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Friday, November 07, 2008

power and trust

If this is too long, these next two paragraphs are the bottom line... (also repeated at the end).

This GAPJC ruling does not help foster trust, increase dialogue, heal wounds, or move us forward. It is a show of force and power, demanding trust and requiring compliance. It is not the way of grace any more than starting in court. It reminds me of the husband who forbids his wife to spend time with friends, travel away from home, or do anything other than stay close, near, and servile. As a way of fostering dialogue, trust, and grace, that approach is toxic.

I appeal to those in positions of power: re-read the rationale and comments along with Item 04-28, given in my supporting notes HERE. Our witness to Jesus Christ in our communities is of far more value than getting the stuff. More important than the outcome is the process itself, and many of our presbyteries have no process. I am speaking as one of US to US; WE must do better in how we treat our brothers and sisters who are separating, if we are to survive and serve Christ.
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The longer version... (with some background if this is new to you)

A recent judicial action of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), set in the witness-tarnishing context of church splits and property lawsuits, compels me to write. It's not entirely off-topic for this blog since our effectiveness as a witness for Jesus Christ in our community is affected by the way Presbyterians are treating each other right now.

Going into the 2008 General Assembly, I was aware of a number of pastors, elders, and congregations talking about and exploring a move to another denomination. I also recognized that there was an assumption that the denomination was instructing the local governing bodies (presbyteries) to play "hard-ball" with any congregations considering this action. Only a very few presbyteries had an established process that mitigated that impression. My analysis has been that this context has led and perhaps even required congregations who were moving forward to exit the PCUSA to take pre-emptive legal action to make a claim on the local church property and buildings. For many reasons, this situation grieves me, and led me to offer a resolution (04-28) to the General Assembly calling on presbyteries to establish a process to relate to such churches, and hopefully a process that was gracious and offering a Christlike witness. More detail on that resolution is available HERE and the text, rationale, and oral presentations I gave are available in a 4-pg. PDF file HERE.

That resolution called on the Stated Clerk to share the resolution with every presbytery and congregation. Frustratingly, it was only sent to the middle governing body mailing list (synod and presbytery staff) with no explicit direction for them to forward it on to the local churches. So, I have been trying to share this resolution - strongly supported by the General Assembly - with those who need it most: HERE (please share widely!).

My frustration elevated this past week when I read the decision of the GAPJC in case 219-03: Sundquist v. Heartland Presbytery. That 14 pp. decision has a number of parts, but several things jumped out as unusual and over-reaching.

First, there is a whole section (II) given to ruling that "withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting." If that is true, then the following statement is non-sensical, since the presence of presbytery leadership or an administrative commission doesn't change what can or can't happen at a congregational business meeting.

Congregational meetings called or conducted by sessions for the purpose of voting on dismissal without the involvement of the presbytery are improper and have no binding effect.
It is not clear how withdrawal would be considered then, when the ruling goes on to state,

This does not mean that a congregation is prohibited from requesting dismissal. However, it is the presbytery...that has the responsibility to consult with the members of a church about dismissal (G-11.0103i).
I've read the ruling several times now and it seems to me that if there is to be any talk, prayer, discussion, wrestling with, or other consideration of separating from the PCUSA, that the GAPJC is forbidding local leadership and congregations from broaching the subject without direct leadership and involvement of the presbytery. That is impractical, unenforceable, and poorly explained.

  • Impractical: no pastor or Session (or individual church member) should dial up their presbytery with an invitation to dismissal procedures without first discussing the matter prayerfully and at length with the leadership and with the whole congregation.
  • Unenforceable: if it can't be a matter of business at a congregational (business) meeting, can it be discussed ever? The congregation can come together for fellowship, fun, or any other topic under the sun. Is the ruling really trying to tell us we can't ever talk about it at the congregational level?
  • Poorly explained: I hope this isn't forbidding free speech... rather, I've got to think the GAPJC is trying to say that (in their interpretation) the congregation can't make the decision to be dismissed; rather, the presbytery does that. Well, GAPJC also seems to say the congregation can't ask to be dismissed either... but I'd think a well-handled town hall meeting could instruct the Session on what to communicate to presbtery.
Second - and here's the part that got my goat - the ruling appeals to Assembly action 04-28 as rationale for forbidding congregational discussion. What?! It is used at the end of section II of the ruling to shame and threaten congregations when the primary recipient of Item 04-28 is the Presbytery. Perhaps the single biggest reason for that resolution (and this was stated in the resolution) is the lack of process for this very matter at the presbytery level. The resolution calls on presbyteries to establish a process for interacting with churches seeking dismissal; it sees the establishment of such a process as inviting to congregations and encouraging of dialogue... and the GAPJC jumps over that purpose to wield the resolution like a hammer.

This obligation and mutual responsibility for dialogue was made explicit by the 218th General Assembly when it adopted the Resolution for a Gracious, Pastoral Response (Minutes, 2008, Item 04-28).
...
Thus congregations, sessions, and pastors {RMA: and presbyteries??} who fail to abide by the principles of the Resolution for a Gracious, Pastoral Response or presbytery policies (such as the Heartland Resolution) that embody these principles shall have breached important responsibilities and duties. As Presbyterians, the church at every level must visibly demonstrate the covenantal ties that bind us as the one church of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Item 04-28 calls for presbyteries to make a process of dismissal available to its churches (rather than first demand that churches walk blindfolded to the table). Let every presbytery take that challenge seriously, then let's talk about how to get folks to the table.

I've been pondering these dynamics for a week now - this is no hasty post. (In fact, I've been pondering these things for years.) In the rationale for GA Item 04-28, I compare the relationship between a congregation seeking dismissal and the presbytery to a divorcing couple. One obvious thing to focus on in divorce is the "stuff" - the property and all, which usually requires attorneys and litigation. But we are the church! We are pastors and elders and if I were counseling with a divorcing couple, I would steer towards the attitudes and practices described in 04-28.

Here's the bottom line...

This GAPJC ruling does not help foster trust, increase dialogue, heal wounds, or move us forward. It is a show of force and power, demanding trust and requiring compliance. It is not the way of grace any more than starting in court. It reminds me of the husband who forbids his wife to spend time with friends, travel away from home, or do anything other than stay close, near, and servile. As a way of fostering dialogue, trust, and grace, that approach is toxic.


I appeal to those in positions of power: re-read the rationale and comments along with Item 04-28, given in my supporting notes HERE. Our witness to Jesus Christ in our communities is of far more value than getting the stuff. More important than the outcome is the process itself, and many of our presbyteries have no process. I am speaking as one of US to US; WE must do better in how we treat our brothers and sisters who are separating, if we are to survive and serve Christ.
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RESOURCES FOR PRESBYTERIES
Here are two processes that I've seen that best embody the spirit of Item 04-28...

Discerning God's Leading Together: the Jubilee Process - submitted to the Presbytery of Olympia for consideration. [I don't know the result, but this document builds explicitly on Item 04-28 and looks full of grace and truth]

Presbytery of San Joaquin - Property Covenant - San Joaqin has had to use this more than once and are worth consulting. The EP is Rick Irish, whom I met at GA when he presented an overture on "Solemn Assemblies" - also adopted by the Assembly.

13 comments:

Dave Moody said...

Thanks Robert.

Its embarrassing as well as frustrating.
grace,
dm

Viola said...

Robert,
I have been thinking about this post for several days. All I can even think to say is that it is a horrid thing when someone in power takes something you meant for good and attempts to use it for evil. (Even though they surly did not mean it as evil that is what they have done in my opinion.) That has to be disheartening. My God turn it around.

Anonymous said...

Viola,

Is a dear Christian friend and I'm sure she was thinking may God turn it around. It is disheartiening to me to hear such messages from teh GAPJC. Jim S

Viola said...

Thank you, thank you, Jim--I wrote too fast. Yes I meant may God turn it around.

Kyle said...

The Presbytery of Olympia document had it's reading. Some suggestions for changes were made and will be reviewed for a second reading in two weeks. Then voted on. It was a really wonderful experience during the first reading. Members from both sides of the aisle collaborated on this document.

-Kyle G.
Tacoma, WA

stjones said...

Thanks for this analysis. I've href="http://curmudgeons-progress.com/2008/11/pcusa-sundquist-disaster.html">thought some about this myself.

Our church has felt the heavy hand of the Sundquist decision. Since its appointment eight months ago, the AC assigned to our church has refused to even discuss dates for a vote. It is obvious that the AC is now fondling this new weapon they've been handed, getting a feel for it, testing its range.

After putting up with their inaction, we scheduled an information meeting and vote without their approval. The meeting was last week. There is little doubt that they will invoke original jurisdiction and perhaps dismiss our pastors if we don't cancel the vote scheduled for this Sunday.

Sundquist has helped us to see that if we don't vote now, on our terms, we may never have another chance. The AC has required grace and good faith from our session all along but has shown us neither. Armed with Sundquist, there is little chance they ever will.

It is indeed all about power.

robert austell said...

Kyle - that is wonderful; I'd love to hear what comes of the discussion and vote!

Stjones - I grieve with and for you.

Owner said...

Increasingly it is hard to take anything from our GAPJC's as serious, relevant, or significant. As a recently returned PC(USA) Mission Co-Worker I am deeply saddened to see just how irrelevant the denomination has become to ministry and mission.

Rev. Glen Hallead
www.firstpresbyterianwellsboro.org

jim_l said...

What all of this points out is that there is no due process built into the system. The congregation has little to no rights before the presbytery. No AC decision can be appealed, challenged, or stopped (injunction). There are no checks and balances. It unfortunately becomes a hostile takeover of a church.

Chad Herring said...

I was the moderator of the Committee of Counsel for Heartland Presbytery in this GAPJC case. These are my thoughts, not those of the presbytery.

Three quick comments:

First: Robert, I appreciate your thoughts regarding this, particularly given your unique role in bringing the commissioner's resolution to the floor of GA. As your resolution was not particularly argued by either the appellants or the appellees in this case, it was interesting to see the GAPJC's use and reasoning from it.

Certainly, once a commissioner's resolution comes before the GA, it becomes the GA's action, and can be used as interpreted by its bodies, just as it was in this case.

Nonetheless, I personally appreciate your thoughts in this matter. I am grateful to you for them.

Second: For, Jim and others, I do not think that it is correct that "What all of this points out is that there is no due process built into the system. The congregation has little to no rights before the presbytery. No AC decision can be appealed, challenged, or stopped (injunction). There are no checks and balances. It unfortunately becomes a hostile takeover of a church." What the decision said is that presbyteries can use ACs with the powers that presbyteries already have as it exercises pastoral care and oversight of churches. There is indeed due process built into the system, particularly in Heartland Presbytery and our AC. In short: churches are added to the work of the AC by COM, Council, or Presbytery in plenary (which also ratifies any addition by COM or council), all due process rights under G-11.0103o. and s, and G-9.0505, particularly G-9.0505b(1) and (2), must be followed by the AC when exercising any of its powers, and in addition there are specific and additional determinations that our particular AC that it must find prior to exercising the specific scope powers delegated to it, and if it fails to do so it could be subject to remedial complaint. It simply is not true that AC decisions cannot be appealed, challenged, or stopped: any unconstitutional action is subject to remedial stay, and any decision of an AC can be revised just as a presbytery revises its own actions.

Heartland presbytery has been widely slandered in this matter, and its AC has gone out of its way to be gracious and pastoral in its activities. This was a challenge to the formation of an AC by the presbytery, and to date there have been no challenges regarding any of the actual things the AC itself has done. Heartland presbytery has not looked for any of the struggles that have been undertaken against us, and it is deeply disheartening to read the remarks to the contrary. In fact, the presbytery and its members are working hard to uplift the church and to do all of the things suggested in the commissioner's resolution.

I do disagree, ultimately, with Robert's assessment that the GAPJC ruling does not help to build trust, foster dialogue, or heal wounds. I hope that, instead, this ruling encourages churches to engage with the presbyteries, rather than shutting them out of the process, offering "study sessions" that describe how apostate the denomination truly is, or any such thing (which has happened, for instance, in our presbytery, so that when our EP finally is invited in there are questions as to whether he actually believes in the Divinity of Jesus Christ, or considers Jesus his Lord and Savior, etc, where churches have legal docs ready for civil action, or actually file civil injunctions against the presbytery...). The ruling had much to say about the organic nature of our polity, about how congregations and presbyteries have roles to play and responsibilities for healthy relationship, and I hope that this ruling will enable those to be lived out. Some my assume willy nilly that they will not, but I don't think that's a fair or faithful assumption.

It is a true thing, though, that the decision to divide, dismiss, or dissolve churches is, in our polity, a presbytery decision (so G-11.0103i), and that congregations cannot go about pursuing that absent the involvement of presbytery.

The GAPJC found, and I concur, that our polity is such that congregations do not have implicit rights to decide affiliation, but rather that is what presbyteries do. It found that Presbyteries exercising its responsibilities and powers when it works through ACs and attempts to engage, with its responsibilities and powers, churches, ministers and members who are seeking to leave, that those ministers and members are not unduly having their conscience bound, and in fact officers can not act in ways that are contrary to the constitution. I think these are fair and correct decisions by the GAPJC, and to rule otherwise would have had rather debilitating effects for our church.

So, finally, this brings up a third point about why the GAPJC makes a big deal about this point: Congregational meetings called or conducted by sessions for the purpose of voting on dismissal without the involvement of the presbytery are improper and have no binding effect. If I were to speculate, there was some discussion both in the ruling and at the hearing about this novel idea (floated first in an open letter by Mac McCarty) that the permissive powers of the congregation (cf. G-7.0304) allow the congregation to meet to discuss disaffiliation or dismissal. The GAPJC seems to want to put to rest any such idea as being unconstitutional, the protestations of Mac McCarty notwithstanding.

I get that there are many, particularly those who long to be dismissed or who already believe that they cannot abide in community with us, that this ruling disadvantages them. But it doesn't. It merely provides that they might now have to engage with the presbytery through this AC mechanism, and do so in a way that is consistent with their rights and obligations under the Book of Order and our common polity.

robert austell said...

Chad, thank you for posting. It is helpful to hear directly from one involved.

My reaction to the use of 04-28 is partly personal because of my investment in it, but I think also fair. The contents of 04-28 were not distributed as mandated by the Assembly (to every Session). And 04-28 is rooted in G-11.0103i, which you rightly point out gives presbyteries the authority and responsibility to dismiss congregations to another Reformed body. Explicitly grounded in that provision, 04-28 should have been applied (as written and approved) to presbyteries, but the Sundquist decision would seem to appeal to it primarily as leverage to compel congregational behavior and action. That is not just misapprehending my intention, but the plain language of 04-28.

Yes, GAPJC can interpret the Book of Order and Assembly actions as it sees fit... and it is no longer "my resolution" but the Assembly's action. But I just think the GAPJC is wrong in this application - not just morally wrong (i.e. "power and trust") but STRATEGICALLY wrong - as to effecting the outcome sought in the Sundquist decision. I think this application of 04-28 will work against the desired outcome of congregations and presbyteries coming together at the table.

robert austell said...

To all - I don't normally have to moderate comments ('cause there just aren't usually many comments)... but I see in this comment thread potential for language to escalate.

If you'd like your comment to pass through, please be mindful of what you write - truthfully describing others' actions is one thing, but attributing motive is notoriously dicey.

So, simply be forewarned or your comments (which I'd like to share) won't make the cut.

Chad Herring said...

Thanks, Robert, for posting my comment and your response to it.

I only want to respond further that my reading of the GAPJC decision in Sundquist et. al v. Heartland didn't just apply 04-28 to the congregation. Nothing in the GAPJC decision restricted 04-28 to the congregation/session. There is language in the decision about the Presbyteries responsibilities under the constitution and our historic organic unity. And the full force and effect of 04-28 (whatever that might be) still stands after this.

On the other hand, the GAPJC found through review of evidence presented at the Synod PJC level and through hearing, that the presbytery was indeed pastoral and constitutional in its actions in these particular issues.

I do not see how congregations/sessions could indeed act secretly and without presbytery involvement, as discussed in the decision of Sundquist, and abide by the tone, tenor, and intent of 04-28. These are incompatable, and that was what the decision said. I think this is correct.

If your point is that there are things that a Presbytery ought to do in light of the recommendations of 04-28, you are correct. I would contend, though, that there is not really anything in the Sundquist decision that likewise renders a Presybtery's actions incompatible with those recommendations.

Thanks for allowing me to comment. I generally wanted to correct the notion that there is no due process at all (which is plainly false) and to state (since no one else is doing it) that a lot of the analysis about Heartland Presbytery specifically (and about other presbyteries in a similar situation) is bordering on slanderous, if not there already. I personally have been impressed and proud of the work that our AC has been doing with the churches under its mandate.

Peace to all...

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