Our New Day Begun: Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis


Today we are blessed to hear from the Reverend Shavon Starling-Louis in the “Our New Day Begun” series. Shavon is a 32-year-old Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Southern New England and is originally from St. Petersburg, Florida. She’s a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and serves as the Co-Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Shavon is brilliant, insightful, and has been instrumental in the success of this series behind the scenes. Meet her and be blessed!


Are you a “cradle Presbyterian,” or did you come to the tradition later in life?
Nope, I am not a cradle presby! I was born into a Missionary Baptist Church family; however in middle school there was passing of the beloved pastor of that congregation. My disabled grandmother who raised me started receiving pastoral care from a cousin’s Presbyterian pastor. When my grandmother became strong enough we began attending and soon after became members.

shavon2What do you most appreciate about this tradition?
I love that Presbyterians at our best are reformed and always reforming. We recognize that we live in the now and not yet reality of Christ’s Holy Kingdom; therefore we along with all of creation are works in progress. God is not done with any of us. I love that we lean into the grace of God for our hope and our identity, and I love that at our best, though our words and deeds we are people who engage reconciling ministry and justice-oriented mission.

What about it do you think needs to be changed or addressed?
I think we have a long way to go in helping our members know the power of telling their faith stories. We struggle in general with the ability to share how and where we have seen the Holy Spirit moving in our lives and in the lives of those in our midst. This makes for stifled and stunted spiritualties.

I also think we have a ways to go in moving beyond the tokenism of underrepresented communities and particularly within leadership. I sense a true desire for the gifts of diverse people, but when it is done outside of authentic relationship it feels like paint by number or committee by numbers and undermines very thing that it was aiming to achieve.

What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
After working in the church in clerical positions both in the congregational and presbytery levels, God revealed that my gifts, my hopes, and my passions would be able to flourish in ministry. As simple as it sounds, I love Jesus Christ fiercely and I really love people.

And so I really, really love to facilitate relationship between Christ and those seeking grow in relationship with Christ. And for the most part this means I am called to create sacred space in the common places so that we can sense the where God is calling us to pay attention and act.

shavon-familyDescribe your current call. What is your role?
I am currently called to serve in 3 capacities.

I am a co-Pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Rhode Island. (Only God could move a Florida girl to Rhode Island.) I am a full-time pastor leading in areas worship, spiritual formation and nurture, administration and vision, as well as shared responsibilities in pastoral care and mission. It’s great to be in a teamed ministry that represents the multicultural values of our congregation. (Shout out to Chris Foster!) This way I can focus my time on the areas of ministry that give me the greatest joy.

I also serve the PCUSA on the National Committee of The Self-Development of People. This is an amazing ministry out of the Presbyterian Mission Agency that supports both financially and relationally organizations working with those in communities of poverty for self-advocacy.

Lastly, I serve on the Executive Team of The NEXT Church Movement. It is an organization of clergy and laity committed to the PCUSA and who are excited to discern and share innovative ways of being church. We have Annual National Gatherings and local one to promote real support relationship for church leaders called to see around corners in uncertain times.

What is the racial/ethnic composition of the church you serve?
Providence Presbyterian Church is active church with a global perspective with immigrants from West Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Europe, and Asia as well as Americans with diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

I am reminded of Pentecost every worship.

How do you think our denomination can best benefit/be enriched by the leadership of young African-Americans?
I think that young African-Americans leaders in the PCUSA (and many others) by in-large were raised by the poetic and improvisational nature of hip-hop and R&B. I know that is the case for me. And while I would be uber excited to see breakdancing at my next presbytery meeting, I think the real gift we bring is the essence of hip-hop. It’s an essence that looks at the joyous and the grimy and speaks the truth it sees. Poets like J. Cole and Common, offer insights on what it means to stand for justice and truth in a time when doing is needed but not the most popular thing to do. Learning from Hip-hops natural ability to testify to our experience could be a blessing and enrichment to the denomination. It absolutely influences my preaching and my pastoral care.

I also believe the denomination is finding itself in the squeezing place of being called to do more with less. This is a common experience of many African-American household again speaking from my own experience. (And while, yes there are complex systemic injustice issues that often time cause this situation.) There are beautiful gifts of having to work with what you have. There is the cultivation capacities to prioritize, to improvise, and to have faith in the providence of God that come out this.

As a minority in our denomination, do you find you often encounter microaggressions? If so, what has been your approach to them when they happen?
Yep… One of my pet peeves that is really a miccoaggression is the prevasiviseness of the Presbyterian self-naming as the Frozen Chosen because we don’t move in worship and we don’t say Amen.

Well as an African American clergywoman in the Presbyterian Church who claps, moves, sways, dances, and says Amen when the Holy Spirit moves men to, I noticed that the moniker of Frozen Chosen left me, my culture, and my embodiment out and somehow meant that I wasn’t acting like a “True Presbyterian” by someone else’s definition.

So in my former presbytery when such a comment was made by an older, white retired pastor, I said from the floor “I am not frozen, and I am Presbyterian, and I say Amen.” There was an awkward silence, but there was head shaking who got what I was saying. The gentleman just looked puzzled.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Lakesha Bradshaw

lakeshaThe person I’m introducing in today’s edition of “Our New Day Begun” is a dear friend and one of my favorite people. The Reverend Lakesha Bradshaw and I were classmates at Howard University School of Divinity and came to the Presbyterian Church (USA) at about the same time and with the support of many of the same people. She is a minister member of National Capital Presbytery and is the Associate Pastor for Christian Education at Silver Spring Presbyterian Church, where she served as a DCE before ordination. I’m honored to present her to you!


lakesha4When did you come to the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
I came to the PC(USA) in 2005, as a part-time Youth Director. At that time, I was completing my second year of seminary and looking to supplement the additional expenses. A mentor told me about a Presbyterian congregation in DC that was searching for a part-time Youth Director. I interviewed and was offered the position, and as they say, “the rest is history”.

Ministry is a second career for you. What did you do before?
Prior to professional ministry, I directed youth and young adult service programs for large organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, and Howard University. My experience programming after-school, summer camp, and countless youth leadership and development programs encouraged a purposeful transition into youth and young adult ministry. If you are interested in pursuing a career as a minister, then you may want to consider applying to a christian college online, as not all of us can commute, or live near enough to study at a brick and mortar.

Tell me about your time at Howard University School of Divinity. How did it influence you?
My time at Howard University School of Divinity is something I will always cherish. I began seminary with one goal, to learn as much as I could. I innately knew there was more to Christianity than the dogma, hypocrisy, and sexism I experienced in my formative years. The God of my understanding has always been expansive, inclusive, and unable to fit into societal boxes. At HUSD, I was given the academic freedom to challenge and study how the widespread misuse of religious ideas and constructs may result in oppression and spiritual abuse, particularly of women and children.

lakesa2Talk about Silver Spring Presbyterian Church and what makes it remarkable. What is your role there?
Silver Spring Presbyterian Church has been recently noted as “one of the fastest growing” congregations in the PCUSA. Considering the steady decline in congregational membership across the country, some may think that is remarkable. However, I believe what makes Silver Spring remarkable is the ability of its members to adapt and transition in the midst of change.

In its sixty plus years, the congregation has not only survived but thrived despite such challenges as clergy misconduct, shifting neighborhood demographics, devastating termite infestation, consistent shifting of the culture and or ethnicity of its members. Through it all, the members of Silver Spring Presbyterian Church focused on being a Spirit-lifting place, active in social justice and partnering with the surrounding community in service.
In my role as Associate Pastor for Christian Education, it is my great joy to ensure that Silver Spring also focus considerable energy on including its children, youth, and young adults in all aspects of congregational life. The youth serve as worship leaders and are effective in community outreach.

lakesha3What do you like about this denomination? What would you like to improve about it?
I like the connectionalism of the PCUSA, I like that no matter where I am in the country, I can visit a PCUSA congregation and find elements of the worship service that are familiar. I would like for the church to improve its branding and promotion. The denomination seems to have trouble grappling with the idea that it is no longer (or was it ever?) a household name. PCUSA who? PCUSA what? PCUSA why? I wish I had a nickel for every-time I explained to someone about the PC(USA).

How can we encourage more young African-Americans to seek leadership roles in our churches?
I think we encourage more African American leaders by seeking them where they are–in African-American communities and institutions like Howard University School of Divinity. We must make an intentional effort to go where they are and invite them to partner in the life of God’s church.

Our New Day Begun: Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol

Benson-Nicol 2009 PW


I am thankful that we get to meet the Reverend Nancy Benson-Nicol in today’s edition of  “Our New Day Begun.” Nancy is a Teaching  Elder and currently serves as the Associate for Theological Education Funds Development with the Theological Education Fund (read below for a more in-depth look at her work with that). She has a wealth of experience and insight to share with us, and the joy and pride she takes in her work is evident in this interview. Read more about her and you might find that her joy is contagious!


Your ministerial career has been pretty varied in its settings. Can you tell us about your background and the richness of your experience?

Benson-Nicol-2008-Aegean-Sea.jpgI am a “cradle” Presbyterian from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, ordained by the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a teaching elder in 2001. “Fun fact”: I have been “Black history” as a “first” in nearly all of my ministry contexts and at least half of my educational ones (but I suspect that this is the case for many Black Presbyterians, given the demographics…). Prior to ordained ministry, I served the national church as an elected member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, of which I served as vice chair at the tender age of 23. If you’re trying to calculate my age at this point, I’ll spare you the work—I’m 39 (that makes me, like, 21 in “Presbyterian years” though, doesn’t it…?)

My professional ministry experience falls essentially into three categories: congregational ministry, college chaplaincy, and administrative leadership. My first four-and-a-half years in pastoral ministry were in church settings—first, as one of the initial cohort of young ministers at First Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan in its two-year Lilly Parish Ministry Residency Program, then as associate pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. After nearly three years in Fayetteville, I accepted the call to serve as university chaplain of University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas (a PC (U.S.A.)-related baccalaureate institution), where I was in ministry for nearly seven years before embarking on a path of ministry in administrative leadership in 2013 at the Presbyterian Benson-Nicol 2006 Ozarks FamCenter in Louisville—first, in Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries as associate for gender and racial justice, then in Theology, Worship, and Education as associate for theological education funds development. Education is one of my passions, and central to my vocation. It is definitely a common theme throughout my calls.

Tell us about your current call and what you hope to accomplish in it.
Per action of the 221st General Assembly in Detroit last year, my current ministry with the Theological Education Fund (TEF) has shifted in context from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to the Presbyterian Foundation (effective 1/1/15). Now, I am the associate director for theological education funds development with the Foundation. My hope is that, in partnership with the more than 135 individuals across the country who comprise the Seminary Support Network (for which I am responsible to resource and supervise), I bear witness among churches, mid councils, and others to the importance of supporting the ministry and mission of our Presbyterian seminaries. Why? Because theological education matters; because those entrusted with caring for the church ought to be equipped to be critical thinkers, compassionate leaders, prophetic preachers, and prayerful seekers in service of the gospel; because God’s realm deserves our best efforts at preparing faithful leaders, and our theological institutions embody those efforts.

For those who don’t know about it, tell us about Dispatches to God’s Household.
Also known as the “baby” I gestated for three years… (that’s how long it takes to produce these studies, by the way)…Dispatches is the 2012-2013 Horizons Bible Study for Presbyterian Women.  Horizons is the official imprint of Presbyterian Women, and publishes an annual bible study curriculum in addition to a bimonthly magazine. Dispatches covers the General Epistles in the Christian Scriptures—1 Peter-Jude, specifically—with a focus on the nature of Christian community as explored in terms of family and household metaphors—themes common among these ancient texts, and relevant today in our contemporary understandings and descriptions of Christian community. Circles of Presbyterian Women across the country (and even around the world) engage these studies each year, and I consider it an enormous privilege to have been selected to write it. What is more, the gift of traveling in support of it during the summer and fall of 2012 and meeting so many incredible, inspiring women and men who are the church—the family of faith—God’s household today—continues to fill me with gratitude.

Benson-Nicol 2014 PMAWhat would you say are the opportunities of being Black in the PC (USA)? What would you say are its challenges?
The way I see it, the opportunity is also the challenge of being part of a denomination that is, to date, 91.8% White. While it may be argued that there is strength in numbers, it is also true that there is immeasurable fortitude that resides in the margins. That is not to justify marginality, but to acknowledge its value, simply because we who inhabit the margins are valuable—to God, to the world, to the 91.8%, and to ourselves. Or, at least we ought to be.

For whatever strides the PC (USA) has made, what can our denomination do to further amplify the voices of its racial/ethnic minorities?
Take them (us) seriously, regard them (us) as valid, and honor them (us) legitimately as integral parts of the authentic witness of the historic, present, and future church. It’s about more than voices, though—it’s about honoring bodies, minds, hearts, hands, and spirits. Our whole selves. As my mother used to say as I was growing up about heeding her instructions, “it’s that easy, and it’s that hard.” When we (the church as a whole) dismantle what progress has been made, we obstruct the gospel—pure and simple. So literally, for God’s sake, church, let’s just get on with getting it right, already!

Is there anything else you’d like to share or offer as food for thought?
Oh sure, but we’ve probably exceeded the “recommended daily allowance” of Nancy J. Benson-Nicol at this juncture, so I’ll just say, “stay tuned, and keep the faith.” Thanks so much for creating a space for me, and us, to share.

Things Have Changed

I’ve been rather quiet on the blog this month, but for very good reason. I’ve been entertaining a whole lot of change.

I was extended a call to pastor Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, Maryland, and on Sunday, January 25 (which was also my birthday), I was ordained there as a Teaching Elder!


That’s right — no longer a “Certified Candidate.” I’m now the solo pastor and head of staff at a wonderful church in Prince George’s County*. Talk about change!  I encourage you to visit us one Sunday at 11 am.

My ordination service was awesome, much more than I ever expected it to be. It was full of praise, full of worship, and full of love. Among my  ordination commission were people of all races, sexes, and age groups. The church got to see a number of dynamic, YOUNG women leading worship, for which I am definitely grateful. I’m also exceedingly grateful that the Rev. Dr. Gayraud Wilmore and the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory (the third Black woman to be ordained in the denomination) imparted their words of wisdom as I they delivered the charge to the newly-ordained. No, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that — at least, I certainly hope I won’t.

Girl Power!
Girl Power!

The proverbial party didn’t stop there, as the following Tuesday was my first stated meeting of the National Capital Presbytery as an ordained Teaching Elder. And it was one to remember at that, full of change and God doing new things in our midst. We approved a congregation’s plans to sell their church property for the construction of affordable housing, we passed the Belhar Confession (hallelujah!), and we installed a new moderator and vice moderator, both of whom are African-American! I tell you, this ain’t your daddy’s PC(USA). Things have changed!

Casting my first vote as a minister member! Eeeek! #pcusa

A photo posted by Tawnya Denise Anderson (@thesoulstepford) on

And I thank God for it. I thank God that more and more we’re starting to look like a more inclusive and missional church. God is leading us into territory that, for many in the denomination, is unfamiliar, which of course means some misstakes will be made along the way. But as long as we’re not afraid of the missteps and can learn from them, we’ll be fine.

I’m excited and encouraged to be part of this “new thing” God is doing. How about you — do you not perceive it?

*As before and as always, the views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect any official position of the church I pastor or the denomination in which I serve.