If the way be clear, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, pastor in North Carolina,
will stand with Santana-Grace as co-moderator
by Rev. Sarah Colwill
Director of Cultivating Enough in the Care of Clergy
Presbytery of Philadelphia
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth – do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:19a
During a special called meeting of the Presbytery of Philadelphia on March 29, more than 100 elders and pastors unanimously voted to support their executive presbyter, the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, to stand as moderator (or co-moderator) of the 225th General Assembly, which will convene this summer. Several leaders in the presbytery gathered at Church on the Mall (Plymouth Meeting, PA), with elders and pastors of the presbytery joining the meeting via Zoom. While a presbytery endorsement is not required for such a decision, Rev. Santana-Grace found this step crucial in the call and discernment process. In her speech before the presbytery, she explained that she “couldn’t imagine considering this call without the blessing of the people” she’s been called to serve.
After the meeting was called to order by the moderator of the presbytery, Rev. Ted Mingle (pastor, Lower Providence), Rev. Santana-Grace described her discernment process, which began with a phone call of a trusted leader, urging her to consider standing for the position. It was a gut-wrenching conversation, one that led Rev. Santana-Grace to wonder if perhaps this was God’s calling for such a time as this. Recognizing that God often calls us through unexpected people to unexpected service, this started a prayerful time of discernment with her family and colleagues.
Speaking on behalf of the presbytery’s Leadership Collegium, Rev. Todd Stavrakos (pastor, Gladwyne Presbyterian Church) noted that this was a call not only for Rev. Santana-Grace, but for the entire presbytery. “The sense of call that Ruth shared with us (the collegium) was experienced as part of our call as well.” Rev. Stavrakos went on to talk about the “Kairos moment” felt within the Leadership Collegium that Rev. Santana-Grace’s standing was a divine moment not only for her, but for the presbytery as well. His endorsement concluded, “We stand with Ruth.”
During the meeting, co-chairs of the presbytery’s Committee on Personnel, Rev. Carla Jones Brown (pastor, Arch Street Presbyterian Church) and Rev. Dr. John Willingham (pastor, Doylestown Presbyterian Church), explained how the staff would function should Rev. Santana-Grace be voted the next moderator (or co-moderator). While her time would be divided between the presbytery and this new work for the denomination, Rev. Santana-Grace would continue to be invested in her service to the presbytery.
Rev. Jones Brown and Rev. Dr. Willingham were enthusiastic and unanimous in their support and assured presbyters that the committee takes seriously their support of all presbytery staff. Rev. Dr. Willingham noted that Rev. Santana-Grace will be finishing her service on two major denominational boards (The Presbyterian Foundation and Princeton Theological Seminary). Rev. Jones Brown explained a process for staying supportive to staff needs so the office will continue to run at full capacity.
Rev. Kevin Porter, the presbytery’s stated clerk, confirmed staff support of Rev. Santana-Grace’s calling, saying, “looking back over the past eight years, we can see how God has definitely been preparing presbytery staff to be able to embrace this moment with joy.” Rev. Porter acknowledged that among the staff “it would be a different rhythm, but a sustainable one, which is what’s important.” He shared his own testimony that when Rev. Santana-Grace shares her gifts with the larger church, “it feeds her soul, and that is a gift to us (the presbytery) as well.”
Rev. Dr. T. Janel Dixon (pastor, Cedar Park Presbyterian Church), co-moderator of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Presbyterian Black Caucus, gave a rousing testimony using Isaiah 43:19, affirming “this new thing that God is doing in the presbytery.” Rev. Dr. Dixon described Rev. Santana-Grace as having a “contagious spirit” that has encouraged and energized the presbytery for the past eight plus years since she began the call as executive presbyter. Rev. Dr. Dixon highlighted Rev. Santana-Grace’s passion for bridge-building, being a connectional church and inviting all to come to the table for “courageous conversations” around that which divides us. “We have been readied and empowered by her leadership to stand with her for this new season,” Rev. Dr. Dixon proclaimed; “she will indeed be living water to our General Assembly.”
The motion to endorse Rev. Santana-Grace was made and seconded, with many folks sharing in the chat feature of the Zoom meeting their gratitude and support of the motion. Elder Elaine McCray (Holy Trinity Bethlehem Presbyterian Church) wrote, “Ruth is an exemplary example of leadership.” During the time for questions and comments, Rev. Santana-Grace shared that should the way be clear, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, pastor in North Carolina, would stand with her as co-moderator.
After folks were given ample time to share their comments and ask questions, Rev. Santana-Grace left the meeting for conversation and deliberation among the presbyters. The vote was taken, and upon the unanimous approval, Elder Vijay Aggarwal (Wayne Presbyterian Church) moved that the minutes show that the vote was unanimous. This motion carried. Rev. Santana-Grace was welcomed back with cheers from those in the meeting space and congratulations and support being shared in the chat. Elder Susan Aggarwal (Wayne Presbyterian Church) wrote, “Hearty Congratulations to a very capable and deserving pastor. Thank you for all you have done on your journey to further the Kingdom and make us all better in our own journeys.”
Upon acceptance of this unanimous endorsement, Rev. Santana-Grace paid a heartwarming tribute to her parents (Rev. Felix Santana and Elder Carmen Santana), who were active and involved in the Presbyterian Church since their arrival to the mainland of the United States from their home in Puerto Rico. She shared her gratitude to the presbytery for their support and encouragement.
As the meeting was preparing to conclude, the Rev. Wonjae Choi (Gwynedd Square), moderator of the presbytery support team, invited all present to consider ways they might support Rev. Santana-Grace in this journey of faith. Vice-moderator of the presbytery, Elder Zandra Maffett (Valley Forge), offered the closing prayer by inviting those present to come forward for a laying on of hands to bless Rev. Santana-Grace as she continues this journey of standing for co-moderator. Elder Maffett asked for God’s guidance as she and the presbytery take on this endeavor together, uplifting one another in this joint calling.