What is a Presbytery

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


I was on the freshman high school wrestling team. I wanted to wrestle because my oldest brother was district champion in his weight class. While on the team I learned wrestling techniques: takedowns, escapes, reversals, and more. But in the back of my mind was a question that the coaches didn’t refer to or answer. What is the goal of wrestling? Why am I on the mat? In my first match my competitor was strong and fast. I went to execute a takedown, and the next thing I knew I was on my back! He pinned me in under 2 minutes! I can still see the ceiling lights of the gym as I remember the struggle and embarrassment. I learned the hard way that the goal of wrestling is to pin your opponent before they pin you!

I have been wrestling with reorganizing and restructuring the presbytery for months. I have spoken to committees, teams, ministers and members about possible reconfigurations that would make the work of the presbytery more effective and meaningful. But a question keeps rising from these groups, “What is the purpose of a presbytery?”

Simply put, a presbytery is a group of congregations in a particular geographic area that are in covenant relationship with one another to do mission and ministry in the world. Think of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy as the point in which our 75 congregations and many specialized ministries connect. Through this connection, we encourage and support one another, commit to certain standards of leadership and worship, and do mission in the world.

All of this connecting, ministry focus, resource connecting, and leadership development is done through the presbytery structure and presbytery office.

Ordinarily a church experiences the presbytery during a leadership change or congregational crises. The pastor who is serving your congregation is the bodily presence of the presbytery in your congregation. The pastor is trained, prepared, and approved by a presbytery (this one or another). Another way in which the presbytery is present is in the sacraments. The presbytery verifies the details of the communion (who, what, when) as well as baptism. In these ways the presbytery is present in every congregation every week.

I sometimes ask the session of a congregation, “What would this community be like if this church were not here?” This question helps a congregation understand its relevance to the community in which they are located. I have the same question for the presbytery. What if the presbytery were not here? What difference would it make to the congregations? To the community? I would add another question: “Where do you see the presbytery in your congregation or ministry setting?”

What if the presbytery didn’t exist? What difference would it make? I will tackle that question next week! Stay tuned!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

My Octopus Teacher

Craig in Alaska

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Every now and then I see a film and just say, “Wow!” Last week I watched the documentary, My Octopus Teacher. It is a film about a relationship that develops between the film director and an octopus! The film shows how this alien water creature, whose brain is 200 million years less advanced than the human brain, still possesses curiosity, learning, and a sense of playfulness. The ways in which the octopus protects itself from other predators is most amazing. For example, it pulls other clam shells and rocks around itself and becomes a ball of disguise. It grabs hold of kale and wraps itself to disguise its appearance and smell. It can make horns grow on its head to look fiercer or shoot black ink while swimming to disguise its direction. Finally, the octopus changes colors to match its surroundings and blend in seamlessly to shells, sand, and rock.

One of the most powerful scenes is when a pajama shark attacks the octopus. There’s a dramatic chase scene with the octopus deploying tactics and strategies (including coming out of the water and walking across sand before diving back in!). Nothing works. The octopus hides deep under a rock and the shark still finds it. Everything inside of me is begging the director who is filming this adventure to help. Chase off the shark! Pick up the octopus and take it to safety! But he doesn’t. The shark grabs the octopus and rips one of its limbs off. The octopus nearly dies.

On a podcast about the film, the director is asked why he didn’t help the octopus. He explains that he’d been observing the entire underground forest and saw how the pajama shark lives too. He saw how when the baby pajama sharks are just about to break out of their eggs, a predator comes and eats it. The director talked about how he studied all life in the underground forest, including the pajama shark, the primary predator of the octopus. This gave him respect for the cycle of life and the ecology of the underground forest as a whole. His respect and understanding of the pajama shark prevented him from injuring the shark to save the octopus.

As I watched the film, one of the many things I thought about was the upcoming election. We have taken sides. Those on the left think the right is backward. Those on the right think the left are naive. It is as though we have forgotten that we share the same country, the same ecosystem. Our system is bigger than one election. In spite of the advertisement, fear- mongering, and threats, we have seen it and overcome it before in our societal ecosystem.

Perhaps by observing the whole system, we can turn down the hateful rhetoric and tune out the pundits that spout venom. Jesus taught love and forgiveness in the context of a hateful and unforgiving empire. This country is nowhere near as barbaric as Rome, even on its worse day.

Let me be clear, I’m not the best at this. I definitely would have saved the octopus and injured the shark if I had to. But I did have a vision of hope while watching the film. For a moment I saw the collective society more important than a historical moment.

As we finish off the last couple of weeks of commercials, yard signs, and crazy news, let’s keep our focus on grace, love, peace, and justice for all, especially for the other side of the aisle.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Visible and the Hidden

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


We all contain invisible parts of ourselves, parts that are not apparent, or displayed. This doesn’t mean we should fear what we cannot see. Our hidden self may need to be coaxed to the surface, or persuaded that it is safe to show itself, and come out to play.

I have been working diligently these past several months on recalibrating the structure of the presbytery. I accept there is no perfect way to do this work and ministry. However, we can learn from our experience. As a presbytery we seek to have principles such as transparency, encourage participation, and work efficiently while building relationships. As Junie Ewing works with me and others in the presbytery on the structure, we can visualize and draw position descriptions, who reports to whom, and even workflow process.

However, just like there are invisible parts to ourselves, there is a hidden part we cannot see in our organization. These include the way individuals connect or disconnect from one another. They also include histories of painful memories from previous presbytery gatherings, serving on a committee that went bad, or even having a negative experience at a particular congregation because of a real or perceived slight by the presbytery. The visible we can map, create, and control. The invisible and hidden appears unexpectedly with unpredictable results. The challenge of reorienting work and structures is walking in a mine field and accepting the reality that people will be disturbed, and mines will be triggered.

Could the presbytery, congregation, hospital, school, or nursing home be similar to our human selves? Can institutions really be a “body” with soul, energy, and shadow? When what is hidden inside of us is revealed, we find the true essence of who we are. We find the core of our being and embrace what we have been running from. Could the same be possible in organizations?

What are the fears in our presbytery or in your congregation? What issues are we avoiding and preventing from surfacing? This is one of the reasons why we design and redesign the presbytery. By loosening the structure, the hidden and fearful comes to light and then we are able to accept it and move on. What are you willing to do to help your organization to make the hidden visible and have a healthier sense of wholeness and togetherness?

Rev. Craig M. Howard

A Note to All Pastors: Come Away and Rest

Craig in AlaskaRev. Dr. Craig M Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Moses told this (message of God’s deliverance) to the Israelites. But they didn’t listen to Moses, because of their complete exhaustion and their hard labor. Exodus 6:9 CEB

It happened again. I’m somewhere in hour number 4 of Zoom meetings. My eyes are aching. A slight headache is forming. I have three screens in front of me. On one are the faces of the people on the Zoom call. On the other I’m searching the internet regarding a question in the meeting. On the third I’m writing an email to request an action from the meeting. It feels like I’m working a triple shift simultaneously. I stop multitasking and only focus on the meeting and its conversation. I feel my thoughts become thick as molasses. I’m listening but I’m not hearing. Now I’m taking notes feverishly because something is being said that I must remember later, but my brain is a sieve leaking thoughts like water. At the end of the day, I drive home and find myself closing my eyes at red traffic lights. I arrive home, sit on the sofa, and within minutes I’m asleep.

I’ve described a day in my work life during COVID. Many are having the same experience, but they are working from home with children demanding attention and other constant interruptions. It seems like meetings are more contentious because there is always someone in the meeting who is uptight and on edge. Oh, and Sunday is coming with all of the needed liturgies and sermon. Everyone has anxiety and frustration. We’re all in the pandemic together.

Pastors and leaders come away and rest. Shut it down. Turn it off. Get away. The pastors retreat on October 23 and 24th provides a space for you to step back and catch your breath. We all need it. You can do it at home or away. You will have the opportunity to participate in activities, spiritual direction, and prayer. You don’t have to do anything but rest. We will cover the cost of lodging and provide funds to go toward meals and travel cost. All you have to do is show up and step away from your work. All you have to do is stop.

To register please click this link. The registration deadline is the end of the day Monday, October 12. The entire event is online. I look forward to sharing time with you during the upcoming pastors retreat.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Soul Work

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader
choward@glpby.org


Last night I participated in a webinar with the poet David Whyte. I was introduced to Whyte’s poetry through my spiritual director. In anticipation of the event I purchased two of his books and listened to some of his poetry online. It is always a wonderful experience to hear a poet read their work, listening to what is emphasized with their voice and the cadence of their speech. The poems I’d read before the event were amazing! The event had over 350 people online, and for one hour, my soul was fed.

I believe that some things feed our souls, while others may drain it of life. As we endure the political wrangling, racial and social strife, the atmosphere of fear and economic toll from the pandemic, and as we live with the kids at home and home becoming where we work, the life of our souls is being squeezed out.

What are you doing to nurture your soul? I met with several of our pastors today and asked the same question. Some talked about walking or taking a trip to a beautiful place. One pastor is taking music lessons to learn a new musical instrument. Many relish the idea of turning off the electronics and finding peace away from email and Zoom.

As a reminder, if you take advantage of counseling during this time, the Board of Pensions is waiving the co-payment fee. In the midst of all that is swerving around us, it is important that we care for our physical, mental, and spiritual health. It is critical that congregations allow pastors the space to step away from all of the pressures and decisions of ministry. Schools, hospitals, and senior care facilities should make sure that the chaplains who care for others are being cared for too.

Finally, let’s look out for one another. Make that call to your ministry colleague whom you haven’t seen in a meeting or haven’t heard from in a while. Small touches go a long way. We will get out of 2020 and walk into 2021 together. Our connectional unity is our strength as we walk with our God.

Rev. Craig M. Howard