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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Godly Vision

George Bullard is a church-leadership consultant. In a recent column, he has some very helpful comments on the sort of vision Christian leaders need to cultivate, in order to be most effective in serving God.

He begins by highlighting the sort of vision commonly practiced by many church leaders, which is little more then warmed-over tips from secular management literature:

"Leaders — even in Christian congregations — approach vision like church is an organization, a sports team or their country. It is about winning. It is about reaching tangible goals in the short-term. They cannot divide the success they see in the world around them from the success only God can offer.

This translates in everyday life for many congregations as a numerical measurement. Vision is a growing membership and attendance. Vision is program events that are wildly successful. Vision is surpassing the budget. Vision is filling the worship center. Vision is a full schedule of ministries. The source of these visions is our own pride."

In order to practice godly vision, we need to be in relationship with God. That means more than lip-service, or slapping "I love God" stickers on the bumper of the car. It means getting serious about spiritual discernment.

Bullard also makes the point that congregational visioning is a long-term process. No quick fixes. No handy-dandy questionnaires:

"Vision is not about quick results. Its fulfillment does not have to be fast. It is a commitment over a long period of time. Vision is not about what we will do this year. That is focusing on tactics. Vision is not about the next one to three years. That is focusing on strategies. Vision is about the long-term.

Vision is about changed behavior that develops in congregations over a period of years, and becomes hardwired in the Christ-centered, faith-based culture of the congregation."

There are things - good things, in many cases - that can get in the way of faithful visioning in congregations. Like the American flag in the sanctuary (full disclosure: we have one in our sanctuary - as pastor, I've chosen not to fight that particular battle, though I know it can be mildly idolatrous).

There's a whole raft of secularist assumptions related to money that likewise creep into congregational life: like the judgment that high-rolling big contributors are the people churches ought to be seeking out as members. Of course the church needs money to operate, but if money were the be-all and end-all, then the most successful church would be the one wealthy enough to hire employees to do all the work (hardly the sort of foot-washing servanthood taught by our Lord).

I think we also wander far afield from the Great Commission when we imagine that our goal in attracting new members is to replicate ourselves, to find more nice people like us to sit in our pews. In my experience it's people who stand out from the herd and bring gifts no one else can offer who have an outsized impact on the mission of a congregation.

If there's one thing Superstorm Sandy has taught our church in the coastal town of Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, it's that the church is most effectively the church when we're doing mission ourselves. I have the feeling we were more authentically the church cooking food on our gas stove for the neighborhood, on those dark nights when nobody had electricity, than we've been while cooking any number of fellowship meals since (not that I'm knocking congregational fellowship, which is important in its own way - it's just not the main thing).

Finally, as Bullard makes clear, God is not in the reassurance business. God's in the transformation business:

"To be captivated by God’s vision is a paradigm shift. When such a shift occurs then everything goes back to zero....

When our church buildings, our unwillingness to take a stand for where God is leading us, and the pride we feel in our heritage are in conflict with God’s transformative vision, too many congregations reject God’s vision. They want change they can see and immediately measure. That is a transactional vision. God’s transformational vision is unseen and long-term."


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Join the Churchwide Conversation

What does it mean to be Presbyterian? Who is the church called to be in this current day and time? How should the denomination serve into the future?

There's been much turmoil and hand-wringing in the PC(USA) of late. While some have rejoiced in the last General Assembly's decision to remove impediments to the celebration of same-sex marriages - but only for those ministers and congregations who feel called to do so - others have not been happy with that decision. There's talk of congregations leaving (with the permission of their presbyteries, of course, because that's how it has to happen in our system of government).  There's also talk of staying within the denomination, but in a dissenting way.

In preparation for the next General Assembly (June 18–25, 2016, in Portland, Oregon), the Office of the General Assembly has issued a call for churchwide conversation on where the Lord is leading the PC(USA).

These discussions, which will focus around denominational identity, will take place both online and in-person, in groups that will be forming around the church.

The process begins on October 23, with an invitation to go online to share thoughts and comments. Those who are interested in being a part of these online conversations are invited to sign up here.

“We’re inviting Presbyterians to dream big dreams, hope big hopes, and share them with their brothers and sisters,” says Margaret Elliott, moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. “The fruit of that dialogue will then be used by the General Assembly — an expression of the church’s core — when it gathers. Together the body will discern a way forward for the church."

Undoubtedly, we'll be organizing some dialogue groups here in Monmouth Presbytery, For now, however, signing up for the online process is a great place to start.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Thornwell's Revenge?

A collection of overtures sent by South Carolina’s Foothills Presbytery to next summer’s General Assembly is attracting a lot of buzz. Some remarks are favorable, but the vast majority of reactions I’ve heard are negative.

Given that the professed intention of the overtures is to streamline and systematize the Assembly’s ponderous and sometimes chaotic docket — a common source of complaints, voiced especially by first-time commissioners — then why the skepticism about these overtures?

It’s because, to many observers, the Foothills overtures seem to mask a darker intention. The friendly- and benign-sounding goal of taming the Assembly’s docket hides a deeply reactionary goal of stifling nearly all change and hobbling the Assembly’s ability to manage its own rules.

Here’s what the eight Foothills overtures do:

1) Devote each General Assembly to considering one of the six Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304) on a rotating basis, considering in that year only matters that pertain to that Great End. Constitutional amendments could only be considered every third Assembly (which, with a biennial meeting schedule, means every six years). Even then, no amendment could be considered that has not achieved prior endorsement by 15% of the presbyteries.

2) Proposed social-witness policy statements must have the prior endorsement of one-third of the presbyteries.

3) For the next three General Assemblies, block the Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy from proposing anything to the Assembly. The only way for that group to get any business before the Assembly would be for them to convince a sufficient number of presbyteries to generate overtures.

4) For each General Assembly, allow one-fifth of the presbyteries, on a rotating basis, to send their executive presbyter (or whomever most closely approximates that function, if they don’t have one) as an advisory delegate with voice.

5) Require a supermajority of two-thirds of the presbyteries to ratify any constitutional amendments, and require the next General Assembly to ratify any amendments that do gain that level of support, before they could become part of the Constitution.

6) Allow presbyteries to abstain from voting on proposed constitutional amendments (presently they may only vote “yes” or “no,” with any failure to vote being counted as a “no” vote).

7) Allow presbyteries and synods to overture the General Assembly to amend or suspend any of the General Assembly’s Standing Rules (presently they can do this by asking their elected commissioners to do so).

8) Presbyteries and synods may do the same for the Manual of the General Assembly.

In placing a contingent of presbytery executives on the floor of the Assembly as watchdogs (overture 4), and in giving presbyteries and synods control over the Assembly’s own rules (overtures 7 and 8), the Foothills overtures significantly weaken the Assembly’s ability to control its own destiny. In allowing presbyteries to dodge the responsibility of voting on constitutional amendments, overture 6 allows presbyteries to rudely ignore any amendment — notwithstanding the fact that the Assembly considered it important enough to ask presbyteries to vote on. In requiring a two-thirds supermajority for amendments, overture 5 embodies a deep fear of change.

Overtures 4 through 8, therefore, go way beyond mere conservatism to make the church captive to reactionary politics. They resuscitate, for the ecclesiastical context, the sort of States’ Rights and nullification procedures that the United States of America fought a Civil War to overcome.

As for overtures 1 through 3, these seek to summon, like the biblical Medium of Endor, a particularly scary ghost whom Presbyterians have not seen since the late 1800s: the ghost of James Henley Thornwell.

Thornwell was one of the church’s most brilliant theologians and would have been numbered among the greats, were it not for one fatal mistake on his part: he sullied his intellectual reputation by arguing vigorously for slavery as a biblically-sanctioned institution. He did so by promoting a deeply-flawed theological principle he called “the Spirituality of the Church.”

By this, Thornwell meant that the church ought to consider only “spiritual” matters. Because he considered slavery a legal rather than a spiritual matter, he believed the church had no business even talking about it. Such decisions belonged to secular government. Church councils — be they presbyteries, synods or the General Assembly — did best by avoiding such topics altogether.

Thornwell would have made a lousy Old Testament prophet.

The first three of the Foothills overtures sound like pages torn from Thornwell’s polity playbook. They treat social witness policy — as the mid-nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterians treated slavery — like some malodorous topic that doesn’t belong in polite ecclesiastical society. While recognizing that, every once in a while, the church may have no choice but to address such “unspiritual” matters (holding its nose all the while), they so limit the church’s ability to do so that Presbyterians would rarely, if ever, be able to speak truth to power.

It’s incredible to me that, in the twenty-first century, States’ Rights and “Spirituality of the Church” principles like these could gain traction in any segment of the PC(USA).

The Assembly will of course give them due consideration. It's the Presbyterian way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Quick Guide to Parliamentary Procedure

In case you're wondering, this distinguished personage is Henry Martyn Robert. Besides being a guy with three first names, why do you suppose he deserves a place on this blog?

Why, because he's the Robert of Robert's Rules of Order, of course!

Most people don't know that Robert was a Colonel in the U.S. Army and a member of the Corps of Engineers who served in the Civil War (later he was promoted to General). The experience that led him to set down in exhaustive detail a set of rules for parliamentary meetings had nothing to do with the military. It took place in a church setting.

Specifically, it was a raucous congregational meeting that got out of hand. An engineer like Robert, who surely had a passion for keeping things in good order, would have been especially troubled by the chaos.

In case you're wondering, it wasn't a Presbyterian church. Robert was a Baptist.

So, Robert's Rules were actually birthed in the church --- although the good Colonel based them, loosely, on the rules of the U.S. Congress, which in turn were inspired by the British Parliament.

If you've ever picked up a copy of the full Robert's Rules - the complete version, not one of the many abridged versions out there - you've surely been impressed by how dense and incomprehensible it seems. It's a real brick of a book. Here's the cover of the first edition, from 1878.

The book is periodically revised by Robert's descendants, who own the rights to it. The most recent edition contains rules for some situations the venerable parliamentarian could never have imagined - like electronic meetings.

Fortunately, most elders - ruling as well as teaching - don't need to master all those procedural intricacies. A number of simplified versions are out there, that should be more than adequate for most situations that come up in a session or congregational meeting.

If you want a really abbreviated version, Therese Howells, a fellow stated clerk, has just put up a helpful article on the PC(USA) website. She hits most of the high points.

Read, mark and inwardly digest her simplified list of motions, and you'll be well on your way to engaging in church government for fun and profit (the profit being of the non-pecuniary variety).

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Marriage Amendment and Mutual Forbearance

It’s only a matter of time.

Anyone who’s been monitoring the count of presbyteries voting on Constitutional Amendment 14-F, allowing same-sex marriage in Presbyterian churches, can see the tally's been running nearly two-to-one in favor. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that, in the coming weeks, we’ll hear the news that the required minimum of 86 ratifying presbyteries has been reached. The Directory for Worship will have been amended, to define marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” (The full text of the amended section can be found below.)

“So, what happens then?” That’s the question on the minds of many Presbyterians.

For more than 40 years, Presbyterians have been debating the question of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. That theological struggle has been going on for longer than I’ve been in ministry. With each year that’s gone by, the number of Presbyterians favoring full inclusion has gradually been increasing, a slowly rising tide.

Three years ago, a majority of presbyteries agreed with the General Assembly, voting to remove the constitutional bar to ordination for those who do not “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

A year ago, the Assembly voted to recommend changing the definition of marriage from being “between a man and a woman” to being “between two people” (although noting that the two parties have traditionally been a man and a woman).

In large part, the rising tide of change has been generationally-driven. Pollsters tell us huge majorities of 30-and-under Christians do not view same-sex relationships as inherently sinful — and that most of them have little interest in any church that teaches differently. As younger people have been elected as commissioners to presbyteries, and as a corresponding number of older leaders have aged out, the shift has gradually taken place. There’s an old saying that “the church is always just one generation away from extinction.” From a purely demographic standpoint, it’s hard to see how any church that favors moral convictions more common to retirees than to younger and mid-life adults can survive for long.

Although there’s sometimes a tendency for those on the conservative side of the debate to dismiss the convictions of their opponents as unbiblical, anyone who takes an objective look at the arguments pro and con will see that it’s not a matter of biblical fidelity, but rather of differing biblical interpretations. Advocates of same-sex marriage truly do not love their Bibles any less than those who oppose it. They just understand the scriptures differently.

The new language doesn’t force any Presbyterians to change their views. It is permissive, not mandatory, speaking of what “may be appropriate” rather than what must happen. More than that, it offers explicit protection for any teaching elder (minister) or congregation who fears being forced to approve a same-sex marriage ceremony: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.” Individual conscience is protected.

Well, what about those who feel offended that they must live under a Book of Order that even tolerates same-sex marriage? 

The answer to that is that the Book of Order is not a confession of faith. Those ordained to ordered ministry in the Presbyterian Church don’t swear allegiance to the Book of Order (they don’t even do that for individual passages from the Book of Confessions: in the ordination questions, they promise not to subscribe to individual confessions word-for-word, but rather to “be instructed and led” by the entire collection of confessional documents). What they do promise, in the ordination questions, is to “be governed by our church’s polity” and to “abide by its discipline.”

There’s a subtle — but important —  difference between affirming a constitutional document and agreeing to be governed by it. After the marriage amendment takes effect — with its explicit guarantee that no one in ordered ministry will be forced to participate in a same-sex ceremony — there will be nothing in the Book of Order to force pastors or session members to affirm or do anything against their consciences, when it comes to same-sex marriage ceremonies.

There is, however, something of great importance the Book of Order does expect every Presbyterian leader to do: and this has certainly not changed. This obligation, expressed in our Historic Principles of Church Order for over 200 years, is to strive to exercise “mutual forbearance” towards fellow presbyters whose viewpoints differ from our own (F-3.0105).

And what is mutual forbearance? It’s a biblical concept — although it’s a little hard to locate in most English translations, because the word “forbearance” is something of an antique.  Scrupulous readers of the Authorized (“King James”) Version will recognize it in Ephesians 4:2. In the face of persistent church conflict, Paul’s prescription for good health in the body of Christ is “forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The New Revised Standard Version renders it “bearing with one another in love.”

The essential feature of the biblical concept of mutual forbearance is the presence of a third party in the relationship: God. Whether the opposing parties are facing off across a kitchen table or a Session conference table, two individuals in conflict have little chance of permanently resolving their differences unless they first acknowledge their mutual reliance on a higher authority. Such is the message of the Ephesians passage as it recommends “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Note that unity in the relationship does not come from the parties themselves. It is unity of the Spirit. Further, the peace that reigns over the two opponents is not something that appears automatically, requiring little effort. The scripture speaks of the “bond” of peace: literally, a chain or fetter. A lifelong commitment to living and working with one another, despite our differences, means sacrificing something of the freedom we would otherwise have, were we not accountable to another.

It’s not unlike living through change as a family. Change does not typically happen, in families, in slow and incremental ways. It happens by leaps and bounds, often driven by the passions of the younger generations, to which the older members eventually learn to accommodate. The younger generations, for their part, come to accept the likelihood that they will never fully convince their elders.

What happens, then? Does the family splinter, its unity destroyed?

Sadly, in some cases this is what happens. Most observers, though, would describe that as a failed family. Its members have failed to do the one thing they were expected to do: to stick together through thick and thin.

What keeps any family healthy and strong is mutual forbearance. It must be intentional, and it must happen on both sides. We bear with each other because we love one another in Christ. That’s the bottom line.

So, what will happen after the new constitutional language becomes the law of the church? My hope is that together we will enter a new period of mutual forbearance, coming to appreciate the theological and practical value of this historical — and deeply biblical — principle of Presbyterianism.

(The description of mutual forbearance is adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Principles of Presbyterian Polity, that is under contract with Westminster/John Knox Press.)

Amendment 14-F. Marriage
On Amending W-4.9000

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.

In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.

The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W-1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.

A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple is already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.

Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.

Photo credits: Rodrigo Valladares, Stephen Eastop, from freeimages.com

Friday, February 6, 2015

What You Need Is a Cup

We had an interesting time last night in the Presbyterian Polity course I teach at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. I’d handed out a review by Anthony B. Robinson from a recent issue of The Christian Century of sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes (Oxford, 2013). One of the things Ammerman does is assess the category of people who describe themselves as SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”).

That category is, Ammerman asserts, “a unicorn” — something you never see in the wild. A major sociological research project she’s conducted demonstrates that people who are active in organized religion are the “most committed to spiritual practices and a spiritual view of the world.”

As for those who claim the SBNR label for themselves, rejecting organized religion, Ammerman found that (as a group, on the average) they’re not really very spiritual either — at least not according to the evidence she, as a sociologist, can objectively measure. Mostly, she speculates, the SBNR language is a way to lay down boundaries so as not to have to discuss religious questions with churchgoers. It’s a subtle way of saying, “Don’t bug me.”

From The Christian Century’s review: “To sum up her team’s findings, one might say that with a congregation a person is more likely to be spiritual, and without such a community of spiritual discourse and practice, individuals tend to be less spiritual or not spiritual at all. ‘The people with the most robust sense of sacred presence are those who participate in religious activities that allow for conversation and relationship,’ concludes the author.”

The class received and thoughtfully commented on the book review. Then, a little later, as we were discussing a recent PC(USA) ordination-exam question, our discussion got very lively. In the case study that's at the heart of that exam question, a man asks, “Pastor, does someone need to be a member of a church in order to be a good Christian?”

The question, of course, goes to the heart of the whole SBNR phenomenon. Some members of the class defended church involvement as essential to Christian discipleship. Others were not so sure. Some of these spoke poignantly of people they’ve known who feel grievously hurt by the church, having been excluded from full participation for one reason or another. Regretfully, they keep their distance.

Historically, we Presbyterians display a “high” conception of the church, holding up the importance of Christian community - including regular worship - as essential to the Christian life. We also observe that nearly everybody Jesus heals, in the Bible, either sticks around to join his band of disciples or goes back to rejoin their original community, telling of what they’ve heard, seen and experienced.

Jesus calls people not into private, do-it-yourself spirituality, but directly into community.

One of the students pointed out a line from the Book of Order's section, "The Meaning of Membership and Baptism," that says: "In Jesus Christ, God calls people to faith and to membership in the church, the body of Christ" (G-1.0301). That's an "and," not an "or." The two are bound together.

"Good eye," I said to her, commending her for picking out that passage. (I love it when they do that.)

I liken it to taking a drink of water — even “living water,” to apply a metaphor Jesus uses in the scriptures. Anyone who’s ever been out camping in the wilderness knows it’s possible to kneel down beside a stream, cup one’s hands and take a drink.

It’s far easier, of course, if you have a cup. Try to drink without one, and you only get one small swallow at a time. The greater part of the water you scoop up will leak out through your fingers. If you have a cup, though, it’s very different. As a container for holding water, a cup is far more efficient than the hands.

Even the language we use reflects that. When we speak of “cupping” our hands, we’re subtly pointing out that a cup (or similar drinking vessel) is the natural way to take a drink. When the hands try to do it, they’re aspiring to be a cup. They don’t do a very good job.

I see the church as like a cup that holds water. The cup itself is not what refreshes and sustains life. Only living water can do that. It’s far easier to drink of that living water, though, if we do make use of a cup. It is in community that we both learn how to practice the faith and receive the encouragement and support that enables us to actually do that.

Sadly, some people mistake the cup for the water it contains, and end up worshiping it instead. The cup, though, is not the point; the water is. But without a cup, we’re likely to be a lot thirstier.