It was a flurry of conversation: Eight ministerial teams meeting simultaneously for five hours during the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting Sept. 14.
The teams are the result of a recent restructuring of how the board does its work, and each is focused on a specific question or area of concern – such as “what are the next steps for the Young Adult Volunteer program?”
Each team is expected to work for six to 18 months, according to board chair Kenneth Godshall – meeting by conference call every month or so, and with at least some teams reporting back when the board meets next in March 2017. Here’s a flavor of some of those first conversations – from a reporter who roamed through some (but not all) of the conversations.
Implementing the Belhar Confession
Charles Wiley, coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship, described how South African Christians wrote the Belhar Confession – which the 2016 General Assembly voted to add to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions – in the heat of their nation’s struggle over apartheid.
But there’s more Presbyterians need to know about Belhar, Wiley suggested. For example, the churches in South Africa played a role in how attitudes about race evolved in that country and the way that injustice became ensconced as a matter of law.
It’s an example of the way in which theology can sometimes be used to bolster teaching when all people are not treated equally. “Belhar uses the word ‘diversity’ in a way that we don’t usually use diversity” – with more negative connotations, Wiley said.
Christians are taught that “God created this rich diversity that showed the creative power of God,” he said. So, “it’s a wonderful thing” to have people of different colors and cultures. In South Africa, that led some Christians to say, “since creation is from God, it shouldn’t be messed with. That means black people shouldn’t marry white people, because that would mess up this rich diversity.”
There was a progression, Wiley said. “You start out with this sort of blessing of diversity, and it turns into this codified separation.”
The letter accompanying the Belhar Confession speaks of injustice and reconciliation – but also about the Christian witness of unity. So Wiley suggested that a question for the PC(USA) might be: What fractures our witness of unity?
What does the affirmation in Belhar of the church’s unity in Jesus Christ – and its rejection of all that destroys that unity – say to Presbyterians in this time and place?
Increased coordination between the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly
How much money would increased coordination between the two agencies really save? And what can be done to let Presbyterians know how much cooperation already exists?
Barry Creech, director of policy, administration and board support for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, passed out an organizational chart from the 1980s known as the “holy horseshoe” – and then ran through the history of a series of subsequent realignments.
Plenty of cooperation between the two agencies already exists – for example, in ecumenical relations, immigration work and putting on events such as General Assembly and Big Tent.
For the most part, Presbyterians don’t see the distinctions – when they think of the national church, “they think of Louisville,” the denomination’s national offices, said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly. “It’s what they blame us for, it’s what they thank us for, it’s how they fund us.”
Addressing power & privilege
To get the conversation going, team members listed some aspects of power and privilege. On the list:
- Deciding how you want to act.
- Social location.
- Unearned advantage.
- You can live above or manipulate the law, without consequence.
- Laws benefit you, often at the expense of others.
If you want to find out what’s wrong, “ask the people on the bottom,” said board member James Parks.
Young Adult Volunteers
In a survey of alumni of the program, participants overwhelmingly described their experience with the Young Adult Volunteer program as positive, saying “where they thought they would go and give, they received,” said Susan Barnett of Presbyterian Research Services.
Some alumni said they decided to attend seminary as a result of their participation in the program.
They spoke of leadership development and cultural awareness, saying things like: “I went there and I wasn’t willing to stand up for myself,” Barnett said. Through the Young Adult Volunteer program, they found their voices – and use them to speak on behalf of others.
1001 New Worshiping Communities
What’s the ultimate goal? Not all New Worshiping Communities will formally organize as a PC(USA) congregation – but that doesn’t mean good work isn’t being done.
1001 “is not an institutional growth strategy for the PC(USA),” said Chip Hardwick, director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Theology, Formation, and Evangelism ministry area. It’s more that “they’re outposts of the kingdom of heaven.” In some, “God will do an amazing thing for a season, and they will not continue to go on,” although other communities will.
The PC(USA) also didn’t make it clear whether it wanted to start 1001 new worshiping communities in 10 years – or to have 1001 left at the end, Hardwick said.
Vera White, national coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities, explained some of the difficulties of working with not enough staff and too little funding, and the lessons that potentially can be learned from evangelistic work in other parts of the world.
Alice Ridgill, a board member and pastor of a 1001 congregation in South Carolina, said she’s seen lives transformed through the program – recalling baptizing a 72-year-old man along side his 10-year-old and 5-year-old granddaughters.
The impact of 1001 “goes to lives being transformed and changed,” Ridgill said. “I really appreciate this movement. … It’s really about the kingdom of God growing.”