PCUSA – The same old, same old is no more

It’s been said that you cannot please all of the people, all of the time. In fact, the longer I serve in ministry leadership the more I am convinced of something Ronald Heifetz wrote: ‎“Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” Sure, it’s not an exhaustive definition, but there is a lot of truth to it. I have a feeling that there is more than one person out there who will find this post upsetting. Here goes.

I returned early Saturday morning from a gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, an evangelical caucus in the Presbyterian Church USA. The meeting gathered some 1,900 teaching and ruling elders representing some 800 churches. The purpose of the meeting was to explore new ways of being presbyterian in light of three things:

  1. twenty-something years of theological infighting,
  2. cultural trends that threaten the very existence of the denomination because
  3. PCUSA churches (both evangelical and liberal) are unable to effectively minister to people outside of the Buster and Boomer generations. You can read a summary of the meeting here.

The meeting proposed four ways forward in light of this new reality. Each of these presupposes a shifting of the congregations theology and practice in a missional direction. That is, all congregations need to realize that rather than God having a mission for the church, God has a church for His mission (paraphrasing Rowan Williams).

In other words, the church is a community of people sent as God’s missionaries into the world to bear witness in word and deed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The church gathers for worship and is sent out of worship into mission.

So, here are the four ways forward:

  1. Tier one: remain in the Presbyterian Church USA. For those teaching elders and churches who find themselves in a context where they are free to pursue mission in good conscience, this is the best and least disruptive option.
  2. Tier two: creating overlay presbyteries. For teaching elders and churches who find themselves in a context that will cause their conscience to be violated, there is the possibility (under the new Form of Government) of forming evangelical presbyteries or an evangelical synod. Overlay presbyteries have the same geographical footprint as existing PCUSA presbyteries, but would be comprised of evangelical pastors and churches.
  3. Tier three: creating a presbytery within a presbytery. One presbytery with two Committees on Preparation for Ministry and Ministry. This idea seems to be almost a non-starter. The thought is that one set of committees would be evangelical and one would not be. The problem is that this doesn’t protect the conscience of evangelicals because in the case of the ordination of someone in a same sex relationship, the ordination is still an act of the whole presbytery even though it is delegated to an Administrative Commission.
  4. Forming a new reformed body. In January 2012 a new reformed body will come into existence at a Constitutional Convention in Orlando, FL This will basically be a new presbyterian denomination committed to evangelical theology in the reformed tradition and the goodness of women’s exercising their ministry gifts in ordained office in the church. Churches and clergy may be dismissed from the PCUSA to this new body (which will be minimalist in structure, something that doesn’t characterize the Presbyterian Church USA) or may jointly affiliate with the PCUSA (as a union church). There is good reason to hope that this new reformed body may assist in greater reformed ecumenism — specifically enhanced partnership with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America (among others).
I will reflect on the gathering in another post, but I wanted to bring to express a growing conviction: things cannot remain as they are in the PCUSA.
There comes a point when unity and union are unhelpful and unhealthy — for many, we have reached that point. The actions of the church lately have so compromised its witness to the Gospel that some degree of differentiation (i.e., tiers 2-4) is required.
What am I going to do? I don’t know. What I do know that is after the Minneapolis meeting, things are irrevocably different — the same old, same old is no more.
At the moment I am praying and clinging to the Psalmists counsel: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14).
In 1789 the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly issued a Pastoral Letter that Jim Singleton brought to our attention at the gathering. I believe that it speaks to something of our current context:
Dear Friends and Brethren: The aspect of divine providence, and the extraordinary situation of the world, at the present moment, indicate, that a solemn admonition by the ministers of religion and other church officers in General Assembly convened, has become our indispensable duty . . . A solemn crisis has arrived, in which we are called tothe most serious contemplation of the moral causes which have produced it, and the measures which it becomes us to pursue . . . Formality and deadness, not to say hypocrisy; a contempt of vital godliness, and the spirit of fervent piety; a desertion of the ordinances, or a cold and unprofitable attendance upon them, visibly pervade every part of the Church, and certain men have crept in amongst us, who have denied, or attempt to explain away the pure doctrines of the gospel; to introduce pernicious errors which were either not named, or named with abhorrence, but which have, within a few years since, been embraced by deluded multitudes . . . God hath a controversy with us – Let us prostrate ourselves before him! Let the deepest humiliation and sincerest repentance mark our sense of national sins; and let us not forget, at the same time, the personal sins of each individual, that have contributed to increase the mighty mass of corruption.

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