Executive Presbyter’s Report

by | Nov 30, 2020

Once a year I’m expected to give a report to the Presbytery. I was prepared to give a report that was already too long, but the meeting was going late, and my dogs seemed to think I should keep it short. In case anyone is interested, here is the report I intended to give. Overall, of course, this has been the strangest year I hope to ever experience. But it was a time for some rich learning, and through it all the work got done—and God was there.

Adaptive Change: Instant Evangelists and Holy Imperfection

Most pastors I know have heard about, tried to explain, endured through way too many lectures, and read countless articles and several books on adaptive change (especially Heifetz and Linsky). We’ve been told I don’t know how many times that we are facing a time of adaptive change. Adaptive change (as opposed to the fine tuning of “technical change”) is so radical that not only do we not know the answers, we don’t even know the questions we’re supposed to ask.

Well, I think we’re finally experiencing adaptive change. The basics of life as we know it, and church as we’ve always done it, were taken away, in ways that were unpredictable, sudden and deep, and for several months they were constantly changing—sometimes on a moment’s notice. We had to use technology to recreate our lives virtually—whatever that means! But I am convinced that the Holy Spirit went into overdrive, helping us turn this crisis into remarkably creative new ways of being church, and we learned some things that we never would have learned, if we were allowed to keep doing things the way we always did it.

We were forced to focus on the essentials of church—worship, pastoral care, and mission—and church leaders found new ways of doing these essentials, sometimes more than they did before. We found that there were opportunities in the crisis. Most significantly, we found out that many more people are interested in worshiping with us, if they don’t have to come into the sanctuary. Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson likes to say how thousands of Presbyterian pastors became televangelists overnight—and our audiences are much larger than any of us realized.

And COVID forced us to try new things with no guarantee of success. One of the best things that I hope will come out of this strange year is our new-found experience that grace exists, and comes alive when we let go of our attachment to perfection.  Perfectionism has kept us from trying new things, taking risks, stepping forward into the future that is only known to God. But there was no way to do church in 2020 by holding on to the tried and true. Living in holy imperfection, we learned that we are capable of far more creativity than we thought; we were free to challenge our old ways; and sometimes we stumbled into even more effective mission. I do hope that we continue to experience God’s grace as we allow for holy imperfection that allows us to reform the church.

However, I am saddened to have learned that some church members somehow thought pastors weren’t working as hard because of COVID. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen pastors face their own performance insecurities to preach, lead, and care through technologies that they didn’t know any better than you did. They worried when the finances plunged through the floor, trying to save their staff’s jobs and wondering about their own. And they tried to care for the church through all the unpredictable changes, even as they shared the same challenges everyone else did, with no advance warning as things flip-flopped in a blink of an eye. While I have not heard from our pastors of the suicidal thoughts that have plagued some pastors this year, I do worry how they will crash when the urgency of the now finally subsides.

Better Together

In the midst of all this uncertainty, we give thanks for being a connectional church. The pastors and church leaders meet weekly to get and share information, compare notes on new technologies and ways to provide care from a distance, and we pray, and share concerns and joys. It has been quite lovely to see ways we’ve been able to support each other. Honestly, this has been an opportunity for the Presbytery to help in more tangible ways, through financial grants, mutual support, common guidelines, even stepping in to play “Presbytery bad guy” in enforcing strict distancing rules. But as time wears on, we also feel the limits of being together only virtually, and we all long for the ease of being physically together, joining our voices in song together, and staying connected with people who do not have comfortable access to technology. So in some ways, this time has actually given us more desire and time to be together, while we also feel the emptiness of being apart. As we move into the holidays, I am more concerned, especially for those who already feel isolated. And we all look eagerly for vaccines to become available in the new year.

Seeing—and Valuing—Each Other Anew

All this disruption gave us new ways of seeing each other. Young leaders, our digital natives, became lifelines as we turned to technology to enable physically distant church life. The young pastors of this Presbytery have always been one of our great gifts, and their creativity and collaboration and commitment continue to amaze me. Through God’s provision, we welcomed Ally Lee to Presbytery staff. She took on almost all the technology needs of the Presbytery and many churches, facilitated communication and collaboration, and brought great new ideas to ways we can support our churches.

We also saw the rise of awareness of racially-motivated violence and disparities in economics and even health resources during this time of public health and economic crises. This led to a new humility, and a willingness to confront White privilege in historic and current systems of society. Perhaps the COVID pandemic gave people time for introspection, study, and conversation that were facilitated by Zoom—for instance, I’ve been able to attend meetings from around the nation, and we beta-tested our first “Belong Circle,” which is one way to enable people to come to know and care for each other across differences. My hope is that we will continue to find ways to live into the gift of diversity that God has given us.

Doing the Work

In the midst of these foundational shifts in life as we know it, we continue to do the work. There were many significant events, including:

  1. In January, the Presbytery approved COM’s major revision of our pastor compensation policy, with special emphasis on effecting family-friendly leave policies, not only for maternity leave but also times when pastors need time for elder care, or critical care of children. This comprehensive policy has been a boon not only for our pastors and the concept of support for the family, but it also provides more clear guidance for our
  2. Also in January, the Presbytery said good-bye to Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church. Alhambra and our team probably showed more love and grace than in any other church dismissal, and ended years of attempts to stay together. As it turns out, the timing and dissolution terms enabled the Presbytery to continue ministry without feeling financially constrained. And we have opportunities to stay in touch. For instance, I had occasion to speak with Jack Davidson and Foster Shannon recently. Foster, who is still a member of San Gabriel Presbytery, is still writing (I will be reading one of his books, on Revelation), and because he’s still home I got to visit him and Janis. And Jack shared that Alhambra expects to end this year without a deficit, so we can thank God that if there had to be a dismissal, both the church and the Presbytery have moved on in love and continued
  3. In light of this year’s drastic changes in worship life and stewardship, and thanks to the funds that we received from the Synod, as well as the Alhambra dismissal and our reserves, we were able to offer financial support for our churches. We provided upfront finances to help our churches think ahead around technology and continued mission, and offered grants as churches requested them. We distributed almost $300,000 in aid to our
  4. Along the way, we learned of the special needs of undocumented members and friends of our churches, and also new and recently settled refugee members, who have come to us from Latin America and the Middle East. Thanks to two Presbyterian Disaster Assistance emergency grants, on top of the program grant they have given us so that we can employ Kristi Van Nostran, $10,000 of emergency food and medical/rent grants were offered to settled refugees and undocumented immigrants in our own churches. In partnership with Pacific Presbytery and several other nonprofits, Kristi coordinated the safe release and transition of nearly 100
  5. Our little presbytery has inspired the larger church in various ways. The immigrant ministry has inspired many, especially due to the strong support of the churches throughout this presbytery. We have also gotten some attention for our work in West Covina, because we are doing several innovative things at once there: we provided needed care for a struggling church by moving them to fellowship status, we looked for ways to enable larger mission through better use of the property, and we are developing an exciting partnership with International Theological Seminary. We’ve talked a lot about this, but you may not know that we have been asked to talk about this to the national church multiple times, most recently last month.
  1. One way we are like every other presbytery is the need to find new ways of connecting. As a presbytery, we helped convert presbytery and congregational meetings to virtual, we interpreted ever-changing government regulations, and we are looking at ways to share resources that can be used in worship and education, like for World Communion Sunday and our next WinterFest. And Diane Frasher and Lauren Evans, our chaplains for retired church workers, have gone back to old technologies, like the telephone and hand-written greeting
  2. Finally, we are preparing for the future. Thanks to the legacy of First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin Park, we hope to enable an affordable housing development, which will include a Presbytery House that we can use for mission purposes, such as offering housing for asylum seekers. Wendy Gist, who will now be our senior staff member when Twila French retires, is staff support for this project, with the newly expanded Baldwin Park AC. Thanks to the budget you have approved, we are able to expand Wendy’s hours so that she can use her expertise in civil engineering and affordable housing to provide wise, passionate, and focused support on this, and I’m

Giving Thanks

As we look back on this year, we need to take a moment to give thanks. Thanks to God, of course. Thanks to God for bringing us our nearly 100 volunteer Presbytery leaders, the amazing committed leaders in every congregation, the pastors who reinvented ministry on the fly, and the chaplains who care for patients in hospitals and care homes, sometimes risking their own health. And of course, I have to give thanks to God for an incredible group of gifted, committed, faithful, funny, loving, creative, inspired and inspiring colleagues on the Presbytery staff: Wendy, Kristi, Lauren, Diane, Ally, and of course Twila. We began this year mourning Jake Kim. We end this year saying farewell to Twila.  But as you can see, God has sent us new friends, not as clones for others, but each bringing new energy, perspective, skills, and ministries that help keep us moving ahead. I pray that you get to know each staff member, and show them appreciation for who they are and all that they do to enable transformative ministry in this presbytery. Thanks be to God! And thanks to each of you.

When I think of 2020, this is the image I want to remember. This is Registered Nurse Amanda Etienne, of Brooklyn, New York. She survived the hardest three months of her health care career, in those scary days when COVID swarmed over New York, and then she was confronted with—and compelled to fight against—the violence erupting against people who look like her and her family. Here she participated in a protest rally against the killing of George Floyd, in her scrubs, and holding this sign, saying,

“I will still do everything I can to SAVE you! A Black RN.”

As we go forth into 2021, may we stay dedicated to our mission, keep our eyes open to injustice, and stay committed to Christ’s call to each one of us to give our lives for others.

Blessings, and thanks,