Two months into their terms in office, the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis and the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace are still reeling from the the historic 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The co-moderators are already seeing their schedules filling up as they begin meeting with churches and presbyteries in a time of change.
Prior to their election in June, the two answered a series of questions around their individual calling and how they see the church moving forward post-pandemic.
How do we help the church as we journey between lament and hope?
“The sounds of our laments are reformed by the losses and grief brought upon us by a relentless pandemic. Our lyrics speak of the broken spaces of our time — a bold renewed racism, economic injustice, poverty, increased violence with a language of hate, along with an exhaustion tempting us to surrender to hopelessness. But these laments allow us to join our voices in boldness. They escort us into the valley, compelling us to ‘see, hear, know’ the truth of our time so that together our spirits and our witness might be released — to heal and find strength to join God on the journey of redemption and restoration.”
“We have an opportunity to respond to the beautiful and broken world as we open ourselves to practices and postures that help us be aligned with what Jesus is up to in the world. To do this, we will need to be open to the truths that are evident in lament and hope. In lament, our bodies testify to the impact of suffering upon us. Holding space in our spirits, minds and bodies to truly lament is an act of faithful hope. As Presbyterians, lamenting is trusting the triune God with our longings for healing, justice, joy, wholeness and shalom for ourselves, neighbors and all of Creation.”
Reflect on the importance of moderators as ambassadors and the importance of that role to the church and how you would live that out.
“The ambassadorial responsibilities reflect our shared Christian vocation to show up and listen to each other’s stories. We are called to be Good News bearers as we learn from the Word of God and as we connect with the prayers, testimonies, laments and joys of those we are called to be in community within this world. While the individuals and institutions we encounter as moderators might be unfamiliar to us cerebrally, the ways in which we are called to be connected with each other’s journeys is very familiar on the heart-to-heart level that we all participate in as the people of God.”
“One of the greatest gifts the co-moderators can offer is the gift of seeing and hearing. I get to see how the faithful of our worshiping communities lean into their calls — embracing the theology of flourishing. Their stories fuel my spirit — encouraging me to keep on pressing. As ambassador to our denomination, I would learn of and carry that joy and hope into our many sacred conversations and engagements. I would encourage the creative thinking that this season has required of us. I would engage the courageous conversations that continue to challenge us.”
How do we move forward into that new future and engage the church that is emerging? How is it different from the church that we knew? How is it the same?
“At an already vulnerable moment in history for mainline churches, Covid thrust us into a re-examination of how we view ourselves as church. I had a front-row seat as pastors of small and larger churches leaned into this new challenge — embracing digital platforms, simultaneously serving as directors, producers, choreographers and actors. A new stewardship of time, talent and treasure we birthed as we learned to pray, worship, break bread in ways reflecting a new understanding of self. We celebrated the inclusivity technology seemed to provide. It is clear we will not return to how we did church before. We will now seek a new balance — using digital platforms in ways that enhance our witness, understanding the unparalleled power of presence in the incarnation.”
“We will move forward together remembering we are connected by the holy breath within our lungs as we’re compelled to find other ways of worshiping God. We tried new things. But when we could no longer gather in our worship buildings to hold hands, give hugs, high fives and fist pumps, or even gather to mourn those who passed from this life to the next, we had to find alternative gathering spaces that required unfamiliar technology. Collectively, we were stretched in resources, patience, energy and hope. We hit the wall. We pushed through. We questioned. We pivoted. We hit new walls. We rested. We quit. We started anew. And we were joyful when things came together better than we thought they would.”
How can the church community make room for all people to share their stories of faith? How can we listen to the stories of people who are not in the church?
“Church community is full of diverse contexts and cultures. We flourish together by practicing relationship-building skills that foster intercultural spaces where listening and sharing our unique stories is normalized and valued. Sharing our perspectives and listening intently to others requires an open heart. It’s holy ground where we walk humbly with our God. Gather at the table for a meal or a delicious exchange of ideas, inspirations, visions, laments or hopes. Gather at the table outside of the church’s property in God’s world. Gather at virtual tables in online spaces. And wherever we gather, we listen not only with our ears but most importantly with our hearts. Another practical way for Jesus’ followers to open their hearts and spirits to hear the holy testimonies of each other is to value the need for testimony time in our worship and spiritual formation settings.”
“Perhaps a place to start would be to reframe what we understand as stories of faith. My story didn’t fit into the image I had of what that meant. I thought a story of faith needed to be framed with biblical language. It took me too many years before realizing and claiming my story. These stories are out there — ordinary people with stories of courage and resilience shaped by a faith they carry within. We need to access those stories. The Theology of the Table compels us to invite and make room for those whose sounds and identities are different from our own. This is risky business — we don’t always like engaging those who are different, but it is what Jesus modeled in his ministry.”
What suggestions do you have for identifying new directions for the development of faithful leadership for the mission of Christ?
“There is an intentional shift acknowledging the importance of equipping leaders for a rapidly changing church — a church that perpetually lives in a liminal space. It’s that space between the here-and-not-yet with no clear road map on how to proceed. In response, seminaries are creating spaces for focused learning on current concerns — the environment, urban centers, new church development, youth ministry, public policy and more. These programs allow pastors to lean into areas of interest and relevance, offering tools to strengthen their faithful leadership. We are invited by the Spirit to lean into creative thinking — ‘building while we fly.’ The spirit of our leadership is what impacts the spirit of a church system. An engaged healthy leadership can navigate their way into new seasons of ministry.”
“Many of our congregations are struggling to connect and reconnect with engaged leadership. My suggestion is that we ask more questions that expand our shared value for different leadership skills, experiences and embodiments. Questions like: How can we play, have fun and embrace creative thoughts that move us beyond either/or thinking? Can we celebrate the courage to name power dynamics and passions? Could we learn the gifts of intercultural competency, which lets us acknowledge and move through our cultural blind spots that might prevent us from seeing the blessings in our midst?”