During the initial joint meeting of Presbytery of Alaska (AK) and Presbytery of North Puget Sound (NPS) on March 15, presbyters chose Northwest Coast as the name for the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s newest regional mid-council body.
Officials with Synod of Alaska-Northwest approved the merger of the two presbyteries during a December 2013 meeting, and the ecclesiastical union of the bodies became effective Jan. 1, 2014.
Governed by the laws of the State of Washington and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the presbytery operated under the North Puget Sound name until presbyters came together for their first meeting as a united body and chose Presbytery of Northwest Coast as the new moniker.
The name was selected from more than 50 suggestions solicited from church members in the former presbyteries and the Executive Board, which includes members from both former bodies.
“It’s important to us that we were creating something new together,” said Dr. Corey-Schlosser-Hall, executive presbyter of North Puget Sound, said in a phone interview with The Layman. “Choosing a new name is being respectful and giving symbolic reference to the fact that we are creating something new. There are some unique qualities that Alaskans bring to Puget Sounders and that we bring to them. It’s not us and them anymore. It’s we. We’re a part of each other now.”
The Rev. Dean Strong, stated clerk for NPS and the synod, explained that selection criteria for the name:
- be easily identifiable to others outside the region;
- have historical, geographical or theological significance;
- work well as a brand; and
- represent members well from both former presbyteries.
The Executive Board took suggestions for more than a month and narrowed the list to three: Inside Passage, Northwest United and Northwest Coast. Presbyters cast votes for their favorite name during the March 15 meeting, and Northwest Coast was the overwhelming selection. That name also had been the first choice for the Executive Board.
In an email to The Layman, Strong pointed out that Northwest Coast is a term that is used to describe the people and culture of the indigenous people who lived along the Pacific Coast in Southwest Alaska to the Salish Sea area of Washington State and along the coast to the Columbia River region that includes a number of native tribes. Many of these native people are members of the churches of the new presbytery. Their various names identify many geographic features, towns, cities and churches, and are familiar to all who live in the region. The term may have been perceived as best representing members from both presbyteries, Strong wrote.
Merging the presbyteries became necessary when six churches were dismissed from the Presbytery of Alaska in April 2013, dropping its number of congregations below the required number of 10 required for a presbytery as designated by the Book of Order.
When that happened, the Synod of Alaska-Northwest assumed jurisdiction and directed the presbytery to serve as an Administrative Commission, taking care of the day-to-day operations of the presbytery. Synod leaders also instructed the Presbytery of Alaska’s general council to work with the Presbytery of North Puget Sound to compose a plan for continuing the ministry.
That plan was to combine the remaining nine congregations (Craig-Klawock, Hydaburg, Juneau, Ketchickan, Metlakatkla, Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell and Yakutat) and 450 members of Alaska with the 35 congregations and 8,100 members of North Puget Sound to make one larger presbytery.
Dr. David Dobler, pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska, and Schlosser-Hall, are working in tandem and continue in their current capacities during the transition period. Dobler does not expect to be part of the new presbytery moving forward but will remain as part of the leadership team on a half-time basis, perhaps through Sept. 30, 2014. When Dobler gives up his half-time post, Schlosser-Hall will be the executive presbyter for Northwest Coast.
Strong (NPS) and George Pasley (AK) will continue in their roles as stated clerks for their respective presbyteries during the transition period, which includes a merging of assets and establishment of bylaws for a single presbytery rather than two.
The first gathering got off to a good start at First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Wash. Schlosser-Hall and Strong both sent emails to The Layman documenting some of the events that took place, including an exchange of gifts and prayers between and for the two presbyteries.
“We had a great first coming together leadership summit. Some really beautiful, Holy Spirit things happened,” Schlosser-Hall said.
Worship was conducted in three languages and participants were encouraged to pray in their own languages. Korean, Spanish, English and many Native tongues were heard.
Members from the NPS native community of Neah Bay Presbyterian Church welcomed their new friends from Alaska in the Makah language and presented them with shell necklaces, and Yvonne Wilkie shared a version of The Lord’s Prayer in Makah. A commissioner from Alaska also presented a copper gift for NPS presbyters to those representing Neah Bay.
The Rev. Jane Van Antwerp presented children’s books from her Beyond the Blue ministry to each Alaska congregation, and Pasley shared a poem he had written called When We Paddled Upon the Waters after the selection of the presbytery’s new name.
“All of these (gestures) were from their own initiative,” indicated Schlosser-Hall. “People had a good will and good spirit. Our first act of coming together brought out the best in people. Everyone was hospitable and warm. We’re starting to see that goodwill shine through. It’s a good sign the Holy Spirit is up to something.”
Off to a good start
The transition from two presbyteries to one is moving along, particularly with an identifiable name now in place.
“So far the merger seems to be going well,” Strong wrote. “The greatest challenge is geography, as we are considering how best to gather and communicate; engaging, encouraging and resourcing one another across the region, maintaining strong relationships while also considering the stewardship issues of the high cost of travel.”
He pointed out that presbytery officials are exploring alternative ways of staying connected, such as one large annual gathering while meeting administrative needs of the presbytery by using a variety of electronic meeting methods during the course of the year.
Documents from the March 15 assembly show a tentative meeting schedule for the remainder of 2014 that has gatherings in Washington planned for May and November with another to take place in Alaska in September.
Schlosser-Hall indicated that the unified presbytery seeks to focus on equipping and engaging the village ministries that dot the landscape of the larger region. Representatives from NPS already have visited three of the nine churches in Alaska, and officials from Alaska have spent time visiting and preaching to North Puget Sound congregations.
“The transition is going smoothly,” he said. “In these first few months we’ve been building relationships and establishing connections that will bring great blessings to both bodies. That’s really quite good.”