Presbytery Practices: In the Neighborhood

Blog Post by
Rev. Vanessa Hawkins
Designated Associate Presbytery Leader

Last week, all five members of the presbytery staff packed up a day’s worth of work, computers, and snacks and traveled down south to Cape Girardeau for a day “In the Neighborhood.” We have traveled and worked together on several occasions with presbytery gatherings and leadership retreats, but this was different, and I could feel the excitement in the air as I drove down Interstate 55.  “In the Neighborhood” was an intentional team effort to be present to presbytery members in a distinct way – to take our hands and feet into the very geographical regions to which normally only one or two of the staff travels. Normally, our members from these regions travel to us and it was only fair that we travel to them also.

Not only did we take our physical selves into the area, but we took our presbytery practices also.  Over the last year and ½, I have come to recognize and appreciate the spiritual practices embodied by the staff as they carry out their work. Although we do not talk about “presbytery practices,” there are certain perspectives and actions that provide a rhythm to our lives as we work together as people called to serve God, presbytery members, our communities, and each other.

Using those practices, we spent Wednesday evening meeting with teaching and ruling elders and commissioned pastors who had particular situations that needed to be discussed. Thursday we rotated between working on office tasks and greeting visitors. We also called others serving in pastoral leadership roles to check-in with them and offered to pray for them as prompted by the Spirit. Since the next presbytery gathering is at First Cape Girardeau, Leigh and Joy toured the church site with the pastor to discuss the gathering checklist and discuss ways to ensure that the gathering goes as smoothly as possible. Our time there was a joy. Taking the office out into the presbytery was a good idea and if we continue to be guided by the same presbytery practices that we embody in the office in Creve Coeur, I believe we will continue the good work of deepening our connectional ties and strengthening our cords of friendship in ways that will move us closer to the ideal of the Beloved Kindom that God has called us to embody.

Here are the Rules of Life which govern our steps and actions as Giddings-Lovejoy staff:

  • Remembering that we are the Body of Christ called to be a light to the world in tangible and practical ways.
  • Paying attention when others contact us with particular needs, concerns, and questions and responding in an appropriate and caring manner.
  • Praying for others as we learn of their concerns, conflicts, and grief.
  • Listening and learning from others who take the time to share with us and inform our work as staff and colleagues and being appreciative of their wisdom.
  • Breaking bread together as a community of friends and colleagues, thus taking the time to get to know each other beyond the work of the presbytery.
  •  Laughing with and loving all of God’s creation.
  •  Going where God sends us with the right spirit and with an open heart while accepting that things won’t go always as planned, but the experience will give us guidance for next steps.

Rev. Vanessa Hawkins


Space for the Spirit

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

At the end of April, I will be in Detroit Michigan for two days as a member of the denomination’s General Assembly Nominations Committee. I am going to stretch my time and stay the weekend with my brother, so that I can preach at his Pentecostal church. We’ve decided to try a tag team sermon! I’m going to begin the sermon with the exegesis work, and then he is going to take it into the stratosphere with his Pentecostal emotionalism! We’ve never done this before, but we think the Spirit will be working with us and with God’s people on that day.

One of the things I enjoy about my brother’s church is the liturgy. There is an order to the service, but there is space between the liturgical pieces. I believe it is in these spaces that the Spirit moves. It is the pause after the sermon- a pause that allows for time of reflection. It is the moments after the song which gives people time to process what they have just experienced. These spaces are a testament to our limitations and God’s possibility.

In his book, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle references John Wimmer of the Lilly Endowment in using the phrase, “Functional Atheism.” He writes, The functional atheist is the one who speaks about God as the active agent of salvation in the life of individuals and in producing a wholeness in the world but who then assumes that nothing is going to change unless and until he or she puts his or her hand (and resources) to it.”

This Lenten season I’m realizing the ways in which I am experiencing the shadow of functional atheism in my life and work. For example, I believe in strategic planning. The presbytery has goals with observable metrics. But when we believe our goals can only happen if we put our hands and resources to them, we need to be careful. When I find myself living a life that doesn’t allow space for the Spirit to work, then I may be living as a functional atheist.

We plan and we pray. We act and we believe.

This Lenten season I also find myself facing the unavoidable question of “Who is God to me now?” And “Where is God moving in my life and in this presbytery?” I am challenged to make space for the Spirit to move and lead us into our future. Gil puts it best, “The hubris of organizational leaders who fall to the trap of functional atheism, assuming that the future is to be shaped by their own hands rather than God’s, will humble even the most skilled. A significant portion of the substantive work of quietly courageous leaders is to provide for the space and learning found in the mystery of the hand of God that will not only form the world differently in the future but will also surprise us in the process.” Amen and Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

In the Neighborhood

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

Vanessa has been preaching to the presbytery office for some time now that as a presbytery, we are living in resurrection, and we get to decide what that will look like. One of the consistent concerns I and the staff received is that the presbytery doesn’t care about “us.” Us could mean those in congregations further away from the office or at a distance from St. Louis; us could mean congregations with very small attendance and membership; us could mean those who are theologically more conservative.

As a result of these concerns, I and the staff have attempted various ways of connecting with and communicating with all of our congregations. We have visited more congregations. We have made ourselves available for pulpit supply, session meetings, congregational meetings, and retreats. Now, we are going to try another idea called In the Neighborhood. The entire staff will go down to Cape Girardeau and camp out at the Drury Inn right off I-55. We are inviting churches in the southern region to come by and see us. You are welcome to bring questions regarding the Stated Clerk, pastor transitions, communications, congregation development, or administration questions. It’s okay if you just want to say “hi” and meet the staff. We will be there to meet with you because we care and because you matter.

My hope is that our office becomes a model of ministry that is risk-taking and transformational. The presbytery office is evolving. We are adapting to our new reality of size, geographic location, and theological perspectives that comprise Giddings-Lovejoy. Adaptive change means tackling questions we do not know the answers to, and problems we cannot solve. What we do know is that we need to be different. If we are ever going to be different, we have to try different things. We don’t believe that everything we try will work. But we know we will learn from each experience and experiment. And that is the way it should be.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Great Man Theory

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

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments on African American children that would become known as “the doll tests.” Each child was given a set of four dolls which were identical except for their color. The children were then asked which doll they preferred. Most children preferred the white doll as opposed to a black doll. The children also attributed positive characteristics to the white doll. This demonstration of low self-esteem was strongly influenced by segregation. The supreme court case of Brown vs. the Board of Education used the doll test study as one of its reasons to strike down segregation and “separate but equal” statutes across the country.

In the book Leadership, General Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone write about the influence of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle on the image of leadership. Carlyle created the Great Man theory. According to Carlyle “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The authors of Leadership believe Carlyle’s erroneous notion of leadership being Male (and usually white) is with us today. They quote the New York Times in saying, “There are more CEOs named John than there are women in the top 1500 companies.” Then they write, “When people are asked to draw an effective leader, their sketch typically reflect male features, even when a woman is holding the pencil.”

When I was in seminary, I had a serious problem at my Pentecostal church, and I needed pastoral care. Rev. Deborah Block was teaching one of my classes and I asked her for an appointment. After sharing my problem, she provided excellent guidance. Afterward I said, “I can’t believe God sent me to a woman pastor for counseling, but now I see why.” I too was prejudiced against women in leadership. The “Great Man as Pastor” was placed into me from a young age. But my experience from that session with Deborah opened my eyes to my ignorance and how I’d been resisting the moving of the Holy Spirit.

The Gender Equality Task Force is doing excellent work to help us understand the unequal position of women and men in pastoral leadership in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. They have come to the realization that congregations must discard the Great Man theory. The gift of women in leadership (and gifted women in leadership) is available to all congregations, no matter the size or geographic location. The future of the church is a future of diversity. Male and female pastoral leadership is required to take us into God’s vision for the church, and Giddings-Lovejoy.

Rev. Craig M. Howard



Life Realignment

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

The other day while driving to the office, as I turned onto Olive off of 270, I felt the crash of my tire hitting a pot hole. It happened so fast. First the front tire and then the back. I fumed at the thought of a bent tire rim or my wheels getting out of alignment. Fortunately, neither of those happened. I only lost the cap off my front rim.

As we go through the year, we hit lots of pot holes in our lives. The cumulative spiritual damage is expressed in our lack of patience with one another and dimming hope for a positive outcome in our lives and our church. Lent is the time of realignment. Through 40 days of prayer and spiritual disciplines, we are able to commune with God and reset our faith walk again.

Each Lent I read a book a week as part of my discipline. My topics are a mix of scripture, leadership, creativity, and race in America. Each year I approach my reading with excitement and anticipation. I wonder what I will learn, how I will apply it, and most of all, “What is God saying to me at this point in my life journey?”

I am sharing my titles in case you want to read along with me. I find my books throughout the year from websites, footnotes of other readings, various book lists, and recommendations from friends.

As we journey through Lent this year, may we be driven into the mission God has for us in the coming Christian year.

Figuring– Maria Popova. Maria writes the blog, Brain Pickings. She describes her book this way: “It explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries.”

Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans– Randall Maurice Jelks. Randall is a brilliant African American Presbyterian who teaches history at Kansas University. “This book offers a fascinating look into the religious lives of four individuals, and Jelks also weaves his own religious narrative in and out of the stories he tells.”

Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World– Gil Rendle. I’ve walked with Gil through the writing of this book. We meet twice a year with three other mid-council leaders. “Gil Rendle offers practical guidance to leaders—both lay and ordained—on leading churches today.”

Leaders: Myth and Reality– Stanley McChrystal. I was inspired by General McChrystal’s previous book, Team of Teams. In this book he “profiles thirteen of history’s great leaders, including Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, and Robert E. Lee, to show that leadership is not what you think it is—and never was.”

Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship– Walter Brueggemann. My spiritual director recommended this book for me, so I’m reading it!

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America– Richard Rothstein. This book is a deep analysis of how the federal government, through redlining, created the housing segregation we are still living with today.

Rev. Craig Howard






Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free

Blog Post by
Rev. Vanessa Hawkins
Designated Associate Presbytery Leader

We have a long fight and this fight is not mine alone. But you are not free whether you white or whether you black, until I am free.  Because no man is an island to himself…And I’m not just fighting for myself and for the black race, but I’m fighting for the white; I’m fighting for the Indians; I’m fighting for the Mexicans; I’m fighting for the Chinese; I’m fighting for anybody because as long as they are human beings, they need freedom.[1]

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born into poverty to share croppers. Her father was a Baptist preacher. The youngest of 20 children, she knew firsthand the cruelty of poverty. She left school in the sixth grade in order to pick cotton on a Mississippi plantation. For over 18 years, she worked as a sharecropper and timekeeper on the Marlow plantation. In 1962, After attending a meeting in Ruleville, Mississippi, Hamer decided to register to vote. It took her months to pass the literacy test and become a registered voter. Although her education was shorted due to sharecropping; although she was shot at and beaten half to death for registering to vote, and although she was unable to have children due to an unauthorized hysterectomy—Hamer’s resilience was formidable. In 1962, she became a SNCC organizer in Sunflower County, Mississippi. In 1964, she became the vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as they attempted to gain seats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention ( Hamer’s social activist legacy continued as she later established a cooperative, collaborated on the building of a low-income daycare center, and the construction of two hundred units of low-income housing for her Mississippi community. Hamer is the essence of what we celebrate during Black History Month.

On July 13, 2003, The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy voted to adopt and implement Strategic Directions, one of which is “Dismantling Racism and White Privilege.”  As staff to our current Dismantling Racism and Privilege Action Team (DRAP), I can say that the work of addressing systemic racism continues. DRAP continues to grow and the team members are full of enthusiasm. This year, they are continuing to broaden the work of dismantling racism. This year, they are providing a scholarship to Gary Naylor to attend the White Privilege Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa ( DRAP continues to learn ways to articulate the positive value of a racially inclusive space and community. Just yesterday, they participated in a webinar with Kikanza Nuri-Robins to explore how to be more culturally proficient in our efforts to shift the culture of the presbytery and within our congregations   (

Join us if you are interested in developing a deeper understanding of racism and in helping us to uproot this systemic problem embedded in our culture and within individuals. DRAP meets the fourth Monday of each month at Ladue Chapel at 1:00 p.m. Remember: “Racism is fundamentally a spiritual problem because it denies our true identity as children of God. In Jesus Christ, God frees us to love and teaches us how to live as a family.[2] If you want to learn more about what’s DRAP is doing, please contact the moderator, John Harrison, at

Rev. Vanessa Hawkins


[1] “The Only Thing We Can Do is Work Together,” in The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer. This speech was delivered by Mrs. Hamer at a Chapter Meeting of the National Council of Negro Women in Mississippi in 1967.  See


[2] Facing Racism:  A Vision of the Beloved Community.  Approved by the 211th General Assembly (1999) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

In Honor of Black History Month

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

In his book, At Caanan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968, Taylor Branch tells the story about Rev. Lorenzo Harrison. Harrison was preaching at a church in Lowndes County Alabama, when the sound of pick-up trucks came through the open windows. The trucks were carrying Klansmen who were carrying loaded shotguns and rifles as they pulled up to the church on a bright Sunday morning. Inside, the 200 worshipers began to worry and gasp. As Harrison braced the pulpit, he switched from preaching the gospel to exclaiming calm to the parishioners. He said, “They have brought the cup to the Lord’s doorstep.” Weeks ago, Harrison had mentioned voting in one of his sermons. None of the 15,000 African Americans who made up 80% of the county were ever allowed a single vote. Word had gotten out about what Harrison said, and this was enough to bring the Klan to the church.

The emboldened Klan began shouting that they would “get the out-of-county nigger preacher before sundown,” whether the congregation surrendered him or not. The choir sang. Parishioners prayed, gasped, and moaned. They were surrounded and had no way out. They prayed for strength not to give up their pastor to this evil group of men even if the Klan burned the whole congregation alive. Suddenly and for some unknown reason the trucks began to leave. Eventually, the deacons sent out a scout to see if there were any ambushes or threats further down the road. When the all clear was signaled, the parishioners were allowed to leave with many of them walking since so few had cars.

This story takes place in 1965. As a Presbyterian, the roots of my faith pass through John Calvin. As an African American, my spirit is bolstered by the courageous stories of women and men who stood firm and faithful in the midst of crises during the Civil Rights movement. I am not lifting this particular story up to make anyone feel guilty or responsible for the ugliness of our past. However, we must recognize the tendrils of evil that create daily reminders of our incomplete work against racism.

The courage of Rev. Harrison benefits all who enter the pulpit and preach the Word of God. No matter what race or ethnicity, the same gospel that provided the necessary fortitude for Harrison to march and stand, is available to us. We stand on the shoulders of those who have taken a stand in the past. We march in cadence with those who have marched toward freedom for all.

May the same God who enabled the prophets to stand up against kings, Jesus to stand before Pilate, and the disciples to stand before Herod, give us the wherewithal to stand against the powers of injustice in our world today.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Making the Shift

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

I am still bubbling with excitement from our presbytery gathering! The Holy Spirit was present in every element of worship, including the preaching, installation, offering (we received over $1500!), and communion. The business session was efficient and uplifting. The workshops were full of conversation and sharing ideas. The gathering was a reminder of what happens when God’s people come together in unity. It was a reminder that we can do amazing things together as the body of Christ.

I’m leading a retreat this weekend at Cape Girardeau. One of the books I’m using is Holy Clarity by Sarah B. Drummond. It is a book about planning and evaluating ministry. Drummond also talks about the shift that occurred when our culture moved from modernity to postmodernity. The problem is that many of our churches, leaders, and church systems were designed to respond to the modern age and the problems of the modern age. We are now in the postmodern age, and fixes from the modern age often fall short. The following are differences that Drummond lifts up between the modern era and postmodern era style of organization.

 Modern Era

  • Governed by standing committees that move methodically and slowly, even when significant issues arise.
  • Budgets are based on what the church has done in the past, not on what it might do in the future.
  • Leadership structure is hierarchical.
  • Interpret conflict as a problem to be fixed.
  • Popular culture is interpreted as an enemy to their cause.
  • Afraid to engage in a conversation that challenges the necessity of the institutional church.

Postmodern Era

  • Committee structure are more nimble. For example, teams of leaders are assembled to address specific issues.
  • Budgets are based on the church’s future mission and calling.
  • Leadership structure is a flat hierarchy, in which different leaders have the last word depending upon the issue at hand, and the pastor plays a coordinating and collaborative role with those leaders, bringing a spiritual perspective on the work of the church. Thus, the last word comes not from a committee or a leader, but from God as interpreted by the community under the leadership of the pastor.
  • They understand conflict to be a teacher and an illuminator of the path God has laid before them, and they have decision-making structures that help the church move forward- rather than freezing- when conflict arises.
  • They understand themselves to be part of the culture, providing an alternative worldview (a faith perspective) that both participates in and critiques the wider society.

I find these lists fascinating! We are all struggling with the modernity to postmodernity shift. We are challenged to accept that we are living in a postmodern world, and we may be woefully out of step. Perhaps this list can become a conversation for your session and for our presbytery vision team. This may be the start of a shift we all need to make, as we continue to become the church of the 21st century.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Holy Listening

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

Recently, I worshiped at a very small church in our presbytery. During worship, I could see many ways of how connecting to the presbytery would help this congregation. The connection had been severed a while ago because of bad experiences at presbytery gatherings as well as with presbytery visits. This congregation figured they were better off going it alone than being connected with a presbytery that didn’t listen to them, respect them and sometimes disrespected one another.

On Thursday I am being installed as your Presbytery Leader. In this role, I take full responsibility for the life of the presbytery both past and present. I am determined to continue the work of healing our fragmentation and making the presbytery one whole and connected body. We are well on our way! The presbytery staff made over 140 congregational visits in 2018; congregation participation in presbytery gatherings increased; leadership in our new organizational structure is fully populated; teams and sub-teams are doing the mission and ministry they are called to do.

On Thursday we will experience another step in our progress. During the education session, we will be together in small groups, and we will talk to one another. Real connection occurs when we see one another face to face, when we can see one another into existence. And then we talk. We listen. We observe. We find common ground.

In her book, The Power of Listening, Lynne M. Baab writes about holy listening. Quoting Craig Satterlee, she writes, “Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves.”

We have great presenters prepared to share and moderate our conversations. There are already over 200 people registered, and 66 have never been to a Presbytery Gathering before! What an opportunity to listen to one another! What a chance to discern God’s wisdom and will for our congregations! These are the conversations that will mend together relationships and continue to bring us together in love and support of one another in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy.

Rev. Craig M. Howard



Transparent Leadership

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

So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. I Thessalonians 2:8

At the upcoming presbytery gathering on February 7th at Southminster, I will be installed as Presbytery Leader of Giddings-Lovejoy. I have served as your transitional presbytery leader and will now become permanent. The option to move from interim to permanent was part of my original contract. I would like to share with you some personal thoughts of what this new relationship means to me.

Being installed is a very personal and emotional event. It means entering into a covenant relationship with the presbytery. I have a strong internal sense of call to institutional ministry. It is the same call I experienced while serving at McCormick Seminary and the Presbytery of Milwaukee. At these places I was able to serve a broader theological, racial and geographic area than most local congregations encompass. I have also served as pastor of Presbyterian congregations as well. Serving in a congregation allows me to express love and care for members as I live with them through the challenges of life. It is the same love and care I feel for each congregation in Giddings-Lovejoy, without exception. I rejoice in the good news I hear when a congregation reaches a goal or has a wonderful accomplishment. My heart breaks when a congregation is in conflict, suffers a tragedy, or has to end its ministry.

I have found relationships to be the key. Being installed means being interconnected with the members of Giddings-Lovejoy and the communities they serve. It is about building, nurturing, and strengthening relationships.

I am blessed to have family and friends that I love deeply. Unfortunately, most of them live a good distance away from me. We stay in touch through calls, texts and email. But even then, sometimes I get busy and communication runs dry. I have found relationships take work, and communication runs both ways. I have as much responsibility to reach out as they have to contact me.

Interconnection is also a two-way street. As your installed Presbytery Leader, I am called to reach out and build connections. Simultaneously, the members of Giddings-Lovejoy must be willing to reach out and connect by communicating with me, volunteering and participating in presbytery events.

In this way I can get to know you. I can come to understand your values, your joys and your worries. Likewise, I am committed to being transparent and opening myself to you. This is not easy, and I am not perfect at it. As an African American male, being hidden and emotionally elusive is a survival instinct. My sense of call, vocation, covenant, and baptism call me in a different direction than my upbringing. I am called to love and be transparent. Love without transparency is a noisy gong and clanging cymbal.

Thank you for saying yes to God’s call and allowing me to serve as your Presbytery Leader.

Rev. Craig M. Howard