SEATTLE – As the Way Forward Commission began its Jan. 17-19 meeting in Seattle – a meeting at which the commission is expected to fill in the blanks of what it will recommend to the 2018 General Assembly – the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), J. Herbert Nelson, told the commission it is doing exactly the difficult work of pushing for change that the denomination most needs.
“This is a time for reform,” Nelson told the commission, meeting in the chapel of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle. “You are right now on the cutting edge.”
Nelson said he believes “we are in a very significant period” both in the church and the world. Presbyterians are figuring out new ways of doing ministry – sometimes propelled into change by loss and decline.
So they are thinking in new ways – not about survival, but to figure out how to be a church thriving in the 21st century, and realizing, he said, that “if we don’t do the heavy lifting that needs to be done now, this may be the last opportunity” for many congregations.
Nelson spoke of concerns he’s heard raised in question-and-answer sessions and in parking lot conversations as he travels around the denomination and that surface daily in the news – describing a photo of a man from Detroit who’d lived in the United States for 30 years, hugging his wife and children at the airport as he was being deported to Mexico.
“We are dealing with evil in many ways,” Nelson said. “It is coming closer to us” – as experienced by Indonesian Presbyterians from Manchester, New Hampshire, also in danger of being deported.
Nelson said he drew strength from the strength of that New Hampshire congregation – which is facing urgent need in its own community, but collected an offering during a worship service he attended to help those in Texas struggling with the aftermath of storms. “That night as a public witness, they gave to the broader denomination,” instead of focusing on themselves.
In Manchester, Presbyterians have been part of a public ecumenical witness against deportation, a sign that “we still are deeply committed to ecumenism,” and to having relationships that extend beyond the PC(USA), Nelson said. “That too will be a way forward for this denomination,” he said. “We will not live in isolation. … We are partners in the faith.”
Nelson also said “I’m seeing a great revival in the spirit of our people,” those who are saying, “the past is done. What we’ve been through, the churches that we have lost, the splits we have had in congregational life … we’re not lamenting anymore,” but moving forward with what remains. “They have begun to really rethink ministry.”
He told the commission members that “your work is extremely helpful” and requires courage. Nelson said he’s heard some muted criticism of the commission, heard “some of the things that have been whispered, the anxiety of the system right now about what is going to happen. … I want you to know people are talking about you.”
Nelson said, “It takes a great sense of courage to sit at this table to struggle with the contextual reality,” and: “You are probably doing some of the significant heavy lifting, trying to get us to be at the place we need to be, to be the church we are called to be.”
During its Seattle meting, the commission hopes to identify key concepts and possible recommendations it wants to include in its report to the 2018 General Assembly, which will meet in St. Louis June 16-23.
“We have exactly 30 days from today until our report is due,” said commission moderator Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York.