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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quorum – How Low Can You Go?

One of the decisions Sessions and Congregations need to make under the new Form of Government is what quorum to set for meetings.  Both Sessions and Congregations need to have a quorum for their meetings, and they now have the freedom to determine that number on their own, rather than having to follow a fixed formula specified in the Form of Government.

A quorum, of course, is the minimum number of members who must be in attendance in order for business to be conducted.  It can be expressed either as an actual number or as a percentage of eligible participants. The old Form of Government set the quorum of most Session meetings at one-third of its elders plus the pastor (but not fewer than two), and of congregational meetings at 10% of active members.

A fraction or percentage is preferable to an actual number, because it allows for changes in membership, especially situations in which there are temporary unfilled vacancies.  For example, if a Session of 12 members has set its quorum at 50% of current Session members, but has had 3 members recently resign, its maximum possible attendance would be 9.  That means its quorum is no longer 6 attendees, but 5.  (In calculating a quorum based on a percentage, you always round up to the next whole number.)

Quorum rules can be a real inconvenience.  If, for whatever reason, it’s a bad day for attendance and there’s urgent business to be conducted, a quorum problem prevents the Session or congregation from making any decisions at all.  The meeting can still be convened, and the smaller group can hear reports and discuss whatever they wish, but they can't pass any motions.

It’s usually the clerk’s responsibility to insure that there is a quorum, and to notify the moderator if there is not.  If, at any time, a member of the body thinks a sufficient number of people have departed the room that there is no longer a quorum, that person can make a motion known as a “quorum call,” asking the clerk to count heads and certify again that there is a quorum. If the number in attendance has dipped too low, no motions are in order from that time onward until enough members return.

If, however, no one makes a quorum call, and the clerk does not notice the deficiency and bring it to the moderator’s attention, business continues to be conducted.  If, for example, someone at a Session meeting realizes that when Joe slipped out a half-hour or so before to go pick his wife up from work, the Session no longer had a quorum, and four motions have been passed in the meantime, those motions are not voided as a result. Only motions proposed from the time of the quorum call onward are affected.

So, in deciding on a quorum rule, how low can you go?  The initial impulse may be to set the quorum as low as possible, so as to reduce the likelihood of parliamentary gridlock.  But, not so fast.  Before rushing ahead and setting an extremely low quorum, Sessions and congregations do well to consider the purpose behind quorum rules.

Quorum rules are more than parliamentary red tape.  They are an important constitutional protection that prevents a council from being taken over by a small faction.  Let’s say, for example, snow falls on the day of a congregation’s annual general meeting – not enough to cause the meeting to be postponed, but enough to severely impact attendance.  The congregation has 200 active members, but has previously adopted a quorum rule of 5%, which works out to 10 people.  Only a dozen people show up on the day of the meeting.  Seven of those in attendance, however, come from a single, extended family.  This group has become upset with the pastor and with the direction of the Session’s leadership.  Finding themselves in the majority, they nominate and elect their own slate of officers, sympathetic to their cause.  Not only that, they go on to pass a motion asking the Presbytery to dissolve the pastoral relationship.  When news of these decisions are announced, most church members are horrified, saying that, if they’d known what this group had planned, they would have pulled on their snow boots and gotten themselves to the meeting some way or other – but by then it’s too late.  The action has been accomplished.  The old congregational-meeting quorum rule of 10% would have prevented that disaster.

So, when pondering whether or not to adopt the old quorum rules of 10% for congregational meetings and one-third-plus-pastor for the Session, think of that old party dance, the Limbo.  “How low can you go?” calls the D.J.

“How low can you go?” the partygoers repeat, their excitement at a peak.

They're eagerly watching that lithe young man, the last survivor of the competition.  He looks so skilled, so smooth, as he contorts his body to get under the bar.  Until he falls flat on his posterior.

In parliamentary quorums, as in the Limbo, there's such a thing as too low.

Enough said.

Don’t let yourself get talked into adopting a quorum rule that’s too low.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Do We Need an Inactive Roll?

One of the questions Sessions need to address under the new Form of Government (nFOG) is: “Do we need to maintain an Inactive Roll?”

Unlike its predecessor, the nFOG makes no provision for an Inactive Roll.  However – as has been frequently pointed out – the book is permissive on this point, so there’s nothing to stop a Session carrying on just as it has in the past, maintaining both an Active and an Inactive Roll.  A great many Sessions are planning to do just that.

Under the nFOG as well as the old Form of Government (oldFOG), congregations are assessed per capita apportionments based on the number of people on their Active Roll, as of December 31 two years previously (thus, the 2012 per capita calculation is based on December 31, 2010).  The numbers of names on the Inactive Roll have never entered into that calculation.

The old Inactive Roll can best be described as a list of people the Session believes should be the subject of special outreach, because they have not been participating regularly in the life of the church.  While the precise definition of an Inactive Member has always been left to the Session to determine, the list of member responsibilites in nFOG G-1.0304 (identical to those found in oldFOG G-5.0102) provides general guidance.  Most Sessions I know have followed either formal or informal policies that take note of the regularity of participation in worship, volunteer work and financial contributions.  Sessions have tended, also, to create protected categories of  Active Members who are exempt from these requirements, notably those who are homebound for health reasons or living in medical-care facilities, as well as young people who are away from home temporarily for college or military service.  Those in these protected categories have typically been retained on the Active Roll, despite their inability to be present for a time.

For those Sessions who decide to continue using an Inactive Roll, here are some Frequently-Asked Questions about how to do it under the nFOG:

1. Where is the Inactive Roll maintained?

Short answer: Wherever the Session decides.

Longer answer: Because it is no longer a constitutional requirement, those who review the Session’s minutes, rolls and register on behalf of the Presbytery will no longer be looking to see that there is an Inactive Roll section in the church’s roll book.  There is nothing to stop a Session from continuing to keep an Inactive Roll in the same roll book as before, it they so desire; it’s just that the Inactive Roll will no longer be reviewed by the Presbytery.

With respect to the required church rolls – the rolls of Baptized, Active and Affiliate members – these must be maintained in hard-copy form on archival-quality paper.  It’s all right to use a computer database for the convenience that affords, but there must always be a current, hard copy available, stored in a place where it will be safe in the event of fire or natural disaster.

2. What are the rights of Inactive Members?

They are no different than the rights of anyone else who has been baptized and who comes in off the street to attend worship: “To participate in the life and worship of the church and receive its pastoral care and instruction” and to receive the Lord’s Supper (nFOG G-1.0404).

There are two specific areas of involvement, however, that the nFOG limits to those on the Active Roll:  “participating in the governance of the church” and “being elected to ordered ministry” (that is, being elected as Deacons or Ruling Elders).   That means only Active Members may vote or have the privilege of the floor in congregational meetings (although, if someone other than an Active Member requests to speak, the congregation may always vote to extend that privilege).

3. What is the church’s obligation to care for Inactive Members?

The Session should feel obliged to extend the same pastoral care, instruction and invitation to the Lord’s Supper it offers to the general public (nFOG G-1.0404).  Beyond that, it's up to the Session to decide how it interprets its further responsibility to those individuals, under the Great Ends of the Church (nFOG F-1.0304).

4. Are those persons counted for per capita purposes?

Clearly, no.

5. What if someone on the Inactive Roll wants to become an active member?

Such a person should petition the Session, who will decide what preparation is appropriate for reception by reaffirmation of faith (nFOG G-1.0303c) – either on a case-by-case basis, or according to Session policy.  This process will likely include some discussion of the responsibilities of membership outlined in nFOG G-1.0304.  It shall require some form of “examination” by the Session, followed by reception “at a regularly scheduled service of public worship” in which “it is appropriate for them to reaffirm the commitments made at Baptism, to make public again their profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to express their intention to participate actively in the worship and mission of the church” (nFOG/oldFOG W-4.2004).

Now, if a person has done any of these things recently, or if a person’s name has been removed from the Active Roll based on an error, it may be that the Session will want to handle some of these requirements less formally.  The important thing is that the Session members do assure themselves that the general principles are being followed.

6. What does our Session need to do, with respect to the names on the Inactive Roll as of July 11, 2011, when the nFOG took effect?

Short answer: Nothing.  Those people weren’t Active Members before, nor are they Active Members now.  They couldn’t vote in congregational meetings nor be elected to ordained office then, nor can they now. Although the oldFOG defined “Inactive Members” as one of several categories of membership, in fact that was an empty distinction, since there was no right or privilege that pertained to them that did not also pertain to any other Christian who might happen to show up in worship.

Longer answer: There’s nothing the Session needs to do. What the Session has, essentially, is a list of names.  How Session members decide to use that list to guide their efforts to care for and invite those people back into active involvement in the church is up to them.

If the Session does decide to continue an Inactive Members Roll, and to keep referring to those people as “members,” they may certainly do so.  They could do this by means of a simple motion, stating that all those whose names were listed on the Inactive Roll under the old Form of Government are part of a continuing Inactive Roll they are setting up under the new Form of Government.  That distinction, however, will have meaning only within the local church, and will not necessarily be intelligible to Presbyterians elsewhere.

As they ponder these matters, Session members may want to consider the emotional impact on some people of being considered “not a member” of the church, as opposed to simply “not an active member.”  Most of us can think of people who ceased coming to worship and stopped contributing years ago, who may even live halfway across the country, who continue to refer to our congregation as “my church.”  A few of these people may take comfort in saying of themselves: “I may be an inactive member, but I’m still a member.”

That wasn’t meant to happen even under the oldFOG, since the Inactive Roll was clearly set up as a temporary way-station for names of people the Session was intending to reach out to in special ways, before taking timely action to remove them from the roll altogether.  A great many Sessions, however, did something different.  They left names on the Inactive Roll indefinitely, since there was no real incentive to remove them – thereby creating a sort of Grade-A and Grade-B membership.  Where that’s been the case – and I have to be honest and say it’s true of the church I serve as Pastor – the change could possibly create some pain among a few people who haven’t especially minded thinking of themselves as Grade-B members, as they learn they can no longer do so.

7. I hear of a Session who’s created a “Friends” list, for casual adherents who haven’t become members.  Does the nFOG let us do that?

Absolutely.  The new book is permissive, not restrictive.  You may already have a functional equivalent of a “Friends of the Church” list, but not know it, if you regularly mail or e-mail a newsletter out to prospective members and to others who are not on the membership roll.  In fact, this could be a creative solution to the very dilemma we’ve just been discussing, of longtime Inactive Members who may feel hurt that they’re “no longer members.”  Calling them “Friends” is more accurate, and may even make them happier.

8. What should we do if a letter arrives from another church, asking us for a letter of transfer for someone who’s no longer an Active Member?

There’s no difference from former practice.  It’s up to the Session how to handle this – whether to go through the motion of restoring such people as Active Members and then immediately transferring them, or to write back and say, “We thank you for notifying us and celebrate with enthusiasm their decision to join your church, but in fact we have already removed their names from our roll.”

It really makes no difference to the other church, because the sole function of a letter of transfer is as a courtesy to your church, so you may know it’s time to remove transferred members’ names from your roll.  Members sometimes speak of “transferring my letter” – as though every church keeps a file-drawer of letters somewhere for each member, all ready to go – but this is a misunderstanding.

9. What other steps should a Session take?

Adopt a policies manual, in which these and other questions are answered.  Then, as brother Luther advises, “sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger still.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rebalancing Ruling-Elder Representation

With the valued assistance of Ruling Elder Bill Faust, I have completed the calculations for the required rebalancing of the numbers of ruling-elder commissioners to Presbytery, in order to achieve parity between teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders.

The last time we did this, there were a small number of additional ruling-elder slots to allocate among the churches, but that is not the case this time around.  Two factors have influenced this.

First, there has been a modest decrease in the number of teaching elder members of Presbytery, due to a number of factors - the most significant being that many churches have been eliminating associate-pastor positions in recent years.

Second, with the Mission Council's encouragement,we have factored into the rebalancing calculation only the numbers of honorably retired ministers who live in New Jersey and are in reasonably good health.  Those who live out of state or who are experiencing health problems are of course still members of Presbytery and welcome to participate with voice and vote at any meeting, but it hardly seems accurate to ask churches to elect additional ruling-elder commissioners to offset their numbers if they are not likely to be in attendance.

Presbytery By-Laws call for certain ruling elders to be members of Presbytery.  These are elders "who are serving as officers of the Presbytery, as members of the Mission Council, the Administrative Division Steering Committee, the Ministries Division Steering Committee, or as members of the Presbytery’s Board of Trustees, for the duration of their term of office."  That means that, as we started to name additional ruling elder commissioners, we turned first to those serving on these named committees.

When we ran the numbers, we discovered that the number of additional ruling-elder slots we'll need in 2012 corresponds exactly with the numbers of ruling elders serving on those committees.  That means there are no additional ruling-elder slots to allocate among the churches.

Beginning with the January meeting of Presbytery, therefore, the number of ruling-elder commissioners from the churches will be based on each church's December 31, 2010 membership, as follows:

2001-3000 members (Toms River): 5 ruling elders
1001-1500 members (Red Bank): 3 ruling elders
500-1000 members: 2 ruling elders
All other churches: 1 ruling elder

We realize there will be some individual ruling elders who have had voice and vote in Presbytery for the past couple of years but will now be losing that privilege.  For those who are interested, there is a way to possibly get your voice and vote back: just tell the Nominating Committee you're interested in serving on one of the above-mentioned permanent committees.  If you are nominated and elected, you will be able to participate as before.

If you are already serving on one of those committees,  your Session should NOT elect you as a commissioner.  There's no need.  You already have full privileges of the floor at Presbytery meetings.  It's better for the Session to elect someone else - both to give another person a chance to participate, and to keep our teaching-elder/ruling-elder parity as close to 50-50 as possible.

We'll be sending out letters to Clerks of Session in the next few weeks, advising you of the exact number of commissioners your Session is entitled to elect - although you can probably figure it out for yourself in the meantime, by using the chart above.

Thanks for your understanding.  If you have any questions about this process, please feel free to get in touch with me.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Navigating the New Form of Government

One of the most helpful resources I've seen for Sessions to understand the new Form of Government better is this one, that was put together by my colleague, the Rev. Val Fowler, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley in New York state. It's essentially a checklist that pastors and clerks of session can use to make sure their church is making the appropriate adjustments for life under the new Form of Government.

The interesting thing about Val as the author of this document is that he started out as an opponent of the nFOG. Once the General Assembly passed it and a majority of presbyteries approved it, though, it became the law of the church. So, Val changed gears and began focusing on how he could best educate the sessions of his presbytery as they prepared to take the necessary actions.

Val's Navigating the New Form of Government guide is the result. It got some great press at the recent Fall Polity Conference in Pittsburgh, attended by executive presbyters and stated clerks from around the nation.

With Val's permission, I pass it on to you, with the recommendation that the session of your church use it to guide their discussions about how to adapt to the nFOG.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Top Ten Things for Sessions To Do To Adapt To the nFOG

It's not every day I recommend an article from The Presbyterian Layman.  Over the years, I've found their reporting on controversial church issues to be far from objective and accurate, and some of their attacks on church leaders I respect and trust to border on the libelous.

Imagine my surprise when I found an article in their current issue called "PCUSA has time to 'live into the nFOG,'" in which they actually refrain from saying anything bad about the denomination!  In fact, the article is filled with useful tips for Sessions that are working to become familiar with the new Form of Government (nFOG).

The article is a straight-up summary of a recent webinar sponsored by The Presbyterian Outlook (a much more moderate independent journal reporting on the denomination).  The teacher behind the webinar was the Rev. Dan Williams, co-moderator of the General Assembly's New Form of Government Task Force.

The article's worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights, including a "Top Ten List of Things to Do Sooner, Rather Than Later" with respect to the nFOG:

Sessions should look in the following sections for:
  • G-1.03 for membership matters
  • G-2.01-2.04 for ordered ministries or deacons and ruling elders
  • G-3.01 for general procedures for all four councils
  • G-3.02 for specific items that are the responsibility of the session
  • G-4.01-4.02 for information on trustees, church property and so forth

Top 10 list

Williams then presented his top 10 list of “Things to do sooner, rather than later.” He told those listening to the webinar that “it’s better to do things thoughtfully and carefully rather than do it right now. … I can’t emphasize enough that you do not have to do anything right away. … No one will rap your knuckles if you do them later.”

10. Study the foundations. “Make sure you have done your homework in that section first,” said Williams. “Building well starts with the foundation.” The “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” can be found in section F of the nFOG.

9. Quorum. Williams said this issue received a lot of discussion from Presbyterians when the final presbytery votes were being taken. The passage of nFOG removed the system-wide minimum standard for congregational and session forums, he said, “But it does not change your quorum. The number remains your quorum until you have a meeting and take the action to make the change.”

8. Notice for special meetings. Sessions and congregations can now determine how much required notice is needed to hold a special meeting. “It’s now up to you, as to what ‘reasonable notice’ must be,” he said.  “What works best for your situation will inform what your notice will be.”

7.  The nominations process. Williams said that G-2.0401 says the congregation can form the nomination committee in whatever way it deems acceptable. “You can continue to do it the old way,” he said, adding that that the nomination committee must include at least three active members on the committee and one ruling elder who is a current session member.

6. Length of term for the church treasurer found in G-3.0205.

5. Length of term for the clerk of session found in G3.-0104.

4. Strategy for dealing with members who have ceased active participation. “There is no ‘inactive roll’ as a requirement in the nFOG,” said Williams. “You are not required to maintain an inactive roll, but it does not mean you can’t have one. ... If this works best for you and your session then by all means have one.” Williams called the term “inactive member” a “contradiction in terms” and that the task force wanted to get away from that.

3. Sexual misconduct policy. All churches now must have a sexual misconduct policy. This change came from an amendment passed by presbyteries this year to the former Form of Government that also amended the nFOG. Williams advised those on the webinar to “look to your presbytery for guidance.”

2. Preparation and examination of those elected to ordered ministries, found in sections G-2.0402; G-2.0403 and G-2.0104b.

1. Develop or amend a manual of operations.  Williams said that nFOG takes the “how” and “who” matters out of the constitution, and these matters now belong in a church’s manual of operations. “You may not have a manual of operations, but you have standing policies that will likely be in a manual of operations,” he said. Examples include policies on creating committees and on building use. All of those policies should be collected into a manual of operations than can be as “detailed or brief as you need,” he said. “For smaller churches that operate more informally it may be a few pages.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hurricane Recovery: Where to Find Help

President Obama has issued a Major Disaster Declaration for damage resulting from Hurricane Irene in our state, which makes many New Jersey residents eligible for a number of Federal disaster relief programs. These programs offer grants and loans to individuals and loans to businesses. Churches can do a real service to their members by putting them in touch with these resources.

The Federal Government has set up a website that allows people to apply online for assistance. This website consolidates the application process across several Federal agencies, including FEMA and the Small Business Administration. The website also reduces the number of forms applicants will ultimately have to fill out, shortens the time it takes to apply and allows them to check the progress of their applications online.

Those who prefer to apply by phone rather than the Internet may may call 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362).

In addition, churches will want to note that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has One Great Hour of Sharing funds available to help people in need as a result of Hurricane Irene. Churches that are providing for the basic needs of those affected by the disaster may apply through the Presbytery for these funds. An initial amount can be disbursed rather quickly, with little in the way of an application process, other than the endorsement of Presbytery leadership. Further assistance is available through a more formal application process.

For more information about disaster-recovery funds available through PDA, please contact me.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Urgent call for volunteers from PDA

From Presbyterian Disaster Assistance...


Hurricane Irene and its immediate aftereffects are what many people are seeing in the news. The most significant damage from Irene will be from flooding that is occurring inland, where the storm’s rains have caused rivers, streams and creeks to swell and drain onto land that in many areas was already saturated from a summer of heavy rainfall.

As with most flooding situations, assessments cannot be determined until the water recede; this is not expected for another couple of days. Because of this situation, PDA is not currently asking for volunteers to help with Hurricane Irene.

We have recently been reminded however that 3,000 homes are still in need of repair from Hurricane Ike that struck Texas in 2008. Volunteers are desperately needed to help families put Hurricane Ike behind them, repair their homes and restore their lives.

The Presbytery of New Covenant will be operating the Presbyterian Volunteer Village in Texas City, Texas, this fall, from September 12 through November 19, 2011.

To reserve space for your Mission Team, contact the PDA Call Center toll-free at (866) 732-6121 or register your interest online.

Contact Kendall Boyd, Ike Recovery Coordinator, with any questions or to discuss this ministry further by email or (713) 526-2585 x213

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
A One Great Hour of Sharing Ministry
(800) 728-7228, x5839

Saturday, August 27, 2011

PDA is Ready and Waiting to Help

One of the great things about being Presbyterian is Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), our denomination's emergency-relief agency. Many of us are familiar with what PDA does overseas, but the agency responds here in the USA as well, to all manner of natural disasters. Whether at home or abroad, PDA's policy is to work closely with local presbyteries (or comparable councils overseas), to insure that assistance is delivered in the most efficient and faithful way possible.

PDA is one of the three major recipients of the One Great Hour of Sharing Offering, and often it is OGHS funds that are dispersed at the first news of a natural disaster.

I've recently been in touch with Bruce McGraw of Lawrenceville and Dick McClain of Allentown, Pennsylvania, volunteers who are part of a 3-person Hurricane Irene response team PDA has put together. Their team is ready to leap into action and work with New Jersey presbyteries as soon as Irene has passed us by. We'll all be hoping the need will be minimal, but it's good to know PDA is there in any event.

In recent years, the Rev. Bill Walker has been designated as Monmouth Presbytery's "Disaster Pastor," a volunteer role. Because Bill has been ill recently and isn't up to doing this sort of thing at the moment, I've asked his predecessor in the role, the Rev. Suzanne Schafer-Coates, to step in and be ready to assist. Suzanne will fill a support and liaison role to pastors of local churches. Once the storm is past, she and I intend to reach out and contact the pastors of the Presbytery, to make sure everything is OK with their congregations, and to see if there are ways Monmouth Presbytery and PDA may help.

We don't know what sort of electricity or phone service may be available immediately after the hurricane, of course - both for us and for people we may be calling - so we'll do the best we can with that.

One immediate request we have from our PDA team comes through one of the relief-agency networks they're part of. There's an immediate need for experienced volunteers to work in the various shelters that have been set up in Monmouth and Atlantic Counties. The following is from Bruce McGraw:

"I thought you might want to know that I received overnight an email from New Jersey VOAD (Volunteers Organized to Assist in Disasters) that the Office of Emergency Management in Monmouth and Atlantic Counties are looking for volunteers who have experience in shelters. The contact for both counties is President of NJVOAD:

Cathy McCann
Vice President of Operations
Community FoodBank of New Jersey
31 Evans Terminal - Hillside NJ 07205
Direct: 908-242-3960 - Cell: 908-884-0769 - Fax: 908-355-2341
Main number: 908-355-3663
E-mail: cmccann@njfoodbank.org - Website: www.njfoodbank.org

If you have folks with such experience, this is one opportunity to help. I assume these shelters will be run by the Red Cross."

Claire and I are sitting it out here in Point Pleasant Beach with some family members; our part of town is not subject to mandatory evacuation. Suzanne is battening down the hatches at her home in Hightstown. We hope and pray all of you are warm and safe, and will remain so. Remember, we're all in this together, and God is with us most of all.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Learn Spanish in Cuba

Due to our current transitional status in the Presbytery office, with Barbara Wasylyk, our Presbytery's Administrative Assistant, slated to go in for hip-replacement surgery this week, I'm including news of this opportunity here, even though it's a bit beyond the scope of this blog. We'll catch up on getting it into a promotional flyer a little later.

I've learned from John Walter, an elder who's been the driving force behind Baltimore Presbytery's very active partnership with the Central Presbytery of the Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Cuba, that those two presbyteries are cooperating on a new Spanish-language immersion program. The first class will be for a week in January 2012, the exact dates not yet set, and will be limited to 10 people. Subsequent plans call for a two-week immersion opportunity that will take place at a later date, as well.

(Photo courtesy of John Walter)

The program is intended for those who already have some basic knowledge of Spanish, and would like to improve their conversational skills.

Since Monmouth Presbytery likewise has a mission partnership with the Central Presbytery of Cuba, our colleagues in Baltimore, with the encouragement of our Cuban friends, are inviting us to publicize this opportunity. They would be pleased if some members of Monmouth Presbytery's churches, and/or some of our ministers, would be interested in participating.

Under travel restrictions maintained by the U.S. government, Americans are permitted to travel to Cuba only for certain purposes, including educational exchanges and religious work. This trip would be permitted under Baltimore Presbytery's religious-purposes travel permit.

Full details, including costs and information about applying, may be found on the Baltimore Presbytery Cuba Partnership web page.

If you have questions, John says you may send him an email, or email Deb Milcarek of the Baltimore Presbytery staff.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Catholics, PCUSA and Two Other Churches Mutually Recognize Baptisms

From the National Council of Churches:

Catholic Church and four Reformed churches recognize validity of one another's baptism

New York, July 14, 2011 – The general secretary of the National Council of Churches today celebrated an historic agreement among the Roman Catholic Church and four historic Protestant reformed churches to recognize the validity of one another's baptism.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, staff head of the nation’s leading ecumenical body, said, "these five churches have taken a significant step on this road to unity."

The United Church of Christ was the most recent church to adopt the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” during its synod earlier this month in Tampa, Fla.

The agreement was approved by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2008, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in November of last year, and the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church at their denominational meetings last month.

Check out the full article.

Friday, July 22, 2011

New Book of Order Available for Free, Online

The new Book of Order, 2011-2013, including the new Form of Government (nFOG), is now available in PDF format as a free download from The Church Store, part of the PCUSA web page.

If you don't have an account with The Church Store already, they're going to make you go through the process of registering with your contact information and submitting a credit card number, but don't worry, the bill will come out to "0.00" in the end, so you won't be charged anything.

Print copies are of course still available, for $10 plus shipping, but this electronic version (searchable through Adobe Reader or whatever other software you use to read pdf files) is a convenience.

Please spread the word.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where to Get the New Book of Order

This information arrived today from the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly:

The Book of Order (2011-2013) is available in print. Item #OGA-11-001. Price: $10 for 1-9 copies, 10% discount for 10-24 copies; 15% discount for 25-49 copies; 20% discount for 50+ copies. Order from the Church Store or call (800) 524-2612.

Here are the many electronic formats of the Book of Order (2011-2013) that are or will be available:

· Available now: A downloadable PDF version of Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, the new first section of the Book of Order.

· By July 20: a CD-ROM with both the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order (2011-2013) in PDF formats. Item #OGA-11-007. Price: $15. Order from the Church Store or call (800) 524-2612.

· By August 1: the Book of Order (2011-2013) will be in the Kindle bookstore (for Kindle and PC users) and in the iBookstore (for Mac and iPad users). Price: $9.99.

· This fall (date subject to the work of the Special Committee on Authoritative Interpretations): A free annotated, online, searchable version of the Book of Order (2011-2013) will be added to the PC(USA) Document Library. The library currently contains the most recent version of the Book of Order, the Book of Confessions, General Assembly Minutes (1986-2008), Social Policy Compilation, and Selected Theological Statements.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What's a Church's Economic Worth?

From time to time, we all hear complaints about certain benefits churches receive from the government - most notably, our exemption from property taxes and the income-tax deductions our members can receive for their contributions. Critics of these benefits tend to see churches as freeloaders, living high on the hog at the public's expense.

A recently-published research study, if its results are generally accepted, will go a long way towards putting such objections to rest.

The "Halo Effect" Study conducted by the non-profit group, Partners for Sacred Places, examined historic churches in Philadelphia. As reported in a February 1, 2011 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the positive economic impact of churches on their surrounding community - both in terms of direct spending and services provided cheaply or at no cost to their recipients - is massive:

"They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools, elder care. They tallied the salaries of staff and the wages of roofers, plumbers, even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, too, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible.

They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.

The grand total for the 12 congregations: $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.

The valuation for 300-member Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was a middle-of-the-road $1.65 million. By contrast, the figure for Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic parish in Kensington, with 7,000 congregants, a parochial school, and a community center, was $22.44 million.

The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, 'just blew us away,' said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places."

The report has also been mentioned in a May 20, 2011 BBC News story.

As the article makes clear, there will certainly be challenges to some of the calculations included in the report. Pricing intangibles is always a tricky business, in some respects more of an art than a science.

Still and all, the Halo Effect report is a telling reminder that our communities would be poorer places without their churches.

A final note: the photo of the church steeple with the blue-neon halo hanging from it is not Photoshopped. It's the Oran Mor bar and nightclub in Glasgow, Scotland. It's located in a former Church of Scotland sanctuary that once belonged to the now-defunct Kelvinside Church.

Sometimes the message of a church's intangible positive benefits to the community just doesn't get out in time.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Easily-Forgotten Lessons of History

I posted the following text as an online comment to an article on the Presbyterian Outlook website. The editor chose to run it in the July 11, 2011 print edition as a letter to the editor.

(PHOTO: Distinguished Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan: U.S. Senator and frequent Presidential candidate, Moderator of the General Assembly and guest prosecutor at the Scopes Trial, where he promoted a fundamentalist, anti-evolution interpretation of scripture)

I'm dismayed to think that Frank Frieberg's assessment of the reason why some are considering leaving the denomination could be accurate: "What bothers them the most is the departure from viewing scripture as authoritative and instead viewing scripture as merely guidelines."

I hear this a lot. It sounds very satisfying to say, I'm sure. But it's not based on fact.

If it WERE as simple as that, then why are these people still in the PC(USA) after any one of a number of serious, careful reinterpretations of scripture that took place in the 20th Century:
- ordination of women as deacons, elders and ministers;
- toleration of remarriage after divorce; and
- acceptance of miscegenation, or interracial marriage?

(PHOTO: Margaret Towner, ordained in 1956 as the first constitutionally-approved woman minister in the UPCUSA or the PCUS)

At the beginning of the 20th Century, any one of these practices would have horrified most Presbyterians. They would have seen ample biblical reasons for proscribing them.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, few considered them to be any big deal.

(PHOTO: Richard and Mildred Loving, legally married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but arrested after they moved to Virginia, where miscegenation, or inter-racial marriage, was still considered a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1967 landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, unanimously ruled the Virginia state law unconstitutional.)

What happened in the meantime? Did the church cease "viewing scripture as authoritative and instead [start] viewing scripture as merely guidelines"?

No. The church prayed and agonized over the texts. Presbyterians engaged in protracted, strenuous debates, using all the the scholarly gifts and persuasive powers God had given them. Decorum was preserved, for the most part (we ARE Presbyterians, after all), but there were awkward periods of years when believers in the same city or even the same congregation feared they had little in common, and little to say, to one another.

In the end, the Holy Spirit had its way with the church. Presbyterians eventually came to believe God was doing a new thing in their midst. Change came - at first by only the barest majority, but eventually by much larger margins.

Change has never happened any other way, since the Day of Pentecost. Together we struggle to discern God's will in the scriptures. It's a slow, messy, agonizing process that takes a generation or more. Each time there's a major change, some Presbyterians split from the main body, seeking a more holy community, but inevitably most end up deeply disappointed. The wisest among them return, eventually - faithful to Christ's prayer "that they all be one." Many more, in time, give thanks that they didn't heed the call to schism when they were sorely tempted to do so.

I'd love to hear one of these aggrieved parties make a convincing argument why this historical change in biblical interpretation is different from any of the others that have preceded it. So far, I haven't heard any argument that has convinced me.

The argument that this change has been foisted on the church by unbiblical people, who care more for what society thinks than what the scriptures say, is as old as the hills. It has been trotted out, in turn, for each of the 20th Century changes mentioned above. The charge was false then, and it is false now.

Having said that, I can also say I understand how it happens. Change is hard. Very hard. I can sympathize with those who fear they no longer recognize the church of their youth.

This is a tender and vulnerable time for the Body of Christ. The faithful way to live through it is to try extra hard to think well of those on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from ourselves - not to demonize them as either libertine or prejudiced.

We can get through this, folks, if we just take a deep breath, try listening more than speaking, and practice the fine Christian art of mutual forbearance.

That's what's worked for us in the past. It will work for us again, if we but continue to trust Jesus Christ, the one head of the church, to be our guide.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"A High Moral Obligation"

Per capita is under discussion in our Presbytery these days, and will be a special topic of interest for the upcoming Presbytery meeting, which will take place on Tuesday, June 28 at 7:00 pm, at the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church.

Per capita is of course the apportionment plan the Presbyterian Church has used, since the very beginning of our denominational history, to cover administrative expenses. Originally, it was a way of collecting money to cover the expenses of the annual General Assembly - particularly, for reimbursing travel expenses of commissioners. It has since expanded to cover most of the routine administrative expenses of presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly.

In 2011, Monmouth Presbytery’s per capita amount is $35.00 per member. The $35.00 figure is broken down as follows:
● General Assembly - $ 6.50 per member
● Synod of the Northeast - $3.95 per member
● Monmouth Presbytery - $24.55 per member

Per capita is NOT a tax. Although many Sessions ask their members to contribute the cost of their per capita through a special offering, this is neither required nor expected. Sessions are expected to fulfill their church’s entire per capita obligation regardless of the amount of any designated per capita contributions their members may make.

Rather than thinking of per capita as a tax, it is more accurate to think of it as a sort of denominational utility payment. Our churches all make utility payments for electricity, water and the like. For those payments, they receive certain essential services. The essential services provided by per capita are the things that make us Presbyterian – our denominational connectedness.

Now, should a church fall behind on its per capita payments, it's not going to suffer the same consequences as if it defaulted on its electric bill. We all know the electric company will run of patience eventually and disconnect the power supply, but the Presbytery can't throw a switch and de-Presbyterianize a congregation (nor would we ever want to!). Rather, we depend on mutual good will to make the per capita system work.

Essentially, it’s an honor system.

There have been times in the past when churches, facing unusual difficulties, have asked to be relieved of part of their per capita obligation for a time. The Presbytery has obligingly granted such requests. The system has been able to absorb that sort of hit from time to time. We’ve written it off as part of our mutual support for one another. When one weeps, we all weep together, as the scriptures say.

In recent years, though, the honor system seems to be systematically breaking down in some parts of the Presbytery. It will be reported at the upcoming meeting that about one-third of the churches are seriously behind on their per capita payments. A few churches have made no payments, or only minimal payments, for several years now. As a result, the overall amount of the Presbytery portion of per capita has had to be steadily raised (even as expenses have been slashed, by downsizing programs and staff). This means that, in effect, the churches who conscientiously fulfill their per capita obligation are made to pay for those who don’t.

It’s estimated that the Presbytery’s portion of the per capita asking – which is $24.55 – would be $8.00 less, or $16.55, if all the churches remitted their full per capita obligation. That means the total per member asking would be $27.00 instead of $35.00.

The Presbytery can't force Sessions to pay per capita. Officially, it's a voluntary contribution, a benevolence. That much is clear from decisions of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission. The most recent of these decisions, Minihan v. Presbytery of Scioto Valley, 2003, was a complaint about a Presbytery policy that declared per capita payments by churches mandatory. The PJC agreed with the complainant and overturned the Presbytery’s policy.

Some pastors and elders, since then, have waved around copies of the Minihan decision, saying, “See! We don’t have to pay per capita. It’s voluntary!” Some have taken the decision as giving them permission to routinely divert money they once used for per capita to pay other bills – a tempting thing to do, in these tough financial times. Others have said, “We encourage our members to pay their own per capita, and will gladly pass along any designated contributions we receive, but we’ll pay nothing more out of our general church budget.”

Such actions are, technically, permissible under the Minihan decision. But, here’s the real question: Are they faithful?

Lots of people are familiar with what the Minihan decision says about the voluntary nature of per capita, which has been widely reported and discussed. Most people don’t realize, though, that the decision also includes a tightly-reasoned theological statement about the importance of per capita as “a high moral obligation.”

Here’s what Minihan says about the morality of paying per capita:

“Therefore, while our Constitution does not technically permit presbyteries to make per capita mandatory, we are necessarily bound together as a covenant community through our union to God Almighty in Jesus through the Holy Spirit (A Brief Statement of Faith, C-10.4, lines 52-57). Thus, there is a high moral obligation based on the grace and call of God to participate fully in the covenant community. Full participation includes time, talent, and treasure (G-10.0102h; W-5.5004). Moreover, all officers are obligated, by virtue of ordination vows [W-4.4003], to participate fully in the life of the Church. To participate partially or not at all and yet claim to be within the covenant community represents a grievous misunderstanding of our reciprocal covenantal obligations under the singular Lordship of Jesus (The Second Helvetic Confession, C-5.124-141). In other words, we are called to turn from the sin of individualism run rampant and embrace the covenantal community in which our Lord Jesus has called us to live as those who love as we have been loved (John 13:34). Therefore, withholding per capita as a means of protest or dissent evidences a serious breach of the trust and love with which our Lord Jesus intends the covenant community to function together (G-7.0103).”

I would love to see every Session who’s decided not to pay their full per capita engage in a careful study of this paragraph, looking up and discussing the biblical and Confessional references it cites, particularly the ordination vows they’ve all taken. How does the vow to “be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s word and Spirit” square with the decision to stick those same colleagues with a portion of one’s own church’s per capita obligation (W-4.4003e)? How does an elder or a minister promise to “share in government and discipline,” while at the same time shrugging and saying, “Sorry, we don’t do per capita” - which for centuries has been the preferred means of paying the basic costs of Presbyterian governance (W-4.4003i)?

I’ve been having this same discussion with our own Session at Point Pleasant, the church I serve as pastor. Last year, I’m sorry to say, we reached the end of the budget year without paying our full per capita obligation. Yes, we defaulted on some of it. It wasn’t an act of protest. We just ran out of money. Knowing that other churches have done the same in recent years, the Session decided (disregarding my advice) that per capita was something they could just - regrettably - let slide, without suffering any adverse effects. Other churches were doing it, weren't they?

There is an adverse effect, though. If per capita is an honor system, and if payment of per capita a question of morality, then maybe we ought to stop talking so much about our budgets, and start talking instead about our souls.

We're going to be talking a lot more about that sort of thing around our Session table this year. Maybe you'll decide to do the same in your church, as well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Parliamentary time bombs?

There's been some discussion, lately, about how local congregations ought to transition to the new Form of Government, that's due to take effect on July 10, 2011. I've been hearing, in particular, about one alarmist critique of the nFOG, that suggests there are a couple of hidden parliamentary time bombs in there that are all ready to blow local churches sky-high if somebody doesn't get in there like MacGyver and defuse them.

In particular, say the alarmists, there are two things local churches need to do, pronto:

1) Set the quorum for congregational meetings, and
2) Establish the most recent edition of Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised as the parliamentary basis for congregational meetings

Everyone's agreed that, because the nFOG doesn't explicitly adopt these two standards in the case of local churches, congregations do need to vote on these two items at some point, if their By-Laws don't already address these issues. The question is whether this is a matter of such urgency that Sessions need to rush to call a congregational meeting prior to July 10, when the nFOG takes effect. The doomsday scenario - raised by partisans who are no friends of the nFOG and have been opposing it - is that if congregations allow July 10th to come and go without formally adopting the 10% quorum that was in the old book, then they will for all practical purposes be unable to ever meet again, because they'll need to roust out 50% of their membership in order to conduct any business.

The problem with that argument is that it's self-contradictory. If we accept that, after July 10th, the default 50% quorum from Robert's Rules applies to congregational meetings, but we also accept that Robert's has no constitutional basis for congregations after July 10th - unless and until congregations specifically act to adopt it as such - then, how can Robert's impose a 50% quorum from the get-go?

If a congregation can't, or doesn't want to, meet before July 10th, then all it has to do at its first meeting is to adopt a rule stating that, in accordance with former practice, the quorum for a congregational meeting is 10%. Then, it can go on to adopt a second rule, stating that Robert's Rules is the parliamentary authority for all matters not addressed by the Constitution of the PC(USA).

There's actually an easier way to handle this, though, with a single motion (as I describe below).

Furthermore, this is a classic case in which "Jenkins' Law" applies. The late Fred Jenkins was, at one time, our executive presbyter here in Monmouth Presbytery. Fred - who was both an attorney and a minister - left Monmouth to go on to fame and glory as Director of the Office of Constitutional Services in Louisville. Fred had a question he habitually asked, in certain situations in which a council (what we used to call a "governing body") was about to get itself tied up in knots. His question was: "Who's going to sue?"

Let's say a congregation's By-Laws make no mention of either quorum or Robert's Rules - or, worse yet, that a congregation doesn't have any By-Laws at all. Let's also say that congregation tarries, and doesn't hold a meeting until after July 10th. If it makes a good-faith effort at that time to set a reasonable quorum (especially the 10% quorum that, as years of minutes will show, they've been following since forever), and then goes on to establish Robert's as its parliamentary authority (which many successive Books of Order likewise show has historically been our steadfastly reliable guide), then there's not a court in this country, ecclesiastical or otherwise, who's likely to throw a wrench into the works because of such a technicality. And besides, as Fred would say: WHO'S GOING TO SUE, anyway? Who even cares about such a nit-picky point of procedure, when a congregation that takes the steps I've outlined above is doing the most reasonable thing, based on years of past precedent, in order to get through a transitional time?

Now, on to the solution...

Here's what I think all clerks of session ought to do, as we make the change:

1) Find the By-Laws, blow the dust off them, and see what they say about quorum and Robert's Rules. If they already address these matters, you're home free.

2) Failing that, at the next Congregational meeting, have someone propose this motion:

"With respect to any item that the new Form of Government leaves to be set as policy at the discretion of the Congregation, which was formerly included as part of the 2009-2011 Form of Government as amended by the 219th General Assembly (2010), that item is temporarily adopted as Congregational policy until superseded by further action of the Congregation."

Presto! You've just re-established everything that was in the old Book of Order with respect to how congregational meetings operate.

I wouldn't advise keeping that action in place forever, though. If you do, you'll eventually be carrying around a tattered, yellowed copy of the 2009-2011 Book of Order, with all the pages falling out, along with your latest copy of the nFOG. The intent of the change is that every council (formerly "governing body") of the church will go through a careful, deliberate process of writing a policies manual. (From the Presbytery, we'll be sending out guidelines and suggestions in the coming months to help you do so.) This enabling motion is just to buy some time to go through that process in a measured, unhurried way.

The Session ought to to adopt a similar version as well:

"With respect to any item that the new Form of Government leaves to be set as policy at the discretion of the Session, which was formerly included as part of the 2009-2011 Form of Government as amended by the 219th General Assembly (2010), that item is temporarily adopted as Session policy until superseded by further action of the Session."

If you want to, you can add a sunset clause to the end of the motion, saying that it remains in effect until, say, December 31, 2012. But, that's optional.

I think this is a reasonable way to proceed. If you're still concerned about it, of course, you could always suggest to the Session that they call a special congregational meeting before July 10. There's still plenty of time to do that.

Why stay? Because we're family.

Wise words, here, from Bill Tammeus, in an opinion piece published today on the Presbyterian Outlook website.

If you like what he has to say, check out the full article.

"Friends occasionally call me a cockeyed optimist, a charge to which I sometimes plead guilty. But my hope in the case of 10-A is that the folks who wanted to defeat it will do what folks who have wanted to pass it — but lost repeatedly — have done: stay in the church.

Those of us who have favored getting rid of G-6.0106(b) have remained in the church even though we’ve had to live with something we believed was wrong. Why did we stay? Because we love the church — and by “church,” I mean the people in the church, even the people with whom we disagree.

I have three sisters and sometimes have disagreed with them. But I’ve never considered declaring them (or me) outside the family. Between us, my wife and I have six children and six grandchildren, some of whom sometimes have made choices we don’t like. But it’s never occurred to us to cut them (or us) out of our family.

In the title of a sermon I once gave, water is thicker than blood. By which I mean that the water of baptism creates a family more eternal than the family created by blood relationships."

Once again, here's where to find the full article.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We Have a New Form of Government

It’s happened, as expected. As confirmed today in a churchwide letter from the leaders of the national church, unofficial tallies indicate that the new Form of Government has now received a sufficient number of “yes” votes in the presbyteries to become part of the Constitution. The new provisions will take place just over a month from now, on July 10, 2011.

We have our work cut out for us, in the coming months. While the new FOG is much simpler and more concise than the old one, key details have intentionally been left out of the new version, in order that the church’s councils (session, presbyteries, synods and General Assembly) may develop policies and procedures that best suit their particular situations.

The word “council,” by the way, is now the generic term of choice to describe what we used to call “governing bodies.” That means we need to find a new name for the Presbytery Mission Council.

A few of our churches have also been using the word “council” to describe a type of committee or working group. It would be wise to find a new name for those groups, as well, so as to avoid confusion.

At the meeting of the Presbytery Mission Council this Thursday evening, we’ll be discussing an enabling motion to recommend to the Presbytery, that will effectively retain, for a period of time, all provisions of the old Form of Government not covered by the new book. This will allow us the time we need to adapt our present Presbytery Standing Rules into a new Manual of Operations.

It would be wise for sessions to do the same. In the next few days, we’ll be getting a recommended text for this enabling motion out to the sessions for their consideration.

Some may choose to see this whole business as an annoyance, as extra work that needs to be done. "Just tell us what we need to do, so we can keep doing things the way we always have," may be the first reaction.

I think it's a mistake to look on the new Form of Government that way: as an obstacle to be overcome. I look on it more as an opportunity. In response to a growing sense, across the denomination, that the Form of Government had grown too large, regulatory and generally unwieldy, the General Assembly has approved a new version that's simpler and more flexible. There's freedom, now, for sessions, presbyteries and synods to cut away certain former rules and regulations they believe have been hindering effective mission.

If, in our sessions and in the presbytery, we take this opportunity to enter into a time of missional reorganization, we'll very likely find that we'll come out of that process better able to respond to the call of Christ in our particular locale, and a lot less likely to allow our shoelaces to get tied together by unnecessary regulations.

For those interested in looking ahead at the decisions that will need to be made by each session, the Office of the General Assembly has issued an Advisory Handbook on implementation of the new Form of Government. The first section of that booklet deals with sessions, and questions they will need to ask themselves in the coming months.

Those curious about the impact of these new provisions will want to examine the Office of the General Assembly’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) list on the subject, which is below:

Frequently Asked Questions about the New Form of Government
Office of the General Assembly
June 2011

When will the new Form of Government take effect?
The new Form of Government will take effect on July 10, 2011, which is one year after the adjournment of the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

What has changed with the adoption of the new Form of Government?
The same basic polity that has defined the core work of the councils (governing bodies) of the Presbyterian Church continues with the new Form of Government. This revision is not so much about the “what” that councils do – our essential polity – as it is about the “who” and the “how.” Increased flexibility in structures and procedures in a less regulatory environment is the major change that has occurred. The new Form of Government allows councils to increase their focus on God’s work and how the church can most effectively participate in that work in each situation, rather than being focused on an increasingly lengthy and burdensome list of requirements.

Will a council need to immediately revise its manual of operations?
Existing manuals – already required of presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly, and also in use by many sessions – remain in force until changed by a council. Revisions do not have to be made immediately, affording a council time to determine what structures and procedures will work best to carry out its identified mission for Jesus Christ. The Advisory Handbook for Councils identifies policies and procedures required by the new Form of Government for each council, most of which should already be in place and would be revised only if and when a council deems it necessary.

What about sessions that have no manual?
Sessions will need to create a manual of their policies and procedures that will, at the least, need to define certain discretionary powers now given to them. These are described in the Advisory Handbook and include such things as quorums, adequate notice for special meetings, any changes to the nominations process, and so forth. Many of these might already exist as standing policies (prior actions) of the session. The size of the manual will depend on how detailed the structure is that the session has in place.

What happens to existing Authoritative Interpretations under the new Form of Government?
Authoritative Interpretations (AIs) of the Constitution can only be made or rescinded by the General Assembly. All current AIs remain in effect until changed by a future General Assembly, which is precisely the situation that has always existed with any amendment to the Form of Government that has been previously interpreted. A task force is currently working to make recommendations to the 220th General Assembly (2012) on the continuing status of all AIs, based on guidelines provided by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to the 219th General Assembly (2010).

How will accountability be enforced in the new Form of Government?
The new Form of Government continues the long-standing Presbyterian principle of right-of-review of one council by the next higher council (F-3.0206, G-3.0108). Emphasis is also placed on the need for consultation between councils on mission strategy, structures, and procedures. Enforcement of administrative and judicial directives relies even now on trust and mutual accountability, undergirded by our belief that all church power is ministerial and declarative (F-3.0107).

Our work together as Presbyterians gathered in congregations and councils of the church will continue to be guided by this important declaration: “The polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presupposes the fellowship of women, men, and children united in covenant relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love” (new G-1.0102; compare to current G-7.0103). No Form of Government can legislate this trust and love, but by answering the new Form of Government’s call to work cooperatively and collegially to identify and implement the mission of each council of the church, we may find a deepened sense of commitment and connection to Jesus Christ and each other as the journey progresses.

What impact will the adoption of Amendment 10-A have on the text of the new Form of Government?
The passage of Amendment 10-A that changed the text of current G-6.0106b will also change the text of the same passage in the new Form of Government, G-2.0104b. The new language of the amendment will replace the current language in G-2.0104b. The same is true for several other amendments adopted this year. At the end of each amendment in the booklet published by the Office of the General Assembly (Booklet #3) is a statement that indicates the impact of the adoption of the amendment on the new Form of Government.

When will the new edition of the Book of Order that contains the new Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and new Form of Government be available?
It is anticipated that the print version of the new Book of Order will be in the warehouse by the second week of July, after which orders will begin to be processed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Never "Just" an Elder

One of the features of Presbyterianism that may seem strange to Christians of other traditions is that the highest official in our denomination is not necessarily a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. Sometimes that person is an Elder.

That's who we have right now, as our General Assembly Moderator. Cynthia Bolbach, an Elder from National Capital Presbytery, was elected by last summer's General Assembly to serve until the next meeting of the Assembly, in the summer of 2012.

And a great job she's doing, too!

One of the things Cindy's been doing, during her time of moderatorial service, is writing an occasional column on the denominational website. In a recent posting, she spoke of a certain sense of inferioriy some elders feel, compared to ministers.

"I’m just an elder,” some may say. Often, this is in response to a request to do something, something ministers very often do themselves - like preaching or hospital visitation.

Listen to what Cindy says:

"Our Presbyterian polity doesn’t recognize the statement, 'I’m just an elder.' In our polity, ruling elders and teaching elders (also known as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament) share equally in the governance and spiritual leadership of the church. Our calls to ministry encompass different functions and tasks, but we are called equally to ministry and to leadership in the church.

For too long the ministry of ruling elder has been diminished, equated with serving on a non-profit board of directors. Yes, the session does perform tasks like hiring nursery attendants and deciding whether the amount of insurance coverage is adequate. But that is not the primary task of the session or of the ruling elders who serve on it."

She's right about that, I'm convinced. Here, we've got a wonderful office of spiritual leadership to which church members can aspire, an office that even requires ordination, and we've managed to let it degenerate into something little more demanding than, say, P.T.A. membership. (I've got nothing against the P.T.A.; they do good work. It's just that eldership is meant to be so much more).

Our Moderator goes on to say:

"Ruling elders have the awesome task of measuring our community of faith’s fidelity to the Word of God. As the proposed new Form of Government puts it, 'Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships' (G-2.0301)."

That phrase, "measuring out," is significant. It gets at the true meaning of the word "ruling," as in "ruling elder."

Most people, when they hear the adjective "ruling," think governance. They think power. They think decision-making. They think something like what former President George W. Bush meant when he adopted for himself the label, "The Decider." Ruling elders are the church's deciders, right?

Wrong. True, sessions (comprised mostly of elders) do, in fact, make a lot of decisions in their meetings. But that's not the point the good old Presbyterian word "ruling" is trying to get across.

It's a bit of an archaic meaning, but - as Cindy accurately points out, but doesn't really explain - it's the sort of ruling a ruler (the measuring-stick, not the monarch) does. The job of elders is to lay their spiritual judgment up against some aspect of the church or other, and try to measure out what God may be doing there.

Ruling elders really do what they're meant to do when, individually or together, they...

- discern that a particular church member may need some special, caring attention from the church leadership;

- identify an area of need in the community that the church ought to be addressing;

- assess the budding faith of a Confirmation Class member they're examining;

- explore the question of whether offering worship in a new musical style, or in a new setting, may be just the thing for involving more young people;

- pray with a newly widowed person, serving as a sounding-board as he or she tries to figure out what's next;

- and, the list could go on and on.

The point is, all of these involve that measuring function, which could perhaps better be described as spiritual discernment.

Maybe elders aren't so much "the deciders" as "the discerners." I say Amen to that!