The Rev. Neal D. Presa, pastor of Middlesex (N.J.) Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Presbytery, was elected moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Saturday evening (June 30) on the fourth ballot. It was the second consecutive Assembly that took four ballots to elect its moderator.

Presa led by double digits on all four ballots, finally attaining a 52 percent majority (338 votes) on the final ballot. The Rev. Sue Krummel finished second with 158 votes (24 percent), the Rev. Robert Austell, Jr., third with 144 votes (22 percent) and the Rev. Randy Branson fourth with 13 votes (2 percent).

Krummel and Austell finished within 8 votes of one other on each of the first three ballots. Branson never tallied more than 9 percent of the vote.

Presa decried the conflicts that have plagued the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for many years. “How is it we read the same Bible, call on the same God, and yet use our faith as a weapon of mass destruction?”

Presa said he is committed to the unity of our Presbyterian family and spoke very personally about his parents’ separation at the time of his engagement to be married 10 years ago. “I didn’t know if they would both be at the wedding,” he said, “but Presbyterians prayed them back together. God holds us all together in Christ – it’s called grace.”

It was that kind of grace and trust, Presa said, that caused him to retain his vice-moderator running mate, the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe of National Capital Presbytery, after she recently signed a marriage certificate for a lesbian couple in Washington, D.C., where same-gender marriage is legal.

“For me, same-sex marriage is not an issue – these are people,” he said. “As a church officer, I hold to the [PC(USA)] Constitution (which defines marriage as between a man and a woman), but I’ve known Tara for ten-and-a-half years and though we disagree, we live with this tension because of our relationship.”

All four candidates emphasized the importance of building relationships as the best way to deal with conflict in the church. Branson spoke of Palo Duro Presbytery’s decision to meet around tables rather than in pews “talking to backs of each other’s heads – it was transformative.”  

Krummel emphasized the need for Presbyterians “to work together as a team when there’s a conflict and rely on the people who know the most about that situation to help lead us to understanding and reconciliation.”

Austell, who said he comes to conflict “not as a political leader but as a pastor,” recalled the debate in Charlotte Presbytery over Amendment 10-A, which allows for the ordination of sexually active unmarried persons, including gays and lesbians, as deacons, ruling elders or teaching elders (ministers). “We knew it would be close and divisive,” he said, “so two of us on opposite sides of the issue asked if we could begin the debate by introducing each other and telling the presbytery why the other’s position should be considered. It was transformative for our presbytery.”

Responding to a question about congregations who have left or are contemplating leaving the PC(USA), Austell – who authored a commissioners resolution to the General Assembly in 2008 that is widely credited for launching “gracious separation” policies in numerous presbyteries – said, “I have a chronically big heart and it goes out to those who are so distraught they feel like they must leave.”

Krummel, executive presbyter and stated clerk of Great Rivers Presbytery, said Presbyterian history is replete with times when the church defined itself and congregations then decided “whether they wanted to be part of that.” About churches that leave she said, “Though they’re not part of us any longer, they’re still Christian churches and we’re leaving the light on for them if they want to come back.”

Branson said that a big part of his ministry in Palo Duro Presbytery has been “creating relationships based in Christ – changing relationships by caring and building them on appreciation and trust.”

Presa said, “United we stand, divided we freak out,” noting that earlier in the week Elizabeth Presbytery dismissed its first congregation. “We told them we didn’t want them to leave, and if they ever want to come back, we’d love to have them.”  

Presa, who said he “brings a pastor’s listening heart and a non-anxious presence” to his new role as moderator, called for the whole church to be missional, which he said “at the very center and circumference is to be gathered and sent where God is at work, in the church and in the world, meeting people eye-to-eye and face-to-face and to see Jesus Christ alive in them.”