Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Crisis at Presbyterian World Mission

Our Presbyterian World Mission has sounded a loud cry of an immediate, dire financial crisis. (See An all-star list of our General Assembly Moderators and other leaders helped to amplify the cry across our Church with their pastoral letter. Our stellar mission co-workers, serving in partnership all around the world, are being called home, new terms of service are being cancelled and our whole international mission presence faces a massive downsizing. As an Executive Presbyter serving a Presbytery that has had a long and vital commitment to Presbyterian World Mission this news breaks my heart. I have sitting on my bookshelf here at the Presbytery of Carlisle a whole line of those cute, little statuettes which were given to the “Top-Ten” mission giving presbyteries. (I believe this little annual recognition was itself cancelled in recent cutbacks.) Mission leaders in our Presbytery are rallying to raise support for World Mission, and we hope to provide funding for a new mission co-worker position, and thus begin to turn the tide on this crisis. For those of us convinced that the future of our denomination requires closer linkages with global Christianity, our own Presbyterian World Mission is a vital piece of our common life.
Nonetheless, it may be that the funding crisis at World Mission also presents us with the opportunity to ask some important structural questions:
1)      The recruitment, calling and support of our mission co-workers:
As an Executive Presbyter, I am directly involved with the employment of many church leaders, especially pastors. In fact, I guess that in my, one Presbytery I work with the hiring and installation of more pastors in any given year than World Mission hires co-workers. Every Presbytery in our Church hires and installs pastors regularly. In this process, our Presbytery functions with a high degree of professionalism, competence, consistency and theological rigor. Supporting the process of pastoral transitions is one of my most important ongoing, job responsibilities. We have a carefully defined process for hiring pastors which is rooted in our ecclesiology and supported by our polity. This process has abundant support from the Office of the General Assembly, including the office of Vocations, and many theological requirements of this process are defined in our Book of Order. My question is why Presbyterian World Mission does NOT use this well-honed, theologically rigorous process for hiring mission co-workers. The whole personnel process of World Mission has been subsumed within the World Mission administration and separated from all direct connection with our presbyteries and congregations. Why has World Mission created a completely separate, autonomous personnel process? Why has World Mission created a personnel process aside from and different from the polity and practice of every presbytery in the church? I believe I can answer these questions: World Mission, probably initiated by Robert Speer in the great era of foreign missions, made decisions to function as a corporation. All the rest of us, i.e. all the presbyteries and congregations, function as a church. I believe the distinction between functioning as a corporation and functioning as a church is profound and irreconcilable.   
2)      Our theology of ordination:
One of the most compelling aspects of our Presbyterian theological vision today is our understanding of ordination as expressed in the offices of Teaching Elder, Ruling Elder and Deacon. Our theology of ordination is beautifully articulated in our Book of Order and is a hallmark of modern, Reformed theology today. My question is why some of our most important church leaders, namely our mission co-workers, are not included within our theology of ordination. Our theology of ordination is limited to church leaders serving in our own congregations and church related institutions. Are not our mission co-workers serving with partner churches and institutions all around the world worthy of ordination as much as church leaders serving here at home? Certainly, many of our mission co-workers are, in fact, ordained officers. But we do not require all mission co-workers to be ordained officers as we do our installed pastors and session members. I suggest that all our mission co-workers need to be ordained officers within the PC(USA) and named as such in the Book of Order. I will argue for the creation of mission co-worker as an ordained office in addition to Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders, and Deacons. My preference would be to begin the long process of constitutional amendment seeking to add mission co-worker as an ordained officer in the Book of Order. This potential new church officer as mission co-worker may also be used to include those that are not already ordained who are emerging to lead new worshiping communities.
3)      Election by the People:
Please see the Book of Order F-3.0106, “Election by the People”. Clearly one of the sacred, historic, theological principles of our church is the election of our church officers by the people. But the long standing, personnel procedures of Presbyterian World Mission has abandoned this foundational doctrine of our Church. With this neglect we have lost a vital means by which we connect our mission co-workers with the Church. Our mission co-workers should be directly connected with our presbyteries and congregations and elected to service by these Councils. Thus I suggest that all mission co-workers should be formally elected to their positions by either a congregation or a presbytery. This is always our procedure for Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders and Deacons. The hiring of mission co-workers must stop being an invisible, hidden process held tightly by World Mission administrative staff. We need an open, public, transparent search process exactly parallel to the search for a new Teaching Elder. Claiming this practice of electing our mission co-workers will be a big step toward directly reconnecting World Mission with our presbyteries and congregations.

In my recent, little book on the history of our foreign mission work I wrote: “The future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and all of American mainline Protestantism, will require a greater immersion in the powerful movements of global Christianity. These connections will span the globe gathering brothers and sisters from profoundly different cultures together in the church. When local congregations today see themselves as part of the remarkable movement of Christianity around the world the spark of spiritual vitality and energy will fill hearts and our churches. Certainly, congregation-based mission partnerships are important. There will also be a crucial role for governing bodies and church councils who seek to create opportunities for partnership and shared mission practices across the great barriers of culture and language. And a revitalized, national agency of Presbyterian World Mission with a team of professional mission personnel is evolving into a leading piece of the foreign mission enterprise.” (See my The Presbyterian Mission Enterprise, Wipf and Stock, 2015). May it be so for Presbyterian World Mission and the future of our PC(USA).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bebb Wheeler Stone's important reflection on our life together.

Copied here is a wide-ranging, important article about the future direction of our denomination. Bebb is currently serving as the Interim Pastor of our Silver Spring Presbyterian Church.

June 23, 2015
from Rev. Bebb Wheeler Stone, PhD.

A letter from a Presbyterian Teaching Elder, baptized and raised in the PC(USA), to all my Friends in Christ:

I write out of a concern that the word ‘missional’ does not help us learn from the errors so evident in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s general approach, which has been to downplay key parts of our ethos in an effort to avoid conflict and build a brand.

We have inherited a liberating, egalitarian way of being faithful to Jesus Christ in the Reformed tradition’s understanding of Scripture, polity, theology, and ethics. This Way, Truth, and Life of being Christian is indeed not simple, but its practice through 500 plus years has protected us from the extremes of zealotry (Christianity as an ideology, for example, or ‘Christianism’, where folks compete to be ‘holier than thou’) as well as from a completely culturally captured faith with no prophetic word.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has struggled to be faithful in contemporary life, wrestling with scholarly interpretations of Scripture, insisting on its Teaching Elders being trained in Hebrew and Greek. Our denomination has refused to relinquish the Hebrew Testament and its formative meaning for Jesus' life and ministry. Our denomination has refused to relinquish the prophets, and their consistent speaking truth to power for the sake of justice and peace, values at the very heart of God. Our denomination has refused to relinquish reason and values science, as we love God with heart, mind, soul and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.

We have understood why Confession is a stronger witness than ‘profession’, and even acknowledged in our Book of Order that "this organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love" (G-1.0102).

Our tradition bequeathed to our nation a representative method of majority rule in which the conscience of the minority is protected by emphasizing that the church’s power is “ministerial and declarative” (F-3.0107). Through the fires of conflict we have learned the wisdom of "mutual forbearance" (F-3.0105) that is lifted up in our historical principles of church order, reminding us that persons of good faith may differ on nonessentials. We witness to our sense of fairness by our polity, where we prefer parity of ministry to hierarchy. We have learned to work in coalitions and contexts that are ‘secular’, in ways that remain consistent with the values we believe are at the very heart of God: justice, mercy, peace, and love. We see God’s sovereign Spirit moving in every sphere of life.

We need urgently to let go of the neologism ‘missional’, which rolls off the tongue uncomfortably and is not in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary! We have some 250 years of profound ‘mission’ history doing the kind of work that established schools and hospitals, to care for the value, dignity, and humanity of each person. Just as we need to let go of one word, we need to recover our enthusiastic use of another – “Justice" – a word we learn from Scripture itself, an ultimate divine value critical to God's blessing of human endeavors.  

We have tried the road of avoiding conflict, and where has it gotten us? We have tried the road of funding charity, but not justice, and the generations coming of age today have questioned our courage. We know how to do community organizing; it’s in our DNA. Let’s fund the organizers of the Presbyterian Church (PHEWA, among others), pulling them back from the margins to the center of the Presbyterian Church’s work for justice. 

A personal hero of mine, the Rev. William Thomas, H.R., Presbyterian Teaching Elder, used to remind us that the Greek idea of justice is the goddess Dike – blindfolded, with her balance scales (the symbol of our American legal system); but that the Hebrew idea of justice in our YHWH God is the Holy One, no blindfold, with a finger on the scales, ordering right relationships and including the widow, the orphan, and the outcast. We do not worship a ‘fair and balanced’ God; we worship Jesus Christ, who embodied for all to see the way to be and act as a citizen in the Commonwealth of God.

In recent years our uniquely Presbyterian connectional system – in which authority flows from local congregation through Presbytery and Synod to General Assembly, and at the same time from GA through Synod and Presbytery to the local congregation – has been de-emphasized. We have allowed a more congregational polity to take hold, a polity that damages the organism in its global and national responsiveness and witness. We need to recover the larger vision of our Presbyterian connectional polity as a birthright.
When we moved our denominational offices to the ‘heartland’ (Louisville, KY) after reunion in 1983, we almost seemed to be in retreat from the concerns of the world beyond our coastlines. With all the past decade’s Reductions in Force, 100 Witherspoon Street has too much unneeded space, and perhaps too much sadness, for our next chapter of ministry and mission. Perhaps now that we have the enhanced capacities of computers for meetings, conferences, and connecting, might we consider decentralizing our General Assembly Offices and our Mission Agency to cities that are more international, diverse, and intercultural? Four come to mind: New York, Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco.

With the recent changes in the staff at 100 Witherspoon Street, might we reconceive of the role of Executive Director more as a General Presbyter or Commissioner, reflecting more of our Presbyterian heritage? In addition to stated clerks and moderators, we have had a range of general secretaries and chairpersons not modeled on CEOs.

Let’s use our church’s language and polity for our leaders as well as our process! We worship a servant Lord; let’s employ persons, and be persons, who are less ‘executive’ and more ‘servant’ for our church!

AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Bebb Wheeler Stone, PhD., serves as Interim Minister for Silver Spring Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg PA. She is a past president of The Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA), and a founding member of Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options (PARO). Recently she served on the Presbyterian delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the