If pews had seat belts, the pastors, elders and leaders of the churches of the Presbytery of Grand Canyon would fasten them when the Rev. Ken Moe gives his provocative reports at the five meetings the regional group of Presbyterian churches holds each year in a geographical area that stretches from Yuma to Ganado.
"I don't shy away from painful things because we have to deal with painful reality," says the executive presbyter,the leader for more than 16,000 Presbyterians in 70 churches plus seven chapels in the central and northern portions of Arizona.
Those "theological insights" of Moe are the highlights of each meeting, says the Rev. Art Campbell, pastor of Mission del Sol Presbyterian Church in Tempe and the moderator of the presbytery this year. "He'll take some aspect of the larger church or what is going on in society or what is happening in our churches and address that from a very insightful perspective."
Here are excerpts from Moe's messages:
In November 2004 on issues facing the denomination: "Here's the big picture. The Presbyterian Church (USA) exists in a world that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith in general and the Reformed tradition in particular ... Powerful forces in the larger Christian community are seeking to define the faith in ways that are narrow, simplistic and trivializing."
In November 2007 on demographics, "We dare not change our beliefs or doctrines to fit whatever unchurched folks in the larger society want ... On the other hand, before us is the very real prospect that as a denomination, we may wither away in a generation or two, tied down by theological claims that are, in essence, no longer believable to a majority of the people."
In September 2002 on narcissism in the church: "Narcissist pastors and lay leaders take advantage of other people to further their own goals. They know their needs are more important than ordinary people's, so the end justifies the means."
At the Interchurch Center in Phoenix, a complex where several mainline denominations have their regional offices, Ken Moe is completing his 10th year guiding this, one of 173 presbyteries across the nation. He often thinks of himself as the "resident theologian" and carefully crafts his presbytery messages, which are archived on the presbytery's Web site (www.pbygrandcanyon.org). He has gotten feedback from across the world.
The Phoenix native divides his life into military service, the insurance industry and Christian ministry.
Baptized while a child at Historic First Presbyterian Church in downtown Phoenix, Moe graduated from West High School and earned a degree in history in 1965 from Arizona State University. With his ROTC officer commission and intentions to make the U.S. Army his career, Moe trained in military intelligence and went through intensive language training. He was sent to Vietnam as a prisoner of war interrogator. He led a team of field interrogators, half-American and half-Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta. They questioned people rounded up by infantrymen. "Our primary concern was whether a person was a Viet Cong or an innocent civilian" or deserters from the Republican army. "Out in the field, we were making quick determinations," he said, noting most of those detained were benign villagers forced to adapt to the demands of Viet Cong or Americans, depending on the moment.
A turning point came for Moe when the commander of his detachment ordered them to hold anyone found "carrying more food than that person could consume in one day" because that presumed the person was supplying food to the Viet Cong. When the infantry brought him an elderly woman with five potatoes, Moe said he disobeyed the order. "I let her go," because she had the potatoes to feed her family, he said. "At a staff meeting that night, the colonel chewed me out, and I told him he was wrong," Moe said. "He tried to get rid of me but he couldn't because we had separate chains of command." The incident led him to choose to close out his Army stint, where he made the rank of captain, and not make it a career.
Once a civilian, Moe went to work for Travelers Insurance, using his military investigation skills in insurance claims and investigating fraud. Part of his work was traveling Arizona interviewing people with disabilities and work issues, as well as looking into suicide cases. At the same time, he became active at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Phoenix. After he was promoted at Travelers to a supervisory role that proved unsatisfying, Moe said, "I was 29 and had my midlife crisis, and I solved it by going to seminary."
In 1977, he found Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with a remarkable range of liberal and conservative faculty as a result of the merger of two seminaries after the United Presbyterian Church of North America and the larger Presbyterian Church in the United States of American joined together in 1958. Moe said he thrived from the teachings of "liberal social activists and hyper-conservatives and Calvinists and everything in between ... an immersion into a broad world of faith."
With his divinity degree, Moe spent almost 20 years serving Pennsylvania pastorates in Kittanning, Harrisburg, Lebanon and Mechanicsburg. In his first church, he concentrated on inactive and former members and increased membership by 43 percent. In the Harrisburg church, founded in 1794, he borrowed from his Vietnam experiences in ministry to Indo-Chinese refugees and later refugees from all over the world. Along the way, Moe mentored pastors new to Presbyterian church assignments. In 1988, he was named associate executive presbyter for the Carlisle Presbytery, based in Camp Hill, Pa., and remained there 11 years. He and his wife, Shelly, were married in 1989. She went to seminary and graduated in 1994. She served as a pastor in Middletown, Pa., home of the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident of 1979. Today, she serves as stated supply pastor of Celebration of Life Presbyterian Church in Mesa and is well-known for performing liturgical dance at churches.
In 1999, Ken Moe was called to Presbytery of Grand Canyon and found it to be "a chance to come home."
"As much as Pennsylvania can be beautiful, I really missed the desert. It is part of my soul," he said. As executive presbyter, his administrative duties are much different than that of a bishop. He can't hire or move around pastors, nor supervise them. He provides guidance to churches and pastors and uses his networking skills across the country to check backgrounds of candidates for pastorates. He noted he gets a surge of calls in mid-winter from the Upper Midwest from pastors saying they feel a "call from God" to serve a church in the Phoenix area, but somehow that call doesn't seem to extend to smaller rural churches of the presbytery where salaries are lowers and challenges often greater.
A major challenge for Moe is sustaining the 18 Native American churches and seven chapels (without pastors or boards, called sessions). All 25 get financial support through the denomination to keep going. The presbytery historically has been a leader in giving for the annual "One Great Hour of Sharing" and for disaster relief work, said Moe, who plans to retire next July.
"A lot of what Ken does behind the scenes is not seen by us," Campbell said. "... He has to be a conflict manager" often dealing with pastors and churches. "He has to be a master politician to deal with both congregations and pastors, and he does that very well."
Moe's military background insights are admired, too, Campbell said. "Sometimes the church seems in opposition to the military and the body politics," the Tempe pastor said. "Because of that experience, Ken has a nice balance. He understands both arenas and can help us understand them."