Task force encouraged to think in terms of managing – not resolving – conflict in church

DALLAS -- A task force charged with leading the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment was encouraged at its first meeting, Dec. 6-8, to think in terms of managing conflict rather than resolving it -- recognizing that the Christian church has had conflict almost from its beginning -- and to stop equating conflict with combat, in which some other person or idea has to be destroyed.

“Conflict need not result in combat, it need not demonize the other, it need not exclude, it need not destroy,” Gary Demarest, a California pastor and co-moderator of the task force, said while leading the group in theological reflection.

Demarest said his first reaction when he learned he’d been picked for the group was to ask “why me” — and he hopes it’s not because he’s seen as representing a particular point of view or any of the interest groups in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Demarest said he doesn’t want to know why, and “I don’t want to come here wearing a hat or a label.”

What he has prayed for is to “let the mind of Christ take over, let the mind of Christ be the mind that I bring” — asking not, “How can I win?” but “How can I help the church I love?”

The task force, which will meet over the next four years, has a huge task before it — trying to bring some sense of where God might be leading a painfully divided denomination — and some of its members acknowledge they’re not exactly sure how they’re supposed to do that.

Some asked questions about how much money the group has to spend (they’re now budgeted for about $40,000 over four years, expecting to hold three meetings a year until making a final report in 2005). And the group struggled to agree on a name to call itself, finally picking the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity.

The group did begin by approving a “covenant” — some ground rules for how they’ll conduct their business together — which included promising to study, pray and worship together; to model for the rest of the PC(USA) a process of discernment and dialogue; to agree through consensus rather than formal voting as much as possible; and to listen respectfully to one another and to “speak the truth in love.”

Concern about public reporting

Some on the task force are nervous about conducting all their meetings in public — worried that the presence of the news media, and in particular the conservative newspaper The Layman, might make people hesitant to say what they really think, and that the media might misrepresent what the task force does. They decided at the end of each meeting to issue their own news release — to speak directly to the church, probably through a Web site. And the covenant asks those reporting about the task force to perform responsibly, following the ethical standards of the Associated Church Press and the Evangelical Press Association.

The task force was conceived by the 213th General Assembly last summer, and given the job of leading the denomination “in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity,” to guide the PC(USA) in talking about things that unite and divide the denomination. It was told specifically it should address, but not be limited to, “issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power” — in other words, some of the biggest points of dispute in the PC(USA).

Its members were named in October by Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly, and by his two immediate predecessors as moderator, Syngman Rhee and Freda Gardner. The three were supposed to name a 17-member task force, but pushed the number up to 21, they said, “in order to adequately represent the strengths and diversity needed.”

Rogers said he’s heard no criticism so far of the task force’s composition — its theological and ethnic diversity — although some were disappointed that not every synod was represented. One member, Sue Mallory of Brentwood church in California, has had to resign because of illness; her position will not be filled, reducing the size of the group to 20.

What is expected

The moderators did give some ideas at this meeting of what they expect from the task force.

Rogers, for one, said “the three of us did not intend to design this task force to resolve the dispute over homosexuality in the church.” He said the task force probably can’t avoid that issue, but he hopes “it will be a subordinate issue on your agenda.”

Rhee described the group as a “coordinating committee” to help lead congregations in the process of spiritual discernment — although one thing task force members expressed confusion about is how they’re supposed to communicate with the broader church, and especially how they can find out what’s happening in the denomination’s 11,000 congregations.

Rogers said he hopes the task force can “look beyond our immediate problems, that you will look beneath them for root causes and you will look above them for resources,” from the Book of Confessions to the spirit of Christ.

Cliff Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said he’s been listening around the country to what people have to say about the task force. Kirkpatrick said he senses “a yearning for a breakthrough, for a more excellent way” for the denomination to live with its diversity — but also doubt that that can be achieved. People say they hope the task force “won’t get bogged down in arguments about sex” — reflecting the PC(USA)’s long battle over whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians — but wonder how the task force can lead the church in spiritual renewal when it’s divided on that issue itself. And “there are a growing number of people,” Kirkpatrick said, “who wonder, `Is there a future for the Presbyterian church?'”

Jenny Stoner, a Vermont elder who was moderator of the General Assembly committee in June that helped propose the theological task force, and who now is co-moderator along with Demarest of the task force, said her committee last summer was “almost unanimous — we do not want a committee or a commission appointed to tell us what the answers are” and “we don’t want a report that’s going to sit on a shelf.”

But while “there was a lot of faith in the task force” at General Assembly, Stoner said, along with the hope that “the task force could bring the church together to a shared vision,” she acknowledged that “there was not a lot of talk about how” it was supposed to get those things done or how it should communicate with the grassroots . To which Milton J. Coalter, a professor from Louisville Seminary, responded: “I think that’s a problem.”

Elizabeth Achtemeier, a retired professor from Union Seminary in Virginia, warned against starting off with the controversial issues, because then “all you’re going to get is the hardened process we already have” in the denomination. Achtemeier urged the group to start with theological exploration — with questions such as what is the identity of the Christian church, who is God and what is authority in Christian life?

Victoria Curtiss, a pastor from Ames, Iowa, added the idea of “what is God seeking to say to us or do with us?”

Achtemeier responded by asking: “On what basis are you going to decide what God is calling us to do?” Partly through prayer, through listening, through discussion in small groups, Curtiss answered.

“I have a great deal of trust in prayer,” Achtemeier responded, but “prayer is no substitute for hard theological work.”

Freda Gardner told the group not to be intimidated by the enormity of their task — saying that God has given each of them “gifts for the common good” and that each of their experiences brings richness to the group.

Steve Yamaguchi, a pastor from Long Beach, Calif., who led the group in theological study, spoke of both Moses and Paul as being from bicultural backgrounds — Moses, being both the prince of Egypt and the son of the Hebrews, and Paul, a Jew but “not a Jerusalem home boy,” a man who came from the Roman colony at Tarsus.

People are shaped and formed in their ministry by their context — by where and how they have lived and what they’ve experienced, Yamaguchi said, telling of his own experience growing up as the son of Japanese-Americans who were ordered into internment camps during World War II and who later lived in an urban neighborhood in Los Angeles so filled with Japanese immigrants that they had “tofu delivery door-door, just like the milkman.” From there, Yamaguchi moved on to Orange County — then “a hotbed of the John Birch Society,” Yamaguchi said, and a place that he disliked at first but came to find Christ — and later to such diverse places as Gordon-Conwell College and Harvard Divinity School, from inner city congregations in the U.S. to a church in Tokyo.

Some people in the church — many people of color, many women in the clergy — feel like they live in two worlds, that they move between worlds, probably as Moses and Paul did, Yamaguchi said (his daughters, he said, have already learned that it’s considered polite and a sign of appreciation to slurp their noodles while eating Japanese food, but not when eating spaghetti). He suggested that these people were chosen for the task force because they have that ability — they can move in more than one world — while “there are many in our church who are afraid of ‘them others,’ and they often deal with caricatures, not flesh and blood.”

Yamaguchi said “it takes grace, a gift of God,” to listen to and appreciate the experience and the ideas of others who come from different worlds, and “what I’m praying for, what I’m pleading with God for,” is that the task force can use all of their experiences to lead the church on a spiritual discovery, “to search with not only our minds, but our whole soul and heart and strength. It’s a flesh and blood incarnational adventure that we need to be about.”

Near the end of its gathering, the task force decided to assign its members to subgroups to help the task force look more intently at four areas: scriptural and theological resources; historical and ecclesiastical resources; practices conducive to discernment and building community; and consultation with and communication with the larger church.

The task force will meet again Feb. 28-March 2 in Dallas.