Presbytery as Partner in Ministry Improvisation
Greg: We talk a lot [as a Presbytery] about the prophet and the priest working together in innovation and in faithful ministry improvisation. The Presbytery has served an important role here in this work. How has the Presbytery. in terms of the nuts and bolts, been a part of this new thing in West Philly, especially since 2015?
Ruth: I think what the Presbytery did, was to allow itself to be creative, to be curious about possibilities and genuinely love the people they were trying to engage…and consider, what is the most helpful thing at this time?
Kevin: Amen to that. I listen to Ruth talk about the using governance in a new way…A lot of the way that it was perceived [was] that Presbytery [was] coming to shut us down. This was coming from a totally different spirit and use of an administrative commission, not to fault, fine, or move you to closure, but as a way of being present in a more focused and intentional way… The AC is actually a collection of resources for congregations, to help them in dreaming and provides presence, which is the other thing I was wanting to get to…All ministry comes down to relationships and the capital of a good relationship is trust. A mentor of mine once said, “the best definition of trust is met expectations.” And there is no way to microwave that. If you start from none, we have to have an opportunity for me to show that my word can be made good and only after that, then we have a little bit of capital in the trust bank. If that ever gets squandered or wasted, you are in a negative hole. You are in a trust deficit. When you have folks that have been around as long as the Presbytery of Philadelphia, there are a lot of trust deficits. When you are dealing with the same individuals and or the same congregations, even in the same communities, where folks have had the ouch of having had their trust betrayed, you cannot start from zero and pretended that stuff never happened. Part of the pivoting is for individuals as well as institutions to have that “come to Jesus” moment of confessing where there has been lack of trust, where it has hurt, where it has made trust going forward more difficult, and hearing God’s word of forgiveness and grace. Then pivot, to the assurance of pardon, that enables God’s word to be heard in a new way- that is generative.
Ruth: I will say that in fairness to the Presbytery of Philadelphia, they were part of a model, a functioning that was prevalent in the bigger Presbyteries throughout the country. They were a product of the 60’s. [This was] a corporate model that was supposed to keep you decent, in order, administratively, balanced.
Greg: One of the biblical references that you mention frequently, Ruth, is the dry bones in Ezekiel. This was an important reference in light of the 2016 fire at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. So could you briefly share about what happened with that fire and how that has become a pivotal turning point even for this partnership?
Kevin: It is important to know that the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, although logistically very close to Calvin Presbyterian Church, was not part of that earlier discussion about collaborative ministry. They did not perceive themselves as having a similar ministry or even a possibility of a similar trajectory moving forward. Then in August 2016, a fire happened that gutted the Good Shepherd structure. The way that the community around Good Shepherd spontaneously showed up and actually had a community organizing action, with cameras from the news media to say, “we want this church rebuilt.” Even though this congregation was small, their doors were always open to other congregations and community groups. The pastor there had been faithful; he had a background in urban planning, I believe. So he knew the importance of walking the streets and he said, “A church that is not part of its community is not a church- an this church got it.” So that was what they would bring to the table. So as a Presbytery we walked alongside that congregation, honoring their ministry that was still vital, and honoring them in their profound season of loss and devastation. [We gave them]the agency to cry, to mourn, to grieve, [and] to then get up after they had taken what they could from the ashes, and began to ask the question, what next? And when they did, it was a different kind of fire at that point. That was very evident when the three [churches] had come together and started to have serious conversations of, “Oh, so now we have not just resources of another congregation, but the resources of the funds from that insurance money that this one congregation is willingly willing to put into a conversation beyond itself.”
Ruth: I want to commend their former pastor J.B. Adams. He was this priest in the community. Retired 20 times over, but when he saw the moment, he allowed for that to move forward without him. That was bold and not to be taken lightly…We kept [the funds] with [Good Shepherd] and their agency until now all [the funds] moved under the WPPP agency. But that was an intentional decision. It was a statement that we were making. We could have recommended that the money be used and divided in different ways…But when would we ever get an opportunity to invest in perpetuity in both leadership and in a significant part of construction or refurbishing.
Eustacia: Since I came in July, my first task was to talk to every single member of our congregation. In talking with them, I learned much of what has just been shared. I asked questions like, “what has brought you alive?” And some of the members said, “Well, we felt a spark when we started having seminarians come.” So very much what they are saying was happening at the Presbytery level was filtering down to one on ones. Folks were sensing the spirit moving and discerning.