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Council members concerned about theology of ranking Presbyterian mission work

MONTREAT, N.C. -- Some General Assembly Council members raised questions Saturday about the theology behind ranking the work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) according to its impact on evangelism and discipleship -- with former General Assembly moderator Douglas Oldenburg saying, "I don't ever want us to become just a consumer church," where only programs with the strongest constituencies prevail.

On Friday, council members were asked to rank programs within the Congregational, National and Worldwide ministries divisions according to whether they have a high impact, medium impact or lower impact on what have been identified as two top priorities — evangelism and discipleship.

“I understand the pain and the agony — we all want those things we care passionately about to be at the top,” John Detterick, the council’s executive director, said Saturday. He stressed that a low ranking does not mean that a program will be eliminated, saying that “everything we do is important” and “we will continue to do those things.” But the council must decide “how do we balance what we do,” Detterick said — meaning that some programs necessarily be given a higher priority than others.

The prioritization process “is not about loss of jobs and loss of positions,” said Peter Pizor, the council’s chair. “That was never on the table and is not now.”

During a question-and-answer time regarding the priority-setting process — which is being used to shape the 2002 budget — Oldenburg said he understands that the church must be sensitive to what people say they want and need. “But there are some things the Presbyterian church has to do — it simply has to do it in order to be faithful to Christ, whether people want it or whether it impacts a whole bunch of people or not.”

Adelia Kelso, a pastor from Pearl River, La., and a member of the council’s executive committee, said her understanding of evangelism and discipleship does not match the definitions used in shaping the budget. Kelso said she is “deeply disturbed” by interpretations that equate evangelism with growth, because to her “evangelism is one beggar telling another where to find bread and that bread is God’s bread and it is abundant, and you don’t have to fight for it.”

Some council members said the rankings the council reached don’t reflect the breadth of their concerns. Jeff Bridgeman, a pastor from Solvang, Calif., said that “we are seeing the coming together of a whole church” in the process of setting priorities — but he’s concerned that “we’re evaluating what we’re doing as opposed to evaluating what we’d like to do.”

Warren Barnes of Sacramento, Calif., said he worries that, with the denomination’s Washington office receiving a “lower impact” ranking and racial justice not being ranked in the top group, Presbyterians may be seen as building up its own institutions — for example, building new churches — rather than giving themselves away in service.

And Oldenburg said he’s concerned that important areas to which Presbyterians traditionally have been committed — such as higher education and theological education, public policy witness and peacemaking — were ranked as “low impact” programs. “All of these are reasons why I’m a Presbyterian,” he said, and “they came out on the bottom.”

The council was also asked, however, to indicate how much weight they want the staff to give the ranking system — using a scale from “ignore it” to considering it as the most important factor. Kathy Lueckert, the council’s deputy executive director, said the staff will take the rankings and the council’s feedback back to denominational headquarters in Louisville, “think and pray about it a lot,” and do more analysis.

The staff wants to consider, for example, which programs have a dedicated stream of funding — people may not have voted a high priority for programs they knew would get money anyway — and what the council said about why they ranked programs as they did.

And George Inadomi, a council member from Pasadena, Calif., said that even though the rankings didn’t come out as he would have written them, “I want to thank God for being a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” — because some other churches aren’t willing to do any work in some of the areas in which Presbyterians are active.

J. Randolph Taylor, a former General Assembly moderator who some describe as the architect of the plan that, in 1983, reunited the northern and southern branches of Presbyterianism, was a guest at Saturday’s meeting — and told the council that, as hard as it is, “someone has to steer, someone has to take the initiative” in deciding what should be the Presbyterian church’s top priorities — a process that Pizor described as “steering the toboggan.”

“The truth is, you come as close to being the ‘general’ of the General Assembly” as anyone, “and that’s not an easy responsibility,” Taylor told the council members. “That’s why I pray for you.”

In other action, the council voted to:

* Take the next step in continuing the church’s discussion of whether Christian educators should be ordained — something this year’s General Assembly wasn’t willing to approve, but referred back to the General Assembly Council for more work on the issue. The council voted Saturday to ask the Office of Theology and Worship to revise and update a previous Theology of Ordination paper.

* And it decided to appoint a group of 8 to 10 people to a task force that will develop a design “for the preparation, employment, ordination and support of Christian educators as ministers of Word and Sacrament with a specialization in educational ministry.”

That group will try to develop “a concrete picture” what such ordination might look like — drawing on expertise from theological institutions, Christian educators, pastors of churches with a strong history of Christian education and others, said Marcia Myers of Churchwide Personnel Services. The group, which is being asked to report to the General Assembly in 2002, is trying to answer questions and fill in details of how such ordination might work, but “is not assuming that a future Assembly will do that,” Myers said, adding that the question of whether Christian educators should be ordained will be up to an assembly to decide.

* Delay for one more year the Hispanic Comprehensive Strategy Report, which now will be submitted to the General Assembly in 2002 rather than next summer.

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