We’re Gonna Need More Chairs

New moderator seeks to unite Presbyterians

Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Religion Writer

A 39-year-old San Franciscan has risen to the highest elected post in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The founding pastor and leader of a young Potrero Hill church, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow uses technology in an innovative way to connect and build his congregation. Many hope he will bring new dimensions to a denomination wrestling with dwindling numbers.

Part of Reyes-Chow’s challenge will be trying to integrate the needs of younger Presbyterians into the traditional leadership of the church. He believes that younger generations are less divided by ideological conflict than in the past, more adept at accepting differences of views within one community – such as over homosexuality.

“There’s a whole generation that’s trying to find their voice within the denomination,” said Reyes-Chow, who became the 218th General Assembly moderator of the Presbyterian Church. “The line between what is liberal and what is conservative is far blurrier for most folks than what the institution would like it to be.”

The election gives Reyes-Chow a more powerful pulpit. As moderator, he becomes the face of the church, an ambassador within a sometimes divided church body as well as a bridge to the outer world.

But becoming moderator does not give Reyes-Chow power to decide things unilaterally. The pastor holds one vote on the 45-member General Assembly Council.

Mission Bay Community Church has an active online life, and Reyes-Chow is at the center of that. The congregation has a Facebook group. And they use Twitter, a social networking tool that allows members to keep track of each other throughout the day.

The church’s online presence gives it a possibly outsize reputation on the Web.

Reyes-Chow said his congregation has 150 to 200 actively involved members, and about 100 show up on any particular Sunday. But on Yelp.com, Mission Bay Community Church is San Francisco’s best-rated church – a fact Reyes-Chow touts.

A graduate of San Francisco State and San Francisco Theological Seminary, Reyes-Chow sees his ministry as naturally existing online. While other pastors might do house visits, Reyes-Chow said he might have 200 online interactions with congregants per week.

Compared with a pastor who operates purely through personal contact, “I’m able to interact with people more consistently and at a greater level,” Reyes-Chow said.

At last week’s General Assembly in San Jose, where Reyes-Chow was elected, the discussion of church actions was being streamed live. Bloggers kept up a real-time commentary to parallel what they were seeing.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said the Rev. Jerry L. Van Marter, news director for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Past moderators have brought their own distinctive leadership to the position, advocating for peace, missionary work or, in the case of the most recent moderator, prayer. Reyes-Chow is seen as having particular facility with technology and new ways of engaging with parishioners, especially younger adults.

“He is the most wired moderator we’ve had – by far,” said Van Marter, who said many are expecting that kind of high-tech connection to more broadly reach into the life of the denomination.

E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at mkuruvila@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page B – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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