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A pox on the Presbyterian Outlook?

by Frank Allen, commissioner to the 221st General Assembly

I attended the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh and was overwhelmed by the ferocity of the debate over divestment. From the safety of the cheap seats in the back of the assembly hall I thought, “Thank God I’m not on that committee.”

Fast forward from 2012 to 2014. I was chosen to be a commissioner from Central Florida Presbytery for the 221st General Assembly. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the random selection process of the Office of the General Assembly, I was selected to be on the Middle East Issues Committee. My plan was to maintain a low profile.

But, I also wanted to be a responsible commissioner. So, I read the Outlook’s take on what my committee was to study. First, I read the editor’s comments. It was music to my ears. In jest he said of the pro-divestment and anti-divestment groups, “A pox on both your houses.” That was my sentiment exactly.

Unfortunately, I kept reading. In particular, I read an article by John Wimberly entitled, “It’s about the process.” John complained that at the last General Assembly in Pittsburgh the Middle East Peacemaking Committee spent hours listening to testimony in favor of divestment while spending much less time listening to arguments against divestment.

I immediately turned to the end of the article to find out who John was and why he was so interested in this issue. Just as I expected, John was a member of an advocacy group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. It was his fault that I was being lobbied so heavily!

But, his comments peaked my curiosity. So, I looked up my committee’s agenda. Sure enough, we would begin our session with a 45-minute presentation by three groups that had already announced their conclusion, including the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI). I thought the other side of this issue needed equal time.

I shot off an email to the vice moderator of our committee suggesting that opposing views on this subject should be given equal time. She suggested that I should calm down. These were our groups working on our behalf, and they would tell us what we needed to know by way of background.

I was not reassured by those comments. In fact I did something that I have never done before. I willingly gave my name and phone number to an advocacy group. I met with that group not long after my arrival in Detroit and found that they had many hard-working volunteers. In this group I met important church leaders who felt that their voices had been silenced on this issue. I was intrigued to find liberals and conservatives working together on a common goal.

There were others on the Middle East Issues Committee that also wanted a more balanced process, but our attempt to change the agenda failed. In the end the committee voted to recommend divestment, and I signed a minority report recommending against divestment.

Guess who drew the short straw to speak before the General Assembly? A reporter from the Outlook snapped my photo and put it on an article about the minority report. I looked like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming train. It was an accurate representation. Standing alone on the “big stage” promoting a view that was opposed by three resource groups was not my idea of fun.

It worked out. I said what I believed in a way that I wanted to say it. My wife told me that the folks on Twitter said that I sounded angry. The folks who were against divestment shook my hand and thanked me for giving voice to their deep concerns.

Now that I’ve had a chance to get some much needed sleep, I’m wondering what we can learn from this. How can we make sure that the process is fair? How can we make sure that all sides are given a chance to present their views in the best possible light?

I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I am not criticizing the resource people who ably presented one side of this issue on behalf of their committee. This is the job that we gave them to do. They were there to advise us. They were there to present their committee’s view and then promote it.

But, suppose we changed their job description? What if we said that the job of our assembly committees was not to decide who was right or wrong, but instead to lift up a variety of views on a given issue? What if we made it the job of our committees and their resource people to help commissioners understand every issue in all its complexity and from a variety of viewpoints?

I believe this is a way to become a more inclusive church. Imagine a committee hearing a variety of well-presented views on a topic and then making a decision trusting in the still small voice of the Spirit. This might lead the church in a new and exciting direction.

I am going to encourage my own presbytery to develop overtures to the General Assembly designed to bring about a committee process that is more inclusive. And I invite other presbyteries to join us in this endeavor.

Many times during the assembly I wanted to say, “A pox on you, Presbyterian Outlook for getting me involved in all this.” But, now I have changed my mind. The Outlook equipped me for meaningful participation in the 221st General Assembly and for that I give thanks.

Frank Allen
Frank Allen (in the photo he referenced)

FRANK ALLEN is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Kissimmee, Florida, and was a commissioner from Central Florida Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly.