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

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.