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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All Ministry is Interim

Paul Rack, my Stated Clerk colleague from the Presbytery of Elizabeth, has served in the past as an interim pastor. He knows what he's talking about when he writes in a blog posting from several months back:

"Because we live in a culture of transition, all ministry today is transitional; it necessarily has a temporary, provisional, and 'between' or 'on the way' quality. The great value of Interim Ministry is that it has always addressed issues of transition in congregations. There are therefore many lessons we may learn from Interim Ministry that apply to all ministry in a time of pervasive change.... Churches no longer actually settle into any traditionally recognizable, sustainable, stable state. For the sake of a dynamic ministry in Christ’s name, every new minister needs to be prepared to keep positive change and adaptation happening, no matter how much congregations may crave stability."

Paul goes on to reframe some traditional agenda items of interim pastors to apply to all churches, whether literally in an interim period of pastoral leadership, or not:

1. Coming to Terms with History
"In a time of radical transition and change, however, our history is not necessarily a positive thing to get in touch with. Too many churches are so cognizant of their heritage that they lose sight of the world they are situated in today. Church becomes an exercise in nostalgia or even grief over some perceived golden age."

2. Discovering a New Identity
"As superficially beneficial as [the classic demographic-study] approach may be, it still ignores a more important and primary theological question: 'Who are we, and what is God calling us to do, as God’s people in this time and place?' Ministry now involves drawing people into discernment and conversation about their own callings from God."

3. Shifts of Power/Leadership Changes
"Congregations have to recognize and empower new leaders all the time. This grows naturally out of the focus on identifying people’s particular callings.... Secondly, the very character of leadership in the church is flattening and spreading out. We have always depended on top-down, centralized systems of organization. But these are being rapidly replaced by organic networks, empowering people to follow their own callings."

4. Rethinking Denominational Linkages
"Too often the denominational structure is a gauntlet of inertia, suspicion, old habits, and entrenched interests that must be navigated by a church requesting support in doing anything innovative, different, or 'outside the box' in ministry. Presbyteries are learning at least to give lip-service to the idea that they exist to support the mission of local churches. Increasingly they now have to back up these words with real actions, putting the health, needs, and mission of congregations ahead of the presbytery’s own issues."

5. Commitment to a New Future
"The insight that 'all ministry is interim ministry' means that even 'permanent' Pastors are called to have the orientation towards the future that good Interims have. In short, all Pastors will want to find the courage to be active change agents, leading the people of God into a new future. In practice this entails a kind of ruthlessness about ridding ourselves of whatever holds us back from effective mission in Jesus’ name today."

His blog entry is worth reading in its entirety.

I've been in my present pastoral position for 20 years, but never before have I had been aware of more rapid change in the character of congregational life. Participation in church activities, particularly weekly worship, is more sporadic now. Members still look favorably upon the church, and will turn out in great numbers for specific events, but they seem less inclined to include Sunday worship in their list of "must-do" weekly activities. This is especially true of regular, weekly volunteer commitments like choir and church-school teaching.

There seems to be a nearly universal decline in regular financial giving as well, much of which is generational. As my generation, the baby boomers, comes more and more to displace the older generations in church leadership, we just haven't risen to the occasion when it comes time to take out our checkbooks - and what's true for us is even more true for the generations younger than us. Again, church folk will respond to specific appeals with remarkable generosity, but the regular pledge seems to be falling into disfavor.

Curiously, we're also seeing a big uptick in the numbers of people who attend worship regularly but never become members. We need to do more to intentionally relate to this "friends" group - some of whom cheerfully sign up to help with various tasks and even submit pledges, but always decline the invitation to come out to a new members' group.

The proposed new Form of Government, if approved by a majority of the presbyteries this year, will provide Sessions with considerable freedom for innovation of this sort. The old membership categories will no longer be mandatory. I don't know, at this point, what I'd recommend changing about the way we structure our membership rolls - to better relate to this amorphous "friends" group - but I'm open to suggestions. I know of a few churches that have established a separate category of "Friends of the Church." Maybe that would be a good place to start.

Increasingly, Americans are not joiners. As sociologist Robert Putnam has demonstrated in a much-quoted book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, sign-me-up membership in various organizations like service clubs - and even bowling leagues - has been in free fall for decades. It's taken the church a little longer to catch up with this trend, but it's now upon us in earnest.

This isn't to say the church is in decline. God's just changing us into something different than what we've been. We have an old saying in the Reformed Tradition: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda ("The Reformed church is always being reformed"). What's changing is our understanding of membership. We're moving in the direction of becoming a more informal, gathered community with less sharply-defined boundaries. As the computer revolution continues, online points of connection - while they will never replace face-to-face community - will continue to grow in importance.

I think Paul's right. All of us in church leadership, ministers and elders alike, would do well to acquaint ourselves with the sorts of things interim pastors know. That's because, in changing times like these, all ministries are interim.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nobody Likes a Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger may be a legend of the silver screen, but he’s not a very welcome figure around the church. Especially not a Presbyterian church.

That’s because we’re connectional. Many of the most important things that happen in the life of the congregation are always done in coordination with the Presbytery.

Why is that? Is the Presbytery just an annoying level of bureaucracy leaders in the local church must overcome, in order to accomplish anything substantial for the Lord?

It may seem that way, at times – at least, to the uninitiated. We’ve got a powerful home-rule tradition in our country, and sometimes that thinking leaches into the church.

The church is different, though. In the Presbyterian church, we’ve always had a healthy suspicion of sin and the havoc it can wreak in the common life of God’s people. The best way we’ve found to counter the ecclesiastical expressions of sin is by relying on groups of people, rather than individuals. Centuries of experience has shown that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is more reliably discerned through groups of people praying, discussing and deciding together.

That’s not to say there’s no such thing as visionary leaders. It’s just that we Presbyterians always want to make sure their vision is vetted and tested through the faithful discernment of elected governing bodies (Session, Presbytery, Synod, General Assembly).

Here – slightly adapted from the Clerk of Session manual of Pittsburgh Presbytery, are a dozen significant ways local churches must always act in concert with the Presbytery, along with a list of those who must be involved in the decision or action:

1) Application to Presbytery to take an inquirer for the Ministry
under care of Presbytery
Committee on Preparation for Ministry

2) All loans which use the church or its property as collateral and all sales of property
Session and Trustees (in most churches these days, Trustees are the same as the Session)
Trustees of Presbytery

3) All leases of church property for a period of more than five years, or use of the Sanctuary for worship for any length of time

Trustees of Presbytery

4) All changes of church location or church name

Trustees of Presbytery

5) All changes in terms of call for the pastor(s)
Committee on Ministry

6) All proposals for merger, dissolution, yoking of congregations

Trustees of Presbytery

7) All dissolutions of pastorates and calls for new pastors
Committee on Ministry

8) Appointment of moderator of session, stated supply or interim pastor in the case of a vacant pulpit
Committee on Ministry

9) Call a special session meeting
Two members of session, in writing

10) Call a special congregational meeting
Session, or
Presbytery, or
Session when requested in writing by 1/4 active members of the congregation

11) Session meeting when the pastor is ill or is out of town

Pastor grants permission and appoints a member of Presbytery as moderator pro tem

12) All waivers from the terms of election for church officers [G-14.0202]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Where to Find the Amendments Books

This is an unusual year for Presbytery voting on Amendments from the General Assembly. Usually we receive just one booklet containing all the amendments, but because two of the amendments this time are very large - both in size and in historical importance - the amendments book is divided into three sections.

BOOKLET 1 contains the proposed new Form of Government (which has come to be known by the acronym, "nFOG."

BOOKLET 2 contains the text of a proposed addition to the Book of Confessions, the Belhar Confession.

BOOKLET 3 contains all other amendments, including a proposed replacement of section G-6.0106b of the Form of Government dealing with ordination standards (which has come to be known as the "fidelity and chastity" paragraph).

Monmouth Presbytery has decided it will consider the amendments on the following schedule:

November 23, 2010 - BOOKLET 2, The Belhar Confession

January 25, 2011 - BOOKLET 1, New Form of Government

March 22, 2011 - BOOKLET 3, all other amendments

At the Presbytery meeting preceding each of the above meetings, the Bills & Overtures Committee will be presenting some introductory material dealing with these documents. (In September, we heard their introduction to Belhar; in November we'll hear their introduction to nFOG; and in January we'll hear their introduction to the other amendments, particularly G-6.0106b.)

These booklets were handed out in September. We have a good number of additional copies, and will bring them to Presbytery meetings for distribution while supplies last - but those who have them are encouraged to please bring their copies with them, so as not to exhaust the supply.

The booklets are also available online on the PC(USA) website, where they can be downloaded and printed as pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files.

Please be sure your church's commissioners to Presbytery have access to these booklets. While we always encourage churches to elect commissioners who can attend Presbytery meetings regularly (so as to be more familiar with ongoing business), this is even more important with respect to our voting on the constitutional amendments - particularly so they can hear the Bills & Overtures Committee's introductions to them.

So, please encourage your Sessions to elect the same commissioner(s) for November, January and March, if at all possible.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Motion You'll Probably Never Need

Most manuals of parliamentary procedure contain a list of motions in order of precedence. Among the highest of privileged motions is the motion "to lay on the table" - or, in the more common shorthand description - the motion "to table" the current item of business. (The actual Table at the center of Britain's House of Commons is pictured to the right.)

"Let's table that" is a statement frequently heard in parliamentary meetings, from the town council to the P.T.A. - and, yes, sometimes even in Session meetings. The effect of such a motion is to set the current motion aside, freezing it in its current amended or unamended state, until such time as the body wishes to take it up again.

If the body takes up a tabled motion at a later time, debate is resumed at exactly the point at which the motion to table was made. For example, if a proposed amendment to the main motion was being debated, the body will be begin consideration of the un-tabled motion by continuing its debate on the proposed amendment.

If a tabled motion is never re-introduced, it dies.

The motion to lay on the table is perfectly legal, but it can be used in underhanded ways. It's a very powerful motion, taking precedence over most others. It's undebatable, and requires a simple majority vote to pass.

I'm of the opinion that the motion to table should almost never be used. Maybe if the building's on fire, or if Bruce Springsteen's just walked into the room and has offered to sing a solo (but only in the next five minutes, because he's born to run). That's about it. For most everything else, forget it.

In other words, the motion to table could be useful in the rare situation in which something unexpected has happened, and the wisdom of tabling is perfectly clear to everyone.

In almost every other situation, there's a much better alternative: the motion to postpone. Unlike the motion to table, it is debatable.

Debate on a motion to postpone can ONLY be about the wisdom of postponing. If the body begins to slip back into general debate on the merits of the motion itself, the moderator should blow the whistle and remind those in attendance to confine their comments to the question of whether or not postponement is wise.

There are two variations of this motion: to postpone definitely or indefinitely. A definite postponement specifies when the body will take the motion up again, usually at the same meeting or at the next meeting (if other stated meetings are already scheduled, the item can be definitely postponed even further into the future). An indefinite postponement, on the other hand, is vague and open-ended: if no one ever moves to take the item up again, it dies.

Of the two, the motion to postpone definitely is usually the better choice.

In a meeting, if someone moves to table something (and before there has been a second), you as Clerk can swiftly alert the moderator to the fact that a motion to postpone is also possible, and is usually fairer than the motion to table. This will often result in a different motion, one that's more likely to leave all parties feeling like they have been heard and have been treated with respect.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bartimaeus and the Outreach Committee

Like most other things in this world, when committees are good, they're really, really good. And, when they're bad - well, you know how it goes. In light of that reality, I thought you all might enjoy this little piece (if you haven't seen it before). It's slightly adapted from the original by Andee Zetterbaum, which someone posted on the PresbyNet computer network some years back...

So, herewith, the missing and corrected verses of Mark's gospel. Or, as it should more properly be known, the story of Bartimaeus and the Outreach Committee.

46. They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.
46a. "There's no need to pay attention to him," advised several of his disciples. "We already support the Center for the Preservation of Blind Beggars, so we're doing our share for the community."
46b. "If you have to say anything to him, just direct him to the CPBB--they're the agency that can best deal with his problem," said another.
47. When Bartimaeus heard that it was of Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
48. Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
48a. Jesus turned to his disciples. "That man needs me. I want to pause for a moment in our travels to help him."
48b. "Sounds like exactly the kind of project that should fall under our Outreach Committee," said a senior member of Jesus' band. "Go talk to them, and they'll help you."
48c. "Outreach Committee?" said one member. "We're in the middle of a journey to Jerusalem, and that's got to take precedence. Maybe when the journey is done, we can think about doing something for the blind man."
48d. Other committee members pointed out, "We have only limited resources, so we need you to focus on healing only the members of your own band. Maybe someday when we're richer and have several healers, we can look at helping outsiders."
48e. Finally the committee chair suggested, "Why don't you put your proposal in writing so we can take it up at our next meeting?"
48f. Jesus grabbed for a piece of bark, and with a stick, scribbled on it (in words of one syllable), "I want to stop and help that man." He handed it to the committee chair.
48g. Three weeks later, the committee chair found him and said, "We REALLY liked your ideas, but because we're all too busy to help with the project right now, we'd like you to come to our next meeting in a month, to talk with us about it. Then the liaison can present it to the Session the following week. And, oh, by the way, would you like to serve on the Outreach Committee?"

Scholars' notes:
Jesus, having accepted that invitation, was swallowed up in committee work, and disappeared from sight forthwith. The entire remaining episodes of the Gospels are mere fantasy and writers' inventions.

Bartimaeus was hired by the Outreach Committee chair as its public spokesperson, and later became a consultant in organizational communications, pioneering the science of obfuscation and procrastination. Unfortunately, his supremely important role in history was lost due to a scribal error in the late 2nd century. However, echoes of his story surface from time to time in folk wisdom, where his name has been transformed from Bartimaeus into Murphy (as in Murphy's Law).

No other records of the committee chair or its members survive, and the character "God," who is mentioned earlier in the annals of Jesus and Bartimaeus, is still trying to figure out how to get Session approval and support for various projects. A good course in memo writing is recommended to enhance God's career development.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on the Lord's Prayer

Who would have thought my little town of Point Pleasant Beach would be the site of a separation-of-church-and-state controversy? It's all about the Borough Council's desire to continue its practice of opening Council meetings with a public recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

An article in today's newspaper tells of the appearance of some local citizens who interrupted the Council's newly-instituted moment of silence by praying the Lord's Prayer aloud.

I've written this letter to the editor of the Asbury Park Press. We'll see if they publish it:

To the Editor:

Reading about the controversy here in Point Pleasant Beach about official use of the Lord’s Prayer in Borough Council meetings leads me to wonder: how did the Council choose the particular version they’re using?

Their “forgive us our trespasses” version – favored by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists and others – comes from William Tyndale’s Bible translation of 1525. The “forgive us our debts” used in my own Presbyterian Church is based on John Wycliffe’s translation of 1395 as well as the King James Version. A 1988 ecumenical alternative seeks to foster Christian unity by introducing “forgive us our sins.”

No one ever wrote down the Aramaic words Jesus himself would have spoken, but of course, there’s always the original Greek of the New Testament. Somehow, though, “aphes humin ta opheilemata hemon” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

By beginning their meetings with an explicitly Christian prayer, the Council is already flouting the First Amendment’s prohibition on “establishment of religion.” I think we citizens have a right to know which expression of Christianity the Council has chosen to establish, and why.

Of course, the Council could avoid all this complexity by simply deciding to introduce a moment of silence instead. That would be truer to Jesus’ original intention in Matthew 6:5-15. Matthew says Jesus taught his disciples this simple prayer so they could use it in private – not ostentatiously, in public, for all to see. That seems to be what this regrettable political debate is all about, isn’t it?

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Treasurer’s Tale, Part 3

The conclusion of our ghostly yarn...

Ebenezer felt the presence of the third ghost before he saw him. It was as though a hundred windows had been thrown open in the dead of winter. The shiver he felt, though, had nothing to do with the temperature.

“Are you... are you... The Ghost of Per Capita Yet To Come?

Standing at the foot of his bed was a truly spectral figure, whose emaciated form made the other two wraiths look positively corpulent by comparison.

Ebenezer’s latest visitor was wearing a threadbare pulpit robe. Emerging from the robe’s neck and arm openings were the bleached bones of a skeleton. The ghost seemed to stare at him through its gaping eye-sockets, but Ebenezer could discern no hint of emotion nor personality within those dark recesses.

By way of response, the specter only raised its arm and crooked one bony finger in a beckoning gesture.

Ebenezer had barely swung his feet off the edge of the bed and into his slippers before he found himself, along with the ghost, standing inside a dusty antique shop.

“How may I help you?” asked the clerk of a customer.

“I have something to sell.” The customer, a balding, middle-aged man with bags under his eyes and a glum look on his face, reached into a battered cardboard box and pulled out a sterling-silver communion set: four plates, four circular cup-holders, and two slightly-tarnished silver covers.

“And how did you come by this?”
asked the dealer, her eyes narrowing.

“Don’t worry, it’s not stolen. You know Second Presbyterian Church, on the east side of town?”

“That’s the one they built in the 1950s as the new suburbs were starting to go up, right?”

“The very same. I can see you know your local history. Well, that church closed its doors a couple months ago. I serve on a Presbytery committee in charge of liquidating the congregation’s assets.”

“A sad business, no doubt about it. This has always been a town of church steeples. Yet, if the community’s affection for its churches goes no deeper than admiring historic architecture – God help us!”

“Tell me about it. Anyway, what can you give us for this communion set?”

The dealer looked back at him for a moment, as though choosing her words carefully. “Let me show you something.” The dealer led her customer back behind the counter, into a storeroom. “Look up there on the shelf.”

The customer looked, and saw a whole row of communion sets, visible through the twist-tied plastic bags in which each of them were wrapped.

“These are all similar to your set. Products of church-supply houses in the fifties or sixties. Good silver plating, well cared-for, but too recently-manufactured to have any antiquarian value. I’m not sure I’ll be able to sell these I’ve already got. They may have to go to the scrap dealer. There’s just no market for them anymore."

“I see.”

“Sorry to say, I can’t even make you an offer. But, let me ask you this. Are you getting rid of any church pews? Restaurants love to have those, so their customers have someplace to sit as they’re waiting for their tables. If you’ve got pews, and they’re in decent shape, then we can deal.”

With a creaking of bones, and with surprising swiftness, the ghostly guide swung the loose drapery of its robe over Droodge’s head, as a matador mastering a bull. When the specter brought it back down again, the two of them were standing in a church meeting-room, where a group of people sat around folding tables.

“It appears you’ve brought me to a church, spirit,” said Ebenezer. “But, which one?”

His question was answered momentarily. “Please call up page A-5 from your Session packet on your smartphone and have a look at this proposal,” said the minister (who was nobody Ebenezer recognized – no surprise, this being the future). “As we finalize First Church of New Geneva’s budget for the coming year, we’re going to have to take into account some new expenses we haven’t had to consider before. We’re due for our triennial visit from the Committee on Ministry, and you know their consultant fee has been set at $250. It’s going up to $300. We’ve grown quite used to paying that lower fee, which as you know is called the Presbytery Triennial User Interaction fee – PTUI, for short.”

“I remember the days when the Committee on Ministry people used to come for free,”
said one of the elders, wistfully.

“Me too,” said the pastor, “but I’m afraid those days aren’t coming back. Now, we’ve been told, the Presbytery is levying a new fee. They’re calling it the Rental Offset Transfer fund, or ROT. You know the user fees local churches have been charging the Presbytery when they host Presbytery meetings? Those keep going up, so the only way the Presbytery can cover those fees is to create this ROT fund, and bill every church a hundred bucks a year to fill it. (That doesn’t sound like much, I know, but you can count on that expense going higher in future years.)”

The same elder leaned back in her chair and sighed. The pastor noticed, and jumped in: “Yes, Phyllis, you and I both remember when congregations considered it an honor to host a Presbytery meeting, and wouldn’t have dreamed of charging user fees. Some of them even refused the offering taken up to cover the cost of lunch, suggesting it be used for mission. Yet, after the per capita system fell apart and presbyteries changed over to a fee-for-services philosophy, the churches retaliated with the user fees. It’s been downhill ever since.”

Speaking again to the whole Session, the pastor continued: “In case any of you are wondering, that’s why we’ve been holding a couple Presbytery meetings by Skype each year – we lose something in the face-to-face contact department, but at least the Presbytery can save on user fees. A big difficulty with the Skyped meetings, of course, is that there’s no good way to celebrate Communion. Somebody’s come up with a creative solution, though. They’ve located a supplier of communion elements that’s still selling an ingenious, older product. It looks like two restaurant single-serving creamers glued together at the base. They say they used to use them in the old drive-in churches that were popular towards the end of the 20th Century. One side has a cube of bread inside it, and the other’s filled with grape juice. Presbytery commissioners will be able to order those online, in advance, using a major credit card, and have them shipped right to their homes. A larger church like us, that sends several commissioners to Presbytery, can save money by submitting a bulk order and asking our commissioners to pick them up here at the church. You’ll see that on line 127 of the proposed church budget. It’s listed as ‘ERP,’ or ‘Elements Redistribution Plan’”

Ebenezer looked plaintively at the Ghost of Per Capita Yet To Come. “Can we please go now?” he asked.

The ghost nodded, slowly and deliberately, then cast the loose end of its robe over the treasurer’s shoulders once again.

Their next destination was very different. It was a dirty, noisy, honky-tonk bar – complete with neon beer signs on the wall, a couple of blaring jukeboxes competing with each other and a continuing chatter of billiard balls in the background.

Ebenezer squinted his eyes in the semi-darkness. At the end of the bar sat a hugely overweight man in his mid-30s, wearing a sleeveless denim shirt with the words “Hell’s Angels” embroidered across the back. His head was shaved, his scraggly beard was braided and a gold earring dangled from one ear.

“Hey, Tiny!” shouted the bartender. “Looky what just came in the door. Fresh jailbait!”

A heavily-eyeshadowed teenaged girl had just tottered into the place on high heels. She looked to be no older than 15 – although, in the dim light of the place, it was hard to say.

“Yeah, Tiny,” the talkative barkeep continued. “She looks real fine, just the way you like ‘em. Should I tell her you’re buying her first drink?”

Tiny only grunted.

“She looks so fresh and innocent, like she just walked out of Sunday School class or something.”

With surprising quickness, Tiny swung his meaty hand across the bar and grabbed the bartender by the throat. In a low whisper, he growled these beery words into the bartender’s face: “Tiny’s only gonna say this once, punk, so listen up. I put up with a lot of your drivel, but let me warn you about one thing. Tiny don’t like it none when you talk bad about Sunday School!”

“Okay, okay,” said the rattled bartender. “No offense. Who woulda guessed?”

Ebenezer turned to the ghost. “Tiny... Tiny! You’re not trying to tell me that’s...”

The specter nodded gravely.

“Barb Cratchit would be devastated to see this. Please, I can’t take it anymore. Can we move on?”

Moments later, Ebenezer found himself on a sidewalk, next to a stone building. Night was falling. The street looked vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t quite identify where they were. But, wait, he thought to himself. The outline of the building against the starry sky – he had seen it before. Of course! It was his beloved church!

Ebenezer noticed a soft, orange glow emanating from a new electric sign that pointed away from the place where he and the specter were standing. “Well, well, I guess Earl must have finally gotten his way,” he chuckled to himself. Earl chaired the church’s Evangelism Committee. He’d always been after the Session to put up a better-quality illuminated sign. Ebenezer had opposed the new sign, back in the day, as being too extravagant an expense.

Ebenezer walked over to the front of the sign to see what kind of job Earl had done picking it out. Knowing Earl, it would be eye-catching – everything a good marketing aid should be.

What he saw on the front of the sign took the old Presbyterian’s breath away. At the top was a single word, a bright orange beacon to the community:


“Noooooooo!” wailed Ebenezer as his legs buckled under him. He collapsed to his knees, before falling flat on his face on what had once been the church lawn.


The next thing Ebenezer knew, the morning sun was shining through his bedroom curtains. He sat bolt upright in bed and looked around. There was no sign of any of his ghostly visitors.

What day is it, he asked himself? How long had he been asleep?

Running over to the window, he threw up the sash. Sticking his head out, he saw a boy lazily rolling down the sidewalk on a skateboard. “Boy!” he called out. “Boy!”

Startled at the voice that seemed to come from nowhere, the boy looked all around him, then finally upwards at Droodge’s second-story window.

“Boy, do me a favor, please. Could you tell me what day it is?”

“It’s Sunday.”

“Sunday! Praise God, the spirits have done it all in one night!”

The boy looked up at him like he’d gone off his meds.

Just then, a nearby church bell started ringing. Ebenezer would have recognized the tone of that bell anywhere. It belonged to his own church. “That bell!” he called down to the boy in the street. “Do you hear it? Isn’t that the most beautiful sound in all the world?”

The boy could think of quite a number of sounds he liked better, but he decided to humor the old codger. He nodded his head.

“O blessed bell!” cried Ebenezer. “Oh, glorious church! I knew, in my heart of hearts, they could never make you into a Hooters!”

The kid gave up all pretense of politeness, then, and set off down the sidewalk as fast as his board could carry him.

Sunday, Sunday, Ebenezer said to himself. Wasn’t there something special happening at church this Sunday?

It came to him, then. The Congregational Meeting! Ebenezer calculated that, if he threw on yesterday’s wrinkled clothes, without wasting too much time contemplating his unshaven face in the mirror, he could just about make it on time.

As he was pulling on his trousers, a wave of mirth washed over him, so he very nearly lost his balance and fell. “I know what I’ll do!” he cried out in glee. “It’s perfect! It’s something they’ll never expect. I’ll walk into that Congregational Meeting and announce that I’m writing a check for the entire outstanding amount the church owes for per capita this year!”

Droodge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim – who did not join the Hell’s Angels, after Droodge helped pay for his college education – he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a treasurer, as good a man – and as tireless an advocate for per capita – as the good old church knew, or any other good old church in the good old world.

The (Great) End

Copyright © 2010 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved, although the author gives permission for this story to be reproduced in publications of local congregations or governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as long as proper attribution is given and it is not used for commercial purposes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Treasurer's Tale, Part 2

Our story continues...

“Hey, you. Ebenezer!”

Ebenezer Droodge had the distinct impression that someone was holding onto his big toe and shaking it from side to side. He opened one eye. It was a young woman with pink hair, a nose ring and the PC(USA) denominational logo tattooed on her forearm.

“Now, that’s better. I was just starting to think you could be playing possum.”

“Who are you?” asked the sleepy church treasurer.

“I am the Ghost of Per Capita Present. Owooo–”

Ebenezer cut her off, mid-howl, with a stern glance.

“Oh yeah, sorry. They did tell me you’re not fond of the special effects.”

“So, where are you going to take me, O pink-haired specter?”

“I guess it’s true what they say. You really are getting with the program. Come with me, Ebenezer, and we’ll examine what per capita really is, dispelling some of the most common myths about this means of funding Christ’s mission.”

Whereupon the spirit pulled an iPod from her pocket. She placed an earbud in one of her ears and handed the other one to Ebenezer. He followed her lead, and the two of them leaned in towards each other as she pressed “Play.”

Considering the ghost’s fashion sense, Ebenezer found her choice of music surprising:

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.”

With the first, pulsating notes of the bass guitar, the bedroom had fallen away. The church treasurer and the spirit now found themselves in the meeting-room of Ebenezer’s church.

“Why, this is a Session meeting!” he exclaimed, looking around at his fellow elders, all well-known to him – although none of them could see or hear him.

“You know what would help get us out of our financial bind?” one of the elders was saying. “If we could just get our people to pony up their per capita, we wouldn’t have to budget any extra money to pay off Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly. Sometimes I think being a Presbyterian is like checking into a luxury hotel. Everyone – from the parking valets, to the bellmen, to the desk clerk to the chambermaids – is looking for a tip. That gets expensive, and it doesn’t help when the people in the pews fail to pay their membership dues.”

“Did you hear that?” the spirit asked Ebenezer.

“Hear what?”

“The glaring mistakes that elder just made. Nobody even corrected her. That's typical!”

“What mistakes? It sounded pretty accurate to me. I’ve had years of experience keeping the church books, and let me tell you, in our best year we’ve never had anything better than 30% compliance on those per capita envelopes. Session always has to make up the difference.”

“Don’t get me started,” said the pink-haired guide, rolling her eyes. “There are so many things wrong with what that woman just said, I don’t know where to begin!”

“Just go for it,” said Ebenezer – knowing she would anyway.

“The first mistake she makes is to refer to it as ‘their’ per capita – as though the responsibility originates with the folks in the pews. That’s not what the Book of Order says. It says the responsibility for paying per capita belongs to the Presbytery.”

“Then where did we get the idea for those annual offering envelopes with the ‘suggested’ amount on them, that just happens to coincide exactly with the annual asking by Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly?”

“The Book of Order says presbyteries are allowed to raise the money, if they want, by levying an annual assessment on the churches. Because the presbyteries’ apportionment is based on the number of active Presbyterians within their bounds, most presbyteries ask churches to contribute their own, proportionate share of the Synod and General Assembly askings. The presbyteries also tack on an additional amount, to cover their own administrative expenses."

"Tell me about it!" said Ebenezer, with a look of studied dismay such as only a longtime treasurer can summon up. "Per capita's been rising faster than the rate of inflation for some time now."

"That's mostly the presbyteries' doing," explained the spirit. "It's not that presbyteries are extravagant in their budgeting. It's just that mission giving has been slowly decreasing for many years now, so presbyteries have been shifting items that used to be in the mission budget into the per capita budget. Most years, the synods and the General Assembly have been slashing their budgets to keep their per capita askings level, while the typical presbytery portion of per capita has been growing larger and larger. In a great many presbyteries, it’s now 4 or 5 times the amount Synod and the General Assembly are asking for.”

“So, then, you’re saying presbyteries don’t have to dun their churches for per capita payments?”

“Please, Mr. Droodge, I do understand the contortions treasurers like you have to go through in order to maintain positive cash flow, but can’t we stay away from the perjorative language?”

Ebenezer quickly nodded his assent. He’d been getting very comfortable talking to this engaging young woman, nose ring and all - but, she was a ghost. He was new to this haunting business, and had no idea what she was capable of.

"Most presbyteries do raise per capita funds the traditional way, by counting heads and sending each of their churches a bill - but not all. A few presbyteries only ask sessions to contribute to general mission, then reach into that common kitty whenever they need money for administration, or when it’s time to pay their own per capita to Synod and General Assembly.”

The spirit continued: “Any money congregations give to their presbyteries, for whatever purpose, is considered a voluntary offering. Even per capita. What I think you’re really asking, though, is whether the presbytery assessments on churches are mandatory. They’re not. Presbyterian judicial commissions established that many years ago, by means of case law. Presbyteries aren't even allowed to indirectly pressure churches to participate, by restricting their access to resources such as low-interest loans."

"You'd never see that in the business world," Ebenezer pointed out. "Banks are very good at reserving their lowest interest rates for their best customers. Could you imagine a bank offering the same interest rate to a stranger who'd just walked in off the street as it would to a Main Street business-owner who'd kept half a mill on deposit for the past 20 years?"

"No, I can't," admitted the spirit. "But that's business. The church isn't a business. It's more like a family. When the prodigal son comes crawling back, it doesn't matter how much he bad-mouthed the old man on his way out the door. He still gets a ring on his finger and a plateful of veal scallopini."

"So then, at the end of the day, per capita giving is optional, right?"

"No, I wouldn't put it in those terms. There's a big difference between 'optional' and 'voluntary.' There's a long-established principle in Presbyterian law that congregational per capita payments can't be coerced, but the General Assembly has also long taught something else about per capita that ought to carry even greater weight with Sessions."

"And that is...?"

"The General Assembly has long maintained that, if a presbytery asks a church to pay a certain amount towards per capita, the local church must consider that request as a solemn moral obligation. I've never been able to figure out how so many Sessions that scream and shout and declare they're withholding per capita out of moral indignation - because of something the General Assembly has said or done, or failed to say or do - never, ever even consider THE POSSIBILITY that their payment of per capita is a moral obligation, in and of itself."

"Now, wait just a minute," said Ebenezer - forgetting, for a moment just who he was talking to. "Remember Angela Davis, that communist, Black Power lady? Our church withheld per capita when the General Assembly gave money for her legal defense. We believe that was a moral decision on our part."

"Oh, Angela Davis! Who could forget dear Angela Davis?"

"You remember Angela Davis? You hardly look old enough."

"You don't want to know how old I am."

"I guess not. Please continue..."

"I don't doubt that your Session considered that to have been a moral decision on your part, but let me ask you this. Did you ever consider that your withholding of per capita - which had the effect of increasing the amount all the non-withholding churches in the presbytery would have to pay in future years - was an abandonment of your moral obligation to your fellow congregations in the Presbytery?"

"Er, I don't think that ever occurred to us."

"I didn't think so. But, let's press on."

“Let me ask you a question. How is it, then, that our congregation, like so many others, asks our members to pay per capita?”

“I couldn't say. You’d have to ask your Session. I suppose they figure what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Most local churches who do conduct a per capita offering started doing it years ago, back when per capita was chump change. Nowadays, they pull out that special offering envelope, read the figure printed there, and it's sticker-shock time!"

“So, what else, O spirit, is wrong with what my fellow-elder just said?”

“Did you catch what she said about ‘membership dues’? That’s so far off the mark, it’s hard to know what to say.”

“And what’s wrong with an organization collecting dues?” asked the treasurer.

“That’s not the church’s way. The church thrives on voluntary giving, not compulsion. We attach no dollar amount to church membership, nor would we ever dream of doing so. Besides, there’s an unintended consequence of membership-dues thinking that not every Session realizes.”

“What’s that?”

“It hurts other giving. In staging a big push to promote the per capita special offering, not every elder realizes how easily their concept of a rock-bottom, minimum standard of giving can become transformed, in less-active members' minds, into a maximum. Here's how it works. An elder stands up to give a Minute for Mission and says, 'Come on, people, if you can't give any other money to the church, at least cover your per capita, so you're not costing us anything!' A certain percentage of members, hearing that message, will respond by thinking: 'Sweet! Thirty-five bucks a year as the sum-total of my commitment to the church! That's a bargain. I'll take it!"

“I get it. If the per capita offering conveys that message, it could even end up costing the church money in the long run. So, what else do you think about what we’ve just heard at the Session meeting?”

“Well, the elder we were listening to is pretty unforgiving of church members who choose not to write that check. She blames them for ‘failing’ to pay ‘their’ per capita – as though it were some kind of tax, and non-payment were a moral failing. The Office of the General Assembly may count heads to figure out how much each presbytery owes, but that in no way means the OGA is telling presbyteries to say to their churches, ‘Pay this amount, then get your people to reimburse you.’”

“I’m starting to see how the familiar per capita offering, on the local level, can end up being a mixed blessing.”

“Bingo! You’re on a roll now, Jackson. Per capita is the toughest of all offerings to promote in the local church, because none of the things the money accomplishes sounds at all exciting. Who gets enthused about paying an electric bill? Or legal fees? Or postage? These are the things per capita money is used for. Lots of churches would do better to drop the per capita offering altogether, simply paying their obligation out of the general budget. Then, they could start a new special offering, one the entire church can cheerfully line up behind - and which would raise a whole lot more money to assist other areas of the budget.”

“You're talking about a mission cause, right?”

“Could be. Ask yourself: which would you rather do: write a check to help cover your church's pledge to support a missionary doctor who's saving lives every day, or to help pay the water bill? That’s one way to look at per capita, by the way: as a sort of ecclesiastical utility.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“The services funded by per capita are necessary and important – like gas and electric. But they’re services Christians typically take for granted. Churches who’ve recently been through pastoral searches or have received presbytery help resolving conflict may feel otherwise. They have recent memories of how helpful the Committee on Ministry liaison was to their pastor nominating committee, or how the executive presbyter's counsel to the Session saved their bacon, when it looked like a church split could have been looming.”

“What about those churches that say to their presbyteries, ‘We can’t pay per capita, but we’ll just pass through any designated per capita gifts we receive'? I have to admit, that was one of the favorite ploys of my old buddy, Farley, and me when we were dealing with the Presbytery.”

“Church leaders who say such things haven’t got a clue what per capita really is. They’re laboring under the delusion that it’s some kind of optional tax – and whoever heard of an optional tax? Per capita’s not a tax at all (optional or otherwise).”

“So, how would you describe it?”

“If the church truly is the Body of Christ, as the scriptures say, then per capita is sort of like the circulatory system. You need a steady flow if the body’s going to remain healthy. Cut back on the surge of generosity - ratchet it back to a mean and carefully-measured trickle - and you’ll quickly arrive at the sort of crisis Paul describes in his letters: of one part of the Body saying to the other, ‘I have no need of you.’ Enough about this, though. It’s time to move on!”

In a flash, Ebenezer and the pink-haired ghost found themselves not in a church meeting room, but rather in a private home.

“I know this place,” said Ebenezer. “It’s the Cratchit home. Barb Cratchit is a single mother in our church. There’s that son of hers, the one they call Tiny Tim.”

“He doesn’t look very tiny to me,” said the ghost.

“The kid’s got an obesity problem,” explained Ebenezer. “Tiny” is a nickname, sort of a joke. You’d think the kid would grow up to be a linebacker, for sure, if it weren’t for his ADHD problem. They say he’s been kicked out of one school after another.”

“Let’s listen in to what his mother’s saying.”

“Really, Tim? Another suspension notice? Are you going to get yourself expelled from this school, too? I don’t know what I’d do, if it weren’t for the church. Sunday School’s the one place where you truly seem to fit in, the one place where they truly seem to get who you are.”

“I had no idea,” said Ebenezer. “I always thought Tim was just loud and undisciplined. Evidently, there’s a Sunday School teacher who seems to understand him much better. Who would have thought that just an hour on Sunday morning could have such a huge impact on a kid’s life for the good?”

“It’s time, Ebenezer,” said the ghost, pointing to the glowing clock on the face of her iPod. The hour is upon us. We must get you back to your house. You have but one other visitor to welcome this evening. I’m sad to say you will not find this one nearly so congenial.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ebenezer, a tone of dread in his voice. “What’s the third ghost like?”

“You’ll have to wait and see. Now, farewell!”

With that, the Ghost of Per Capita Present was no longer with him. Ebenezer was lying in his own bed once again.

A profound tiredness came over him, deeper than any exhaustion he’d ever known...

To be continued...

Copyright © 2010 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved, although the author gives permission for this story to be reproduced in publications of local congregations or governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as long as proper attribution is given and it is not used for commercial purposes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Treasurer's Tale, Part 1

(With apologies to Charles Dickens)

Ebenezer Droodge, church treasurer, awoke with a start from his fitful sleep. That noise – what was it?

It was nothing, he assured himself. Probably a little too much tuna casserole at the church potluck. Sure, that was it. Tuna casserole.

No, wait – he was sure he’d heard it this time.

“Over here, Ebenezer.”


“Over here, on your computer. Where you sit up late every night fussing with the church spreadsheets.”

Ebenezer looked, then rubbed his eyes and looked again. “Farley?”

Staring back at him from the computer monitor – which Ebenezer was sure he’d turned off before retiring for the night – was the bony visage of Jacob Farley, his late friend and partner in church work. Together, the two of them had pretty much run their church for the past 50 years. Droodge managed the accounts, and Farley buildings and grounds – until his untimely and gory death in a regrettable lawnmower accident.

If any major decision had to be made, no one in the church would imagine making it without first appealing to Droodge, Farley & Company. One skeptical word from either man could doom a new undertaking, no matter how worthwhile. Neither of them was much for smiling, but everyone on the Session knew how to look for that little softening at the corners of the mouth that indicated grudging permission to proceed.

Their small church had been through a succession of pastors in recent years, mostly new seminary graduates. Those who had been wise enough to stay on Droodge & Farley’s good side had moved on, in time, to other churches, and were doing well. As for those who had not – well, let’s just say Droodge & Farley were personally responsible for a modest increase in the ranks of insurance agents and junior-high schoolteachers.

“Ebenezer!” The shouted name startled him out of his reverie. “Enough exposition, already. Look at me!”

Ebenezer looked. The gauzy apparition of his friend was surrounded by chains. Attached to the chains were dozens of offering-envelope boxes.

“These are the chains I forged in life,” said Jacob. “It’s too late for me, but I have returned from the Great Beyond to give you fair warning. Amend your ways before it’s too late!”

“You mean, like, a budget amendment?”

“No, you fool! This has nothing to do with squeezing every last penny out of the church’s bank account. It has to do with generosity.”

“So, you’re saying I should increase my pledge?”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea – you always were a skinflint. But that’s not why I’m here. I’ve come to warn you about something much bigger than your own personal giving. It has to do with the welfare of the entire church. Ebenezer, I have come to you tonight from beyond the grave to warn you about...”

(Here, there arose some spooky organ music, coming from Ebenezer knew not where).

“To warn you about...”

(Now, a clap of thunder so loud, Ebenezer’s seldom-opened 1985 Book of Order fell off the shelf.)

“I have come to warn you about... PER CAPITA!”

“Per capita?”

“Yes, per capita. Owooooooh!”

“You mean that annoying payment the Presbytery tries to get the Session to make every year, but which you and I always found some creative way to avoid?”

“The very same, old friend.”

“Tell me, then, why the powers-that-be in the Great Beyond are concerned with that? Isn’t it just a bothersome little tax that perpetuates a bloated church bureaucracy?”

“No, Ebenezer, that’s where we were both wrong. It’s too late for me now, but for the sake of your immortal soul, I have arranged for three visitors to appear to you tonight, to explain the finer points of the connectional nature of ecclesiastical funding.”

“You mean, like an administrative commission?”

“No, you foolish twit! You and I used to eat administrative commissions for breakfast. These visitors are far scarier. They will be shades, like myself. They have a story to tell that you will never forget. Owooooooh!”

The vision of Farley’s contorted face slowly faded from the computer monitor.

Resigned to his fate, Ebenezer muttered, “Bring it on,” before falling into a deep sleep.


The clock struck 1 a.m. and Ebenezer’s eyes opened wide. What dreadful wraith would he encounter next?

There was no one to be seen. His bedroom was silent. Ebenezer closed his eyes. “Blasted tuna casserole...”

“Ebenezer! You will not escape so easily.”

Ebenezer looked and saw, standing at the foot of his bed, the figure of a man in a tricorn hat, waistcoat and knee breeches.

“Nooooo!” said Ebenezer. “It couldn’t be. Don’t tell me you’ve come from the Tea Party! There is no cause for you to haunt me. I made my donation just last week.”

“I haven’t, Ebenezer. And I won't. I am the Ghost of Per Capita Past. Owooooooh!”

“Can’t you guys cool it with the wolfman howls?”

“Sorry, it’s part of our contract. My task is to explain to you why the General Assembly established per capita in the first place, and why those historic purposes are still central to the present-day offering. Take hold of this old communion token, and we’ll embark on a long journey...”

The next thing Ebenezer knew, he and the spirit were standing alongside a country road. It was unpaved, little more than a track through the woods.

“Here we are,” said the ghost. “Deep in the wilderness.”

“And where is that? Wyoming? Montana? Alaska?”

“Try central Pennsylvania. This is the early 1800s. Wait a few moments, and you will perceive the sight I have brought you here to witness.”

True to the spirit’s word, in a minute or so Ebenezer heard the approaching hoofbeats of a horse, its rider directing the beast straight towards them. Ebenezer threw himself backwards in the nick of time, landing in a thicket, feet waving wildly in the air.

Dusting himself off and recovering his dignity, he exclaimed, “That was close!”

“I should have explained. You are as a spirit in his world. He could not have seen you, nor touched you. In fact, had you not leapt backwards off the road, he would have ridden his horse straight through you.”

“So, who was he, and why did you want me to see him?”

“He is a commissioner, on his way to the General Assembly.”

“And the connection to per capita is....?”

“Oats. Per capita money bought oats for that man’s horse. The first per capita offering was established to fund the expenses of the General Assembly, paying the travel expenses of commissioners. Travel was not so easily undertaken in these early years. It took weeks for commissioners like this man to make their way to General Assembly. He is but a poor country schoolteacher, an elder in his backwoods congregation. He could never have accepted the call to serve as a commissioner, had he been forced to pay his own expenses. Were it not for per capita, only the wealthy could have participated in governance, and soon we would have had a dying church, one that in no wise understood the needs of all God’s people. Now, come with me...”

The next thing Ebenezer knew, he and the ghost were in a room full of people. He could tell from the shape of the windows that it had to be a church, although they were clearly in a parlor or meeting room of some sort.

The people – all men – were sitting around tables, with stacks of papers in front of them. From the way the furniture was arranged, the room resembled a courtroom.

It was as though the spirit could read his thoughts. “You’re right, Ebenezer. This is a courtroom. We’re in Cincinnati. The year is 1835. What’s going on here is a judicial case being heard by the Presbytery. See that man sitting over there? His name is Lyman Beecher. He’s a minister accused of heresy. Those other men attending this meeting have traveled far to hear his case.”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing you would consider out of the ordinary in your time. He had a more lively understanding of human free will than most Presbyterians of his day. He was also an abolitionist, a fact that made him no friends in some quarters. Some traditionalists who thought the doctrine of predestination excluded free will brought charges against him. He was acquitted. Lyman Beecher also happened to have a couple of soon-to-be-famous children who were growing into young adulthood at that time: Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Henry Ward Beecher, who grew up to become the most famous preacher in America in his day.”

“What does that have to do with per capita?”

“Hold your horses. I’m getting to that. Imagine what would have happened to Lyman Beecher, and to his family, had the unjust charge against him been sustained. Would his daughter, Harriet, have gone on to write her famous novel – a book some say did more than anything else to marshal public opinion against slavery? Would Henry have persisted in his plans, already under way, to prepare for ministry? Yet, the heresy charge against their father was not sustained. The Presbytery sought God’s will in prayer and found him innocent. Who do you suppose paid the costs of his trial?”

“I think I’m getting the picture. It was all the churches of Cincinnati Presbytery, through their per capita offerings, right?”

“Way to go, Sherlock. Now, off to our next stop.”

The next thing they knew, Ebenezer and his ghostly companion were on a railway carriage, rumbling across the prairie. Ebenezer could see, from the trail of cinders streaming by outside the windows, that this was an old-fashioned steam locomotive.

Seated across the aisle from them was a slight, bearded man with a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He was hard at work, writing – letters, by the looks of it.

“So, who’s this character?” asked Ebenezer.

“Sheldon Jackson. Got a college named for him in Sitka, Alaska. In the late 1800s, he founded over a hundred churches all across the Rocky Mountain region. When that part of the world got too settled for him, he headed off to Alaska. Jackson just followed the frontier, and wherever he went, churches seemed to spring up like mushrooms.”

“And the role of per capita in his case was...?

“Well, most of his activities were funded by what was then called National Missions, which wasn’t connected to per capita. The church had no problem raising voluntary gifts from Presbyterians to pay for Jackson’s highly successful mission work. Everybody wanted to say they had a hand in that! But, think on this. Somebody in the national offices had to do the necessary work of maintaining the records of all those new churches. That wasn’t as exciting a task, but it was every bit as important. There wouldn’t have been much point in starting those new congregations if we forgot where we’d put them, would there? Look at him – why, right now he’s writing a letter to somebody back at denominational headquarters, documenting his most recent work.”

“What’s next?” asked Ebenezer.

“We have one more stop to make, to view some more recent history.”

“I don’t have a good feeling about this...”

The ghost removed the tricorn hat from his head and waved it significantly. The sound of the locomotive and the click-clack of the rails became a distant memory. The next thing he knew, Ebenezer and the spirit were sitting toward the front of the balcony in a large church sanctuary. There was a hubbub of conversation, with people milling about just below them.

“I know this church!” said Ebenezer. “That’s First Pres, New Geneva, the biggest one in the Presbytery. I can’t imagine why you’d be taking me – Wait a minute! That man walking down the center aisle towards us looks... like me!”

“Indeed it is. And do you recognize the man you've just stopped beside?”

“Why yes, it’s Farley. I think the Presbytery must have been meeting here. People are milling around getting ready to leave.

“Oh, Mr. Droodge! Mr. Farley!”

“That singsong voice is a dead giveaway. I’d recognize it anywhere. That’s...”

“Alice Adams is the name, and as you may know, I’m serving on the new administrative commission that’s supposed to dialogue with churches that didn’t pay any per capita last year. Your church is without a pastor right now, but I wonder if we could get a date on the calendar for a one-hour meeting with a few significant congregational leaders, because...”

“I don’t see the need for a meeting. What do you need to tell us, Alice, that you can’t say right here?”

“Well, I suppose we could talk right now, if you prefer, but don’t you think that defeats the purpose ...?”

“Please, get on with it. Mr. Farley and I are busy men.”

“Well, if we must talk here, informally, in the center aisle of a church after a Presbytery meeting, I suppose we’d better cut to the chase. We’d like to find out what we can do for your church, at the Presbytery level, to encourage you to start remitting per capita payments...”

“Our Session has no intention of remitting any per capita this year, or any year. Last year, we were protesting the General Assembly's actions. This year, we can't afford it. Next year - who knows?”

“May I be frank, gentlemen? You heard the Finance Committee report at today’s meeting. The Presbytery’s going to have to make some severe staff cutbacks if we don’t see any increase in per capita coming from churches...”

“Let ME be frank, Ms. Adams. We think the Presbytery is in an overstaffed situation. We got by with just a Stated Clerk for most of our history, then we added an Executive Presbyter, and before we knew it, we had all those program specialists in Christian Education, Stewardship and the like. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. I’m being perfectly serious when I suggest we ought to let the entire Presbytery staff go – with thanks, of course – except for the part-time Stated Clerk the Constitution requires.”

“Mr. Droodge! May I remind you that some of these people have been with the Presbytery a long time? As an employer, we have a moral obligation to...”

“Are there no interim pastorates? Are there no pulpit-supply lists? If those people really know what they’re doing, they won’t be unemployed for long. And if they don't - better to decrease the surplus population on our organization chart!"

Ebenezer reached out and grasped his ghostly guide by the sleeve. "Please, spirit. I can't stand it any longer! Can't we just move on to our next destination?"

“Indeed we can. This first phase of your night's journey is nearly ended. I will convey you, now, back to your own bedchamber. But don’t expect to get any sleep. Tempus fugit. The next spirit will be on her way to you shortly.”

To be continued...

Copyright © 2010 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved, although the author gives permission for this story to be reproduced in publications of local congregations or governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as long as proper attribution is given and it is not used for commercial purposes.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I Want from My Government

Lots of people are wanting things from the government these days. Some neighbors of mine in Point Pleasant Beach are wanting Borough Council meetings to convene with a unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, as they have for many years (a practice the ACLU is trying to stop, by means of a recent lawsuit). Speaking as the pastor of a local church, and as a seminary adjunct professor of church history, here’s what I want.

I want the Lord’s Prayer to be banned at public meetings. We’ll continue to recite it every Sunday in our church, with reverence. But, in Borough Hall? No way. Doesn’t belong there.

A couple weeks ago, I was reminded anew of why it doesn’t. I was teaching my seminary church history class about a nearly-forgotten figure from our nation’s past: a Presbyterian minister by the name of Francis Makemie.

In 1707, Lord Cornbury, Royal Governor of New York, threw Makemie into jail. His crime? “Preaching without a license.” And where had Makemie committed this heinous offense? On some street corner? Blocking pedestrians on the sidewalk, to wave religious tracts in their faces? No, it was at a worship gathering in the private home of some friends in New York City.

As the King’s agent in the Royal Colony of New York, Cornbury considered it his duty to promote the Church of England as the established, state-sanctioned religion. “Dissenters” – non-Anglicans – were permitted to gather for worship, but only as the Governor gave them leave to do so. Makemie – an energetic evangelist based in Maryland, who had established Presbyterian churches all over the Middle Atlantic colonies – had blown into town without first asking the Governor’s permission. (Makemie wasn’t forgetful; the omission was deliberate on his part.)

The problem was that Lord Cornbury was a little behind on his legal reading. He either didn’t know, or more likely didn’t care, that Parliament had approved an Act of Toleration eighteen years earlier. That law forbade discrimination against “dissenting” groups (those other than the two established state religions in the British Isles: Anglicanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland).

It’s a little hard for us to comprehend, but in that day the now-familiar idea of a religious denomination was brand-new. It all began with the Act of Toleration of 1689. Before then, it was winner-take-all in the religious wars. If your religious group ended up on top for a while (as Lord Cornbury’s Team Anglican did, in England), you were entitled to say to everyone else: “It’s our way or the highway.” In Scotland – which shared the same monarchs, King William and Queen Mary, with England – Makemie’s Presbyterianism prevailed. Whenever William and Mary crossed the border into Scotland, they became Presbyterians – as Queen Elizabeth still does, to this day. No British monarch had ever visited the far-off American colonies, so what spiritual transformation might take place here, in the event of a royal walkabout, was anybody’s guess.

Cornbury was attempting to establish the legal precedent that New York was an Anglican colony, and that – as the King’s agent – he was entitled to personally regulate all religious gatherings. Makemie, who argued before the court that his only license to preach came from God, had just spent 6 weeks in the slammer trying to prove otherwise.

Makemie had his day in court. He cited the Act of Toleration so convincingly that the judge – evidently a person of some considerable backbone, since the Governor was sitting right there – acquitted him.

So, what do I want from my government, three centuries later? What I want is for my government to zealously guard my First Amendment rights, and those of my church community, to practice our religion unhindered. That means – as the First Amendment unambiguously puts it – “no establishment of religion.” A moment of silence is fine, at the start of a Borough Council meeting, if that’s what people want. Yet, I would feel deeply ashamed of my community if our elected leaders were to continue to forget the principles my distinguished Presbyterian forbear, Mr. Makemie, defended for 6 weeks in a dank, New York City jail cell.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What About Session Records Review?

We've been getting some questions about when Session Records Review is going to take place.

After years of reviewing local church minutes, rolls and registers in September, the Presbytery has made a change, amending its standing rules. Because the annual reports that clerks of Session compile at the end of the calendar year mark a natural division-point, it seems better to review minutes based on a calendar year, rather than an artificial 12-month period that begins and ends mid-year, as has been true in the past.

The next Session records review will be scheduled for sometime in February or March, 2011, and will cover a period of approximately a year and four months - everything from the time of the last review in September, 2009 through December 31, 2010. This longer review period is a special, one-time occurrence, so we can catch up to where we'll need to be. In future years, Session records review will cover the calendar year, from January 1 through December 31.

A further advantage of the new arrangement is that it will create less of a time crunch, allowing clerks more than a month to get their minutes and records in order, using the end of the year as the cut-off point.

We hope this change will be agreeable to all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Session Meetings: Open or Closed?

One question frequently asked by Clerks of Session is whether Session meetings are open or closed – in other words, whether members of the church (or even the general public) are permitted to observe the meetings.

The Form of Government is permissive on this question. It’s up to the Session to decide. G-10.0201 says, “The Session may invite members of the congregation to attend its meetings if it so desires, without restricting its right to meet in executive session whenever circumstances indicate the wisdom of doing so.”

If the Session has taken no action to open their meetings, however, the presumption is that Session meetings are closed. The Session can vote at any time to open its meetings, either by adopting a policy or standing rule to that effect, or by voting to open individual meetings to the public. In the case of a closed meeting, the Session can vote to invite particular individuals (such as a church member who’s making a report) to attend all or a portion of the meeting.

This may sound surprising to readers who are used to “sunshine laws” in civil government. The church has no sunshine law, when it comes to Session meetings.

Sessions sometimes need to discuss confidential matters, such as personnel decisions or matters related to pastoral care. These discussions, which impact the privacy rights of individuals, are best undertaken without observers present. Whether the Session prefers to conduct such confidential business in executive session (which means all observers would be asked to leave the room when that item comes up), or to follow the Form of Government’s implicit suggestion and consider all meetings to be closed, is up to the Session to determine.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Preventing Ministry Burnout

OK, clerks, this one’s for your pastor. (One little hint, though... if you do pass it on to him or her, accompany it with this disclaimer: “Don’t assume, because I’ve giving this to you, that I think you’re showing signs of burnout.” It’s a preventative thing.)

Anne Dilenschneider wrote an article in the August 12 Huffington Post, “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” that’s well worth reading. She recalls a couple of articles that recently appeared in, of all places, the New York Times, one on the importance of ministerial vacations and the other on surviving through church conflict over the nature of the pastoral role. What I like best is her recalling H. Richard Niebuhr’s observation (in his landmark 1956 book, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry) of how ministry in the 20th century increasingly became modeled after secular business-management practices. Niebuhr wrote at mid-century, but the trends he identified back then only grew stronger in the years that followed. As churches (particularly mainline Protestant churches) moved into the new suburbs, most people came to define those spanking-new buildings as places where programs happen. Along with that, the role of the pastor gradually morphed into that of coordinator and manager of those programs. Other ministry tasks became secondary.

After decades of steadily-declining church membership, lots of pastors have given in to a kind of quiet despair, wondering if perhaps they’re personally responsible for the losses (I know I have, at times, but I got over it – especially once I realized it was happening everywhere, even across denominations). Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow, in After the Baby Boomers, have identified certain demographic trends – especially the shrinking birth rate, the postponement of the average age of marriage, and the growth of two-paycheck households – that, on their own, easily account for these numerical losses.

Way back in the 1950s, Niebuhr picked up on the trend of transforming ministry into management, and was critical of it. Calling ministry "the perplexed profession," he warned of a particular abuse of the ministerial office, based on an extreme form of this thinking: the image of the pastor as “Big Operator.” The name says it all.

Many of us who were in seminary in the 1970s and 80s were well aware of the rapid growth of clinical counseling training as a central feature of theological education. The Clinical Pastoral Education movement – valuable in itself, although some people overdid it – presented a whole, new model for pastoral ministry: that of ordained psychotherapist. Again, the introduction of clinical counseling techniques into pastoral counseling brought about some helpful improvements, but if you take it too far, you highjack the minister’s role and claim it for the world of psychology.

Then, along came spiritual direction. That emphasis was just starting to appear when I was in seminary, and has grown steadily stronger since then. Because the Roman Catholics, with their centuries-old traditions of spiritual formation, have been at it a lot longer than we have, most Protestants leading that particular charge have unabashedly borrowed ideas and practices from Rome, tweaking them here and there, when needed, to fit our theology.

Writing as a spiritual director, Dilenschneider naturally believes the solution to ministerial malaise lies in learning how to pray better. For her, this likely means signing on with a trained spiritual director like herself. There’s something to that, of course – for, who wants to go to the Big Operator or the Ordained Psychotherapist to learn how to pray?

I think she’s got something there, but – because she’s a spiritual director herself – I have to confess just a little skepticism about spiritual direction being the cure-all. She kind of reminds me of some chiropractors who are venturing out, these days, way beyond traditional spine adjustments. Some chiropractors are getting into everything from weight loss to treating kids with ADHD. (I’ve never visited a chiropractor, myself, and have no intention of ever going, but that’s what I see in some of the ads.)

While I disagree with Dilenschneider’s easy assumption that pre-1920s Protestant ministers saw themselves as “curates,” engaged in “the cure of souls” above all else (I suspect that’s a more recent import from Roman Catholicism or high-church Anglicanism), I think she’s right on with this statement:

“The witness of spiritual directors over the centuries is that the leader’s need to ‘make a difference’ – the need to find personal significance through effectiveness -- must be set aside in order to be ‘made different’ – the deeper need to discover one’s renewed identity through relationship with God.”

Whether that personal renewal happens through sitting down every couple weeks with a spiritual director, or simply by marveling at the consistent, gentle touch of the Holy Spirit through the weekly discipline of moving from text to sermon (which is more my cup of tea), she’s absolutely right – we pastors have got to allow God to continually nudge us in the direction of personal growth, if we’re going to remain in this joyous, frustrating, inspiring, draining, life-giving occupation for the long haul.

We are indeed grateful to you elders when you help us make space in our lives for the Lord to do that.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Making the Baby Suffer?

A long entry today, but I’ve been asked a complex question that will take a little while to address. It just so happens to be one of the toughest of all questions pastors and sessions must answer: What to do when non-members ask to have their child baptized?

It's an emotion-laden question that must be approached not only with understanding of polity and theology, but also with sensitivity to people.

The Directory for Worship (W-2.3014) has this to say about “parental responsibility”:

“When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation. Those presenting children for Baptism shall promise to provide nurture and guidance within the community of faith until the child is ready to make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of active church membership.”

The phone rings in the church office. At the other end of the line is an active member of the church, asking if her new granddaughter may be baptized in the church. Her son and daughter-in-law live halfway across the country. Although the son grew up in the church and was confirmed here, the session voted to remove his name from the membership roll a year or two after he graduated from college, when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be returning, and hadn’t made any move to join a church in his new community. Neither he nor his wife has since become a member of any church.

The parents are planning to bring the new baby back for a visit in several months’ time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Grandma asks with a proud smile, if her new grandchild could be baptized here - in this church, that has played such a large role in her family’s history?

What’s a session to do, in a situation like this? It’s their responsibility to authorize baptisms. Yet, in addressing parental responsibility, the Directory for Worship stipulates that at least one parent shall ordinarily be an active member of the church.

“Ordinarily” – that blessed Presbyterian word! It’s like sticking a push-pin into a paragraph of the Book of Order, with a little red flag flying from it that screams “LOOPHOLE!”

The book’s saying that, while at least one parent ought to be an active church member, every once in a while the session may waive this requirement if there's a good reason to do so.

Please note well the words I’ve used: “every once in a while.”

From time to time... for some very good reason... on a case-by-case basis, the session may make an exception. It does NOT say it may issue exceptions willy-nilly, to all comers.

“Ordinarily” means it’s your normal practice to do something. If you never do that thing, that means it’s not your normal practice - so, you’re not being faithful to the Constitution.

So, why is it so important that at least one parent of a child being baptized must be an active member?

Think back to the words we’ve just been discussing. The parent(s) “SHALL promise.” There’s no “ordinarily” in sight, here. And what do they promise? “ To provide nurture and guidance WITHIN THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH,” with the eventual goal that their child will “make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibility of ACTIVE CHURCH MEMBERSHIP.”

It doesn’t mean telling your kid about Jesus in the car, on the way to the grocery store. It means joining a church, so your kid will see, over time, how important Jesus really is to you.

Baptism isn’t just about believing in Jesus (although, of course, that’s a big part of it). It’s about being and becoming a church member. Babies are baptized on the strength of their parents’ membership vows: their solemn promise to do their very best, over the coming years, to lead their children to confess Christ as Lord and Savior and become church members themselves.

Furthermore, there are promises made as part of the baptismal liturgy. Parents pledge to live the Christian faith and to teach the faith to their children. It's hard to take them seriously if they spurn the single, greatest source of help available to them in performing that task, which is the church.

There is also a promise the congregation makes, to partner with the parents in nurturing children in the faith. If the parents are strangers to the congregation and don't even live in the area, and if there's no church elsewhere on whose behalf our folks can make that promise, it's really just a lot of empty air.

A session that routinely grants requests for baptism to all comers, regardless of membership status, probably hasn't thought through the theological reasons behind this provision of the Constitution.

No doubt, it’s a tough decision to make – saying no (or, at least, “not now”) to such a request. Grandparents have a way of getting irritated at that sort of thing. They look on a grandchild’s baptism as a family milestone (which, on one level, it is). If the session says no, then “They’ve quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’!"

And what is it the session’s meddling in? Family business.

Well, guess what? Baptism doesn’t belong to the family. It belongs to the church. The Book of Order is crystal-clear on that account.

Let’s say you carefully explain it that way, and you’re so successful, the grandparents concede the point. But then, they’re likely to come back with a plaintive cry that’s so common, it ought to be given a name: “The Grandparents’ Psalm of Lament.”

Are you ready for it? Here it comes: “Yes, I know my son hasn’t been diligent about pursuing church membership, but that’s no reason to make the baby suffer!”

Let’s unpack that. How, pray tell, is the baby going to suffer, if the baptism is postponed for a while?

The unspoken thought, of course, is that - God forbid - the child could get sick and die, without having been baptized.

We Presbyterians don’t believe baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation – that it's a ticket that must be punched, in order to cross over into the promised land. We believe God loves all children, even (and maybe especially) those who tragically die before anybody brings them to the font.

What’s more, we Presbyterians have NEVER believed baptism is instrumentally necessary for salvation. Why, not even the Roman Catholics believe it anymore! (Back in the days before the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, you’d find plenty of Catholics who believed it, but no longer.)

"Well, OK," say the grandparents, "we’ll concede that point, too. Yet, won’t our granddaughter suffer from knowing she’s unbaptized?"

Not likely. If church membership means so little to the girl’s parents, it’s not likely she’ll have an inkling she’s missing out on anything.

Here’s what the session could say to the grandmother: “Don’t you want your son and his wife to become active in a church? We’ve got an excellent opportunity, right here and now, to hold their feet to the fire, so they finally do something about joining a church. We can be in touch with their new congregation and arrange to celebrate the baptism here, on their behalf. Let’s work together to apply some gentle, loving pressure so they’ll do the right thing!"

The baby’s not going to suffer from not having been baptized. She’s more likely to suffer, in the long term, from never having learned from her parents' example that Christian faith demands commitment.

Just remember: baptism’s not primarily about the family. It’s about the church.

Want to read more on this subject? Check out this detailed paper, Indiscriminate Baptism and Baptismal Integrity, by Ronald P. Byars, on the PC(USA) website.