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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Save the Last Dance for Me

Here I am in Minneapolis, a couple of days in advance of the General Assembly. The Association of Stated Clerks, our national professional organization, is having its annual meeting. It's good to meet with my colleagues from other presbyteries and synods, share war stories and generally talk with each other about how to do our jobs better.

This morning we heard a presentation by the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. Gradye's always got his analytical eye set on developments in the larger church. One statistic he shared with us got my attention, more than any other.

It seems the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a research study a couple of years ago, in which they queried Americans about their religious practices. The Pew researchers found that, of those who attend religious services at least annually, half these people - 35% of the general public - "say they regularly or occasionally attend religious services at different places, aside from when they are traveling and going to special events such as weddings and funerals." That's only slightly less than the number (37%) who report attending the same house of worship consistently.

Gradye called that statistic to our attention by pointing out that, of all the people we could realistically expect to be sitting in our pews on any given Sunday, just over a third "shop around" on a regular basis, when it comes to religious services.

Wow. So much for denominational "brand loyalty." So much, even, for loyalty to the congregation of which these spiritual buffet-browsers are members (if, indeed, they're interested in settling down and joining a church at all)!

I'd be interested to know how many of the sheep in our fold at Point Pleasant regularly graze in other pastures. Sure, I know of a few cases where the husband is from one religious tradition and the wife another, and they divide their time between two different churches. That, I can understand. Sure, there are some who skip out on summer Sundays to attend the nearby summer chapel that gives tall-steeple preachers the sweet deal of a week of beach vacation in exchange for a recycled sermon from their "greatest hits" list. Some others enjoy, from time to time, wandering north a few miles to sample the old-fashioned camp-meeting flavor of Ocean Grove's Methodist conference center.

Yet, as Gradye suggested to us, these numbers go way beyond the occasional summertime dalliance. The folks the Pew researchers uncovered, in such large numbers, may typically go to one church for the music, another for the preaching, still another for the contemporary service, and so on - with some even dividing their time between a church and, say, a Buddhist meditation center.

My late mother-in-law was one of these. A former Roman Catholic and, after that, a sometime Presbyterian, she liked to sample anything and everything spiritual. She used to describe herself as a "roamin' eclectic." Her tribe may be more numerous than many of us suspect.

Does this mean we've simply got to work all the harder to build congregational loyalty, and keep it - even as we're swimming upstream against a powerful societal trend? Or, should we just throw in the towel, declare "it's not our grandfather's church" anymore, dump our classic Calvinist high conception of the church and get used to the way things now are?

There are no easy answers to questions like these, but they call to mind the lyrics of the corny old pop song:

"But don't forget who's takin' you home
And in whose arms you're gonna be
So darling, save the last dance for me."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blogging from General Assembly

I'll be attending the entire General Assembly except for the final half-day, and will be using this blog as a place to post random reflections on the experience. Look for my posts to come more frequently than they usually do, and to have a different character.

I won't make an effort to be comprehensive in reporting on Assembly actions. Look to the Presbyterian News Service - not to mention the Assembly's live web-streaming of debates - for that. What I plan to provide is my own viewpoint of the Assembly, based on the personal encounters and conversations I have, as well as what I see and hear of the official meetings and associated special events.

I've been asked to put in some time as a floor parliamentarian, as well - sitting by one of the microphones during several of the plenary sessions, helping commissioners craft the motions they'd like to make. I don't know at this point how much of that I'll be doing, or when - I'll find out more at a training session after I get there - but it should provide a different sort of perspective.

Think of it as a man-on-the-street report - different from the traffic-helicopter perspective of the News Service and the C-SPAN give-us-everything style of the live-stream video.

I'll be attending the Association of Stated Clerks meeting from June 29-July 2, then the General Assembly from July 3-10.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Welcome the WCRC!

During these lazy, hazy crazy days of summer, an important gathering has been taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan for churches of the Presbyterian and Reformed Tradition.

The newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches unites two previous ecumenical organizations: the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (of which the Presbyterian Church USA has long been a member) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The new ecumenical body will group 227 member churches representing 80 million Christians in 108 countries.

"The coming into being of the World Communion of Reformed Churches will be a historic moment for the churches of the Reformed family and for the church of Christ everywhere", said the World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, who is attending the uniting event.

"This is a new expression of the visible unity of God's church, and as such it represents both a gift from God and a sign of hope", Tveit added. "I trust that it will strengthen the contribution of the Reformed churches to unity, peace and justice."

(adapted from Ecumenical News, an electronic newsletter of the Presbyterian Church USA)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

So, Who Was Robert, Anyway?

If you’re a Clerk of Session, you couldn’t have gotten to where you are today without having at least heard of Robert’s Rules of Order. They’re the unquestioned standard for parliamentary procedure in non-governmental decision-making bodies in the English-speaking world.

Ironically, the British Parliament doesn’t use Robert’s Rules, nor does the U.S. Congress - both of them have their own set of similar rules that preceded Robert’s. In fact, Robert himself is said to have modeled his rules after those of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Henry Martyn Robert (1837 - 1923) was a U.S. Army officer in the Civil War, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General. He was an engineer who helped design the defenses of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and several port cities in New England. Following the war, he had a long career as an engineer, specializing in lighthouses and river-improvement projects. After General Robert’s retirement, in 1901, the Corps of Engineers called him back to chair a board of engineers that designed the seawall that would protect Galveston, Texas, following the disastrous hurricane the previous year that had nearly wiped that city off the map.

Robert’s Rules, first published in 1876, actually arose out of the church. Robert wrote the manual after being asked to chair a church meeting at a Baptist church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The meeting got out of hand, and he felt so badly about his own poor understanding of the rules that he determined to learn more about parliamentary procedure. When he couldn’t find a book that met his needs, he resolved to write his own.

Although Robert’s Rules has become a byword for Parliamentary procedure, the book has no legal status unless a body adopts it as its own set of rules. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has done just that, declaring in the Form of Government G-9.0302 that all working groups within the church shall use it as their standard “except in those cases where this Constitution provides otherwise.” Interestingly, G-7.0302 allows for exceptions in the case of congregational meetings, by which congregations have the authority to adopt “a comparable parliamentary authority” if they choose to do so (although it’s hard to envision a situation in which a set of alternate rules would make life easier).

It’s advisable, therefore, that all congregations have in their By-Laws a notation that Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised (the official name for the most current edition) is their official standard, secondary to that of the Constitution of the church.

For a little parliamentary fun (no, that expression is NOT an oxymoron!), check out the Frequently-Asked Questions from the Robert's Rules official website. See how many of these you can answer correctly!