Friday, October 13, 2006

What if… the Presbytery – Part 4

The General Assembly Council met with presbytery and synod executives a few weeks ago. During that meeting there was going to be some discussion about whether there should be synods and presbyteries. I thought this would be a good topic since nothing from that meeting, on that subject, has hit the public domain. Monday I talked about the synod. Tuesday I talked about the benefits of having a presbytery. Since that time I have been looking at the drawbacks of having our current system of presbyteries.

  1. Wasted dollars: It costs a LOT of money to keep a presbytery office open. Do we get a big bang for those bucks? The critical functions of a presbytery could be achieved through new paradigms that cost fewer dollars. My presbytery use to have two budgets: a per capita (my term-I think it was called the ecclesiastical budget) and a mission budget. The cost of running the presbytery (including the staff) was paid for through our per capita. Churches were not required to give to the mission budget—dollars collected went to missions that our presbytery supported. The costs of our executive/general presbyter were moved to the mission part of the budget when per capita could no longer cover the costs of running the presbytery. Now, we have a unified budget: we give almost no money to mission (less than $20,000 out of a budget of around $450,000); the rest goes to running the presbytery! So let’s think for a moment… the PCUSA has 173 presbyteries; if the average cost to run a presbytery for a year was $400,000 we would be spending $69,200,000 to keep our presbyteries open! (Some presbyteries spend less than $400,000 but many spend several times that amount.) Just think about the number of churches that could be planted with that amount of money. Imagine how many shelters for the homeless that could be started for that amount of money. Imagine how many homes could be rebuilt in the Gulf Coast region. And remember, it is that amount of money EVERY YEAR!!! It is shameful how much money our current system wastes that could be used for life-changing ministries and missions.
  2. Pastors are members of the presbytery and not the local church: This may seem like a nit-picky item. This goes against all that scripture teaches about the local church begin the “body of Christ.” There are many spiritual gifts listed in scripture. Paul always says that each part needs to work together as one body—of which Christ is the head. It makes no sense to say that I use my spiritual gifts in a body of which I am not a part. If I am a part of that body then I am a member of that body (like a hand, a foot, an ear and an eye are all a part of the same body). It is baffling to members of the church when I tell them that I am “forbidden” from being a member of Evergreen. We have a retired pastor who is a part of our church and yet he cannot be a member of our church. He has no vote in congregational meetings. Oh well, we want to bend scripture on the topic of sexuality so we might as well bend it on who is, or isn’t, a part of the local body of Christ.
  3. The same people are entrenched in the system: In the past I have been very critical of our General Assembly “system.” The same people keep getting asked to serve on committees (yes, their committee assignments may get shifted around but it is the same people on committees). The same thing can be said about our presbyteries. The same elders attend presbytery time after time after time. The same people keep getting rotated through our committees. I know--it is almost impossible to get new people to serve on presbytery committees. Did you ever stop to think—if it is not important enough in the eyes of our local church elders to serve on a presbytery committee then maybe we don’t need that committee? Our denominational rules say that a person can only serve on a presbytery committee for two consecutive three-year terms before they must be off that committee for at least a year. I would suggest that after a person serves as a presbytery delegate (or on a presbytery committee) for six years that they cannot serve on any committee for at least six years (or be a delegate to presbytery for six years). The same would go for pastors and presbytery committees. Then we would see how important our presbytery’s committees (and presbytery for that matter) really are to the local church. Either new blood would come onto committees and presbytery or they will die away. Without new blood our presbyteries and denomination are going to die away anyway.

Please don’t hate me for these thoughts. I have a passion for ministry and mission; I have no loyalty (or patience) to broken systems.

Yesterday was a sad day. An older lady in our congregation found out that she has pancreatic cancer (4 – 6 months to live). Her “system” is broken. There is nothing that the doctors can do. Only a miracle of God can save her life. But remember the words of the Apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Kate’s ultimate healing will be going to be with Christ. Two weeks ago another lady in our church had knee-replacement surgery. Her “system” was broken. Her “system” was changed by an operation. The recovery is hard work—sometimes painful. Yet, she knows that it will all be worth it. You see, she had two bad knees. Her recovery from the surgery on her first knee was VERY DIFFICULT. I feared that she would not go through with the second surgery. But she wants to LIVE LIFE—not just exist. In a couple of months she will be able to do things she has not been able to do for years, maybe decades.

The PCUSA doesn’t have to just “exist” with its old and broken systems. We can change. Our broken “systems” do not have to be fatal. The big question is whether we will allow them to become fatal.

PS-I would like to thank for mentioning this blog on Oct. 12 & 13. I read Presbyweb every day and follow most of the Presbyterian bloggers that are mentioned on the Presbyweb site.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

What if… the Presbytery – Part 3

The General Assembly Council met with presbytery and synod executives a few weeks ago. During that meeting there was going to be some discussion about whether there should be synods and presbyteries. I thought this would be a good topic since nothing from that meeting, on that subject, has hit the public domain. Monday I talked about the synod. Tuesday I talked about the benefits of having a presbytery. Yesterday I began looking at the drawbacks of having a presbytery and will continue that today and tomorrow.

  1. Change comes slowly, if at all: There are several reasons why presbyteries are so resistant to change. Take a few moments, close your eyes and picture your past few presbytery meetings. My guess is that the vast majority of delegates were “older.” I turn the “big five zero” next month, and yet, I am always one of the younger people at a presbytery meeting (at least three quarts of the delegates are older than myself—maybe even 80% - 90%). These well-meaning folks are vested in the current system—they are comfortable with it. It is like an old shirt that a person refuses to throw away. They like presbytery just the way it is. Efforts are made to encourage younger delegates. We have tried having meetings on Saturdays to attract working folks. We found that we don’t get any younger folks to attend and fewer pastors attend. Younger parents are so busy between work, family and church that they have no desire to spend their one day off at a presbytery meeting. This leads me to the next point.
  2. Presbytery meetings are a waste of time: Time is the most precious thing that we have. There are only so many hours in a day. Nothing we can do will change that. Typically, people who are considered “professionals” get paid to get the job done—no matter how many hours it takes (they are paid a salary—no overtime). It is not uncommon for these folks to put in 50-60 hours each week—or more. I typically work six days each week—many times it is seven. I only go to presbytery if what they are going to be discussing will have a direct bearing on my church. This means I only attend one or two meetings each year—and I may leave those meetings early. There are only so many hours in a week. I don’t need to see cute little skits to remind me of our camping program or of the peacemaking even that is about to happen. I don’t need a talking head to read a committee report to me. Most of the “action” items are on the consent agenda so we don’t even discuss or vote on them (yes, we can take them off the consent agenda if we want). Many items have already gone before the General Counsel and thus come to use through the General Counsel report. Our General Presbyter gives a thirty minute report—every meeting (e-mail me the report—I can read it five times faster than it can be reported). Presbytery meetings waste my time. The few “younger” elders that we have do not want to go to a meeting that wastes their time.
  3. Too much is a “done deal” behind the scenes: Several years ago, it seemed to me that a lot of decisions were being made by “someone” behind the scenes. I was truly excited when asked to serve on General Council. For once, I though, I would be able to make a difference. Wrong! For two years I was the lone voice on Council that would ask, “Why?” The Council was a rubber stamp. Items would “appear” before Council. There had been no complaint or call for the changes from the Presbytery, yet we were being asked to change policies. It was VERY frustrating. A few people have too much control of a presbytery.
  4. Rural churches get the “shaft”: There are two major population centers in my presbytery. The issues facing these population centers may be very different than those facing our rural churches. Most rural churches have very limited resources and every dollar that is sent to the presbytery is one less dollar that they have to support their ministries. Our small church use to give thousands and thousands of dollars to the presbytery. We gave so far above our ‘fair share” that it was sickening. We couldn’t afford to buy curriculum for all of our classes because our dollars were going to the presbytery (this giving “policy” had been in our local church for many years before I came on the scene). We finally cut our presbytery giving by 75%. Most of our rural churches are “conservative.” Our most liberal churches are in the major population centers where the majority of our presbytery meetings are held. You get the picture?!? It is great to protest logging until the mills close and our small, rural churches see their members laid off. It is great to protest salmon fishing until our coastal churches find their members without jobs. Rural churches get the shaft time and time again.

That’s enough for now. Check back tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What if… the Presbytery? Part 2

Warning: Those securely vested in the current “system” might view this post as negative. I do not want that to be the case. We can only move into the future if we are courageous enough to remember the past and look critically at the present.

Yesterday’s post was an attempt to look at some of the positive things that a presbytery could accomplish. This list was far from exhaustive. Each presbytery has things that it does well and are valued by its member churches. Be thankful for the things that your presbytery does well, but do not assume that other presbyteries do that same function well.

We live in a different world today. This blog is an excellent example of the new reality. People all around the world can read the ramblings of a “somewhat crazy” pastor in Graham, Washington, USA, who has a passion for Jesus Christ and what the church can be. The church of today does not have to be stuck in the ruts of yesterday. One of those ruts is our current structure. We do not HAVE TO HAVE presbyteries or synods. There may be better ways of organizing.

Today I am going to begin looking at the negative aspects of having presbyteries. Again, this is based on my experience and that of close friends. Your experiences may be quite different.

  1. Finding a new pastor for a congregation: It is absolutely ridiculous that it takes almost two years for a church to call a new pastor. I realize that some of the reasons for this time frame are Book of Order (BOO) requirements. These could be streamlined by our presbyteries. Can you imagine Ford Motor Company going almost two years without permanent leadership? Of course not! Our current process kills churches. I was recently talking with an Associate Pastor of a church that is seeking a Head of Staff. Their average worship attendance has dropped well over 100 people since the arrival of the Interim Pastor. That is a third of their worshipping congregation. That is unacceptable! Our presbytery’s Committee on Ministry (COM) is swamped. I believe that the process of a church finding a new pastor would be much shorter if there were no presbytery. Also, our rule that an Associate Pastor cannot serve as the next Head of Staff is ridiculous. The best person for the task should be hired—who ever it is.
  2. Hindering a pastor from finding a new church: Two of my pastor friends ran into presbytery difficulties when seeking new calls. One had been ordained for over ten years and the other for five years. They were well respected in the current presbyteries. The problem is that they were evangelical pastors being called to evangelical churches in VERY LIBERAL presbyteries. The churches had followed all of the presbytery and BOO rules. The COM required additional face-to-face interviews of possible candidates when learning of the theological views of my friends. Each church had to spend additional dollars to interview candidates they were not interested in so that they could get the blessing of the COM. I know two other pastors who feel as though the Executive Presbytery of their presbytery hindered their search for a new church. Once again, these pastors had no problems in their current presbytery. They were guilty of having theological views vastly different from their Executive Presbyters. Did their EPs really seek to black-ball them? Good question! Many years ago I was serving as the moderator of a presbytery’s COM. Unfortunately, we were having to fire our EP (I still can’t say why due to negotiations with our lawyers and his). The General Counsel of that presbytery (I was a member of General Counsel as moderator of COM) was trying to decide on whether to file charges in the denomination court system against this person—we did not want to pass him on to another presbytery or church, like had been done to us. The General Assembly lawyers advised us not to file the charges—if we lost it could have bankrupt the presbytery. I was informed by a high ranking person in the denomination (I am being vague to protect identities) that the man would never receive another call in the PCUSA. The “system” behind the system would put the word out concerning him. If that “system” could keep that EP from finding another call it can do the same thing to you and me!
  3. Forced relationships aren’t relationships: Geographic similarity doesn’t equal trust and common focus. The PCUSA is TOO diverse. We don’t all serve the same God (sorry, that how I feel based on scripture). Manufacturing relationships between churches never works. We would never put up with “arranged marriages” in the United States; yet, we force local churches into “arranged marriages” with their presbytery. Churches networking together for a common cause/ministry/mission creates strong bonds.

This is just a beginning for this list. I do not want to have too much on this topic on any single day—it might make the “pill” too difficult to swallow. Check back tomorrow for the list to continue.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What if… the Presbytery? - Part 1

Is there still a need for Synods and Presbyteries? This question was raised at the recent General Assembly Council meeting. Yesterday I looked at doing away with Synods. Today I will begin looking at what we could/should do with Presbyteries.

The point of today’s post is to look at the “positive” things that a Presbytery can do. Here is a list that I have come up with:

  1. Assisting congregations in times of crisis: In a perfect world there would be no problems in our churches. Just imagine… people getting along together all the time. Fantasy land! I remind my church on a regular basis that the people who attend our church are not “perfect,” we are forgiven! We will not be perfect until Christ returns. All churches are filled with imperfect people—including the pastor; thus, there will be times of crisis within our churches. There have been MANY church crises in my Presbytery over the past few years: clergy sexual misconduct, pastors and church members not getting along for theological reasons, pastors and church members not getting along for “cultural” reasons (believe it or not there are different cultural expectations on pastors across the country), power struggles within congregations, etc. The Committee on Ministry (COM) is a first responder to the local church in times of crisis. This is an important ministry.
  2. Assisting congregations in searching for pastoral leadership: Losing a pastor is traumatic for a congregation. The departure of a beloved pastor is very difficult for a congregation--it can feel as though a part of the church body has died. It is also traumatic for a congregation to get rid of (fire) a pastor. The hurt and the sense of betrayal and failure can have devastating consequences on a congregation. The COM can assist the congregation as they go through the LONG search process. The COM can check references of pastoral candidates (this may be the most important thing the COM does to assist a congregation in the search process).
  3. Ordaining pastors: The Presbytery can assist people interested in the pastoral ministry. The Committee on Preparation for Ministry walks with a person through the entire ordination process.
  4. Assisting congregations in times for financial struggles: Presbyteries use to be able to assist congregations in times of financial struggles—some may still be doing this. More and more Presbyteries are experiencing their own financial difficulties and have little or no funds available to assist struggling congregations. Two years ago I sat in a meeting where a Presbytery was open and honest about their financial situation. They realized that if even one church defaulted on a loan the Presbytery would be financially ruined! At that time, they were looking into the possibility of signing over the ownership of all church properties to the local congregations. Most of our Presbyteries are one major “event” from being financially ruined. There is, and will continue to be fewer and fewer dollars available for the Presbyteries to give to congregations that are suffering financial struggles.
  5. Camping ministries: Camping ministries are very important to the smaller congregations. Larger churches “do their own thing” in that area. A Presbytery can help put together a camping ministry.

There may be (and are) some other ministries that a Presbytery is involved in. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list!

To be brutally honest, if the Presbytery closed its doors tomorrow it would have ZERO impact on the church I serve.

Monday, October 09, 2006

What if… Synods?

Why does the PCUSA have Synods? I know why we have had them in the past. I am not sure why we have them today.

For almost twenty years I have served within the bounds of the Synod of Alaska/Northwest. The Synod had an important place in the lives of its seven presbyteries. In those days, the seven presbyteries would send representatives to a special gathering. This gathering was called the Mission Budget Consultation. The delegates would “bring to the table” each Presbytery’s mission dollars for Presbytery and Synod missions (they didn’t bring actual $$$, just the amount that were being pledged). Each Presbytery would bring its proposed mission projects and the proposed budgets for those projects. This Synod group would prioritize the projects. Mission dollars would be allocated until all of the mission dollars were accounted for. The bottom line is that the larger Presbyteries ended up helping to support the mission projects of smaller Presbyteries. The two Alaska presbyteries were the largest “receivers” of such assistance. The Synod also had a special “per capita” to assist the two Alaska Presbyteries with the high cost of holding Presbytery meetings. We truly functioned as a synod.

Fast forward to today. Life is much different in the Synod of Alaska/Northwest. The Mission Budget Consultation fell apart eight or nine years ago (if my memory doesn’t fail me). We are fazing out the Alaska per capita. Only two or three presbyteries a still paying the Alaska per capita.

Synod use to be (and probably still is) the place where our United Ministries in High Education are connect to the denomination. Don’t get me started on these ministries. While serving as Chaplain at a Presbyterian-related college I walked in this world for too long. These ministries should be connected to the Church at the presbytery level—there is much more accountability if they are housed at the Presbytery level.

I do not see ANY useful function for Synods in today’s church.

There use to be a time when it was helpful to have a church “body” that facilitated our Presbyteries working together. The world has changed—it’s just not needed any more. Technology has made it possible for us to connect. I recently gathered with folks from various Presbyterian churches across Washington State. We are laying the foundations for ministry in the 21st century. We are beginning to look at ways that we can partner together in ministry and mission. We do not need a Synod to do that for us.

Keeping Synods around is a financial drain on our limited dollars. Our Presbytery would probably be able to plan a new church every three to five years with the money we give to Synod over that same time period of time. What is more important—new churches or keeping the synod dinosaur alive?

It is time to take a serious look at doing away with synods. What do you think?