Dr. Kate Sillman’s former students at Penn State University for the previous 20-plus years probably wouldn’t have guessed that she spent her Sundays not only being active in her church in Winburne, PA, but also sharing her gifts in the pulpits of other Presbyterian congregations around the region. That’s because Kate is an unassuming, low-key person, which are also the qualities that leadership in the Presbytery of Huntingdon were looking for when they went searching for an interim general presbyter.
Beginning on Jan. 1, the now-retired assistant professor of education at Penn State where she used her Doctorate of Education degree turned in her teaching textbooks and note cards for a Bible and road map. Kate is replacing Joy Kaufmann, who retired in December after nearly 18 years as Huntingdon’s general presbyter.
“I was asked to apply for the position because there was a need in our presbytery,” Kate said. “I felt that it was the right thing to do. I felt that I was being called to do this in this time and place. I’ve always been involved in church work, in presbytery and in synod. It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you’re asked to be part of something unless you really feel like you wouldn’t be meeting their needs.”
Kate admits that because she is not a minister of Word and Sacrament that she is not the ideal choice to lead a presbytery, even on an interim basis. But what she may be lacking in one area she certainly makes up for with knowledge of the region and in people skills.
“There’s a steep learning curve but I’m doing my best and I feel that I am serving a need at this point,” Kate continued.
A former vice moderator of the Synod of the Trinity, Kate has completed the Certified Lay Preacher program at Huntingdon and later tackled the Commissioned Ruling Elder class at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, getting that certificate in 2015. She has been helping to fill pulpits in Huntingdon for several years but is regularly found on Sunday mornings at Winburne Presbyterian Church (her home church in Clearfield County) preparing the music, leading the choir and being the organist.
“I thoroughly enjoy preparing a service and worshiping with another church,” Kate said. “That’s probably my first love. I really enjoy doing that. You learn when you prepare a sermon. I like the research, digging into different commentaries and learning different perspectives. I see it as a challenge to use the lectionary.
“As I got to know the churches, I was going to a few more consistently. You’re there to meet the needs of the people in the pews. You’re there not for yourself but for them to hear the Lord’s message. I always found that a challenge and I look forward to that.”
Bringing greetings from the presbytery to congregations is certainly one of Kate’s objectives during this year (or more) of interim work, but she also has other ambitions in Huntingdon. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the Huntingdon office to work virtually since the spring of 2020, it’s been decided that this practice will continue going forward, and Kate is helping to write guidelines and procedures as this transition takes place.
“We’ve learned a lot with this pandemic,” Kate said. “We’ve been forced into learning Zoom and all sorts of things. Interims aren’t supposed to start a lot of new things. They’re just supposed to prepare the way for the more permanent person who is coming.”
Preparing these documents allows Kate to interact with many others working in the presbytery, which gives her great satisfaction.
“It’s been really neat meeting with the different people,” she said. “I enjoy being around the different folks in the presbytery. One thing I’m seeing is that one person doesn’t have to do everything. My leadership style is joint leadership, a collaboration. I like to encourage people to use their gifts and their strengths. I enjoy seeing other people succeed.”
Kate has quickly learned about the differing views of those in Huntingdon during her short time as the interim general presbyter. Trying to keep people focused on the missions and ministries of the presbytery is one thing that will challenge her during her stay.
“I want to encourage people who have different viewpoints to work together and be able to share those without causing any ill feelings, be able to have respectful dialog without getting upset about it,” she said. “That’s a challenge to create that safe space for people to share without being afraid to. We have a very diverse presbytery. That makes it challenging to help everybody be respectful of each person. I’m finding that as a challenge.”
It all adds up to a unique time in Huntingdon, one that Kate is proud to be part of and will do everything she can to make sure the presbytery is ready when the region’s new general presbyter is hired. Until then, Kate will continue to seek the Lord’s guidance as she ventures a little bit out of her comfort zone to help fill a need in the presbytery she loves.
“I pray for each pastor in our presbytery every day,” she said. “There’s no way I would try to do this without constant prayer. I feel God’s love, care and grace in everything I’m doing.”