“Abracadabra!” rang out across the sanctuary where Presbytery of the James was conducting its 113th meeting on February 18.
“The origin of the word abracadabra in Hebrew is ‘I will create as I speak,’” explained Rev. Dr. Flo Barbee-Watkins, lead presbyter.
In 2021, Presbytery of the James spoke into existence a new model for serving. With an updated mission statement, new strategic plan, and three new staff, the presbytery is poised for innovation through a new model of caring for congregations and church leaders.
Background on national and local membership trends and pastoral vacancies explains why the new model is necessary.
Decreasing and aging are two adjectives that describe trends in PC(USA) national membership. Nationally, a third of PC(USA) members are aged 71 or older. In addition, membership in the denomination has been declining over the past 60 years.
In the James, our numbers parallel these nationwide trends. Of our 15,000 congregants, about 4,000 are over the age of 70. In the last annual statistical report, membership in the presbytery decreased by nearly 1,000 either joined the Church Triumphant or left the presbytery for another reason.
Lack of pastors available to serve congregations is another national trend that is also happening locally. Twenty-two percent of congregations in Presbytery of the James have no type of pastoral leadership.
“The realities are scary, but the God we serve has not given us a spirit of fear,” Barbee-Watkins declared.
Presbytery of the James now has three presbyters to focus on different areas of supporting ministers, congregations, and ministries. The three compare their work to the crew that enables a rock climber to reach the pinnacle of a mountain.
The climbers are the ministers, ruling elders, Christian educators, commissioned pastors, and congregation members serving on committees to fulfill God’s mission in the world.
“You answered God’s call to climb,” shared Rev. Leigh Anne Ring, presbyter for relational care. “But you are not climbing alone, in isolation. You are connected through our presbytery.”
Barbara Chalfant, the presbyter for congregational life, acts as the rock-climbing equipment manager and safety specialist. In her role, she nurtures and educates on a variety of needs in the congregation.
“I have been called to be a resource to congregations in stewardship, youth, officer training, adult education, and children’s education,” she shared. “I make sure you have what you need to climb well.”
In addition to safety equipment, every climber also needs a partner on the ground, a belayer who handles the rope that keeps the climber from falling. As presbyter for relational care, Ring fills that task.
“I focus on the support and nurture of our pastoral caregivers,” she described of her role, “by building relationships, communicating, and encouraging your ministry.”
The third member of the support team is Lead Presbyter Barbee-Watkins, providing vision for the climb and identifying new routes to explore.
“My role is to see what’s possible, to view the landscape, horizons, and trends in 21st-century ministry and bring new possibilities to our presbytery,” she remarked.
“This bold and forward-thinking model of three presbyters is courageous,” Barbee-Watkins continued, but success requires the support of everyone in our presbytery.
“We appreciate and need the gifts you bring to this assembly,” she concluded. “Together, we are the Presbytery of the James.”
The focus for the presbytery’s strategic vision is connection, communication, and collaboration.
We are excited about the vision casting we have been doing at the presbytery level and are thrilled to be climbing with you. We are seeking to equip, partner, and vision together so that our congregations are full of vitality, courage, and strength.
Tell us what is working well in your ministry or in the presbytery. We look forward to celebrating with you and offering your success as inspiration to others. We also invite you to share the aspects of your ministry that are challenging so that we may help you around these obstacles.
One way to create strength and courage is to partner with each other in ministry. Share Bible studies, contract together to share support employees, and engage in partnerships for mission and service with our siblings from other congregations, organizations, and denominations.
Last, please pray for success in our shared climb as we strive for higher ground. Pray for each other, sink deep into the words of scripture, and allow those meditations to bring you vitality to share inside and outside your congregation.
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I'm gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
Higher Ground, hymn