Sunday, July 18, 2010

Report from the General Assembly 17



Several years ago, my good friend and co-founder of Haiti Partners, John Engle, introduced me to a method of facilitating meetings called “open space.” The method was built on the observation that at many meetings, the best part of the meeting, as far as participants are concerned, is not what happens as part of the official agenda, but is what happens around the sides of the meeting, in informal conversations.

It is an insight that definitely pertains to the 219th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that I attended July 3-10 in Minneapolis. The best part of the meeting as far as I’m concerned was what happened outside of the meeting’s official agenda. There were reunions with old friends from seminary and other presbyteries where I have served. There were fascinating presentations at special lunches and dinners. Worship was outstanding. And gathered around tables at mealtime, I was able to engage in real dialogue with other Presbyterians from across this entire country about important issues.

However, when we gathered to address the official agenda, I found General Assembly to be boring at its best, frustrating at its worst. Dialogue ended and debate began. We ceased to learn and began to be lobbied for our vote. We often found ourselves, not united, but polarized. And when God was brought onto the floor of the Assembly, the point more often than not seemed to be to claim God for “our side” rather than to lead us to try to discern whether or not we were, together, honoring God.

As I reflect on all of this, I think that part of the problem is the method that we use to facilitate the General Assembly and many other meetings in the Presbyterian Church. We use something called Roberts Rules of Order, named for the military engineer who came up with the first edition of them in the latter half of the 19th Century. They represented his attempt to standardize parliamentary procedures, and no doubt, they are still valuable in certain settings, particularly in settings that have primarily a parliamentary (that is, a legislative) function.

But in today’s church, I question their value, to be honest—questions that were deepened by my experience at the General Assembly. For in today’s church, it seems to me, our primary task is not to legislate. Instead, I think that our primary task is to build relational communities of folks seeking together to follow Jesus Christ in Christ’s mission in the world. And so, our method of facilitating meetings needs to change, it seems to me, to methods that promote dialogue over debate; mutual learning over lobbying; permission to follow our passions over promotion of polarization over our differences; all seeking together to discern the will of God, no matter how long that takes, exercising the spiritual discipline of mutual forbearance.

It’s hard to imagine things changing nationally before the next General Assembly meets in Pittsburgh in 2012. I’d guess that the air of the convention center there will be filled with the language of Mr. Robert. But here at Silver Spring, where I actually think that Roberts Rules already are less important in how we live, maybe things can change. At least, that’s the journey that I’d like us to take.

The Rev. Don Steele

Monday, July 12, 2010

Report from the General Assembly 16

A Pastoral Letter to our Churches from the Moderator of the General Assembly

July 10, 2010

To Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations:

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38) …

Just one week ago, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convened with Scripture and music and prayer. Commissioners and advisory delegates from every presbytery across the church gathered around the baptismal font with hopeful expectation of what God’s Spirit would do in and through them as they sought to discern together the mind of Christ for the PC(USA).

As the week progressed, prayer was a foundational part of each day’s deliberations and decisions, and the presence of the Spirit was palpable!

“Out of the believer’s heart…

While all assemblies are significant, this one holds particular significance in the life of the PC(USA). Among the assembly’s decisions – to be ratified by presbyteries – are the addition of the Belhar Confession to The Book of Confessions and a revised Form of Government. Both of these items give a clear signal that we are a church that is not afraid to change – an important perspective to have in these days of great change in the church and the world.

The assembly celebrated and was greatly encouraged by the commissioning of 122 young adult volunteers and 17 new mission workers for service around the globe. Commissioners voted unanimously to renew the call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide” and were inspired by the stories ( of congregations that are growing in evangelism, discipleship, diversity, and servanthood. They celebrated the generosity of Presbyterians who have contributed more than $10.5 million to relief and redevelopment work in Haiti in the wake of Januarys’ devastating earthquake.

The assembly also engaged in discussion about significant matters of faith and life – ordination standards, justice and peace in the Middle East, and civil union and marriage, to name just a few.
Information on the more than 300 assembly actions is available at Answers to frequently asked questions about the items that have already garnered media attention are attached to this letter and available online ( We commend these resources to you for their accurate and straightforward information.

While the content of the assembly’s decisions is important, what may be of equal or greater importance is the manner in which commissioners and advisory delegates did their work. They debated, but did not fight. They tackled tough issues while refraining from tackling each other. They placed great value on finding common ground as they displayed gracious, mutual forbearance toward one another. They sought the will of God within their actions, rather than regarding their decisions as the will of God. One commissioner called the experience of seeking – and finding – common ground truly “miraculous.” In short, this assembly exhibited to the whole church and, indeed, to our society and the world a way to engage in difficult issues while maintaining respect for one another. To put it another way, they exhibited well what it means for the church to “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for the world” (Book of Order, G-3.0200).

…shall flow rivers of living water.”

Just a few short hours ago, the 219th General Assembly ended in the same worshipful manner with which it began, as well as with a similar same sense of hopeful expectation that the hard work done in Minneapolis will continue forward across the church. Michael East and Caroline Sherard, elected by their peers as co-moderators of the young adult advisory delegates to this assembly, shared their thoughts in a blog entry (

If all our commissioners and advisory delegates returned to their places of community and
encouraged others to continue similar stories, what great things could be next for the PC(USA)?
These narratives have the ability to inspire discussions on new, creative, and innovative ways of
being the Church. At the heart of being Presbyterian is the principle belief that our discernment is best done when we gather together. Being able to gather in one place, as one people, for the one
Church is a powerful and transformative experience--one which dramatically shapes future

The assembly has commended to the church a number of items for further study, out of which is hoped will come, as Michael and Caroline write, “new, creative, and innovative ways of being the Church.”

May the good and faithful work begun in Minneapolis truly be just the beginning of a season of respectful, earnest, and gracious engagement – both in our words and in our deeds – all for the sake of the gospel.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,

Elder Cynthia Bolbach
Moderator, 219th General Assembly Stated Clerk of the General Assembly

Ponderings from the General Assembly 15

A letter to the editor of the Harrisburg Patriot News:

On Friday July 9 I sat in the Minneapolis St. Paul airport reading a front page article about the meeting of my Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly. When I arrived home I read an Associated Press story in the Harrisburg Patriot News on the same topic with the headline “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Leaders reject same-sex marriage.” Although this article in the Patriot-News was factually accurate, it does not communicate the deep theological commitments which are the foundation of our General Assembly’s action. Indeed, those of us in leadership in the Church today are increasingly convinced that the mainstream media and the general culture in America do not understand the deepest convictions and motivations of our churches. There is an increasing separation of our church’s culture and worldview from American society.

Yes, the Presbyterian General Assembly rejected same-sex marriage. But that is a superficial understanding of what we did. What we did is profoundly more important. We made a commitment as a church to try and live together in a spirit of prayer and discernment and deep dialogue. We made a commitment NOT to live in the powerful worldview of blue states versus red states; republicans versus democrats; conservatives versus liberals. This deeply embedded cultural and political paradigm of “us versus them”, however “us” and “them” is defined, is very difficult to break. But we Presbyterians are seeking another way for our church.

This is what we did. Our General Assembly in 2008 asked for a special study on the question of marriage and civil union. The special committee did good work and was reporting to our 2010 General Assembly meeting in Minneapolis last week. As the committee reported we heard a passion for our church to find another way which will not simply divide us into camps. The committee itself could not come together in its conclusions despite a continuing commitment to be together. Thus the special committee presented to our General Assembly two reports: a Majority Report and a Minority Report. What the General Assembly did next was stunning to all of us in attendance. The Assembly put the two reports together and we will send them out together to all our congregations asking for a time of careful study, prayer and discernment around this difficult issue. More important we made a commitment to stay together despite our differences around these complex questions. It is this action that is a very important witness of the Presbyterians this year.

The question now for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and, I would say, for all American Christians is whether or not we can find ways to live and serve together which are motivated by the Good News of Jesus Christ and not by America’s reigning paradigm of “us versus them” politics?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ponderings from the General Assembly 14

The most beautiful things at the General Assembly:

From my experience of the General Assembly this year, I want to list three events which are very different from the Actions Items upon which we typically focus. Because I am not a Commissioner, I have the opportunity to take advantage of many other events and programs that happen around the edges of this meeting.

ONE: This morning I attended the breakfast of the Committee on Theological Education. My conviction was affirmed again at this breakfast. Our Presbyterian Church has the finest group of theological institutions in the world. Our ten Presbyterian seminaries are a very important aspect of our church which need our appreciation and support. Indeed, Christians from around the world come to our seminaries to study and prepare for ministry. Our seminaries have a significant global impact in the global Church today.

At this breakfast, Professor Barbara Wheeler received a special recognition. Her address on “Excellence in Leadership” was stirring and very motivating. Indeed, despite all our conflict, stress, strain and decline, God continues to raise up gifted pastors and leaders to service in the Presbyterian Church.

TWO: I attended the Presbyterian Writers Guild luncheon today which is one of the tiny advocacy groups of the church with which few people are involved. But today the room was filled to overflowing because Eugene Peterson was received a special recognition from the Guild. In a very quiet, almost meek voice which created a deep quiet in the room, Eugene Peterson offered some of the most eloquent, deep, and beautiful words I have ever heard on the gift of being a pastor. It was one of the most affirming and inspiring presentations I have ever heard. I felt that everyone in the room was touched by his words which moved me to a deep gratitude for the calling I have received to serve the church.

THREE: At the General Assembly worship service this morning, a huge, new class of full-time, professional missionaries were commissioned. The whole gathered congregation burst out in joyous praise and applause several times as these new missionaries were introduced and commissioned. This work is, indeed, the passion of my heart. Despite everything else we must do now as a church, this work of calling, equipping, sending out and financially supporting new, full time, professional missionaries to work with church partners all around the world may be the most important. Indeed, while we continue to be in decline in many ways, we have turned the corner and we are now increasing the number of missionaries we have in the field. Our church will be abundantly blessed as we deepen and nurture close relationships with church partners around the world.

In addition, during worship, the General Assembly Mission Council announced that this week, during the meeting of the General Assembly, two large gifts were pledged to our work in World Mission. Gifts from individuals in the amounts of $400,000 and $250,000 have been pledged specifically to support new missionaries.

Beautiful things are happening in our Church!

Report from the General Assembly 13


After long, sometimes passionate, and sometimes bewildering debate, and after a motion to Call the Question was defeated thus allowing even more debate, yet another proposal to change the language of the Book of Order G-6.0106b was approved. This approval was on a very narrow margin of 373 YES to 323 NO votes. This action is very similar to action approved by the last General Assembly which was defeated by the Presbyteries. The great debate continues. The actual language of the new proposal is copied here:

G-6.0106b. "Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

Report from the General Assembly 12


The substitute motion which would have killed the Form of Government proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, and after extensive debate the Form of Government proposal itself passed with a very strong vote of 468 YES votes and 204 NO votes. It is very important that our church leaders become familiar with this proposal in preparation for our Presbytery vote on this proposal.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Report from the General Assembly 11

NOTE: The General Assembly approved the recommendation to add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions. I strongly believe in the open theology that is reflected in an open Book of Confessions. I like the idea of adding Belhar to our Book of Confessions. This is, of course, a constitutional issue which we will need to act on as a Presbytery. This conversation presents us with a good opportunity to have conversation about our Book of Confessions in our churches. Resources about the Belhar Confession including a study guide are available at Copied here is the actual text:

Confession of Belhar

1. We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.

2. We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe
• that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
• that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;
• that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;
• that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
• that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church;
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
• which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
• which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
• which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin;
• which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.

3. We believe
• that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
• that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;
• that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
• that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
• which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.

4. We believe
• that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
• that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged
• that God calls the church to follow him in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
• that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
• that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
• that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
• that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
• that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
• that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore, we reject any ideology
• which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.

5. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.

To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.

Ponderings from the General Assembly 10

Grow the Church Deep and Wide

NOTE: The General Assembly voted, without debate, to continue this program emphasis on Growing the Church Deep and Wide. This conversation has not touched the life of very many of our congregations. This action is a simple, theological vision. It does provide a nice framework to begin conversation about the ministry and direction of our congregations. We may ask each session to consider their own work in response to these four priorities: Evangelism, Discipleship, Servanthood, Diversity. Copied here is the actual, approved action item:

The General Assembly Mission Council recommends that the 219th General Assembly (2010) renew its commitment to help grow Christ’s Church deep and wide by doing the following:

1. Extend a churchwide commitment to participate in God’s activity through Jesus Christ in transforming the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through the 2011–2012 biennium.

2. Encourage synods, presbyteries, sessions, and all agencies, entities, and networks of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to commit to foster the growth of Christ’s Church deep and wide in the following areas:

a. Grow in Evangelism: Share the good news of Jesus Christ. Invite persons to join in the church’s worship and fellowship. Baptize children and adults (Mt. 28:19–20; Lk. 15).

b. Grow in Discipleship: Rediscover Scripture, including daily reading and study. Nurture relationships with Jesus Christ in the context of our Reformed heritage (Lk. 14:33; Jn. 8:31, 13:35, 15:8).

c. Grow in Servanthood: Stand alongside the wider community to promote the well-being and love of neighbor. Embrace stewardship in all of life (Jn. 13:12-17; Mt. 25:34–40).

d. Grow in Diversity: Welcome everyone. Learn from others. Reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of God’s peoples in the world including leadership (Gal. 3:26–29; Rev. 7:9–10).

Report from the General Assembly 9

Note: Here we go! The decision of the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues is bringing a recommendation that will be very controversial in the church. We must wait and see how the whole Assembly handles the Committee's recommendation. Presbytery of Carlisle Elder Commissioner Nancy Flint served on this committee.

The Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues voted Tuesday (34-18-2) to recommend to the full Assembly changing the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship from “a woman and a man” to “two people.”

Heeding the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, the committee agreed to replace “couple” with “two people” because, according to Advisory Committee on the Constitution representative Catherine McDonald, “couple” in some languages “automatically translates as husband and wife.”

The committee also recommended approving an Authoritative Interpretation that gives ministers of the Word and Sacrament and commissioned lay pastors discretion over which marriage services they'll perform. Sessions may refuse the use of church property for wedding ceremonies of which they don’t approve.

An Authoritative Interpretation requires no approval by presbyteries and does not amend the church’s constitution. If it’s approved this week in plenary session, it becomes effective immediately.

The other nine overtures the committee considered Tuesday were either not approved or were similar enough to the two recommended overtures that they were considered by the committee to be “answered” by those overtures.

Advocating for changing the church's language of who may marry, Laura Marsh, an elder from East Iowa Presbytery, said her church, First Presbyterian of Iowa City, decided that “until we are allowed to marry everybody, we aren’t going to marry anybody. Is everybody happy? No. But there’s been no mass exodus, and we didn’t implode. But we’re urgently asking you to act.”
Committee member the Rev. Marion Haynes-Weller of Donegal Presbytery called herself “a pastor of one of those small rural congregations we seem to be worried about. We are in a very conservative community but it’s a congregation committed to welcoming (gay) members who are impatient with our lack of solidarity in standing with them.”

Young Adult Advisory Delegate Paige Eubanks of Mid-South Presbytery said “My fear is that if we open up Scripture to interpretation, we compromise purity, we become susceptible to deception and this body, my family, will disintegrate.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ponderings from the General Assembly 8

Special Offerings Review

The 2008 General Assembly initiated a major review of our four, church wide special offerings: One Great Hour of Sharing, Peacemaking, Christmas Joy and Pentecost. I was invited to meet with the review team today to share my perspective and reflections.

Some of my thoughts:
The Special Offerings are on automatic pilot. Churches that gather them do so with a sense of inertia and repetition, not any real, new energy or commitment.

The causes which the Special Offerings now support are so fragmented that few people understand what they are for and what they support.

One Great Hour of Sharing, because it is old and gathered at Easter time, continues to be very strong; although there is not much new energy to grow it. We have almost universal participation in OGHS.

The Board of Pensions has a strong, good reputation in the church and thus the Christmas Joy offering receives good support; although, I suspect, there is little enthusiasm for the support of racial ethnic colleges which is also part of Christmas Joy’s purpose.

In our Presbytery the Peacemaking offering tracks with a small group of churches who are reliably committed to this program; there is not any new energy emerging for growing this cause or purpose.

There is little energy or enthusiasm for the Pentecost offering in our Presbytery. I expect that very few people know its purpose.

I believe one of the offerings needs to be redirected to World Mission, and I believe this change will be well received.

Despite my less than positive perceptions, the Presbytery of Carlisle continues to be one of the top special offering giving Presbyteries. Thank you Presbytery of Carlisle!

I am very interested in gathering your thoughts, perceptions and ideas about our four special offerings. I am especially interested in gathering ‘best practices’ about ways they are interpreted, explained and gathered in your congregations. Please email your thoughts.

Report from the General Assembly 7

Note: I like the Form of Government report. I liked it in 2008 at the San Jose General Assembly. I like it now. I like to do polity on the fly, making decisions that carefully consider the ministry context and the fullness of the relationships involved. The Form of Government Taskforce report made it out of committee; and we will have a fun debate in plenary session at the General Assembly. I hope it passes and we have the opportunity to discuss it at our Presbytery. If you have not done so, I encourage you to consider Paul Hooker's background paper on "missional polity" which is available at the Form of Government website. More to come. . .

The Form of Government Revision Committee of the 219th General Assembly (2010) voted 37-5 Tuesday to send the proposed Foundations of Presbytery Polity and revised Form of Government to the full Assembly.

If the Assembly approves the document, it will then move to the denomination’s presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes. If a majority of presbyteries vote to accept the document, it will replace the current Form of Government that has been amended more than 300 times since it came into existence in 1983.

The committee rejected an overture from the Presbytery of Central Washington that called for posting the revised Form of Government online for informational purposes and seeking amendments from presbyteries to “improve and enhance the ways in which we govern ourselves missionally.”

Speaking in favor of that overture, Joan Johnson of Santa Barbara Presbytery warned of “unintended consequences of omission,” and the Rev. Jim Tony of Chicago Presbytery said, “This is way too complex to make this better than what we already have.”

The Rev. Dan Williams, co-moderator of the task force, responded to the overture advocates, saying he wanted to see a church “so infused with the presence and power of Jesus Christ that people cannot wait to be a part of it.”

He added, “I do not doubt this is happening in places throughout our denomination today, but how much more might we accomplish if we dare to step out in faith, if we are willing to take the risk and let go of a model of being the church bound up in structures and processes.”
The committee spent most of the morning making changes to the document, specifying the requirement for committees on representation and stating that such a “committee should not be merged with another committee or made a subcommittee of another committee,” and adding deadlines for the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to make requested interpretive reports 60 days prior to a meeting of the General Assembly.

Report from the General Assembly 6

Note: For those of us who work for Presbyteries and Synods one of the big issues at this General Assembly are several overtures asking for changes in the structure and responsiblities of our Synods. I am in favor of the full de-structuring and elimination of the Synods as a governing body. But this question is complicated and difficult. I hope this General Assembly will take significant action on this question. The article here on the Committee's deliberation is copied from our News Service. . .

A willing but wary 219th General Assembly Committee on Middle Governing Body Issues has recommended creation of a Middle Governing Body Commission to act on the requests of presbyteries and synods “to divide, unite or otherwise combine” them during the next two years.

The committee debated for several hours Monday whether to create a special committee to deal with the myriad stresses facing synods and presbyteries or to establish the rarer and more powerful 21-member commission that would be “authorized to act as the General Assembly.”
The committee amended the commission proposal – brought by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) – nine times to more closely define its work and require a super-majority to take action. The final measure going to the Assembly passed 38-4 with two abstentions.

“We’re in a moment of history that is uncharted territory,” COGA member the Rev. Eileen Lindner told the committee. “We need a commission because the time is too urgent – we cannot tell some of our most hurting governing bodies to tread water for two more years.”
However, Mike Herron, stated clerk of Mississippi Presbytery, while acknowledging the sea changes going on in middle governing bodies around the country, questioned the move. His presbytery, for instance, has reduced staff rather than cut programs. “We’re just finding different ways to serve the kingdom of God,” he said. “If you need to change, appoint a committee – there’s no urgency to appoint a powerful commission.”

COGA member the Rev. John Wilkinson responded to committee members’ concerns that a 21-member commission given the full authority of the General Assembly would be too powerful.
“The commission we propose cannot act unilaterally, but only at the request of the middle governing bodies at issue,” Wilkinson insisted. “My guess is any big-ticket items are going to come to the next Assembly anyway.”

While the committee amended the proposal to require a two-thirds majority by the commission to take action, it defeated other amendments to require the affected presbyteries and synods to also approve commission decisions by a two-thirds majority and to exempt property and assets disposal from the commission’s purview.

Most, but not all, middle governing body officials who spoke to the committee during its 90-minute open hearing Monday morning supported the commission. The Rev. Betty Meadows, executive presbyter for Mid-Kentucky Presbytery and president of the Association of Executive Presbyters, urged the committee “to give the group power and flexibility because of the profound changes going on.”

Noting that three new church developments have been spawned by commissions in her presbytery, Meadows said, “We know that the Spirit is breaking out all over. We need people who are empowered to know and respond to what the Spirit is doing.”

Report from the General Assembly 5

Note: One of my favorite aspects of the General Asssembly meeting is the opportunity to meet many Christians from our partner churches around the world and our missionaries. A highpoint of the General Assembly for me is the World Mission Luncheon. Copied here is the New Report on this year's world mission luncheon.

by Pat Cole

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is writing the third chapter of a mission “love story” that began in 1837, a denominational mission leader said Sunday at the World Mission Luncheon.
Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission, said the newest chapter in the saga is the formation of “communities of mission practice.” Participants in these communities include World Mission staff and mission personnel, global partners, and grassroots Presbyterians directly involved in international mission.

The purpose of the communities is “to discern the mind of Christ as we participate in God’s mission,” Farrell explained.

The earliest PC(USA) mission efforts were focused exclusively on sending mission personnel, he said. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Presbyterians in the United States moved into the second chapter of its history, emphasizing working in partnership with churches overseas that were formed through the efforts of early missionaries. “Partnership was limited to the leaders of our church and the leaders of partner churches,” Farrell said. Today, however, numerous congregations and presbyteries have established partnerships with international counterparts.

This has led to World Mission’s focus on facilitating communities of mission practice, which will help coordinate efforts, Farrell said.

Farrell noted that more and more mission personnel are serving as “global connectors,” helping link congregations and presbyteries with international partners.
One of those connectors, Tracey King-Ortega, the PC(USA)’s regional liaison in Central America, invited congregations and presbyteries directly involved in international ministries to work with mission personnel. “They can help you maximize efforts with these three communities working together,” she said. Transformation, she added, is the goal for everybody involved.
Speakers from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis stressed the importance of building relationships with partner congregations. Westminster member Trish Van Pilsum, who has visited the congregation’s partner in Cuba, said, “I was inspired by the people of Matanzas and my faith deepened.”

While the visitors from Westminster brought medicine, glasses and other resources, the Cubans would not say those were the most important items the congregation brought, she said. “The people of Matanzas would say that we brought energy, we brought compassion and we brought love.”

The luncheon also included remarks from the Rev. Noe Bernier, an archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti. He said the PC(USA) has worked with the diocese since the 1960s in its ministries of health, education and economic development. The church continues its holistic mission amid the daunting challenges presented by January’s massive earthquake.
“Haiti will not be destroyed,” he said. “Haiti will not perish. Haiti will rise again because of God’s people who are called to do mission.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ponderings from the General Assembly 4

Ponderings from the General Assembly 4

At the “Conversations” session which I attended, hosted by Linda Valentine and Gradye Parsons, I asked a question that has nagged me for many years, and which I also have heard from many people around the church: “How should we interpret and understand the fact that the total membership of our denomination has significantly declined for many consecutive years?”

Gradye shared his own reflections on this question and admitted that this was also an issue which has bothered him deeply. He said that in studying the statistics from all across the church and from demographic studies there seems to be a 20/ 20/ 60 rule which is generally true. In terms of our active membership loss, it seems that about 20% of our loss is people transferring to other churches; 20% of our loss is due to death. But most of our membership loss, about 60%, is due to losses “out the back door.” These are the people that simply drift away from the church; typically they are not angry; there is not an issue or particular cause that created their leaving; often their leaving the church takes awhile as they drift from regular participation, to less and less, and finally to no participation or connection with the church. Simply put, most of our membership loss is due to the fact that for many people the church no longer satisfies their spiritual needs. This is confirmed by other demographic data today which reports that the fastest growing category of religion in America is the “unaffiliated”, the people that simply have no church home and no active religious life.

Generally speaking, our membership decline is not about social issues or theological positions or style or culture. Our membership decline is about the fact that for many people the church is not spiritually enriching and inspiring in their lives. This is wake up call for our congregations. More than anything, we need to create congregations that are spiritually alive, and we need church leaders who live and communicate a vigorous and energetic spiritual life in Christ.

Ponder your congregation, how many people have begun the slow drift out the back door? Create a dynamic spiritual life in the name of Jesus Christ and bring them back in!

See the Presbyterian News article on membership statistics:

Ponderings from the General Assembly 3

Monday July 5, 2010
Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence

The book for the week at this year’s General Assembly is Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008). She is the guest speaker at several events during this year’s General Assembly including the Presbyterian Foundation breakfast, the Office of the General Assembly breakfast and the Association of Executive Presbyter’s reception.

This book, which I have studied carefully, offers a sweeping historical perspective and a convincing argument about the changes we are living through in our culture and church.
At the Office of the General Assembly breakfast today Phyllis Tickle told this wonderful story as illustration of her thesis. She was speaking at a church conference in Atlanta during which a youth group from a local church was helping serve the dinner. While she was speaking she noticed that one of these young people stopped their dish clean up tasks and started paying very careful attention to her talk. She was, at that time, discussing the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the ways in which the importance and understanding of theological doctrine is changing in the church today. She was making the point that many new, emergent Christians are not much interested in systematic theology and the classic doctrines of the faith.

After her presentation, and after most of the people had left the room, this young person approached her and wanted to ask a question. The question was about the Virgin Birth. The young person asked what she had meant in her statement that doctrine did not matter much anymore. This young person said that he read the story of the Virgin Birth in the Bible. He thought it was a beautiful, poetic story, and it was very important to his faith.

Phyllis Tickle’s important point is that this perceptive young person exactly articulated the great emergence that is happening in the church. Systematic, precise, intellectual doctrines of theology, like the Virgin Birth, are being replaced with the importance of story, image and mystery, like the Virgin Birth. This is a profoundly new and different way to look at the same Bible story.

What is the difference between systematic theological doctrine and stories, images and metaphors as foundations for our faith? In this difference we see the some of the Great Emergence which is happening all around us.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Report from the General Assembly 2


For moderator, it's Bolbach in four

By Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter

MINNEAPOLIS - After four rounds of voting and some worry about technical difficulties with the electronic voting keypads, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elected as its moderator Cynthia Bolbach, a lawyer and the only elder in a six-person field.
Bolbach - tall, plain-spoken, with a crisp sense of humor - brings to the office decades of experience in church life, from the congregational to the national levels of the denomination.
She has served as a deacon and clerk of session for her congregation, as well as moderator of National Capital Presbytery, chair of the presbytery's Committee on Ministry and its interim general presbyter. She also serves as co-moderator of the Form of Government Task Force, which is bringing to this assembly a proposal - four years in the making - to streamline and make more flexible the denomination's Form of Government section of the Book of Order.
After the fourth-ballot, the candidate with the second-highest number of votes was Julia Leeth, a pastor from California, who earlier in the evening said she guessed she might be the most conservative of the candidates.
In that final ballot, Bolbach received 325 votes (51 percent) and Leeth 148 votes (23 percent), out of a six-person field. But Bolbach led from the start, winning 149 votes (30 percent) in the first ballot - with things splitting neatly from there, with four of the other five candidates drawing from 71 to 76 votes apiece that time around.
Before her election, Bolbach used a biblical analogy - drawn from the New Testament story of the friends who raised up a paralyzed friend, cut a hole in the roof of a building where Jesus was inside, and dropped their friend down into the room with Jesus.
The PC(USA) is paralyzed by uncertainty and fear about how to proclaim the gospel in the 21st century, Bolbach said. "You and I are the friends who can help our paralyzed denomination see Jesus," and be healed.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ponderings from the General Assembly 1

Ponderings from the General Assembly 1

July 3, 2010

This morning a new feature was added to our General Assembly. In the past there had been a time of orientation and training for all of the Commissioners together on this the first day of the meeting. Instead of these traditional training and orientation sessions, this year there were six different “conversations” offered this morning, all at the same time, for the commissioners to choose from as they prepared for the start of the plenary sessions this afternoon. Several of the conversations were focused on the large issues that this Assembly faces, for example, the Form of Government report, the Middle East report, and changes in the Book of Order. I attended a “Conversation” with Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly and Linda Valentine, the Executive Director of the General Assembly Mission Council.

They offered a short presentation on their “Hopes for the 219th General Assembly". Together they listed and discussed seven hopes. I was very pleased by the deep spiritual quality of this conversation. The hopes of these two leaders of the church are spiritually very significant and theologically very sophisticated.

Hopes for the 219th General Assembly are that we:

Practice prayerful decision making;
Discern a deeper awareness of the whole PC(U.S.A.);
Discern a deeper understanding of the issues facing individual congregations;
Identify a common calling within our changing church;
Focus attention beyond ourselves;
Develop enthusiastic sharing of our Faith;
Further the mission of Jesus Christ.

I was very impressed and pleased that this discussion of the hopes of our General Assembly is much deeper than any of the individual topics and actions items which we will consider. We need this deep spiritual foundation to our work.