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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Thank-You for All of Us

Today I received this letter from the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly:

Dear Carlos,

On behalf of the General Assembly I want to extend a special word of appreciation to the Presbytery of Monmouth for your faithful stewardship in 2011.  More than ever, maintaining the covenant connection that links together the Body of Christ is crucial for the faithful witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Your presbytery's full support of 2011 per capita apportionment is a tangible sign of commitment to that vision, and I am extraordinarily grateful.

As you well know, the per capita apportionment makes possible the General Assembly session through which Presbyterians seek to discern the mind of Christ for the church.  It also enables us to uphold our Constitution, to promote the unity of Christ's church, preserve our historical records through the Department of History, and to facilitate communication throughout the church.  We have sought to be good stewards of the resources that you have shared with the whole church and look forward to a continuing partnership in the Gospel with you in 2012.

Please share the deepest appreciation of all of us in the Office of the General Assembly for the faithful support of your presbytery and its particular churches for the per capita budget of the General Assembly.  May God continue to richly bless your ministry.

Yours in Christ,

Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly


The letter is addressed to me, but of course it's really intended for every Monmouth Presbyterian.  Not all church members have made designated contributions towards the cost of per capita, nor has every Session been able to remit the full amount needed to cover the number of members under their care.  Yet, the Presbytery has stepped up to the plate and made good on the shortfall.

The Presbytery has done it out of a deep conviction that it's important, for all the reasons Gradye describes in his letter, and more.  Per capita is crucial to the health of our connectional system.

Those of us who are active in Presbytery leadership are grateful to all of you for the important part you play in this work.  Truly, it is a partnership.  Gradye's thank-you is indeed a message for all of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

It's the Water, Not the Container

(Writing my annual Pastor's Report for our church's Annual Report booklet, I decided to do something a little different this year.  Because I'm describing challenges facing every congregation in these days of rapid change, this will have some interest for others beyond the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church...)

There’s an old joke shared among those who know the Presbyterian Church well – although you can actually pull out our denomination’s name and drop in just about any other: “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Did you say... CHANGE?!?!”

By and large, churches don’t handle change very well.  That’s because an important part of what we do in the church is preserving tradition.  Everyone knows that.  On any given Sunday, a significant portion of worshipers have chosen to come because they’re dismayed at developments they’ve seen in the world around them, and are wishing to hold fast to time-honored beliefs and values.

Who can quarrel with that?  I certainly wouldn’t.   

Sometimes, though, we confuse the packaging with the product.

Is it the tune of a familiar hymn that’s truly important, or the spiritual experience it calls to mind?  Is it the expectation that men will wear ties and jackets to worship, or is it their determination to approach God with respect and reverence?  Is it using the same sort of offering envelopes our parents used, or is it using whatever giving method is most consistent with the way we manage money today?

A thirsty traveler rescued from the desert will accept a drink of water just as readily from a tin cup as from a crystal goblet.  It’s the water that’s the thing, not the container that bears it.

It’s all about discerning the difference between the container and its contents.

During the past year, it’s become increasingly clear to me that an era of change will soon be upon us in this congregation.  We’re not unique in this.  Churches everywhere are learning not so much that change will one day come to their neighborhoods, but that it’s already arrived.

This calls for adaptations in our basic approach.  For years, churches have comforted themselves with the familiar line from the film, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”  The assumption behind that bit of Hollywood-manufactured folk wisdom is that large numbers of people out there are peering in our windows, looking for a church to join, and if we simply work hard and “do church” better than others, they will choose us.

There’s only one problem with that way of thinking.  Fewer and fewer people today are looking for a church to join.  Period.  Like it our not, the style of spiritual seeking in our culture has shifted from communal to individual.  It’s all about a person’s individual quest for meaning.

If a seeker encounters congenial friends along the way, so much the better – but to most, it’s not essential.  If one church “has it all,” providing a one-stop spiritual shopping destination, that’s a fine thing.  But most people won’t see it that way.  To them, grazing from church to church, picking here and choosing there, likely fits the bill much better.  And that doesn’t even take into account the explosive growth of first television, and now the internet, as spiritual destinations – bypassing most traditional bricks-and-mortar churches altogether.

The younger generations we’ve traditionally counted on to come back to church to get married, then return a while later to have their children baptized, then eventually sign up for Sunday School, aren’t showing up in nearly the numbers they have in the past.  In part, that’s simply because there are fewer of them out there: the average age at marriage has risen precipitously in the past decade or two.  But it’s also influenced by the nearly universal reality of two-paycheck households, and by the fact that it’s rare for both parents in such a household to have the same day off, and for that day to be Sunday.

The 1950s stereotype of the nuclear family of working Dad, stay-at-home Mom, and 2 or 3 kids all coming to church together – in a world where not much else is happening on Sundays – simply doesn’t exist anymore.  It was becoming less true for my own generation, the Baby Boomers, as we were growing up – and it’s certainly no longer true for our children, who are not only fewer in number, but who (because of that deferred-marriage thing) just aren’t looking for their grandparents’ church.  Not now, anyway.  Not at this point in their lives.  And, very likely, not ever.

So, “If you build it, they will come” just doesn’t make much sense anymore.

What does make sense, then?

Something we’ve always known to be true, but that we’ve somehow, in all our program-building busyness,  managed to push to the back burner: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s Jesus’ “Great Commission,” Matthew 28:19-20.

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “If you build it, they will come.”  He says, “Go out into the world, and I will go with you.  Always.”

He doesn’t even tell us where we must end up.  He just says, “Go.”

Friends, if Point Pleasant Presbyterian is going to continue strong into the future, we’ve got to figure out how to go out into the world again – and not even the world as a whole.  Our local community would be a fine start.  It’s called mission, and it’s not what you may think.  It’s not a matter of contributing money so people can do the work for us.  The sort of mission we need to discover is something we can only do ourselves.

A great theologian once wrote, “The church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning.”  Please pray that the Holy Spirit will kindle such a fire among us anew.

What do you think?  Is this an accurate description of the spiritual landscape today?  What would you add, from your experience?

Please scroll down and post a comment.  I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


We Presbyterians are well-connected.

Such is the testimony of Andrew Yeager-Buckley, who has recently accepted a position as Program Assistant in the Office of Mid-Council Relations at our denominational headquarters in Louisville.

Andrew, who is well-known to many in Monmouth Presbytery from the time over a decade ago when he was active in Presbytery youth programs, grew up in the Hope Presbyterian Church, Tinton Falls.  After traveling to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium as a teenager, he was elected co-moderator of the Presbyterian Youth Connection national organization.  Entering the working world some time later as a young adult, he was employed in the Youth Ministry area at the Louisville headquarters, then worked for the Presbyterian Publishing House, and will soon start in the Mid Council Relations Office, working closely with that office’s Director, the Rev. Jill Hudson.

In an e-mail to me, Andrew shared some special words of appreciation for Monmouth Presbytery, that, with his permission, I’d like to share:

“Monmouth Presbytery is a major part of my story. Its ministries and staff all played a part in my faith journey and the development of my sense of call. When asked I’m quick to say that my family, local church, camp and presbytery staff were all part of my spiritual development. As a small church member the presbytery helped connect me with some amazing opportunities. Beyond the programmatic opportunities I was always grateful for the various church professionals, active elders, and clergy like you that would take the time to say hi and check in with this 16 year old elder from Hope Church at meetings. In the moment having folks like Charles Cureton and Kim Long pulling me aside at presbytery meetings and wanting to check in didn’t mean a ton. Years later it’s clear that those moments are what truly have always made me feel welcome in the church wherever I am.”

We Presbyterians like to call ourselves a connectional church.  I’d be hard-pressed to find a better expression of connectionalism than this testimony Andrew has shared.  Think of it: a couple of ministers like Charles Cureton and Kim Long, who – to young Andrew – were strangers, who saw him give the traditional “I’m back from Triennium” report at a Presbytery meeting, and who not only remembered him, but came up to him some time later to “check in” on how he was doing.

It seems like so little – but, to a young man seeking to discern God’s direction for his life, those casual expressions of interest proved to be of vital importance.

God’s Spirit is at work all around us in the church – especially in our connections with one another.