A Presbyterian Outlook guest blog
Prepared by David B. Batchelder, Teaching Elder (West Plano Presbyterian Church; Grace Presbytery)
From the news summary of the September 14,2012, stated meeting of the Presbytery of Grace, (the region surrounding Dallas-Ft. Worth):
The presbytery approved the Presbytery Council’s proposed gracious dismissal policy with one change. The commissioners agreed with the Rev. Dr. David Batchelder’s (Teaching Elder, West Plano, Plano) motion to change the policy’s title to A Just and Gracious Dismissal Policy.
The policy’s goal is to provide a framework to allow reconciliation or peaceable resolution while preserving unity in the body of Christ for a congregation that expresses the desire to be dismissed to another reformed denomination. Click here to download the newly approved policy. The new policy replaces any previous policies dealing with withdraw from PC(USA).
Mr. Batchelder also presented to the presbytery some thoughts that aim to elevate the conversation from bricks and mortar to more theological categories. We in the Presbyterian Outlook share these with the larger church to engage in a broader conversation…
1. Any formulation for withdrawal from Presbytery membership must maintain integrity with the Gospel at the heart of which is the Paschal mystery into which we are baptized. Living out our dying and rising with Christ is no less pertinent to the challenging situations which these reflections seek to address than to any other responsibility of the Presbytery.
2. Integrity involves truth-telling, an honesty which refuses to disguise the true nature of a crisis with language that softens the gravity at hand. Exaggerations and/or misrepresentation of opposing points of view are incompatible with truth-telling.
3. Any policies described solely as “gracious” bear false witness because the requirement for justice also belongs to the Gospel. Therefore, dealing with any church seeking to withdraw from its Presbytery requires an approach that is both just and gracious.
4. The term “dismissal” speaks to the act by which a Presbytery releases one of its member churches. “Dismissal” does not speak to the reality that occasions such an act. As a stand-alone term, it is incomplete and does not tell the whole truth needed to be heard. Prior to dismissal comes a “separation” that cannot be reconciled. Any language that masks an alienation of Christ’s body from itself is unacceptable because the biblical witness is unequivocally in favor of “maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
5. To couch withdrawal and dismissal as Spirit led can be self-deceiving. At the same time, seemingly irreconcilable differences must be honestly acknowledged and accepted. God is not honored when members of Christ’s body verbally gore one another. In such tragic situations, separation is preferable because it spares further suffering to the body of Christ in the hopes of new life.
6. The biblical witness includes acts of separation for many reasons. Abraham and Lot separated over competing economic incentives. Sarah and Hagar were rivals, as were Jacob and Esau. Paul and Barnabas could not reconcile their strategic interests. In some cases, separation is unilaterally imposed as banishment. In others, it comes about through a negotiated settlement. Since God stands on the side of life over death, those settlements that seek to preserve life for both parties are judged more faithful.
7. The above examples pertain to interpersonal relationships rather than groups. Acts 15 is an exception. It recounts the negotiated settlement of a separation-threatening division in the church between two groups with differing theological and ethical understandings. The Jerusalem settlement, which was a compromise, does not shrink from setting boundaries for what constitutes being church. It is helpful to note that the Jerusalem settlement established a church that lived with continuing tensions. Such “tension” is normative. The epistles witness to the continuing need for dealing pastorally with “faith-boundary” disputes.
8. While the Bible witnesses to acts of separation, it is silent as to “how” separation should occur. This silence owes itself to two factors: (a) the preeminent mandate in favor of maintaining unity; and (b) the absent voices of the “leavers.” Since the Bible is written from the point of view of the “left,” the perspective of Lot, Hagar, Esau, or Barnabas is unheard.
9. The historical witness, however, offers abundant testimony from those who did the leaving. The Reformed tradition is a theological child of “leavers.” Our contemporary perspective on the terms of 16th and 17th century separation movements finds them more instructive for what ought not be repeated rather than as guides for our own time.
10. Our principle guide in tragic circumstances of separation-leading-to-dismissal consists of acting graciously, seeking justice, and practicing wisdom.
11. Acting graciously means that death must never have the last word. The future always remains open to the possibility of forgiveness, healing, new relationship, and wholeness. None of us can foresee what God might bring about in some future time. Therefore, Easter promise ought to shape the process leading up to and including dismissal itself. In all matters, no less than this, a Presbytery is called to bear faithful witness to its theological identity
12. Seeking justice means that all relationships pertaining to a withdrawing church must be given consideration. These include: the other member churches of the Presbytery, the shared mission discerned by the Presbytery, the relationship with the saints whose faithfulness must not be forgotten, and the ecumenical partners of the PC(USA). Justice means that generosity must not be used to buy peace. That is extortion. Neither does justice exact a “pound of flesh.”
13. Practicing wisdom involves paying close attention to the situation and those involved and exercising discernment. It requires being self-consciously theological (understanding that how we do what we do speaks to whose we are). Wisdom seeks to make use of previously reached communal consensus wherever applicable. It is desirable to practice wisdom rather than enforce policy because wisdom leans more strongly in the direction of grace over law. Policies have a way of calcifying into forms of legalism, which distract the church from being the “church.” Policies, therefore, ought to be a matter of last resort. When wisdom is based on established communal consensus the church is more readily experienced more fully for what it is, a living organism rather than a legislative body.
14. Each Presbytery possesses an established communal consensus with respect to churches calling teaching elders as pastors. Where I serve, any minister receiving less than 90% of the congregational vote on a call to ministry would not expect Presbytery confirmation except under rare circumstances. Likewise, the 90% vote threshold is wise in the case of churches voting to withdraw from the Presbytery. Furthermore, churches voting to call a minister would seek a majority of its members present for such an important vote. Wisdom likewise counsels that 50% or more of the voting membership ought to be present when considering a recommendation to withdraw from the Presbytery.
15. All that takes place prior to a vote to withdraw belongs to a Presbytery’s pastoral ministry to a church in crisis. Best pastoral care practice calls for early intervention. A Presbytery should prepare itself to make an early intervention upon the first indications of alienation leading to possible division-threatening separation.
16. Intervention teams ought to be made up of those possessing the gifts, skills, experience, and training necessary for conversations that constitute intervention. It is right to expect that such conversations form a process requiring patience, time, discernment, and reflection. It is wise for a Presbytery to reserve for itself all avenues open to it through the Book of Order. This resource, while not perfect, continues to provide the collective wisdom of the many generations who have come before us.
17. When dismissal becomes the unavoidable and necessary act following separation, the Presbytery should make full use of its liturgical resources for its suffering body. These resources provide for the confession of sin and receiving forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and peace making. Such a liturgy should reclaim the voice of lament; make intercession for the world’s brokenness (a brokenness made present in the dismissal), ritual acts of wholeness, and sacrament. The Book of Common Worship is an essential resource in this regard.
18. The disposition of property (in practice, often the most contentious points to be resolved) brings into view a theology of Christian stewardship, a denomination’s polity (with its underlying ecclesiology), and Christian hope for healing and reconciliation. These matters all come to be on specific situations that expose the weakness of policies that presume “one size fits all.”
The messy business of concluding broken relationships does not spare presbyteries from wrestling with the Gospel, our theological identity, and the baptismal call to lose our lives for Christ’s sake. These reflections are intentionally not prescriptive because each situation calls for special attention of a pastoral/theological/liturgical nature. Here is where each presbytery must do its own work again and again and again. In support of such work have these reflections been made.