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

Wednesday, June 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!