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).