Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Is Walter Heath and What's an Associate Presbyter?

On February 25, 1965, Walter R. Heath passed away after a life of 80 years.  Along with a fondness for baseball and always looking his Sunday best, Mr. Heath loved Jesus and served as a devoted member and ruling elder at Faith Presbyterian Church just outside of Baltimore, MD.

That's all I know about Walter R. Heath.

Aside from one more detail, Walter R. Heath was my maternal great-great grandfather.

That's right, Presbyterianism is in my blood.  Despite years of leaving out the tradition whenever I described my pre-presby background and thanks to recently unearthed family history by grandmother, I can now proudly claim the Reformed Faith as part of my heritage.

And on February 22, 2015, almost exactly 50 years after Walter Heath's passing, his great-great grandson will bring Presbyterian ordination back into the family.   I can't wait to grab my robe, a stole, and head down to the church off Loch Raven Boulevard so I can snap a quick picture en memoriam.

When I was fifteen and sensed a call to ministry, my family and I were members of a Lutheran congregation in the suburbs of Baltimore. I vividly remember one on the vicars in our ELCA community who affirmed my call and challenged me never to limit the possibilities God would make available and the doors God would open as I responded to the call.

She was spot on.  Yet, I am quite confident neither of us would have thought my call to serve as an ordained pastor and teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would have been one such door God would open.  I certainly doubt my position as an Associate Presbyter in the Presbytery of Philadelphia would have been what she or I would have forecasted for my vocational future.

But God is a God of mystery and surprise.

Since I have responded to that call, whenever I share about my new ministry and title as Associate Presbyter, I am met with a bit of a blank stare of confusion.  Whether family member or friend, person cutting my hair or neighbor next door, my vocation is ambiguous at best to those less than familiar with Presby speak.

As a friend posted on my Facebook wall:

If you look into the PCUSA Book of Order, a presbyter can be described in this way:
"This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders...Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ" (F-3.0202, 3.0204). 
That may not always help the novice Presby, so here's more:
"Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). They may serve in a variety of ministries, as authorized by the presbytery. When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service. When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation. When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life. When they serve as presbyters, they shall participate in the responsibilities of governance, seeking always to discern the mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate, and decision" (G-2.0501). 
This coming Sunday, I will be ordained as a teaching elder/pastor/minister of word and sacrament to serve the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a presbyter in their regional office.  The ministry, which I will continually grow into in the days and years ahead, takes on a three-fold form (how very Barthian of me):

1. Pastor Alongside Pastors: networking and leading alongside the faithful ruling and teaching elders of the Presbytery, which incorporates nearly 130 churches and has a rich 300-year history (298 to be exact).  Actually, American Presbyterianism began in Philadelphia and provides more than enough history and ministry witness for me to explore. 

2. Storylearner and Storyteller: narrating the many attestations to what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through the faithful of Philly. This will take on various forms and expressions, utilizing all sorts of platforms and mediums to tell the story of the Body of Christ in and around the city. Look out blogosphere, Twitter, and dare I say podcast world.*

3. Steward of Resources: navigating ways to support and sustain already existing and fresh expressions of the church in communities connected to the Presbytery. In just a few weeks on the job, it is already evident that prophetic imaginations and creative spirits are abundant throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  As an Associate Presbyter, I am privileged to walk alongside those who are on the ground doing good work and imagine methods and strategies to equip the saints for their incarnational and diverse ministry. 

I come into my vocational call and pastoral ministry with arms and ears and eyes wide open. I have much to learn and many to meet.  The bulk of the next few months will be spent as a humble servant whose heart and mind will take on the form of a sponge, absorbing as much as I can from the many partners and collaborates in ministry. 

Yet one thing I can now cling to as added affirmation and validation whenever I face challenges sure to come, I can do this. Presbyterianism is in my blood.  

*If interested, here is the first story I wrote about great ministry at one of our churches in the city: