An interview with Linda Valentine

Resigning PMA executive director says, ‘Listen for God’s call’

June 17, 2015

Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine —John Fitzgerald

LOUISVILLE

Following the June 16 announcement of her resignation as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Linda Valentine spoke with PNS about her last nine years in the position and what lies ahead for her, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Valentine is the longest-serving executive director of the PMA and its various predecessor organizations—whose election was first confirmed by the 217th General Assembly (2006) and again by the 221st General Assembly (2014) for an unprecedented third term—announced her resignation from the position effective July 10.

She also made history as the first woman to serve as the PMA’s executive director.

Valentine brought 25 years of corporate and nonprofit executive experience to the PC(USA). Prior to her election as executive director of the PMA she served as general counsel for, and was one of the two top-ranking female employees at, Motorola from 1984-2002, and then as fund manager for Opportunity International, one of the world’s largest international micro-finance organizations.

She says her call to serve at the PC(USA) wasn’t on her radar back when she was working at Opportunity International. “I was solving world poverty—wasn’t that a worthy enough call?”

Valentine continues the story:

“I got a call from a recruiter about the position, which was then called the Executive Director of the General Assembly Council. I’d been very active at our church in Chicago (Fourth Presbyterian Church), serving on boards and trustees and session and deacons. So I had some general notion, but didn’t know the details.

I called several of my acquaintances who were pastors and leaders in the church and said, ‘I got this call about the General Assembly Council, what’s that all about?’ They said, ‘It’s complex…and the stress…and the challenges…and the pressures. And yet, you’d be perfect for it. You’d be great. You need to do this.’

And so I would tell myself, ‘I’m not going to do that, why would I do that.’ And it really was a sense of, every morning I’d wake up and hear God’s voice, or a voice, saying, ‘Of course you’re going to do this. This is where your life has been leading.’ I often say you can look back on your life and see how God prepared you for different points that you could never have imagined looking forward.

I was reflecting on this, also, that 13 years ago in 2002 I likewise heard a call to finish what I was doing [as a lawyer at Motorola] and step out. If I hadn’t done that, and sort of allowed that space and that time, it may have never led to this.

I really do believe there is often a call to something, and a call to complete it.”

When asked what the highlights of her time at the PMA have been, Valentine says there are too many to list, but called specific attention to the work of mission co-workers, the Young Adult Volunteer program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, all of which are programs she oversaw.

“To see our mission workers, who leave their homes and go to another place and minister, and how embraced they are, how much love there is.

I remember going to South Sudan, we were in this little village. We were flown into a dirt runway and walked down the road and up the river and into this village. Debbie and Del Braaksma had been mission workers there some years before; she was accompanying us on this trip. The people turned out shouting, ‘Debbie! Debbie! Debbie!’ There was just such a love for her.

The work she was telling us about was this profound reconciliation work that we now have other mission workers doing. We were talking about how some of her work was bringing women from two communities that had been at war, I mean literally killing each other for a long time, and she tells the story about the women coming together when the men were still fighting.

The women went from one village to the other to meet them and everyone said, ‘Don’t go—that’s the enemy. It’s dangerous—you don’t want to go.’

One of the women had her baby with her, and after they landed she puts her baby in the arms of a woman from this warring village.

It’s hearing these kinds of stories, that has been such a privilege to do that.

I took a trip back in January where we saw people who are migrating from Central and South American because they live in such poverty and dangerous conditions, and the people who work with them and minister along the way.

When I go gatherings and ask, ‘Who’s been involved in Presbyterian Disaster Assistance?’ Practically every hand goes up. That’s been a way the church really works well together. From a national standpoint we’ve been able to assess a situation and organize resources, and work with the presbyteries because they know what the needs are on the ground. Then it’s thousands of volunteers who will go to help people they’ve never met, doing dirty and sweaty work—praying with them.

Early on [in my time at the PMA], there had been a shooting at a college that was all over the news. One woman came up to me and said, ‘We heard it, it was so awful. But what can you do? What can I do? I feel so helpless. But then my pastor told me about how Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was there and responding. So I am there, we are there.’

That sense of connection and collective witness—that there are all these little parts put together to make such an impact on the world.

And Young Adult Volunteers. You know the motto: A year of service for a lifetime of change. It’s been exciting to hear their stories.

My daughter was a YAV, and it changed her life. She’s now a refugee officer for the United States. She is now interviewing Syrian and Iraqi refugees who are seeking refugee status.

Even sitting in the pews at an engaged and active church, you have no idea of the scope and the impact of what the church does.

So many places you go, be it Thailand or Lebanon or South Sudan or South Korea, [people say] ‘You brought us the gospel. You are our mother church.’ To which I often say, ‘If we’re your mother church, you are certainly our adult children.’ They think so much more about us, and the strength and importance of our relationship with them, than I think we realize and are aware of.”

Valentine recognizes that shifts in the PC(USA)—including changes to views on ordination and marriage for LGBT persons—has affected the PMA. Still, she sees the continuing mission of the church as an evolving and evaluative process.

“We’re in a time of such profound change in the church, in religion, in Christianity—that a lot of what we’ve done over the last nine years has been asking, ‘How do we adapt to those ever-changing circumstances?’

Early on, we convened a consultation on world mission. We looked at how we relate together as a church when you can have so many scattered and individual efforts. It was called the ‘Dallas Mission Consultation’ and what came out of it was a paper called ‘Partnership in God’s Mission.’ It really helped to shape our understanding of what our role is now in the church and how we evolved to the ‘inspire, equip and connect’ theme. Our role is much more to connect, to network, to tell the stories, than it is to do mission on behalf of the church.

When I came [in 2006], the budget for the PMA was well over $100 million. We had at least 100 more employees than we have right now.

We say in the book of order, and I truly believe, Christ calls the church into being, giving it everything necessary for its work and mission in the world. If that’s true, instead of focusing on what we have to continually trim, a much more profound way to look at it is that we have these tremendous resources: relationships, connections, experience and funds, and what does God want us doing with these.

The change we’ve made to being more facilitating—more inspiring, equipping and connecting—has been partly in response to funding, but even more so, a response to considering what is our purpose and role in the church these days.”

Valentine believes that these shifts in approach allow the work of the PMA to be more effective today than it has ever been.

“World Mission has been sending people to teach and heal around the world for 177 years. Some decades ago we realized our role is not to do things for other people so much as it is to be partners in Christ’s mission. That was a fundamental change of understanding about mission.

Now that we have this understanding of what they were calling ‘communities of mission practice’—our role, our international partners’ role, the U.S. Presbyterians’ role—how do we foster that connection?

A big part of our mission workers’ role is to help U.S. Presbyterians who are going abroad and connect them so they understand the needs and cultures of our international partners and being more faithful and effective in the way they do mission work. There’s an educational and connection component. That’s an example of how crucial it is to have mission workers, because they do learn the culture and they do know the church partners and they do have a deep understanding of how mission can be helpful and not harmful. That’s something that they can share with Presbyterians from congregations.

With that as an example, mission networks are an important way we work.

I would posit that even with fewer employees and fewer resources, we’re probably connecting to and reaching more people today than we have in times past, because of this different motive.”

And disappointments? Valentine only has a few, rooted in the capacity of one denomination’s ability to serve many needs.

“We can’t do everything we want to do, we can’t do everything our constituents ask of us, and we can’t meet all the needs of the world—and that breaks our hearts.”

Valentine affirmed in her announcement that she was leaving the PMA of her own accord, and allowing for time to consider what she will do next. With an openness to the next chapter of her life and career, Valentine says, “I will follow where God calls.”

“I mentioned that in 2002 I left one thing to create that space and opening for what’s next. I don’t know, I turned 65 in March. I still have a lot of energy. Many things could unfold. But right now, in the immediate future, it’s to travel and spend more time with family and friends, and community involvement.

I don’t imagine that will last for long. (Laughing)

We plan to stay in Louisville—we love the Louisville community. We came, really, sight unseen and have found it a fascinating place to live. There are good arts, civic activity, parks and lifestyle.”

Valentine says her decision was not influenced by the 1001 New Worshiping Communities independent investigation initiated by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board last fall. “It was important that I continue leading the agency over the past few months,” she says.

"It’s been difficult for all of us. One of the challenges has been that [the investigation] has been a distraction when there are so many wonderful stories of mission and ministry that are continuing.

There’s been a continued growth in new worshipping communities. There was some interesting research just completed about who’s participating in new worshiping communities. Some 40 percent are dechurched, unchurched or non-Christian. What has the church done that has that sort of an impact in addition to one-half being racial ethnic and a quarter are young? And that continues. As well as the continuation of all the other ministries.

I met with the leadership team prior to the announcement of my resignation and I commented on how we’ve been able to attract the most amazing, talented, and gifted people, and continue to do so.

With all the challenges at this time in the church, people continue to come in and be passionate about the ministry and wanting to make a difference. That’s been a joy.

When I delivered by resignation announcement to staff, I looked around the room, and there are people who have been here a long, long time and continue to give their gifts year after year. And the people who come in new; it’s a joy.

We had a session a week or two ago, an all day cultural competency workshop with about 50 of us. It was led by one of our own staff members. It was a day of worship and prayer and tough conversation on issues of privilege and cultural competency, cultural humility. I looked around that room and said, ‘If the church could see this group!’ People enjoyed being with one another. We were at round tables talking and in our sidebars talked about one another’s ministries; it was just such a wonderful spirit. And that has grown over these years.”

Asked to share advice with the church, Valentine encouraged the PC(USA) to continue its mission.

"God is still at work in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) The church has been through times of challenge from the beginning. And yet, it continues to draw people into faith and send them out into the world. There’s no end in sight to that.

Pay attention. Listen for God’s call. Be open to the Holy Spirit. God has done, and continues to work miracles in our lives.

We have been so blessed and we have much to share in blessing others. It’s a broken and fearful world that we can be partners with God in healing and reconciling.”

  1. Linda, thank you for all you have done serving the PMA. You have been an inspiration to many. Best wishes for whatever it is that God is calling you to do next. Glad you plan to stay in Louisville. --Edie and Walt Sutton, retired PC(USA)personnel

    by Edith Sutton

    June 17, 2015

  2. Having just joined the Presbyterians after 62 years in the American Baptist denomination, I truly believe God is leading us and the door is open. I have faith in God's leadership.

    by Delaine Zody

    June 17, 2015