So I discovered once I landed in that Promised Land, a/k/a, the Presbyterian Territories.
Having bounced from a Roman Catholic childhood to a peripatetic “fundapentacharisgelical” youth, my post-college years found me hurtling down the King’s Highway in preparation for pastoral ministry in the land flowing with Milk and Honey. Like Israel of old, I knew not where that might take me.
Nevertheless, I was sure of what I would find upon crossing Jordan’s river. I carried photos in my shirt pocket that captured the essence of the true church.
One picture caught a dozen members sitting in a circle, doing intense Bible study with pens in hand, mouths engaged in discussion of the truths once given. A second picture captured three dozen folks doing renovations on a tenement house working alongside underemployed homeowners and family. A third picture depicted members visiting room after room in a hospital, giving care to congregants, to their friends, to their friends’ friends. Yet another picture caught counter-culturally dressed teens hovering around a few adults, talking about God between plays at the Friday night football game.
These pictures reflected a vision of the church in which all the members would treat each other as friends, as family members, as colleagues — equals in value, differing only in gifts and maturity. Like birds on migration, they would take turns leading the congregation as their spiritual gifts, education, and professional skills would guide. Shared ministry would be the norm.
The Promised Land church also would be a place where the empowerment given to unleash those gifts would lead to a high level of responsibility — the confidence that each would fulfill the callings entrusted — and to a transparent exercise of mutual accountability.
I knew what to expect of that church, because, well, I’d read the books in seminary. Prior to enrolling there, I’d been through enough church conflicts, including a few congregational splits, to know enough to take extra seminary courses in church leadership and management.
Upon graduation, I crossed that river into an unfamiliar place, the Presbyterian Church. Milk and honey were nowhere to be found – at least, at first. Hired onto the staff, I was taken under the Session’s care to be ordained in a denomination in which I had yet to worship. I didn’t have the nerve to tell the pastor that I had no interest in joining his denomination. So I went through the motions. While I was studying for ordination exams, I had a religious experience. An Epiphany. I saw God in the pages of the Book of Order.
Yes, you read that right.
“This is amazing,” I kept blurting while flipping pages.
“Where have these people been all my life?” I kept asking. I was swimming in milk and honey.
Freedom of the individual conscience merged with shared submission to the Word of God. Active engagement within local church was supplemented with the regional, national, ecumenical — while avoiding hierarchical authoritarianism.
Such is how it is for us Presbyterians: engaging in a structure of ministry leadership that is stunningly Biblical and amazingly simple. And as it was for me as a new seminary grad reading the Book of Order for the first time, those pages were whispering the stories of the apostles and prophets, the judges and kings, the matriarchs and patriarchs, and of the Savior who is the Lord.
In a day and time when folks keep journeying into new postmodern King’s Highways of governance (“the world is flat,” etc.), we Presbyterians merely need to open the Book of Order to show how we’ve been living this for hundreds of years. Or then again, for our own sakes, maybe we ought to open that Book in both its present form and its newly proposed revision to rediscover this Promised Land for ourselves.