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GA NEWS: Joan Gray addresses FOG issues at Pre-Assembly gathering June 20

SAN JOSE – “We have presbyteries crying out for this kind of thing” and “now is as good a time as any,” said Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly – speaking of the proposed revision to the form of government of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The FOG proposal – a rewriting designed to give the PC(USA) a more flexible form of government focused on missional theology – faces anything but a clear future.

Presbyteries have submitted at least nine overtures to this year’s General Assembly asking, in one form or another, that the assembly put off voting the FOG report up-or-down for now, giving the denomination more time to study it. The 218th General Assembly formally kicks off its business June 21 in San Jose – and the FOG proposal will be a centerpiece of its work this week.

But Gray, a self-described “polity wonk” and co-author of the textbook “Presbyterian Polity for Church Officers”– said she sees a real need for the PC(USA) to find a way to give presbyteries flexibility. In her travels, she’s learned that “what works in Georgia may not work in Wyoming, and what works in California may not work in Maine.”

Gray spoke June 20 to a pre-assembly gathering of commissioners and others who’d come to learn more about the FOG proposal. Roughly 400 people attended the event – with a second session scheduled for June 22.

The high turnout is likely a reflection that commissioners recognize that much is at stake. The General Assembly in 2006 created the FOG task force and instructed it to come back with a proposed revision. This is one of a series of efforts to remodel the denomination’s way of governing itself – and comes at a time when, as task force member James Kim pointed out, the pace of change in the world is fierce – affecting everything from technology and medical care to education – and the PC(USA) cannot afford to stick with the old ways.

Over the past 25 years, since the reunion of the northern and southern branches of American Presbyterianism, the PC(USA)’s Book of Order has grown thicker, with more regulations, and “it is time to evaluate it and see how well it is serving our purposes,” Gray told the gathering.

“What is in the book is very precious to us, but it can also bear amending,” she said.

Gray described the FOG proposal as a “stripped-down, useful, flexible document that I think will take you into the future,” and said “the draft holds on to the precious foundations and the good bones of Presbyterian polity,” but also reflects “some awareness of the fact that we live in a different day.”

She did offer some caveats – Gray opposes provisions in the FOG proposal that would allow associate pastors and interim pastors to become eligible to be called as the installed pastor for the congregation they’ve been serving, if approved by a three-fourths “super-majority” vote of the presbytery.

“Bad idea,” Gray said of that provision. But she said the commissioners who’ll be considering the FOG proposal in committee “can take care of that” and “you can make it even better.”

Whether the assembly will be willing to move ahead now – accepting this proposed revision at this time – remains to be seen. But the FOG task force is making the case that the denomination needs to do something – in other words, waiting for a better time won’t work.

The PC(USA) now is nearly half the size it was in the 1960s – dropping from about 4.25 million members then to 2.2 million now – and without the ability to adapt will increasingly be seen as irrelevant and broken, said Kim, a pastor from Texas.

Task force member Gemechisa Guja, an immigrant pastor from Ethiopia who leads an Oromoo fellowship in Pennsylvania, said presbyteries need space to respond creatively and with genuine welcome to immigrants from around the world. While his fellowship has been greeted with hospitality and grace, “there are places where the newcomers and the new fellowships were stopped,” Guja said. “They left the PC(USA) and went to another denomination.”

The General Assembly in 2006 gave the task force the mandate to provide leadership to congregations as they become missional communities, said Paul Hooker, a task force member who is executive presbyter of St. Augustine presbytery.

The task force has been guided by that insight, Hooker said – by the realization that “mission is not something the church does,” but “mission is the reason the church exists.”

The church does not exist to guarantee its own survival but “to bear witness to God’s work in the world,” he said.

The task force also addressed directly concerns that the PC(USA) isn’t ready for this change now – that there hasn’t been enough time, people don’t understand the document well enough and aren’t convinced it’s the right way to go.

“Do we trust and love each other well or even consistently?” Hooker asked. “Of course not. Does that mean we should wait for a time when we love each other better and trust each other more perfectly than we do at the moment? … In all humility, your task force believes the answer to that question is no.”

Instead, Hooker said, “we believe that people learn to trust by trusting. And we believe that the revised FOG we are proposing will enable us to become a more loving, trusting community of believers precisely because it forces us to encounter each other face to face and side by side,” in session rooms and presbytery meetings, as Presbyterians flesh out how governance will be structured in their own communities.

Task force member Stephen Smith, stated clerk of Pacific Presbytery, said presbyteries could organize themselves differently to meet the same national standards – or could learn from one another. The proposal gives “flexibility for mission, mandating functions, not structures,” Smith said.

The task force also answered questions those in the audience submitted on index cards. People asked about accountability, about encouraging diversity in representation, about how the FOG proposal would preserve the connectional nature of the PC(USA).

And – task force co-moderator Cindy Bolbach swore this was true – “how many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb?”

For that, the task force had no answer at all.