In his acclaimed novella, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean memorably wrote that he is “haunted by waters.”
Similarly haunted by waters, the Rev. Karen Russell, program manager for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Company of New Pastors, was recently inspired to author a paper for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) using the river’s flow as an apt metaphor for how church leaders in today’s rapidly changing ecclesial landscape are called to be especially resilient.
Russell’s reflections on navigating change—a confluence of her work with The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey prior to entering seminary, her experience with the Company of New Pastors, a transition-into-ministry program, and a rereading of Maclean’s graceful prose—have now been published as the third paper in the Theological Conversations series, which was launched earlier this year by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship.
The four sets of materials to be released throughout 2015—each is a study resource with accompanying conversation questions—are designed to invite congregational leaders in the PC(USA) into theological conversation wherever they gather as sessions, presbyteries, or for adult education in congregations.
“When I worked with The Seamen’s Institute, I was based in Paducah, Kentucky, with Ministry on the River, which served crews of inland river towboats and their families,” Russell said. “Since I have lived on or near the Ohio River most of my life, I have spent most of life entranced by the moving and changing river water. I suspect that one of the things that attracted me to the Presbyterian Church after a lifetime as a Southern Baptist was the language of the moving waters of baptism that claim us. For me, moving water is a metaphor for call.”
Russell observes that because each context and congregation—and therefore the associated pastoral relationship—is different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for navigating change. She hopes that her paper will initiate conversations across the denomination about how the relationship between pastor and congregation may be an aid to that navigation.
“In ‘The River’s Flow,’ Karen Russell puts her finger on it: we want transformation for our congregations, but that requires change, and change can be troubling,” says the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for Theology in the office of Theology & Worship. “Drawing on experiences as chaplain to riverboat crews, Karen helps us imagine transformational pastoral leadership as guiding a congregation afloat on the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power. It’s a powerful image, enabling us to see congregations and leadership in new ways. And that’s something to have a conversation about!”