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Can We Talk?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Don Meeks

Background
I am currently in my 17th year as the Pastor of a medium size, predominantly white, conservative church located thirty-five miles west of Washington DC. The changing cultural landscape in recent years has left many of our folks in a somewhat confused and anxious place, often feeling disconnected from the larger denomination.

In 2012 our Session voted unanimously to affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians (now The Fellowship Community). Overall, this affiliation has been a positive experience for our church and has (mostly) helped folks to calm down.

With some training in Bowen family systems theory, I have been trying to offer non-anxious and self-differentiated leadership. One critical strategy for keeping myself calm has been an intentional effort in the past several years to reach across the theological aisle at our presbytery in an attempt to build relational bridges and mutual understanding.

A Calculated Risk
Like many, I followed the June 2014 General Assembly with keen interest. The night the marriage overtures passed I received an email from Jeff Krehbiel, a colleague from the ‘other side of the aisle’ whom I had begun to know through some shared presbytery work. Jeff acknowledged, with a gifted pastor’s touch, that the same news being celebrated at his church was likely to be a source of disappointment in our church. He was right.

Jeff offered himself in support of me in any way he could. In reply, I took a calculated risk and invited Jeff to address our Session and Deacons on how he makes the case from Scripture for same-sex marriage. This experience began a rich conversation and collegial relationship that grew as Jeff and I committed to facilitating an on-going conversation within our presbytery. We simply called this effort, “Can We Talk?” Jeff’s untimely death earlier this year has been a huge loss for so many, including myself, as we had begun to extend this conversation beyond our own presbytery, including an Ignite presentation and workshop at the 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta.

Beyond Either / Or
It’s no secret that the growing polarization in our culture tends to push us towards a binary paradigm that views things in terms of ‘us/them,’ ‘conservative/progressive,’ or ‘for/against.’ One of my greatest challenges has been to find a way beyond the ‘either/or’ dilemma that many denominational conservatives like myself believe we are faced with: either seek dismissal from the PCUSA, or stay and face membership defections and leadership battles.

Not surprisingly, I am finding few examples and fewer colleagues with the appetite for doing the relational work necessary to move beyond this ‘either/or’ mentality. For some it may be a lack of vision, imagination, or desire. For others it may be asking too much to abandon deeply embedded patterns of binary thinking.

I have also found a real tension lingering at the edges of this work: Can we be in meaningful relationship across the aisle without also being seen as a traitor, of sorts, to our own convictional community? Or from another angle, will our convictions be an honest stumbling block to others’ living out their own theological convictions?

Quite frankly, many times I have wondered if this is all a fool’s errand.

A Modest Attempt
I believe the implications for this work are profound, not only for the health of our churches, but also as a witness for Jesus Christ in our polarized and fragmenting culture. I have been greatly encouraged by the warmth and receptivity by the NEXT Church community and a pilot coaching cohort experience following the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City.

Is respectful and robust theological conversation about issues that divide possible? I think so. Could it ever be more than conversation? I hope so. But unless we first learn to sit and talk, it’s going to be virtually impossible to see ourselves as ministry partners in any meaningful way.
As I have continued to ponder and pray on all this, I believe the place to begin is with some kind of simple covenant that I would quietly commit to in my own life. I think it would be a covenant that commits to live toward unity with other Christians, that acknowledges the ‘log in my own eye,’ that honors the intentions of others as noble and just, and that respects the convictions of others even when they stand apart from my own convictions.

In short, I find myself wanting to make a modest attempt to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem with our denomination and our world. And I would be honored to have others join me.


Don Meeks is the senior pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia. He is active in the Fellowship Community within National Capital Presbytery.  His vision for ministry is to invite people to experience and express Christ-likeness in all of life. He is an avid golfer, psalmic intercessor and songwriter.

Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Wandering in the Desert

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Thornton

We were a people wandering in the desert – grieving, aimless, keeping to our own; bewildered after a season of dissention, debate, distrust, and dismissal. Eleven of our sister churches were gone, several more were discerning their futures, and we were left to wander brokenhearted.

We were a people connected by membership in a diminished presbytery. We were from Korean, Hispanic, Indonesian, Kenyan, Chinese, Anglo, African American, Taiwanese, Formosan, and Vietnamese congregations. We were from Not Church in Mexico and an RV Chapel near the Pacific Ocean.

We were so different. We were from churches large and small, rich and poor, long established and recently birthed, conservative and progressive. We worshipped in many styles. We read scripture through varied lenses.

How could we heal this wound? How could we fill this emptiness? How could we build trust? How could we bridge the theological divide? How could we arrive at the Promised Land? We did not know how.

We were a people longing to connect, aching for community, missing what had been, afraid, yet daring to hope.

We went to committee meetings and worked through the business. We came for presbytery gatherings that felt contentious, where groups competed for power, advocated for their own causes, and fostered an atmosphere of winners and losers. It felt wrong. We knew we could be better. We did not know how.

In the midst of our desolation, the Holy Spirit was on the loose. In the summer of 2015, a small task force was commissioned to study the presbytery meetings. They were too long, too boring, too impersonal. The group recommended:

  • Spend less time on business, more in worship.
  • Invite speakers to inspire and equip presbyters and congregations.
  • Focus on building relationships.
  • Create opportunities for conversation.
  • Establish a Presbytery Gathering Team to plan and implement gatherings.

The Spirit “blew through the wilderness” calling us a new way of being. Every minute of each gathering is now carefully planned around a portion of our vision statement. We gather around tables for more than a quick meal. We sit with people we do not know and share stories, answer questions prompted by special speakers, and provoked by careful listening. We are getting to know our brothers and sisters, acknowledging our differences and celebrating what unites us. We look across the table and see the image of God in one another.

We are on the mend. We dare to hope and to trust. We are still wandering, but we journey together and rejoice in our new and renewed relationships. We are on the way to the Promised Land. We are Los Ranchos.


Susan Thornton is a ruling elder at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and a member of the NEXT Church strategy team.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Toward the Purple Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dan Lewis

“It wasn’t always this way,” she said.  

I’d called to check in on her, a longtime member of our church. I wanted to see how she was doing after the presidential election. She was ok, she said, “Trusting in God.” But had I noticed, she asked, the deep sense of uncertainty around the church? Had I felt, as she had, a real reluctance to engage in conversation about these things? I had. “It wasn’t always this way,” she went on. “Not so long ago, we’d pull into that same parking lot, one car with blue bumper stickers and another with red, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’d joke with each other, even around election time, poking fun. And then we’d head off to Bible study or worship together, laughing. Now we just stay quiet most of the time. And angry.”

What changed? Surely we’ve always had disagreements in the church as in the nation, different viewpoints and preferences concerning politics, theology, and such. But why is it that these differences now seem profoundly debilitating? Why are we so unable, or unwilling, to be around those with whom we disagree?

The answers to these questions are surely complex. Sociologists and historians will point to any number of factors, including increased immigration and globalization, as well as the gradual weakening of public institutions – including the church – that had once served as a kind of American cultural glue.  

But we in the church of Jesus Christ do not think of ourselves as simply another institution, do we? We are a body – a living, breathing “enfleshing” of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. He is, the scripture says, our peace, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between us. For us, the problem of division is far more than a mere frustration – it is an existential threat. We cannot not seek unity in the church of Jesus Christ and still be the one body of our Lord. Our witness demands that we push back against the division, and actively work for new unity.

Yet it must be said that there are no easy solutions. Inasmuch as the apparent unity of yesteryear was just that – apparent – it is no model for the church of today. The unity we seek cannot be achieved through the silencing of dissent and the marginalizing of minority voices – both of which were a part of the church of the 1950’s. We seek a deeper and more organic unity now, something founded on surer stuff than the sameness of days gone by.

This March, my friend Pen Peery and I will be leading a workshop at the NEXT Church National Gathering called “Toward the Purple Church.” We are both ministers serving churches striving to find a new middle way through the current divisiveness in politics and theology. We want to talk about ways to move toward the church that is less clearly red or blue in its orientation, but more purple – that is, more representative of the diversity of our great nation and church, more reflective of a coming kingdom that we know must supersede all ideologies and platforms. The key word here is toward, because we must admit we all “see in a glass, dimly” regarding these things. Pen and I simply want to share a bit of what we’ve learned in church-based research projects aimed not only at examining the various causes of our many divisions, but also exploring new unity in Christ. Will you come and join the discussion? See you in Kansas City!

Toward the Purple Church” is being offered on Tuesday during both workshop blocks 2 and 3 at the 2017 National Gathering.


Dan Lewis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia. His DMin project, “Stories to Bridge the Gap: Postliberal Preaching in a Changing University Town,” uses the theological perspective of Hans Frei, applied to preaching, to speak to a diverse and growing congregation.

Pen Peery is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His DMin project, “Identifying Suspicion as a Way to Move Forward in Hope,” challenges a large and ideologically diverse congregation to find new unity in celebrating, rather than flattening, difference.