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

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Per Capita: A Seat at the Table for Everyone

Outgoing General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons has just written a helpful little piece explaining the importance of per capita. It's something I think every minister or ruling elder should become familiar with, because per capita is among the most-misunderstood features of our common life as Presbyterians.

Per capita has been likened to our denominational utility. It pays essential administrative expenses of higher councils (presbytery, synod and General Assembly). Most of what per capita funds is not very exciting to talk about. It's business-as-usual type of stuff, the day-to-day overhead connected with keeping church governance working for all Presbyterians.

But that doesn't mean it's unimportant. Without the vital work that goes on at presbytery, synod and General Assembly, we'd be a motley collection of individual congregations, with little in the way of resources or communication. There would be no structures to carry out global mission. There would be no help forthcoming for congregations who get into difficulty.

One of the striking things Gradye says in the article is that "Per capita makes the table more accessible so all have a seat." This is very true, because it's per capita that pays the expenses of commissioners to synod and General Assembly, as well as those who participate in governance by serving on various committees and working groups. Do we really want to live in a church where only those with the personal funds for travel and lodging are able to participate in governance?

Anyway, there's a lot to think about in Gradye's article. Have a look at it.

While you're doing that, check out this great music video by Carrie Newcomer, "Room At the Table":

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Top 10 Things that Happened at the 222nd General Assembly

Anyone who’s ever been to a General Assembly knows it’s a rich feast. The business agenda of the Assembly alone is massive, and there are a host of auxiliary meetings and social events as well.

Boiling the work of the Assembly down to just a few items is a challenge, but I’m going to try. Here’s my list of the Top 10 Things that Happened at the 222nd General Assembly:

10) The most talked-about business in advance of the Assembly was the "Foothills Overtures," a collection of constitutional amendments and rules changes that would have radically altered the way the Assembly does its business. I’ve written about these overtures — named for the Foothills Presbytery of South Carolina, from which they originated — in an earlier blog post. The effect of these overtures would have been — by restricting how often certain topics could come up and by adding supermajority voting requirements — to eviscerate the Assembly’s ability to do almost anything related to social justice. In the end, the Assembly carefully considered these overtures in a special committee, then resoundingly voted them all down.

9) In the early twentieth century, Presbyterians could be found at the forefront of the Fundamentalist movement, advancing a literalist interpretation of scripture. We are very far from that place a century later, interpreting scripture with the full range of literary and historical tools available. In two separate actions, the Assembly stated definitively that science and faith are not enemies, that evolution — rather than a literal reading of the Genesis creation stories — is a reasonable explanation of how God created the universe, and that Christian disciples should not shrink from using the full range of their God-given intellectual abilities to advance scientific inquiry.

8) Could the “sex wars” really be over? Generally, the atmosphere at this Assembly was far less contentious than some of recent memory. This is largely due to the changes that took place at the last two Assemblies, allowing freedom for GLBTQ believers to assume ordained office, and a similar freedom for pastors and sessions wishing to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies where permitted by civil law. There was an overture to return to the “one man and one woman” language once present in the Directory for Worship’s section on marriage. This was resoundingly defeated by a more than a 4-to-1 margin. Another overture, coming from the opposite end of the theological spectrum, called on the church to formally apologize to GLBTQ Christians who have been marginalized by past church teachings. The Assembly declined to use the emotionally-loaded “a”-word, speaking instead of “regret.” This was in order to provide gracious space for those who continue to be dissent from the church’s tolerant stance on same-sex marriage, honoring their freedom of conscience.

7) After contentious debate, the Assembly rejected a call for aggressive divestment of the church’s stock-market holdings in two hundred corporations that produce fossil fuels. Instead, the Assembly opted for a less-confrontational strategy of engaging these companies in dialogue through stockholder resolutions.

6) The Assembly approved an amended report, “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace.” This supports the two-state solution to that intractable conflict, taking particular note of the imbalance of suffering between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Assembly refrained from moving beyond phased divestment from Hewlett-Packard (the position of the last Assembly) to an outright boycott, continuing to work with that corporation to encourage them to do less to support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas.

5) The last two Assemblies have pondered the future of synods, opting for consolidation of our existing synods into even larger regional bodies — but not specifying exactly how this was going to take place. By a large majority, the Assembly rescinded that mandate. Commissioners approved the appointment of a high-level “2020 Vision Team” that will explore our governance structures at every level and make recommendations for change.

4) In a surprise move, the Assembly resoundingly approved an overture calling for a return to “minister of the word and sacrament” as the prevailing title for the order of ministry that has been called, since the adoption of our present Form of Government, “teaching elder.” Both terms will still be used, but - if a majority of presbyteries approve the change - “minister” will now be primary, as it has been through every other era of the church’s history. I have written about this issue previously in an article in the Presbyterian Outlook. In a related development, the wordy title, “ruling elder commissioned to limited pastoral service” (commonly called “commissioned ruling elder”) will now be called simply “commissioned pastor.”

3) New faces in leadership: for the first time ever, there is no Anglo male face among the senior leadership of the church. The Assembly elected the Revs. T. Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston (of National Capital and Chicago presbyteries, respectively) as its first-ever co-moderators. It also elected the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson (formerly director of the church’s Washington Office) as Stated Clerk. Tony De La Rosa continues as interim director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Look for great things, in particular, from J. Herbert Nelson. He’s a powerful orator in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a change-agent. While he has never been a stated clerk before at any level, he promises to be a quick study.

2) The Assembly approved a draft of a new Directory for Worship that will now go out to the presbyteries for approval. The changes have to do mostly with making the Directory for Worship more concise and usable, although it does offer new flexibility to welcome unbaptized inquirers to the Lord’s Table, as long as the invitation to be baptized is made clear to them.

1) And now, the number-one thing this Assembly did was to complete the process of adding the Belhar Confession as the twelfth confessional document contained in the Book of Confessions. While this was pretty much a foregone conclusion — since more than three-fourths of the presbyteries have already given their required assent — still, it is of great historic significance. After the positive vote, theologian Allan Boesak of South Africa, one of the authors of the Belhar Confession during the apartheid era, addressed the Assembly. He ended his remarks by saying, “We may not know what tomorrow may bring, but I know this: tonight, we have overcome. I know this: because of Jesus, we shall overcome. I know this: whatever may come in our world, we shall overcome.” In a moving moment, the Assembly responded by spontaneously breaking into song, singing — what else? —“We Shall Overcome.”

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Origins of the Old Tennent Church

I subscribe to a Presbyterian History blog written by a man named David Myers, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. His posts dealing with the history of that conservative breakaway denomination are of little interest to me, but he does write frequently about our common history: particularly the Colonial era. I find those posts to be of much greater interest.

Imagine my surprise when I opened an email today and found that the subject of his latest historical reflection is the Old Tennent Church!

You can find his blog post on Old Tennent here.

Towards the end of the article David does say he wishes this historic congregation were a member of the PCA. (Sorry, David. We're proud, here in Monmouth Presbytery, that Old Tennent is one of our congregations, and has been such since the day our Presbytery was founded.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Take a Chill Pill," Says This Canadian Pastor

There's been a lot of Chicken Little talk among PC(USA) folk in recent years. Church membership has been declining for decades, and worship attendance as well (although not so rapidly).  Add to that some clueless news coverage - like the "death of the Church" articles that followed the Pew Research Report, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," of about a year ago - and some of us are left wondering if, one day, we may be the proverbial last ones left to turn off the lights.

Well, Mark Twain was a Presbyterian, so I guess his church is entitled to borrow his famous line, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Recently I ran across a blog post by a Canadian pastor, Erik Parker. He wrote it about a year ago, in response to the hand-wringing of his neighbors south of the border. It's one of the most insightful reflections I've ever read, explaining our changed circumstances as the church in a rapidly secularizing culture.

Take a chill pill, he's saying to us. You forget, we Canadians are ahead of you when it comes to dealing with the effects of secularization. Sure, the church is changing, but it's not - I repeat - it's NOT dying. Or, if it is, it's the sort of fruitful dying that prepares the way for rebirth.

That's a paraphrase. What he does say, in broad outline - and you should read his column for the full story - is:

1. The Golden Era of Church attendance in the 1950s was the abnormality.  

2. What we are seeing is the death of Christendom… not the Church. 

3. We like to think that we are the ones who can finally do the church in. (We shouldn't flatter ourselves; it's Christ's church, not ours.)

My formative childhood experiences of church took place in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. I can still recall walking down the sidewalk with my family to the old Presbyterian Church of Toms River (the one that became the County Library headquarters, after the congregation relocated to a larger building). My mother wore white gloves and a pert little Sunday hat. My father wore a dapper Mad Men suit. My brother Jim and I were outfitted with clip-on bow ties and crew cuts. It was all very Mayberry.

Everybody who was anybody in our little town went to church or synagogue on Sundays - if not our Presbyterian Church, then one of the other houses of worship. It was just what you did.

As I grew up, going to college and seminary, then eventually returning to Ocean County to pastor another congregation, I had a ringside seat to view the great decline of American civil religion. I didn't know it at the time, but that's exactly what was happening.

I remember the time, a few years into my ministry in Point Pleasant, when a bunch of us pastors got together to lobby the leaders of the local Pop Warner football league. We were trying to get them to move their games to a time other than Sunday mornings, so parents wouldn't have to choose between Sunday School and sports for their children. That sort of scheduling would never have happened when I was a kid of pee-wee football age. It wouldn't even have been considered. We got absolutely nowhere with those football dads, for whom elusive dreams of college scholarships for their kids trumped any value that could come of belonging to a church. We didn't know it when we walked into that room, but we had lost the battle before the conversation even began.

Erik Parker, and other Canadian pastors, have been through this transition already - the transition to to a church without the secular props we have come to depend on for so long. We're panicking, he reassures us, "about a society and culture that is no longer evangelizing for us." That's all. We've had it soft for a very long time, and now we've got to start pulling our own weight: as the church has always done, through most of its history.

Most of us long-experienced pastors have never known anything different. Today's Millennial pastors are graduating from seminary with wholly different expectations.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It does, evidently, appear to be God's thing, so who am I to complain?

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Lost Art of Consensus

Ever been in a meeting where not everyone was in agreement?

We all have. It can be an uncomfortable experience, but it's a part of living and working together in a church or other community.

What makes the difference, in such a situation, is not how we go into the meeting.

It's how we come out of it.

If we come out of the meeting with a consensus, we feel like we've accomplished something, and rightfully so.

Consensus and unanimity are not the same thing, as church consultant Susan Beaumont affirms in a noteworthy online article, "The Truth about Consensus," that's well worth clicking through to read. (More on that in a moment.)

Sometimes groups decide to set aside Robert's Rules of Order for a time, in order to make a decision "by consensus." What people mean by that vague phrase is baffling - especially because the whole purpose of Robert's Rules is to achieve consensus.

It's important to be clear, up-front, on what we mean by the word. My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines consensus as "Agreement or unity of or of opinion, testimony, etc.; the majority view, a collective opinion; (an agreement by different parties to) a shared body of views."

Consensus is closely related to "consent." Now, we all know that to give consent to something is not the same as giving wholehearted affirmation. If a father hands over the car keys to his teenage daughter, it's true he's giving consent to her using the car that evening, but he may not be wholeheartedly in favor of the idea. He may sit up late with the porch light on, anxiously awaiting her return. But Dad's given his consent, so he's not going to stand at the foot of the driveway and prevent her from backing out.

Beaumont insightfully points out that, when many people talk about achieving consensus, they're not really talking about consensus at all. They're talking about unanimity, which is different:

"True consensus is achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: 'I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.' In contrast, unanimity is undivided opinion. Everyone is in agreement on the best course of action to take. The difference is subtle but important. When we strive for unanimity, we end up taking an inordinate amount of time to make decisions. At best, innovation grinds to a halt. At worst, we create unhealthy patterns of interaction where people are pressured to acquiesce on important issues."

It's those unhealthy patterns of interaction that concern me. They can be subtle.

Setting aside Robert's Rules for alternative models of decision-making is in vogue in many parts of the church today. "Open space technology," "the World Cafe," and other modes of decision-making are popular options in presbytery meetings.

Such processes certainly have their advantages. They allow members who aren't so skilled in parliamentary procedure to voice their opinions. They allow introverts to shine. They provide highly visual polling methods that allow for reality-checks at key stages of the process. They also leave room for creative, even artistic, means of exploring very complex issues. Yet, applied unsparingly and without careful monitoring, they can also open the way to subtle manipulation of the group.

Here's how such manipulation can happen. Let's say a group suspends the rules and decides to spend some time sitting around tables talking about an issue. The moderator speaks rhapsodically about the virtues of unity, and how wonderful it would be if everyone could achieve a common mind during this interlude The instructions are that each table is to come up with a "consensus" recommendation and report it to the larger group. Let's also say that, at each table of four, there are three people who tend to favor Option A and one who favors Option B.

They get to talking, and at each table, the person who favors Option B feels very much alone. Mindful of the moderator's encouragement to strive for a common mind, the "B" person falls silent. Each table reports a decision to support Option A, and everyone marvels that the decision was made so easily.

That is, until some of the pro-B people get to talking afterwards, out in the parking lot, and realize they were not in such a small minority as they'd imagined. Had the rules not been suspended, more of them would have spoken up about it in debate, found strength in numbers, and could possibly have swayed enough pro-A people to change their minds that there would have been a different outcome. At the very least, they might have proposed an amendment or two that would have altered Option A to make it more to their liking.

The problem, Beaumont writes, is that many people confuse the meanings of "consensus" and "unanimity." When many use the word "consensus," what they're really hoping to achieve is unanimity, 100% agreement.

True unanimity is rare. It does not consist in the naysayers falling silent, because they've already heard the many voices in favor and have figured out in advance how the vote's going to come out.

Beaumont makes this helpful distinction:

"According to Larry Dressler, 'Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every member is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns.'

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision, in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied. Consensus is also not a majority vote, in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision. Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.

In testing for consensus you are not asking: Is this your first choice of options? Do you like this option? Does this option satisfy your personal needs? In testing for consensus you are asking: Is this an option that I can live with and ultimately support? Does this option satisfy the criteria that we have claimed as a group? Will this option adequately serve the best interest of our congregation and its stakeholders?

Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus. Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that you oblige yourself to do your part in putting the decision into action."

There's one place where I disagree with Beaumont, as excellent as her article is in every other respect. She has a singularly low opinion of majority voting as a decision-making method. Having articulated the difference between consensus and unanimity, she still views majority voting as, ultimately, a failure of consensus-building.

When consensus-building fails, she recommends four possible options:

"(1) Defer the decision...,(2) Dissolve the group...., (3) Give decision making authority to a sub-group...., or (4), Default to a majority vote."

She describes this fourth option as follows:

"The group can decide, in advance, on a point in time where consensus seeking will end. If you have not reached consensus by that point in time, the group will vote and the decision will be determined by the majority."

This, in fact, happens under Robert's Rules by either passing a motion to fix a time at which to vote (in other words, docketing a vote to take place at a particular time) or by voting to "move the previous question," thus ending debate.

But - and here's my quarrel with her reasoning - why is this sort of outcome a mere "default"?  Isn't a majority vote, following spirited debate, in fact an excellent means of achieving consensus - as that word is truly and accurately defined?

I believe it is. Consensus means trusting the group enough to be on the losing side of a vote and still support the decision.

The trend in our larger society is against consensus of any kind, to see it as a failure of one's own argument and therefore to be be resisted at all costs. It's precisely the loss of the art of consensus that is bedeviling the Congress of the United States in these days of partisan polarization.

Let's not be that way in the church of Jesus Christ. Let us remember how blessed it can be to agree to disagree. Let us honor true consensus as a mark of Christian unity.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church?

By sheer chance, searching for something else in the New York Times online archive, I came across the article reprinted below. Although it sounds like an editorial, it was located in and amongst the regular news articles. (I'm not sure newspapers made a very sharp distinction between editorial and news content back in 1896.)

The subject is "Bossism in the Presbyterian Church." The writer makes the case that the General Assembly is easily manipulated by its own staff, and that its decision-making processes make it difficult for the commissioners elected by the presbyteries to influence the outcome.

What's remarkable to me is that the argument is strikingly similar to that being advanced by proponents of the "Foothills Overtures" that will be up for consideration by this summer's General Assembly, calling for more controls on any one Assembly's power to make decisions.

But here's the thing: the author of the article, who's sympathetic to the liberal wing of the church, is complaining that it's the conservatives who benefit from the way the Assembly does things! (This is the polar opposite of the situation with this year's Foothills Overtures, which have been advanced by disaffected conservatives who are upset with the Assembly's social-justice pronouncements.)

The "bossism" charge is, of course, an allusion to New York City's notorious Tammany Hall political machine, then in its full manipulative glory. The Assembly's then-Stated Clerk, the Rev. W.H. Roberts - who served in that post for 36 years - is cast in the role of Boss Tweed.

The issue in question is the notorious Briggs Case, by which an earlier Assembly had judged Professor Charles Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York a heretic, on account of his un-fundamentalist approach to scripture (Briggs was a noted professor of Old Testament; the "Brown-Driver-Briggs" Hebrew lexicon, of which he was a principal author, is still in wide use today).

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," as the old French proverb goes.

It's been well over a century that the complaint about staff domination of the General Assembly has been raised. I suppose one could respond by saying that, 120 years later, it's high time the General Assembly made some changes!

On the other hand, one could respond by observing that this complaint is merely a perennial "sour grapes" reaction on the part of Presbyterians who disagree with decisions the General Assembly has made.

You decide.

New York Times, May 18, 1896, p. 4.

Bossism in the Presbyterian Church

Professor Charles Briggs
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meets this week at Saratoga. The result of its action will be watched with interest and some anxiety by those who dread what they consider the undue centralisation of power in the Assembly. Originally the Assembly busied itself chiefly with the broader interests of the Church: its missions, home and foreign, and its inter-denominational relations. Of late it has asserted itself more and more in matters hitherto considered the special prerogatives of the lower courts. It constituted itself a heresy court, and made manifestoes on the most abstruse topics of theology. Then, finding that its dictation was not relished by the seminaries, it attacked them and sought to dominate not only their orthodoxy, but their financial administration. Having succeeded in some measure, it has of late sought still further extension of its power. The condemnation of Prof. Briggs logically resulted in the withdrawal of Church recognition from the institution with which he was connected, and which steadily supported him. This, however, was soon seen to be of very little moment. Union Seminary continued on its way, received students under its instruction, and sent them to the Presbyteries for examination on the same basis as did the various Congregationalist, Methodist, and other theological schools. They were received or not, according to their individual opinions, without regard to the source of those opinions. The sharpest examinations failed to discover traces of heresy in them, and there seemed to be danger lest the ground gained in the condemnation of the Professor should be lost by the indorsement of the students. The conservatives hit upon a plan, which they carried through in a way worthy of the methods by which New-York has been governed politically, and “jammed through” the Presbytery of this city an apparently harmless question, addressed to the Assembly, as to what was the Presbytery’s duty in regard to the students. With the Assembly entirely under their control, it was not difficult to get an “injunction” against receiving the students.

The boycott seemed to be complete. But this was a longer step than some even of the conservatives were willing to take. They began to realize that the dominating power of the Assembly, with which they had no fault to find so long as it affected simply men with whom they did not agree, was being extended over one of their most ancient rights and privileges, the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry as well as authority over ministers. Were the Assembly a continuous body, or had it even as much of continuity as Congress, it would be different. It is, however, in fact a popular convention, largely composed of men, both ministers and laymen accustomed to rule, of procedure, and absolutely at the mercy of skillful tacticians, as has been repeatedly evident in the past few years. Some of the strongest conservatives in several Presbyteries, therefore, have joined hands with liberals in the right of judgment as to the qualifications of candidates for the ministry, as well as authority over them after ordination.

Stated Clerk William Henry Roberts
The situation is complicated by the peculiar constitution of the Assembly and the fact that it is largely under the control of one man. The Stated Clerk of the Assembly has by virtue of his position peculiar influence. He is in charge of the general statistics of the Church, gives notification of all action of the Assembly, is Secretary of all hold-over committees, and in general has to do with everything and everybody. The present Stated Clerk Is the Rev. W. H. Roberts, D.D., of Philadelphia. He has magnified his office. For several years he has carefully manipulated the different Assemblies. He has selected the Moderators and then acted as their adviser. He has nominated the committees, drawn up the legislation, pulled wires for his favorite benevolences, let recalcitrant seminaries and unruly Presbyteries feel the weight of his displeasure, and in general comported himself exactly as any political boss.

Here is really the most serious element in the situation. Natural conservatism is amenable to influence and increasing knowledge. Bossism allows no influence of any kind. The Presbyterian Church is a great power in the land, in its wealth, its education, its intelligence. If it could during the next two weeks throw overboard the influences that have been checking it, and declare for the right of men to do their own thinking and come to their own conclusions, untrammeled by ecclesiastical bosses, it would be a great thing for the Church.

(Photos are not from the original Times article.)