Getting to know… Terry Epling

We’re getting to know presbytery leaders from around the synod.  This month, meet Terry Eplng! He is the Stated Clerk for Whitewater Valley Presbytery in Indiana.

Tell us about your current call.

In addition to serving as stated clerk for Whitewater Valley Presbytery, on August 15, I began a new call as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bluffton, Indiana. Bluffton is a beautiful small town just south of Fort Wayne, where my wife, Annie, and I live. Annie is the senior pastor of First, Fort Wayne, and a very talented minister. We met at Louisville Seminary. I’ve been chasing her, and our four children, around ever since.

First Bluffton is an active congregation that seeks to connect in meaningful ways with its community. It recently installed a labyrinth on the church grounds to encourage spiritual engagement with the neighborhood. The A-frame style building sports solar panels to provide power and proclaim the congregation’s commitment to environmental stewardship. Its preschool and daycare programs ensure that the building is full of the chatter and singing of children throughout the week.

Prior to Bluffton, I served as the pastor of Trinity, Fort Wayne, and Garrett Presbyterian Church. The congregations adjusted their Sunday worship times in order to share a pastor. It was a cross-presbytery partnership as well. In time, the congregations collaborated on social outings and special worship services and also shared an organist.

I was ordained in 1995 and have served as a campus minister, pastor, and mid-council leader. I’ve served congregations as small as 35 members and as large as 950, and have learned to lead worship in formal and informal settings. As a stated clerk for nearly 20 years, when I wasn’t also serving a congregation, I made a point of supplying pulpits regularly.

The best part of ministry for me has always been meeting and getting to know Presbyterians. We are a wonderful part of the family of God: well-educated and theologically astute, but humble and willing to learn; caring, connected, and community minded, hoping to make a difference; and, always optimistic, trusting in God’s best intentions for us. The pandemic and the “religious resignations” that were accelerated by it have been a challenge. But we have demonstrated our resilience. The church has endured much worse. So I begin a new call with hope that we can chase after God’s dream and realize some of it with God’s help.    

What’s a little-known facet of the stated clerk’s role?

People see the clerk at meetings and, if we’ve done our job well, we don’t have much to do there. That’s because we’ve put in time in preparation for the meeting with the Executive and Moderator. Nothing pleases a clerk more than a well-planned meeting.

After the meeting there is always follow-up correspondence to ensure that ministers are transferred, received, or retired. Most of that is done electronically these days. What used to be done with a five-part carbon copy form now is done by completing a document online and clicking a button. Still, it often requires a phone call to say, “Hey, did you get that form I sent you?” Some things don’t change.

Of course, there is the production of minutes of the meeting. Everyone knows we keep the minutes and records, but we’re also responsible for reviewing the minutes of all the sessions. That’s one of my favorite things. Clerks have a unique role in a congregation. Review of records is an opportunity to learn and to teach best practices and that leads to stronger more effective sessions.

As you look around Whitewater Valley Presbytery this month, what gives you hope for the church?

At Presbytery Assemblies (stated meetings) over the past year or so we’ve had recently ordained ministers preaching on Matthew 25. Wow! These pastors give me hope. We often hear about how few students are entering the preparation for ministry process. It’s true, the numbers are low. But the ministers entering the field are inspiring. They can share the good news, and their witness is moving and sincere.

When I think about my seminary training, it was mostly about church maintenance. Even though the church had been declining for 30 years by then, there was a sense that the church was the way the church should be and we should learn to maintain it. Then, in my early years of ministry, continuing education emphasized church growth. The numbers were beginning to worry us. From growth, the theme changed to transition and adaptation. Today that all seems like folly. New ministers don’t expect the church to be what it was, an institution that needs to be maintained and grown, transitioned or adapted. Instead, they are calling us to greater faithfulness to the gospel even as our institutional forms fade away. That will preach, and that gives me hope.  

What’s a resource that you’ve discovered that you’d like to recommend to church leaders?

I participated in the Mid-Council Leaders’ Pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, this spring. It was hosted by the Synod and challenged us to examine our nation’s racism and history of lynching, segregation, and discrimination. I was deeply moved by the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial to the victims of lynching. Recently I heard someone who should know better talk about “lynchings in the South.” But lynchings occurred everywhere, including here within our own Synod bounds. This summer I read the book A Fever in the Heartland; The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them about the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s, not in the South, but in our beloved Indiana. It was eye opening. Our mild-mannered state was a hotbed of Klan activity supported by government, the courts, and church leaders. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about history not repeating itself.    

What do you like to do outside of work and church?

Annie and I have four children. Our oldest, Henry, lives in downtown Fort Wayne and works for a great company as an environmental specialist. He graduated from the College of Wooster in 2020. Our son Tommy lives in Denver and graduated from the University of Denver in 2022. He is a special education teacher in the public schools. Our daughter Julia is a junior at Miami University studying English Education. Charlotte, our youngest, is a sophomore in high school and plays the clarinet in the band and studies piano and Spanish. We enjoy summers on a lake and visiting national parks.  

I’m an avid gardener. When we moved to Fort Wayne our backyard had a small grassy area surrounded by a neglected overgrown wooded border. The pandemic shutdown provided the perfect opportunity to begin developing a woodland garden there. It is a work in progress. At this stage it looks best in spring, but plants are maturing and the seasons are all filling out.

What are your plans for the fall?

I look forward to doing a new clerk training in the fall. Clerks of Session often begin their ministries in January, but a fall training in anticipation of taking up the clerk role can help to ease anxieties about the clerk’s work. The year always begins with statistical reporting, a big task with a mid-February deadline. That doesn’t leave much time for training. After statistical reporting, clerks often spend time getting their minutes from the prior year ready for review. That means that fall is often when clerks have the most time to focus on training and learning best practices. With the adoption of the new Church Discipline and the requirement of new session policies, we’ll have plenty to discuss in addition to our usual topics.