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Shadyside Presbyterian to make professor its pastor

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Shadyside Presbyterian Church, whose turmoil made headlines five years ago, will celebrate a new beginning and highlight its heritage this Sunday as it prepares to call a new pastor.

The Rev. Craig Barnes, a professor of pastoral leadership at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and formerly pastor of a prominent Washington, D.C., congregation, will preach his "candidacy" sermon at 11 a.m. Afterward, the congregation will vote on his call.

Although the call is not a done deal until approved by both the congregation and the Pittsburgh Presbytery, most observers seem enthusiastically confident.

"Predicting the vote on Sunday is almost like predicting whether or not the sun will rise," said John Walker, music director and organist at Shadyside for 11 years.

The vote takes place on World Communion Sunday, an international observance founded at Shadyside 70 years ago. To honor the anniversary, one of the world's foremost experts on Christian music of the Third World will give a special presentation at 4 p.m. And at the 11 a.m. service, Shadyside's concert-caliber choir will sing in several languages and ethnic traditions.

The celebration of unity is a far cry in tone from 1998, when the congregation voted 292-122 to dismiss its last pastor, the Rev. Peter Bower, after he had had just 18 months on the job. The congregation gave no reason for its action, and presbytery officials maintained that the conflict mainly involved differences in style and personality between Bower and some lay leaders in the congregation.

The congregation was so bitterly divided that Pittsburgh Presbytery initially refused to approve Bower's ouster, and appointed an outside commission to take charge of governance of the church. Bower was finally let go. In the meantime, an interim pastor, the Rev. William Jackson, has served since 1999, helping the church heal.

As in many other mainline churches, membership had been declining since the 1980s, and then had fallen even further recently, from 1,100 in 1998 to 800. But last year saw the first growth in many years.

"There has been a remarkable movement of the Holy Spirit in that church. It has really come through that period better for it," said Tim Engleman, a member of the pastoral search committee and one of those who joined Shadyside during the interim.

Barnes, the nominee for pastor, began attending regularly last year. He and his wife, Anne, visited many churches, but felt most drawn to Shadyside's style of worship.

"They've made tremendous progress in healing," Barnes said. "I sense that the church is not any longer in reaction to that [conflict]. They are not ashamed to talk about it. They don't seem to be trying to bury it or hide it or pretend it didn't happen. But they are eager to get on with the business of being church."

The pastoral challenge of dealing with an affluent congregation that contains some of Pittsburgh's more powerful personalities might seem to be child's play for Barnes. National Presbyterian Church, where he was pastor from 1992 to 2002, was home to political powerhouses from both sides of the aisle. One of his membership classes included both Republican Sen. Robert Dole and Democratic Sen. John Glenn. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist also are members.

But Barnes doesn't take anything for granted.

"I wouldn't say that any church is easy. What I've learned is how to be a respecter of that, to pay attention and not let it catch me off guard," he said of congregational politics.

"At the same time, I've learned how to avoid getting political -- which frequently isn't necessary -- and instead act out of the ethic of the gospel. That is the only way to overcome church politics."

Barnes is known as a spellbinding preacher, and as an evangelical who holds the respect of nonevangelicals. If his candidacy is confirmed, Barnes would continue teaching at the seminary, while working two-thirds time at the church. The congregation has agreed to call an executive pastor for daily administration, he said.

"I think I will have more credibility and authority in my [seminary] teaching, if I am pastoring at the same time," he said. "There was a day when all seminary professors and theologians were pastors. It's not a new model."

Being a candidate on World Communion Sunday highlights the rich heritage that Shadyside can draw on, Barnes said.

The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr, a Shadyside pastor and national Presbyterian leader, began the celebration in 1933 as a call to Christian unity. In that era many Protestant churches celebrated communion infrequently. Kerr wanted one Sunday each year when all Christians celebrated.

World Communion Sunday was adopted by the predecessors of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Council of Churches, and is now observed in many Protestant churches worldwide.

In honor of those global connections, Shadyside has invited the Rev. I-to Loh, an acclaimed East Asian hymnologist, to participate in the 11 a.m. service. And, under the sponsorship of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians -- Pittsburgh Chapter, Loh will give a special presentation at 4 p.m.

Loh, who heads the church music department at Tainan Theological Seminary in Taiwan, is such an authority on global ethnic sacred music that seminarians come from Africa and Latin America to study with him, Walker said.

For the presentation at 4 p.m. Loh declined Walker's offer of the pipe organ and choir, and will instead use such instruments as drums and guitar, which are far more common globally. The presentation, "Asian Sounds and Symbolic Acts in One Common Table," will conclude with a communion service that uses the Taiwanese staples of sweet potato and tea instead of bread and wine.

Loh will open the 11 a.m. service with African drums. The choir will sing a processional from Cameroon, and later will offer a Taiwanese rendition of the Latin classic Panis Angelicus by Cesar Franck. The organ postlude is by the Mexican composer Ramon Noble.

"It's a great opportunity to lift up the unity of worship of God around the entire world," Walker said.

And that's part of what Barnes finds so exciting about Shadyside.

"This church has a fabulous heritage. Its foundation is magnificent. That's why I'm convinced that, in spite of the difficulty the church has had over more recent years, you can always build on those foundations," he said.

"I do not have to come in and peddle the pastor's idea of vision. I can draw it out of their own history."

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at or 412-263-1416.

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