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Summer/Fall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2


Grace
and
Peace

to the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Freda Gardner Begins Her Year As Moderator


by Barbara A. Chaapel

Her name means "peace," and her manner is grace. And it was with quiet grace and a devotion to peace in the church she loves that Freda A. Gardner moderated the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The denomination elected her as moderator -- its highest position -- in Ft. Worth in June.

Gardner, a Christian educator and PTS’s Thomas W. Synnott Professor of Christian Education Emerita and the first tenured woman on its faculty, won the election on the second ballot, outdistancing her three male opponents. Her first action, in a small, curtained-off booth in a cavernous area away from the convention center floor, was to join hands and pray with her fellow candidates, a gesture the four had agreed on before the election.freda2.jpg (20571 bytes)

Then she was led, smiling and incredulous, through a throng of applauding commissioners to the podium in be installed, thus beginning her year leading a denomination torn by division and struggling mightily to reverse membership declines and to embrace diversity.

"I am hopeful for our church," Gardner says. "There are Presbyterians all across the country who love this church and want it to thrive. I want to hearten them, point them to denominational resources, suggest ways to proceed, and encourage persistence and prayer when no program will be our salvation."

She will not lack occasions to do that! Traveling throughout the country, indeed the world, to represent the church in presbyteries, congregations, and ecumenical settings is a moderator’s bread and butter. Gardner will log hundreds of thousands of miles, eat hundreds of church suppers, listen to thousands of Presbyterian children, women, and men before she passes on the gavel to her successor next summer.

"My office means I travel a good portion of every month," Gardner, a single woman, laughs, wondering if her houseplants will survive the year! But unlike moderators before her, she wants to model the need for all church leaders and members to observe Sabbath weekly.

"Being quiet, practicing meditation, praying, participating in worship, including in my home church [Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton], is important to me." Her schedule, published monthly on Presbynet, confirms her commitment: the list is punctuated by dates next to which appears the solitary word "Sabbath." And Gardner insisted on leaving Ft. Worth on the day the Assembly ended in time to be home to worship at Nassau Church the next morning.

Friends at home are a huge support for Gardner. "Members of Nassau signed up to pray for me everyday; one of our young people chose to sign up to pray for me on her birthday -- that meant a lot," she says. Then there are former Princeton students who have phoned or emailed, colleagues at the Seminary, and Christian educators around the country. "And I value almost as much as these blessings of friends discovering how many strangers care about me."

Moderating the plenary meetings of the Assembly did not come naturally to a woman more used to the classroom than the halls of church governance. Keeping the intricacies of substitute motions in her head and remembering to ask for the votes of the advisory delegates were challenges. "I felt inept," she laughs, recalling the neon yellow posterboard sign the youth advisory delegates gave her at Assembly’s end that read "Don’t forget to ask for the advisory delegates’ vote!"

Gardner decided to stand for moderator (one does not "run" for the office) last fall. "It was a process of discernment," she says. "I had been giving thought and prayer to what I would do after my term on the General Assembly Council and the Union/PSCE board ended. I thought for a while that I was being called to begin an older adult ministry at Nassau Church."

But several friends from around the country suggested that she might be called to be a candidate for moderator. "I admired the three men standing for election [Walter Ungerer, Frank Diaz, and Charles Kim], but I finally decided that it might be good for the church to have an alternative. At the least, I would have the chance to express my concerns and hopes for the church."

"The specific forms the church’s ministry will take in the future is not clear to me," Gardner says. "But I believe in our Presbyterian structure, our connection to one another. Very few congregations can do ministry on their own. We need to recognize different gifts in different congregations. The whole people of God need to share what is necessary to be faithful. God does not leave a portion of God’s people in need without providing somewhere in proximity to that need a people or an individual who can address it."

Gardner does not fear for the church. "We’re in a time of not knowing, of wondering what shape and form the church will take. Change can be traumatic," she admits. "But we can experiment, test, re-evaluate, always resting in the certainly that we are the church of Jesus Christ, but for a new time. It is Christ’s church, not ours. God will protect the church and take care of God’s self. Our job is to take care of each other."

PTS Alum Named Vice Moderator

Born and raised a Baptist, Floyd Rhodes ((Class of 1969) embraced Presbyterianism when he came to Princeton Seminary as a student in 1966. There he met Professor Freda Gardner. More than thirty years later, Gardner chose him to be the vice moderator of his adopted denomination.

"I really got to know Freda when we served together on the General Assembly Council from 1989 to 1995," Rhodes says. "I respect her greatly and was pleased she asked me to accept this responsibility."

Gardner_Rhoades.jpg (26340 bytes)Rhodes, whose ministry has taken him from Rochester, New York, to Los Angeles, Princeton, Cleveland, Chicago, and Wilmington, Delaware, is presently associate presbytery executive for ethnic and urban concerns in Greater Atlanta Presbytery. He worked on the churchwide strategy "Facing Racism" and, along with Gardner, attended the Racial Ethnic convocation in Orlando this summer where the report’s implementation was discussed.

Rhodes appreciates the fact that Gardner called on him to assume the moderator’s chair frequently during the Assembly. "The amount of experience she gave me at the podium was unprecedented," he says. "I look forward to serving this year at her pleasure."

He’ll get lots of opportunity. Gardner wants to use her vice moderator often and has invited him to accompany her on a trip to visit churches from Los Angeles to Alaska later this year.


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