Hello, I must be going
Former Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow reflects on the recent past and what lies ahead
Whether it was the 218th General Assembly (2008), the Big Tent, Twitter, Facebook, the 100,000 or so miles he racked up on the road or the early stages of the 219th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it seemed that the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow was not only always on the go, but also everywhere during his tenure as moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008).
Passing on the moderator cross to Cindy Bolbach hasn’t slowed him down, so General Assembly News deferred from the usual formal setting of an exit interview — that’s not Reyes-Chow’s style anyway — and stopped him in the convention center hall for several moments to look back over the past two years.
Throwing off the mantle of moderator has been relatively easy, since he never let the specifics of holding the office own him or give him worth.
What has been most liberating, he said, is to be able to sit in a committee meeting and have an opinion. “I can comment or disagree, and there’s no understanding that I have to be neutral as moderator of the PC(USA).”
He was among the first denominational leaders to grasp the global village concept inherent in social media.
“It’s really a part of how I live out my communal life,” he said. It became a natural fit with his role as moderator.
Throughout his term, Reyes-Chow’s family was extremely supportive. They understood how important this was, “not necessarily for me, but for the denominations we are thinking about.” Plus, Reyes-Chow cashed in many of his accumulated miles so that each of his three children ventured along on at least two trips during his time in office.
“At about month 18,” fatigue began to set in, he said; everybody was tired. Yet, while the last few weeks were a bit rough, as his family came to terms with the approaching end of his term, there was a renewed energy, and “now everybody’s really excited.”
But an immediate family celebration will have to wait. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2008, Reyes-Chow’s brother-in-law was killed, an innocent victim in an office rampage. The trial is set to start this summer.
Along with the outpouring of face-to-face support for the family tragedy, there was also an equally sincere outpouring from his digital community.
“How we were able to move through that, and are still moving through that, was because the wider body of the church and our community — both local and national — surrounded us through that medium,” he said.
“One of the blessings that has come out of that is that folks have seen through me and [the Rev.] Byron [Wade, vice moderator of the 218th General Assembly] how this really begins to take shape in real life and not as the next fad or next ‘thing to do for church.’”
Despite focusing on the upcoming trial and not taking a vacation, Reyes-Chow says, “We’re doing okay.”
Turning away from the topic of his brother-in-law’s death, Reyes-Chow points to a highlight of the past two years.
“I believe there’s a segment of our denomination that has reconnected to the church in a way that has surprised even them,” he said.
The former moderator believes that, while not all the connections have been through social media, it has “certainly enhanced the idea that somebody like myself — who’s very much like many in the church — could possibly be interested and get elected to an office at this level of the church.
“So, the transformations that are happening around authority and ecclesiology — that’s beginning to take shape. The highlight has been the folks who’ve been really engaged in what that means.”
Going forward, Reyes-Chow sees social media retaining its place at the table in the person of Landon Whitsitt, vice moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010).
In a way, social media could be likened to the new epistle — a new way to reach fellow Christians as well as those interested in the message. “There is something profound that I think people are beginning to see about the depth in which all this technology and connections and new worlds are informing who we are going to be in the future,” he said.
While aware of the anxiety social media creates in some circles, “more and more people are now welcoming it and are now open to the possibilities. … Sure, anxiety’s there, but that pushes us into the next stage of ‘okay, now where are we going?’ In the next few years we’ll be at that stage of ‘What are we doing next?’ and ‘What does this begin to look like?’”
Still, when it comes to “church,” there is still a bias that the person who is connected via Reyes-Chow’s digital community is only in a one-to-one relationship and not in the “true church experience” shared simultaneously by multiple persons in multiple pews. “I’m an initial connection for people because this is all new to us as a denomination to use …. What I’ve tried to do is help people understand how the networking component fits in.”
Invariably in any administration, there are always some things that are simply left undone or outright botched up.
“Honestly, I have no regrets,” he said, but adds, “There were some things we could have done better,” and apologizes for times things didn’t work out as planned – such as being waylaid by travel plans that prevented him from getting somewhere.
In the long run, “we lived it as we had hoped to. We really tried to wear lightly the office; for both Byron and I it was not the primary definition of who we are as people or pastors in this church. I would have regretted it if I had let this [office] define who I really am.”
At week’s end, Reyes-Chow heads home to San Francisco to start new chapters in his life and in the life of his congregation at Mission Bay Presbyterian Church.
His will be a part-time role, for Mission Bay has a happy problem, one that is counterintuitive to the statistics indicating the PC(USA) is an “aging” church:
“Whether I want to believe it or not [at age 41], I’m 10 to 15 years older than my congregation; the average age of the session members is 26. If I believe in what I’m telling the church, I can’t think like a 20-year-old anymore, but I have a role still.”
It means bringing on young staff to better relate to Mission Bay’s young congregation. Reyes-Chow’s mentoring position will be important, he notes, due to the transient nature of the membership and his wish to connect with them in more than just cyberspace.
By moving into a mentoring position, it also allows allow him time to nurture the growth of social media in a church world. This fall, he will lead a weekend social networking seminar at McCormick Seminary while continuing to co-host the Internet podcast, God Complex Radio.
“All of these things we do have to be nuanced in a way that we are not really used to doing — it’s not just this one-size-fits-all kind of thing, and social media is the same way,” he said. “It’s just different.”