DALLAS – It’s hard work – to encompass in just a few words or images what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is and what it aspires to be.
Where is God leading the church?
And how can a vision statement be valuable to congregations – so that it is not just a statement handed down from the top levels of the church, but becomes “real in the lives of the people?” asked Joshua Narcisse, a student at Yale Divinity School.
The 2020 Vision Team is meeting Nov. 12-14 at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, to come closer to doing what the 2016 General Assembly instructed it to do: “To develop a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed. The process of developing such a guiding statement will help us to name and claim our denominational identity as we seek to follow the Spirit into the future.”
While the shape that will take remains to be seen, there’s been a refrain in the conversation so far: keep it short, accessible, maybe visual or sung. Maybe it will include a slogan or tagline. “How about ‘total depravity done right,’ ” one team member joked.
The vision team’s discussion also reflects the kinds of conversations Presbyterians are having in churches all over the country – trying to discern what the future holds for a denomination hit hard by declining membership and fewer dollars, but also whose parishioners are full of conviction and faith and hope and ideas.
Jerrod Lowry, a minister from Salt Lake City, led the team in an opening devotion on Nov. 13 – a time of prayer focused on lament and grief, which he said he’s been thinking about in his pastoral work.
“The church is feeling a sense of loss, is lamenting and grieving who we were,” Lowry said. And what the PC(USA) will become is not what the denomination once was.
“This vision statement will help us to yes, look back and celebrate was, and also help us to place our vision on who we are, with a small glimmer, with a small eye looking with hope to what we can be,” Lowry said.
He also said: “It’s OK to be where are. We should almost embrace the darkness. God is with us in the darkness. … Plunge into the darkness. If we do, we’ll see a new dawn, a new light.”
The pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Robin Lyn Valdez, later offered the team some words of greeting, telling them a bit about the church’s history – which includes finding ways to minister to a changing community, with more immigrants and where more than 700 children are homeless, and building a strong partnership with a nearby elementary school. “We aren’t afraid of evangelism,” Valdez said. “Whenever we can go out into the community, we go.”
It’s that kind of commitment to ministry in changing contexts – that new light – that the vision team hopes to capture.
Having fewer resources can bring more opportunities – and it can mean more trust in God, more authentic relationships, more willingness to risk, team members said. Perhaps in the PC(USA) “we’re beginning to understand how marginalized Christians feel,” said Salvador Gavaldá Corchado, an elder from the Presbytery of San Juan.
The vision team also spent time discussing section F.103 from the Book of Order – as the General Assembly told the team to conduct targeted listening exercises with those conversations centered “on the calling of the church” as discussed in that section, along with “the vision these constituencies have of how God is calling them to respond to ‘what breaks God’s heart’ in their communities.”
So, section by section, the vision team read through F.103 and talked about the implications of unity, holiness, apostolicity, and more.
In the Gospels, the apostles were sent out into the world – what are the implications of that for the church now?
“We’re sent out into the world because we’ve got a little piece of the puzzle, a little piece of the vision” – the Bible shows how various followers of Jesus understood certain things, but not others, said Karen Sapio, a minister from California. “It’s not that we have whole truth. … We’ve got to leave the building to find the people who have the missing pieces.”
Being sent means “being willing to being open,” said Bernie Coffee, an elder from Texas who serves as co-moderator of the vision team. “To realize we’re the ones that maybe are broken. We haven’t arrived. A lot of what we do is we say we’re inviting them in … but we’re inviting them in only if they act like they’re not broken.”
A lack of authenticity in the church may be one of the reasons people leave the church, said DèAnn Cunningham, an elder from Charlotte, North Carolina. “People need to see our struggle. They need to see what you’ve been through” – to see God’s presence made manifest in the difficulties, the resilience, the endurance and faith.
Sometimes Christianity is portrayed as “these are the good people, they’ve got their stuff together,” said Joshua Andrzejewsi, a chaplain from Virginia. “Recognizing no, that we too are broken. And we have hope. Holding those two things in tension is important.”
The vision team’s conversations are continuing through mid-day Nov. 14.