Moderating presbytery, congregational and other general meetings within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) requires wearing a lot of different hats. That’s what newly elected moderators and vice moderators learned at the recently concluded virtual Moderators’ Conference. They received that important tip from two people who know a thing or two about moderating church gatherings.
Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), joined the Rev. Dr. George Goodrich, co-general presbyter of the Presbytery of Yellowstone, for a workshop last Friday evening. One of the first things they shared with the group was to stay spiritually grounded, regardless of how large or small the meeting may be.
“There is no way a person can serve in this role without being spiritually grounded,” said Cintrón-Olivieri. “We have been called. You have been called. The world might call the equipped but being equipped empowers the call.”
Cintrón-Olivieri says moderators set the tone, mood and spirit in which meetings are to be held. When asked to list the characteristics of a good moderator, attendees shared that a moderator should be fair, grounded, calm, prepared, compassionate, wise, unbiased, humble and thick-skinned, to name a few.
“There are spiritual ramifications in every yes or no vote and there is a spiritual foundation to all we do,” said Goodrich. “The church is Christ’s church. The work is Christ’s work through us. The glory is Christ’s glory when we are able to walk in union with Christ and the mission Christ gives us. It’s more than just a meeting or debate. We are here to help keep on Christ’s mission and discern the direction.”
Goodrich adds that the role depends on the region you live and work in as well as the size of the presbytery. Either way, he says spirituality is important.
“People come to our meetings preoccupied with life. Many have fished all night and caught nothing. There are pastors who are drained, coming to meetings out of duty. Some are desperately trying to press into Jesus, hoping there is a word from God,” he said. “In every meeting, whether a session, presbytery or synod meeting, Christ gets in the boat with us, willing to speak to any and all who are listening.”
Cintrón-Olivieri advises moderators to be aware of God’s grace as they prepare for meetings.
“You are a beloved child of God, installed for a time like this. Lead by example — you are the person they are looking to. Be aware of the spirituality of your role and the office, even if no one else in the meeting is aware of that,” she said. “Be intentional in prayer, including confession, and ask other trusted colleagues to pray for and with you. Be aware that the body of Christ is gathering. This is holy ground, or in this case, holy cyberspace.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced churches and presbyteries to change the way they conduct meetings. With more than 18 months of virtual meeting experience, many congregations and presbyteries have begun to move toward more in-person or hybrid gatherings. Cintrón-Olivieri urges moderators to take digital participants into consideration for those meetings.
“Be creative. Go over logistics and technical considerations so they do not hinder your ability to be spiritually present,” she said. “If you’re paying attention to clicking here or there, or what’s happening on Zoom, you cannot be spiritually present.”
Cintrón-Olivieri adds that moderators should be very aware of accommodations during virtual or hybrid meetings, such as closed captioning or interpretation services.
Both Cintrón-Olivieri and Goodrich advise the following:
- Have a tech team in place to plan, lead and check in with participants when they arrive
- Be friendly; acknowledge social distancing practices and masks
- Be aware of the comfort level of people taking part in in-person meetings
- It’s important to acknowledge where people are and know if they are alone or experiencing stress or fatigue.
“As you call a meeting to order, share the expectations of the meeting as well as something like a prayer, poem, a reflection or overview of the meeting,” Cintrón-Olivieri said.
Goodrich says there are three main expectations a moderator should take into a meeting:
- Expect God’s presence and guidance
- Expect God to speak through the many different voices
- Expect the unexpected.
“If we are going to hear the word of God together, it isn’t going to come through just one person, but through the voice of the body working together to hear what God may be saying,” he said. “When we come humbly, expecting to hear the voice of God through others, then we begin to approach what the will of God might be for us as a body of Christ together. Try to ask yourself and the body, ‘Where is God in this?’”
Cintrón-Olivieri advises moderators to be aware of the voices speaking.
“Is the diversity of the body of Christ present? Is that voice being heard? You cannot ignore the reality of the oppressive systems we encounter,” she said. “Be self-aware of the voices and if all of the voices are being heard. Trust that it is not all on you. Trust that God is bringing the docket or agenda. We will mess up. We are not perfect. We try as best we can, but we will mess up at some point.”
Both Cintrón-Olivieri and Goodrich concluded by urging moderators to be human, but humble, and to lead by example.
“Be less anxious,” said Goodrich. “It’s OK to have butterflies, as long as we help them fly in formation.”