder Jim Nedelka is a member of avenue church nyc, endowed by Jan Hus Church. He’s been a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service since 2007

Today’s Focus: Rev. Mary Newbern-Williams, gap executive presbyter, New York City Presbytery

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jermaine Ross-Allam, Director, Center for Repair of Historical Harms Visioning, Rebuilding, and Innovation, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Greg Rousos, President & CEO, New Covenant Trust Co., Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray

God of all peoples and nations, whose love for everyone knows no borders or time limits, grant us grace, amid all the controversies, conflicts and shortcoming of our own nation, to find ways of being hospitable and helpful to strangers until we all find our final refuge in you through Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. Amen.