When the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis talks about her first year as Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly—leading plenaries in Louisville alongside the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, traveling the nation and world as a denominational ambassador, talking with Presbyterians at congregations, mid councils and seminaries—she is generous with her reflections and quick to connect big ideas with the many people she has met.
She answers questions over Zoom with pastoral care even for the interviewer, asking questions back, floating possible directions for conversation: “What would you like to talk about next?” “I have some more time…Can you keep talking?”
“Unbounded we thrive” is the theme of the 225th General Assembly Co-Moderator’s call. Generative creativity and faithful candor are two of Starling-Louis’s own abundant gifts she is using to keep the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) focused on its General Assembly commitments, while at the same time making space for spontaneous witness and joy—a topic she preached about during a recent reunion with Santana-Grace in Philadelphia. Starling-Louis’s frequent laughter is a reminder of God’s limitless grace.
Not everything about being co-moderator has been joyous, including an instance of phone harassment during last summer’s assembly, and a particularly tense meeting after the assembly where a discussion about GA225 decisions turned uncomfortably personal. There is stress and strain that goes along with representing the General Assembly as a Black woman in predominantly white spaces. Starling-Louis acknowledges this as part of a larger discussion on ways to support church members and initiatives in 2023 and beyond.
Being faithful means taking notice of what helps God’s people and what doesn’t, “hoping and lamenting,” as Starling-Louis said in Philadelphia.
Home and family
Many of Starling-Louis’s co-moderator visits are documented on social media, often using the #UnboundedWeThrive hashtag. She shares photos and messages about the people and groups she talks with, as well as the occasional mention of downtime fun, like seeing the movie “Chevelier” during a visit to Cleveland. From pastoring at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte to being Co-moderator of the 225th General Assembly to raising a family with her best friend-husband Kirk, her schedule would overwhelm someone with less equanimity. “It’s a lot!” she says of the last year, laughing at the understatement.
Wherever she goes, Memorial Presbyterian Church remains her church center, a congregation where she has been senior pastor since 2022. “Memorial and I discerned this journey as co-moderating together. That means making sure the congregation has what it needs.
“I have a sense that God does provide,” Starling-Louis adds, “such as with pulpit supply during my travel. Those are the voices people need to hear from at that time and place.”
She connects Memorial to her ministry visits. “I’ll bring love from my congregation as well as the General Assembly. It matters that I’m grounded with a particular place as I travel.”
Starling-Louis also draws strength from her family. During a visit to New York City to preach an ecumenical service alongside Santana-Grace at the 67th Commission on the Status of Women, she traveled with her 14-year-old daughter.
“For her to be able to spend time with people working in the PC(USA)’s United Nations office, including young women just out of college or in college…it was a reminder that the work of justice isn’t something that is put off to some other space, or that it looks like this or that,” Starling-Louis says. “Those staff members were the people doing the work.”
Representing the General Assembly
Starling-Louis was impressed and inspired by mission co-workers during two moderatorial trips to Africa—one to South Sudan, the other Liberia and Ghana. The welcome she received each time she set foot in an African nation was especially meaningful. From Ancestry.com she knew that some of her ancestors lived in Liberia and Ghana.
“Sometimes we use the word sacrifice to talk about church work. Replenishment also happens,” she says.
In South Sudan, Starling-Louis witnessed huge crowds turning out to hear from leaders of the Anglican Church, the Church of Scotland and the Pope, all of whom brought messages of peace to the war-torn country.
“They also challenged the South Sudanese to be more inclusive,” Starling-Louis says, a sentiment she supported while noting the irony of a group of mostly white men delivering it to a Black audience. At a Presbyterian worship service with 15,000 attendees, Starling-Louis brought her own message and blessings. She talked one-on-one with a South Sudan vice president, himself a Presbyterian.
The intentional focus on peacemaking in South Sudan was another generative connection for Starling-Louis, who wonders how American schools might incorporate similar approaches into their curricula, addressing the increase in gun violence and militarization, for example.
“Liberia and Ghana are having elections in the coming year, which also had me thinking about elections here in 2024. How do we support justice in our largest places of gathering, but also our most intimate?”
She thinks a lot these days about Jesus in the wilderness, when Christ answered temptation with scripture. “What keeps us close to our integrity and what pulls us out of it?” Starling-Louis asks. The Rev. Dr. Jermain Ross-Allam, Director of the Center for Repair of Historical Harms, traveled with the church delegation to West Africa, and helped her see how people can be conditioned to have power over others, as in the case of the Americo in Liberia, or in church hierarchies in the United States.
“We replicate what we see,” Starling-Louis says, a phenomenon of imitation that can also inspire movements toward justice and equity.
“In Ghana, we had a meeting of a hundred women where we talked about what it meant to be in ministry,” she says. “It was something special, something holy. Women there said to me, ‘We’ve never seen a woman moderator before!’”
Visiting congregations, mid councils, seminaries
Of her domestic and Zoom travels, Starling-Louis has enjoyed celebrating anniversaries and installations, as well as being a sounding board for Presbyterians wondering about the church’s future.
“It’s been amazing to see colleagues all around the country in their contexts and to talk to them about what’s going on, even when that’s holding space when things aren’t going well. It is sacred when people are willing to share their vulnerabilities, to live in Christ in community.”
She sees this role as central to her co-moderator call. “I’m receiving stories. One I’m hearing frequently is about exhaustion, another uncertainty. I’m also hearing a lot of ‘we’re going to try it’ stories”—ways congregations are creatively meeting the needs of their changing communities.
Working with Santana-Grace has been one of the ‘we’re going to try it’ joys God has provided Starling-Louis. “Ruth and I just look at each other and are amazed at what God can do,” she says. “There is a willingness to be available and to trust the gifts of each other…I think about people being called and sent in pairs in the Bible. It’s such a gift to have someone to process this journey with.”
A significant stretch of that journey is preparing the denomination for the 226th General Assembly. Starling-Louis and Santana-Grace work with General Assembly staff, agency leaders and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to plan the agenda and constitute committees, commissions and task forces.
“Working on the unification commission was a special early nominating focus of ours,” Starling-Louis says. “We wrote specific questions that got folks to talk about what they hoped to generate in their participation. If we didn’t have enough diversity, we invited more people in. The process has been a real trusting of the Spirit.”
Starling-Louis’s time in Africa—including days spent with mission co-workers such as Bob and Kristi Rice, the mentoring theologian Professor Mercy Oduyoye or Dr. Dianna Wright, Director of Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations—convinced her that the unification of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) will help clarify and strengthen the church’s international ministries, as well as those in the United States.
“It’s going to be a gift to have the organizing aspect of OGA and the missional aspect of PMA in rhythm and synchrony,” Starling-Louis says.
Practical adjustments to ministry and meetings
With creativity comes the responsibility to assess how new approaches are working.
Starling-Louis cites two tools that have been helpful to her discernment across ministry contexts. One is Next Church’s Cultivated Ministry, which she describes as “offering a framework to shift using the three Bs (budget, building, butts) to gauge effectiveness toward a paradigm that evaluates ministries through storytelling—how we proclaim who God is, how we hold each other accountable and how we hold space for each other, as well as what we learn from a situation that helps with our overall goal.” Cultivated ministry helps Presbyterians navigate away from “patterns of perfectionism over progress. It allows us to co-create with God.”
The second tool Starling-Louis holds up is equity primes, including the discussion prompts and inclusion pauses used at last summer’s General Assembly. “Equity primes help center the people who are most impacted by what a leadership body is planning to do,” Starling-Louis says.
She praises the moderatorial assistance she and Santana-Grace received from national church staff during the last assembly, which saw both co-moderators standing in front of a camera throughout the virtual plenaries (in 2024, plenary participants will gather in Salt Lake City). A concern she shares for the next assembly is informed by her personal experience of harassment last summer: looking after the well-being of people participating in church discussions, including moderators and committee leaders who have particularly heavy work burdens and high amounts of public exposure.
“I wonder if there are other ways to support folks who are navigating leadership roles,” she asks. “The way it’s set up makes assumptions about the kind of people who are called.
“What are restorative actions we can have in place for a Black woman receiving a threat, for example? What are things we can shift to take care of bodies and spirits? If we don’t want to add harms that we will need to address historically, how do we make resources available now?”
Those questions don’t presuppose answers, but they do hold out hope the church will take action to find them.
In the next year, and across future ministry roles, the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis is sure to continue inquiring, creating and bearing witness. Whenever she isn’t sure about her next step, she says she simply asks herself, “What would God have me do?”