“How are we going to tell the world that Christ is the answer if we can’t even be in relationship with each other?” he asks.
One answer? Each year the Pacific Presbytery “mixes it up” with an annual pulpit exchange that randomly pairs participating pastors with willing congregations in what Brewer calls “an extended spiritual family reunion.” The pulpit exchange started as an attempt to build trust among the churches in the presbytery and provide an opportunity to get to know members of the body outside typical congregational settings.
The pulpit exchange is done entirely at random. Each pastor who wishes to participate (it is an entirely voluntary process) has his or her name written on a ping-pong ball and put in a spinning bingo hopper. The names of participating churches are put in another. Then, amidst much anticipation, the names of a pastor and a church pop up and they are matched together. Curiosity to see where pastors might wind up fuels the anticipation. Pacific Presbytery includes churches in Hawaii; so a few lucky pastors from Los Angeles are paired with island pulpits.
“The average person in the pew never goes to a presbytery meeting,” explains Brewer. “When is the last time a presbytery got together for the sense of what God is doing in the church? We usually just send commissioners to fight about issues,” he admits. The pulpit exchange is an attempt to cultivate trust and unity within a presbytery that has widely differing theological beliefs as well as a diverse range of cultural backgrounds. “It is a statement of trust. … If these pastors have passed their credentials to be ordained, and we are in the same presbytery, we can embrace each other,” he adds.
Was their distrust at the beginning of the process? Of course. “Conservative” churches were worried about getting a “liberal” in the pulpit, and vice versa. “Big” churches were worried about getting a “dud” in the pulpit. “We have in our presbytery some gay clergy, some really conservative churches,” according to Brewer, who notes that there is fear on both sides, of the pulpit being misused to push ones own agenda. “Hopefully people are adult enough to say, ‘Let’s talk about our unity,’ and to have fun while doing something together,” Brewer advises.
There also were more practical issues to work out, such as language. “We do have Spanish-, Japanese-, and Taiwanese-speaking churches, so we have a translator there,” says Brewer. Music was another practical issue that the creators of the pulpit exchange had to work through. Some pastors have brought with them their own band and choir; other churches have provided their own music.
But one of the biggest practical concerns has been the length of the service. “Some churches are clock-oriented and others are event-oriented,” explains Brewer, noting that, for the most part, it is the suburban churches that are very clock-oriented. “In many of our suburban churches the Holy Spirit is supposed to show up at 9 a.m. and leave by 10:03 a.m.,” jokes Brewer. When pastors from more “event” oriented churches preach in the “time” oriented churches, they have to be reminded that it is no insult to them when the congregation flees for the parking lot. “That’s just what they do, they leave,” he explains.
Brewer and others in Pacific Presbytery see the pulpit exchange experience as a possibility for growing trust and building relationships in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “Let’s have the faith to say that we can actually trust each other on one Sunday,” he suggests, “and on that Sunday let’s pray for our presbytery, our unity, and our denomination.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer and photographer living in Newport Beach, Calif.