Prestemon begins as Associate General Minister with commitment to UCC witness of love, inclusiveness, justice
The United Church of Christ has welcomed a new Associate General Minister to the national offices in Cleveland.
The Rev. Shari Prestemon began her role as Acting Associate General Minister and Co-Executive of Global Ministries on Jan. 16, filling the position that was vacated when the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson became General Minister and President.
Her new role includes overseeing Global H.O.P.E., Gender and Sexuality Justice Ministries, the Office of Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, D.C., and the UCC presence at the United Nations, as well as serving as Co-Executive of Global Ministries, the shared witness of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Prestemon comes to the position from her most recent role as conference minister of the Minnesota Conference. She feels like this is right on the path where ministry has led her, noting significant experience in international settings, disaster response and volunteer ministries during her lifelong engagement within the UCC.
“There are a lot of pieces of my experience that tie directly to this position,” Prestemon said. “For me, it’s become a beautiful reflection of how I understand how God works in my life. Even when I can’t see it clearly in moments, God keeps leading me into spaces and places that make sense and where my calling is strong.”
A cloud of witnesses
Prestemon grew up in Zion United Church of Christ in Waukon, Iowa, where she was both baptized and ordained.
It was there that she first became acquainted with global ministry when, as a youth, she joined a UCC peace delegation to the then-Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The trip “cracked open my world and planted in me an understanding that the church has legs in so many places and meaningful ways,” she said.
It is also where Prestemon found a growing “cloud of witnesses” around her that offered mentors and nudged her to use her gifts for ministry. She credits a leader of the peace delegation as the person who first encouraged her to go to seminary.
“The UCC is my extended family and the primary place of my own growth,” Prestemon said.
She has since served as a local church pastor in Wisconsin and Illinois, as executive director at Back Bay Mission — a nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Miss., and member of the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) — and as Minnesota Conference minister. From these positions, Prestemon notes how her experience has shown her the richness, complexity and diversity of the broader church.
“I’ve seen the church from a lot of different angles. Each setting gave me fresh appreciation for new things,” she said, describing how she carries with her “every story, experience and understanding of the life of local church. I need that because we’re here to serve the church. The UCC national ministry doesn’t exist without our local churches.”
‘Powerfully and abundantly present’
Prestemon assumes this role of leadership over international and domestic justice matters at a time with many pressing issues at hand.
Israel’s war on Gaza continues to create dire conditions, with the death toll in Gaza surpassing 26,000 and many more wounded, displaced and facing starvation and disease.
The region matters deeply to Prestemon. She has served on the UCC Palestine/Israel Network steering committee and visited Israel and Palestine several times with UCC delegations where she heard directly from partners and sought to better understand the reality of people’s lives there.
“Our role as global ministry, and the UCC in partnership with the Christian Church, is to be powerfully and abundantly present with our partners, to resist the prevailing narratives about the war and what’s happening there and listen carefully to experiences of our partners on the ground — not just of this war but the context over decades in that region,” she said. “We talk a lot about the things that make for war, and as church we’re supposed to be talking about things that make for peace. Peace can’t only be a ceasefire — though we should have one — because the firing and bombing can stop, and that of itself isn’t wholly peace.
“Peace has to include the presence of justice — not for some, but for all.”
‘Witness of love, inclusiveness, justice’
She also notes the ongoing and pressing needs to support LGBTQIA+ siblings when a record number of anti-LGBTQIA bills were introduced in state legislatures in the last year.
“I’m struck and horrified that our LGBTQIA neighbors are under threat politically, culturally, socially because of these attitudes of fear and hatred and violence rising up in our country,” she said. She stressed that people of faith must respond in a way that “keeps front and center the meaning of the work, the people and communities we’re serving, the quality of relationships that fuel it and the faith that underpins it all.”
“It’s so important — in a time when we’re divided and hatred is on the rise — that we bring our witness of love, inclusiveness and justice, that we keep pounding that drum, however small our voices may feel sometimes,” she said. “Because we can’t allow the voices of hate, fear, violence, dismissal to be the only voices in arena — we’ve got to stay in the game.”
God in the chaos
A valuable lesson Prestemon has learned is to trust in God’s presence even when it can feel hard to find hope.
Hurricane Katrina devastated the community of Biloxi in 2005 during the time that Prestemon served as executive director for Back Bay Mission, whose work supports marginalized people in the city and surrounding area. She described this experience and the following disaster recovery as one of her most challenging experiences — and the most transformational.
She recognized something that has become her mainstay: that God is present in the chaos.
“After Hurricane Katrina, to see how the UCC showed up in extraordinary ways — I have never seen the church better than that. It was so powerful. People brought every resource, energy, love and bit of prayer to bear to be part of recovering,” she said. “I learned to trust that even when we can’t see something clearly in the moment, it’s not all up to our work and the impact we make because God is in this.
“My concrete experience was that God was in the midst of the mess there bringing new life, recovery, resurrection. And I’ve seen that everywhere I’ve been.”
As Prestemon assumes this position, the UCC’s other Associate General Minister position remains vacant following the Rev. Traci Blackmon’s resignation in December. This position, like Prestemon’s, is slated to be filled by the UCC Board in consultation with the General Minister and President, as detailed in the Bylaws. Both Prestemon and the additional AGM will serve in “acting” roles until elections held at the 2025 General Synod in Kansas City.
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