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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eleventh-Hour Amendments to nFOG

As I mentioned in my last post, the General Assembly passed about 30 amendments to the draft of the new Form of Government. Many of these changes are trivial, but some are significant. Here are the ones I think are significant:

1) Footnote added to G-2.0105, “Freedom of Conscience”: “Very early in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, even before the General Assembly was established, the plan of reunion of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia contained the following sentences: ‘That when any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceable withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.’” (Hist. Dig. (P) p. 1310.) (Plan of Union of 1758, par. II.)”

This footnote is an important corrective to a common misinterpretation of the famous “God alone is Lord of the conscience” principle that’s foundational to Presbyterian polity. The uninformed sometimes assume this principle means that Presbyterians can believe anything they want. What it really means is that the State cannot coerce the conscience of a believer through the use of force. Many of the original Thirteen Colonies had an established church, and used the civil law to punish those who sought to worship in other than officially-sanctioned ways. “God alone is Lord of the conscience” has more to do with the separation of church and state than it does with the right of the church to define the boundaries around orthodox belief.

Yes, Presbyterians are free to believe anything they want. Yet, if that belief has to do with a doctrine the church judges to be central to the faith, the church reserves the right to ask unorthodox believers to leave the church and practice their faith in another religious community.

What’s more, the church expects them to withdraw “peaceably...without attempting to make any schism.” It would be a good thing if more of those smug pastors who have taken churches out of the denomination, making narcissistic statements like, “I haven’t left the church, the church has left me” – to join groups like the New Wineskins Association of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church – paid attention to this centuries-old principle. “If you have a serious conflict of conscience with the church’s teaching,” says this principle, “you are perfectly free to leave. But don’t even think of taking your congregation with you as you do so, for that sort of assault on the church’s unity is a deep affront to God.”

2) Add the word “ordinarily” to this sentence in G-G-2.0504a: “An associate pastor is ordinarily not eligible to be the next installed pastor of that congregation.”

It’s been said that “the word ‘ordinarily’ is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.” When the pastor of a larger church moves on or retires, there is often strong pressure to make the associate pastor the pastor. It’s understandable that a congregation should feel this way. Leadership abhors a vacuum, and the folks in the pews naturally dread the prospect of an extended interim period. Yet, as uncertain as churches may feel during an interim time, important things can happen during those months, as lay leadership shifts and the presbytery charges the congregation with seeking a renewed sense of mission. The vast body of practical experience demonstrates that even the possibility of an associate’s becoming pastor can put a congregation on the road to devastating conflict. The people tend to lay on their new pastor’s shoulders the impossible assignment of becoming the beloved predecessor. When that expectation remains unfulfilled – as it inevitably must – they often turn and blame the new pastor.

Even so, I know the task force wasn’t 100% in agreement that the nFOG should contain this level of specificity about associate-pastor succession. I can understand how some may think the addition of “ordinarily” gives presbyteries the flexibility to seek out those rare situations when associate-pastor succession may be a good idea.

I think presbyteries would do well to draft their policies manuals in such a way as to close this loophole.

3) Add the word “ordinarily” to this sentence in G-G-2.0504b: “A teaching elder employed in a temporary pastoral relationship is ordinarily not eligible to serve as the next installed pastor, co-pastor, or associate pastor.”

Unlike the associate-pastor situation, I think this change is helpful. While it’s generally true that temporary-pastor succession is not a good thing, there are more situations than there are in the case of associate pastors where this may actually be the best thing for the congregation.

4) In G-2.0803, replace “obtain approval” with “receive and consider the presbytery’s counsel,” so the new sentence reads: “...prior to making its report to the congregation, the pastor nominating committee shall receive and consider the presbytery’s counsel on the merits, suitability, and availability of those considered for the call...”

There’s a huge difference between “receiving and considering counsel” and “obtaining approval.” This change eliminates the Committee on Ministry’s ability to quietly head off what they consider to be a train wreck of a call process – perhaps based on confidential reference information they have received from the pastor’s present presbytery of membership. The presbytery still has power to block a disastrous call, but with this change, that power would have to be exercised at the very end of the process, after a congregation (and especially its PNC) has fallen in love with an inappropriate candidate.

5) Amend G-2.0901 by deleting this qualifying phrase, “unless the presbytery expressly finds that the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands dissolution of the relationship without such a meeting” from the end of this section: “An installed pastoral relationship may be dissolved only by the presbytery. Whether the teaching elder, the congregation, or the presbytery initiates proceedings for dissolution of the relationship, there shall always be a meeting of the congregation to consider the matter and to consent, or decline to consent, to dissolution.”

This rarely-exercised provision is very much needed in uncommon situations of extreme conflict or personal misconduct on the part of a pastor. When a presbytery declares the words, “the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it,” it’s declaring a state of emergency and assuming extraordinary powers. A little scary, to be sure, but sometimes that’s the only way out of a bad situation.

6) Amend G-2.0905, replacing “offer” with “provide,” so the new sentence reads: “After the dissolution of the pastoral relationship, former pastors and associate pastors shall not provide their pastoral services to members of their former congregations without the invitation of the moderator of session.” This is a helpful change, in my opinion. Long-tenured former ministers – retired, or simply living nearby – often have trouble maintaining appropriate boundaries. Without those boundaries, they can create havoc in the life of their successor. This change closes the loophole by which a sly retired minister could smile innocently and say: “I’m not seeking out former parishioners to so I can perform their baptisms, weddings and funerals. The families are coming to me.” (Yeah, right.)

7) Amend Paragraph 2 of G-3.0103, so as to restore Committees on Representation. This was a high priority of the racial-ethnic caucuses and of women’s organizations. The original draft simply said presbyteries need to fulfill the function, somehow, of insuring that equal-opportunity provisions are being followed. The amendment insists that this can only be done through a mandatory committee that only has that responsibility and none other. Probably a little too much detail, I think (though some will disagree).

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