A crowd of nearly 1,000 Presbyterians paused during the 222nd General Assembly (2016) Wednesday night to pay tribute to Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who is retiring at the end of the assembly after 37 years of ordained ministry, including the last dozen as the denomination’s chief ecclesiastical officer.

While countless colleagues expressed sorrow at his departure – live and on video – his family shared their delight that he is returning in retirement to his beloved east Tennessee.

“Gradye has always been a man who is about the future and what this church is going to be in the future,” said Tom Hay, his longtime friend and colleague in the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). Although Parsons is an avid historian, Hay said, “His heart is never in the past, but in what this church will be in the hearts of the people who seek to know the Lord.”

Sharon Youngs, a former OGA colleague who now pastors a church near where Parsons and his wife, Kathy, will retire in east Tennessee, recounted a refrain that Parsons has frequently used  to illustrate his favorite New Testament story: Jesus in the boat calming the storm.

“Get in the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die,” Youngs recited.

“Gradye could fill volumes with the thrills and spills of ministry,” she said, “but he has always stood at the helm in a gentle and secure way, his life built on relationships. God put an additional dash of pastor in Gradye’s DNA. His heart runs deep and his arms open wide.”

The keynote speaker at the fete was Paul Raushenbush, who after praising Parsons’ “unique contribution to the religious, spiritual and moral life of our nation and world,” outlined his vision of the future. “The church will not look the same in the decades to come,” he said, with technological changes “we are just beginning to understand.” Raushenbush said he is less focused on the changing world than he is “on investigating the core mission of the  church in this time and how it will lead us into the future.”

He recalled the experience of preaching in New York the morning after the nightclub massacre in Orlando 10 days ago. “The people in that church needed to be there that morning. They were seeking community and healing as a way to respond to the tragedy,” he said. “Because there is a colossal sickness that looms just below our communal life – the twin evils of hate and fear.”

“We have a love crisis in our country, our national heart is not beating right, we have forgotten that we belong to each other and are beloved by God. People are literally dying for lack of love – who will offer it to them?”

This is the core mission of the church, Raushenbush said. “Jesus said: ‘A  new command I give you, that you love one another. By this people will know that you are my disciples – if you love,’” he said. “Jesus embodied the love that extends to all humanity, and this is the call of today: The church as emergency room, reviving and extending love. What if people could truly tell that we are Christians by our love?”

The church, Raushenbush said, “is called to live up to Jesus’ mandate to love both inside and outside the church doors.” Decrying the church’s penchant to count – money, members – he said (to thundering applause): “Without love, our numbers add up to less than zero. There are numerous examples in this room of ministries that proclaim love in action. Love has redemptive power that will transform the world. The future of this church is this one love that is beyond understanding, but which transforms.”

Parsons responded with characteristic humility.

“It’s been a privilege to do this and to have you share your stories and be able to share those stories with the rest of the church,” he said. “Just don’t give up on this church – DON’T!”

Recalling the post-resurrection account in Acts, Parsons said, “While the men were hiding behind closed doors, afraid, the women said, ‘We’re going out to do some ministry – and they saw the resurrection!’”