As Linda Valentine gently placed a small, wooden cross around her neck — a memento from Ghost Ranch Education & Retreat Center — she smiled as she reflected upon her nine-year tenure as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Although tears would later follow at a July 8 worship service in the chapel of the Presbyterian Center — at which Valentine was wished Godspeed and farewell by more than 100 of her ministry colleagues — her focus this day was on the sheer joy of her service.
An attorney and chief executive with more than 35 years of experience in corporate and not-for-profit organizations, Valentine — who announced her resignation on June 16 — is a ruling elder and a former member of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, where she served briefly as interim staff coordinator. Valentine, who celebrated her 65th birthday in March, is currently a member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, having also served as an active elder there.
“Although I have always loved the world of ideas, a highlight of my nine years of service with the Presbyterian Mission Agency has been the companions on the journey,” Valentine says.
She highlighted the work of a group called New Voices, a gathering of staff colleagues whose role was to provide fresh perspectives for staff and elected members tasked with developing a Mission Work Plan that will guide the agency beyond 2016.
“They bring such new energy that it just gives me hope for the church,” Valentine says. “They are realistic and hopeful and deeply committed to serving Christ through the church. They are not afraid of change, and they speak of endings not as death with finality, but as resurrection with possibility. I only hope that my openness and encouragement has enabled some of them to flourish.”
Valentine says that she sees herself not so much as a direct mentor, but rather as someone who “creates the space and opportunity” for her partners in ministry to thrive.
“They give me energy,” she says. “What I would most like to be known for is calling people out into their God-given roles.”
Valentine says that the role of executive director has been “personally transformative” for her in all that she has seen and experienced.
She especially recalls a sunny cool morning in the western highlands of Guatemala in January, where she encountered the pioneering work of a former Young Adult Volunteer, Jennifer Thalman Kepler, who is now a seminary student under care of National Capital Presbytery.
“Jennifer was one of the founding members of Looking for Lilith — a theater company that writes and performs original plays based on women's personal experiences — before she spent a year in Guatemala as a Young Adult Volunteer in 2003,” says Valentine. “Once the women in the community discovered Jennifer's experience in Looking for Lilith, they asked her to bring her coworkers to Guatemala and to work with them. In 2005, three Looking for Lilith artists traveled to Guatemala, and what has become known as the Faith Stories Project has just grown and grown. The Faith Stories Project has also recently expanded to work with a group of Latina immigrant women over the course of the year.”
Valentine says her faithful, talented, and dedicated colleagues have helped the agency to rethink its role. “I have worked to help answer the questions, ‘What value do we add?’ and ‘What do we do best and most uniquely that the church most needs?’”
She cites the historic Dallas I and Dallas II consultations — at which mission leaders from across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and global and ecumenical partners came together to address global mission engagement — as having set the groundwork for “how we’ve seen our role in the church,” namely a more inclusive entity that doesn’t have to do it all.
“Their shared vision and clear, common purpose also proved that we can find new ways of being the church and of doing faithful and effective mission together,” she says.
Valentine has been consistent in saying that the ministry has never been about her, but rather about telling the stories of the many Christ-like people she has been blessed to meet.
She maintained that tone as she welcomed colleagues to worship in the chapel on July 8.
“We are each called for a time and a season,” she began. “We worship because we know whose we are and who we are and why we are here. I see that there are prayers in today’s service for me. I am humbled by that, but I will be praying for you. This isn’t about me but the call that God has given us to serve individually and collectively in whatever ways we can.”
In a sermon entitled, “God’s Greatest Hits,” Valentine’s colleagues, Terri Bate, Ray Jones, Vince Patton, and Rhashell Hunter offered stories about what God has done during Valentine’s tenure. Chip Hardwick, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism, knitted the reflections together using a congregational response from Psalm 136, “for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
In his reflection, Ray Jones, associate director for formation and evangelism, remembered and named some of the crises that marked the last year of Valentine’s tenure, calling her “a calm presence,” particularly at the April 2015 Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting — much of which was held in closed session — as she sat at tables with staff in their anxiety and worry.
“Just as God is like a mother hen who comforts God’s children — not that I’m calling you a mother hen — God has been at work through you and will continue in this place,” Jones said addressing Valentine to laughter and nodding heads.
On Friday afternoon Valentine said her final good-byes to agency staff.
As she received greetings and gifts from Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, Presbyterian Foundation President and CEO Tom Taylor, current board chair Marilyn Gamm, and previous chair Matt Schramm, Valentine quipped, "This is all overwhelming."
Schramm told many stories about his time with Valentine during his six years of service on the board.
"She demonstrated dedication and humor in the midst of chaos, but it was never about her; it was about Jesus," he said. "Her highest score in performance reviews during my time was in personal integrity. I have great respect for her, as one of the most dedicated, committed disciples I've ever met."
In between moments of great laughter and wiping away tears, Valentine thanked current agency staff and all of the colleagues who served with her over the years.
"Through our efforts, seeds of the gospel have been taken to many parts of the word," she said. "I did not do this alone."
When Gamm presented Valentine with gifts from the board and staff, including a bicycle, Valentine's husband, Chris, who is an avid cyclist, told the story of how she borrowed his bike for part of the ride to the 220th General Assembly (2012) in Pittsburgh and how he never got it back.
"Thank you all for giving me the love of my life back, and my bike," he said, to great laughter.
“The next season of leadership will be important for the agency,” Valentine says. “The needs of the world are great, and we cannot do all that we feel called to do or that many constituents want us to do. And yet we can do much.”