St. Louis

Hope, the faithfulness of God, and whether Louisville is really the center of the Presbyterian universe were among the topics addressed in a wide-ranging dialogue between two top leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the 2017 Mid Council Leaders Gathering here October 16. 

Perching on bar-stool chairs on either side of a small round table, the Revs. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the General Assembly, and Frank Spencer, president of the Board of Pensions, responded to questions from moderator Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and associate stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America.

In keeping with the talk-show format of the event, Ellison also invited written questions from the audience—several hundred leaders of presbyteries and synods across the country.

Injecting a bit of humor into the event, Ellison asked the two leaders: “Imagine you are pope for a week. These are your bishops. What’s one thing you would do by decree?

Without missing a beat, Nelson responded, “I’m a little confused by the question. I thought I was the pope.”

After the laughter subsided, he continued on a more serious note: “I would lift up an edict to teach and preach hope. Leadership in the church is difficult on a lot of levels, but there’s something infectious about hope. How we carry ourselves as leaders—other people pick that up and carry it with them.”

Citing his experience as president of a chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Spencer said, “I would urge all congregations and mid councils to take seriously that we have a single mission together.”

He said Habitat is one of the fastest growing charities in United States because “everyone views it as single brand.” Local Habitat organizations have freedom to organize and work independently, but “they all adopt the same vision statement, and they lift up their successes.”

Both Spencer and Nelson attempted to counter the narrative that Louisville—where the PC(USA)’s national mission and ecclesial offices are located—is the center of the church.

“It’s been so easy over the years to put so much responsibility and blame on Louisville,” Nelson said. By spending much of his time outside of his Louisville office, he is trying to get Presbyterians to perceive that “Louisville is a place where we go out into the world to address the challenges of this time.

“I have not been a stay-at-home-clerk,” Nelson continued. “By the end of this year, I’ll have made about 120 visits across the country, preaching, teaching, observing, and learning from people on the ground about their needs.” 

Spencer said that under his leadership, the Philadelphia-based Board of Pensions was also “moving out into the church” and looking for “ways we can bring wholeness to ministers and church leaders.”

Spencer also said that from the beginning of his tenure with the Board, he has felt called to be an agent of change. “I walked into this office believing 100 percent that God was leading us to something new. I’ve had to ask God for courage to tell the truth, to be willing to take a hard look at where we were failing the denomination—to face it and to change it.”

Both leaders said belief in the faithfulness of God gave them hope for the future of the PC(USA).

“I do not understand how we can preach the transforming love of Jesus Christ and then throw up our hands and proclaim our church’s demise,” Spencer said. Seventy percent of us attend a church that has a pastor, a building, and a more-or-less balanced budget.”

He noted that most Presbyterians in the pews have hope, but sometimes church leaders “allow the problems we have to drag us down.”

For Nelson, the stories of new-immigrant congregations bring inspiration and hope. He told about meeting the female pastor of a Sudanese congregation who told him, “When I came to this country, I knew I was not going to do anything but be a Presbyterian pastor, because you taught me through your missionaries.”

Because the church members worship in Arabic, they are drawing not only Christians but people of the Islamic faith. “They have the language connection plus the understanding of who they are as part of the Abrahamic tradition,” Nelson said.

This is one example of “how new refugees and immigrants are growing the denomination,” he added.

The flip side is that many immigrants—including Presbyterians—are in danger of being deported. Nelson told of visiting Marturia Presbyterian Church, a 200-member congregation in Rochester, New Hampshire, started by Indonesians who fled their country because of the persecution of Christians. Now members of this thriving congregation—and the pastor—are being threatened with deportation.

When Nelson worshiped with them, the church took an offering—not for their own legal assistance, but for survivors of the hurricane in Houston. Nelson said their presbytery executive told him, “This is the most Presbyterian congregation in the presbytery.”

Nelson denounced “the scourge of attacking of immigrants and refugees in this country,” calling it “demonic.” He added, “We ought to be outraged. We ought to be writing letters to Congress every day.”

The immigrant congregation’s generosity toward hurricane survivors prompted Spencer to comment that Presbyterians “have not figured out how to talk about money. Last year we dropped 1.6 billion dollars in the offering plate. Yet we live in an attitude of scarcity”—for example, believing that we can only “fund one thing at the expense of another.”

“How do we move beyond a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance?” Ellison asked.

Nelson suggested the church is in a state of “institutional depression—we don’t see what is really there.” He said Presbyterians need to find the imagination “to think through how to take the assets we have and use them for a purpose that can be transformative.” 

Noting that this is part of the message he is taking out into the church, Nelson said, “I’m just trying to preach up a revival.“