When Nick Shargo retired from law enforcement in 2003, he in no way saw his career as ending.
The 30-year veteran of crime lab and detective work instead welcomed this latest life passage as an opportunity to strengthen his gifts as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elder.
"In law enforcement I always felt that my work experiences were interrelated with my growth in faith and church," said Shargo. "Whether I was taking a class offered by the FBI or called into a tense situation, I know that God was always taking me where He thought I should go. My work and faith experiences informed and enhanced each other."
One defining moment in which work and faith intersected for Shargo, altering the course of his life, was when the former detective got a call from his bureau chief, who asked that he assist the SWAT team during a crisis.
Once Shargo had arrived on the scene, he learned that a young man with psychological problems had forced a woman out of her apartment at gunpoint. When the young man’s mother was called in, Shargo found himself ministering to the understandably agitated woman.
"When we talked about a Bible study at her church, she started to settle down," he said.
As the tension continued to escalate between the young man and the police, weapons were drawn and the suspect was shot and killed. Shargo was asked to inform the young man's mother of her son's death.
"I told her, and then I prayed with her," he said. "That was a recognition for me that I was there for a reason."
The experience was a major factor in Shargo's "retirement vow" to rededicate himself to his role as an elder at Heritage Presbyterian Church in Carol Stream, Ill., focusing specifically on those duties — such as preaching — that his 24/7 job in law enforcement had not previously allowed him to pursue.
Martha Miller, associate for Christian Vocation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirms Shargo's understanding of vocation in the Reformed tradition as not being solely a career, but "the way in which we respond to the many gifts God has given us, how we live our life."
"Just because you're older or retired, it doesn't mean your call stops," Miller said.
Shargo, after preaching one Sunday morning at Heritage, found himself warmly greeted by a visiting minister, the Rev. Dick Anderson, who was a candidate for — and would later become — the church's interim pastor. Anderson told Shargo that he should look into Commissioned Lay Pastor (CLP) training.
"I had no idea what it was," Shargo said.
Shargo learned that the Synod of Lincoln Trails offered a CLP training program and would soon be starting a new class. His application, which was approved by both the session and the presbytery, allowed him to begin CLP training in January 2004.
Shargo, who characterizes the office of elder as "a call to joy and purpose which sometimes involves risk and stepping outside our comfort level," has also now committed himself to raising Presbyterians' sense and understanding of the three ordained offices of the PC(USA) — ministers, elders and deacons.
His journey exemplifies one of the critical issues raised in the recent report of the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs (JCLN), which was presented in February to the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) and has called the whole church into a frank dialogue on issues of leadership.
According to the report's findings, the church should be led by those who know how to lead creative change, are innovative and entrepreneurial, experiment in revitalizing existing communities, and are capable of establishing new ministries that engage the culture.
The report concludes with an exploration of how the PC(USA) resources leaders, including the expansion of the three enduring offices of the church, just as Shargo has already set about doing.
In presenting the report in February, the Rev. Clark Cowden, a member of the JCLN, the GAMC and executive presbyter of San Diego Presbytery, said, "We recommend the intentional broadening of the roles, responsibilities and spiritual formation of deacons, ruling elders and teaching elders.
"They (churches) remain overly dependent on their pastors and most wouldn’t know what to do if their pastor got hit by a bus. We don't want that to be the case," Cowden said. We are a stronger church when we have stronger leaders and more leaders. We need elders and deacons who have confidence and courage that they can lead the church when called upon to do so. We may require more apostles, prophets and evangelists as well as pastors and teachers."
Cowden also said it was clear that the PC(USA) needs more leadership options, as "one size doesn’t fit all."
The JCLN recommends that new models of collaboration be developed between congregations, governing bodies, seminaries, colleges, institutions, training organizations, consulting groups, foundations, para-church groups, and fellowships. "We need each other," he said. "We're all in this together."
To that end, the Rev. Cynthia Campbell, president of McCormick Theological Seminary and a member of the Committee on Theological Education (COTE) — which in the spring of 2009 called upon the GAMC and COGA to join with it in forming the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs (JCLN) — urged Presbyterians to think of education on a larger scale in developing leaders.
"Because there are a number of people who go into training with no intention of becoming CLPs, I wonder what else we could be doing to provide a deeper level of education to the heart of the American population who are consumers of education and information," asked Campbell. "If you look at the statistics about Presbyterians and our education level, that’s who we are. That's another part of our ministry that we have neglected that could be greatly enhanced."
Shargo is currently working with representatives from Chicago Presbytery's Committee on Ministry and its associate executive presbyter, the Rev. Ginny Smith, to begin the process for developing a CLP manual toward the goal of possibly establishing a CLP training program there.
"We have identified immigrant fellowships and smaller churches lacking the ability to sustain full-time pastoral leadership as being the primary needs within our presbytery," Shargo said.
For the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, Shargo personifies what he has termed a "dangerous" elder.
"Elders are called to service to change the world according to God's plan. The office is not just about fixing the roof," Parsons said.
"Central in the role of elder is relationship. Elders are meant to be visible, leading worship, working along with the pastor in pastoral care and pushing the envelope on trying new things," he said. "The bottom line: being a dangerous elder is all about relationships and trying new ways of being, despite our fears of failure. We have to be willing to take risks."
One of Shargo's next risks is serving as a commissioner to the 219th General Assembly (2010) in Minneapolis in July. "Having begun to review material daily on the General Assembly’s PC-Biz Website, I am sorely aware of how much I don't know, but have to learn and discern at what would seem to be a whirlwind pace of activity in the span of one week," he said. "Having spoken with previous commissioners, though, I am looking forward to sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship with sister and brother Presbyterians from far and wide."