The largest church in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy here left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acrimoniously. Another church defaulted on a $1 million loan. The entire presbytery staff was dismissed. The presbytery’s office building was sold. The presbytery was on the verge of bankruptcy.
“We were at such a low point that we could have given up,” said the Reverend Cedric Portis, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church here and co-moderator of the Committee on Local Arrangements (COLA) for the upcoming 223rd General Assembly (2018), June 16–23. “I could have walked away,” Portis told the visiting Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) during its February 6–8 meeting here, “but I told our people, ‘No, we are God’s people and we’re not just going to survive, we’re going to thrive.’”
The Reverend Craig Howard arrived as Giddings-Lovejoy’s executive presbyter about a year ago. “I looked at all this and then someone said, ‘GA’s coming to St. Louis!’ and I said, ‘WHAT!?!?!’” Howard told COGA.
But preparations for the assembly have galvanized the presbytery. “‘GA is coming!’ has become our motto and we thank [General Assembly Stated Clerk] J. Herbert [Nelson, II] for challenging us and supporting us,” Howard said. “People will learn what it means to be Presbyterian, what it means to be supported by the denomination, what it means when people come together for a common purpose.”
COLA Co-Moderator Carol DeVaughan said the committee began its work by attending the last assembly in Portland two years ago. “Shadowing the Portland COGA was very helpful,” she said, noting that more than eighty volunteers are at work now, with more coming on as the assembly gets closer.
The St. Louis COLA is adding some new wrinkles this year, including a pre-assembly welcome event—“Meet Me in St. Louis”—on Friday, June 15, the evening before the assembly begins. “It will feature local foods and entertainment by church music groups,” she said. “There will be no agenda—just spending time together and getting settled.”
Another new feature, DeVaughan said, will be a COLA-sponsored “mission area” inside the assembly exhibit hall. “Commissioners don’t have time to take ‘mission trips’ (there will be about thirty for assembly visitors), so they can experience St. Louis-area mission without having to leave the convention center.” The mission area will include some hands-on opportunities to make, assemble, or contribute financially to various projects.
Worship at the General Assembly will be broadly reflective of the denomination’s diversity, said COLA Worship Committee Chair Susan Niesen. Giving kudos to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Associate for Worship David Gambrell, she said “because worship shapes the life of the church and the assembly, we want to be faithful in giving form to the worship life of the assembly.”
COLA Worship has commissioned a new hymn by noted Presbyterian hymn-writer Mel Bringle entitled, “Draw the Circle Wider,” which will be woven throughout the week’s worship services. Stylistically, worship will range from classic European for the opening worship service on June 16 to a distinctly African-flavored closing worship service on June 23, Niesen said. Morning worship on Thursday, June 21, will focus on children, she added.
Portis, who pastors the fastest-growing congregation in the presbytery, said, “We are making a statement to ourselves but hoping to also make a statement to the whole country. This is a transformative time for us in the PC(USA),” he said. “The way we’ve always done [church] is not going to work, it is a slow death. We want to model a different way of being that is transformative, to grow, and not just grow, but to grow exponentially.”
Howard added: “This broken, splintered presbytery has gotten itself together. We’ll show the General Assembly and the General Assembly will show the world a spirit of possibility.”