DALLAS – Part of figuring out what might go into a new vision statement for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the “why.”
Why those words, and not some other words that are also significant and compelling? Do the words describe the PC(USA) as it is now, or what Presbyterians want their denomination to become?
What’s at the heart of Presbyterian identity?
And if you use too many words, will people just tune them out?
The 2016 General Assembly gave the 2020 Vision Team a directive to develop “a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed.” The Vision Team, meeting in Dallas Nov. 12-14, is in the painful grip of the first-draft process.
It’s been a multi-step endeavor, involving months of conducting listening sessions around the country (with Presbyterians and those outside the church); with team members submitting their own responses to a series of questions arising from what they’d heard; and a process during this meeting of trying to discern words that seem to resonate with the team.
The top contenders during the Vision Team’s discussion Nov. 13 came down to these six: courage, compassion, justice, relationship, hope and love. Bear in mind: These words may not make the final cut or be part of the Vision Team’s report to the 2018 General Assembly – it’s too soon to tell.
But the process shows how the Vision Team is trying to succinctly describe the dynamics of what Presbyterians at the grassroots level are challenged with in living out their faith. Why be Presbyterian – or a member of any church – in an increasingly secular country? What does the PC(USA) stand for? What should it stand for? What does God call Christians to do and to be?
With the list focused on six words, Lisa Juica Perkins, a minister from Texas who serves as the vision team’s co-moderator, along with Bernie Coffee, an elder also from Texas, started asking “why?” Why do these words have meaning for the PC(USA)? Here’s a selection of the answers.
Love and courage go together, and God calls Christians to love, said Jerrod Lowry, a pastor from Utah. If we love someone, “we need at times to be courageous on their behalf.”
Why courage? Because of the political climate. “For obvious reasons, when we open up the newspaper” to see photographs of white supremacists marching in the streets, when “our president is trying to dismantle some of the basic structures of democracy,” courage is needed in order to respond, said Karen Sapio, a minister from California. “There’s scary stuff going on.”
For Christians, “it takes courage because things we say could have consequences,” said Joshua Andrzejewski, a chaplain from Virginia. When it comes time to speak the truth, “we should upset people.”
And it takes courage to overcome fear, “to be able to live into the fullness of what Christ is giving us,” said Salvador Gavaldá Corchado, an elder from the Presbytery of San Juan. Led by own doubts and fears, “we learn to become smaller. We need courage to inspire us to change the world.”
Compassion allows Christians to look beyond the fault of others “and see the need,” said DèAnn Cunningham, an elder from Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Compassion is what moves us to action,” Coffee offered.
“Compassion is suffering with,” Andrzejewski said.
“It’s a non-negotiable,” said Joshua Narcisse, a student at Yale Divinity School, quoting Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Be precise. “It’s justice and not fairness,” Lowry said. Watch the power dynamic. Sometimes the church has had power and not wielded justice. The PC(USA) needs to confess: sometimes the church has stood on the side of injustice.
“If there are widows and orphans out there who aren’t taken care of, then the church has a fundamental problem,” Narcisse said. And widows and orphans should be broadly construed, meaning “the people who are on the margins of society,” Andrzejewski said.
“We are created for relationship,” Lowry said, “both with each other and with our creator.”
God chose to be in relationship with humanity, in a personal way, a sacrificial way, Andrzejewski said. “We can model that to the world by being in relationship with the marginalized, with our enemies, or those we perceive to be our enemies,” those we would not choose.
“We need to confess that we have modeled unhealthy relationships,” and endorsed power dynamics that contributed to unhealthy relationships, Lowry said.
What’s the difference between relationships and community? asked Chris McCain, an elder from Atlanta. That question and the conversation that flowed from it made it clear the Vision Team wasn’t totally sure about the “why” behind this word; it may not make the cut.
The Psalms are full of hope in the Lord, Coffee said.
Sapio began singing, from the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”:
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
So many people struggle to hope, to climb out of despair, she said. Sometimes people hope in the wrong things – prosperity or drugs.
Hope is the message of resurrection: that darkness and death don’t provide the final word.
God is love, and “love is the basis of the two greatest commandments,” to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself, Sapio said.
“It’s more than warm fuzzies,” Andrzejewski said. “It’s what leads someone to give up their life.”
Why these words?
After all the conversation, though, it wasn’t clear where that had led the Vision Team. “I’m just not comfortable where we stand with these six,” McCain said. “They’re great words, but why not faith, hope and love? Or compassion, peace and justice? There are other words we could have up here. Discipleship. Reconciliation. We have to have a compelling reason for why these six.”
Andrzejewski said he found the exercise significant and useful, but “we should not feel like our catch phrase has to be based on these six words.”
McCain responded that it has been “a nice exercise. To what end?” The vision team needs to complete its report to the 2018 General Assembly by Feb. 16, and he doesn’t want to submit a report saying, “here are some ideas, we’re still thinking. … That’s pretty embarrassing, and not just for the committee, but for the denomination.”
Other task force members, however, seemed more comfortable with the ambiguity.
Coffee said the instructions the 2016 assembly gave the Vision Team “were not all that clear,” and “I don’t want to just throw something together. That to me would be worse.”
Cunningham said she has faith things will work out.
“We don’t have to put a lot of pressure on ourselves for this process,” she said. “This is God-ordained.” If the vision team doesn’t draft a guiding statement by the end of its next in-person meeting, Jan. 21-23, “it’s OK. … I don’t think the assembly will have a problem with it. Because the bottom line is we want it right. They want it right. … We’ve been called to this and God will give us what we need to get that done. There again, trust. Trust in the Lord.”
Lowry stressed the importance of as many team members as possible attending the January meeting – only 9 of 15 came to this meeting, with six absent.
But Lowry said, “I’m elated” with the work the Vision Team has done so far. He acknowledged that his frustration was with the listening sessions, where he felt he heard little new (“it was the same old, same old”).
Now, “we’re starting to get the building materials together,” Lowry said. He doesn’t know what exactly the team in constructing – a two-story house, a ranch style, with a one-car garage or two. “I’m not sure what this house is going to look like,” Lowry said, but he’s confident “we can build a house.”
Sapio said she’s unclear about the next step. While the six words weren’t randomly chosen, she said, she’s also not sure how to get from them to a guiding statement for the PC(USA) that would tangibly help congregations. “Is it a house? A car? A barn?” she asked. “We’ve got these materials. What are we supposed to be making out of them?”
“That’s our task,” Andrzejewski responded. “Those are important questions. I think it’s time we answered them.”