The Moderators Conference
Tom Willadsen

Driving to the Milwaukee airport on a sunny day in November, I am the happiest I have been for a while. Maybe it’s the strong coffee and biscuits and gravy I had for breakfast. But there’s probably more to it than that. I love November, a slow-down, cool-down month, which includes my favorite holiday. I am also enjoying one of the perks of serving in the church, a four-day excursion to Louisville to be trained as the moderator of my presbytery. This honor fell to me on fairly short notice; the person whom we elected a year ago is unable to serve. They needed a male clergy person to fill the role, following a female lay person, and I am both male and clergy. As an extreme extrovert I love going to conferences like this where I know I’ll meet interesting people from across the nation. The presbytery is even popping for someone to fill my pulpit this Sunday.

We gather the first morning at the denominational headquarters in downtown Louisville. I think of it as “The Vatican,” though we’re a little under their quota for funny hats. We begin with worship. We use the same heavy blue hymnal that my congregation uses, though this book’s cover is much more worn that those at my church. Here it’s probably used four or five times a week. The worship space overlooks the Ohio River. I watch cars crossing the bridge to Indiana and back. Where are all those people going?

As worship begins, the candles are unlit. The worship leader invites “anyone here with the spiritual gift that requires regularly lighting things on fire” to come forward. Someone emerges from the congregation—either a smoker or an arsonist. “Here comes the ministration of light!” the worship leader exults.

I introduce myself to the man on my right. He’s from Ohio and owns a quarry. I point out that we’re in the same business. He looks puzzled. “Look, you’re Mr. Sandman, and I put 120 people to sleep every Sunday.” Occasionally, I make a similar quip about anesthesiologists. My favorite one is when bartenders point out that we both deal with Spirits.

For some reason there are lots of references from the psalms about King David. They all remind me of my six-year-old David back home. My David, aka “Little Beaver”, likes to cuddle with me and read dinosaur books. I love him so much. And loving him is different, though not less intense, 600 miles away.

I look at the schedule for our three days together. There is not a word about how to pound a gavel. I am stunned! Isn’t gavel pounding the essential skill to moderating? Is it better to lead with the wrist or elbow? Will they cover the problems lefthanders face? I am curious because a month ago I attended the ceremony at which a friend was inducted as a federal judge. He could be the guy who puts Barry Bonds away for lying. I will get a year during which I can rule an elder from Wabeno out of order.

It is a great gift to attend worship and not be in charge of it. Sitting in the congregation, I find the prayers of the people to be what I called them in middle school, “mind wander prayers.” Still, the mind wandering is familiar and comforting; I feel like I am at home.

The moderator of General Assembly speaks next. She asks, “How many Presbytery meetings have you gone to and sat there waiting for it to be over and hoping it’d be over fast?”

All of them. Next question.

She later confesses, “God is more willing to lead me than I am to be led.” Her horizons have expanded a lot in her eighteen months as moderator. It’s nice to see that our national moderator is humble, teachable, and differentiated.

One of the best things about being Presbyterian is that leadership is shared between clergy and ordained lay people, whom we call elders. Other traditions regard “ordained lay people” as an oxymoron. It works for us. It’s fascinating to meet foresters, retired educators, traffic engineers, and architects who share leadership in the church. I find these people more interesting generally than ministers. Meeting the pastor of the church closest to Wrigley Field though is a treat.

Discernment is the theme this year. Presbyteries are being equipped to use discernment as they make difficult decisions. We spend hours hearing about discernment, modeling discernment, practicing discernment, learning how discernment and Robert’s Rules of Order can peacefully coexist. This is all about trusting the Spirit and being willing to listen and be changed by other people’s thoughts and feelings. Discernment permits us to be open to a great idea that maybe nobody ever thought of before. I have seen this happen on a local level, when my brilliant idea is improved, tweaked, high-jacked, and amended to the point that it’s not my idea at all, but the outcome is better than I imagined in my fantasy world. It can be a tad slow, however.

Each table of six is given a scenario in which they are asked to use discernment. Our scenario involves two churches. One is a small, eighty-five member, formerly country church to which suburbs have extended. New residents find the building uninviting. The church is not growing though its immediate neighborhood is. The second church, about five miles away, split a few years ago in a bitter dispute. The clergy couple currently serving there is retiring in a few months. Membership is about 120. Our task, as a committee of presbytery, is to use discernment to see whether these churches can cooperate.

We sit in silence for about three seconds. “OK,” I propose, “Presbytery hires an arsonist, [Perhaps the guy who lit the candles at opening worship is available.] torches the open country church, sells the land to a developer and the other church welcomes these suddenly displaced worshippers. The two congregations bond through the trauma, and are large enough to support a solo pastor. Problem solved.” While I technically had not used a single discernment technique, per se, my group realized the brilliance of my idea.

Then we plodded through the exercise, which required that we ourselves discern a process—perhaps involving discernment—for these two congregations that could lead to a process through which, after some more time for the Spirit to lead us in discovering God’s will, could involve the two congregations sharing some aspects of ministry together. Though, as a committee of Presbytery, we would be very careful to only appear to be suggesting certain avenues, or, better yet, recognizing them when they emerge among the congregations’ leaders, that could be mutually explored. It all had a gauzy, early-1970s macramé kind of feel to me. I felt like I was channeling Karen Carpenter.

And the food was pretty good.

As the conference wound down, just before the closing worship service, the moderator stopped at my table. Being this close I felt that I had to introduce myself. “I’m Tom Willadsen, from Winnebago Presbytery, the finest presbytery in this sovereign republic.”

“Of course you are!” she responded as only a Southern woman can. She was completely insincere and utterly charming.

“Winnebago is in northeast Wisconsin.”

“You know, I haven’t visited Wisconsin in my time as moderator. But a Presbytery in Minnesota gave me a bag of fortune cookies with Ole and Lena jokes in them. My husband and I had one each night at supper. They were really funny.”

I know three Ole and Lena jokes. I told the shortest one, slipping into my Minnesota accent, then. “So Lena’s not hearin’ so good, then. So Ole takes her to the doctor. Doctor looks in her ear and says, ‘Lena, here’s yer problem, you got a suppository in yer ear!’ Lena looks at Ole and says, ‘Ya, well that explains where the hearing aid went, then!’”

Thirty seconds later the Reverend Joan Gray was called forward to preside at closing worship.

I would have loved to see how she made the transition from Ole and Lena to Eucharist, but I had a plane to catch, then.


The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


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