During the evening hours on Friday, the first day of the Moderators’ Conference, the Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly (2022), the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, answered questions from the 145 or so mid council moderators gathered in person and online and exchanged some of the wisdom that’s helped make them beloved in Presbyterian circles.
“We were clear we felt called to stand” for Co-Moderators, Santana-Grace said. “For me as a Latina woman, having a voice meant the world to me. I frankly didn’t care if we got elected — we were in the room.”
“One thing we had in common from the get-go is we love the local church — small, medium and big,” said Santana-Grace, executive for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “You energize us,” she told the moderators and vice moderators of presbyteries and synods from around the country.
“I want to embody what I believe we can do, which is love the church deeply and love our neighbors as ourselves, including self-love,” said Starling-Louis, pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Asked where they’ve witnessed the Holy Spirit at work since being installed as Co-Moderators nearly five months ago, Santana-Grace mentioned “concern we are seeing for children and youth.” When she’s asked how churches can better minister to its youngest worshipers, Santana-Grace typically responds, “I say, ‘How do we go out and be with youth and honor the things they cherish instead of thinking of youth as a program?’”
Starling-Louis said she’s already been privileged, by dint of the office she occupies, to be with churches celebrating 250 and even 300 years of ministry, “and to hear about the journeys they’ve been through. I’ve sat with pastors in retreats and the conversations are all generative. I feel like God is opening something up. There’s aways an opportunity to see God anew.”
Another joy for Santana-Grace is working with seminarians serving churches in the presbytery she leads. “God keeps calling, and individuals keep saying yes,” she said. “They have great compassion for working with smaller churches.”
Both said they’re seeing signs of a malady brought on by the pandemic: pastor burnout.
“In my seat I watch burnout after burnout after burnout,” said Santana-Grace. In situations without “emotionally healthy relationships” between pastor and congregants, those pastors “are not being received well after the pandemic. We are seeing a yearning for authenticity” among congregants who are looking for connections with their church leaders “not just in the head but in the heart.”
“Even during General Assembly, that conversation was being heard,” Starling-Louis said. She’s heard from people “who feel like they are not enough for what the moment is bringing. There is grief the church will no longer be how we have experienced it.”
“Economic realities are impacting our churches,” Santana-Grace said. “Our smaller churches, which are most of our churches, will have difficulty calling an installed pastor … We’re going to have to make hard choices and guide our people with love.”
On recent efforts to return some properties to Native Americans, Starling-Louis noted she serves on the Presbytery of Charlotte’s Antiracism Ministry Team. “Our Indigenous siblings are oftentimes erased. We don’t acknowledge they existed in these places,” she said. “We intentionally invite churches to get clear on where their individual lands are to be able to name the communities that were there. Removing people from being in the past to centering their lives is an antiracist act.”
Santana-Grace said the Presbytery of Philadelphia sold a church camp and gifted $50,000 of the proceeds to the Lenape Tribe. “We are naming and claiming a people with dignity,” she said. “It’s very little, but it’s a beginning.”
Recently, the Co-Moderators have worked to appoint people to General Assembly boards and commissions. “It’s a joy and an anxiety,” Starling-Louis said. “We are having to depend on God deeply to bring forth who might be the right folks for particular calls.”
“Some of the actions of the General Assembly did not sit well with our siblings,” Santana-Grace said. “It requires us to not be emotionally immature.”
“We love it when we are together, and we haven’t been together since the end of General Assembly. Phone calls don’t cut it,” Santana-Grace said with a nod to her fellow Co-Moderator. “I love hearing the stories of people of faith who are weary but hopeful. That really feeds my soul. God is on the move, and there are people willing to go with God on this journey. Can we change enough of us to change a bit of the world?”
“We have gotten encouraging words: ‘You didn’t stink at that.’ It’s great,” Starling-Louis said. “We get fan mail about relating to each other honestly. I am so blessed God sent Ruth into my world. God clearly was doing something amazing. We have folks unhappy with what came out of General Assembly and wanted us to know that and wanted us to respond to that. For those individuals, we were doing the work of moderating the meeting and holding a faithful space for the work of the Assembly to take place. People have been unhappy — and more than unhappy, they’ve been nasty. It happens.”
“Pray for us,” Santana-Grace asked the gathered moderators, “and we’ll pray for you.”
While “the church has not always been a space of respect or care or honesty or justice, my love for the community that can support and pray for me and my babies, that people invite me into sacred spaces because they see me as a sibling — that has always been beautiful and holy ground,” Starling-Louis said.
“There has always been this grace that breaks through, the light that breaks through the darkness,” Santana-Grace said. “For me it’s always been ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ and maybe most of us. It is up to us to keep identifying the generative spaces.”
Check back at pcusa.org for further reporting on the Moderators’ Conference, which concluded Saturday with worship led by the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace.