Guest commentary by Clay Allard
When I was growing up in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, I watched my father struggle with the threats to his employment that came from not being a “good Republican” as Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (whose acronym was appropriately, CREEP) put pressure on all Republican civil service employees to contribute. For a Republican in government, to stand against them was suicidal; grave threats were tossed around.
It’s getting tough in Presbyterian-land, especially in the PC(USA), for me to be a “good Presbyterian.” Much as bandwagons are want to do, the current bandwagon is blaring so loudly and insistently that no one dares to speak against it for fear of being labeled as not just “not a good Presbyterian,” but “not a good human being.”
We are in danger of falling into the greatest trap of our time: no longer being a place where people from all points of view can regard the same Christ who leads us all, but a group of crushed and conformed people who can easily spot the one who should be driven from our midst.
The events of this General Assembly year seem to be leading us down this same tragic road. We are systematically seeking to destroy all dissent on issues that are not cut and dried in our source of authority, Scripture.
Our struggle has ever been to be in the world and not be of it – but we as the PC(USA) have had a difficult time governing ourselves by that rubric. It is much easier to have winners and losers and to run an institution where the winners have no responsibility for the welfare of the losers. For the last half century, we have done terrible things to both progressive and conservative/evangelical outriders alike.
To fix this, we must depart from “the way we’ve always done things.” That is the experimenting that needs conversation and attention at this General Assembly. How do we hold our unity as a high value, rather than just our purity – our “being right”?
Let me suggest what trial and error have taught me so far:
- Stay connected when it hurts. The easiest thing to do is withdraw when the assumptions of the majority inflict pain on the minority. We can only hold on if we have committed time and attention from one another. We must stay attentive to one another even when we know that attention will bring pain, discomfort and struggle.
- Respect, even when it feels like respect is not due or returned. We can only be responsible for our own attitude and self; that said, others can call out of us disrespect and dismissal when they say things with which we adamantly disagree. Division is fed by disrespect; love is killed by it. Make sure if there is a crucifixion occurring that there isn’t a hammer or nails in your hands.
- Give up outcomes as a way to understand the path. God does not owe us a mapped route to where God wants us to be. Sometimes God’s call leads us to actions that seem frustratingly slow/counterproductive/useless. Remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and persist in the path you are called to be on – even when it seems to be counterproductive. God loves us – God doesn’t give a serpent instead of a fish, or a rock instead of bread. Trust that.
- Work for an audience of One. If pastors are (as someone once said) dogs at a whistlers’ convention, we need to know God’s whistle best. It is difficult to make people unhappy, to disappoint them, to be rejected and disrespected. But if Jesus Christ is happy with me at the end of the day, I know I’ve done well, no matter what those around me may think or feel. I’ll have to live more intimately and eternally with Jesus Christ’s opinion of me than I will with anyone else’s – even my own.
As this General Assembly unfolds, I will be praying for the commissioners and those who attend. Whatever happens, I know what I am called to do and who I am called to be. I pray that the PC(USA) will leave the Ur of its Christendom confinement and embark on the journey to the land God will show us in such a way that we can all walk together.
CLAY ALLARD has been ordained 27 years, and has served as pastor of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church, a multicultural congregation in southern Dallas for 13 years. He and his wife Shannon are parents to a blended family of five, ranging from 26 to 13 years old.