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