A ‘Year of Leader Formation’ helps laity step up to serve
November 4, 2021
In the late ’90s, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri became a member of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in Puerto Rico with a membership of fewer than 20 people. The congregation, the co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) recalls, had gone through a schism, and her spouse, the Rev. José Manuel, was called to be its redevelopment pastor. When the couple arrived, they discovered that there was no session, no deacons, no Christian education programs and no musicians. “Church” consisted of Sunday worship only. An administrative commission appointed by the presbytery served as the session.
“The sanctuary had worn-out rusty office chairs, a chancel without a cross and a pulpit that was falling apart,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “The first two years were the toughest, but we pressed on, identifying those people who could serve as worship leaders, elders and deacons.”
Slowly, the work of the church began taking shape. Leaders began to emerge and the church began to grow. A church member took it upon himself to build a cross for the chancel and installed it with the help of others from the congregation. A member of a sister congregation donated the communion set. Volunteers took turns preparing the sanctuary for Sunday worship.
“Gratitude and wonder abounded, and so did frustration and discouragement,” said Cintrón-Olivieri, adding a sentiment that many Presbyterian congregations can relate to: “Doing ministry in survival mode was no easy feat.”
“Some of our members had been ‘doing church’ the same way for many years. Trying to fit what had always been done to a new reality would not work, and new ways of being church were feared,” she said. “Others got discouraged by what seemed like an enormous task or could not imagine worshiping a cappella for an extended period of time.”
Yet while it was a difficult time, Cintrón-Olivieri says it was “a period of redefining what it meant to be church in our community and a period of many firsts: first-time members, first-time leaders, first-time elders and first-time deacons.”
“If we were to succeed in this endeavor, we would have to surrender to these facts: This was God’s church, not ours; we needed to work together to move the mission forward; and we would have to commit to learning new things,” she said.
The hard work, perseverance and prayer, lots of it, paid off. By the time the administrative commission was dismissed, a four-member deacon board and a five-member session were installed to lead and serve the small congregation.
Cintrón-Olivieri often thinks back on the time in Caguas, Puerto Rico. “We were small, and we were also mighty. We made it through by the grace of God; no doubt about it.” And she knows that her experience is not an isolated one.
“Our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations are facing, and will face, many challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemics of racism and divisiveness. In the midst of it all, we have seen the Holy Spirit busy at work. This is God’s church, and whomever God calls, God empowers,” she said. But securing leadership in churches as they dwindle is not just about calling a pastor. Empowering the work of elders and deacons is needed.
The specific roles that ruling elders and deacons play in the life of the church may vary between congregations, but their significance in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cannot be overlooked. Leaders in the Office of the General Assembly are in the midst of a yearlong initiative focusing on the ecclesial formation of these leaders.
The initiative, a “Year of Leader Formation: Investing in Ruling Elders and Deacons,” incorporates a new training resource, a series of articles, a webinar series and other tools to help participants grow in the role. “As a denomination, we haven’t offered new training resources for our ruling elders and deacons for quite some time. This really goes beyond how you are prepared to serve in these roles but also how you live that out,” said Martha Miller with Ministry and Education Support in the Office of the General Assembly. “It is a continuous process focusing on relationships with God and with each other.”
Rick Jones, Director of Communications for the Office of the General Assembly. Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri contributed to this article.
Today’s Focus: Year of Leader Formation
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Darla Carter, Communications Associate, Communications Ministry, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Jackie Carter, Project Manager, Media & Publishing, Communications Ministry, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Dear God, we thank you for the witnesses in our community who reveal to us that the most important thing we can do is be present for our neighbor in need, just as you are present for us in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.