Twenty Years and Counting: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Executive Director Brian Ellison at the 2018 Covenant Network of Presbyterians lunch, June 18, 2018.

Brian Ellison has served as executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians since 2012. This speech, delivered in St. Louis at the biennial CNP General Assembly luncheon on June 18, 2018, was part of “Twenty Years and Counting: Looking Back and Looking Forward,” a celebration of the network’s twenty-year history and its commitment to continued transformation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Someone asked me a question the other day, as normal people — people who don’t look forward with joyful anticipation to spending nine or ten consecutive days in hotel ballrooms and convention centers wielding Books of Order and debating points of polity — will sometimes do. They asked me what we would be talking about when we converged on St. Louis.

And I almost gave the reflexive answer I’ve given for years, an answer I’ve given since my first General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate in 1991, and often at the 20 assemblies I’ve attended since. It’s the answer I’ve given even in the six years since I became executive director: “Same thing we always talk about: Money, sex and power.”

I almost said that. Until I realized … that something has changed.

We do still talk about money. And we still talk about power. But this year, when members of the Covenant Network of Presbyterian staff and volunteers step up to microphones, when commissioners dig into overtures that we support and help resource, when we sit in committee rooms and talk about what matters today in the life of our church, we find ourselves no longer talking so much about sex. We have seen the conversation shift to the place we long sought to take it: Not about sex, but about people. To lives and stories, to rights and justice. The whole church has come along and a whole community within our community, God’s gay-lesbian-bi-trans-queer community is no longer reduced to an act or a trait, but rather is honored as the God-called, neighbor-loving, children of God that we are.

* * *

It has been an enormous privilege to serve as executive director during these latest years of that transition. But I am here to tell you that these changes, these gains, as significant as they might have been, did not happen merely because of the work we’ve done in these six years. They are rooted in the work of people who I have come to know and appreciate stretching back to 1997.

People like former GA moderators John Buchanan and Bob Bohl, founding co-moderators of our board, who staked their reputations and names on a movement to transform.

People like Tim Hart-Andersen and John Wilkinson, founders who were still on the board of directors when I started, giving of their time and treasure and passion to see through so much of what they started. People like Deborah Block, there from the beginning and the last of that class to leave the board, just last year after 20 years, who in her departure spoke words of gratitude and blessing and graciousness, that inspired us all.

People like the many board members and others: scholars, pastors and teachers, and those who wanted to do those things but whom the church prevented, people who gave leadership to conferences that changed the conversation. Who told stories. Who published books and videos. Who came year after year to General Assemblies to tell the truth and wait for votes by people who didn’t fully understand.

Some were ministers who were serving faithfully but unable to be fully open. Many of them have now come out to congregations and enjoyed even deeper and richer ministries.

Brian Ellison toasting long-time National Organizer Tricia Dykers Koenig after the 2014 General Assembly approved same-sex marriage. (Photo by Pam Byers)

Some, like our current co-moderator Daniel Vigilante, had stepped out of the ordination process while in seminary in an act of authenticity and integrity. One of my first jobs as executive director was to preach at his ordination, one of the very first ordinations after G-6.0106b was no more.

And I have come to see how these gains have also been rooted in the passions and commitments of our current board, who had different roles back in the years of gathering national conferences and organizing presbytery votes, but whose energy was being saved for seeing us through a time of identifying the real and ever-growing needs of today’s church, of watching for how congregations struggle to live into all that has changed, of listening to the voices of people of color.

I am proud to serve with leaders who today are seeing clearly what it means for us to say that there is still more work to do.

I had the privilege of working with a national organizer who shaped our good work almost from the beginning, and who perhaps more than any other person orchestrated those General Assembly conversations and truly transform the church. What a statement it is that the next calling for that person would be as Associate Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Tricia Dykers Koenig.

Founding Executive Director Pam Byers with Dr. Mark Achtemeier in the CNP exhibit hall booth at the 2014 General Assembly.

And of course, these twenty years reflect the compassion and toughness, the deft organization and canny wisdom of its founding executive director, Pam Byers. Pam was a proud ruling elder with a background in publishing, who didn’t really need a new gig when the founders came to her and proposed that she help them change the church. She grew this thing into the organization that so many of you came to know and love, and she retired in 2011, having seen the church through ordination. She was a successor’s dream, supporting and empowering me as I learned the ropes, telling me where the bodies—by which I mean computer files and financial records—were buried. She cheered from the sidelines and sometimes the frontlines. And in 2014, when the General Assembly voted yes on marriage for all, Pam was there. The pictures of Pam and Tricia and I — and some of you — standing together that day raising a glass in some windowless convention center room (including one picture Pam posted to her own Facebook page in that moment),  is the image that most embodies this organization for me.

I tell you about all these voices and faces from the past not because those were the glory days.

I tell you because the work they did was really all about these days of glory. This new day in our life together.

Together these siblings in Christ have, truly, taken the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — in Pam’s immortal words — “toward a church as generous and just as God’s grace.”

But they are not the Covenant Network, not in its fullness. And neither are we.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is people who at first glance may not look like they have anything to do with us, institutionally, organizationally … but we have been about them, from the beginning.

The Covenant Network is Keith, a gay man who attended one of our national conferences as he was in the process of coming out and figuring out what that would mean for his ministry, for his relationship with his family, for his professional future.  A man who as of this year is the first out person installed to a call in his Kansas presbytery, and who asked me to give the charge at that installation, having first seen a chalice and bread in an openly gay man’s hands — my hands — at one of our conferences and believing for the first time that that could be him, too.

The Covenant Network is Grace, a transgender woman with gifts for liturgical arts and choir direction who has organized events in her church and presbytery, offering herself freely to speak and advocate because she wants others who serve the church to experience the kind of love and acceptance she experienced in her ordinary, middle-of-the-road midwestern church when she simply was honest about who she is.

The Covenant Network is a Community of Grace, a church in Utah where some want to be a more welcoming church—whatever that may mean. They want their church’s identity to reflect the hospitality in their hearts. Some of them worry about upsetting long-time members. They worry about changes that may come. But they’re willing to talk about it, together. To listen and grow, together. To invite a gay activist preacher, to read books and take classes together.

The Covenant Network is the youth group I spoke with a couple of years ago with kids who identify as bi and gender-queer sitting on the same ratty youth room couches as their straight, cisgender peers blissfully unaware of the battles that have been fought in other places by people they may never meet, by people like you.

These, my friends, are the real faces of the Covenant Network’s first twenty years.

And for however many more years, in however many other venues we must preach the good news of God’s just and generous love, this will be our real story.

* * *

A couple of years ago I had the chance to meet with students and preach at San Francisco Theological Seminary. And I had a chance to spend a few minutes in their beautiful library, which that day was having a sale of books, on a table, going for a dollar – or, I suspect, whatever you had on you.

One was a yellowing, paperback copy of The Good Book, by Peter Gomes. Peter Gomes was a speaker at one of those first Covenant Network conferences, an out gay black preacher—my college minister, in fact—and one of the voices that brought conversations about inclusion and biblical interpretation into America’s mainstream back in the ’90s and 2000s.

I’d read that book years before, but I picked it up that day, and there, right above the “$1” written in pencil was a simple cursive word in ink: “Byers.” This was Pam’s copy of the book, given with no doubt many boxes of others by her husband Jeff when Pam left us in 2014. SFTS probably already had a copy or two, and so there it was on the dollar table.

Best dollar I ever spent.

I thumbed through those pages, I thought of how it must have inspired and informed Pam to reflect on scripture and on the challenge of being open to where God would lead God’s people.

And just a couple of weeks ago I picked up the book off my shelf and saw something I hadn’t seen before: Against the yellowed pages there was some yellow highlighting. I could see the passages that had spoken to Pam, most likely around the same time the Covenant Network was getting its start. I want to end today with one of those passages Pam highlighted, because it still speaks, to the work we’ve done and the work we have to do:

In my view, to be a Christian is by definition to be an apologist, for not only are you obliged to present your view to a world that is no longer, if it ever was, Christ, but people want to know why, in such a world, you would continue to hold allegiance to something so out of harmony with it. Conviction on the part of the Christian, and curiosity on the part of others, are essential ingredients in the apologetic for the faith. One offers one’s own life as the immediate and ultimate “explanation,” remembering that Christian truth is advanced not by postulates and formulas, the bone-crushing logic of arguments point and counterpoint, but in the living flesh of human beings. Jesus Christ remains the ultimate apologist for the faith not because of the sublime logic of his teaching but the undaunted example of his life.

–Peter Gomes, The Good Book, 1996, p. xii

Thanks be to God for twenty years of that work in the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, acting with conviction and curiosity. May we continue offering our lives, and even the undaunted example of the life of Christ, so living into all God has for us in the years to come.

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