Whoever is elected as Moderator/Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they will be looking at a two-year term like none other. In just a few short months, the COVID-19 virus has completely changed the way churches are interacting with members. The General Assembly itself will soon host a historic online gathering.
Arthur Fullerton and Marie Mainard O’Connell are the latest to add their names to the list of candidates seeking to become Co-Moderators of the 224th General Assembly (2020). If elected, they will serve in different ways than their predecessors.
A lifelong Presbyterian, Fullerton comes from a family that has been active in the church for years. Both of his parents were Presbyterian ruling elders and his older sister, the Reverend Dr. Fairfax Fullerton Fair, is a Presbyterian teaching elder.
“I have lived and worshiped in Presbyterian churches in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and California. I have been a part of university congregations, of suburban, rural, small town, and urban ministries. I have seen congregations and presbyteries fight. I have seen them go above and beyond in love and service,” he said. “In short, I’ve been a member in many of the various types of churches we have and have visited dozens more in my travels around the country. I’ve learned that what unites us is far greater than what divides us.”
Fullerton is currently serving as a ruling elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York. He is also a successful fundraiser for a few organizations.
“Fundraising for Covenant House, I successfully raised millions of dollars to help get homeless kids off the street. I did this work as an openly gay progressive Presbyterian raising funds primarily from straight conservative Catholic donors,” he said. “My secret? I focused on what we had in common: wanting to help save homeless kids,” he said. “That is the type of common ground I hope to help our church find in my term as Co-Moderator.”
A graduate of Tulane University, Harvard Business School, and the University of Pennsylvania, Fullerton has served on numerous business, nonprofit, and professional boards, as well as taught at various universities.
Mainard O’Connell was born in Springdale, Arkansas, but spent most of her childhood in Carrollton, Texas. A graduate of Hendrix College, she went on to receive a master’s degree at University of Central Arkansas. She joined the First Presbyterian Church of Conway and was baptized as an adult at the age of 23.
Answering the call to ministry, Mainard O’Connell went on to receive a Master of Divinity from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. She currently leads the Park Hill Presbyterian Church in North Little Rock, where she lives with her husband and three children.
Mainard O’Connell says she initially entertained the thought of seeking the role of Moderator/Co-Moderator at the end of last year. However, she says the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major reason for her decision to run now.
“I’m excited because now we are being forced to make changes that we have needed to make for a long time and with those changes comes the opportunity to really lean into what it means to be a church when we don’t have the building,” she said. “Instead of worrying about maintaining a building, we are focusing on how to reach out to each other and how to worship. Who are we missing? How do we get the good news out beyond the walls of our digital website?”
During her ministry, Mainard O’Connell has been active in a number of social justice issues such as gun rights in churches and LGBTQ rights. While the virus has impacted how those issues are addressed, she still believes the church needs to continue to lead the way. She is also concerned about the role of ministry during this pandemic.
“As a young minister with a family, there’s a lot of pressure from different directions and that was exactly how people in our church were feeling,” she said. “I felt now that we are in corona-tide, we have to talk about these things, we have to talk about the plight of part-time ministers, we have to talk about helping families be the first classroom for Christian education. We have to talk about how to reach people across the divide.”
In his biography, Fullerton says the world has changed and the church will have to change, too.
“A mismatch between the church and our society has been building for a generation. The coronavirus simply accelerated and enforced changes. Today, the church is wandering in the wilderness pining for Egypt — where Egypt is the post WWII church of full pews and overflowing budgets and the wilderness is our current situation,” he said. “Many of our tools and traditions that served us well in building the pyramids and other edifices are not well-suited for an online, on demand, world of rainbow diversity. A world where buildings are as much a burden as a blessing.”
Fullerton says the church can build community by stressing seven virtues that involve others: listening, gratitude, forgiveness, fairness, kindness, teamwork and love.
“Realistically, my two-year term of service will likely be a virtual Co-Moderator service with limited in-person presence. The good news is the lack of travel means being able to appear at a gathering in Boston in the morning, Dallas at lunch, and Portland in the evening,” he said. “Leveraging technology will allow future Moderators to serve the church in ways not possible before.”
Mainard O’Connell agrees.
“I’m very excited about meeting opportunities, and how churches are using Zoom and other methods to reach out. In our church, we do a lot of our Bible studies and group meetings by Zoom. There’s Google Hangout and other possibilities through Facebook,” she said. “I’ve been able to utilize Zoom and Facebook simultaneously and it works. It is challenging and most of our people are on different platforms, but there are ways to link them together to participate more fully and now I have two to three times more people viewing and commenting on the Bible study.”
Fullerton says COVID-19 also means churches will have to survive in an economy battered by mass unemployment, rising bankruptcies, hunger, homelessness, and the social byproducts of despair: addiction, abuse, and depression.
“These are indeed challenging times to serve as Moderator of the PC(USA),” he said. “I have faith that with God’s help and direction, working together we can meet the challenge of these days.”
Mainard O’Connell says she’s seen a resurgence of the “old-fashioned telephone chain,” to reach everyone and engage with all generations of ministry.
“This has required re-ownership of the church, recognizing that the pastor can’t do everything. Growing leadership within the congregation has been important,” she said. “There is a need to find more balance because of the expectation that pastors will spend 60–80 hours a week leading the church. I would like to see pastors look at what work they are expected to do through ordination and what work is not and hand it off to leaders in the church itself.”
There are two additional teams running as Co-Moderators. Elona Street-Stewart, a ruling elder and synod executive, and the Reverend Gregory J. Bentley; and Ruling Elder Moon Lee and Teaching Elder Alexandra “Sandra” Hedrick make up the other teams.
The Moderator’s election is scheduled for Friday evening, June 19.