Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why I'm not leaving the PCUSA

I admit to being embarrassed by the Presbyterian Church sometimes. A year ago my doctor gave my wife a lecture about the 2004 GA decision about divestment in Israel! And I remember Re-imagining, the 1991 sex report, speeches by Ministers of Word and Sacrament who believe Jesus isn't anyone special, or at least he isn't the only way to salvation and yes, the PUP Report. A friend of mine said one time that he just wanted to get through a General Assembly without having to explain something to irate members of his congregation. I sympathize.

But I'm not leaving the PCUSA. It would be better to say I can't leave the PCUSA.

I believe the only time to leave a denomination is when the denomination either becomes apostate or an action of the denomination would cause one to do something that is against one's conscience. We aren't there.

I read yesterday that
a minister in Florida is leaving for the EPC with most of his congregation because he thinks the PCUSA is apostate because of the PUP report. I didn't and still don't approve of the PUP report. I was a overture advocate from my presbytery to speak against the PUP report. But was the PUP report apostate?

Let's define the word: "One who has abandoned one's religious faith, a political party, one's principles, or a cause." (from TheFreeDictionary. Yes, I Googled it.) Has the PCUSA abandoned the one true Christian faith? I think not. We have a Book of Confessions that every ordained person in the denomination affirms contains the "essentials of the Reformed faith." We haven't declared that the Book of Confessions is wrong. We say as a denomination that we believe in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, in salvation by grace alone, salvation by faith alone, and the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures for for faith and life. Even people who think the PUP report didn't change anything and is the greatest thing since sliced bread in the PCUSA believe all that. Well, most of us. Governing bodies do make mistakes sometimes in our examination of candidates. To quote the Westminster Confession: "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both." (Book of Confessions, 6.175) So yes, sometimes a session or a presbytery makes a mistake and ordains someone who isn't really a Christian or who is a heretic. And yes, sessions, presbyteries, synods and general assemblies make mistakes. Sometimes they make decisions that are not in accord with the will of God or that are not Biblically grounded. But that doesn't make the denomination apostate. It makes us all together and in our various governing bodies and individually human and sinners and not God. We err. We aren't omniscient and we do sin.

Please be assured, I'm not celebrating that fact. The Church is a school for forgiven sinners. We are to teach and learn how to be more faithful Christians both in our beliefs and in our actions. But the truth is we aren't perfect.

No, I am not a Pollyanna. I work hard as a pastor to make sure that when I preach the Word it really is, to the best of my ability what the Bible says to this generation, no matter how difficult the passage may be to hear or to say. I teach the faith once received by the saints as best I can. And as a member of presbytery I stand up and shoot my mouth off and argue with the best of them. Does the session or the presbytery always bow down and say, "Yes Bob, we hear and agree with your great wisdom?" Of course not! Even my wife, wisely, does not do that! Am I sometimes wrong and the rest of the session or the rest of the presbytery right, (or maybe all of us wrong in different ways)? Of course! Am I sometimes right and the decision of the session or presbytery wrong? Probably not as often as I would like to think! But I have the obligation to state what I believe is right.

Read Church history. There never has been a time when the Church made perfect decisions and was at peace. The history of the Ecumenical Councils on the Trinity and the Divinity and Humanity of Christ read like a comedy of errors and a study in how not to come to good theological decisions. If you think Presbyterians get up to bad high jinks in our politics, read about the Robber Council of Ephesus!

Augustine was right. The Church is a bunch of sinners. But we are forgiven sinners. Don't give up on the PCUSA. And God, we Presbyterians believe, brought us together for a purpose. God isn't ready for the divorce of the PCUSA. God still has much to do through us.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pastor Bob. Your reflection has helped describe how positions taken by presbyters must not be interpreted or reported as positions of the denomination.

Anonymous said...

We are a PCUSA church in southeastern PA and are currently in the process of searching for a new pastor. Our interim (interviewed by our Session but, for the most part, approved by our local Presbytery) reports in a few weeks. I just returned from a Leadership Summit where most of the faculty are founding pastors of their churches or ministries. These churches and ministries are exciting and are thriving and growing. Our church is not. The main difference I see is that we always seem to get stuck with pastors and assistant pastors that have little proprietorship in our church. I assume that, because they rarely stay more than 5 to 7 years, they don't need to get too invested know they will be gone soon. Meanwhile, the new mega churches with their founding pastors are attracting our members away from us. The Summit Conference I attended was being hosted by a pastor who founded his church 32 years ago and is still senior pastor. Main line churches don't ever do such a thing. They continue to have the "hired gun" mentality of contracting their spiritual leadership and dumping them when things get sour and funky. I'd like your comments about these trends toward failure in the PCUSA and in main line churches in general.

Pastor Bob said...

A response to anonymous.

First sorry for the time between your writing and my responding. I fell off my bike and got a concussion and 6 broken ribs. And I still don't remember what happened!

Anyway. A little attempt at street cred. I've been an ordained pastor since 1979. I was an associate for 2 years, pastor of a yoked parish for 7, pastor of another church for 12 years, of another for 2 and then was sick for a year and now pastor here for more than 3 and just getting started.

I'm not going to try and psychoanalyze independent or denominational pastors. I would guess there probably is a correlation between starting a congreation and staying there that might have something to do with ownership. But the last 2 pastors I followed were in their calls to retirement, one for 28 years and one for 30. And here at Tully Memorial I am the 4th pastor since 1912. During that time the church grew from around 100 to over 800 members and then shrank again to 68 members. Just recently (this year!) we have grown again both in total membership and worship attendance.

So truisms about pastoral longevity and church innovation: a pastor does his/her most innovative work beginning in the 7th year. This is because of the process of trust development. If she doesn't stay that long the church has to start trust development all over again with a new pastor. Also, curiously, a pastor has to start something new in the 10th year or so or things will begin to stagnate. Better get consent from the members though!

I don't know what the average amount of time a PCUSA pastor stays now. I suspect it is shorter for associates. You might check with your presbytery for the average stay for a pastor in your presbytery and compare that to the length your recent pastors have stayed. Your upcoming PNC or the committee that writes the Mission Study might seek to answer the question too. And it wouldn't hurt to have a conversation with the COM too.

As to correlation between drop in membership in the PCUSA and length of pastoral stay I have no statistics. But clearly the PCUSA and other denominations formerly called mainline have membership problems. And there are a variety of causes. They extend from our failure to replace ourselves, (we don't have enough babies), to name brand identification, (if Presbyterians move they often don't join another PCUSA church. Most important, our children don't grow up to be members of the PCUSA. Most of them grow up to join no congregation at all. Statistically all three of these are devastating to the PCUSA.

Part of the solution is to clearly be something and something important. People attend churches because those churches have clearly stated beliefs and clear standards. But they also attend because the congregation is a community of love.

That's a start. If you want to talk on the subject more email me at tullyrobert1@verizon.net

jefferis peterson said...

Well, Bob, you wrote in 2007. Are we there yet? Amendment 10A and the FOG pretty much seal the deal don't they? No ordination standards, not theological standards, and now your dues and per capita will be going to support license and perversion with the health plan.
I argue that if you haven't left already... it is now time:
I left in 1990 because I could see the handwriting on the wall. "God ‘s Truth is not decided by majority vote, but discerned with reverential fear by men seeking the voice of God in His revealed Word.

The fact that we are arguing about things like homosexuality and abortion only reveals how the scripture has lost its place of authority in our denomination. We are arguing about things which should not even be up for discussion, because the Word of God is clear on the matter; but this happens when God’s Word falls into disrepute in religious institutions. And so, our presbytery and Assembly meetings have changed from the intimate worship of God in Spirit and in Truth to one more like a political convention."