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

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Hymn Following Hurricane Sandy

No time for any detailed posting.... too much to do in coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We're OK, though, and our Manse and church have just had electrical power restored, after five nights without. The roof damage to our church building has already been repaired.

We have many church members whose homes have been severely damaged.  Some of those houses will be uninhabitable for quite some time.  Others have lost their homes completely.

Here's a hymn we're going to use this Sunday in worship, written by the wonderful Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, who always seems able to come up with just the right words on very short notice.

Please attend to the copyright permissions at the bottom.

Grace and peace to you and to the people of your church, at this difficult time.



When Waters Roar and Foam
LEONI (“The God of Abraham Praise”)

When waters roar and foam and overtake the land,
When homes along the shore are filled with mud or sand,
When mighty storm winds blow and bring us to our knees,
Creator God, renew our faith in times like these.

When neighborhoods we love are lost in just a day,
When homes and lives and livelihoods are swept away,
When all that we have left are precious memories,
O Christ, give healing, strength and hope in times like these.

When help is hard to find, when others need a hand,
When people suffer, tired and cold, throughout the land,
May we your church respond to struggling neighbors’ needs;
O Spirit, teach us how to love in times like these.

Biblical references: Psalm 46, 1 Corinthians 13
Tune: Hebrew melody adaptation by Thomas Olivers and Meyer Lyon, 1770.
Text: Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Email: bcgillette@comcast.net Web site: www.carolynshymns.com

Permission is given for free use of this hymn to churches that support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and/or Church World Service.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movin' On Out

Today I ran across a provocative blog entry by Marcia Myers, who studied in the M.Div. program at Princeton Seminary the same time I did, and now serves the PC(USA) as director of the Office of Vocation.

Reflecting on the growing national dialogue in our denomination about the need for Presbyterians to think outside the box with respect to ways of growing the church - part of which is the much-heralded 1001 New Worshiping Communities challenge - Marcia encourages local congregations not only to reach out, but to move out.

Yes, move out.  Right into the places in our local communities where religiously unaffiliated people gather.

"If you build it, they will come" may have worked for Kevin Costner in the film, Field of Dreams, but that's about the only place it works. Far fewer people these days are looking for a church community with which to affiliate than has ever been true in the past.

They're not going to come to us. We've got to go to them.

That's one of the hardest insights for those of us who lead established churches to wrap our minds around. Most of us grew up in a world in which the church was a respected organization in society. It was natural for us to assume that church membership offers such abundant advantages that a great many neighbors in the larger community think kindly of the church and would be honored to become a part of it.

Dream on. For growing numbers of our neighbors, those days are over. And they're not coming back.

Here's Marcia's response to this new reality:

"I think about all of the energy and hours we spend in church and on internal church activities. What would it be like if Presbyterian leaders – ruling elders, teaching elders, and everyone – were turned loose to be the church instead of run it?  What would it be like if we invited our neighbors to join us in being church rather than inviting them to “come to church”?  What would it be like if we worshiped in multiuse crossroads facilities through which people (believers and non-believers) come and go regularly so that the walls between “church” and “life” were very porous?"

If she's right about that, the question then becomes: "How on earth do we lead a bunch of tradition-minded church officers to think not in terms of the congregation's glorious past, but rather its beckoning future?"

How, indeed? What do you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Presbytery Meeting Materials for September 25, 2012

Materials for the upcoming meeting of the Presbytery of Monmouth, slated for Tuesday, September 25 at 7:00 pm at the Presbyterian Church at Shrewsbury, may be downloaded from the Presbytery website.

The Rev. David McKirachan is the church's pastor. He writes a wonderful blog.

The church at Shrewsbury is the oldest church in Monmouth Presbytery. Here's a slightly adapted, brief history of the congregation, from their website:

Scottish Presbyterians began settling in Shrewsbury in 1685 and for a number of years held services in private homes.  John Boyd, the first Presbyterian minister to be ordained in this country, held services in Shrewsbury as early as 1705.

Our first church building was constructed in 1735, on land deeded to the Presbyterians by Nicholas Brown for the purpose of a church and burial ground. This is the same Nicholas Brown who donated land to Christ Church (Episcopal) twenty years earlier.  This building served the congregation until 1800.

The church was active in the War of Independence, preaching resistance to the crown and holding meetings to support the cause.  One of our pastors, The Rev. Charles McKnight, was arrested for preaching sedition and revolution and was imprisoned for two years, eventually dying from injury and sickness sustained during his imprisonment.

Our church building burned in 1800 and for the next twenty years Presbyterians held services in Christ Church, next door.  During this time we developed a close association with our Episcopal neighbors.  So much so that we began reciting the Lord’s Prayer, using “trespasses” instead of “debts” as is the Presbyterian custom.

The corner stone for the present building was laid in 1821 and the building was completed the following year.  The bell tower was added in the 1840s, the social room in 1895, and the steeple in 1964.

It is important to note that in the resolution for the construction of our present building there is a stipulation as follows:  “It will be understood that the Doors of this House shall be opened, when not immediately occupied by the Presbyterians, to all denominations who make Jesus Christ the foundation of their immortal hopes.”  Our church has followed this stipulation and in more recent years, has opened its doors to the local “Society of Friends” when their meeting house was under repair.  Our friends at Christ Church, Monmouth Reform Temple, and Principe de Paz Presbyterian Church have all shared the shelter of our sanctuary and buildings.

The corporate seal of our church’s charter, proclaiming “Religious Liberty” is the oldest of any American Presbyterian Church.  This was a time when Charters were only granted to groups associated with the Church of England.  John Little, a Ruling Elder in our church, along with two other members of the Monmouth Presbytery, managed to secure the Monmouth County Royal Charter in 1750.  This charter recognizes the right of the Presbyterian Church to exist and hold property in Monmouth County.  It was granted by Governor Jonathan Belcher in the name of King George II of England.

Our seal depicts a circle containing a burning bush, a symbol of God’s revelation and eternal presence, the circle eternity.  It is inscribed with the words, “Religious Liberty” with an eight-pointed star.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Big Changes Are Proposed for the Synod

The future of Synods has been a lively subject of discussion in the church in recent years.  Although the most recent General Assembly declined to adopt a special committee's recommendation to eliminate Synods from the Book of Order completely - they pushed that proposal down the road, for the 2014 Assembly to deal with - it certainly seems like the church is on the verge of some big changes at the mid-council (presbytery and synod) level.

Knowing that change is in the air, and aware that our region of the country is one where the inclination to eliminate synods is strongly felt, the leadership of the Synod of the Northeast has appointed a Transitions Working Group (TWG) to do some creative thinking on the subject of the Synod's future and report back with some recommendations.

I've been privileged to serve on the Transitions group. I'm one of only two presbytery staff members to do so (the other is Cass Shaw, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Albany). In putting together the membership of this group - in consultation with the Synod Council, who called for its formation - Synod Transitional Leader Harold Delhagen intentionally sought out people who have not been deeply involved in the Synod's governance, but who have been active in the church in other ways. There is a larger-than-usual complement of people in their 20s and 30s (of which I am, obviously, not one). The result is what we hope is a fresh perspective.

Our group has just issued our report to the Synod. We're hoping a great many Presbyterians within the Synod will read it and comment on it.  The TWG's Transitions Blog has been, for some months now, the most prominent feature of the Synod's home page.

So, what's in the report?  If I had to boil it down into a single sentence, it would be something like this:

We are encouraging the replacement of rigid Synod governance structures
with both open-source and inter-presbytery networks,
and encouraging a Synod-wide dialogue among presbyteries about redrawing their boundaries.

That language does not come from our report.  It's my own shorthand summary of its principal recommendations.

A capsule summary like that inevitably comes out sounding like bureaucratic gobbledygook, so let me use the rest of this post to unpack that a little.

Foundational to our report is the recommendation that the Synod become what the Book of Order calls a "reduced-function synod" (G-3.0404). The Synod, after seeking approval of two-thirds of its presbyteries, would have to petition the General Assembly to make this change. Under the reduced-function guidelines, the Synod Assembly would be reduced in size to one ruling-elder commissioner and one teaching-elder commissioner from each presbytery, and would only meet once every two years. The principal function of the Synod Assembly would be to appoint members of the Permanent Judicial Commission, approve whatever limited budget the Synod would have, and to conduct whatever other financial or legal business is necessary.

Having recommended that move, however, we also think more needs to happen at the Synod level than the minimum required under the reduced-function model.  We're calling for some of the Synod's functions to be passed on: both to a variety of new "networks of passion, interest and need" that would function on a flexible, open-source model, and to the presbyteries.

We're making just two recommendations:

That the Synod reduce its governance functions and refocus its resources, creating two types of networks to support the role of presbyteries in strengthening the mission and ministry of its congregations:
a. networks of passion, interest, and need such that our connectional nature and our diversity can be used to enrich and grow the capacity of all;
b. networks of presbyteries (mission areas) collaborating to assure adequate leadership within their bounds

That a portion of those resources be used to foster presbyteries to engage together in a study of their own boundaries, particularly with regard to their capacity to sustain long‐term leadership commensurate with their needs. It is anticipated that this will require the appointment of a Boundaries and Leadership Commission, the provision of consultants, and the planning of a Synodical Convention. The purpose of the Convention would be to facilitate and coordinate presbyteries’ requests to the General Assembly for such boundary changes as may be necessary for the future strength of their witness and service.

One of the things we learned as we went about our work is that the Synod of the Northeast is blessed with substantial financial resources - well over 10 million dollars, much of that undesignated - much of which can (and ought to) be distributed to the presbyteries, should the Synod reduce its functions. In that event, we have a rare, one-time opportunity to strategically direct those funds in order to establish and strengthen the ministries of both types of networks, so the mission of the Synod may be strengthened as well.

Consequently, we're recommending that funds be made available to foster the growth of open-source networks of passion, interest and need. These networks would bring like-minded Presbyterians from throughout the Synod together to accomplish important work for the good of all. Here are some examples of the sorts of networks that could be formed (not an exhaustive list, by any means):

     ‐ Early Ministry Institute (EMI)
     ‐ Racial Ethnic (language-based or other emerging identity) Caucuses
     ‐ Northeast Collegium (executive presbyters group)
     ‐ Advocacy
     ‐ Stated Clerks group
     ‐ Interim Pastors group
     ‐ Mentoring and/or Coaching groups
     ‐ Support/mutual resourcing for leaders of presbyteries and congregations in distress or “survival mode”
     ‐ Prison Ministry support
     ‐ New Worshiping Communities
     ‐ Tentmakers (bi-vocational pastors) group
     ‐ Emergent Leaders group
     ‐ Young women pastors group
     ‐ Presbyterian Women of the Synod

The second type of network, by its very nature, may look a little more familiar, because it's actually a system of networked presbyteries. In the initial stages, the Synod would facilitate the establishment of networks of three or more presbyteries that the report dubs "mission areas." The Synod would accomplish this by making a major, up-front grant to each presbytery consenting to enter such an arrangement, followed by a five-year program of diminishing grants. Those grants would start at something like 90% of the cost of a full-time staff person serving three presbyteries, diminishing to around 10% in the final year. Presbyteries could use these grants in whatever way they wished, as long as they supported the goal of establishing inter-presbytery cooperative leadership.  Presbyteries could keep whatever paid leadership they presently have; or, they could move, over time, to save funds by migrating their paid leadership positions into the multi-presbytery arrangement. Networks of more than three presbyteries would receive proportionately higher grants in the aggregate, because each individual presbytery would bring essentially the same amount of money to the mission-area table.

If the proposal makes its way through both the Synod Council and the Synod Assembly, gaining approval in its present form, what difference would that make to us here in Monmouth Presbytery?

We're already in a partnership with New Brunswick Presbytery. If we found at least one neighboring presbytery to join our partnership (for example, West Jersey Presbytery), each of us would then, as part of a mission area of three, be eligible to receive the one-time initial grant (which the report suggests could be $50,000).  That would be followed, in subsequent years, by the five-year diminishing grants supporting shared leadership. In the first year of the five-year period, we'd collectively receive, as a three-presbytery cluster, a grant in the neighborhood of $108,000 ($36,000 each), then a steadily-diminishing amount in each of the four years thereafter. Over the five-year period of the grant, each of our three presbyteries would need to make whatever budgetary or program changes we felt we needed to make, in order to contribute our steadily-increasing share of the cost of mission-area leadership.

The end result would be that, after seven years (two years for initial organization, followed by five years of the leadership grants program), we would have consolidated many of our professional-leadership expenses  at the mission-area level, while retaining whatever individual professional staff we felt we needed and could afford.

At the very least, some presbyteries would likely decide to have no staff other than a part-time stated clerk and perhaps a part-time support-staff person. At most, others would retain their own executive presbyter, supporting professional leadership at the mission-area of a more specialized nature (stewardship consultants, Christian education consultants, etc.).

The Synod would not prescribe in any detailed way what sort of staffing patterns or structures the mission areas would ultimately adopt; there would continue to be a high degree of autonomy at the presbytery level. The mission-area boundaries themselves could shift over time, as well. As creatures of the presbyteries rather than the Synod, the mission areas would serve the needs of their member presbyteries, as well as offering them ways of joining together in common mission.

It's possible that the New Jersey presbyteries could decide to come together in a larger, statewide mission area. Some have suggested that recreating something similar to the old Synod of New Jersey would be a good thing. According to that scenario, this New Jersey Mission Area would then consist of seven presbyteries (West Jersey, Monmouth, New Brunswick, Elizabeth, Newark, Newton and Palisades), which would be able to pool their leadership-grant money  to recruit a somewhat larger number of resource specialists than any three-presbytery cluster could support on its own. It's possible that some New Jersey presbyteries would prefer to retain their own executive presbyter or other professional staff; others could decide to throw their lot in with the mission area for everything, even committing additional funds to make that happen.

The plan is gently directive that way, but not prescriptive.  It uses the grants program as a positive incentive to invite the presbyteries, in this era of diminishing resources and heightened missional needs, to consider covenanting together in some new and mutually-beneficial ways. It does that without requiring presbyteries to fully merge, which could result in presbyteries so large that present traditions of intimacy and community could be lost.

(By the way, the Korean-speaking congregations in our area belonging to the non-geographic Eastern Korean Presbytery could continue to associate with one another, as they presently do, in a single Korean-language presbytery. They would be eligible for grant funding comparable to that of an individual presbytery, although they would not be required to join a mission area in order to receive the grant.)

That's Recommendation #1: a significant deployment of Synod funds to establish two types of networks. Recommendation #2 stands on its own, regardless of what happens to #1, but could very well complement it. It is a one-time, major study of presbytery boundaries.  As the report explains:

"Our system of presbytery boundaries belongs to a much earlier era, when there were more than twice as many Presbyterians and when communication and transportation resources were less efficient than they are today. The original standard used for drawing some presbytery boundary lines, in the era before automobiles, was the placement of certain communities along railway lines; many of these trains stopped running and the tracks were torn up half a century ago. Communities belonging to the same county are often split among two or more presbyteries, negating the collective influence the churches could have in advocacy and in community mission coalitions. Massive population shifts have taken place as well. Yet — largely out of institutional inertia — the old boundaries persist, unexamined, in many cases to the detriment of effective ministry. The lack of capacity within some of these historic boundaries to find and support the leadership necessary to maintain the church has lifted this issue to a critical level.

A comprehensive redrawing of presbytery boundaries is long overdue, but can only be accomplished by bringing presbytery leaders together at the same time, to share their perceptions of local needs and to discern the Spirit’s leading, as they jointly prepare proposals to bring back to their presbyteries for vote."

This post has already gone on long enough, so I'll simply suggest that you read the report for full details on how this consultation would be accomplished. It involves a process of preparation and study guided by some expert organizational consultants, followed by a one-time Synodical Convention, at which specially-appointed representatives of the presbyteries would come together to discuss possible changes. They would bring their recommendations back to their presbyteries, which would then vote on whether they wanted to request the General Assembly to make those boundary changes.

As with Recommendation #1, in this second recommendation the initiative and final decision remains with the presbyteries.  The Synod's role would be as a consultant and a broker, providing the presbyteries with the information and resources to undertake these discussions thoroughly and faithfully.

That's what's in the report.  It's now in the hands of the Synod Council, which meets from September 21-22, and after that the full Synod Assembly, which meets from October 19-20. As with any report presented by a working group, once it gets to the deliberative body, anything can happen.

Whatever happens, though, you heard it here first!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Letters of Transfer

I often get questions from clerks of session about letters of transfer.

So, what is a letter of transfer, anyway?

I can tell you what it’s not.  It’s not one letter amongst a whole file of letters that clerks of session keep on hand, ready for the day when a member may want to transfer to another church.

Sometimes you hear church members say, “I moved my letter to another church.” This is a complete fallacy, for three reasons. First, such a file of letters does not exist - at least, not in any church I know of. Second, even if there were something to move, the member doesn’t move it; the clerk of session does (or perhaps a church secretary, operating under the clerk’s direction). Third, even when such a letter is issued, it’s not “their” letter.  It’s the church’s letter: a piece of correspondence from one clerk of session to another.

Often, it’s not a custom-written letter, but rather a half-completed "Certificate of Transfer" form sent from the new church to the old one.  Upon receipt, the clerk of session or session moderator of the old church signs the form, confirming that the person transferring is a member in good standing, and sends it back to the new church. Then, after the person has become a member, the new church sends a little, tear-off "Certificate of Reception" form back to the old church, confirming that the transaction has been completed. The Session of the old church must then vote (if they haven't already) to direct that the name be removed from the membership roll. You can order blank forms from Cokesbury.

The form is optional. The transfer could just as well be accomplished by an exchange of custom-written letters. But most churches find the form to be a convenient way to accomplish this little piece of routine ecclesiastical business.

The best way to think of a letter of transfer is as a courtesy to the old church, notifying them that they can now remove their member’s name from their roll. That’s pretty much its sole purpose.

You may find that the reverse side of the form includes a place to indicate whether the member being transferred is an ruling elder or a deacon. Don't neglect to mention that! The member's ordained status continues, whether or not he or she is currently serving on your church's Session or Board of  Deacons at the time of transfer. Presbyterian churches and other churches of the Reformed tradition that recognize our orders of ministry need to know that the person they're receiving is a church officer, so they can add that person's name to their own roll of ordained officers. Not all transferring members will mention this to their new church, so you need to make sure the new church knows!

I just received a question today about what to do when a transfer request arrives for a person who’s on the inactive roll.

There is no longer a requirement in the new Form of Government that a Session maintain an inactive roll, but most churches I know of still do, as a local option defined in their own manual of operations. Under the old book, only active members could be transferred. The new book makes no such stipulation: as far as it's concerned, there's only one membership roll, the active roll. If a local church does make use of an inactive roll, and its manual specifies that those people cannot vote in congregational meetings or hold office, then those on the inactive role are, de facto, no longer members as far as the larger church is concerned.

If a Session is inclined to respond positively to a letter-of-transfer request anyway, it's a relatively simple thing to vote to restore the person to the membership roll, then issue the letter of transfer. (Even if the Session uses the older word "reactivate," rather than "restore," the meaning of that action - as understood beyond the walls of the local church, where the Session's manual of operations has no authority - is to restore the person to membership, rather than to move him or her from one roll to the other.)

In the case of a request to transfer a person on the inactive roll, therefore, the Session has two choices:

1. Write back to the Session of the other church, explaining that it's not possible for you to issue a letter of transfer because the person is no longer on the membership roll; then, since joining another church is imminent, you should suggest to the Session that they vote to delete the person's name from the inactive roll.  You could say something like this in such a letter: “We thank you for notifying us and celebrate with enthusiasm John’s decision to join your church, but in fact we have already removed his name from our membership roll.” The only way this affects John's reception as a member of the new church is that he would be listed as being received by reaffirmation of faith, rather than by letter of transfer.  Once the membership-reception Sunday is over, no one will much care what the difference is.

2. Ask your Session to vote to reactivate the person’s membership - understanding that this is really a restoration to membership, as far as the larger church is concerned - then immediately issue the letter of transfer. Then, once you hear back that the transfer is complete, you can remove the person’s name from your roll. (It's up to your Session to determine the criteria for membership, within the general guidance of G-1.0402.)

I usually recommend that sessions take option #2. The rationale is that the desire to join another church is sufficient evidence to justify restoration, for the brief time it takes to accomplish the transfer - and, besides, we're just glad to encourage anyone who wants to join a church.

Now, in case anyone's wondering, option #2 will probably have no impact on your church's per capita apportionment. Unless this process stretches from one calendar year into the next, on December 31st - when the membership-numbers "snapshot" is taken , producing the (active) membership total on which the per capita apportionment will be based, one year hence - you will have added a member, then subtracted one, so there’s no net change to your membership total.

There's only one exceptionally rare circumstance in which, upon receiving a letter-of-transfer request for someone on the membership roll, the Session of the old church would decline to issue such a letter. That is a case in which a complaint has been filed against a person under the Rules of Discipline. While such a case is pending, the old church needs to keep the person on the roll until the investigation (and possible trial) is concluded, so the Session retains ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Synod Transitions

I've been serving on a group known as the Synod Transitions Working Group, that is drafting a proposal for the Synod Council (and ultimately the Synod Assembly) to envision what a synod ought to look like in these changing times. We're nearing the conclusion of our work, which will likely include a range of possibilities, from pretty much shutting down the Synod (making it a Minimum Function Synod, as described in the Form of Government) to business as usual.

I can't say much more than that publicly until our report is finalized and approved, but it's fair to say that our recommendation will fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

Updates on our progress are posted from time to time on the Synod of the Northeast web page.

We've just made a YouTube video, to introduce the presbyteries of the Synod to our group and what we're doing:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why Confirmation Still Matters

There's been much hand-wringing for years about mainline Protestant membership decline. There's a tired old refrain that says it's all due to conservative outrage over liberal positions taken by the national church, but that's easily exposed as nonsense. Church history, in fact, proves just the opposite.  The greatest periods of growth have coincided with major change, particularly faith-based social movements that bettered the lives of people who were getting the short end of the stick, and that showed the world that the church has something to offer that goes beyond mere private belief.

There are convincing sociological arguments that say a significant part of the decline, for denominations like ours that have traditionally relied on Christian nurture of our own progeny, is due to demographic factors such as: (1) a sharply declining birth rate among our member families; (2) a historically unprecedented increase in the average age of marriage and mothers bearing their first child; and (3) the vast increase in two-paycheck households and in working hours in general, which has sapped our traditional pool of volunteers.

Check out Robert Wuthnow's landmark study, After the Baby Boomers, if you want to see those statistics.

But that doesn't explain all of it.  Here's a further explanation for the decline that, coupled with the sociological numbers,  makes sense to me:

"Kenda Creasy Dean, in her important book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, suggests that kids leave the church in their early adult years because the faith they received at home and church ends up being fairly superficial, unable to help them make sense of and navigate the challenges of adult life. I’d add that in a hyper-driven world with 24/7 opportunities and obligations, time has become the scarcest of commodities and therefore we will no longer give our time to things that don’t significantly inform and tangibly contribute to the rest of our life.

While Dean suggests that a major cause of the superficial faith of our kids is the failure of their parents to show them why their own faith matters, I’d point out that today’s parents – even committed church-going parents – never received this kind of instruction from their parents or pastors. Why? Because in a nominally Christian culture everyone knew enough of the faith to make sense of it while simultaneously not needing to employ that faith to navigate significant elements of their lives. After all, when most people went to church, what serious other options were there for how you would spend your Sunday mornings?

Which means that on one level confirmation should be more important than ever. If our kids, that is, don’t learn not just the content of their faith but it’s actual value to help them shape productive lives, they will undoubted find better things to do with their Sunday mornings."

- Blog post by David J. Lose, "Does Confirmation Still Matter?"

If our kids aren't coming back to church in adulthood, then without a doubt there's something wrong with the way we've been doing Confirmation. It's not that we don't have great Confirmation curriculum and media materials - some of the stuff out there now, like the re:form videos offered by sparkhouse.com - is truly inspired.  It's the larger question of whether we're equipping and inspiring parents to share their faith with their kids. Because, let's face it, when we're talking about young adolescents, it's still their parents who are the most significant adult examples of Christian faith in their lives. (Teenagers won't often admit it, but it's true.) If they can't see something real and authentic about their parents' faith, then the game is over before it even begins - even if the parents dutifully drive their sullen offspring over to the church for Confirmation classes ("Because that's just what we do in our family, kid, so you're going, and if you never go to church again after you get confirmed, that's your business.").

Yes, Confirmation does still matter.  It matters more than ever.

But it's got to be real.

Real people, witnessing about their real faith: not just dry theological lessons about what "the quick and the dead" and "he descended into Hell" mean.

Can we find a way to make that happen, for our kids' sake - and the future church's?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

“No” to a Return to the Former Ordination Standards

The Church Orders and Ministry Committee brought this item to the floor, approving an overture sent from Sacramento Presbytery that calls for no constitutional change, but is rather a sort of resolution.  The last paragraph is as follows:

“The 220th General Assembly (2012) acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships. Therefore, while holding persons in ordered ministry to high standards of covenant fidelity in the exercise of their sexuality, as in all aspects of life, we acknowledge that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter. We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error. We call on all Presbyterians to join us in this commitment.”

There was an attempt by conservatives to replace this statement with one that would essentially have reversed the change in ordination standards.  The substitute motion failed, and the item itself subsequently passed by 63% to 36%.

Once again, the “Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?” Assembly proved true to its most deeply-felt value: avoiding conflict.

Can't Everyone Just Get Along?

Recently, there was a news story reporting on the death of Rodney King, the African-American man whose brutal beating at the hands of white Los Angeles police officers sparked a destructive round of rioting.  One quotation that went down in history as associated with Mr. King was this plaintive question: “Can’t everyone just get along?”

Based on what I’ve seen so far, this Assembly may go down in history as the “Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?” Assembly. After the ripples – no, rolling waves – of anxiety that have been crashing through the denomination ever since our change in ordination standards, this Assembly appears to be motivated from a deep-seated desire not to change anything.

One commissioner said it best: “This is not the season to have the church go through a long, arduous and divisive debate.” So far, the 220th General Assembly could well have adopted that statement as its motto.

Almost, But Not Quite, on Same-Gender Marriage

Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues chair the Rev. Aimee Moiso told the Assembly, as she began her report, how her committee has received urgent, impassioned entreaties from Presbyterians from every part of the theological spectrum.  Most of them, she said, told the committee the time is critical, so they need to act decisively – now – to settle the present uncertainty about the nature of marriage.

She said she believes her committee’s recommendation is the closest thing possible to a middle way, in this severely conflicted situation.

The Rev. Michael Wilson, from Donegal Presbytery, presenting a minority report, spoke of the value of listening to one another in “this tender time.” He declared that sending a constitutional amendment to the presbyteries does not constitute listening.

Opponents of the committee’s recommendation began by raising a point of order, asking the moderator to rule that the proposal is out of order, because it conflicts with several passages in the Book of Confessions on the nature of marriage. These opponents cited the fact that, in every situation in which the confessions speak on marriage, it is marriage between a man and a woman.

After receiving advice from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and from the Stated Clerk, the moderator ruled that the committee’s proposal is indeed in order – based on the understanding expressed in the Introduction to the Book of Confessions and in the Confession of 1967 that the confessions represent a broad historical heritage and are not meant to be cited as a rulebook. The Form of Government, by contrast, is meant to be used in such a way.

I predict that the usual anguished voices from the conservative side of the church will decry this ruling, claiming that it holds the Book of Order up as a higher authority than the Book of Confessions, and demonstrating that the PC(USA) has strayed from confessional faithfulness into legalism.  I’m quite sure this is not what the Stated Clerk was saying.  In his comments, he made it clear that this is a matter of function.  In no way did he imply that this reverses the usual order of precedence that places the Scriptures first in authority, the Book of Confessions second, and the Book of Order third.

We Presbyterians, from the mid-20th Century onward, do not interpret either scripture or confessions in a literalistic fashion. Unfortunately, there are some among us who still believe that we do, and who believe that the highest form of authority is a literalistic interpretation.

There was a motion to appeal the moderator’s ruling.  It failed, but with only 70% support – a shockingly low percentage, given the fact that the church left a subscriptionist understanding of the Confessions behind more than a generation ago.

There is a human yearning for certainty in things spiritual, that sometimes finds idolatrous consolation in literalism, whether of scripture or confessions.

Then followed, for nearly an hour, a time of wrangling over various motions that would restrict debate on this issue. None of them succeeded, but collectively they all had the effect of burning up precious time, to little good effect.

When debate finally began in earnest, there were some moments of significant personal drama. A YAAD came out on the floor of the Assembly as a lesbian, speaking movingly for full inclusion of GLBTQ Christians who wish to have their committed relationships blessed by their church.  Another minister, a well-known activist, rose to admit that she is an “out lesbian,” and that she has performed a number of same-sex marriages and will continue to do so.

There was a question about the impact upon our relationships with our ecumenical partners, should we change our definition of marriage.  The Rev. Hunter Farrell of the General Assembly’s Mission Program spoke of the impact of our recent change in ordination standards on our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Mexico.  That denomination responded by breaking relations with us. This led to the recall of nearly a dozen mission workers, and the closing or handing-off of numerous projects to ecumenical partners. This, too, put a personal face on the decision.

(Surprisingly, no one spoke up on the floor to point out that if, in fact, the universal acclamation of all our ecumenical partners is an essential criterion for every decision we make, nothing would change in the church, ever again. Someone has to be first.)

A woman minister spoke of her desire to perform the marriage of her gay son someday, and of her desire for an AI (Authoritative Interpretation) that would protect her from church disciplinary charges.  “I apologize in advance for costing the church tens of thousands in legal fees,” she said – not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

When it came time, at last, to vote on the minority report, it failed, but only barely: Yes, 323 (48%). No, 346 (51%).

Then there came a second minority report. Bill Thro, Ruling Elder from Eastern Virginia Presbytery, presented a report that was, if anything, slightly more conservative than the first.  Predictably, this one failed by an even larger margin: Yes, 266 (40%). No, 397 (60%).

Having survived those two energetic challenges, the committee’s recommendation at last came to a vote.  It failed: Yes, 308 (48%). No, 338 (52%).

Now, here’s the kicker: 75% of YAADs (Young Adult Advisory Delegates) voted yes. These young Presbyterians, ages 17-23, are heavily involved in their churches.  If three-quarters of these highly-churched young people want to see the definition of marriage expanded so as to include same-gender couples, then what about the legions of their contemporaries who presently have nothing to do with the church?  Polls by Gallup and other organizations reveal that approval of same-gender relationships is nearly universal among this age group. Will the Presbyterian Church have even the remotest chance of winning this generation without changing our definition of marriage?  And, since we’ve largely failed to attract the GenX and Millenial generations in significant numbers, there’s a real question about our long-term survival.

Not that this sort of demographic calculation ought to inform us, of course. We are Reformed Christians, people of the Book (Scripture) and the living confessional heritage that interprets it.  Yet, the theological progressives among us are by no means lacking in scriptural justification for their positions (although many conservatives would dispute that, believing not only that their interpretation is the only correct one, but denying that they themselves in fact do any interpreting at all). I fear that the conservatives’ dogged adherence to their interpretation to the exclusion of all others amounts to a scorched-earth tactic in the fields of the Lord, and that the next generations will have little interest in settling in such a barren landscape. They will go elsewhere.

After reconvening following dinner, the committee continued with an item of new business, that the church “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage in the two-year period” between this Assembly and the next. This was approved.

A further proposal asked the Assembly to issue an authoritative interpretation that, while not changing the church’s definition of marriage, would allow for immunity from prosecution under the Rules of Discipline for teaching elders and churches that conduct same-gender marriages in states where that is legal.  That failed, 307-334.

There was one more attempt to bring the AI idea to the floor, but that failed by an even larger margin of 76% to 24%.

This Assembly, therefore, will be a disappointment to those Presbyterians who would like to see a broadening of marriage to include every sort of couple. Considering that this is the first time this has been before the General Assembly as a real possibility, it does, in fact, represent  an extraordinary shift.  The vote margins this year have been so close that it seems likely that there will be some sort of change in 2014.
Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?

Recently, there was a news story reporting on the death of Rodney King, the African-American man whose brutal beating at the hands of white Los Angeles police officers sparked a destructive round of rioting.  One quotation that went down in history ass associated with Mr. King was this plaintive question: “Can’t everyone just get along?”

Based on what I’ve seen so far, this Assembly may go down in history as the “Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?” Assembly. After the ripples – no, rolling waves – of anxiety that have been crashing through the denomination ever since our change in ordination standards, this Assembly appears to be motivated from a deep-seated desire not to change anything.

One commissioner said it best: “This is not the season to have the church go through a long, arduous and divisive debate.” So far, the 220th General Assembly could well have adopted that statement as its motto.

So, What Happened with Synods?

The ultimate “insider” issue at this Assembly – of interest to Presbyterians, and almost no one else – was the proposal by the Commission on Mid-Councils that synods as we know them be eliminated from our Form of Government.  In their place, we would have had regional administrative commissions of the General Assembly, as well as regional judicial bodies to handle appeals of Rules of Disicipline cases.

That didn’t fly.  The Assembly instead called for yet another committee. This one would be composed of a few leftover representatives from the Mid-Council Commission, plus some folks from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, rounded out by a few commissioners to this Assembly.

It’s a solution roughly parallel to what happened with the New Form of Government, the first time it came before a General Assembly. The plea, back then, was that the final nFOG text had been published so recently that the church hadn’t had time to digest it.  No similar reason was given this time – nor could it, because the elimination of legislative synods has been talked about for nearly a generation.

The charge to this new committee will be “to further discuss, refine, and bring to the 221st General Assembly (2014) recommendations that consider the composition and organization of the mid councils in ways that reinvigorate their capacity to support missional congregations, and advance the ecclesial nature and character of those presbyteries, within the unity of the church.”

In case you need a translation of that gobbledygook into plain language, it’s called “kicking the can further down the road.”

Some of the language in the Assembly’s referral seems to suggest that reducing the number of synods would be a good thing.  Many of us think that’s exactly opposite of the way we need to go – that the move to huge regional synods in the early 1970s was, in historical hindsight, a disastrous mistake.  With so many presbyteries having to downsize their staff for financial reasons, it may be that our future lies not with even larger regional synods, but with smaller clusters of 3 or 4 presbyteries, each one having minimal staff other than a stated clerk, with an executive coordinating the cluster activities – and no legislative body other than, perhaps, a small coordinating council.  This structure, as I understand it, is similar to the one in the Reformed Church in America.

I sat in on most of the sessions of the Assembly’s Mid-Councils Review Committee.  I was struck by how most members of the committee just didn’t seem to have the will to engage the question. Nor did the Assembly, as it turned out. It’s hard to imagine what sort of report this new working group will bring back that will in any way improve on the exhaustive report prepared by the Mid-Council Commission.  As with the nFOG, it may be just a matter of resubmitting essentially the same proposal, with the possible addition of some study materials.

This is one of those times when the old British schoolchild’s fractured lines from “Onward Christian Soldiers” apply:
“Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God,
We are slowly treading where the saints have trod.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

To Divest or not to Divest?

A very emotional debate this evening, over the difficult issue of divestment from companies that support certain activities of the Israeli government in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although the Assembly's committee had previously voted to recommend divestment from three companies - Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard - the Assembly overturned that recommendation on a razor-thin vote of 333 to 331.

Brian Ellison, of the denomination's Mission Responsibility Through Investment Program, explained the reasons why his group had singled out these three companies, from the hundreds who do business with Israel in ways that support the Palestinian occupation.  Caterpillar makes military bulldozers the Israelis use to bulldoze Palestinian houses justs after the occupants have been evicted. Motorola Solutions provides electronic surveillance equipment. Hewlett-Packard manufactures body-scanning equipment the Israelis use at checkpoints.  Unlike the vast majority of other companies, Brian explained, these three have been almost completely unresponsive to church efforts to sit down with their management and discuss business ethics. The divestment recommendation comes at the end of a long series of less-sweeping actions on the part of the church, none of which has yielded any progress.

This is a large and complex issue that evokes strong feelings on both sides.  Presbyterians are of a divided mind about it, because we value both the safety and integrity of the state of Israel and the civil rights of our brothers and sisters in the Palestinian lands (some of whom are Christians with whom we have long-standing mission relationships). There's no doubt the Israelis have behaved badly in many aspects of their administration of the occupied territories, but there is also a very real concern for their national security, as some terrorist organizations operate out of the West Bank and Gaza.

There's of course incredible irony in the fact that a Jewish state born out of the horrors of the Holocaust has, in recent years, built a wall to confine an ethnic group different from their own, in a way that resembles the ghettos of Europe.

I'm not sure how I feel about it, personally.  I feel genuinely perplexed by the competing claims on both sides.

There are also very real questions about whether divestment is a merely symbolic action, anyway, since even the millions of dollars in investments in these companies held by our Board of Pensions and Presbyterian Foundation are but a drop in the bucket, when compared to the vast number of shares these companies have issued. Is it worth infuriating our Jewish neighbors here in this country, some ask, to pursue a course of action that could very well be quixotic?

With tonight's action, what the church is proposing to do, instead, is to pursue a positive strategy of investing in Palestinian businesses,  so as to alleviate just a little of the grinding poverty that makes life in the occupied territories so hopeless. As someone who knows the situation shared with me tonight, though, there's a real question as to whether the Israelis - who have a tight lock on everything that happens in the Palestinian territories - would allow such investment to take place.

Time will tell, I suppose.

I spent the evening assisting Young Adult Advisory Delegates and Theological School Advisory Delegates as they patiently waited in line at the microphone for an opportunity to speak. Even they were divided; some of them spoke in favor of one side, some the other.

Maybe it's just as well that, as divided as we Presbyterians are on the issue, we didn't end up in the position of taking such a concerted social-action stance with only the barest majority of the General Assembly behind it.

I wonder if, perhaps, we haven't done enough to enter into dialogue with our Jewish neighbors here in this country, to try to change some of their hearts and minds, so they take notice of the fact that atrocities have been committed on both sides in this dreadful cross-border confrontation. It's a sure thing that the Israeli government will pay a lot more attention to what American Jews are saying than American Presbyterians.

(Opinions expressed above are purely my own, and in no way reflect the views of presbytery management.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Surprising and Moving Moment

This afternoon, soon after the General Assembly convened, came a surprising and moving moment. The Assembly's newly-elected vice-moderator, the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe, announced her resignation.

Tara has been the focus of controversy even before her running mate, the Rev. Neal Presa, was elected as moderator. This is because, in connection with her work as a pastor in the Washington, D.C. area, Tara presided at a marriage ceremony for two women (a ceremony that is legal in the District of Columbia). The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not permit its ministers to preside at marriage ceremonies for two people of the same sex.

Yesterday, Tara was voted in as vice-moderator. What would ordinarily have been an utterly routine vote became hotly contested, as the Assembly wrangled over whether or not General Assembly rules ought to be suspended to allow debate over her nomination. After the necessary two-thirds majority was not achieved, only 60% of commissioners voted to approve her as vice-moderator.

The result was that Tara took office under a cloud.

It was noted by some that, had it been a call to pastoral ministry for which she were being considered, the moderator of the congregational meeting would likely have declared the call invalid, because a split vote does not bode well for future success of that person's ministry. (It's hard to say if this is a valid parallel, because the two positions are not the same.)

This afternoon, after a brief but emotional speech in which she made reference to a number of hostile, uncivil communications she has received in the past day or so, Tara resigned. There was an audible reaction amongst those in the hall at this unexpected news.

Shortly after, the Moderator announced that the Rev. Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs is his new choice as vice-moderator. The Assembly will vote to confirm his nomination this evening.

I believe I'm not alone in feeling embarrassed on account of those of my fellow Presbyterians who treated Tara so shabbily. It's a deplorable mirroring of the secular political world, in which certain partisans in debate lose perspective, engaging in destructive ad hominem attacks.

This, however, is the church of Jesus Christ, not the secular political arena. Surely we can and must do better.

I have to commend Tara for graciously stepping aside when she didn't have to, for the sake of the peace and unity of the church.

Here's a link to a Presbyterian News Service article about Tara's election:


What's Ahead at the General Assembly

This Fourth of July morning marks the mid-point of the Assembly, a brief pause while committee reports are put in order, and the commissioners catch a quick breather before they undertake the marathon rounds of plenary sessions yet to come.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I'm reposting here a section from The G.A. Junkie blog - a remarkable site that displays the product of a lot of hard work on the part of its author - that summarizes the most notable actions coming out of committees and when they can expect to come before the full General Assembly in plenary session:

Marriage - The request for an AI was not recommended but the overture asking that the Directory for Worship be changed to read that marriage is between "two people" is recommended

Mid Councils - Recommendations to form a task force to reduce the number of synods, no provisional experimental/non-geographic presbyteries, a task force to review GAMC and OGA and a Racial Ethnic Ministries Task Force (Outlook article)

Middle East - MRTI's divestment recommendations recommended (Outlook article)

Special Offerings - Recommendation that most are preserved in their current form with the Communion Offering to be restructured (Outlook article)

Church Orders - Most asked-for changes to the Book of Order were not recommended, but on a split decision (28-20) they are recommending adding to G-2.0104a (previously G-6.0106a) the phrase "This includes repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace." (Outlook article)

Confessions - The revised version of the Heidelberg Catechism was recommended as well as a recommendation for a redo of the process to add the Belhar Confession (Outlook article)

Plenary sessions resume at 2 PM this afternoon. Bills and Overtures has posted a proposed docket for the rest of the Assembly. Live streaming will resume and Bills and Overtures has done a pretty good job of spreading out the reports generally giving us one high-profile issue per session:
  • Confessions - Wednesday afternoon
  • Mid Council Issues - about 10 AM Thursday morning
  • Middle East - about 3 PM Thursday afternoon
  • Mission Coordination (Special Offerings) - Thursday evening
  • Election of Standing Committee Members - Friday Morning
  • Review of Biennial Assemblies - Friday Morning
  • Immigration Issues - about 10 AM Friday morning (this is the hot-button item of the session)
  • Civil Union and Marriage - about 1:50 on Friday afternoon
  • Church Orders - about 3:30 on Friday afternoon
  • Peacemaking and International Issues - Friday evening

Thanks, Cynthia

For the past couple of years, Cynthia Bolbach, a ruling elder from Washington, D.C., has been our Moderator. On Saturday, as planned, she passed the Moderator’s cross and stole to the Rev. Neal Presa, whom this Assembly had just elected as her successor.

Cindy has served the church during a difficult time. At the 2010 General Assembly, the church opened the door just a crack, removing a constitutional provision that barred those in committed same-sex relationships from ordination as deacons, ruling elders or teaching elders. Now it’s up to the ordaining bodies – presbyteries in the case of ministers, or local-church sessions, in the case of ministers – to decide who’s suitable to serve.

Because it’s the Moderator’s job when the Assembly’s not in session – which is most of the time – to travel around the country, even the world, promoting and interpreting what the church is doing, Cindy’s had to deal with more than the usual number of angry Presbyterians who just don’t understand why the national church would allow such a thing.

By all accounts, she’s done a marvelous job. As with no other issue, the question of the ordination of gays and lesbians brings out the worst in some people. Again and again, Cindy has walked into confrontational situations and faced anger, in some cases even outright meanness, with patience and grace.

She’s not walking much any longer. During her moderatorial tenure, Cindy was diagnosed with cancer. She’s not shared the particular type of cancer she has, nor her prognosis – preferrring to keep that information private – but she did let it be known that her swan song here in Pittsburgh is taking place during a round of chemotherapy treatments.

Cindy preached, and presided over the opening session of the Assembly, from a wheelchair. This is something she chose to do. She had a very able Vice-Moderator, the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, who could certainly have carried on in her absence, but it was obviously important to her to finish the job herself. On both days when she was in front of the Assembly, Cindy seemed low on energy, but she fulfilled her role with grace and good humor.

Cindy simply did what people with cancer most want to do. She kept on living.

I don’t think she’ll be much in evidence during the rest of the Assembly. Having passed the mantle to her successor, she may have gone back home to continue her treatments, for all I know. Or, she may be simply taking it easy, conserving her energy for the things she most wants to do.

Whatever the case, whether here in Pittsburgh or back home in Washington, Cindy is surrounded by the prayers of a grateful church. We admire her strength, perseverance and faith.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Insights from Brian McLaren

For about an hour and a half this afternoon, I had the rare opportunity - along with a number of other colleagues from presbytery and synod leadership - to sit at the feet of Brian McLaren, one of the most compelling voices in the so-called Emerging Church movement.  Here are a few random notes I took, based on his off-the-cuff remarks:

The Baby Boomers left the church, then came back later. The next generation after them left but didn't come back. This is the source of many of our present difficulties.

The Roman Catholic member-attrition numbers are even worse than the mainline Protestants', if new immigrants are excluded. Roman Catholic sociologists studying the situation have confirmed this, and have observed that their institutions as they know them are simply not sustainable in the long term, unless major changes are made.

There is a need for serious theological dialogue about questions such as: "What do we mean by sovereignty?" Some hear that word and think it means "control," as in God micro-managing everything that happens. Can God be sovereign but not in control?

Church is like group aerobics. People join those classes to do a workout they'd never do alone. It's a kind of liturgy. The problem is that, for all too many, church is a bad workout.  There are so many mean people in our churches in leadership roles, who should not be there if we really applied our beliefs consistently.

Liturgical, social-justice, charismatic, evangelical: according to Phyllis Tickle, these are the new divisions within American Christianity. These true dividing lines between Christians laterally cross denominational lines. Those firmly grounded in one of these four traditions will typically have more in common with friends from a another denomination who follow the same tradition than they do with a random person from their own denomination.

We are experiencing both emergence and convergence. We also have divergence from many elements of American culture (which was not true 50 years ago). The culture has its own ethic that is becoming more firmly established all the time, regardless of the teachings of the churches. For example, unless we in the churches affirm that maximizing profits is always the highest goal, we've diverged from the culture.

In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass says the pendulum is swinging back from "spiritual but not religious," and that these people are now hungry for spiritual andreligious. There are some indications that they're not so much against "organized religion" itself as against religion organized for the wrong purposes.

People are looking for religion to organize for the right purpose: not so much for purposes of self-governance (the old model), as to conduct wholistic mission.

One of the wisest things church leadership consultant Lyle Schaller ever said: "You bring in a new day with new people."

The new day will require welcoming in significant numbers of the erstwhile spiritual-but-not-religious.

The PC(USA)'s new "1,001 New Worshiping Congregations" project will not succeed unless we can make room for the innovations of the newcomers, and unless we can make sure they won't be constantly criticized. We must create safe zones for innovation. Existing churches will need to actually see these innovative communities succeeding before they will begin to emulate their practices.

Innovation: it's not just for Pentecostals anymore.

Few Presbyterians remember that Calvin started writing the Institutes when he was 19. Presbyterians have probably not listened to a 19-year-old ever since.

A California presbytery created what it calls a "polity-free zone." The executive presbyter had to run interference for it, over the objections of some old-timers.

We must be alert and able to reach out to people from other, more conservative denominations who are being pushed out of their churches because they believe essentially the same things we believe.

One of our greatest challenges is to surface our ethos.  Two leading characteristics of our Presbyterian ethos are participatory decision-making and serious biblical scholarship. These are immensely attractive to many refugees from other denominational traditions.

Presbyterian polity is one way of doing participatory decision-making, but it's not the only way.

Religious leaders, working ecumenically, need to become the guardians of the common good in the local community. Politicians of an earlier era may have claimed to do that, but they can do it no longer because the corporations are now calling the shots, through campaign contributions.

You can't confront injustice without making enemies.

Some Episcopal dioceses have successfully transformed their annual diocesan conventions into something that looks rather like revivals. People are glad to attend because they leave energized.

Almost all innovation happens at the margins, not at the center. It's no accident that Jesus came out of Nazareth rather than Jerusalem.

Youth, by definition, are at the margins. We need to pay close attention to the innovations they are championing.

Those in power must use their power to protect those who are trying to innovate.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Open Door

The 220th General Assembly is unusual in that its Sunday-morning worship was not in the familiar cast-of-thousands, stadium-style format.  Rather, local congregations of Pittsburgh Presbytery invited their ecclesiastical visitors from afar to come worship with them.

This morning, along with two others – my roommate, Paul (stated clerk colleague from Elizabeth Presbytery), and Doug (campus minister at Eckerd College) – I drove to one of the churches not on the official list.  Turns out, the only reason this church hadn’t rolled out the red carpet along with others from Pittsburgh Presbytery is that, at the time the local arrangements committee was putting the list together, this congregation didn’t have a Sunday morning service.  They used to meet only in the evening.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this bunch is “not your father’s Presbyterian Church” (to paraphrase that old car ad).  The Open Door is a self-described “missional church community.” It meets in a churchy-looking building that is, technically, no longer a church.  It’s a former Baptist Church that’s now a community center, from which the Open Door rents space on Sunday mornings.

In many ways, their worship looked and sounded familiar.  It followed the typical Presbyterian order of worship, although in a very informal way.  While there were no hymnbooks, the words projected on the wall came from traditional hymns.  The singing was accompanied by a single guitarist (I understand this isn’t always the case, and that they often sing other songs besides).  Still, this decidedly younger crowd did fine with the traditional hymns, which are obviously part of their repertoire.

The sermon by Pastor B.J. Woodworth – who on this sweltering summer day was clad, like most of his congregants, in baggy shorts and a loose-fitting shirt – was on the Kingdom of God, and was quite good.

The Open Door folks are pretty mission-oriented (true to their motto).  Today’s service included the laying-on of hands – not to ordain officers, but rather to commission several interns who are working in an “urban farming” vegetable-garden project.

The Passing of the Peace was something else altogether.  The actual “Peace-be-with-yous” were over pretty quickly, but the interlude continued for probably 10 minutes, with folks moving around to visit with one another, fetch cups of coffee, etc.  Obviously, fellowship is a big part of what this church is all about, and the boundary between worship and the rest of congregational life is pretty porous.

The biggest eye-opener for me, though, was personal. Two of the worshipers were dead ringers for our son and daughter, both twenty-somethings.  Not only did they look like Ben and Ania, they also dressed like them. (Readers who have met our kids will probably be able to pick these young adults out in these pictures.)

Knowing that, at this stage of their lives, my kids – whose names remain on the roll of the church I serve for the sake of good old dad – don’t make congregational worship a regular part of their week, it was a powerful thing for me to see their döppelgangers so actively involved here at The Open Door.

It made me wish there were an Open Door worshiping community in their neighborhoods, so I could point them in that direction.

Maybe we’ll just have to start one in Point Pleasant.

A statistical presentation at the General Assembly this afternoon reported that the average age of Presbyterians is 60 and climbing. Obviously, we’ve got to rethink some of the things we’ve long been doing in worship.

It’s becoming more and more evident to me that the future of the denomination is in church-planting efforts like The Open Door.  So, what are we waiting for?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Report from GA: We Have a Moderator

NOTE: My posts from the General Assembly are mirrored on the New Jersey GA participants' Blog, "Walking, Running, Soaring in Hope."

It’s always a fascinating exercise to observe the election of a moderator at the General Assembly – particularly so in light of the national Presidential contest, whose relentless lack of civility has all the appeal of fingernails scratching across a blackboard.

We Presbyterians do so much better. Are there differences among us? Of course. But there’s a common value of unity that’s so much stronger. That gives me hope for the church.

I’ve watched a number of these question-and-answer sessions over the years, but I never tire of marveling how unpredictable the process is, and how it so often happens that front-runners emerge only after the Q&A has begun. Sometimes it’s one clear choice. Sometimes, as happened tonight, it’s two or three – which means several ballots. It’s all about thinking on one’s feet, being gracious, showing compassion, having theological integrity – and, most of all, displaying a love for the church that’s natural and in no way affected.

Symbolism is also important. Who the successful candidate is, demographically speaking, has an influence. If the person looks the way most commissioners would like the church of the future to look, that’s a significant – but by no means deciding – factor.

Even though there were several front-runners, we had four outstanding candidates. Any one of them could have done the job admirably. That’s usually the case. People just don’t get the endorsement of their presbyteries to try for this crazy job if they don’t have a lot going for them.

I always feel for the unsuccessful candidates. Some years back, one of them made up a bunch of campaign-style buttons that said “Member of the Almost-But-Not-Quite Moderators Club,” and handed them out at General Assemblies for a few years after that. They’re a distinguished bunch, and I always feel sad that we as a denomination don't find a way to tap more of them for other national leadership positions.

One of the popular parlor games at the General Assembly is to speculate on how each Assembly’s choice of moderator may or may not be a bellwether of which way the Assembly will go on the big issues before it. Neal is clearly in favor of making some space in the church for those who would like to perform weddings for same-gender couples (at least in the several states where this is legal). I wouldn't read too much into that. I’m not so sure this is the reason he got elected. It’s more about what he symbolizes: the younger, more multicultural church we Presbyterians wish we were.

They say if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, but my wish is that Neal’s moderatorial tenure will be more than just a symbolic expression of our desire to be well-positioned to serve the needs of 21st Century America – demographically speaking, the country we actually are and are becoming.

Here are the vote totals, in case anyone’s interested in the nitty-gritty...

Robert Austell - 26%
Randy Branson - 9%
Susan Krummel - 25%
Neal Presa - 38%

Austell - 27%
Branson - 4%
Krummel - 27%
Presa - 42%

Austell - 25%
Branson - 2%
Krummel - 26%
Presa - 47%

Austell - 22%
Branson - 2%
Krummel - 24%
Presa - 52%