Changing the Perception

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Amantha Barbee

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies”

Resolutions are a grand way for an institution to make public statements about issues regarding either a part or whole of a body. Very often, at their core, the resolutions typically hold the studied opinions of those who penned them. They will cause emotive expressions of support, rejection, or lack of care to that small percentage of the institution who actually read them. Unfortunately, an enormous amount of time and effort goes in to denominational resolutions. I think they are necessary more so for those outside the denomination. “Others” will look for documents such as these to learn a particular stance of a denomination. It is just that, a denominational stance, and not an individual stance. We are not the denomination but a part of. This is where the problems lie.

Photo from Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

The “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” is a serious problem as well as the diminution of Presbyterian congregations, no matter the ethnic background. With the rapid growth of non-denominational mega-churches coupled with the increasing number of families opting out of organized religion all together, we all stand at a crossroad of an “if-then” reality. As much as I personally love the structure of the PCUSA, it is archaic at its core and makes it difficult to maneuver with certain freedoms at certain levels if one does not fully understand the constitution. When the government of the church has very similar qualities of the federal government it poses a problem with those who are ill at ease with the federal government and the church.

This is not great for promoting the institution. Pew Research Center reports that 40% of churched African Americans are Baptist. The closest to that is Pentecostal with 6%. 8 out of 10 African Americans report that religion is important to them. The Presbyterian church is the total antithesis of the Baptist church. The Pentecostal church is even further distanced from Presbyterianism. The PCUSA is fighting a historic battle with how African Americans worship. We are a highly educated, financially charged, and white institution trying to attract a historically oppressed, undereducated, financially underserved people. Our African American numbers should come at no surprise to anyone.

I left the Baptist church after 45 years. The majority of my African American friends are Baptist and many of them have left the Presbyterian church to become Baptist. I left because I felt that as a woman in ministry my opportunities would be greater outside the Baptist church. Additionally, I found the governance of the Baptist church oppressive. If I had not been in leadership I am not positive that I would have made the change. As a leader in the church it made sense to me. As a layperson, it really didn’t matter as much. Most church attendees are not in leadership and, as in most denominations, do not understand the nuances of the government. Therefore, it really does not affect them in the same way.

Worship style has some bearing on the public opinion, but I honestly think that has less to do with the declining numbers than a missed comradery. What can the PCUSA do about that? Perhaps launch a nationwide campaign to African Americans which speaks to freedom of thought, speech, and governance, and encourage African American congregations to invite their congregations to offer a contemporary service to attract those with a more charismatic background. With that encouragement will have to come financial support to hire worthy musicians to include vocalists to assist in worship. This is an expensive undertaking, but in order to attract African Americans we will have to change the perception of the PCUSA. Without changing the perception, the numbers will continue to decline as our older members pass away.


Amantha Barbee is pastor of Statesville Avenue Presbyterian Church and chair of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. She stood between protesters and police with other interfaith clergy when Keith Scott was killed by police in 2016. She is a recipient of the Charlotte City Center Partners Special Achievement Award.

Plenty Good Room at the Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jerrod Lowry

A critique of General Assembly Resolution 05-09 said:

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies.”

The critique of the resolution is correct – no General Assembly action will reverse the decline of black Presbyterian congregations and lead to numerical membership growth. If the desire of the resolution is for the General Assembly to assess and address what keeps potential members from joining or even visiting black Presbyterian congregations, then this statement is correct: “resolutions occurring at the national level do not have tangible impact at the local level…[the resolution] does virtually nothing to stem the tide [of diminution].”

Commissioners from the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina at General Assembly (photo from Presbytery of Coastal Carolina Facebook page)

However I am also assuming that the concern of the critic is the numerical diminution – reduction or dwindling – of congregational membership and not the equally plausible lessening or weakening of an important voice at Presbyterian tables. Could the critic of the resolution also be talking about the minimizing of influence and power of black congregations in the life of their mid-councils?

The resolution acknowledges that such decline is taking place as an intentional result or apathetic neglect as black committee members are discouraged from sharing their perspectives, committees on representation in particular presbyteries are not doing the work to ensure voices from black presbyterian congregations are represented around Presbyterian tables of influence, there is not flexibility in an ordination process seems too rigorous for seminary graduates that opt to drop out of the ordination process, capable young adults in black congregations are not being mentored to be vocal members at tables of leadership, or black Presbyterian congregations are allowed to extend calls to non-Presbyterian pastors who may not value our connectional system nor feel compelled to participate in the life of the church beyond congregations of call. Each of these charges in the resolution could very well be part of what the critic calls the “diminution of black Presbyterian congregations” – a systemic lessening of influence in addition to numbers.

Even if the concern of the critic of the resolution is not about the membership size of black churches but a failing power and prophetic witness from black Presbyterians at Presbyterian tables, it still holds true that no resolution from General Assembly will immediately reverse nor empower black congregations to alter bad actions that have caused the black Presbyterian presence and voice around Presbyterian tables to be minimized. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will transfigure a system that allows black congregation shrinking numbers. Neither this resolution nor the criticism of the resolution will change that black Presbyterians feel their voices remain unheard and under valued at Presbyterian tables.

Last but not least I think the critic missed an important opportunity to applaud and further advance a concern raised in the resolution that challenges those who claim to value “voices long silenced.” The critic should have noticed that a resolution concerned with a marginalized community does not adequately address those on the margins of this same marginalized community. It should be applauded that this resolution asks that research be done to address the reality that African American Presbyterian congregations are slow, at best, to extend calls to female clergy. Such a study would document a well-known problem. However, I’m disappointed that neither the resolution nor the critic of the resolution share similar concerns for our out and proud queer clergy colleagues without pastoral calls. I have no doubt that a study of those who are extended calls to serve black Presbyterian congregations will also reveal that LGBTQ colleagues are under represented at rates that reveal some are black-balled from the call process to serve black Presbyterian congregations.

At a recent General Assembly, Rev. Jim Reese shared that black Presbyterians “stayed” at tables designed to restrict their presence and reduce the influence of their voice. It appears that both critic and authors of the resolution agree that not much has changed. I also agree with both critic and resolution authors that there is a great deal of work to be done with and within black congregations that will help us embody today the proud legacy that we inherited from our foreparents.


Jerrod B. Lowry is the General Presbyter/Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina. He previously served as Head of Staff for Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah, pastor of St. Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC, and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of New Hope. Jerrod is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

The Church that is Becoming

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Floretta Barbee-Watkins

“It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies” – Paul Roberts

The sentiments of Rev. Paul Roberts echo the frustration of many in the church, but most specifically, Black Presbyterians. The disappointment of a top-down decision can be seen as it relates to the recommendation to mid-councils of the PCUSA to recommit to having an active “committee on representation” as well as raise awareness of the declining nature of black congregations in the PCUSA. However, the problems and challenges of the state of Blacks in the PCUSA cannot be viewed or resolved with technical changes.

Photo from The Avenue Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Our denomination is still predominately White; therefore, at best we can make sure that Black people are represented on all committees. However that will not resolve the racist, sexist, or even patriarchy that is foundational to the way we have done and still do things. Further, “raising awareness” about the decline of Black congregations does nothing to address the systemic causes related to the reduction of Black congregations.

For this reason, I can only partially agree with Rev. Roberts assertion that resolutions do not trickle down to mid-councils or congregations. Moreover, no General Assembly resolution can begin to address the complexities of implicit bias, patriarchy, sexism, or racism. Additionally, resolving that mid-councils raise awareness offers no practical or intentional action that can be measured qualified or quantified for change.

What we also must recognize is that the General Assembly is made up of teaching and ruling elders who are from our presbyteries. Therefore, the notion of hierarchical decisions trickling down is not an accurate description. Each voting member comes from the files and ranks of local congregations.
The challenges to overcome are complex:

  1. Class issues. Only those who can afford to take off work to attend meetings can participate (or those who own their own business).
  2. Age issues. Those who are retired, are typically selected to participate in a meeting or conference that will require several business days of work.
  3. Polity issues. The assembly can affirm a vote; however, it must be ratified by the presbytery before it becomes effective.

Other issues can be highlighted and found to offer no resolve as it relates to the way we currently do the work of the Church. Is there a better way? Are there other ways to create a dynamic, energetic, creative, and relevant denomination that still honors our reformed tradition?

Here’s the deal! The answer is yes, but these issues are far more complex than offering a quick fix. Warren Bennis once said, “The critical quality of a leader that determines how that leader will fare in a crucible experience is adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to constant change. It is the ability to identify and seize opportunities. It will enable leaders to act and then evaluate results instead of attempting to collect and analyze all the data before acting.”

The General Assembly is not designed to do this, but presbyteries and local congregations are. If a “change is gonna come,” both presbyteries and congregations will have to examine practices, acclimate quickly, and be trained in thinking adaptively rather than offering a quick fix to complex issues. We will need adaptive change over technical change to create what’s next. There is hope for us because the Holy Spirit is actively at work. This is what we believe.


Flo Barbee Watkins is a justice seeker, teaching elder, agitator, disruptor of norms, lover of Jesus, lover of people, lover of change. Flo is an Atlanta-born Charlotte resident, military veteran, doctoral candidate, lover of bourbon, cuban cigars, and sartorial professorial attire.

Black and Presbyterian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Roberts

Here’s why I am not a fan of resolution 05-09 from the 223rd General Assembly.

It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide. Not to mention, it fails to connect to similar efforts of previous assemblies: Freedom Rising Initiative of 2016, black church growth strategies of 2012 and earlier, and the New Wineskins papers of the mid 1990’s.

Photo from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary Facebook page.

My 30 years as a Presbyterian has in many ways been defined by voices who have consistently named this problem. Yet, denominationally, the problem has only gotten worse. If we’ve known this for 30-plus years, and conventional processes haven’t addressed the problem in all this time, how much longer are we gonna content ourselves with doing the same thing over and over again! This is mind-boggling to me and personally I have no time or energy to devote to this insanity any more.

Also, this resolution assumes that the future of black Presbyterianism is inextricably tied to the preservation of its roughly 400 congregations. I don’t accept that. For sure, these congregations have an important legacy and rich tradition, but history suggests that the relationship between African-Americans and the Presbyterian Church is much bigger than our 400 extant churches, much more complex, and much richer. I believe the same is true of our future.

I believe the way forward is to organize new African-American congregations, new intercultural congregations, and new multi-ethnic congregations and let the witness of black presbyterianism move forward from those new places. Enough with the resolutions. Enough with the investigating and reporting back 12-24 months later. Just enough.

And here’s a challenge!

For the last eight years, NEXT Church has been asking itself–
What is the Holy Spirit doing in the world?
What is next for the church?
What can NEXT Church do to help create what’s next for the church?

Maybe the next frontier for NEXT Church is to use the learnings of the last eight years as a foundation for planting some new churches. Black ones. Brown ones. White ones. Red ones. Blue ones. Mixed up ones.


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary.

A Confession for This Moment

by Brandon Frick

“the church writes confessions of faith when it faces a situation of life or a situation of death so urgent that it cannot remain silent but must speak, even at the cost of its own security, popularity, and success.”

– “Confessional Nature of the Church Report, I.B.,” PC(USA) Book of Confessions

It began almost a year ago.

In May of 2016, I submitted an article to the Presbyterian Outlook about the promise and possibilities of a Reformed confession of faith for the 21st century. As I surveyed the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, replete with helpful theological language, there was a nagging feeling that those confessions and statements seemed to be speaking past our current cultural moment. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was struggling with was how the church could reverse the disintegration of communal bonds in the midst of what has since been defined as the “post-truth” era – an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In short, I was plagued by this question: How could we proclaim Jesus as Truth in the midst of a world that, like Pilate, could look right at it and ask “What is truth?”

As election season wore on (and wore everyone out), I grew to believe ever more strongly that the church needed to speak a word of hope in the midst of cynicism and despair. As I watched my congregants, yellow-dog Democrats, Tea-Party Republicans, and everyone in between, get ground up in the gears of the politics of antagonism, it became clear they needed a word of renewal. Then, the morning after the election, friends who felt, too, the election as a rejection of their right to belong and congregants who needed their church reached out en masse.

As I sat in our sanctuary, wrestling with the pain that so many — conservative and liberal — were voicing, I asked God the questions that would ultimately lead to the composition of the Sarasota Statement: “God, what am I supposed to do? As a pastor, what is my responsibility in all this?” The answer was revealed over the course of a day: it was time to put my money where my mouth was. If I really believed all the things I claimed in that article, then we needed a confession to address the world and the church and claim our hope in God for this particular moment.

So, there was the answer, all I had to do was get a team of people together to write a confession. Funny thing though: no one has written Confession-writing for Dummies. I needed help, so I reached out to Glen Bell, who I had recently gotten to know in the Pastoral Development Seminar hosted by the saints at First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, FL. Several weeks later, both NEXT Church and the Presbyterian Foundation pledged their support to the endeavor.

Through Glen and Jessica Tate’s hard work, a team (that I am now privileged to count as friends, and from whom you’ll be hearing this month) was put together. We began corresponding over the intervening weeks, sharing resources and ideas, and then met in January at First Pres Sarasota for a little over a day of intensive work.  What began there, and was shaped over ensuing weeks by our group (thank God for the internet!), has become a document that I am honored to have had a part in crafting.

In the trust, grief, and commitment described in the Sarasota Statement, I take great hope for myself, the church, and the world, and I pray others do as well. What I did not expect is the degree to which I find hope in the process of actually composing the Statement and the friendships that have been formed there. Eight people who love God and the church, but who come from different contexts and perceive the world differently, gathered together to hash through some massive theological and cultural questions, and now together, we lift our voices to witness to Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and Reconciler of all things. What a testimony to God’s goodness and fidelity in a world where we told consensus is impossible!

This month, the NEXT Church blog will feature reflections from the team on the Statement and the writing process. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from them over the month of April; I know I will.


Brandon Frick is Associate Pastor for Adult Education, Small Groups, and Young Adults at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD. He is married to Aaryn and has played in almost every sandbox around the Chesapeake Bay with his two boys. 

NEXT Church Denominational Listening Campaign Report

In fall 2015 – winter 2016, NEXT Church embarked on a denominational listening campaign. A listening campaign is a tool we’ve learned from community organizing (specifically the Industrial Areas Foundation). We invited and trained people who have been leaders within NEXT Church to host a listening session with church leaders around questions of “transformational mission.” The sharing of stories and experiences gives space to hear together where God’s Spirit is moving.

We convened 47 groups that involved 447 people. These are our findings.

NEXT-Logo-FINAL-Horizontal_lato-1030x229

Denominational Listening Campaign around Transformational Mission

What is a Listening Campaign?

In fall 2015 – winter 2016, NEXT Church embarked on a denominational listening campaign. A listening campaign is a tool we’ve learned from community organizing (specifically the Industrial Areas Foundation). We invited and trained people who have been leaders within NEXT Church to host a listening session with church leaders around questions of “transformational mission.” The sharing of stories and experiences gives space to hear together where God’s Spirit is moving.

We convened 47 groups that involved 447 people.

Purpose of the Listening Campaign

  1. To learn about how people are experiencing mission in local church settings.
  2. To offer the church a relational tool that can be used for discernment.
  3. To hear themes that can inform future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures.
  4. To connect local church leaders more deeply across differences in theology or vision for polity.

Through this campaign, we focused on people’s lived experiences. We believe taking time to build and deepen relationships is a critical practice in the church today. The relational fabric (our connectedness) is what will help us wade through the waters of cultural and denominational change.  

What We Heard

  • People shared exciting stories about transformational mission they/their congregations are engaged in. That is to be celebrated!
    • There seems to be an organic connection between missional engagement and congregational vitality.
    • Most of the mission described is happening at the congregational level, often with ecumenical or secular partnerships.
    • Mission is a place where people are eager to engage in church life.
    • Thought about mission is fluid and changing. Participants noted a shift toward “being missional,” a desire to seek full dignity of all parties in mission relationships, and that the most transformational mission experiences blur the us/them mentality.
  • People enjoy connecting with one another to share experiences or the practice of ministry. Sharing stories was a source of inspiration as people were encouraged by what their sister congregations are doing, made new points of connection around shared concerns, and got new ideas for mission connections in their own settings.
  • There is open wondering about the purpose of denominational structures (presbytery, synod, General Assembly) in the church today.
    • With a few notable exceptions, there was little despair or frustration voiced about denominational structures, but denominational structures or programs were not viewed as “go-to” resources.
    • There is hunger for denominational discernment. Where are the spaces to work through foundational questions that are not about voting?  
    • There is a desire to “flip the script.” We heard multiple sentiments like, “We need the denomination to stop inviting us in and start supporting us as we go out.”
    • People are very appreciative when denominational structures play one of the following roles
      • supporting — usually financially
      • training — educational resources or opportunities to increase capacity (community organizing, New Beginnings, and anti-racism training came up), or
      • connecting — linking people with similar interests/passions/mission engagement to share ideas or join together.
  • There is desire for a different denominational communication strategy around mission.
    • There is a sense that opportunities for connection in mission exist in the broader church but it is not clear how to find out about them or connect with them.
    • Others feel overwhelmed by the volume of mail/email from denominational sources and ignore it all.

Questions Going Forward

  • What does denominational participation mean today?
  • Where are the spaces to work through foundational questions that are not about voting? (Questions such as, what is mission? What is the role of the presbytery?)  
  • Is mission the threshold/entry space that worship was in previous era? If so, what resources exist (or need to be created) to help integrate education and spiritual development through mission, if that’s where people are engaging first?

For more information, contact NEXT Church Director, Jessica Tate, jessica@nextchurch.net.

A Prayer After the Shooting in Orlando

We are heartbroken after the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, now the largest mass shooting in United States history. We share this prayer from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and join our voices in prayer, particularly for the LGBTQ community. We also know that prayer comes in the form of action as well as words. We ask that you share how your congregation and community are responding here in the comments or on the NEXT Church Facebook page so that we can learn from one another and be supported by one another.

by the Rev. Laurie Ann Kraus | Associate Mission Director, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Mission Agency

orlandoOnce again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord?  

We wonder, when will it be enough? 

We pray you will forgive our society which tolerates violence,

Our fearful xenophobia, and our willingness to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to words and deeds of intolerance aimed at those “others” we fear are not like us.

The same lifeblood—the gift of a loving God—flows through all our veins, and spills out without regard to difference, staining the floors our places of fellowship, community, and learning.

staining our lives with sorrow, fear and regret.

Let the same heart beat as one among us, that we will draw together across these false divides,

And rise up as one to breathe peace where there is no peace,

and heal our communities and our world.

 

God of life, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance,

As the sound of gunfire echoes across Orlando

we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.

We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope:

For those who have been lost: brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends

Your children, enjoying an evening of music and friendship,

Whose lives were ended or maimed in a hail of hatred and gunfire

We pray for those who have been spared and those whose lives are changed forever

that they may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the hard days to come.

 

We give thanks for first responders:

who ran toward gunfire, rather than away

who dropped everything to save the wounded and comfort survivors

We pray for doctors and nurses and mental health providers

who repair what has been broken

who bring healing and hope in the face of the unchecked principalities and powers of violence.

 

God of the rainbow, once long ago, you stretched your light across the heavens to renew your covenant of peace with your people, you promised not to destroy.

Help us in these days to believe that promise, and to participate in it, and to treasure the life which it treasures.

In the wake of an event that should be impossible to contemplate

but which has become all too common in our experience,

open our eyes, break our hearts,

and turn our hands to the movements of your Spirit,

that our anger and sorrow may unite in service to build a reign of peace,

where the lion and the lamb may dwell together,

and terror no longer hold sway over our common life.

In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray, Amen.

Change is Life

This month, we’re sharing reflections from a group of pastors from the US and the Church of Scotland who recently met to talk about being the faithful church in a culture that is becoming more diverse and more secularized. We invite you to offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. This reflection is reposted with permission from Robert’s own blog, Lighthouse/Searchlight Church

By Robert Austell

In “Change is Death” I wrote about the process by which dying institutions and structures are transformed and new life and vision are birthed. While this change process is important to understand (especially if one is going through it), I proposed that there were more important underlying questions that must be asked. In this post I want to come at the same dynamics of change through stories, by sharing three narratives in which I participate.

As a backdrop I would note a convergence and seeming ‘peak’ of interest in the last six years or so (2008-2014) in which voices spoke and vision was cast for a church that understood itself to be missionally connected, locally contextualized, and increasingly set free from the massive structures that had been a feature of our mainline denomination for the past 40-50 years. What follows are three examples related to the PCUSA of how this kind of vision was received.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The 2010 General Assembly created several task forces to study change before the PCUSA and report to the 2012 General Assembly. I was particularly impressed with the significant work of the Mid-Council Commission, led by Tod Bolsinger. And yet, when that vision was brought to General Assembly in 2012 it was simply crushed. Though I would have called it change unto life, it evidently felt like change unto death. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

I experienced great disappointment and sadness during the Assembly… I was not disappointed that some votes didn’t go my way…  I was disappointed that, as a whole, this Assembly seemed to choose the familiarity and “safety” of the old way of doing things over the admittedly risky possibility of something new.  The invitations were there from all four moderator candidates, from the community and example of the YAADs, from three significant two-year committee reports (Mid-Councils, 21st Century, Biennial Assembly), and from the stories and inspirational leadership of the GAMC.  And time and again, I saw or perceived the unwillingness of the body to relinquish any ground that could possibly be used by ecclesiastical opponents. [full post]

The Mid-Council Commission offered a long and thorough report.

The Mid-Council Commission offered a long and thorough report.

Summarizing a subsequent post on the same event, I wrote: “out of fear of losing people, congregations, or assets, the Assembly missed the truly missional and forward-thinking gift of much the Mid-Council report had to offer.” [full post]

The Presbytery of Charlotte 

About the same time, my own presbytery was facing similar potential change. Younger council leadership had been recruited and had put a vision before the presbytery, perhaps most succinctly put as “equipping, resourcing, and connecting local congregations in ministry and mission.” (more…) Our presbytery was struggling financially to maintain a large program staff and many centralized ministries, and financial crisis precipitated change. It went neither easy nor peacefully. For many, particularly those whose jobs and centralized ministries were eliminated, change felt like death and it was as unwelcome and threatening. As one involved in the change process, it easily measures among the most difficult years of relationship and ministry I have experienced.

And yet we are on the other side. Much did “die” but the ministry of Jesus Christ through local congregations did not. Indeed, change was unto life, and the Presbytery of Charlotte very much feels like it is on the other side of something many presbyteries are still choking on. All is not bliss; part of our change process resulted in naming some of our deepest divisions and distrusts. But, we named them and we faced them and they are before us in a way that they haven’t been, perhaps in a generation. Time will tell, but it feels like a very hopeful and healthful place to be. The structures and institution of the presbytery (once the 3rd largest in the country) are now mobile, flexible, minimal, and focused on the congregations and relationships.

A third part of the story is NEXT Church. NEXT began out of some of the same core values brewing all over the church: nimble, relational, mission-focused networks for ministry. Leadership was handed off early to younger generations and more diverse leaders. A conscious decision was made to not become another “issues group” of the church. In this case, the vision and the community of NEXT folks seems to have stepped out ahead of the denomination. While smart leaders are aware of NEXT and point to it as an example of future church, it remains (in my view as a friend and participant) somewhat out of the room. The church isn’t ready to go there yet.

And similar things could be said of parallel movements: the Fellowship, ECO, 1001 worshiping communities, non-geographic presbyteries, and more. A significant number of groups and collections of people have envisioned different versions of this same nimble, relational, mission-focused church and simply don’t have the crisis, power, or voice to pull the bulk of the church along.

And that’s okay. I think the church coming along at this point would just mess things up. But I do hope the folks who are clinging to the institution and the old structures are paying attention. Life is springing up – not just in NEXTchurch, but in ECO, the Fellowship, 1001 New Worshiping Communities. And each of them is tempted and taunted by the old ways, the old fights, the old structures, and the old habits. But they are demonstrably showing change as life, and for that I am grateful.

Epilogue

Do note that I am not telling a story of failure, mediocrity, and success. Rather, I am trying to describe three different ways OUR CHURCH are struggling with change, death, life, and identity. I don’t want to dissect it too much, but want to tell enough of the story for you to think about change in your own context.  Is it death? Is it life? Is it to be feared… or embraced… or maybe both?

And again, I am convinced that change is not the main point; it is just a feature of the temporary trying to share in the eternal.

 


Robert Austell is the pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He blogs regularly at Lighthouse/Searchlight Church.

Reflections on Being More than a Deliberative Body

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Carol McDonald gave background that explains the thought behind the 90 minutes spent at General Assembly in a period of listening, conversation, and discernment.

plant hands

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?   (Isaiah 43:19a)

By Nicole Partin Abdnour

Commissioners of the 221st General Assembly were invited this morning to try a new thing as a part of our deliberative process. The Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews (Moderator of the 215th General Assembly) introduced a period of listening and discernment over two of the most controversial items before this body: the definition of marriage and the question of divestment. In her introductory remarks she invited us to take this opportunity to, “pause instead of rush, feel instead of think, and listen instead of talk” in order that “ideological enemies may become spiritual friends.”

As we were invited into this time of “listening with hearts and not just our ears” we were provided the following outline for our process which we’d follow for each topic: a 5 minute presentation by the committee moderator, 10 minutes for clarifying questions from the body, 25 minutes for small group conversation, and then 5 minutes for prayer. Our small group conversations were guided by two questions:

  1. What did you hear that might lead someone to support the committee’s recommendation(s)?
  2. What did you hear that might keep someone from supporting the committee’s recommendation?

My overall impression and personal experience of this time is that it was important work. Commissioners honored the time. The questions asked were clarifying and did not lean towards debate. The conversation, at least in my small group, was respectful and sincere. In having this time as a part of the docket we were living out what we say we value: a variety of voices all seeking to be faithful witnesses. While I didn’t necessarily learn anything new during this time, it is no small moment when friends and strangers alike are willing to open up and share with one another their convictions and their questions. To set aside debate and open up space for testimony allowed for people to see and hear others in a new way.

The time for clarifying questions while appreciated at the outset proved to be difficult as the moderators of the committees weren’t equipped to answer most of the questions asked and they were the ones available as a part of this process. Most questions needed to be answered by the resource staff persons who were present with the committees in their work. Thankfully those people will be present when the committees each present their work for action.

The benefit of this time is not yet fully realized, but I believe that having the opportunity this morning to participate in thoughtful and intentional dialogue will shape the debate that is to come. It was worthy of the assembly’s time and I believe it modeled a helpful process for us all to take back to our congregations as we seek to help them engage in difficult conversations. May we continue to honor one another and God in our conversations and debate.

staff_nicoleNicole Partin Abdnour is associate pastor at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, FL. She is a commissioner to the 221st General Assembly.

General Assembly: More Than Debate?

medium_2821633690

By Carol M. McDonald

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has begun in Detroit, MI.  Thousands of people are gathered here to worship, celebrate, converse, listen, discern, and debate.  And when the crowds disperse on Saturday, June 21, many of us will remember fondly reconnecting with old friends, acquiring new friends, amazing singing, and the power of gathering daily at the communion table.  But I daresay ALL of us will remember how the approximately 700 commissioners and advisory delegates debated the issues and discerned God’s will for our church for ‘such a time as this.’

It has been my profound privilege to moderate, since 2010, the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies.  From the beginning of our work together, our dream has been for ‘a different kind of Assembly.’  We have encouraged the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to structure the Assembly docket to include intentional times of conversation and prayer.  And we are particularly excited about the possibilities for a new kind of plenary session in 2014.

On Thursday morning, June 19, the plenary meeting of the Assembly will be a time for conversation and discernment, rather than a time for debate.  The Moderator of the Assembly, in partnership with the Stated Clerk, will select two critical/key/potentially contentious issues being brought to the plenary from two of the Assembly Standing Committees.  Each committee Moderator will make a 5 minute presentation to the Assembly – being clear about what it is the Assembly will be asked to vote on.  Following each presentation, groups of 8 will be invited to be in conversation: a.) What did you hear that might lead someone to support the committee’s recommendation(s)? b.) what did you hear that might keep someone from supporting the committee’s recommendation(s)?  Following the small group conversations, the Assembly Moderator will ascertain that what the Assembly will be asked to vote on is clear and will then lead the Assembly in prayer.

The hope of the Biennial Review Committee is that this non-parliamentary plenary with informal discussion of key issues will hopefully change the way critical and contentious issues are then debated and decided upon.(1)  It is our prayer that all commissioners and advisory delegates, during this time of conversation, will have both the opportunity to speak and the privilege of being heard.  You will want to be in the Plenary Hall – or glued to your computer screen for live-streaming – on Thursday morning, June 19.  Tune in to learn which issues will be discussed in a new and different way.

(1)Glen Alberto Guenther, member of CRBA, in Presbyterians Today, “Can General Assembly Offer More Than Debate?”

~

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.07.56 AMCarol M. McDonald is the Executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails and Moderator of the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies. She is on the advisory team of NEXT Church.