Guest commentary by Heath Rada
Sometimes life confronts us with situations where there seem to be no “right” choices. It is at such times we are called to faithfulness in new and often challenging ways. There are many ways I feel that such a conflict of values and priorities is at work in our nation today. The rules are changing, the foundations are shaken, the expected is no longer assured. And I must remind myself that it is not I who is in control.
Likewise, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in a similar situation. So many basics on which we have lived our “decent and orderly” lives are being hurled aside and turned upside down. And it is painful.
As the moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) I was asked by many, “Do you think our church is dying?” These caring folk would quote statistics from their local congregations or presbyteries or from Pew polls and other religious groups whose data proved (to them) that the church is dying. Most of the time the people would ask out of fear, or deep concern, that a beloved part of their lives may no longer exist in the future. Many times they wanted me to say, “Oh no, our church is not dying.” Instead I would say: “Yes. I believe the church, as we have known it, is dying. The church in which my faith was developed is, quite frankly, no longer in existence. But the Church of Jesus Christ is not dying. But it is changing. It is having to take a good hard look at who we have become, who we need to be and where must we change.”
One mistake I believe we have made over this past decade of major change in the PC(USA), is the fact that we have not provided an appropriate place for those of us who are watching this with fear or anxiety to grieve. Psychologists, as well as religious figures, tell us that when we give up something of great value to us, we need to have some time, and often some help, in “letting it go.” If we don’t, people will demonstrate their grief through anger, denial and other manifestations of grief — and get stuck in those places. Over and over again we have seen examples of this in the lives of people we love, and also in many churches we love. Until we grieve over our losses, it is very difficult to move into the future.
We also see this happening in the Bible. Look at the church in Corinth or in Rome and how they were challenged to get over their past understandings and embrace new ones. These people were hearing good news, not mere threats to their past ways of understanding faithfulness.
Over and over, as I travelled across the church, I had people tell me that they were frustrated and upset with our denomination at multiple levels. Some felt that our theological foundations were being abandoned. But many felt that we were not “being the church.” They were critical and came with examples of how we have a structure and a set of operational principles that conflict with what they believe it means to be the church. This was not a small minority of people. I met with literally thousands of members of the PC(USA), and the overwhelming sentiment was that we cannot continue to be and do what we have been doing — and hope to be the church which Jesus has called us to be.
Many new changes are being proposed for our denomination. Some are well studied suggestions for moving forward into a new day, while others are more reactive and not open to proposed changes. Their heartfelt rationale is that the church would be harmed if we were to adopt some of the suggested changes and those voices should not be ignored.
What concerns me is that, knowing so many of the people who have worked on various positions and proposed various actions to come before our next General Assembly are sincere people of faith who love our denomination – and the Lord we serve – but they have lost trust in one another and understandably feel misunderstood, betrayed and frustrated.
So what can we, as the members of this body, do to enable a level of trust and faithful following to occur? Will our General Assembly in St. Louis in June be one of contentious politicking and backroom negotiations to get “our way” before the commissioners so they might vote as we believe they should? Or might we in preparation – whether we are commissioners, members of various church bodies who will be present or interested members who care what happens –begin a process of prayer, open discussion, a sincere understanding of the issues and a willingness to change our minds? Might we also have faith that God is indeed in control, and that our willingness to blow with the Spirit into new ways of being the church, can guide us — if we but let go?
Friends, it is a time of renewal, resurrection and reformation for those of us in the PC(USA). How might we help to make this a positive and joyful experience, rather than a time to protect our investment in certain processes, policies, reports and recommendations in which we are vested?
God knows, we need new vision, trust and a spirit of hope to build the PC(USA) we have been called to serve. Let us ask God to help us find our way.
HEATH RADA is the former president of Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) and the moderator of the 221st General Assembly. He currently resides in Black Mountain, North Carolina.