Friday, January 17, 2014

Reflections: The questions we face in our Presbytery

 Our Questions:
There are many beautiful, exciting, vibrant things happening in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today. This is my first thought and this must be my first sentence as I begin this essay. This is the centered joy and a deep conviction of my heart. I say again, there are many beautiful, exciting, and vibrant things happening in our Presbyterian Church today. I could write a long essay about the joys, the relationships, the conversations, the ministry experiences I had just this week which blessed me and in which I found joy in Christ. I love our Presbyterian Church. I am proud, honored, blessed and encouraged to serve in ministry in our Presbyterian Church today. I find great and deep satisfaction in the life of our Church. I must start with this essential truth because it is the strong foundation for the topic which I consider here. I want here to reflect on what is broken. But this reflection on brokenness is motivated from my deeper conviction that our Presbyterian Church today is good, beautiful and vibrant in Christ. 
With that said, what is clearly broken is our funding system. I am pushing a deep and wide examination of the funding system in our Presbytery in order to accomplish two things: one, to redirect the presbytery to better support our congregations; two, to create a presbytery system that is viable and sustainable into the future. But first we all must understand our questions. Thus I am pleading with our Pastors and Ruling Elders throughout our Presbytery to please join me in engaging this conversation:  

Toward a theology of partnership:
I am personally the embodiment of the massive transformation in our theological convictions today. I have shifted from a theology of legacy to a theology of partnership; I believe this is a shift we all must make. I am the child and grandchild of Presbyterians. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed as a young adult in a Presbyterian Church. My formative high school years included a lot of time involved in a Presbyterian Church with Presbyterian friends and a Presbyterian youth leader who was also a Presbyterian seminary student. During my formative high school years, my dad served as our congregation’s Clerk of Session. Immediately after graduating from college, I attended a Presbyterian Seminary. Next year, 2015, will mark thirty years of my professional service in the Presbyterian Church. My identity in Christ is formed by what I may call a theology of legacy. I am committed to the Presbyterian Church and I give to the Presbyterian Church because this is my long and deep spiritual legacy. I live and give out of a theology of legacy. This theology is powerful. I support and I give to the Presbyterian Church because I have always supported and given to the Presbyterian Church, as have my ancestors.
The crucial truth is that such a theology of legacy is almost gone today. There are many Presbyterians like me, typically over fifty years old, and many Presbyterian congregations and presbyteries that are rooted in a theology of legacy. Please understand that this is a powerful, proper, meaningful and true theological conviction. It is also an obsolete theological system. Are you and your congregation, like me, motivated by a theology of legacy? If so, I believe you must join me in letting it go. A challenge we face today is that the people and congregations most invested in a theology of legacy must also be ones who help us find the way into our new future. 
We need a new theological foundation. It is a theology of partnership. Our deepest convictions, our ministry and our giving must be motivated by passionate, personal relationships. We will believe in, connect with, support and give to the people and institutions – including our congregation and our presbytery – with whom we have a passionate and personal partnership. A theology of partnership begins, of course, with a passionate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Moreover, all our people and the people we are trying to reach will join the church and support the church when they have created a passionate and personal partnership with the church.
What is exciting and inspiring to me personally is that my own theology has shifted. For me, this is fresh, fun and invigorating. I am still exploring the implications of this in my own heart. Thus I am only beginning to explore the implications of my new perspectives for my leadership in our Presbytery. How do we shift from a theology of legacy to a theology of partnership?

Beyond Per Capita:
            There may not be any aspect of the Presbyterian Church more obsolete than Per Capita giving. Per Capita giving is the most excellent example of financial support motivated by a theology of legacy. But we are deeply committed to this source of funds. Nothing indicates the challenge before us more than our dependence on Per Capita giving. Please understand that we are fully dependent on this funding; please contribute your Per Capita assessment. This is the most difficult challenge because there is no future in Per Capita giving. Show me the person or congregation who has a passionate and personal commitment to a concept like Per Capita! This is not the way people believe or give today. This should not be the way we ask people to give today. In no way does Per Capita express a passionate obedience to the calling of Jesus Christ in our lives. There is no grace in Per Capita giving. There is no generosity in Per Capita giving. But I must say, loud and clear, please contribute your Per Capita assessment. The only basis from which I can make that sincere request is from my old theology of legacy.
            The challenge and the curse of Per Capita are exemplified by the recent ruling of the Synod of the Trinity’s Permanent Judicial Commission. Some background: Pittsburgh Presbytery, in an action wrestling with the same questions I am pondering here, approved as a standing rule of their presbytery to only contribute the Per Capita assessment to the Synod and to the General Assembly which is actually received from their congregations. Pittsburgh Presbytery was trying to openly, honestly and transparently do what is secretly and unofficially the actual practice of many presbyteries across the church. There was an official complaint against the Presbytery’s decision under our Rules of Discipline. The Synod’s PJC ruled against Pittsburgh Presbytery and insisted that presbyteries must contribute all of their Per Capita assessment to the Synod and the General Assembly even if it is not received from the congregations. I believe the ruling of the Synod PJC is profoundly wrong. Of course, by the letter of church law and in the carefully crafted language of church lawyers the PJC’s decision is unassailable. This PJC decision is the full and powerful expression of theology of legacy. It is obsolete. 
We must understand the quandary we face! Our continuing dependence on Per Capita giving is undermining the church and holding back our reformation. I intended to explore in our presbytery the same action which Pittsburgh Presbytery approved. We should trust our congregations to make the contributions to the Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly as they decide. We should honor the decisions of our sessions. This action, and an important way forward in the reformation of the church, is now muted by the short sighted ruling of the Synod PJC. While the whole church is being transformed, we are required to hold onto a broken and obsolete system of Per Capita giving. Thus this year our Presbytery is required to forward more than $25,000 in Per Capita funds to the Synod and the General Assembly to make up the shortfall from our congregations. 
Moreover, the Per Capita system of funding is broken because it means different things depending on your stance. The Per Capita system is vital to the General Assembly because it is the funding source of the Office of the General Assembly. Thus at the General Assembly the distinction between Per Capita which funds the Office of the General Assembly and Shared Mission Giving which funds the General Assembly Mission Agency is clear and distinct. But in our Presbytery we long ago moved beyond this artificial and at times silly distinction between Per Capita and Mission. Our Presbytery uses a unified financial system which mixes Per Capita and Shared Mission contributions into one funding stream for all of our expenses. 
I see no way forward in the Per Capita funding system. By action of the Synod PJC we are required to participate in a broken system for which there is no passion, no growth and increasing derision across our congregations. The best I hope to do, at this point, is help us understand these confusing issues.

Beyond Shared Mission Giving:
In addition to Per Capita, the other major stream of funding in our Presbytery is Shared Mission Giving. The Presbytery of Carlisle has a strong history and heritage of Shared Mission Giving. But less than half of our congregations actually participate in this system. The Shared Mission system has been declining rapidly as our congregations move to a theology of partnership and fund mission work with which they are passionately and personally related. For a generation, Shared Mission Giving has been the funding source for the General Assembly Mission Agency. But with the rapid decline of this system in recent years, the Mission Agency has itself changed. With the use of professional fundraisers working across the church, the General Assembly Mission Agency is building a base of generous and direct support from individual Presbyterians. This fundraising does not support presbyteries. It is direct, individual support for the General Assembly Mission Agency. For example, late in 2013 two, different million dollar contributions to the Mission Agency from individual Presbyterians were loudly applauded in Presbyterian News Service. I appreciate this effort; it is an expression of bold leadership at the General Assembly Mission Agency living into a new theology of partnership. But there are profound implications to this change. This indicates a clear abandonment of the system of Shared Mission Giving. This also breaks the connection between presbyteries and the General Assembly Mission Agency.
It is here that may we consider revisions in our presbytery’s funding system. Unlike Per Capita, there is no obsolete, disciplinary requirement to participate in Presbyterian mission giving. The congregations that participate in Shared Mission Giving do so with some sense of grace and generosity. Although I will argue that an older theology of legacy is still motivating a lot of this giving. How do we transition to a theology of partnership as the motivation for our mission and giving? How do we create passionate and personal relationships between our congregations and between our congregations and our presbytery and our General Assembly? These are the questions before us as a Presbytery.

Friday, January 10, 2014

39 Versions of the Bible in English!

A Theology of Holy Scripture

 On my Kindle I use an app called “Holy Bible” for my daily devotions. I like this app because it was free and it works very well. It navigates easily between books of the Bible, and the chapters and verses flow and navigate very well. As an electronic app it is excellent. There are in the Holy Bible app. 39 versions of the Bible in the English language. 39 versions! As a very highly educated, church professional I am embarrassed to say that I have never heard of, and certainly never studied, some of the versions that are available in Holy Bible app. It is disappointing that “my” Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, is not available in this app. Thus I use the American Standard Version for my daily Bible reading. I do not believe there is any kind of theological motivation behind the exclusion of the NRSV and the RSV from this app. I know that the National Council of Churches owns the copyright on these versions, and probably is unwilling to share them without compensation.

My question is to ponder the implications of having all these different versions of the Bible before us. For people younger than me, this may be the world they grew up with. Is this a good thing? How does this change or affect one’s view and understanding of the Bible. How does having 39 versions of the Bible instantly in front of me at any moment on my Kindle influence my theology of “the authority of the Scripture.” I am now old and rather settled, and I think this particular aspect of the my theology – my understanding of Holy Scripture – was formed and defined long before the Kindle and Bible apps were invented. What does that say about me? Is there something new here that I need to learn? I must say clearly that having 39 versions of the Bible before me does not in any way bother me, threaten me or alter my reverence for the Holy Scripture.

I wonder if that is true for everyone. There is a wing of American Protestantism that emphasizes, extremely in my view, the authority of the Bible. What is the relationship between the growth and power of this strong Bible-centric theology and the fact that anyone may have 39 versions of the English Bible in front on them at any moment? It is a complicated question.

For me, I do not believe this technology has influenced my theology. But I need to think about that. I do know that I love the convenience of my Kindle. Easily, early most every morning, I can navigate from the Bible, to my morning devotional book to the New York Times at the touch of my finger. How sweet it that!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thank You Presbytey of Carlisle!

My sabbatical leave 2013:

In this new year of the Lord 2014, I write with an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the Presbytery of Carlisle for the gift of a sabbatical leave which I have enjoyed. From September 15 to December 31, 2013 I was on sabbatical. I am especially grateful to Larry for his service as our Executive Presbyter during my leave.

What did I do on my sabbatical? There were three different dimensions to my sabbatical. Most important, I made a daily and rigorous commitment to physical fitness. Before my sabbatical started I joined CrossfitHershey. (Check out their website). Participating in Crossfit was my daily discipline. I went to Crossfit every week day for their 9:00 a.m. workout. This became an important spiritual discipline for me. Although fitness has always been an important part of my life; working with Crossfit with a daily commitment for 16 weeks has blessed me. I encourage everyone to build some commitment to physical fitness into your daily life.

The second aspect of my sabbatical leave was writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote. By the end of November I had sitting on the corner of my desk at home a new book, printed out and neatly stacked sheets of paper. This work had started many months earlier; and I had a large body of research and a clear direction and outline complete before my sabbatical. I had never had the kind of extended, uninterrupted time to devote to such a research and writing task. For weeks, I spent hours each day writing. It is hard to explain how meaningful, satisfying and spiritual this time was for me. I am interested in the history of foreign mission work and global Christianity. Using the online archives of Princeton Theological Seminary’s library I journeyed back to the starting days of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. I explored and wrote about our earliest commitment to mission. I spend many hours along side devout Presbyterians from previous eras like Francis Makemie, Ashbel Green, the John Lowrie family, Betsey Stockton and Robert Speer. I know that few people are interested in this history today. Although I am pleased that my “book” is neatly printed and sitting on the corner of my desk; it may never move beyond there. Our Westminster John Knox Press already rejected my project; I am not surprised. Nonetheless I am convinced that our history will guide our future. Because we are increasingly ignorant about our history, we are increasingly unprepared for the future. But at the end of the day my project is very important to me; I am grateful for the extended time I had to simply read and write.  

The third aspect of my sabbatical leave was some time to develop a hobby some more. I, like many, many people, am very interested in woodworking. I do not have the time, the tools or the space in our home to fully develop this hobby. It remains a future, maybe a retirement, hobby. But I did spend some time making wooden pictures frames during my sabbatical. Working for many hours in my tiny, basement shop, and with my newly acquired photo mat cutter, I made wood (oak and maple) picture frames for some of the amazing photographs I have taken over the years. These framed pictures now hang in my little study here at home where I read, write, pray and work every day. Everyone needs a hobby!

My sabbatical leave was more than enough. During the week of Christmas, the last week of my sabbatical, I was eager to get back to work. Now I am settled in again, my careful list of things to do is again before me; there is a lot of work to do, as usual, within our Presbytery. And deep in my memory now there abides a sincere gratitude and appreciation for the weeks of sabbatical leave I enjoyed in 2013. Thank You Presbytery of Carlisle! Happy New Year 2014!