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

Friday, October 18, 2013

Seek the Welfare of the City

I've just returned from the PC(USA) Fall Polity Conference, the annual national gathering of Executive Presbyters and Stated Clerks. It was a rich time.

As is the usual practice, we met in the city where the next General Assembly will take place, which happens to be Detroit. The Assembly will meet there from June 14-21, 2014.

Often, the location of the Assembly has an influence on the experience of the commissioners - and, indirectly, on the outcome. It's hard to predict what this will look like in advance, but the "feel" of the host city is something all participants experience.

This time around, the impact of the location is becoming clear well in advance. Tom Hay, a member of the national staff who is in charge of working with the Local Arrangements Committee, mentioned in a presentation a number of anxious communications he has received, questioning whether Detroit is a safe place to meet.

It's no secret that Detroit is a failed city. The municipal government has filed for bankruptcy, and there have been sensationalistic news reports about crime, rampant drug abuse, non-functioning street lights and even packs of wild dogs roaming the streets.

The location of this Assembly was established a number of years ago, before the most recent round of urban problems had become apparent.

Having seen the downtown area around the Convention Center, though, I'm very comfortable in recommending it to commissioners and visitors. While city officials may have failed to provide essential services in some neighborhoods, this part of town, near the General Motors headquarters, is clearly their showpiece, and they have made sure visitors can move around that part of the city freely and with confidence - as much as in the downtown of any other major city. The People Mover - a monorail train that runs in a loop, connecting the principal downtown locations, is especially convenient (it only runs in one direction, but the loop is fairly short). I hope they have the capacity to put additional trains on the tracks during the Assembly's "rush hours," as hundreds of commissioners and visitors travel between their hotels and the convention center.

Several presenters at the conference made reference to the famous line of Jeremiah 29:7: "But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." With comfortable downtown hotels and a state-of-the-art convention center, the Assembly is hardly an exile experience, but the rest of the verse holds true. "Seeking the welfare of the city" is very much a part of the church's mission. If nothing else, the infusion of cash into the local economy may aid the city's recovery in some small way.

Is it too much to hope for that, as a result of the Detroit location, the 221st General Assembly will have a pronounced missional focus?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Alternative Presbyterians

I love our new Form of Government - most of it. It's lean, efficient, and places our historic principles of Presbyterian governance clearly at the foundations, building upwards from there. Because of the way we had to vote it up or down, though - as a single package - I made the decision to support it, even though I had serious reservations about one aspect. Still do.

My reservations are about the swapping of the term "minister of the Word and Sacrament" for "teaching elder." It's not a total swap: the book uses "teaching elder" throughout, but allows for "minister of the Word and Sacrament" as an alternate title (G-2.0501).

In the couple of years we've been living under our present Form of Government, I've seen us benefit from its simple, intuitive structure in more ways than I can count. I'd never go back to the unnecessary, cobbled-together complexity of the old one.

I dutifully use "teaching elder" in technical discussions about polity. When I teach Presbyterian Polity at Princeton Seminary this fall, I'll use it. But there's a part of me that winces every time I hear the term, or even say it.

It's not that "teaching elder" is without virtue. Laid alongside "ruling elder," the term highlights our central principle of the parity of ministries: in presbytery, synod and General Assembly, equal numbers of teaching elders and ruling elders call the shots. It's a vital check-and-balance that helps define who we are as Presbyterians.

Still and all, I have a feeling that the decision to change this essential terminology solved one problem, but delivered a host of new ones. "Teaching elder" arises out of just one tributary stream that makes up the mighty river of Presbyterianism. It so happened that a lot of the team who wrote the new Form of Government nostalgically recalled their days by the banks of that particular stream. They doggedly made sure the draft document didn't make it to the General Assembly without "teaching elder" becoming the term of choice.

The complexity of crafting an amendment to the draft document that would substitute dozens of occurrences of "teaching elder" for "minister" was a near-impossibility on the floor of the Assembly, and - once the Assembly had recommended it - the presbyteries were required to vote the draft up or down without amendment, so here we are.

It's part of our Constitution, now, and I'm walking with it. But I'm walking with a limp.

Outside of technical polity discussions, I still use "minister" to define who I am and what I do. Since that's the alternative term, I guess that makes me an Alternative Presbyterian.

So, after that lengthy introduction, let me share my...

Top Ten Reasons Why I Continue to Use “Minister” Rather Than “Teaching Elder”

10. Ministry is about so much more than teaching.

9. Sticking with “minister” means I can still say, simply, “elder” — which doesn't require a wonky linguistic discourse on the word "ruling" before ordinary people can understand what those leaders do (G-2.0301).

8. I’d rather celebrate how the names of two of our three orders (minister and deacon) have direct linguistic ties to biblical diakonia - "servanthood" - instead of just one.

7. I’m proud of my Scottish heritage, but not at the expense of Dutch, French, German, Czech and other Reformed traditions that make up the PC(USA) - and not even the Scots, who thought up "teaching elder," ever officially adopted it as their term of choice.

6. One word: Sacraments.

5. “Minister” doesn't muddy the waters of the World Council of Churches' historic Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry agreement the way “teaching elder” does.

4. Better to stick close to the trunk of our theological tree (John Calvin) rather than one of its several branches (Andrew Melville).*

3. I love the Presbyterian idea of parity of ministries, but there are far more important things we need to be saying to the world right now than “Check it out! We've got a really cool system of government.”

2. Other churches of the Reformed Tradition have no idea what we’re talking about.

And now, the number one reason why I continue to use “Minister” Rather Than “Teaching Elder”....

1. I’ll never see the day when someone from our local hospital calls up and says: “Can you come down here? One of our patients is dying and needs to speak with a teaching elder.”

* = Andrew Melville was the great Scottish systematizer of Presbyterian governance, but even he didn't succeed in getting the Church of Scotland to forgo "minister" in favor of "teaching elder" - it was only some of his wide-eyed true believers in the New World who did that.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Presbytery Consolidation that Never Was

Here's something I ran across as we were cleaning out old files, as we were preparing for the move of the Presbytery Office from Tennent to New Egypt. I meant to post it earlier, but somehow never got around to it.

It's  a map of the old Synod of New Jersey, dating back to around 1959. There were 8 presbyteries in New Jersey at that time, and a special committee had been working to pare that number down to 4. The map indicates where the boundaries of these 4 new presbyteries were to go.

The special committee considered the question long and hard. They learned that the original boundary lines of many presbyteries had been drawn with railroad lines in mind. Towns along a given rail line were clustered together in the same presbytery, so commissioners could travel to presbytery meetings by train.

Even in 1959, many of those original rail lines no longer existed.  America's love affair with the automobile was in full swing. The presbytery boundaries that had once made perfect sense had come to seem random and arbitrary.

The special committee was also trying to create larger presbyteries, so resources could be concentrated and deployed more effectively.

The plan was never implemented. It came up for a vote in the Synod Assembly, but went down in flames. Never again would there to be a move to rethink presbytery boundaries in New Jersey.

There aren't so many people around today who can give first-hand accounts of the debate in the Synod Assembly. (I was only 3 or 4 years old at the time.) I do remember talking with some old-timers in more recent years, who did have firsthand recollections of the vote. They told a tale of an acrimonious debate that left many on both sides feeling bitter.

This was even more widely-known because the old Synod of New Jersey was a "non-delegated synod." When the Synod met, every minister in the state was in attendance, with a corresponding number of elder commissioners.

New Jersey now has seven presbyteries (not counting the non-geographic Eastern Korean Presbytery, which technically covers the whole Synod, but has the majority of its churches in New Jersey).

CLICK ON THIS LINK for a full-size version of the map and take a look at the shaded gray lines. They indicate the proposed new boundary lines of 1959. Today, the overall number of Presbyterians in the state is a good deal less than half of what it was when the special committee was developing its realignment plan. Increasingly, presbyteries today are strapped for funds. You'd think the idea of boundary realignment would come up again: especially since it could be a way of restoring presbyteries to roughly the same overall number of church members each one had before the membership declines of the last quarter of the twentieth century began.

It's interesting to observe the shape of what the committee was calling "Central Jersey Presbytery" (Roman numeral III on the map). Most of Monmouth Presbytery (with the exception of the Southernmost part of Ocean County and a sliver of Burlington County) would have fallen in this new presbytery. All of New Brunswick Presbytery would have, too. Today, Monmouth and New Brunswick Presbyteries are sharing a Regional Presbyter. There are no merger discussions under way, but we all know that topic could come up for discussion in the future.

Maybe the members of the Synod's special committee were ahead of their time. Would it be a good thing to dust this historic artifact off and give it a fresh look?

What do you think?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mission or Missions?

One of the never-ending debates in the church has to do with a single letter: the letter "s" attached to the end of the word "mission."

We have a mission as Christians, no doubt. Our Lord gave it to us himself: "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." (Matthew 28:19-20)

Our mission, at its most basic level, is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Under that umbrella are many forms of witness: the direct work of evangelism, by which we make others familiar with the invitation of our Lord to join with him in personal relationship; and ministries of compassion, caring and witness, by which we do the work of Christ in the world. The two are closely related: a mission relying on word only, but lacking in meaningful deeds, is hollow. Conversely, a mission that takes the form of deeds alone can't claim to be any different than that performed by any secular charity.

Mission, in other words, takes many forms, and functions on many levels. All our individual mission activities take their place in the overarching mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The word "mission" also has another, more specific sense: that of a particular mission project. Think, for example, of the the late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, dedicating his life to operating his remote jungle hospital in Lambaréné, in the West African nation of Gabon. Dr. Schweitzer's hospital can be spoken of in the singular as a medical mission.

Note the absence of the "s." But that's only because there's one of them. Talk about Dr. Schweitzer's hospital along with the journeys of Scottish missionary David Livingstone in East Africa - the "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" guy - and what you've got is "missions" (plural).

Some of the more tradition-minded among us prefer that usage. They would rather speak of missions in the plural. By that they mean a collection of individual mission projects, to which their particular congregation sends money and, occasionally, volunteer workers as well.

Those who prefer "missions" to "mission" sometimes have a rather sharp boundary in mind as to what qualifies as Christian mission. "Missions," in their view, have more to do with activities that take place far away - either in the geographical sense, or in socio-economic terms - than the more familiar work of the church in its own local community.

Yet, I understand that work to be mission, as well. A fellowship meal that provides seniors much-needed opportunities to socialize with others. A confirmation class that plants the seed of faith in a young person's heart. A worship service that calls forth the praises of God's people, comforts them and inspires them to respond to God's call in their lives.

Those activities are mission, too.

When I was a kid, we had offering envelopes in our church that were divided into two sections, separated by a perforation. One side was printed with the words, "For Us." The other declared, "For Others." The perforations allowed the money-counters to literally tear the envelopes in two without actually opening them, so one portion could go to fund church programs in the local area, and the other be deposited in a benevolence fund, from which the congregation's general-mission payments were made, as well as designated support for particular mission workers.

The only problem with that was that the boundary-line between "Us" and "Others" was never all that distinct. In ministering to people on the local level, the congregation is, without a doubt, doing mission, just as surely as it's doing so in sending dollars to support mission co-workers overseas, or to send care packages to a refugee camp on another continent.

All this gets extremely complicated, on the presbytery level, when we begin to speak about per capita funds that are earmarked for what's often called "administration" and those that derive from "general mission" giving.

Yet, is even that distinction so clear?

Some of our per capita funds, for example, go to cover the costs of judicial process: when an investigating committee carries a complaint through to its judicial conclusion. Is THAT mission? Read the Preamble to the Rules of Discipline, which is among the most deeply theological portions of the Book of Order. The purpose of church discipline, the Preamble maintains, "is to honor God." It exercises discipline, among other things, "to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community... to uphold the dignity of those who have been harmed by disciplinary offenses; to restore the unity of the church by removing the causes of discord and division." Disciplinary process can seem divisive at times, but when it functions at its Spirit-guided best, it leads to reconciliation between people who have been at odds with one another.

Sounds like mission to me.

And what about that money that goes to pay the electric bill at the Presbytery Office? Most people would call that "administrative overhead" and would feel uncomfortable if any of their general-mission giving made its way into electric-company coffers. Yet, the same people wouldn't think twice if some of the dollars they send to a Presbyterian hospital in India were to be used to pay their electric bill. Is the electricity over there fundamentally different from the electricity over here?

It should be pretty clear, by now, that, in the mission-vs.-missions debate, I tend to come down on the side that favors dropping the "s" whenever possible. To me, that bears witness to the fact that Christ's mission is one. And, if we truly pay heed to the full implications of the language, it helps us never to forget that the "mission field" is everywhere. Even right outside our front door.

What do you think?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

New Heidelberg Catechism Approved

At its most recent meeting, the Presbytery voted to approve the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. This project, based on work by an ecumenical panel of scholars who went back to the original German text, has resulted in a translation that is clearer and more faithful to the original than the translation that was rather hastily assembled around 1966, when the Book of Confessions was being put together for the first time.

It has recently been announced that the new translation has been approved by the necessary number of presbyteries, so it has now become a part of the Book of Confessions.

The translation is a joint project of the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is a treasure of our common Reformed heritage.

You can access a copy of the new translation online, in the electronic version of the first volume of the booklet of proposed amendments that were sent to the Presbyteries.

The Heidelberg Catechism was composed at the instigation of Elector Frederick III, who ruled over a territory in present-day German that was then known as the Electoral Palatinate. One of the new Protestant rulers who were then flexing their political muscles, Frederick wanted a contemporary statement of faith that counteracted Roman Catholic teachings and that could be used to school young people and adults in the essentials of the faith. Written by a panel of theologians of whom Zacharius Ursinus was the leading member, the catechism seeks to unite the best of both Lutheran and Reformed doctrine.

The Catechism is divided into fifty-two sections, called "Lord's Days," which demonstrates that it was intended be used as a basis of weekly preaching and teaching throughout the course of one year. Ministers were encouraged to preach on the Heidelberg Catechism weekly, often at a Sunday evening service, to increase the knowledge of the people of God.

The clean, contemporary language of the new Heidelberg Catechism makes this centuries-old Christian classic sing. It's well worth exploring, either in an adult education class or in personal study.

Friday, March 29, 2013

For Hmmm... the Bell Tolls

We’ve changed our Good Friday practice at the church, in the last year or so.  Faced with dwindling attendance at the noon-to-three service we used to offer in conjunction with several other churches in the community, we finally gave up on that service and decided to hold one at seven p.m. in the evening, instead. Tonight we’re offering what we expect will be a simple but moving Taizé service, backed by the Chancel Choir, who are in the process of learning what contemplative chants are all about. We’ll see if perhaps we can start a new local tradition.

Because noon-to-three comprises the biblical hours of the crucifixion, this year we simply opened the church for prayer during those hours. It’s our last nod to the Good Friday afternoon worship tradition. I wasn’t in the Sanctuary the whole time, but to the best of my knowledge no one took advantage of the opportunity.

That’s not a huge surprise. The contemplative tradition feels foreign to many Presbyterians. We tend to be a pragmatic bunch — not the sort of crowd who flock to an opportunity to gather for silent prayer.

Besides, to a culture that increasingly worships youth and health with a zeal bordering on idolatry, the figure of a tortured man gasping out his last breath on a cross seems the antithesis of any sort of victory.

In past years, at three p.m., we would conclude the community service by ringing the church bell thirty-three times – symbolic of the years of Jesus’ life. Although the Sanctuary was empty, I went in there today anyway, took hold of the bell rope, and slowly rang it. Thirty-three times feels like an eternity, when you space the rings out with a few seconds in between each one.

Outside, through the stained-glass, I could hear the sound of traffic and glimpse the wraithlike shadows of passing cars: people on their way to who knows where, very likely oblivious to the tradition that three o’clock was the hour of Jesus’ death.

If they noticed the sounding of the bell at all, would they realize what it was about?

I’ve always found the ringing of church bells to be significant in ways beyond words. In the year of undergraduate study I spent in Oxford, I used to look forward to the time each Sunday evening when all the change-bell ringers from the parish churches and college chapels, by common agreement, simultaneously practiced their trade. It was a glorious cacophony I will never forget, a mellifluous, rippling series of sound waves washing over that city of spires.

In years past, church bells functioned as many towns’ public-notification system. Like the Emergency Broadcast System that interrupts radio and TV programming every once in a while for a test, church bells fulfilled that function in years gone by. Public joys, civic celebrations, urgent alarms: all were heralded by the ringing of the steeple bell. In the era before loudspeakers and sirens, it was pretty much the loudest, most sonorous thing around.

That function has long since been supplanted by electronic systems of various kinds. Our local volunteer-firehouse and first-aid sirens are way louder than any church bell in town. In the days following Hurricane Sandy, the local Office of Emergency Management sent out daily information bulletins via telephone robocall. A viral message on Facebook, as we all know, can reach millions in the space of a few hours, if its recipients are keen to propagate it through their slacktivist mouse-clicks.

All that made me feel like a bit of a dinosaur, yanking on that bell-rope thirty-three times in an empty sanctuary, beside a street filled with drivers on their way to who-knows-what sort of Easter holiday sale. (I’ve actually seen a few ads for Good Friday sales in recent years. Now there’s a sacrilegious cluelessness that beggars the imagination!)

American hyper-individualism has been on the rise for generations. Has it reached its spiritual apogee in today’s bland acceptance of “Have It Your Way” McReligion as the national creed?

“Cast off the ties that bound
Our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds:
To that we give the shove.”

(I just came up with that. Inspired, or what?)

The bell-tone reverberates, over the parade of preoccupied passersby.  What can we do but sound it anyway, hopeful that, somewhere, someone looks up and displays a half-smile of recognition?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Two by Two

It's not too often that Monmouth Presbytery sends an overture to the General Assembly, but just in case anyone's thinking about writing one, there's a possible change in the works that would affect how this is done.

The last General Assembly approved a constitutional amendment that would, for the first time, require a presbytery sending an overture to first convince another presbytery or synod to pass a similar overture. In other words, an overture would be treated something like a motion, with another presbytery being required to second it.

The reason for the change is to cut down on the business before the General Assembly. If an overture arrived in the office of the General Assembly without a concurring overture, the General Assembly Stated Clerk would simply hold it until a similar overture arrived. If that didn't happen, the proposal would fail for want of a "second."

That amendment is now being voted on in the presbyteries. If a majority of presbyteries concurs, it will become the law of the church.

The Office of the General Assembly has been thinking about how they would implement this change, should it gain the necessary number of concurring votes in the presbyteries.  Here's their implementation plan:

Amendment 12-F, currently being voted on by the presbyteries, recommends that section G‑3.0302d be amended to require that overtures have at least one concurrence from another presbytery or synod before the overture can be referred to the next General Assembly....If approved, Amendment 12-F will go into effect on July 7, 2013.

All overtures received before July 7, 2013 will be processed as usual and will be forwarded to the 221st General Assembly (2014).

Overtures received on or after July 7, 2013 will be processed as follows:

-If Amendment 12-F does not receive the necessary affirmative votes (87), there will be no amendment to G-3.0302d, and no change in the overture process.

-If Amendment 12-F receives 87 or more votes, the overture(s) will not be referred to the next assembly until at least one other presbytery or synod has timely concurred with it.

It will be the responsibility of the presbytery submitting the initial overture to secure the needed concurrence. Keep in mind that the deadlines for concurring with another overture are as follows:

120-day Deadline:   February 14, 2014   (amendment to/interpretation of Book of Order)
 45-day Deadline:   April 30, 2014          (all other overtures)

Overtures not receiving the necessary concurrence within the designated time limits above shall not be considered.

So, if you're considering writing an overture to the General Assembly, please remember: if this amendment passes, then overtures will be treated like the animals lined up at the gangplank to Noah's ark. "Two by two" will be the rule.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sandy and Connectionalism


That's a word we Presbyterians are fond of using as we describe what makes us different from other Christian churches.

To be connectional is not to be hierarchical (with the church ruled from above), nor is it congregational (with the church governed as a pure democracy on the local level). Rather, the way we order our life together is a mix of both approaches.

We like to think we get the best of both worlds.

I've been seeing the advantages of our connectional approach as Point Pleasant Presbyterian's Sandy Recovery Team has been organizing our Volunteer Village - now operating in the Great Hall of our Education Annex. We're making our own decisions as to how, exactly, we're going to go about hosting these guest workers, but we're getting plenty of help along the way from the Presbytery's Sandy Recovery Committee and from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Presbyterians are noted for hosting visiting volunteer workers in disaster areas, and the reason we've developed that specialty has something to do with our connectional nature. Every disaster is different, so people on the ground in the affected areas are best-equipped to call the shots.  Yet, the expertise of experienced aid workers - like the PDA National Response Team members who have been crisscrossing our local area, supporting congregations in their relief work - is something we could never replicate on our own.

This is one reason why we're able to reach out to our local area as part of the long-term recovery, drawing on resources to which other local churches have no access.

For years, we've been contributing to the One Great Hour of Sharing, received by churches of leading Protestant denominations on Palm Sunday or Easter each year. One-third of One Great Hour offerings go to support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). Few of us ever imagined we'd be recipients of PDA help ourselves, but Sandy has changed all that.

That's another reason why it's a great thing to be connectional.