Nearly 250 members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), linked through their association with a presbytery with Wisconsin geography, gathered here Sunday and Monday, May 3–4, to discover and learn more about their connections and to talk about their mission and ministry together in the future.
The gathering had come to be known as the “4PM Gathering”—or four presbytery meeting—in recognition of the four presbyteries that cover Wisconsin: John Knox, Milwaukee, Northern Waters, and Winnebago.
The gathering grew out of discussions among the four presbyteries, which also encompass portions of Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, as they have looked for ways to work together.
“This event has opened our eyes to the thirst that is present in our presbyteries for fellowship,” says Craig Howard, executive director of strategic partnerships for the Presbytery of Milwaukee. “This is great. I could sense the fellowship when I came in the door to the registration table. I knew then we really hit on something.”
Coming together at the Kalahari Resort and Convention Center here, the group heard keynote speaker Ken McFayden, dean of the Leadership Institute and professor of ministry and leadership development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, call on them to be resilient in a time of change in the church.
“Do you think our best days are in the past or in the future?” McFayden asked. “Do you think God’s best days are in the past or in the future?”
He said, “We don’t have to be resilient when we don’t need to be,” pointing out that resiliency wasn’t necessary when the church was strong, confident, and able to rise above any challenge.
Resilience, he said, becomes necessary “especially during difficult times” when the church’s strengths and resources are overcome by declining resources and loss—the loss of deeply held traditions, structural supports including volunteers, status in the community, stability, confidence, and energy, vitality, and passion for ministry.
McFayden believes God’s best days are ahead, but it’s necessary, he said, for the church to be resilient and open to change.
A well-known speaker and workshop leader on the topics of leadership and change, McFayden said the combined presbytery gathering indicated the “possibility for resilience within our denomination.”
The staff leadership of the Wisconsin presbyteries discovered years ago that resilience is not easy—at least when conversations involve staffing and structure. In a workshop titled “What Lies Ahead,” one of several workshops at the gathering, a document indicated that initial conversations among presbyteries regarding the “future of Wisconsin presbyteries” may have begun 10 years ago.
Nearly two years ago, those discussions led to the creation of two groups, one assigned the task of developing a plan for possible “fusion of the presbyteries” and a second asked to plan a gathering of the four presbyteries in 2015.
Discussions of fusion or merger fell apart. The second group proved to be successful.
Milwaukee’s Howard summed it up: “Relationships trump structure.” Chaz Ruark, executive presbyter of John Knox Presbytery, said, “It became obvious that we didn’t want to talk about merger, but we can talk about what we can do well together.”
And if relationships are a vital first step in working together, the event holds substantial promise. Sarah Moore-Nokes, general presbyter of Winnebago Presbytery and part of the planning team for the event, said, “Because this was our first event, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but we were overwhelmed by the outstanding participation and thrilled that so many partners in ministry joined us as well.”
Other members of the event planning team were Rob Ater, a member of Milwaukee Presbytery’s council and past presbytery moderator, and Alyson Janke, stated clerk of John Knox Presbytery.
Event planning took place over the course of a year, Moore-Nokes said, “and included many, many conference calls.” While a number of individuals participated in various pieces of the prep work, Moore-Nokes said, “the planning team of three . . . oversaw both the big-picture planning and the nitty-gritty details.”
Three presbyteries—John Knox, Milwaukee and Winnebago—conducted independent presbytery meetings at the event, but members came together as a whole for meals and to worship and hear McFayden.
While the gathering was commonly called 4PM, the Presbytery of Northern Waters, which spans a wide area stretching from northwestern Minnesota through central Wisconsin, participated in discussions with the presbyteries but in the end decided not to participate.
Ruark and Howard led the “What Lies Ahead” workshop on the final afternoon of the gathering. When it comes to next steps, Howard said, “This is a very rocky process . . . There has to be a sense of desperation to work together, but we don’t want to do this out of desperation . . . We are looking for a better way to do presbytery.”
Ruark said, “Change is scary. It’s moving into something we don’t know, but change is going to come whether we move into it gracefully or not.”
It’s about being resilient, about being able to move forward into something new. Perhaps fellowship is the necessary first step.
Duane Sweep is the associate for communications of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a contributor to Presbyterian News Service.