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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Back in 2001, I was the only woman of 5 ministers transferring in who was questioned - and didn't think anything of it as I had always gotten questions in other presbyteries.