The heart of the life of our Presbytery is our churches. In my visits to 61 of our eighty congregations for worship, education, and fellowship on Sunday mornings, I have discovered thriving vibrant congregations. But many of our churches are struggling, some just barely holding on. Some are continuing to serve their communities and provide for Sunday worship because of generous past donations and income from nesting congregations or nonprofit groups.
The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy has a proud history of social activism, begun by champions for justice such as Elijah Parish Lovejoy. We continue the legacy of praying and working for justice through efforts in our congregations, among our pastors and members, through our partnerships with Peru, Nicaragua, Kenya, our Earth Care efforts, our work in local partnerships like Metropolitan Churches United and the Interfaith Partnership, and neighborhood partnerships begun and/or nurtured by our churches. Every one of our congregations is active in feeding people experiencing hunger and working for health, safety, and well-being in our communities.
Since I arrived just short of two years ago, many changes have taken place in the Presbytery.
Five weeks after my arrival Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, unleashing protests and calls for a new civil rights movement. Presbyterians have responded in a variety of ways– by protesting, by educating ourselves, by engaging in conversations about race, and by advocating for justice. Giddings-Lovejoy is an example for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. in for many years, requiring training of pastors and leaders to examine ourselves and commit to dismantling racism and privilege. An overture that will come before the upcoming General Assembly from another Presbytery calls on the PCUSA at every level to provide this kind of training. The overture that Giddings-Lovejoy has sent to the General Assembly addresses racism in our communities, along the lines of the recommendations of Ferguson Commission.
In our response, we are grateful for the prayers and assistance from the greater PCUSA community. Three times in the past two years, Giddings-Lovejoy has benefited from the resources of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance– the aftermath of events in Ferguson, the burning of black churches, and flooding early this year. The Presbytery is bearing witness and working for wellness in our communities.
Will we pass on this great legacy of faith in action to the next generation? We Presbyterians, along with other denominations have a great problem we must address. Most of our congregations not only are not growing, we are shrinking. We are making faithful contribution to doing justice, showing kindness, though there is always more we are called to do. Jesus taught us to care for the poor and to work for justice. He encouraged us to welcome “the least and the lost.”
He also told us to “go and make disciples.” But most of us Presbyterians are not as comfortable nor as successful at making disciples. In the midst of growing secularism of our culture, we have failed to develop new ways to share faith and invite others into the fellowship of the church. As Christian thinker Alan Roxburgh posits, “we have been slow to join in what God is up to in our neighborhoods.” We must learn anew to be evangelists, to bear witness to God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ, and let people know that each of us is called to relationship with God.
One of the bright spots in my ministry here in Giddings-Lovejoy has been hearing the stories of pastors and congregations reaching out to join “God in the neighborhood.” The Rev. Miriam Foltz courageously approached the New Worshiping Communities Commission with a request for funding UKIRK, a new Presbyterian expression of ministry with college and university students. I had the privilege of attending a dinner with many of the students who have been touched by the new campus ministry at Washington University and Saint Louis University. Presbyterians are stepping up to reach students on campuses across the country with renewed efforts in a ministry largely abandoned a generation ago.
Yet another commitment to explore engage young adults is demonstrated in the outreach of The Rev. Joshua Noah. In a conversation last week, he revealed that he had offered to teach a course at the local community college. When I asked why he had added this responsibility to an already busy life, he related that he wanted to can get out in the neighborhood with young adults. And, in another adventure of stepping out in faith, the Affton Presbyterian Church, sold its building and became a pilgrim church. The Rev. John Harrison was ordained earlier this year as the Pastor/Evangelist of this congregation. Another adventure in responding to new opportunity is the conversation between the Wood River and College Avenue congregations as they move toward merger and witnessing with greater strength in their communities.
To support and encourage new ministries, the Presbytery is living into a new way of organizing our mutual ministry and outreach around the vision of dynamic leaders and vibrant congregations. The organization is designed to build the capacities of our congregations to make disciples as we work for justice and peace.
On May 12 about 40 people gathered at the Presbytery Office for orientation to their leadership roles in the new structure. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable as teams became acquainted and began planning their work together. New leadership is emerging, and there is excitement about coordinating our Presbytery mission and ministry in new ways.
Would all of you who are serving on a commission, committee, team, or sub team would stand so we can recognize you. Thank you for your willingness to serve Christ through the ministry and mission of the Presbytery.
The Presbytery also is addressing debt incurred on behalf of two congregations. In order for us to be able to equip our congregations to be vibrant witnesses to Christ, the Vision voted to pay off and pay down debt, thus freeing future mission dollars to equip our congregations to grow and initiate new ministries. Thanks to the hard work of the Bonhomme Commission, the recouping of lost mission and per capita payments as well as a substantial property settlement, the Presbytery is able to substantially lessen the drain on our limited resource by paying down the loans on the St. Charles and Hillside loans.
Lessening our indebtedness is a great gift to the next generations of Presbyterians in Giddings-Lovejoy.
Knowing that we cannot depend on windfalls of cash from property settlements or sales, the leadership has worked to reduce staffing costs. There were ten paid employees of the Presbytery when I arrived less than two years ago. Our new staff design calls for 5. The process that led us to where we are now has been a thoughtful, but painful, as the Personnel Team worked prayerfully, and graciously in this change. Many of us are wondering how we will survive without the supportive ministry of our two longest-serving employees.
Judy Pickett began service at the Presbytery in 1997. Judy has provided administrative support and has managed property of the Presbytery during her years of service. I’ve come to rely on Judy for information about policies, procedures, and people resources of the Presbytery, as well as all the best places to eat in St. Louis. Consistently, Judy has approached her service with good-humor and a “can-do” attitude.
Cindy began work at the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy in 1998. Cindy welcomes guests to the Presbytery, creatively produces the weekly news blast, provides staff support for committees, teams and networks and serves as primary support to the Stated Clerk. The Resource Center is maintained by Cindy and volunteers from the Presbytery. Both Cindy and Judy have provided hospitality for meetings at the Presbytery Office, and we’d be here all afternoon and evening if I were to list all their accomplishment.
Please join us on Friday, July 15 from 2-4 p.m. at the Presbytery Center for an informal wine and cheese reception in their honor. I want to officially thank Judy and Cindy at this Gathering today with small gifts. Please take time to greet the two of them today and thank them for their service in support of the mission and ministry of Christ in Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery.