Organizers stress that it is being intentionally called a Covenanting Conference to emphasize its central task – presenting a covenant for evangelicals who want to grow together in discipleship and work together in mission.
By the time the meeting convenes, the Fellowship’s board of directors will already have taken most or all of the steps needed to create a new Reformed body, said Paul Detterman, the Fellowship’s administrative consultant. This will not be the kind of meeting where people offer amendments during business sessions and vote things up and down.
The number of congregations planning to leave the PC(USA) and move to the new denomination is, at least for now, relatively small, Detterman said, although many congregations still are working through their plans and that number definitely could rise.
More than 2,100 people have registered for this meeting Jan. 18-20 – around the same number who attended the Fellowship’s August gathering in Minneapolis.
Here, according to Detterman, is roughly how this meeting, held at a hotel conference center, will be structured.
New Reformed Body. Yes, a “new Reformed body” – essentially, a new denomination – will be created. But those attending the Fellowship meeting will not take any formal action to do that. Instead, the Fellowship’s interim board of directors is expected to vote just before the meeting convenes to approve revised theology and polity documents that have been drafted by two Fellowship work groups. That action by the board of directors essentially will be the final step needed to create the new Reformed body, Detterman said, as the Fellowship already has established a nonprofit status and named a board of directors. The name of the new entity is expected to be announced Jan. 19 as the conference gets under way. Details of retirement and medical benefits systems for those joining the new Reformed body also are expected to be discussed in workshops at the Orlando meeting.
Documents. Drafts of the theology and polity documents were posted online in December, and people were encouraged to submit comments and proposed revisions by Jan. 6. The responses poured in, and the work groups have been busy considering them and making changes to the original drafts. The revised documents will be distributed at the Fellowship meeting Jan. 19, after a worship service at which John Ortberg of Menlo Park, Calif., Presbyterian Church will preach. There will not be an opportunity at this Orlando meeting for people to formally suggest any amendments or changes to the documents, Detterman said. That won’t come until a national assembly which is expected to be held in 2013 – a meeting of the synod of the new Reformed body, with the synod being the highest council that would exist in the new denomination. Detterman said he doesn’t know yet how commissioners to that 2013 meeting will be selected.
Affiliation. There will be a distinction at this meeting between the new Reformed body – the new denomination – and the Fellowship itself.
Covenanting with the Fellowship will be an option that will be encouraged, Detterman said, whether a congregation wants to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to join the new denomination, or whether individual Presbyterians or congregations want to stay in the PC(USA) but still be involved with the Fellowship’s work and ministry. Some congregations also are investigating the possibility of achieving “union” status – being affiliated with both the PC(USA) and the new Reformed body.
Much of the focus of this meeting will be on the idea of covenant – “the kinds of things we can do within or beyond the PC(USA) to build flourishing congregations and make disciples for Jesus Christ,” Detterman said. “No matter where you are located, we are talking about how are we the church, how can we be the body of Christ. The affiliation question is really very secondary.”
In recent weeks, the Fellowship has asked those coming to Orlando to indicate in a survey how their congregation is leaning – whether they plan to leave the PC(USA), stay in the denomination or seek some sort of joint “union” status with both the PC(USA) and the new Reformed body.
“We do know that a comparatively small minority who are going to be in Orlando are actually looking at moving” outside of the PC(USA), Detterman said. “We know it’s not many. The lion’s share of the folks in Orlando are not going anywhere.”
During one part of the meeting, on the morning of Jan. 20, those who intend to leave the PC(USA) and those who plan to stay will meet in different rooms for separate conversations about those options. Those attending the conference may not have any kind of authority to act in a decisive way on behalf of their congregations. That will depend on what conversations have taken place in particular churches or whether a session has granted such authority. The Fellowship has not asked those registering for the conference to come as official delegates.
Some representatives of the PC(USA)’s national staff are expected to attend the conference, as is Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly (although that could change – Bolbach has been battling the flu this week).
Last November, Bolbach said at the Moderators’ Conference that she wouldn’t attend, because she would not go to a meeting where people would be taking steps toward schism. In an interview this week, Bolbach said she had changed her mind, in part because the Fellowship changed its focus from holding a “constitutional convention,” which was how its leaders described the Orlando meeting last summer, to a “covenanting conference,” with room for both those who want to leave the PC(USA) and those who want to stay.
Bolbach said she is coming to the Fellowship meeting (assuming she kicks the flu bug) because “they’re expecting lots of folks who want to stay in the PC(USA) and want to figure out how to do that” while not violating their sense of conscience. “If there are people there who are still engaged in the PC(USA), I want to be in dialogue with them,” Bolbach said. “I want to have conversation with them to say, `We want you to stay. We don’t want you to go.’ ”
Detterman said PC(USA) staff members are welcome to attend.
“I would have been so sad if Louisville had basically said `No thanks,’ ” he said. “This isn’t an anti-PC(USA) thing. We didn’t even want to hint at that.”
Covenanting service. The conference will end Jan. 20 with a covenanting service, a worship service at which people will be asked to sign a covenant. The scripturally based covenant will be with the Fellowship, not with the new Reformed body, Detterman said – which means it will be open to evangelicals planning to leave the PC(USA), to those wanting to stay and to those who aren’t sure.
“We are really trying to work with those people who are literally just deep into the PC(USA) and … those who are leaving for the new Reformed body,” Detterman said. “We are trying to create this umbrella under which we can do as much ministry and mission together as possible,” even if people make different choices.
“Regardless of affiliation, we are trying to raise up a different type of disciple,” Detterman said. “Somebody who is willing to say, `I’m going to take my faith so seriously . . . I’m going to live differently’ ” as a result. “We are covenanting with God to live differently.”
Those signing the covenant generally will sign as individuals, not as official representatives of a congregation, Detterman said. They can fill out pledge cards for prayer and financial support or take the cards back to the sessions of their congregations to be filled out. Those who choose not to covenant with the Fellowship will have the opportunity to pray for those who do.
If people say they want to sign on behalf of a congregation, “those people are going to be the ones we’re going to put under the heaviest scrutiny,” Detterman said. “We would need to have evidence that this is in fact what it claims to be” – that they have authorization from the session of the congregation to make commitments on the congregation’s behalf.
Under 45. Before the larger meeting begins, the Fellowship is holding a two-day gathering Jan. 17-18 with about 270 church leaders under 45 years old. According to materials sent to the participants, much of that time will be spent in small groups to talk about “how do we envision a changing church in a changing world.”