Saturday, January 16, 2010


Way, way (way, way, way) back when I was a member of Carlisle Presbytery I was part of a pastor’s group in the presbytery called “The Cleric.”  We would get together every month, hear a book review and a paper by members of the group and then have dinner together.  We took turns with the book review and the paper.  This was in the 1980s.  We had a blast.  There was some theological diversity and we were able to talk about our differences and still accept one another.  Besides that if you wanted to be in the power group in the presbytery you went to the group.  A lot of presbytery business was done over dinner.

One time when it was my turn to present the paper I used family systems analysis to talk about the PCUSA.  Back then the political situation was different.  Or maybe not.  In any case I suggested that the PCUSA was a dysfunctional family and that the Presbyterian Layman was the designated problem within the family.

One of the curious things about the designated problem in a family system is that he or she tends act in ways that fulfills the designation.  The designated problem will act out, seeking attention and thereby reassure the other family members that the designation is correct.  But the problem with designating one member of the family as the problem is that the family then does not have to look at the fundamental problems in the family system, the real cause of the dysfunction.

Back then (and let’s face it they haven’t changed) it was easy to designate the Layman as the problem.  While providing information that it is difficult to get elsewhere without hard work the Layman put a spin on the information that always suggested that the PCUSA was terrible and going down the tubes. 

It is my observation today that the Layman is no longer the designated problem in the PCUSA.  Or Layman is no longer the sole designated problem.  We now point fingers in all directions accusing others of being “the problem” in the PCUSA.  Who are the designated problems in the PCUSA today?  The GA office and those who work there.  The Washington office.  The Stated Clerk.  Those homosexuals.  Feminists.  People who say that there are others ways to salvation besides Jesus.  The Layman (they haven’t lost their status), Evangelicals, those in the middle, etc. etc ad infinitum. 

Curiously most of these groups also see themselves as powerless in the PCUSA.  We have an ongoing problem with groups seeing themselves as THE victims in the PCUSA.

This does not mean that there are no victims in the PCUSA.  There are.  But so many groups are seen as the problem and see themselves as victims that it is terribly difficult to have conversation about anything.  Some seem to think, (those on the right) if those on the left would just leave the denomination everything would be fine.  That would mean that homosexuals, those who have, let’s call it a more “open” theology, Socialists, (or at least those the right thinks are socialists) Feminists . . . well the list is long.  Others seem to think that if those on the right would go ahead and leave (as they regularly threaten to do) things would be great.  Or course they have to leave their property.

I’m not entirely sure if having more than one designated problem is better or worse.  Nevertheless family systems therapists regularly point to the way the people in the system communicate and the way the system works as the real problem, not the designated problem person (people).

I have seen family systems theory work to help a congregation get beyond their problems or get “unstuck.”  But I don’t know how to do it for a whole denomination particularly when you can’t get all the people into one room to talk about it.  Nevertheless I suggest that our problems are not primarily the ones that we bring to the fore.  It isn’t that those issues are not important.  It’s just that how we deal with the issues is more important if we are going to have a family that functions well together.

Although they did not use the specific language this was one of the messages from the PUP Task Force back in 2006.  Presbyterians weren’t listening to each other.  I’m not sure their other solutions were as helpful but their recommendation that those who disagreed should sit down and talk for a couple years in small groups was a good one.  And Presbyterians still aren’t listening to each other.  Winning is more important than being one if Christ.  To be honest we can’t even define what it means to be one in Christ!

So as we go back into another GA season all the groups (many of whom see themselves as victims and others as the problem) we get ready again for the great battles.  But no matter who wins the battles the denomination will lose unless we find a better way to be the PCUSA family. 

Of course if everyone thought like me everything would be fine. 


Jodie said...

I hadn't read this post yet when I responded to the last one. Again, I think you are spot on. Although I for one firmly believe the folks that run the Layman chose their course with malice and for-thought for secular reasons long before anybody responded to them.

If you believe the Kingdom of God is about here and now, or at least that it starts here and now, then the Gospels tell us that American Christians have two, maybe three strikes against us.

1) as you point out, we are hard of hearing (Is 6). check.

2) Matthew says the people who can't get in the Kingdom are the religious zealots. check.

3) Luke says the rich and powerful also can't get in the Kingdom of God. check.

We are having a terrible time trying to fit in the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Bob said...


Thanks. My point was that if we apply family systems theory to the problems in the PCUSA we find that we all have a tendency to find others as the problem child. Whether the Layman acts by malice aforthought or not their relationship with others in the denomination in part grows out of their assigned place as a problem child. Action by problem children isn't usually to a current situation. The problem child seeks attention by acting out. The Layman is very good at acting out.

Jodie said...

"The Layman is very good at acting out."


And they get other problem children to act out with them.

My brother once pointed out that churches are like hospitals. People come to church for healing. That's a good thing. But it becomes a problem when we let the patients run the place.

There are several good tools to help visualize dynamic human organizations. Being a systems engineer myself, I like the family systems tool. Modern network theory with its multiple nodes and feedback loops is probably even better.

The biblical model of a living organism is brilliant, and it grows as we understand living organisms better and better.

The Layman works like that part of the brain that makes you pick at scabs, keeping them infected rather than letting them heal.

Alan said...

"Some seem to think, (those on the right) if those on the left would just leave the denomination everything would be fine. .... Others seem to think that if those on the right would go ahead and leave (as they regularly threaten to do) things would be great. "

I'm sure some might think that's a comforting way of framing these issues, if only it were true. But then if one actually looks at the evidence one sees that it is patently false.

While there are probably a few folks on the left who think we'd be better off without the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales and scolds, here you are specifically talking about groups and I know of no liberal group that has called for people on the right to leave, nor encouraged them to do so. In fact the position of the left is predicated on the notion that the church should be more inclusive, not more exclusive. In addition, we take our connectionalism seriously by staying. You won't find liberal churches continually threatening to pick up our toys and leave when we don't get our way.

On the other hand, the right has repeatedly called for us to leave, going so far as to formalize those calls in several overtures to that effect, supported by the various rightwing groups. There's a new one this year regarding non-geographical synods (which amounts to the same thing). Let's see ..... who proposed that one? Oh right, those awful liberals, PFR.

Pastor Bob said...


In my first presbytery there were enough liberal votes to make sure that no Evangelical ever served on a committee with any power, particularly the COM. And when the Evangelicals on the Evangelism Committee proposed policy the liberals were upset even though that was one of the few committees upon which Evangelicals were allowed to serve. That was Los Ranchos. Now Los Ranchos is one of the most conservative presbyteries. I can't comment on why the change happened because I left in 1982

My second presbytery, Carlisle, was middle of the road. The tall steeple pastors tended to be on the COM. The biggest theological debates I saw were about not using Father Son and Holy Spirit for the Trinity. But we ordained a friend of mine who refused to do so.

Utica is the most liberal presbytery I've ever served. As far as I could tell the assignment to committees had nothing to do with theology. It was about whether you were part of the in group or not. I never was able to figure out how one became part of the in group. Nevertheless although I knew I was regularly going to be on the losing side of votes on a variety of issues I always felt accepted.

I can't say too much about New Brunswick Presbytery because I wasn't there long enough.

Philadelphia is a curious presbytery. When I first arrived here I saw some of the most nasty and rancorous debates I had seen anywhere. These tend to be about race. I missed the debate about amendment B last year but hear it was very respectful.

I suppose you're right Alan. No one wants us to leave. But we aren't exactly accepted either. Or maybe I should say we didn't use to be accepted. Part of the problem in the PCUSA today is that there is no clear majority. Evangelicals gained power that we did not have in the 1970's.

What I find most curious among Evangelicals is a tendency to feel like they are victims even in presbyteries where they could have a clear majority or where they have a clear majority. It's like they have never gotten over the fundamentalist/modernist controversy.

And there is a lot more history from the 1930s through the 1970s but books are written on such things.

Pastor Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pastor Bob said...

Oh and Alan, I've said this before and I say it again. I don't see you as a liberal. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the debates over homosexuality in the PCUSA don't really fit into the liberal/conservative way of measuring things. I would, for example say that theologically Jack Rogers and Mark Achtemeier are Evangelicals. A couple of my friends here in Philadelphia Presbytery are pretty conservative on most issues but voted for amendment B.

Of course there is more support for changing or deleting G-6.0106b on the left. And one gets drummed out of the society by Evangelicals if one believes God created people with homosexual desires and calls those desires good. But if you use other measurements one can be rather theologically conservative and support the deletion of G-6.0106b.

Pastor Bob said...


If the Layman was the only group that acted out or if the various Evangelical groups were the only ones who acted out life would be much easier. There are groups and individuals all over the map that act out. Sometimes they don't even mean to do so.

An example. Back in 1983 the Stated Clerk of the PCUS who then became the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA (sorry I don't remember his name) said that now North and South were back together we were all the PCUSA together again. The problem was he had forgotten how the UPCUSA got the U in the first place. In 1957 (8?) The UPNA and the PCUSA united. Churches that had been in the former UPNA felt slighted by the Clerk's statement. Actually they were furious. I was pastor of one at the time and at the annual meeting there was a unanimous vote that the congregation would be the United Presbyterian Church in perpetuity (as if any vote can be in perpetuity). The sad thing is that the Clerk probably just forgot.

And then there was the reorganization of presbyteries in the South after reunion. There were some former Northern presbyteries in the South. These were all African American presbyteries. When presbyteries were reorganized the African Americans lost power because they were now minorities in their presbyteries while they had been totally African American in the past. Now they cannot count on having votes at GA. And some are still ticked off about it.

Alan said...

Your anecdotes don't really support your point since I'm sure we could find any number of folks in conservative presbyteries who believe they've been shut out of the process because they're not conservative enough.

But as for a continued, systematic, formal process of trying to kick one group out that you mentioned in your post, that's been a wholly conservative strategy and has never been a liberal one.

"I'm becoming more and more convinced that the debates over homosexuality in the PCUSA don't really fit into the liberal/conservative way of measuring things."

If you haven't read the article in last week's Newsweek called "A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage", the lawyer bringing the suit against California's Prop 8 makes much the same argument, to wit: "Look, gay folks want marriage! Our conservative family values won the argument."

One could say much the same thing in our ordination fight: "Look, contrary to the continuing secularization of American culture, here's a group of liberal folks who have been systematically excluded from the church who not only want in, but want to serve! We won!" But of course, they don't actually want more people to serve because that's one more person who they see as threatening their little presbytery fiefdoms.

Personally I've never thought the phony victim mentality on the part of conservatives was real even to them. I think it makes excellent copy for their fundraising letters, and they know it, so they use it. But I don't think even they really believe it.

Pastor Bob said...

Victim status is one of the primary self narratives of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Part of this grows out of the loss of power after the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy. Part of it grows out of being essentially shut out of the development of denominational programs from the 1930s through the 1960s. To be fair they also withdrew into their own little worlds back then and didn't come out until the 1960s. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists created their own nondenominational organizations because they believed that the denominational programs were not orthodox and they had no say in the creation of denominational programs. Thus World Vision, Campus Crusade, Intervarsity etc. were created to provide orthodox programs according to their theology.

Then in the 1970s (I don't know about before then) they were criticized and labeled as not faithful to their denominations because they didn't use denominational curricula. (So were churches that used middle of the road programs like Youth Club, what is now called Logos).

The refusal or ordination to Walter Kenyon is seen as a part of that oppression. While the ordination of women was an inclusive action the refusal to ordain Kenyon because he would not ordain women was an exclusive action. Based on the Kenyon case Evangelicals expect that if/when ordination of homosexuals is allowed sooner or later it will become mandatory like the ordination of women and they will not be ordained or allowed to move to other churches.

Frankly we simply don't believe that the inclusivity of the left includes us.

Oppression of Evangelicals who are part of mainline denominations by those denominations is a fundamental (pun intended) :) narrative of Evangelicals. You can argue that this is a narrative is inaccurate but you will not be able to convince Evangelicals that it is false. It is one of my gut narratives. I have to tell myself regularly that it is not (in most circles) true. In some circle I HAVE experienced it. To some because I graduated from Fuller I am not accepted as a true Presbyterian. Part of this is because Fuller is not a Presbyterian seminary but sometimes it is because Fuller is an Evangelical seminary. Back in the 80s I was explicitly told by a GA staff member that nothing good comes out of Fuller. I have, however, experienced this less and less over the years.

Alan said...

"You can argue that this is a narrative is inaccurate but you will not be able to convince Evangelicals that it is false."

Of course not. That's the very nature of delusions.

In the PCUSA (and elsewhere) they've won every challenge to ordination so far, whether it was at the overture level or the PJC level (one can hardly call the milquetoast bizarre contortionist PJC decisions victories for LGBT folks -- though I think they're hilarious and exactly what we all deserve.) More broadly, they have successfully stopped gay marriage in its tracks in a majority of states, and gotten DOMA passed and signed by a center-left President. Not to mention that ENDA has been in legislative limbo for a couple decades. We finally got a little legislation that says it might be bad to bash gays, but even that was over their strenuous objections (natch.)

Only someone suffering from major delusions would claim those as loses and themselves as the victim. I don't think we need to convince them that their narrative is false, they've got much bigger problems than that, which I think only serious therapy can help.

Now I'll freely admit that in 20 years or so they'll have reason to feel the victim, once we've won the ordination fight and the marriage fight and all the others. They'll be the "victim" then, not of any agenda, but of old age and the failure to reproduce their ideology of hate. Demographics always wins.

So either they're delusional or not clever enough to actually see what's been going on. My POV is actually much more generous, that they're neither delusional nor stupid, just really good at marketing and fundraising. And to the extent that anyone can create this "narrative" without following the money/power trail they're simply being naive.

If Evangelicals were regularly beaten with baseball bats when leaving church, freely harassed and fired at work because they have no employment protection, were forbidden from marrying their partner, forbidden from adopting children, thrown out of their homes by their parents, then they would have reasonable cause to feel victimized. Instead, they are largely the perpetrators of each and every one of those things. Yet they still laughingly think of themselves as "victims" because they feel someone was mean to them at a Presbytery meeting. Feh. I'm not sure what one can realistically do with someone that disconnected with reality other than back away slowly, remove all the sharp objects from view, and try not to make eye contact.

Pastor Bob said...


I agree Evangelicals so far have won on the issue of ordination of homosexuals. I don't hear a sense of victimization on that issue except "Why do we have to keep on dealing with this?" The sense of being a victim comes from the history I mentioned. There was a time when Presbyterian professors at Fuller weren't accepted as members of the Presbytery of Southern California.

I agree that physical violence produces real victims.

My point in the original blog was that the PCUSA is a severely dysfunctional family that busily points fingers in all directions saying it is someone else's fault. But we don't get down to the real problem, as I think the PUP Task Force did, that we don't really talk with each other. We all say our standard lines and don't listen to the other because we expect them to say their standard lines. THAT is dysfunction.

Pastor Bob said...

Or maybe I should say that ordination of homosexuals is the presenting problem not the true dysfunction.

Alan said...

And while I think there is plenty of childish finger pointing, I also think a rational look at the situation will demonstrate what's really been going on for the last 30 years, and that there isn't the equivalency between the two sides that many would like to imagine.

Pastor Bob said...


My experience with humans is that there is a grave difference between the power people have and the power people think they have. And their use of the power they think they don't have can be very interesting. And oppressive. An example would be a passive aggressive parent. The parent acts and speaks like s/he has no power but the statements made a strong use of power. But the parent still really believes s/he has no power.

It really gets to be a mess when groups act in passive aggressive manners.

My point in all of this is to say that that homosexuals in some circles are the identified problem. But that only allows people to avoid the real problems.

I'm not saying that the denomination's actions toward homosexuals is not a problem. Rather that there is a deeper problem that I think has gone on for at least 80 years.

Jack Rogers says that because we dealt with the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy with a polity answer to a theological question we will continue to repeat the pattern until we deal with the theological problem.

I suggest that we have tried to deal with the issues surrounding homosexual ordination and marriage as polity problems and not Biblical or theological problems. Not that people don't frame theological and Biblical arguments. Rather our answers to the problem come out in polity responses. All the answers since 1978 are polity responses.

This, by the way, is what Evangelicals learned in the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy. If it isn't in the Book of Order it doesn't count. So G-6.0106b was a polity answer. What frustrates Evangelicals is that even with a polity answer people ignore what the Book of Order says and get away with it. So they think there are different rules for liberals and conservatives. Their "experience" is that there are different rules. And therefore they believe they have no power. Whether that experience is accurate according to the facts on the ground makes no difference.

Alan said...

Yes, I understand that's one way of looking at it. Perhaps it can be seen by some as a generous way of looking at it if, and only if, one doesn't see calling someone obviously delusional as an insult.

I think you're ignoring the fact that any number of folks on the right are probably far more aware than you're giving them credit for and thus your story, while perhaps generous (perhaps not) is hopelessly naive because it discounts the desire of these folks to make money for themselves and their organizations.

That is, as a Calvinist, I have a hard time believing they're innocent victims of their own made-up narrative. There's a sucker born every minute and if this narrative can be exploited for monetary gain, it will be. There is no evidence to the contrary.

That is, I'd believe the delusion angle if it weren't so often used in fundraising letters. If one actually thinks they're downtrodden and losing the battle, one doesn't advertise that weakness, instead one would strategically try to advertise strengths instead of projecting weakness.

But if one knows that it is a false narrative one can use it to inspire fear and thus fundraising.

Or perhaps you're right and they really are just that delusional. But I think that my explanation that they're both delusional and greedy is more likely.

BTW, with all do respect to Rev. Rogers, while I can see why his take on things re: theological vs. polity solutions is compelling, I'm not sure it takes into account pure, unadulterated bigotry. Searching for a theological solution with bigots is going to be at least as much of a waste of time as searching for a polity solution with them, in my opinion. Bigotry wins over theology or polity with those folks every single time.

Pastor Bob said...

Well I guess I'm either delusional or a bigot then aren't I?

Alan said...

If after all this discussion in which you (I thought) appeared to understand that this "Evangelical-as-victim" narrative is a complete delusion, you still believe it anyway ... well, take your pick. Like I said, delusional might be the nicest option.

Though I'm not sure delusion is the correct word though for knowing something is false but believing it anyway. Might want to ask yourself why you choose to believe something you know to be false. That sort of irrationality can be explained in many ways, one of which is bigotry, but there are others.

But allow me to extend my most heartfelt sympathies to you for all the terrible things you, as a straight white male evangelical have had to put up with in this denomination and this country. I can't imagine how awful it must be to be be part of the group that controls the entire agenda of the denomination, not to mention actually being allowed to be ordained and hired as a pastor, being allowed to get married, and having job protections. Not to mention, of course, that same group of straight white male evangelicals has been instrumental in every national, state and local election since Reagan, and hand picked half the Supreme Court, and the list of horrors goes on and on.

Truly, your lot in life is almost too terrible to contemplate.

Pastor Bob said...

I guess that leaves bigot

Pastor Bob said...

Seriously, if we deal only with the issue of homosexuality I think Evangelicals know they have had the power in the PCUSA but that it is slipping.

But there are many other issues. In some presbyteries there seem to be no theological limits on how to decide whether someone should be ordained and/or installed. In others you can't get ordained unless you toe the party (in this case Evangelical) line. Somehow we seem to have lost our definition of what it means to be Reformed or we have so many definitions that the word has lost its meaning. You can't even get a bunch of Presbyterian MWS to agree with the doctrine of predestination! Not that Evangelical Presbyterians would be univocal on the issue.

God's solution to the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy was Neo Orthodoxy, which I think was a pretty good solution. We didn't have unity around that but at least we had a significant majority as long as you didn't ask whose Neo Orthodoxy. But that unity was lost between 1967 and 1970.

As Robert Bruce says in Braveheart, "This country from the bottom to the top has no sense of itself." Or something like that. I think that is a core problem in the PCUSA. We don't have a sense of who we are. We are for inclusivity but we don't know where inclusivity ends. Inclusivity can mean, at least in one congregation, that atheists can be church members. Inclusivity should have limits set by belief.

Alan said...

Meh. In general I'm against making a list of 5 fundamental beliefs to which one must subscribe to be a member, because in general, I'm against having popes, whether that's crowning a list of beliefs as our new pope, or whether it's the desire on the part of evangelicals to crown Calvin our pope. The modernists won that battle. If the fundamentalists didn't realize that, that's their problem.

Pastor Bob said...

Yep. Presbytery is the pope. Or at least the bishop.

Alan said...

Unfortunately, yes, the fundies have tried (and mostly succeeded) to make it that way. Fortunately out of 173 presbyteries, I'm sure there are plenty in which they have not yet been successful. But I'm sure they (and you) are working to fix that oversight.

Alan said...

(And if that doesn't work, they could always propose a new synod to achieve the same goal. Oh, wait ... they've already done that.)

Pastor Bob said...

Actually the Book of Order requires the presbytery to take the place of the bishop in some things. Confirmation is done by the Session as is ordination of elders but ordination trials and ordination/installation for MWS are done by the presbytery. And different presbyteries act in different ways. For that matter the same presbytery can act in different ways at different times. Of course the presbytery does not appoint pastors to congregations (if it tried there would be a rebellion) but it does have to approve the call.

I have never seen a presbytery turn down someone for ordination or a call to a particular congregation although I've heard of it being done. And presbytery can dissolve a relationship between a pastor and a congregation whether the pastor and/or the congregation want it to happen or not. I HAVE seen this done and spoke in favor of it. This was in a situation where the pastor had a sexual relationship with a member of the congregation who was not his wife.

So presbyteries have power but not unlimited power. And I like it that way. The balance of power between congregation/session and pastor is a great gift that we presbyterians could give to the larger Church.

Alan said...

"Actually the Book of Order requires the presbytery to take the place of the bishop in some things. "

No. Sorry, it does not. No action of the Presbytery, including the ones you describe in your comment can be done without a vote of the Presbytery. A bishop does not require approval by either a majority nor minority of people under his/her care to do anything.

I'm a bit surprised you have such a significant misunderstanding of the role of the Presbytery!

Pastor Bob said...

When I use the word presbytery I am referring to the presbytery voting. There is no presbytery except the presbytery acting as a group. The presbytery executive is an employee.