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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is the Recession Ending for Churches?

I'm always glad to be able to pass along a bit of hopeful news. This is from CNN.com:

"The worst of the recession may be over for some of America’s churches, a survey released Wednesday on religions donations indicated.

According to the survey, called State of the Plate, 43% of churches saw a rise in contributions in 2010, compared to 36% that saw an increase the year before.

Meanwhile, 39% of churches saw their giving dip last year, down from 47% that reported declines in 2009....

Churches responding to the survey represent evangelical (24%), Baptist (23%), Independent/Non-denominational (21%), mainline Protestant (13%), Charismatic/Pentecostal (12%), Catholic/Orthodox (2%) and other Christian traditions (5%)."

- Dan Gilgoff, "Recession's effects fading for some churches," CNN.com, March 30, 2011.

Let's hope this is a real trend!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Who Wants to Be a Presbyterian?

I’ve been noticing a trend, recently, in our Presbytery. Collectively, we’ve gotten pretty shy about asking questions of people who are being examined in Presbytery meetings. Whether they’re ministers transferring in, or inquirers seeking to become candidates, or even candidates seeking approval for ordination, most of the time we dummy up.

The moderator asks, “Are there any questions from the Presbytery?”

Silence. If we’re lucky, maybe someone will raise a lighthearted query about whether or not the minister transferring in will forsake old allegiances and become a Yankees, or a Phillies, or even a Mets fan, but that’s about it.

Then, more silence.

Then, somebody mutters, “Move the examination be arrested,” and the moderator puts it to a vote. The ayes have it. The examination is over.

The person leaves the room, and the decks are cleared for debate. Only there isn’t any. What on earth would we debate, if none of us has been inspired to ask the teeniest little question of substance?

It’s a quick, unanimous voice vote, then the person is invited to return. It’s happened so fast, there’s barely been time for our guest to take a seat in the reception area and bite into a brownie. We receive our new member or candidate back into the room with thunderous applause. It's a true feelgood moment, as long as the person doesn't choke on the brownie.

We Monmouth Presbyterians do the celebration thing pretty well. It’s the role of the questioner that makes us go all a-jittery.

Why is that, I wonder? Is it because we’re convinced that our committees, the CPM and the COM, are such zealous inquisitors that, after the vicious grilling they’ve meted out, the humanitarian thing to do is simply leave the poor, shell-shocked blighter alone? (I’m sure the committees do their job, but knowing the fair-minded people on them, I’m also sure they’re not the Spanish Inquisition.)

Or is it that we’re so conflicted a presbytery, theologically speaking, that the merest mention of a doctrinal subject is like touching a lighted match to a pan of gasoline? (We’ve got our differences, but by no means are we one of those presbyteries where liberals and conservatives regularly lob theological mortar-rounds across the aisle, with the poor examinees hunkering down in the bleak no-ministers’-land in between.)

Maybe we’re just a bunch of theological rubes, who couldn’t put together a coherent theological question if we tried. (I know that’s not the case. We’ve got some pretty deep thinkers among us.)

Perhaps the statements of faith are so encyclopedic in their coverage of every point of Christian doctrine, and so adroitly written, that not even Calvin himself could find a chink in that armor through which to slip a penknife. (C'mon, we're Presbyterians. Did you ever meet a Presbyterian who couldn't find something to gripe about, theologically?)

Most likely, I think the reason is that we’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that examining a person just isn’t a very nice thing to do.

Well, I’ve got news for you. Folks who present themselves on the floor of Presbytery expect to be questioned. If they’re not, they may feel a momentary sense of relief, but later on they may be led to ask themselves, “Does that Presbytery even care enough about me and my ministry to read the statement of faith I worked so hard putting together, and formulate a question?”

The truth is, examinations of candidates and ministers are about the only times most Presbyteries – ours included – engage in theological debate. (Voting on controversial amendments sent down from the General Assembly is another, but if you were at last Tuesday’s meeting, you know we passed up that opportunity for dialogue, as well.)

We’re not meant to pose theological questions when inquirers are presented to be examined for candidacy, of course. Such questions will come later, after they’ve completed most or all of their seminary studies. Yet, even at that transitional stage, questions about spirituality, life-experience and discerning God’s call are all fair game.

When candidates for ordination and/or installation come before us, it’s a good thing when several ministers or elder commissioners rise to ask questions of substance. Such questions need not be framed in an unfriendly or controversial way. They need not be presented as all-or-nothing theological litmus tests. A conscientiously-framed and kindly-expressed invitation to go a little deeper will surely be appreciated, not only by our fellow presbyters, but also by our guests – who, after all, have carefully prepared themselves for that very eventuality.

In case you need a little pump-priming before our next floor examination, here’s a collection of documents from several presbyteries that include sample questions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Papers for March 22, 2011 Presbytery meeting

Here are some papers you'll need for the Tuesday, March 22 Presbytery meeting, that will convene at 7:00 p.m. at the Allentown Presbyterian Church.

1) If you're a Presbytery member or Elder Commissioner, you'll need to print out and bring with you the brief "PrezBPass" form.

2) You'll also want to print out and bring with you a meeting Docket, with all the related committee minutes and reports appended to it. In order to be a more "green" Presbytery, the Mission Council has decided that DOCKETS WILL NO LONGER BE AVAILABLE AT THE MEETING, except for a small quantity set aside for visitors who could not have had the opportunity to print them out ahead of time).

3) Because we'll be voting on Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, you'll want to print out a copy of the booklet describing these. It will be hard for you to consider these thoroughly, or to make much sense of the debate, unless you have a copy of the Amendments in your hands. We have a limited number of the booklets left and will distribute them on a first-come, first-served basis. (Many ministers and commissioners already have copies of the booklets, which have been distributed at the last two meetings; if you have one, PLEASE BRING IT.)

Here are a couple of additional items you may or may not want to print out, as you choose:

4) The packet files are mostly flyers and announcements concerning workshops, educational seminars and social events that are coming up in various churches of the Presbytery. To save paper, you may want to view these online, printing out only those you intend to distribute to others.

5) The PC(USA) Association of Stated Clerks publishes an analysis of the proposed Amendments to the Constitution. This is as objective an analysis as it could possibly be, prepared by a committee of presbytery stated clerks who are committed to explaining the nature and practical effect of the various amendments in plain language, without editorializing. This document has no official status, but it may be helpful. You can think of it as similar to the interpretative statements that appear on voting-machine ballots in secular elections, when Public Questions are up for consideration.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Needed: A Second Opinion

Many of us have been following with concern the recent debate over the "deathly ill" letter, signed by a large number of large-church pastors from across the denomination. Reading some further material from that group ("The Fellowship") online, I was struck by one observation they call "non-negotiable." I've posted this response (which reflects my own opinion and should in no way taken as anything more than that):

As a cancer survivor, I’ve learned of the importance of always getting a second opinion. I advise newly-diagnosed patients that, if their doctor bristles at the suggestion of a second opinion, it’s time to find a new doctor. Such a physician, no matter how impressive-looking the diplomas on the wall, has an ego so large that it will eventually impede medical decision-making.

With that thought in mind, what am I to make of the statement, in the very first item of the “Markers for the Way Forward” document, that the diagnosis of our denomination as “terminally ill” is the sole item described as “non-negotiable”? The claim that the PC(USA) is “dying” because of popular discontent over liberal theology is but one more repetition of The Big Lie the Presbyterian Layman and similar groups have been repeating, ad infinitum, for so long that good people are starting to believe it.

It is without basis in fact. Yes, we can all come up with anecdotal evidence of some individuals, even some churches, who have defected in place or departed for this reason (many solely on the basis of their having been hammered into submission by the endlessly-repeated Big Lie). Yet, the truth is this: in no way does a real or imagined swing of Presbyterian denominational leadership to the left begin to account for our loss of membership.

Several independent sociological studies have convincingly demonstrated that larger, societal factors are to account for the gradual loss of members in mainline Protestant churches (and would be true of Roman Catholics as well, were it not for the growing Hispanic population).

Check out Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers.Wuthnow convincingly demonstrates how massive, well-documented social changes like the declining birthrate, the sharp increase in average age at marriage and the rise of two-paycheck households (with all that’s meant for churches’ volunteer pools and families’ discretionary time) – to name just a few – have had a massive, negative impact on church participation. He also shows how – historically speaking – the post-Second-World-War surge in church participation was a statistical anomaly. In no way was it a Third Great Awakening (even if it were, the tide did go back out after those earlier high-water marks).

Then, check out Robert Putnam’s and David Campbell’s new book, American Grace, and especially the “Trends in Religious Identity” graph from that book, which can be found by clicking on this link and scrolling down. Putnam and Campbell convincingly show that EVERY religious denomination has been experiencing slow declines in membership – even, in recent years, the more evangelical denominations.

In short, this is not just a Presbyterian problem. To imply otherwise, or to imagine that “rearranging the deck chairs” in the form of a two-synod structure will help the situation is a colossal act of hubris.

Still, this is no excuse for complacency. Christ’s Great Commission calls us to redouble our efforts at sharing the good news. The world is as hungry for the gospel as ever. We will accomplish far more to advance this greatest of causes by working together than by splitting apart.

Friends, our current predicament is much bigger than anything our national church leadership may or may not be doing. To imply, as the tired old Presbyterian Layman refrain puts it, that the denomination is “dying” because it has “gone liberal” is to engage in false prophecy.

Please, please don’t make the mistake of considering your recent “deathly ill” diagnosis as your one “non-negotiable.” Do the smart thing and get a second opinion. You will be leading many good people astray if you do otherwise.

Monday, March 14, 2011

An Early History of the Presbytery - Online!

There are great "digitizing" projects afoot, these days, whose goal is to get all manner of books available online, in electronic format. Google Books, for example, has been much in the news, as it's been pushing the limits of copyright law (and, in some cases, copyright law has been pushing back).

More quietly - and almost behind the scenes - a number of scholarly libraries have been hard at work, scanning the text of books into computers and uploading them onto the Internet. Mostly these are older books, no longer under copyright.

In the world of theological books, Princeton Theological Seminary has been a leader in this - and, indeed, is now investing millions in rebuilding Speer Library on the seminary campus. Besides serving its residential students and faculty, the new structure is meant to serve Christian leaders around the world, by making free access to digitized books a reality. Through networks like The Internet Archive and OpenLibrary.org, users of the seminary website can link to digitized books from seminary and university libraries around the world.

While exploring this brave, new world of digitized books recently, I came upon an electronic version of a 50-page pamphlet, Historical Sketch of Monmouth Presbytery and Its Churches, by Joseph G. Symmes, published in 1877. It includes brief historic sketches of all the churches in the Presbytery at that time.

Surf on over there, and you'll find references to some of our most historic churches, like Allentown, Old Tennent and Shrewsbury, as well as some that are no more, like Cream Ridge, Holmanville and Oceanic. Squan Village (Manasquan) was in its infancy in 1877, and now-familiar place names like Lakewood, Ocean and Point Pleasant are nowhere to be found (those churches having not yet been established).

Anyway, this little book's a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of the Presbytery. Enjoy it!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Do Presbyterians Dedicate Infants?

I was recently asked about whether it's wise for Sessions to offer parents the option of "dedicating" their infants in worship, deferring baptism until the time when the children are ready to make their own profession of faith. Here are a few thoughts in response.

1. There is no such thing as "Infant Baptism" or "Adult Baptism" in the Book of Order. There is simply "Baptism." In W-2.3008 ("One Baptism": Its Meanings) are found these words: "Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament." That means a worship bulletin should never read, "The Sacrament of Infant Baptism," but simply, "The Sacrament of Baptism."

2. W-2.3007 declares: "Children of believers are to be baptized without undue delay, but without undue haste." Sessions considering the wisdom of offering an infant dedication rite as a regular alternative to baptizing infants ought to ask themselves how delaying a child's Baptism a dozen years or so is not "undue delay." I can think of a few cases in which it may be prudential to delay baptism until the time of a child's profession of faith - for example, in the case of a family in which one parent is Presbyterian and the other Baptist - but these are rare exceptions. In such a case, it may make sense to offer a special prayer for the infant and the parents during a worship service, making it clear to the congregation that this is a way of honoring both traditions within that particular family.

3. Nowhere in the Directory for Worship is there mention of the dedication of unbaptized children. True, it's not prohibited, but considering how the Directory goes out of the way to mention every other conceivable liturgical observance, the omission is noteworthy. It's not as though parents are offered two choices, as on a menu, and it makes little difference which one is selected. On the contrary, the preponderance of material in the Book of Order dealing with the Baptism of infants indicates that this is the normal practice. This is clearly seen in W-2.3007, which states: "Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life's way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith." The assumption here - while not explicitly stated - is that those for whom "Baptism attends their profession of faith" were not "nurtured from childhood within the family of faith."

4. Unbaptized children are not members of the church. Although we may sometimes hear Presbyterians describing confirmands' profession of faith as the occasion of their "joining the church," that's sloppy language that doesn't take account of the fact that our churches keep a Roll of Baptized MEMBERS" (G-5.0301). Why would parents want to receive the benefits of membership for themselves but not offer those benefits to their infant children?

5. If parents elect to delay their child's baptism, their child is not invited to receive the Lord's Supper (W-2.4011). While it's true that few ministers, seeing an unbaptized child approaching the Lord's Table, would turn that child away, that doesn't alter the fact that they are not included in the invitation to partake. There have been several overtures to the General Assembly in recent years to amend this section so as not to limit the invitation to the baptized, but they have failed to get through the Assembly.

Bottom line? All things being equal, Presbyterians consider it the norm to baptize children of church members when they are young, without "undue delay," and Sessions ought to encourage this practice.