Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Report to the Presbytery: September 25, 2007

Am I allowed to lead? In this era when we have clearly defined the purpose of the Presbytery as supporting, resourcing and encouraging the ministry of our congregations, what does it mean for me to lead? Am I allowed to lead?

In my opinion, leadership from my office means three things: First, to understand our congregations and see where the Holy Spirit is inspiring good ministry. Second, to name and celebrate that good ministry. Third, connect the good ministry of individual congregations to one another and thus help move it to a higher level of energy and commitment. Leadership from the Presbytery means finding out what we do best and helping us to do it better, together. Am I allowed to lead?

Clearly, in my experience so far with this presbytery, what our congregations do very, very well is mission work. Our Mission Committee, under the leadership of Elder Skip Becker, has done a comprehensive telephone survey of our congregations. The picture that develops is beautiful. We have across our congregations a truly remarkable commitment to mission work.
Am I allowed to lead? If I am allowed to name a vision and direction for our Presbytery and for our Churches it would be this: an intentional and robust commitment to mission. This is my vision:

Every congregation will move toward an intentional, defined mission budget of at least 10% of total income every year.
Every congregation will devote at least half of their mission budget to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission work in both designated and undesignated expressions.
Every congregation will make a significant financial commitment to undesignated Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission giving. We will work harder to understand, celebrate and interpret our church’s mission work.
Every congregation will connect with opportunities for active, hands on mission service for their members, including mission trips. We will work harder at connecting congregations together for mission service and mission trips. Lend a Hand is a stellar example of this kind of cooperation.
Every congregation will have an international component to their mission commitment. Every congregation will seek to understand and celebrate the amazing things God is doing in Churches all around the world, outside of the United States.
Every congregation will make a significant and active, hands-on commitment to at least one of the mission agencies which we support within the presbytery bounds. For example, Skip Becker and I recently visited the Check-up Center, a remarkable medical mission right in the heart of the one of the most oppressed and dangerous, urban areas in Harrisburg. The Check up Center is remarkably good ministry, providing free medical care for extremely underprivileged children. But only two congregations in our Presbytery actively support the Check up Center.
Every congregation will make a gift to our Funding the Future capital campaign in support of Camp Krislund.
I ask for permission to lead mission trips as part of my position. I requested and the Administration approved, and you will vote on today, adding two weeks per year for mission work, including funding, into my 2008 terms of call. I hope to create the relationships and infrastructure for mission trips so that every pastor and church leader will have the opportunity to participate.

Am I allowed to lead? Let me be bold:
We can support the General Assembly’s Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands. Our Presbytery can create and fund a new international mission co-worker position. Our Presbytery can commit to growing Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) international mission work.
We can begin a conversation to ponder a Mission Coordinator staff position at the Presbytery level. The responsibilities of this person will be our disaster response ministry through Lend a Hand, connecting congregations together in active mission service and mission trips, and connecting us as a Presbytery with the beautiful work that Presbyterian missionaries are doing around the world.

Am I allowed to lead? What does that mean? To me it means identifying and naming what we do best, and helping us do it better together. Let’s do mission in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Conversations with the General Assembly Council

There is a lot of new conversation and discernment going on at the national level of our church. I want with this report to share some reflections from my perspective as a new Executive Presbyter.

First, when I was a pastor I never knew that there is a para-church organization in our church called the Association of Executive Presbyters. This is a support group for Executive and General Presbyters across the church. This past week, September 18-20, 2007, I participated again in our annual meeting. For my first two years as your Executive Presbyter, I participated in the new executive training provided by Association of Executive Presbyters for first year and then again for second year Executives. This training and orientation has been a valuable and important experience for me. The value of these orientation sessions was not necessarily in the skills I learned, but in the relationships with other new Executives which were forged, and continue to be important relationships for me in the church. Thus for three consecutive years I have participated in the annual meeting of the Association of Executive Presbyters. This is a remarkable group of people, with deep passion for the work we face to build a new church for a new day.

Exactly at the same time as I started my service as your Executive Presbyter, the national church started a serious of conversations intended to build bridges and discern a way forward in these chaotic times. This started one year ago when the Office of the General Assembly, which sponsors an annual polity conference for all our Presbytery Stated Clerks, met simultaneously with our Association of Executive Presbyters. That meeting in Tucson in October 2006 was an exhilarating week for me. I was there for two days of orientation with new Executives starting their second year; participated in the Office of the General Assembly’s polity conference, participated in the meetings to build communication between the Office of the General Assembly and the Association of Executive Presbyters, and also participated in the meetings of the Executive Presbyters. I fully understand the challenges which face our church. But the more I meet with and work with church leaders in other presbyteries and at the General Assembly, the more impressed I am with the vision, commitment and devotion they bring to our common work.

These national consultations have become required when the 2006 General Assembly mandated annual consultations. Now the General Assembly Council meets with the Association of Executive Presbyters annually, an event which took place last week in Louisville. Aside from our meeting, I was delighted to have the opportunity to tour Presbyterian Center. All the General Assembly staff were available to us for conversations and questions while we toured their offices. We also had a meaningful worship service in the Presbyterian Center chapel with a brilliant sermon by Rev. Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Church and a Presbyterian leader from Ghana.

Our discussions with the General Assembly Council last week were focused on the “adaptive change” issues facing the church. In other words, we were looking at the big picture questions facing our church. I believe the distinction between adaptive change and technical change is very important in the church today. Technical change is about problem solving, and finding solutions. Adaptive change is about changing the culture of the church. The conversations were rich, perceptive and challenging. The truth of the matter is that we are faced with the challenge of creating a new church for a new day.

I want to share here some of the questions which we articulated as important in the church today. These are all huge questions of adaptive change. Answers to these questions are complex, multi-dimensional and will require sweeping spiritual and cultural change in our church.

Can the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), in this particular time, find a common vision?
In a purpose-driven world, what is the purpose of the PC(USA)?
Who nurtures the relationships and honors the connections that are at the heart of this network of congregations, pastors, educators, and presbyteries?
Facing the realities of our 21st century context and respecting our historic polity, what can and should leaders do?
In a post-Christendom world where each congregation is a mission post and every member a missionary, can we make disciples through one hour of worship and fifteen minutes of coffee fellowship on Sunday morning?
How do we address the congregational dilemma of moving from a 1950s fellowship/membership model for doing church to a missional/outward model for being the church?
Does the PC(USA) have a fundraising problem, a stewardship problem, or a spiritual problem? If, as the Book of Order states, “We believe that Christ calls and gives the church all that is necessary for its mission in the world,” what are the current funding issues saying to us?
Is the PC(USA)’s communication network effective in an internet age? Who’s talking, who’s listening and who is telling our story?
If the world is becoming flat, what does it mean organizationally for the PC(USA)? How and where can we begin having a conversation about structure, leadership, accountability, decision making and partnership for the 21st century PC(USA)?
What does a healthy denomination look like? How do we get there?
Without constraining the movement of the Holy Spirit, how can a better process be put in place to help each General Assembly focus on what is vital and important to our long-term health and faithfulness?
By the Spirit of Christ we are called to create a new church for new day.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?


Across the church, in conversations, classes and session meetings, I regularly hear reference to the General Assembly. But what exactly is the General Assembly? I wonder, as I hear reference to the General Assembly, if we understand the fullness of it work and ministry.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is made up of six different organizations referred to by the acronyms listed above.

OGA: The Office of the General Assembly.
I suspect that this is the one aspect of the work of the General Assembly which people are referring to when they speak of the General Assembly. The OGA is responsible for the biennial meetings of the General Assembly. The OGA includes the office of the Stated Clerk, now headed by Cliff Kirkpatrick, who has recently announced his retirement. The OGA is responsible for the constitution – the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions – of the Presbyterian Church.

GAC: The General Assembly Council
The General Assembly Council is the program and ministry arm of the General Assembly, now headed by newly selected Elder Linda Valentine. All of our national and international mission work falls under the rubric of the GAC. All the educational, evangelism, new church development, transformation and youth ministry resources created by the General Assembly are within the GAC. In addition the Office of Theology and Worship and our Church Leadership Connection is within the GAC.

BOP: Board of Pensions
The Board of Pensions is a very, very large piece of the work of the General Assembly but generally non-controversial. The BOP is not typically in mind when we consider the work of the General Assembly. But in fact, every congregation with an installed pastor has a direct and significant relationship with the BOP. The BOP is responsible for the major medical plan, the pension plan, and disability insurance plan for all our pastors and many professional church workers. The BOP also does significant work across the church with their shared, emergency, educational grants and housing supplement grants.

PILP: The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program
The Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program is one of the shining lights in the ministry of the General Assembly. This program, which many people do not know about, makes loans and grants to congregations for new construction and capital improvements. Using funds invested with them by individuals and congregations across the church, the PILP is able to use investment proceeds from those funds to provide loans to churches. When your congregation begins exploring any kind of construction project you should contact PILP.

PF: The Presbyterian Foundation
The Presbyterian Foundation is the autonomous investment arm of the General Assembly. By that I mean that the Foundation does not receive any mission or per capita funds. With a stellar record of investment earning, the Presbyterian Foundation deserves its impeccable reputation for its ability to make money available to the church. Individuals across the church have millions of dollars invested with the Presbyterian Foundation. Most of the accumulated funds of the Presbytery of Carlisle are invested with the Presbyterian Foundation. Every congregation should use Presbyterian Foundation resources to raise awareness about the importance of planned giving and estate giving with your members.

PPH: Presbyterian Publishing House
Obviously, the Presbyterian Publishing House is the publishing arm of the General Assembly. “The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) is the denominational publisher for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but the materials it issues under its Westminster John Knox Press imprint cover the spectrum of modern religious thought and represent the work of scholarly and popular authors of many different religious affiliations. PPC's Geneva Press imprint is for a specifically Presbyterian audience.”

Monday, September 3, 2007

Book Review: Craig Van Gelder

Craig Van Gelder. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Baker Books, 2007.

I have become immersed in the new movement in contemporary, American theological reflection which may appropriately be named “missional theology”. Missional theology has become a very comprehensive genre of theological reflection which strives to understand the sweeping changes that are moving the church into a new era. Craig Van Gelder, professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, offers an important new book in missional theology. His overarching thesis is a vision of the Church as Spirit-led.

After an introduction in Chapter One, Van Gelder offers a nice Bible study on the work of the Spirit through both the Old and New Testaments in Chapter Two. In Chapter Three, Van Gelder considers a theme that is common in missional theology: the contextuality of the church. The church must be intentional today to understand where it is, its spiritual and theological location in the world. In response to the constantly changing context of the church, Van Gelder suggests that “the church is always both forming and reforming. This reinforces the logic that the church always needs to be both confessional (claiming and reclaiming its identity in relation to the historic Christian faith) and missional (engaging its context and continuously recontextualizing its ministry)” (Page 54).

In Chapter Four, Van Gelder focuses on the American church, in a perceptive analysis of our history, by tracking the movement of the church in American context from an established church to a corporate church to the missional church (Page 73). This understanding of American church history is very helpful, and precisely defines the change and trauma of our church today as we are in the midst of a transformation from a corporate church to a missional church.

It is Chapter Five which makes this book a valuable contribution to the Presbyterian Church today. In light of the discussions across our church motivated by the Peace, Unity and Purity report, there is now a new appreciation and a renewed interest in “spiritual discernment.” The call to communal spiritual discernment is one of the central propositions of the Peace, Unity and Purity report. Van Gelder also calls for a renewed commitment to spiritual discernment in the church and offers the theological, social and historical rationale for it. Van Gelder offers the idea of “hermeneutical turn” as a way to describe the situation we are in which includes a “diversity of interpretations of reality.” Van Gelder is exactly correct, and I have experienced this repeatedly, that “the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality.” I will quote here at length Van Gelder’s description of the hermeneutical turn because, I believe, it accurately describes the challenge before the church and the opportunity for becoming a truly missional church:

“In light of the hermeneutical turn that has developed over the past century, there is no going back to a world that can be framed in seemingly black-and-white categories. The diversity of interpretations of reality, which are manifest both in the multiperspectival character of biblical studies and the different methods used by the social sciences, makes this impossible. This means that part of the challenge facing Christian leaders today is learning to engage diverse perceptions of reality by drawing on a variety of methods that can inform discernment and decision-making process. Relying primarily on one method, whether it is in relation to biblical teaching or scientific explanation, is no longer viable, if it ever was. Diverse perspectives, rooted in different methods and the particulars of social location, bring a multiperspectival dynamic into any discussion. Rather than playing out these differences around power dynamics related to personalities, roles, or the vote of the majority, which is so often the case in congregations, a more redemptive approach is to engage such differences through a process of mutual discernment. This requires leadership. This requires time. This requires a mutual commitment among those who are around the table. And this requires being Spirit-led. Reflected in this approach is the important theoretical insight that we need to develop a practice of ‘communicative reason’ within diverse communities in order to come to shared conclusions” (Page 97).

I believe this beautifully names an important challenge of ministry today. Church leaders must be able to engage diverse perceptions of reality in ways that are Spirit-led and grace-filled. This engagement need not confrontational but must be conversational and discerning. This engagement must not be a power-play or an effort to promote my own agenda, but must be truly discerning, seeking to understand the will of God. I believe that pastors today who are able to create mature, open, mutual, Spirit-led patterns of spiritual discernment will help us move toward the kind of church to which God is calling us.