‘Don’t be afraid’ urges the Presbytery of Charlotte’s Jan Edmiston
April 26, 2023 by Mike Ferguson
In the Presbytery of Charlotte, which the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston serves as general presbyter, seven churches predate the United States. “People in our churches run banks and universities and hospitals and seminaries. I feel really fortunate to be here,” she told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation during last week’s episode of Leading Theologically, which can be viewed here or here.
And yet, as Edmiston told Hinson-Hasty concerning a recent blogpost of hers, she and her husband went out for brunch after each had preached during Easter services. There was “zero indication that it was Easter morning,” she wrote in her widely-read blog “A Church for Starving Artists. “No ‘Happy Easter’ from the host. Nobody was dressed up. There were no ‘Easter Specials’ on the menu. For the first time in my life, I’m not sure most of my neighbors knew — or cared — that it was Easter morning. And I live in the Bible Belt.”
Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), said she’s recently noticed “a lot of anxiety, a lot of stuckness and fear, a lot of despair and diseases of despair that our churches are dealing with, but also hope.”
“Like a chaplain, people don’t tend to call the [presbytery] office unless something is wrong,” she said. “I could not do [the work] if I didn’t see massive displays of hope.” Edmiston offered this example: One church has “crunched the numbers. They are a great church, but they are not going to be with us in the next five years. They know the reality of that, and so they have decided they are going to spend their time creating a legacy” by seeking partnerships to work with to provide affordable housing. “Here’s the cool thing,” Edmiston told Hinson-Hasty. “I would not be surprised if they are not only here but thriving in five years. I get to see that kind of thing all the time.”
“I have a lot of hope for the church,” she said, “but I also feel that heaviness because for our churches to thrive in the future, some huge changes are going to have to happen, and it may not be pretty. A lot of pastors feel like they didn’t sign up for that and they just don’t have the bandwidth.”
Another factor is fear, according to Edmiston. “We are a ridiculously fearful world,” she said. “People are so afraid they shoot a child who rings your doorbell without finding out what he’s doing there in the middle of the day … We have to ask ourselves, ‘Whose power gets maintained if we are afraid?’ The power of God helps people be fearless, like that church that wants to do something that would create a legacy.”
Edmiston said many conversations in the Presbytery of Charlotte center on a question she’s famous for asking: What breaks God’s heart?
“We have more African American Presbyterians than any other presbytery in the country,” Edmiston said. “Many African American pastors have less in terms of retirement,” since “they may have served churches as temporary supply pastors and they weren’t even enrolled in the Board of Pensions.” Every time the presbytery receives “a big chunk of money, we take 10% for our retired African American pastors who are members of the presbytery … It’s not thousands and thousands of dollars, but it’s fairly substantial. That’s not because we think Black people are poor. They probably have served churches that could not pay them as well as some white churches. This is about reparations, although people don’t like the ‘R’ word. It’s a tiny, tiny thing to do.”
The future “holds a lot of hope for congregations and presbyteries that partner with unlikely partners. It could be our Jewish, Lutheran, Baha’i neighbors, the bank, the YMCA,” Edmiston said. “I think partnering for shared goals is really important for the future.”
If we’re still making mistakes three years into the pandemic, “it’s the lack of imagination, the fear we are going to lose people,” Edmiston told Hinson-Hasty. “The churches that are doing cool things are doing scary things, but they’re not scared. They are taking seriously the ‘fear not’ stuff from the angels … We have quite a few churches looking at affordable housing projects. We are fortunate to have a nonprofit in Charlotte headed up by a Presbyterian who partners churches with property with nonprofits that need property.”
A “great question [for churches] to ask is, ‘What scary things are we doing right now?’” she said. “What if we took $100,000 out of our cemetery fund and used it to start a program with the elementary school that’s right next to us?”
“If your church is addressing what breaks God’s heart in your neighborhood … your church will thrive and grow,” Edmiston said. “You’ve got to find out what breaks God’s heart. You may think you know, but you can’t know unless you know your neighbors and you have relationships with people who don’t cross the threshold of your building.”
“May God bless you with fearlessness and courage and delight in knowing and trusting that God is with us, and resurrection is the gift that we get,” she said as a benediction. “Don’t be afraid.”