Having just returned from the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I am offering some reflections on my experience there. I am curating other post-GA commentary over at GA Help. Feel free to look around either site or offer feedback via the comments on posts since GA (moderated, so they won't post immediately).

GA220 Reflection guest post - "Making Disciples"

The commissioners from the Presbytery of Charlotte were to report at our presbytery meeting today and a written reflection by myself and Kate Murphy was unintentionally omitted from the presbytery packet.  I had shared the "Disappointment and Hope" reflection from this blog.  The other reflection was by my friend, the Rev. Kate Murphy. Her reflection is below.

“Making Disciples” – the Rev. Kate Murphy
Reflections on the 220th General Assembly (2012) 

After some soul-searching, I’m going to share this piece I wrote on the second day of GA. I don't write to tear down the PCUSA. This is the place God calls me to be, but I do trust God enough to tell the truth (as I see it)--because I think God is pruning and shaping us into something beautiful.

Yesterday, I worshiped at Mt. Ararat Baptist church with my friend Eustacia—and it was possibly the most powerful and authentic worship service I’ve ever experienced—the fellowship, the music, the dancing, the JOY—and the word. Rev. Curtis is an incredible preacher—but I’ve heard lots of really great preachers. What’s breath-taking is that you realize, the sermon is not the goal for him—it’s the tool, it is the means to the end—and the end is us. He’s preaching to create and deepen disciples, you can look around and see people changing, things breaking down in their hearts—in my heart. That congregation isn’t focused on being a great church (though it certainly is), and that ministry isn’t just making disciples, it’s maturing them. That community of faith teaches believers that life with Christ is not about knowing more or doing more, it’s about being more through the grace of Jesus Christ.

And I wonder, when did we in the PCUSA get the idea that there were more important things to do than make and deepen disciples? And we have—just look at what we gather to do at our big important bi-annual meeting. We don’t gather in committees to talk about evangelism, or spiritual disciplines, or stewardship, or worship—much less patience or forgiveness or love. We don’t want to be more in Christ—we want to do things in the world for God. I did not sit on the Ministry with Immigrants committee—we’re not interested in being church with strangers and ‘aliens’ in our country, we didn’t spend a second talking about that. I sat on the Immigration Affairs committee, because we’re focused on making policy, not disciples. We’re telling the world—and ourselves—what matters in the PCUSA. We’ve got more important things to do than grow deep in the grace of God. We’ve got to fix the world.

Why don’t we get that the most important work we have to do as an institution is to form the people that God sends out into the world? When did raising up and equipping the priesthood of all believers become insignificant to us? Don’t tell me we do it—we don’t even talk about doing it. And don’t tell me God does it for us without any intentionality and effort on our part. Nobody grows deep in God by accident. People whose hearts God lights on fire will go looking for a place to equip them to carry that flame out into a cold and dark world. Mt. Ararat Baptist is doing that work. And it’s not because they’re right and we’re wrong—it’s because God is equipping them to do it, because they’ve made it their primary work. I know God would equip us too—in our own way, in our own style, if only we chose it for our primary work. What if instead of writing policy papers for the US State Department, we tried to nurture and form disciples to go and be the State Department—or if we tried to be the body of Christ with and for the men and women God has already called to do that work?

Any Good News, Robert?

Lest my last few reflections make it sound like I am overly pessimistic, please know that I am not.  I simply find it helpful to name what I see in hopes that, with God's help, we can do better.  I have a great well of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ and would point backwards a few posts and months to this piece that I wrote on "Hope... because God is Alive and Well."  Check it out and let me know where you see hopeful signs that God is at work!

GA220 Reflection #4 - Stuck: Per Capita is Crippling my Presbytery

AKA "Change is Hard"

In a previous post, I wrote:

Particularly around the dividing issues, I experienced the parliamentary maneuvering often as an effort by many to “guard what we’ve already won.”

An even more tangible demonstration of this point came when I put a motion before the Assembly to cap mandatory presbytery per capita payment at 18% of the presbytery operating budget.  The push-back came from folks who seemed to think that this motion would somehow reward or enable churches that withheld per capita.  For one, it is the right of sessions to do so; but more importantly, the motion had nothing to do with that issue, but with protecting presbyteries from the double whammy of a fixed tax that CANNOT adjust with dramatic budget declines in many presbyteries.

For example, in my own presbytery, per capita is fixed at nearly $300,000 (based on our membership).  Five years ago, when we had a thriving $2.4M operating budget, that per capita amounted to 12.5% of our budget.  In 2012, with a projected $1.1M operating budget, that same $300,000 per capita will be 27% of our budget.  In order to pay our mandatory per capita (which we will!), mission, staffing, savings, and critical infrastructure suffer dramatically.  The Assembly seemed so fearful of cracking a (logically unrelated) door for what were described as renegade congregations that they were unwilling to take care of a major health risk for our most important mid-council bodies, the presbyteries.

What’s my point?  It’s that we aren’t just stuck on some issues; we are really stuck… in the ways we debate, the way we refer and study, the way we spend money, and the way we do the same things over and over even though we agree that the results are problematic.  We are so stuck we are hurting ourselves.  Lord, help us!

***
Related: see the comment thread here for a lively exchange and perhaps further illustration of my point

GA220 Reflection #3 - Stuck: the Mid-Council Report

AKA "Change is Hard"

In the previous post, I wrote:

Particularly around the dividing issues, I experienced the parliamentary maneuvering often as an effort by many to “guard what we’ve already won.”

Neither conservatives nor liberals had exclusive rights to guarding their territory.  Another significant example came with the response to the Mid-Council Commission’s report.  With diverse members and wide-ranging information-gathering and visioning, this two-year study was nearly shut down in committee.  Further, the commission’s chair (Tod Bolsinger) told me he probably only had 15 min. with the committee, and with the disapproval of that committee, had none slated before the Assembly.  And this was one of the great refer and study groups from 2010.

I helped put several of the mid-council commission recommendations back up before the Assembly, but the proposal for non-geographic presbyteries was soundly defeated.  And here’s the part I want to note: both in committee and on the floor of the Assembly, the rationale given against non-geographic presbyteries seemed to primarily be about “not letting the conservatives get away with our property.”

But wait… the mid-council proposal guarded against that very thing!  It was to be a temporary experiment for missional purposes, requiring ongoing relationship with the presbytery of origin, and specifically leaving responsibility for property with the presbytery of origin.

What I’m saying is that out of fear of losing people, congregations, or assets, the Assembly missed the truly missional and forward-thinking gift of much the Mid-Council report had to offer.

Could it be that changing the way we do things might disadvantage us politically against the other?  That’s the sense I got, though I hope I’m wrong.  And at any rate, we did not adequately discuss, much less digest, the hard work of the mid-council commission.

***
John Vest, a member of the mid council commission, wrote an in-depth report and reflection on these same things.  I commend it for your reading: "Mid Councils Reform: Failure to Launch" (July 6, 2012).  I also commend a reflective article on the clash of cultures, the resistance to change, and the sovereignty of God, by Jake Horner: "...Adaptive Leadership" (July 12, 2012)
***
Addendum: over on the MGB forum on Facebook, Ed Brenegar made a valuable observation that ideas don't fall (or rise) by parliamentary vote, but by the will of those believing in them.  Even if the mid-council report had been approved and celebrated at GA, we'd still need to live out that vision and change locally, and there is nothing stopping us from doing so.  Sure, that approval would have added some momentum and exposure of the ideas, but I join those with a vision for healthy, local congregations reaching beyond their walls in continuing this work in practice! I blog about our missional experiment regularly at lighthouse/searchlight church, and would welcome your comments and interaction there.  


GA220 Reflection #2 - There's Stuck and then There's Stuck

AKA "Change is Hard"

There was an interesting exchange in the comments over at StayPCUSA (a group of young evangelicals committed to staying in the PCUSA).  Hope Italiano Lee posted* about the ethos of the 220th General Assembly (2012):
…this General Assembly would rather expend every ounce of energy on fighting the issues than to even attempt to change the focus of our conversations toward strengthening and building up the body of Christ here on earth.
Landon Whitsitt, vice-moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) responded in the comments, challenging Hope:
Honestly, I find your analysis interesting because you all seemed to be an Assembly more willing to argue over how long you were going to argue and who got called on at what microphone than anything. When several persons, for instance, asked to simply be allowed to discuss having an AI on marriage, the body said “No.” I’m having a hard time finding something like that as being consonant with your assertion that you and your fellow commissioners were interested in fighting over issues.
Landon’s point is well-taken, but I interpret what he is describing as a more extreme expression of the pre-occupation on issues that Hope describes.  Particularly around the dividing issues, I experienced the parliamentary maneuvering often as an effort by many to “guard what we’ve already won.”

For example, the Assembly's refusal to discuss the marriage AI could be avoidance of a hard issue (what Landon seemed to be suggesting); but it could also be a way for one side to prevent the possibility of “losing” to the other (except for the hopeful gesture I noted in my previous post!).

I saw this dynamic vividly played out around two other topics, which I will address in upcoming posts: the Mid-Council report and a motion to cap per capita. 

* http://staypcusa.com/2012/07/11/the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side-or-it-might-just-be-astro-turf/