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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Who’s Running the Church?
August 4, 2011

Soon after I arrived in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette ran an article introducing me to the community. The headline read “Presbytery’s New Leader Supported by All Factions.” I appreciated the article but hated the headline – as though our body is nothing but a collection of “factions” (a word I avoid like the plague), and as though everyone in this presbytery would fall in line behind anyone! Beside the headline was a big photo – not of me, but of Jim Cavaziel playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ.” So, is this “presbytery’s new leader”? And if so, what does it suggest about who’s been leading us up to this point? My photo was blessedly relegated to the back page, where the story thread continued.

Even though we believe Jesus is ultimately our Head, we necessarily look to human beings to represent him in running the daily affairs of the church. We work very hard in our process of preparing candidates for ministry to assure that they are equipped and committed to represent Christ well. In an ideal world, strong Christ-centered church leaders provide sure and steady leadership for the church in keeping with the will of our Lord. Alas, in the world as we know it, things don’t always work out that way.

I once had a session member who crusaded to eliminate one of our staff positions. He said he had nothing against the incumbent (I wasn’t so sure), but he was committed to cutting her job out of our structure. Our finances were strong, and she was doing great work. But he had a notion about churchly economy that made this Associate Pastor position stick in his craw, and his primary intent in coming on session was to kill the position. I am sorry to say that after I left that congregation, he succeeded. Up to that point the church had been growing year by year, but it has been slowly shrinking ever since.

This was neither my first nor last experience of having people rise to institutional leadership in the church who had something other than the church’s core mission at heart. I have observed a corresponding pattern that sometimes those who care most for the church’s mission are least involved in its administrative leadership. The first church I served was a dynamic, growing congregation, and vigorously committed to Christ’s mission – yet apathetic about participating in the life of presbytery. We were so busy in the trenches that we gave little thought to spending time with the strategic work of “generals” who ran the army.

All of this came to mind as I read this week’s piece by NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in which she comments on the rise of the Tea Party in government. She concludes by asking rhetorically, “What if the people who hate government are good at it and the people who love government are bad at it?” I wonder, “What if people who don’t much love the church end up running it?”

In Psalm 48, the psalmist is almost intoxicated with love for Jerusalem, calling it “beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth.” Go ahead, he says, walk around it and let its magnificence take your breath away. Here God chooses to dwell! Isn’t that reason enough to find it ravishing? Christians take this to refer to the church of Jesus Christ.

Singer/songwriter Twila Paris has a song, “How Beautiful (is the Body of Christ),” in which she moves from contemplating Christ’s body on the cross to Christ’s body in the world. She asks, how can we adore one, and not the other?

As with politics, so it can happen with the church – those who deeply love it could turn out to be not so good at running it, while its leadership falls into the hands of those who care less for it. Let us pray that the Lord raise up leaders who truly love our church, and that our current leaders would be captivated with a such a love for his body that they would be committed to its welfare, vitality, and mission at all costs.

For the love of Christ,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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