Pandemic Ponderings of the Transitional Executive Presbytery for the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley

June 28, 2021

Dear friends,

Yesterday at First Presbyterian, Birmingham, there was a momentous gathering. Not only did we worship God with beautiful music, powerful liturgy, and a terrific sermon by Terry Hamilton-Poore, and not only did we recognize Rev. Jim Choomack’s 50th anniversary of ordination, we also celebrated Patti Winter’s second retirement (her first one from Southminster where she served nearly 30 years, and now this one from First where she served another almost nine.) All that time she was involved in children and youth ministry and the testimonies and gratitude came pouring forth. There are few people in this presbytery whose life Patti Winter has not touched in deeply meaningful and nourishing ways. The morning concluded with a party for her at Railroad Park. It was, in all, a momentous gathering.

Gathering. Also known as meeting – folks coming together. It’s practically a meme among Presbyterians that if anything is to happen at all for the Kingdom of Heaven, it will involve forming a committee and having meetings. Meetings. It’s theologically understandable because if we are going to be a democratic church that centers on the community speaking and acting in joint discernment of God’s Spirit’s leading, that will involve meetings. As the proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” There is no community in a meeting of one person. And yet, meetings are also often the bane of our presbyterian existence.

I personally like meetings. I like it when they have a clear agenda, are well facilitated, are free of “talking over” and talking too much (or some not talking at all), include everyone present equitably, and end with actionable items for moving ahead. I see meetings as an opportunity to form and deepen relationships that enable us to discern and act collectively for the common good.

This is all complicated – and harder to pull off – when the gathering is very diverse and when some people are physically present and some are digitally present as will be the case for many gatherings as the pandemic loosens its grip in the United States. We’re already beginning to think through how, for instance, we gather in person again for presbytery meetings while also fully including the people who opt to zoom in. Stay tuned.

I was recently introduced by Elizabeth Goodrich to the work of Priya Parker and her book, The Art of Gathering: How we Meet and Why it Matters.  (Watch for a Main Event offering on this very topic.) She offers three guideposts for gathering:


  • Embrace a specific purpose. “Having a purpose simply means knowing why you’re gathering and doing your participants the honor of being convened for a reason. And once you have that purpose in mind, you will suddenly find it easier to make all the decisions that a gathering requires”
  • Create good controversy. Controversy is what brings energy to the gathering. It announces that something important is at stake.
  • Create temporary alternative rules for the gathering – what she calls “pop up” rules. This allows groups to meet and connect across difference. It allows people to be seen and to see.


Since, as Presbyterians, we seem to be stuck with meetings, it behooves us, I think, to be thoughtful and deliberate about the way we gather – all the more so in this semi-digital world we now inhabit. If we want to go far, we will go together.


As ever in prayer,



Join me this Thursday (July 1) at 4:00m for our monthly presbytery gathering. We’ll discuss what, in our own experience, makes for good (or awful) gatherings. The link is I look forward to “meeting” with you!

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