Guest commentary by Raymond R. Roberts
I had high hopes when the Way Forward Commission was formed.
At the time, Heath Rada, the moderator of the 221st General Assembly, had reported the concern churning through the church. The 222nd General Assembly responded by creating the 2020 Vision Team and The Way Forward Commission. The mid-term report indicated that the Way Forward Commission was listening.
Yet, now that I’ve had a chance to read their report to General Assembly, I am extremely disappointed. My discontent falls into three categories: its theological weightlessness, its inattention to our vision problem and two recommendations that depart from core Presbyterian principles.
The Way Forward report lacks theological substance. I hoped the commission would have started with a theological statement about the purpose of the church and its ministry: Who is God? Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor? The Way Forward report is hardly alone in this failure; we see this in other areas, but a thick theological ecclesiology could have given shape and reason for the changes called for in the report.
Second, the report does not address our most significant crisis: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lacked a compelling, shared vision for decades. The drift that has resulted from this lack of vision is much more responsible for the recent loss of members than any General Assembly decision concerning sexual orientation.
Consider two broad areas where the church has not identified a vision to help us adapt to a changing world: In one the church faces an existential challenge, in the other the church faces an exciting opportunity.
The challenge: Making disciples of Jesus Christ is a core church function and for decades it has been obvious we are no longer good at it. Statistics don’t lie. The repeal of blue laws contributed to waning in Sabbath observance. Colleges that were formed, in part, to give congregational leaders and professionals a critical understanding of the Bible and the faith lost their denominational distinctiveness. Campus ministries disappeared. Church camps closed. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this visible, much-discussed decline, our denomination never ask how we ought to reform our approach to this core function in a changing world. Can Sunday school be saved? Do we need to create some new institution for Christian education? How do we rebuild campus ministry so we more effectively engage students when they are making decisions about their vocations and place in the world?
The opportunity: New digital technology provides exciting opportunities for the church to communicate, engage in Christian education, worship in new ways, help people grow into a Christian identity, organize and support a thoughtful, Reformed presence in the public sphere — and much, much more. The report does mention a lack of vision concerning communication, but does not ask why we are so late in addressing it. The report should have noted that we’ve not had a conversation about programing for and leveraging social media. We’ve not had a conversation about how to encourage distance learning.
We’ve not had a conversation about how to use technology to enhance worship or how the denomination should support it. This is why the preponderance of video content and music available for use in contemporary worship comes from an evangelical perspective. Our failure to resource contemporary worship played a significant role in allowing the culture of large PC(USA) congregations with successful contemporary services to drift from the center of our theological and moral tradition. Where is the gender-inclusive worship music? Where are short video clips that tell about the work of Presbyterian Women or valiant mission co-workers that can be included in worship or used as a sermon illustration? Why have we not had serious discussion about how worship can be enhanced by new technology?
Let me be clear: The Way Forward Commission didn’t need to do the visioning work to address these challenges; it needed to recognize that we haven’t been doing the visioning work. This is our real crisis: Our current structure is not producing a vision sufficient to support programing to minister in a changing world. It needed to recommend structural changes to solve our deficit. The call for the creation of a separate A Corp is not nearly enough.
The church at the denominational level can gather experts and get to the balcony on issues facing the whole church. It has (or should have) resources to do things that individual, local congregations cannot — for example, doing polished video production. It can be a clearinghouse for best practices and sharing work done at the local level (creative video clips, etc.). Our church could be stronger, more effective, exciting to be part of and a joy to support. Instead, the report’s recommendations promise more of the same.
Let me be blunt: Calls to raise per capita without this vision will likely fall on deaf ears. Too many will say: “Pay more? To keep doing what we’re doing? No, thank you.” It pains me to say this because I know so many of faithful workers at the national office in Louisville and I am inspired by the amazing work that our mission co-workers are doing around the world. It doesn’t have to be this way.
We are dying for a compelling vision of how we will adapt and do effective ministry in a rapidly changing world. General Assembly must find a structure that ensures some group brings new vision to the General Assembly. A church that is finding new ways to make disciples, worship faithfully, do justice and communicate internally and with the larger world can invite commitment and sacrifice.
Finally, I take strong exception to two of the report’s recommendations. First, the recommendation regarding a separate A Corp adds an additional layer of administration and concentrates power in troublesome ways. Others have rightly raised concerns about gender and racial representation that are not adequately addressed in the report.
I am sympathetic, I think, to the idea behind the creation of A Corp: to prevent “back office administrators” from running “the front office” mission and program work. Unfortunately, the proposed structure ensures that this is precisely what will happen. The people with the power (who control the money) will call the shots. This structural flaw is why many congregations combined the board of trustee functions with the programmatic and ministerial session functions. A separate A Corp will not solve our vision deficit. We need to explore other ways to reduce the size and the overreach of legal, financial, human resources and other administrators that was recognized by the All Agency Review committee.
Second, changing the role of the stated clerk to “speak to and for the church in matters of faith and practice, except as the General Assembly directs otherwise” is a polity mistake of the first order. Christ alone is head of the church. The church is never comprised in a person, but constitutes itself when the body of Christ gathers. In Presbyterian polity, stated clerks speak out of the riches of General Assembly pronouncements. The current system of empowering clerks to share the body’s wisdom gives ample room and grounding for stated clerks to exercise leadership in the church and the world. Eugene Carson Blake did not need such power. The proposed changes concentrates too much power in a single person — effectively, a bishop. It is not Presbyterian.
These thoughts are offered with a profound gratitude to the people who have given so much their time to study a very, very complex problem and it is my hope that they contribute to a continued conversation.
Raymond R. Roberts is pastor of River Road Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and author of “Whose Kids Are They Anyway?” He is co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and a past corresponding member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.