National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.

Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

Breaking the Binary

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Slats Toole

It was early in the morning and impossibly cold as a handful of us gathered for what would end up being the last of our monthly sunrise services for that year—held on the last Sunday of every month until it got too cold. To be honest, I was less focused on the service and experiencing God in the awakening of the world around me, and more focused on the fact that I could see my breath in front of me and feel the cold metal chair underneath me. That is, until I heard the pastor address the community by saying, “sisters, brothers, and…”

With that “and,” my heart skipped a beat. Not too long before, I had sat in this pastor’s office, working to find the words to tell her that I did not identify as a woman or as a man, but was embracing a non-binary gender identity. Here, in the cold early morning, I experienced for the first time what it felt like to be seen and embraced by the church, as this pastor acknowledged that there were those of us for whom “sister” or “brother” didn’t fit. For years, churches had (usually out of simple ignorance) shut me out in the language they used, how their programs were structured, or even the design of their buildings. While I knew that I was created in the image of God, I had no idea how much tension I was holding about my place in the church until that tension melted away with the simple word: “and.” With that anxiety gone, I began to realize that my experience of gender might teach us all something about God. Out of that moment came conversation and deeper understandings and more exploration of this mystery that is the God we worship.

Particularly since the passing of HB2, North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, I’ve been working to help equip churches to fully embrace trans and gender non-conforming people in their worship, service, and community. While many churches have done a lot of work on what it means to welcome people of all sexualities, welcoming people of all gender identities requires a different set of questions and tools. In this workshop, “Breaking the Binary,” I hope to help attendees see some of the issues trans and gender non-conforming people face when we step into churches, and learn ways to break down the walls that keep us from connecting with each other. But even beyond that, I want to explore what can happen when we do connect, and what kind of transformation can come out of that connection.  

Imagine: who are we leaving out? What conversations are we missing out on? How might we grow in our knowledge and love of God by opening the door a little wider, with a simple “and?”

Breaking the Binary is being offered during workshop block 1 on Monday of the National Gathering.

Slats Toole (they/them/theirs) is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Their ministry focuses on connecting LGBTQ+ youth in online Christian community & creating resources for churches seeking to welcome people of all gender identities.