Kathi McShane: A PSR story in three acts

Kathi McShane entered PSR in 1995 as a lawyer with an eye to teaching professional ethics, and returns this fall to the post of vice president for institutional advancement as a seasoned pastor with a strengthened theology of stewardship. For this trajectory, she credits her experience at PSR.  At First United Methodist Church on 21st and J in midtown Sacramento, where McShane has served as pastor for the last four years, she related the story.

My first career was practicing law; I did that for 16 years. I married one of my partners, and we built a successful and thriving practice. But I was one of those lawyers who always thought, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.’ About every three years I would think, ‘What else could I do?’ Now I recognize all that anxiety about not being in the right profession as a sort of spiritual longing, but I didn’t recognize it then.

In 1994, my husband died very suddenly. The foundation was thrown out of my life. I had stepsons who were 19 and 16 at the time, a daughter who was 7, and nothing that I had been doing made sense any more. I left the practice of law within about six months. We had joined a United Methodist Church just about a year before my husband died. My grief experience was really my rebirth into faith. The church ‘caught’ me as I lost my old life and learned what a new life might look like.

At the time, I was a candidate for a judgeship in Contra Costa County. I also applied to PSR, thinking that I would do a one-year program in ethics, to teach professional ethics to lawyers. I sat with Ron Parker, the director of admissions then, and asked, ‘Which of these things shall I do? How do I know what God is calling me to do?’ And he said words I will never forget: “A calling is different than career planning. If you were career planning, I’d ask you what you want to do in the long run and we’d work backward from there. But a calling is always just to the next step—God only calls you to one step at a time.” That made sense to me, and it has been the guiding principle of my vocational life since then. I never know what the long-term future is going to hold, but I do always know the next step.

As soon as I got to PSR, I realized this was the place where I could do the same thing with my head and my heart, which is exactly what I had been missing in the practice of law. John Corson, my pastor at the time and one of PSR's distinguished alums, guided me toward the path to ordination before I was even very aware that that was what I wanted to do.

In my second year I served as the student trustee. At the beginning of my third year in the MDiv program, I interviewed with Riess Potterveld and Bill McKinney for a position in the development office. I was so naïve about development work that during the interview I said, ‘This all sounds good, but I wouldn’t actually have to ask anyone for money, would I?’ I have no idea how we got past that moment, but for reasons that are completely mysterious to me, they hired me.

It felt immediately like good work. I started as development associate and directed PSR’S Tradition of Boldness capital campaign. I learned to do development as ministry, focusing on a theology of stewardship—the opportunity to remind people that your deepest convictions can be lived out in what you do with your money. We all have a longing to align our practical economic lives with our spiritual lives, and philanthropy is a way to do that. And along the way, I learned to talk about giving in a way that I carried with me when I left PSR to work in the church.

I loved my five years at PSR, but there was always a part of me that wanted to be a pastor too. So when the bishop called me in 2002 and asked if I would take a position in a church, I said yes. I served as associate pastor for four years at San Ramon Valley United Methodist Church in Alamo, and then in 2006, I was appointed to First United Methodist Church in Sacramento. It’s a classic “First Church”—a downtown mainline Protestant church that had 3,000 members in the early 1960s. As people moved out to the suburbs and the demographics in the city changed, the church did not know how to deal with that.  The congregation worked hard to protect its lovely buildings in the only way it knew how, which was to wall itself off. Our work of the last four years has really been about throwing the doors open. We expanded the community breakfasts in which the church welcomes the homeless and hungry to come and eat on Sunday mornings; we got involved in a rotating shelter program. We also started a summer program called “Staging a Miracle”—a five-week musical theater program for children and families transitioning out of homelessness—it's one of the things I’m most proud of.

We'd serve dinner for the whole family and provide arts classes to the children—singing, dancing, visual arts. It ends with a major production that draws up to 800 people. The church provides the volunteers; teachers are practicing artists who come from the community; money comes from the community—it’s really a partnership.

This new welcoming spirit has changed the character of the church, and because of that, the church has grown substantially. A lot of that growth has been people whom we served or people who came first not to find a church, but to volunteer—a very different model of church than I had any idea of before. My work as a leader has been to be the first one to say “yes,” to lead the congregation in trusting that God has even greater hopes for the church than we do, and that our work is to say yes to whatever God brings next.

Being the pastor of a downtown church has stretched me in all the same ways that PSR stretched me. It has made me more inclusive, and more courageous about what it means to be Christian. My thinking about PSR, and who we are as a seminary, is quite different after this experience.

My idea of church is much bigger than it used to be. It’s going to have to be a church that realizes that its work is not to offer people the security of an unchanging tradition, but the courage to go out and change the world. Everybody knows now that much of what we’ve been doing as church no longer works.  What we’re doing as seminary needs to change too.

What the church and seminary can do together is literally to ‘en-courage’ each other, to give one another courage for doing an entirely new thing. PSR is a place where that conversation can happen. That’s what I love about PSR—it’s where the conversation does happen.