Today is a highly significant day in the life of this particular part of the Body of Christ, at Central Presbyterian Church. For the first time in 22 years we welcome to our church staff and family a full time Associate Pastor, Noelle Henry Read.
From 1959 till 1995 Central had Associate Pastors, and if you talk with church members who were here during that time you will learn that each of them left their mark and made a difference for people while they were here. Lawrence Durr, Steve Bacon, Jim Richardson, Jack Westlund, Dwight Bayley, John Wall, Wally Mayton, and John LeHeup were their names. Perhaps you noticed that those were all male names, so Noelle has the distinction of being our first full time female pastor.
When I arrived at Central in 1998, it had endured some struggles and was rebuilding a staff. It was clear that we needed an emphasis on the youth and children’s programming of the church, so that became our staffing priority. With outstanding leadership from people like Anna Johnson, Nancy Dykes, Catherine Neelly, Rebecca Roser, Carrie Pannell, and now Amy Rawlings and Stephen Price, our youth and children’s programs and activity levels have become two full time staff positions. We have more children and more youth participating each week than lots of Presbyterian churches have members in the pews on Sunday morning. The addition of Mandy Davis as full time Director of Music has added to these areas of growth.
Up until this year the staff people responsible for youth and children’s ministry have also shared responsibility for adult Christian education, but that ultimately reached the tipping point. Once in a while talk has come up about an associate pastor in the past, and my position has been that it will become clear when enough things are slipping through the cracks, and that point was reached over the last couple of years.
During my time here we have tried to fill pastoral gaps with having part time parish associate pastors. Frank Howard, Marty Harkey, Dale Rawlings, Allyson Helvie, and now Debbie Foster have filled that role and made a big difference. Two years ago, when Allyson Helvie became the pastor at Piedmont Presbyterian Church and was no longer able to serve as parish associate here, I was not able to think of someone to ask to take her place and decided to just not worry about filling the position. Out of the blue, Debbie Foster came to see me and asked if she could be considered to serve in this position.
I may have been speechless. You talk about manna coming down from heaven! What a wonderful gift! Her resume included years of experience in youth ministry and Christian education for all ages; serving as a pastor; counseling for youth and adults; church consulting; presbytery leadership; wife and mother of three children. During her time with us she has mentored, challenged, and encouraged our church staff, including myself; she has gotten to know church members deeply and worked in a number of areas which needed attention; she has led the grief group and continued to grow it; she has provided leadership and new ideas in adult education; and she has generally helped me and others see how much difference a full time pastor working in these areas could make in the life of our church, not by saying it but by demonstrating it. Debbie’s job with the presbytery became full time at the end of last year. At lunch after worship we are going to express our thanks to you, Debbie, for helping us grow in so many ways and for helping lay the groundwork for us to joyously welcome Noelle into ministry with us.
If you follow sports, you know that the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers this week to win the NBA championship for the second time in the past three years. Last summer they did a very surprising thing. In spite of having the best team in the NBA; in spite of having three All Stars; in spite of having two time NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry; the Warriors signed free agent Kevin Durant, another one of the best players in the world. People wondered how in the world this powerhouse team could fit another all star in without someone getting their ego bruised. But the hallmark of the Warriors all along has been unselfishness and care for each other. Nobody is worried about their personal statistics, they want to function together as a team to be successful and they know everything else will fall into place. Kevin Durant saw this, saw the fun the team has and the close relationships, and he wanted to be a part of it.
That’s kind of the way I see Noelle arriving here. Kevin Durant is almost seven feet tall, so that’s a major difference, but height doesn’t matter in what we do here. I’ve learned not to underestimate anything about Noelle, and when I learned that she wanted to move back closer to family I had that same feeling I had when Debbie asked about becoming our parish associate. Noelle is joining what is already a fine team, a fine staff, a fine church family, but what she brings will make us even better. As with the Warriors in the first half of the season there will be a period of time during which we get to know each other and figure the best ways to mesh and use our gifts to the best effect.
Noelle has been in parish ministry for 17 years in a variety of settings, and was an air force reserve chaplain for 10 years. She is married to Denny, also a Presbyterian minister, and has four children. Ethan is 12 and Benjamin, Emily, and Daniel are 6. She is a daughter, and her mother is a member of this congregation. She is equipped for this work in every way. She also has a vested interest in every area of this church’s ministry. Having grown up in this church, she also has a love for it already.
The first and most important thing you can all do today is to prepare your hearts to fully welcome and receive Noelle’s ministry. As she visits you in the hospital, leads you in worship, works with your committee, guides the grief group. Feel free to invite her to conduct your child’s baptism or your wedding or a funeral in your family. Invite her to lunch or coffee and get to know her. Noelle and I will be sharing ministry, not competing.
Basketball players want to play for the Warriors because of the culture. Unselfishness; joy; fun; giving everyone the opportunity to be the best they can be; a sense of shared accomplishment as opposed to individual glory. These are the same values which will draw people to want to be a part of our family, a part of our team.
Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me.” We are called to be happy and content being one branch among many abiding in Jesus. One branch is not called to become much bigger than the others or to bear all of the fruit. One branch is not called to not grow and never do the work of growing fruit. We are all essential parts of the body of Christ. We do not all do the same job, but each of our jobs is important. And Jesus is the head, the vine, the way, the truth, the life, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World.
The reason he is all those things is that he didn’t demand or grasp any of them. Instead of wanting to be proclaimed the MVP every year he chose the way of sacrifice so that all of us would be MVPs, most valuable persons, in God’s eyes. He gave all. Philippians says he “emptied” himself. “This is my body,” Jesus said to the disciples as he handed them bread, “which is about to be broken for you. This,” as he handed them the cup, “is my blood, which is about to be shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Jesus emptied himself, humbled himself, submitted to a criminal’s death on the cross. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
Together, we are the body of Christ, and individually we are members of it. He is the vine, we are the branches; apart from him we can bear no fruit. If we abide in him we will be fruitful and happy. May the peace of God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 18, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church