Talking in greater detail about a subject she touched on during Friday’s plenary discussion “What and Why We Mid Council,” Jihyun Oh, Director of Mid Council Ministries, led the Moderators’ Conference workshop “Considering Equity While Moderating and Leading.”
The Friday afternoon discussion included conversation about implicit bias and ways to welcome more voices into the discernment and decision-making process, including “frameworks and tools to help bring our values and our actions into closer alignment in terms of equity,” as stated on the workshop announcement. Attendees in Louisville and online shared insights about ways bias impacts ministry in their localities.
After pointing out polity and theological supports for inclusion work—including the Book of Order’s F-1.0404—Oh spoke about power differentials that appear in worship communities across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She identified a “new openness” in today’s church as one of the values encouraging councils to focus on equity, inclusion and accessibility.
After describing equity as being distinct from equality, relating to justice and having the goal of full participation, Oh collected attendee responses to the question, “What are the obstacles to equity / considering equity in the life and work of the church?”
“Brokenness,” “Bias,” “Personality types,” “Personal values” and “Expediency” were some of the responses. Particular aspects of bias discussed included the weight of tradition in congregations, how “Presbyterians have long memories” that can prevent them from re-engaging with a presbytery even decades after a disagreement and personal filters that cloud an individual’s vision.
One moderator pointed out that the church’s overwhelming whiteness and history of racism make it hard to confront bias today. Another raised concern over the lack of young people not only in the church but in moderator roles: “I’m wishing there were more younger people here. Because I’m not the one who’s supposed to be the future of the church.”
Oh addressed some ways meetings and the handling of church business through committees and commissions can be impacted by implicit bias, including thinking of groups in stereotypes that aren’t based in fact or personal relationship.
Before turning to approaches and resources that moderators and others in the church can use to encourage equity, Oh mentioned committees on representation at mid councils that are charged not just with looking after representation but holding Presbyterians accountable to its stated values of inclusion and access. She lifted up Robert’s Rules as a tool that can be used to encourage minority opinion voices, allowing that it can also be an obstacle to equity when used to aggressively expedite discussions.
Moderators attending the workshop pointed to other obstacles to patient and equitable meeting practices, including shying away from controversial topics, leadership that steers dialogue in a direction it wouldn’t otherwise take, how a small number of live presbytery meetings in the age of Zoom makes it difficult to establish trust among presbytery members, small churches feeling like their voices aren’t heard, big churches feeling like they should dominate decision-making and white churches making assumptions about congregations of color they are attempting to ally with.
Oh thanked workshop attendees for sharing the examples, saying they showed trust building needs to happen differently at different mid councils, given their unique contexts. Wherever the context, all councils can attend to the Holy Spirit by listening to all the voices of people who need to be heard.
Near the end of the workshop, Oh explained practical steps churches can take to be more open to wider discussion, including adopting universal design concepts that provide for the needs of all participants, arranging for non-participants to observe how meetings are proceeding (“process observation”) and using minute pauses to encourage interpretation.
She also encouraged the use of equity primes: statements or questions placed on cards, Post-it notes, pdfs or wall reminders that meeting attendees can reference during group discussions. Equity primes are especially impactful when used at discussion “choice points”—moments of special impact that moderators can prepare for prior to meetings.
Some of the slides Oh shared were resources used by committee moderatos during the 225th General Assembly in 2022. Reprising her words from the plenary session earlier that afternoon, she encouraged workshop attendees to find examples of equity primes and other resources via PC(USA)’s Equip training modules, or to contact her or other Mid Council Ministries staff members with questions.
Near the end of the workshop, Oh asked attendees, “What would it look like to see new openness in membership and participation in your church/presbytery?”
Responses such as “A confirmed commitment to openness and acceptance for all,” “Educating folks about the presence of the presbytery and its role in local ministry” and “Being able to step aside so others can be heard” showed attendees understanding how confronting implicit bias will facilitate not just conversation in their councils but also understanding.
“We don’t have to do it all at once, and we don’t even have to get it all right,” Oh said about taking concrete steps toward achieving greater representation, equity and inclusion. “But we should do it.”