LOUISVILLE — Reading the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can be dry work — although, amazingly, some folks love to do it.
But the discussion the Form of Government Task Force http://www.pcusa.org/formofgovernment/index.htm is having about how to rewrite the Book of Order gives reflections — like glimmers on the water — of ways in which a denomination’s rules really do make a difference in the daily lives of churches.
At its meeting here Jan. 11-13, the task force talked, for example, about what happens when a former or retired pastor stays in the community near the church where that pastor had served.
They wrote into a draft language to make it clear that the former pastor should not show up to perform funerals or weddings at that church unless the new pastor specifically requests it — no matter how much the families might want their former pastor to be involved.
They debated what to do when an immigrant pastor serving a fellowship or new congregation has experience as a pastor in another country — but doesn’t meet the educational requirements of the PC(USA).
A discussion of the roles of elders and ministers raised the question of what responsibility all members of a church have to be involved in ministry.
“Part of what’s going on in the missional church is the reclaiming of the priesthood of all believers,” said James Kim, a task force member who is pastor of Trinity Church in Colony, Texas.
Paige McRight, executive presbyter of Central Florida presbytery, spoke of the description in the fourth chapter of Ephesians of the parts of the body of Christ being fitted and knit together, and of the different roles to which people may be called. That makes her think of those who are ordained in the PC(USA) — ministers, elders, and deacons — as being like coaches on the sidelines.
Their role is “to coach, it’s to lead, it’s to talk about the plays,” McRight said. But then the members “go out and run the plays” themselves.
Not everyone can be an elder, a deacon or a minister, but all can be involved in ministry, said task force co-moderator Sharon Davison, a lawyer from New York (who joined this meeting through a conference call).
. It’s in that capacity — not her role as an elder, Davison said — that she demonstrates her own faith in the world, doing what McRight described as “demonstrating the gospel at work.”
The Form of Government task force, which the General Assembly created (link to report) in 2006, is mid-stream in its efforts to rewrite and streamline the Book of Order — the constitution of the PC(USA). The idea is to write a constitution that will be shorter, more flexible, and focused on mission. Parts of the current Book of Order could be reordered, reworded, or possibly changed significantly or even omitted altogether.
Any revisions the task force suggests will have to be approved by the broader church, needing the blessing of both the General Assembly and a majority of the presbyteries.
The task force members expect to have a proposal ready to submit to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution by April, and are posting drafts of their work on the PC(USA) website (link) to try to solicit comments as they go along. (They also intend to post a document showing how their drafts correlate with sections from the current Book of Order.)
The final report from the task force is supposed to be presented to the congregations by September 2007.
In posting drafts now, the idea is to say, “Here are some first drafts of what we’re now working on,” and perhaps to highlight particular issues about which the task force still has mixed views and wants to know what people think, said Cynthia Bolbach, the task force’s co-moderator and a lawyer from Washington D.C.
They are inviting the larger church — at least in a limited way — to be part of the process. The task force will meet next Feb. 22-24 and April 12-14, both times in Louisville.
The PC(USA)’s stated clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick — who joined the meeting briefly by conference call — said he thinks, based on the drafts he’s seen so far, that “this is an excellent piece of work.”
Kirkpatrick did ask, given “a climate of a lot of distrust” in the denomination, whether it makes sense to try to rewrite the first four chapters of the current Book of Order, or to stick with what’s already there, considering that those chapters have, he believes, considerable support from a divided church.
For some evangelicals, making changes to the first four chapters makes them uncomfortable, Kim said — so leaving them alone might gain the task force’s report a better chance of approval.
But “the church has been held captive” for decades by theological differences, responded Stephen W. Smith, stated clerk of Pacific presbytery. If the task force writes a more flexible document, “maybe we stand a chance of modeling the fact that the church has got some other things to do than those typical political battles that have held us captive.”
Kirkpatrick said, based on what he’s seen so far, “I could go with great enthusiasm with what you have.”
RESPONSIBILITIES OF ELDERS
Time after time, discussion veered from the technical to the practical — discussing why rules such as these matter.
The group discussed, for example, the idea that once an elder is ordained, that person retains the responsibilities of the office even when not serving on the session.
But what happens when that elder moves to a new town? If the elder immediately joins another Presbyterian congregation there, no problem.
But what if the elder stomps out in protest and joins a Methodist church? What if there’s no Presbyterian church to join in that town, so the person joins the Baptist church? Should they remove themselves from the office of elder?
What if they’re willing to stay a Presbyterian, but can’t tolerate the pastor of the only Presbyterian church in town? What if they leave the Presbyterian church, become a Baptist and then come back — do they have to be ordained as an elder again?
Mark Tammen, a lawyer and minister who works for the Office of the General Assembly and is assisting the task force, said that years ago, he knew an elder who was very active in the national life of the denomination, but refused to attend her local Presbyterian church as long as a particular person remained as pastor.
“She loved the PC(USA), she just hated my predecessor,” Tammen said. When the session brought the matter up of her lack of involvement with the congregation, the woman responded: “Get rid of him, and I’m back.”
But Kim said some who leave the PC(USA) do so because they can’t stomach what the denomination is doing — he gave the example of an elder at a congregation that decided to ordain a practicing gay or lesbian. They might say, “This particular church I can’t be part of anymore,” so they join the Methodists or the Baptists.
This question also affects the welcome that’s provided people who show up at a Presbyterian church from another church background, Kim said. If they’ve been a leader in another congregation, will the Presbyterian church accept that?
“The types of distinctions we’re making don’t matter at all” to people for whom denominational loyalty is not important, Kim said.
These distinctions “made sense when people moved from Presbyterian church to Presbyterian church (only). We don’t live in that world any more.”
Kim said the message he’d like to send is that “if you were to move and to come to our town, we’d love to have you as part of our church and we would recognize your leadership role,” even if the person has never been part of a Presbyterian church before.
Should interim pastors ever be called to stay on at the church they’ve been serving temporarily?
Some interim ministers, who feel pressured by the congregation to stay, would say, “I really need the protection of the Book of Order to allow me to do my job and get out of the way” when the time comes to select the next pastor, McRight said.
But in certain circumstances, presbyteries may want to offer a little leeway.
“I am profoundly divided about this,” said task force member Paul K. Hooker, executive presbyter of St. Augustine presbytery, who acknowledged feeling torn between wanting to give presbyteries discretion and recognizing that allowing an interim minister to stay at a church should only be done in extraordinary circumstances — requiring perhaps an two-thirds vote of the presbytery, or even a greater margin.
This was one of the issues on which the task force said it might specifically invite comment.
Another was what rules should apply to ministers serving outside the parish — and when a presbytery should declare a particular call to be a “validated ministry.”
The task force added language saying that validated ministries would be required to involve proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments.
That might leave out some work currently validated by presbyteries — such as serving with a nonprofit agency that doesn’t directly involve preaching or pastoral work. Task force members suggested that in such a case, the minister could set aside ordination for the length of that call.
They acknowledged that changing that rule could be controversial — and that there could be both a perceived stigma if someone were seen as having “abandoned” the ministry and that there could be implications for pension and health-care coverage.
But “it would be an opportunity to teach the whole church that every member is called to ministry,” McRight said, whether they are ordained or not.
During worship one day, Gemechisa Guja, a pastor from Ethiopia, described the arrests and beatings of Christian leaders and believers under Communist rule in that country.
“People really suffered,” Guja said — but because they had memorized the Bible, “internalizing the Word of God,” their faith survived despite the persecution. When believers would meet on the street, they would whisper passages such as: “They shall fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you. For I am with you.”
Ethiopia now has four to five million Christians, Guja said. In the U.S., many churches are declining.
Unless “we really keep the Word, internalize the Word of God,” he said, “we can easily give up.”