Son Light Parish

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader


Last Sunday afternoon, I preached at the joint congregation worship of the three churches in the Son Light Parish. It was an outdoor service on the grounds of Bellevue Presbyterian, in Caledonia, Missouri. Bellevue was the first Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi, organized in 1816. It was an awesome experience preaching in the shadow of this historic building!

These three churches, First Presbyterian Churches of the Leadbelt:  Park Hills, Fredericktown, and Ironton share the same pastor, Mark Wiley. Every Sunday morning, Mark does a “circuit” among the three congregations. He begins with an hour drive from his home in Hillsboro to Ironton for 8:45 worship, then heads to Fredericktown for 10:15 worship, and finishes at Park Hill at 11:30 worship. Mark says that often by the time he arrives at Park Hills, the service has already begun, and he walks into the door directly into the pulpit! He also jokes that by the time he gets to Park Hills, his sermon is really cooking! Mark returns home to Hillsboro about 1:30 each Sunday.

The Son Light Parish is a form of church from the 17th and 18th century. That is when ministers were assigned a geographic area of congregations. The minister would go on horseback from church to church, completing their circuit, preaching and leading the sacraments.

Ten years ago, these three congregations were struggling with their future. They did not have a way forward, so they looked backward for possible solutions. They realized they could not stand on their own, so they found a way to stand together. Through the leadership of Rev. Pam’la Cowan, the three churches came together to share resources. That was the beginning. They would later share events, fellowship, and find encouragement through cooperation.

As I look over the 77 congregations and 2 new worshipping communities of Giddings-Lovejoy, I see several congregations struggling week to week. I worry about their future. But when I see places like Son Light Parish, I feel relief. I realize I don’t have to figure out a plan or come up with a program for the survival of congregations. Congregations have the capacity to figure it out for themselves. There is something about life that craves to be lived. This applies to people and churches.

For some, it may mean merging like Berea and Curby did at our last Presbytery Gathering. Others will yolk like Union and Pacific. Still others will try different arrangements, and they may not work. Trying itself is a sign of life. And some have come to the end of their local ministry and will close like Maryland Heights did.

The presbytery is a living organism. We seek to find a way forward together. Mark and Pam’la are examples of the many innovative, creative, and energetic pastors and leaders with ideas to pave the way into the future.

Rev. Craig M. Howard





Listening and Doing

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

A significant part of my work and call is learning. I attend conferences, workshops, take online courses, belong to an executive cohort group, receive coaching, and read books (lots of books!). We are living in a time of change that requires learning new things and doing different things in order to find our way into the future. It is a time of experimentation and risk.

I am currently reading the book, The Mainstream Protestant Decline, which focuses on the decline of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the 20th century. This decline goes beyond membership. It is a decline in budgets, congregations, pastors, and social and cultural influence. The decline, which began in the 1960s, is defined as the third disestablishment. One of the conclusions the authors reach is that the cause of the decline was more external factors than internal. It was more about the changes in American society and culture, than what was going on inside of the Presbyterian denomination.

Although we are living in the 21st century, we are experiencing the momentum of the 20th century decline. Over 80% of the congregations in the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy are either stagnant or in decline. The same can be said for the PC(USA) and mainline denominations as a whole. Many pastors and sessions look around their congregations each month and just feel stuck.

There are many possible responses to where the church is today. One response is to continue doing what we have been doing. In this way we see ourselves as preserving the tradition. Perhaps if we do the same thing in better ways, things will change. Another response is to try and do things differently. This includes changes in liturgy, music, design of the worship space, and preaching styles. Some change and rotate like a Rubik’s cube, hoping to find the right combination.

I believe the answer is between learning and doing. The challenge of the current and future church must be answered with education and programs to address the issues we’ve discovered.

This year the presbytery has offered four programs to help congregations assess their situation, possibilities, and opportunities for change. Healthy Pastors-Healthy Congregations has had the most response. Ministry Architects begins in the Fall with 5 congregations. We were hoping for 6 – 10 (It’s still not too late to sign up!) We are still building congregations for Partners for Sacred Places. However, Project Regeneration did not attract any congregations.

The presbytery gathering on Thursday will introduce Congregational Vitality as another way to learn and act in transformational ways for 2020. It is a denominational program that offers ways to look at congregations and neighborhoods (inside and outside of the church) that will make the congregation more relevant. I strongly suggest commissioners, teaching elders, and congregational leader take a look at this program.

In addition, the presbytery has made available $100,000 in grants for congregations, pastors, and leaders. These funds can be used to offset costs of programs, and to promote new ideas which leaders and congregations develop.

Take advantage of these learnings and programs. Become a bold church, a leader who takes risks, a congregation that is willing to experiment, as we continue to seek God’s will for the church in the 21st century.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Do It Again

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

I was raised in a cozy brick house on a corner lot in an African American middle-class suburb of Chicago. You know that house where all the kids hang out? That was my house! Although the house wasn’t very large, there was a constant parade of people in and out. My friends, along with those of my brothers and sister were always welcome. Also, my parents hosted small meetings of adults strategizing about schools, gangs, and racial tensions in our area.

The future of the Presbytery and the Presbyterian church will depend upon our connecting to the local communities we inhabit. It is important that the people inside of our building reflect the population in the surrounding neighborhood. The community must feel as though the Presbyterian church is their church, an asset in the community where they can hang out.

This is why we are practicing another Neighborhood Exegesis at the upcoming presbytery gathering. We will have a pre-session that will involve learning and exploring the neighborhoods of Belleville IL. The Neighborhood Exegesis is the same process we did last year in Edwardsville. We will gather at Westminster Presbyterian church at 10 am. Westminster will share some exciting ministries they are doing and provide a preview of the neighborhoods we will be exploring. After their presentations, we will hit the streets! We will be provided maps that have been put together by the planning teams of Westminster and First United. We will explore the diversity of the community called Belleville. Hopefully this will include conversations with people we encounter on the street, in the shops, and coffee houses. The groups will eat at local restaurants. This will provide a chance to debrief the experience before heading back to church. Finally, the Neighborhood Exegesis experience will be part of Kathryn Threadgill’s plenary session.

I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of this learning opportunity. Many of our congregations have completed the neighborhood exegesis since last August. It is an experience that is worth the walking! Registration can be found here.

Rev. Craig M. Howard



Gone in 30 Seconds

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader 

Like most of you, I am still spinning from the weekend shootings in which 22 people were killed and 53 wounded. It has happened again. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando night club. Las Vegas festival. Now El Paso. Dayton. Wave after wave. Shock after shock. The weapons seem to get more powerful and can shoot more rounds at a faster speed. These weapons do not wound but destroy limbs and create gaping holes where life can bleed out. In Dayton the shooter was killed in less than 30 seconds. Yet, he was able to kill 9 and wound 27. The shooter still had over 200 rounds of ammunition on him.

As long as these tragedies are happening someplace else, I can still maintain emotional distance. But it is hard. San Bernardino was the closest to me. Marilyn, my wife, was serving as transitional presbytery leader in an office a few miles from where the killing of 14 people occurred. I still tear up reliving the fear of not knowing if she was okay on that tragic day.

The poet Martin Niemöller wrote the following about the holocaust.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

And what if it comes to our town? Our school? Our Walmart? Our office? Our church?

Pray for our country. Pray for our world. Pray for our communities. Write to your legislators. Stand up for non-violence. Have your church view the film Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence. We have a copy in the Resource Center. Every church should have a plan. Connect with your local police and talk about an on-sight inspection to determine what to do in an active shooter situation. I am not trying to stoke fear. I am not pushing a path of unbelief. I’m simply saying that just as there is a plan for a fire, there should be one for an active shooter. I pray that we all become apostles of peace in our area of the world.

I end with a portion of the Peace Prayer by St. Frances.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Rear-View Analysis for Budgeting

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

As part of the budgeting process, Finance has charged me with sending out a questionnaire this week to many of our 25 teams. The questionnaire is one step that includes face to face meetings, evaluation by the Finance team and Vision Team, and then the final budget is approved at the November presbytery gathering. This article is a way to explain the thinking and rationale behind the questions.  My hope is that congregations will find the process helpful and use a similar method for preparing their budgets.

The budget process is an opportunity for the teams of the presbytery to dream and plan, to be ambitious and realistic. To look forward requires looking backward over the previous year. This rear-view analysis is an opportunity to articulate achievements. The team can ask, “What was accomplished in the past year?” “What was planned and how did the plans come out?” “What frustrations were experienced as the team attempted to achieve its mission?” For example, Social Witness can reflect on the Troubling the Waters event held at John Knox church. They can closely examine the program, asking if they achieved their goal, what went well, and what was a disappointment.

Based upon the rear-view analysis, each team can then talk about what it wants to achieve in 2020. For example, Leadership Development is putting together a Pastoral Care Cohort to respond to pastors in crises, and to build and maintain relationships with pastors. As they look to the upcoming year they may ask, “What would it take to make the cohort operational and connected?” This may mean lunches, travel, and even training. The cost for these items becomes part of their 2020 fiscal budget.

Budgeting for non-profits like presbyteries and congregations, is different than budgeting for business and for-profit organizations. The main focus for non-profits is mission. Each team should constantly have their mission as their apex of activity. One critical question is, “Has this mission been fulfilled? Does it still need to exist?” These are difficult questions. Often the presbytery simply looks at what was spent the previous year and rolls it forward into the next year. Churches do this as well. But if we take the time, effort, and prayer to ask if the budget item should be continued, then we may find areas to trim back.

After doing the rear-view analysis, asking good questions about the mission and connecting current and past activities, a team may find a fresh and new approach to their mission. For example, UKirk may want to expand its mission to another University. Commissioned Pastor Training may see the need for additional classes. This is the time to expand the budget to meet these new mission imperatives.

Finally, the budgeting tool must be flexible for the different teams. It is difficult to apply the same broad brush to every team. Pastoral Transitions and Care Team cannot be evaluated like Interfaith Partners. One is constitutional and governed by the Book of Order, and the other is a presbytery mission.

I look forward to receiving the responses to the questionnaires. Teams should use this as an opportunity to brag about what they’ve achieved and flashing a light on where they want to go in 2020. Teams working together will continue to make Giddings-Lovejoy a presbytery of Dynamic Leaders and Vibrant Congregations

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Road to Reconciliation

Blog Post by
Rev. John Harrisson
Dismantling Racism and Privilege (DRAP) Team Moderator

When asked why God’s people in the United States are still so divided by race in churches, neighborhoods, schools and regions of the country, a lot of people tend to shrug their shoulders and say that’s just the way it is. We can be tempted to believe our history of racial violence and subjugation ended with the Civil Rights movement, and the separation we have today can therefore seem self-selecting, a matter of comfort level or choice. It is easy to forget that the separation we still experience was built by design and enforced by law (The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, lays out this argument particularly well).

This information can feel depressing, but I believe learning more about how racial segregation was built by human hands is, at its root, an exercise in hope. If we still live, move and have our being in divided communities because of what has been built, that means the things that divide us can also be dismantled. Something else can be built in their place. That, in short, is the mission of the Dismantling Racism and Privilege Team. We join Jesus Christ in breaking down the dividing walls (Eph. 2:14) in our presbytery piece by piece, with the hope of building something new in its place.

We can be tempted to believe it is enough to dismantle racist laws. The problem is that while the laws may be gone, the walls they built still remain: in our families; in our churches; in the air we breathe and the media we consume. Our purpose in leading a journey to Montgomery, Alabama this October is to lay a new foundation as a Presbytery, and to see together what God is building.

It has been a breath of fresh air to see all the stakeholders who have pledged to join us on the road to reconciliation. Much more than a simple mission trip, we see this journey as a seed, a new beginning we can bring home with us to take root and grow. It is a seed of interracial community and spiritual formation, a seed of acknowledgement and healing and boldness to approach the throne of grace in our time of need. It is an investment in developing new leadership and stronger networks for a broader project of reconciliation and new growth in the years ahead.

We are closing in on our application deadline of August 1, and so we invite you with urgency and zeal to consider joining us on the bus in October and in the community,  we hope to sustain when we return home.

Details of the journey may be found here.

Rev. John Harrison




Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader


In the book, Who Moved My Cheese, Spencer Johnson tells the story of a group of mice with an abundance of cheese next door. One day, they go to get the cheese, but it’s gone. The book is about their search for a new supply of cheese. The image I remember most from the book is how the mice couldn’t find their running shoes because they’d been complacent so long. The book ends with the mice finding a new supply of cheese, but they keep their sneakers hanging around their necks, just in case they need them again!

Recently, I had an insightful session meeting at Affton Presbyterian Church. This church has spent the past 18 months moving from location to location without a permanent home. Almost two years ago, as their resources dwindled, Affton took the risk of selling their church building and renting space in a middle school. I remember preaching while the church was in the school and being surrounded by small desks and chairs designed for children! They would set up their worship space and then tear it down and put the room back to the way they found it. But they made the best of it. The church then moved from the school to renting space at Calvary Presbyterian Church. The pastor is bi-vocational, using his time wisely for efficient and adaptive ministry.

Going through these changes has created a congregation with character. They shared how they were afraid that they would lose members as they moved like the Israelites in the wilderness from place to place. To their surprise, very few people left. At each step of the way, they shared how they had to make tough decisions and each time God provided, and they stuck together. As a church, they have been through the fire and have come out on the other side. Affton shows a level of grit and is not afraid of what the future may bring.

Affton has had several learnings from this experience. They learned how to communicate with one another; they now take great strides to make sure everyone is aware of decisions that are being made, and that they have the buy-in of the congregation. They also learned that the best decisions are not top down; each committee is empowered to act on the decisions they make without returning to the session table for permission. They emphasized to me that the church is not the building but the people. As long as the people are willing to be together and be the church, they will always have a place to worship.

This is a congregation that wears their sneakers around their necks! They are ready to change when the time comes. I wonder, do you know where your sneakers are?

Rev. Craig M. Howard


 Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

“Tell the truth and shame the devil!” I heard these words from my Mother while growing up in Chicago. The strategy was simple. If you want to avoid someone shaming you, beat them to the story! Once truth is exposed, shame is eliminated. The upcoming bus trip to Montgomery, Alabama is to expose the shame of racism and segregation. It is a shame that is deep in our area of the country. It is a shame that prevents our congregations from thriving as we continue to perpetuate the idea that 11:00 Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.

On October 18 – 21 the Dismantling Racism and Privilege team (DRAP) is sponsoring a bus trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. DRAP hopes to gather people of multiple races and generations in constructive conversation, interaction, and activities during the four-day trip. The event is designed to better understand the bloody trail of racism carried in black bodies throughout the history of the nation. Through various forms of media, the museum presents ways people of color have been “disproportionately marginalized, disadvantaged and mistreated.” The trail of blood from lynching and racial violence goes from the deep South into Missouri and southern Illinois. It is not an easy or pretty story. But it is a truth we must face if we will have a chance to overcome the shame.

The event is named, The Road to Reconciliation. DRAP then asks the question on the flyer, “Are you called?” DRAP recognizes that the first step toward racial healing begins in our hearts. I believe we must come to a point of frustration and dissatisfaction with our homogenous congregations and neighborhoods before we are motivated to change. DRAP is challenging the presbytery to look at the “ugly” beneath the surface as a way to take steps toward becoming the beloved community.

If you are interested in going on the trip here is the link. This is the first trip of its kind, and we are starting small with a bus of 50 people. I pray hearts are open to learning and growing together as a presbytery and as God’s people.

Rev. Craig M. Howard


Fourth of July

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

On Sunday afternoon, I enjoyed a heartfelt and joyful celebration of the ministry of Mark Thomas. Mark is retiring after 14 years as Head of Staff of Ladue Presbyterian Church. Ladue is the largest congregation in the presbytery and leads the presbytery in several areas, including mission giving, membership, and growth. During his remarks, Mark, in his usual style, refused to take credit for the success of the ministry. He said, “I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. I can only hope I’ve done something that others who come after me can stand on the ministry I’ve been a steward of.”

As a nation, the Fourth of July is a reminder that our accomplishments and struggles are a result of those who went before us. The breaking away from Britain, the revolutionary war, the writing of the constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights paved a path for freedom. It is a freedom that didn’t come all at once for all people. It is a freedom that continues to build and develop on the work of those who came before us.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article and mentioned Juneteenth, which is the celebration of African-Americans being freed from slavery. I received an email from pastor Mark Wiley in Son Parish that touched me deeply. He wrote:

“First let me thank you for the blog you wrote this week. Since I was not aware of the chronological events that led to freedom for those held in slavery, the article by Gates was very informative. As an FYI, I was raised on a farm that had been worked by slaves and there was a family cemetery on this land. When I thought my parents were being overbearing, I would go there and sit among the grave stones knowing the irregular stones set with no carvings marked those who had worked in the house honorably. It reminded me I had no idea what overbearing was since the field hands had been buried in unmarked graves on a different hillside.”

Every time I read this, my eyes fill with tears. I appreciate that Mark Wiley is aware of the suffering and sacrifices of slaves. In a way, I have the cemetery in my heart. I often think of my ancestors and the sacrifices they endured so that I can have a chance at freedom and choice for my life’s work. To stand on their shoulders means a life dedicated to expanding freedom for others who are bound because of their race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexuality.

My Presbyterian faith reminds me that all people are broken and sinful. As sinful people, we create and support broken and sinful institutions. We can never expect our broken systems to create God’s perfect kingdom on earth. But on this Fourth of July, perhaps we can take the opportunity to advance issues of justice in our nation. We can do it in the name of those who went before us, upon whose shoulders we now stand.

Rev. Craig M. Howard



Follow Your passion!

Blog Post by
Rev. Vanessa Hawkins
Designated Associate Presbytery Leader

This past Saturday, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Office of Public Witness, posed two question to approximately 70 Giddings-Lovejoy members. What is your passion?  What are your concerns? The Office of Public Witness is the public policy information and advocacy office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Jimmie is the director and also my brother.

The Social Witness Action Team (comprised of social witness team members from across the Synod of Mid-America presbyteries) hosted the Troubling the Waters: For the Healing of the World event. It was a wonderful and relaxing event filled with relevant information, dynamic music, discussions, a nice lunch and fellowship. There were Giddings-Lovejoy members who came from the North and South and East and West in Missouri to learn more about the Office of Public Witness (OPW) and local issues. 

For over 45 minutes, Jimmie gave an overview of the work of his office and reminded us that “people are looking for the presence of the church outside the doors of the church.” He also reminded participants that our Presbyterian forefather John Calvin wrote, “Civil magistery is a calling not only holy and legitimate, but by far the most sacred and honorable in human life… Therefore, we are called to be engaged in the public arena, and ask how God is calling me to act out my faith in the world.” 

What I truly enjoyed about this event was that the Social Witness team provided presenters who embodied a national focus as well as those focusing on local issues. Jimmie discussed national issues (i.e.; sex trafficking, racial injustice, gun violence, and the opioid epidemic, etc.) while the six panelists from local Presbyterian churches and community organizations highlighted their passion and concerns for educational and health equity, community and church relations, elder care, racial justice, payday lending, and the benefits of providing access to community gardens. Each individual presented participants with a wealth of information and resources.

What I loved about this event was that Giddings-Lovejoy folks showed up. The diversity of the participants (age, faith community, race, geography) demonstrated that Presbyterians across this presbytery care deeply about justice. In fact, so deeply that they gave up their Saturday to be a part of this event. Also, people in our communities are passionate not only about engaging social justice issues, but they continue to learn other ways to be a presence of hope and mercy in and for the world. My hope is that this event not only provided new information, but also opened the doors to new friendships and partnerships.

Below are a few links to some of the resources that were mentioned.


Rev. Vanessa Hawkins


  1. Social Witness Office (PCUSA):
  2. Office of Public Witness:
  3. Booklet: Holy Discontent:  Grassroots Advocacy and Organizing in the PC(USA):