Presbytery and synod moderators gathered together this past weekend at the Moderators' Conference in Louisville. Here is what I told them about the importance of being a moderator in today's PC (USA):
We have come together, as current or incoming moderators of presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly, to spend the next couple of days learning about the role of Moderator, discussing the issues and concerns that will come before our councils, listening to each other, getting to know each other, all in the goal of having us leave here on Sunday better equipped to carry out the role of Moderator and better equipped to serve our church.
What does it mean to be a Moderator at this time in the life of our church? Well, what springs to mind initially is the reputed Chinese proverb, or, perhaps more realistically, the reputed Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.”
It is undisputed that the PC (USA) is living through interesting times.
- A new Form of Government
- A new ordination standard, G-2.0104(b)
- The emergence of the group called the Fellowship, and the possible departure, in response to that ordination standard, of congregations to a potential “new reformed body”
- The prospect of significant change in the structure of our denomination – as reflected by the theme of this conference, “Shifting Sands: A Changing Church in a Changing Time”
- Continued anxiety over the future of a denomination in an age that has been called not just post-denominational but post-Christian, and, finally,
- A difficult, even catastrophic, economic climate that is affecting many of our congregations and many of our fellow Presbyterians.
Interesting times, indeed.
But to me there is no better time than right now to be a Moderator in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Now, lest you think that I have perhaps lost my senses by living in Washington, DC a little too long, let me explain.
There is no better time than now to be a Moderator because there is no more important time than right now to be a Moderator.
You have all been called by God to serve the particular corner of Christ’s Kingdom called the Presbyterian Church (USA), and, more important, to serve this corner of Christ’s kingdom at a critical time, a time when the sands beneath our feet are indeed shifting, a time when the church is changing, a time when the culture is changing.
Now more than ever, the church needs you to provide leadership, stability, insight – or, in the more familiar words we all know, energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
Let me be clear: we are not being called as leaders just to preserve and maintain the PC (USA).
God, in God’s infinite wisdom, may have scoped out a future for us that does not include an entity called the Presbyterian Church (USA). And, if that is where God is calling us, then that is where we must go.
But I believe that the PC (USA) still has life left within it – but only if we accept that the sands are shifting and that change must happen.
Your leadership -- your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love – are needed, now more than ever, to help the PC(USA) as we transform ourselves into a connectional church that can speak effectively to a diverse 21st century culture.
I don’t know what it was like to be a church leader during the 1950s, when church men – and, yes, they were all church men then – church men like Eugene Carson Blake appeared on the cover of Time magazine. When the president, Dwight Eisenhower, was baptized at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington. When George Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, could preach a sermon about adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Congress promptly did just that.
Imagine that -- Congress not just responding to a sermon, but Congress actually AGREEING on something and then DOING something.
Times have certainly changed since then. And I’m pretty sure that being a Moderator then was vastly different than being a Moderator now.
But I wouldn’t change places with those 1950s moderators for any amount of money -- and I’m not saying that just because in the 1950s someone of my gender wouldn’t have been elected Moderator in the first place.
The Moderators of the 1950s led a church that may have been flush with members and with resources, but whose leadership was almost exclusively white males. They lived during a time when Dr. King correctly called Sunday at 11 am the most segregated hour in America.
We are no longer that church, and thanks be to God for that – although we still have a long ways to go towards real diversity and real inclusiveness.
We are also no longer a church that is flush with members or flush with resources.
We all might wish for more members and more resources. But the point of the church is not to post membership numbers, or to accumulate wealth. The point of the church is to proclaim the Gospel, and to proclaim it authentically, in this time and in this place.
And it is our privilege, as Moderators, to help our councils, and our congregations, figure out how to proclaim the Gospel authentically and effectively in a culturally diverse society that needs, more than ever, to hear the Word proclaimed and to see the Word lived out.
Being a Moderator today is not a sinecure. It’s not an honorific bestowed because you’ve managed to sit through more Presbytery meetings than anybody else.
Being a Moderator today is an awesome, and awe-filled responsibility. A responsibility to help our church, to help the PC (USA), live through the anxieties and stresses that are naturally occurring as we as a church move through shifting sands into a new time, a time that some are calling a new reformation.
We, as the PC (USA), are in the process of shedding the corporate bureaucracy and mindset that was established in the 1950s – and that was effective in the 1950s but doesn’t work so well 60 years later.
Over the next two days we’re going to hear from Tod Bolsinger and Carol Howard Merritt, who are leading two of the groups looking into how the church can become more effective in the 21st century. We’re also going to be hearing from the Vice Moderator, Landon Whitsitt, about what it means to be an “open source” church.
What can we as Moderators do to help the church process these ideas, and help make change – real, effective change – happen?
I see at least three things that we can all do.
First, provide a non-anxious presence
The church is not going to hell in a handbasket – it’s transforming itself into something new, a new way of being church. The problem is that we don’t yet know what that way looks like. To many Presbyterians, that creates anxiety – not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, exactly what we ought to do. We proudly label ourselves as doing things “decently and in order,” and that generally means we know what’s next on the agenda, what’s next on the “to do” list.
The reality is that we don’t know what’s next on the agenda, what’s the next bullet on the “to do” list.
Even if we don’t know exactly what’s next on the agenda, even if we don’t know exactly where we are going to end up – that’s OK. Martin Luther certainly didn’t know where he was going to end up when he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. John Calvin didn’t know where he was going to end up when he was unceremoniously booted out of Geneva.
Calvin’s security was based not on knowing what was next on his agenda, but on an abiding sense of God’s providence.
As Calvin wrote, and as we sang this morning,
Our hope is in no other save in thee,
Our faith is built upon thy promise free,
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure
That in thy strength we evermore endure.
Our task as Moderators is to live out that message – to show our that we are calm and sure, even if we don’t quite know today where we, where the church, will finally end up. We are calm and sure because our strength rests in God.
That is what I mean by providing a non-anxious presence.
Second, both support and challenge our council staffs.
If it’s a difficult and anxious time for us, imagine how difficult and anxious it is for those whose livelihoods could be affected by changes to the structures of the denomination. Council execs spend a lot of time reassuring congregations and teaching elders; spend some time reassuring them.
But also challenge them to think seriously about how their council should be organized, how it could work most effectively. Challenge them to recognize that the sands are shifting, that change is happening, that doing things the way we’ve always done things does work anymore.
Finally, take the lead in building relationships within your presbytery or synod.
Somehow we have lost that important part of the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity that said we need to engage with each other, especially with those with whom we might not agree on certain theological issues.
As the church debated whether to approve the new Form of Government, one question kept coming up: how can we discard the rules that were the focus of the old Form of Government without trust? We need rules because we don’t trust each other.
My response was always, “trust isn’t built through rules. It’s built through relationships.” Creating those relationships takes a long time, it’s not done over the course of one or two lunches.
Creating those relationships probably can’t even be achieved during the course of your moderatorial term. But they can be started. And you can set the tone by showing the importance of conversation and dialogue among all in your presbytery or synod.
Some of you spent yesterday learning about parliamentary procedures and Robert’s Rules. That’s a necessary part of being Moderator. But it is not the most important part of being a Moderator.
A gavel isn’t much help if it is being pounded into shifting sand.
The PC (USA) needs you to lead us into our reformation – to lead us where God is calling us. Doing that may be the most important thing you do as a Presbyterian.
Thanks be to God for your leadership. Thanks be to God for your ministry.