Mid Councils Newsletter, September 8, 2015
I have been in several places lately where we have talked about “White Privilege”; the way people of various races, cultures, and ethnicities relate to one another; and similar topics. Here are a few stories that help me understand this issue in a very tiny way.
I am a fan of America’s Got Talent. It is always on in the summertime and I end up watching television, even during the week in the summer, with one or more grandchildren from time-to-time. We can all enjoy it and begin rooting for our favorites to move on to the next round. (If you have never seen it, the premise is that people with “talent” compete for an ultimate prize of one million dollars and a Las Vegas show.) There are singers, dancers, magicians, and a category of really weird “talents.” Let me just say, if the “Professional Regurgitator” wins this year I may have to reconsider my viewing options for next summer—yuck!
Anyway ... in the last few weeks there has been a gospel choir from Detroit. Once acts make it fairly far along in the competition, the producers show us some of their real lives at home—kind of like the real lives of the athletes in the Olympics. So, we have gotten to know the leaders of the choir a little. It is one of those choirs where the sound they produce seems to be an improbability from the number of people on the stage. It is a wonderful, inspiring sound. In their last performance in the competition—yes, they were cut—they chose a song that was clearly very familiar to them. I imagine they thought it was an old standard and that everyone would be able to sing along at home. We are at the point where people at home vote for the acts to go through and, so, crowd appeal is very important. Problem was, it may have been a very familiar song in the African American church community, but not so in the wider population. For instance, I had never heard it and I have heard a lot of church songs. They probably made the assumption that “everyone knew it” and then discovered that something they feel like they were born knowing did not have the same familiarity across cultures and races and ethnicities.
It reminded me of a time several years ago when my husband and I were co-pastors in Burlington, Iowa. A little girl who had a kind of shirt-tail relationship with our congregation was accidentally shot and killed by a playmate who found a loaded gun that a felon had thrown under a porch as he fled from the police. We planned the funeral knowing that most of the people in the sanctuary that day would not be our church members and that many of them would not be of the same race or ethnicity or culture as us. I chose hymns that I thought “everyone” would know. We sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Turned out I was wrong. Many of the people in attendance did not know that people sing together in church and they clearly did not know these songs. My husband talked to some of the African American pastors who were there on the way out of the sanctuary and they said they did not know most of the people there, either. I had made the assumption, from within my bubble of always being with church people, that we would be able to cross a cultural divide by appealing to the church life that we shared. I had forgotten that there is a whole segment of any race, ethnicity, and culture that has no idea what we do in church and has no real interest in it. I made the assumption that “everyone knew” these two songs and knew that we would sing them together.
Then a few weeks ago I had the same kind of experience from the other side. We had an all-staff day for the Office of the General Assembly. The worship planner played a hymn on her computer at the close of our worship together and said, “This is a very familiar hymn. Sing along if you would like to do so.” As the hymn started, I realized I had never heard it. I like music and can usually pick something up quickly, but this had some kind of irregular intervals and rhythm and so I never risked singing aloud even on the chorus that was repeated. After a minute or two I realized a phenomenon in the room. People who worship in African American churches (whether they are Presbyterians or not) were singing along. Those of us who do not do so were on the sidelines. Again, there was an assumption that “everyone knew” this hymn that ended up separating us by race, culture, and ethnicity.
I am not sure what all of that means. Except maybe it is a reminder to all of us that what feels so familiar to us, what we think is safe and welcoming, what we think “everyone knows” may instead create categories of those who are inside our circle and those who are outside. As we plan worship, as we plan presbytery and synod meetings, and, more importantly, presbytery or synod events that strive to reach beyond those who will be there no matter what we do, perhaps we should be consulting those with whom we hope to work, whom we hope to welcome, and from whom we hope to hear about their faith and their dreams for the future as we make those plans.
A few questions have come up about the fall conferences in a few weeks in Portland. Here is a little history. About ten years ago, this was the travel schedule for mid council leaders in the fall: on top of all of the meetings in your own presbytery and synod, the national meetings included a meeting of mid council leaders with the PMA predecessor staff and board; the Polity Conference; the Association of Mid Council Leaders (AMCL) predecessor; the Association of Stated Clerks (ASC). These were each stand alone, separate meetings that happened within a few weeks of each other. The suggestion was made that the meetings be linked to one another so that a person could travel once and go to all of the meetings—that was the way it worked for several years. Then the suggestion was made that some of the meetings overlap to make this a shorter trip—in an effort to be better stewards of both time and money for all involved, as well as take advantage of some possible synergies. That is what is happening this year.
Planning groups of the AMCL and the ASC met with Office of the General Assembly (OGA) staff in the spring to plan the details of these meetings, along with the Moderator’s Conference, New Stated Clerk Training, and meetings of the General Assembly Committee on Representation.
This is a first try at the overlapping meetings—we appreciate everyone’s patience and feedback as we try to make it happen. If you have questions about registration, the GA Meeting Service staff will be happy to help you.
Last year Glacier Presbytery faced a challenge that may not be unique to their presbytery—how to help find effective pastoral leadership for a very small, very rural congregation. The congregation, with its twelve members, provides a vital ministry to their area being the only church in their small ranching community. Their remoteness presented an additional difficulty as they are located more than twenty miles from the nearest paved road. Over the years they had tried many methods of securing pastoral leadership, sharing with nearby churches from other denominations, making calls week-by-week seeking a pastor to fill the pulpit, and helping a local person become trained as a CRE. When their pulpit once again became vacant, they reached out to the presbytery, wondering if there was a way to have a teaching elder serve them, even though their funds were very limited.
Glacier Presbytery came up with a creative idea. And even though they had no way of knowing if it would work, they launched their plan to invite retired pastors to come for a year or two at a time. Since the workweek is limited to one or two days, they knew that a pastor would have time to explore Montana, write a book, or delve into a spiritual discipline. Even though the congregation did not have many financial resources, the presbytery and congregation joined together to provide an innovative compensation plan that included fly-fishing and archery lessons provided by nearby pastors, a book of the month about Montana or by a Montana author, a small weekly stipend, a monthly goodie basket, and use of the manse.
It worked! The first year, a pastor from Texas served the congregation very well and the congregation appreciated having a constant presence. For the first time in decades the congregation had a choice and enjoyed interviewing prospective pastors. The first year is coming to a close this fall, and the congregation and presbytery are eager to try the experiment again.
Do you know of a retired pastor who may enjoy a year in Montana or needs a quiet place to write or to explore a spiritual discipline?
Perhaps this is something that could work in your presbytery also?
You can see their posting at www.tinyurl.com/WhitlashPosting and you can contact Glacier Presbytery’s General Presbyter Marsha Anson for more information, 406-871-2135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Marsha Zell Anson
General Presbyter/Stated Clerk
The 2015 Synod COR Training Event (open to presbyteries) is in Portland, October 9-11 and registration ends soon. Exploring the theme of Unity in Diversity, participants will begin in Bible Study led by the Rev. Dr. Teresa Chávez Sauceda. Rooted in the Word we will consider intersectional approaches to anti-oppression work, cross-cultural communications, bias management, and more. The Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia will preach on Sunday during the joint worship service with ASC and AMCL. Generous scholarships available to assist in getting at least 4 persons from each synod to attend. Connect with your synod Stated Clerk and contact Molly Casteel for more information. Open registration can be accessed here.
Polity Conference takes place October 11-12 in Portland.
The five concurrent conferences this year run October 9-11 and include: Association of Mid Council Leaders, Association of Stated Clerks, New Stated Clerks’ Orientation, Synod Committee on Representation Training, and Moderator’s Conference.