Two long-time Synod of the Lakes and Prairies leaders retire

Barber and Wilkinson complete a combined 53 years of service

February 17, 2016

Diana Barber and J. Jay Wilkinson.

Diana Barber and J. Jay Wilkinson. —Photo provided


Beginning the next act of their lives, two retiring employees took time to reflect on their journey with the Synod of the Lakes and Prairies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Diana Barber retired in January as associate executive for leadership development, and J. Jay Wilkinson will leave at the end of March after helping train the individual filling the synod’s new position of director of financial services.

In practical terms, Barber said, “if it has to do with people, it’s my responsibility.” She was the staffer behind the popular Synod School that runs for a week every summer at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, and worked closely on Christian education and relations with the presbyteries.

Nationally, she said, most programs like Synod School have fallen by the wayside, but “for some reason, Presbyterians in the upper Midwest like to get together.” It’s now the synod’s only big event, drawing about 600 people, including nearly 200 children and youth, to a week of worship, education and fun.

“There are things about work I won’t miss,” from her 31 years with the synod, Barber said, “but I will miss the people. Seeing kids have fun, helping adults become more effective leaders—that’s what encourages me.”

Over the years, as staff and congregations have shrunk, programming has also diminished, but Barber said that the synod now does less “think of something and assume that they want it,” and more helping presbyteries respond to congregational requests.

“It used to be that everyone looked to the next level to lead,” Barber said. “Not now. If the larger church is going to continue, it’ll be because we figured out a new way to focus on congregations.” The silver lining to having fewer resources, she said, is that “we look again at what’s really important, and what makes us church as opposed to an institution.” 

She spent time in several mainline Protestant denominations in her youth, but as an adult “came to understand what it really means to be Presbyterian. There’s no ‘bishop;’ we don’t make decisions by ourselves; our leadership is in the group. There’s something about all that that I resonate with.”

Wilkinson came to the synod in 1994, after growing dissatisfied with his work as vice president of finance for a corrugated box company in Appleton, Wis. He realized he had to do something different, and the transition to the nonprofit world was easier than he expected. “I’d like to think the Holy Spirit had something to do with it, convincing me that a lower salary was something I could deal with,” he said. “I don’t think I ever wished I hadn’t made the move.”

As treasurer, Wilkinson has handled all of the synod’s money matters for 22 years, including being the staff liaison for the committee that makes loans to churches for capital projects. Up to 90 percent of the synod’s $5.5 million loan fund is loaned out at any given time, with priority going to churches that would not qualify for a bank loan. He also provides payroll services for 15 of the synod’s 16 presbyteries, and bookkeeping services for nine.

About 10 years ago, he also took over the position of stated clerk, because, as he remembers it, the synod executive said, “I have it on good authority that you’re not busy between midnight and 6 a.m.” In that role, he serves as corporate secretary, offers advice on the church constitution and manages the judicial process.

Looking back, both retirees are struck by the decline in synod staff and programming, a reflection of the membership losses of the national church. The office in the Twin Cities now has seven people, instead of 17 when Wilkinson came aboard in 1994. “The church will last through my lifetime,” Wilkinson said, “but I’m concerned for the next 100 years.”

The two departures will mean a loss of institutional memory, said synod executive Elona Street-Stewart. Because of the various roles they have played in the national church, “people know them wherever you go. They’re like an index—you go to Jay or Diana to figure out what you need.” At the synod, she said, Wilkinson has consistently reminded others that “resources are given to us for work. Our task is not to hold onto them, but to make sure they’re distributed in a way that follows the mission.”

Barber plans to travel, visit family, and volunteer. “My life has been so immersed in church,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting people I didn’t meet in church.”

Wilkinson and his wife, Kathie, will spend time with their three children and seven grandchildren. As for other activities, “I’m waiting for the Holy Spirit to lead me,” he said. “I don’t plan on sitting in a rocking chair.”

  1. My thanks to Jay Wilkinson for his many years of service with the Presbyterian Church at its various levels. I have touched base with Jay in many ways both during my days on the staff at First Presbyterian So. St. Paul and as a member for a few years at Trinity Presbyterian Woodbury, as well as during my active years with the Twin Cities Presbytery. He has always been both affable & helpful on more occasions than I can count. I am sure his leadership will be missed. Thanks again, Jay and happy retirement!!!

    by Pat Channer

    March 3, 2016

  2. Many thanks for your contributions to the Synod and the larger Church and your friendship. Retirement opens many doors. Enjoy the adventure. Shalom Dick

    by Dick Massaro

    February 20, 2016

  3. Blessings to both. How nice to retire. Thank you for your service.

    by Rev. Ted Anderson

    February 17, 2016

  4. If Diana Barber gave us nothing else besides Synod School, she'd still have been wildly successful. If you ever get the chance, go. It's just about the coolest thing we Presbyterians do. Congratulations and godspeed, my friend.

    by Mike Ferguson

    February 17, 2016

  5. Great people who have done GREAT work for our Synod. I know I will miss them immensely but wish them both God's blessings for their next phase of life.

    by Pamela Prouty

    February 17, 2016

  6. Congratulations, Diana and Jay. I benefited greatly from your able leadership when I pastored churches in Nebraska. Your faithfulness to the cause of Christ and the PCUSA were invaluable. Enjoy your retirements and God bless.

    by Rich Hinkle

    February 17, 2016