Joy, sorrow, pain held together in Presbyterian identity
First-call pastor helps ‘church that stays’ discover God is ‘bigger than what they’d heard about’
July 8, 2014
Princeton Seminary graduate Emily Chudy remembers her deep disappointment.
“I’d expected a call,” she says. Rejected — she’d been one of two finalists for her first ministerial job — she sat in her dorm praying, “God, here is your servant; your will be done.”
Chudy, a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of Donegal who holds an M.Div. and a master's degree in youth ministry, had no job.
Erin Cox-Holmes, executive presbyter at Donegal since 2010, had been praying too — about Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. The 900-member congregation was in the midst of a “tangled split.”
After failing to get the required 75 percent super majority vote to leave the denomination, the pastors, most of the church staff and session, and around 250 members had left to form an Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation down the street.
The 175 worshipers left wanted to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“It was counterintuitive, but I kept looking at the church and Emily together,” says Cox-Holmes. “Most times, you would put an experienced interim pastor there. But I was seeing God at work — God’s call.”
Cox-Holmes reached out to Chudy, who was in a car full of bridesmaids when the phone rang.
“I remember Erin asking if I could talk about ‘a possible summer preaching opportunity.’ To which I replied, ‘In this moment … not exactly.’”
Once they did talk, things moved rather quickly. Chudy started out as temporary pulpit supply.
“In those early worship times together, we claimed our identity of belonging to a God who was bigger than what they had been hearing about,” says Chudy. “It was powerful for them to stand up for the church they believed in, to know this is where they belonged.”
By September 2012, the congregation had stabilized. It was becoming an intergenerational family of kids, youth, parents and grandparents.
Taking note, the presbytery ordained Chudy as temporary co-pastor — pairing her with a retired pastor from one of the larger congregations of Donegal.
As Chudy delved deeper into the work of crisis management and pastoral care, she kept kept the congregation’s focus on whom they worshiped.
“Everything we do stems from maintaining that sense of who God is,” she says. “That’s where we are able to hold together the joy, sorrow and pain.”
The folks at Central began to reorganize from the ground up. They ordained new leadership, with the congregation giving input on staff hires. By Easter Sunday 2013, they’d nearly doubled in worship size to 300, and more than 600 came that day.
Chudy kept stressing that being church together is more important than any differences that would separate them from doing God’s work.
She has also made it a point to maintain relationships with those who left, welcoming anyone who wants to come to Central for anything, including funerals.
“That’s so important to me as a leader,” Chudy says. “The split here happened on their 150th anniversary. It was like a divorce. You get cut off from relationships, but you still want connections to the shared history.”
Having already dismissed 11 congregations from the Presbytery of Donegal, Cox-Holmes is grateful for the good news at Central.
“It’s been a joyful thing to watch a congregation reorient itself to outreach,” she says. “They’ve raised several hundred thousand dollars for various organizations. Their first commitment is to mission generosity; the staffing structure has followed that.”
Recently the presbytery installed Chudy as designated co-pastor at Central, and the pastor she was paired with retired again. A search is underway to find a new co-pastor.
“God’s call is often surprising,” says Cox-Holmes. “If we’re not afraid to follow, amazing things happen.”
“This has been such an incredible adventure,” adds Chudy. “We’re learning to talk together and value each other’s perspectives — discovering that God can use us together to love those who are different from us.”