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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Franchise or Team?
March 1, 2012

It happened again last month – another hotel in Pittsburgh changed its name from one major chain to another. I pass it regularly, and still do a double-take when I see the “wrong” name on the sign. This happens often in the hotel business, for a variety of reasons. In many cases, local ownership does not change – they simply find a better deal with a new brand, so they change the name on the marquee, but continue business as usual. A hotel name carries a certain cachet, but the main benefit to local franchisees is the reservations and rewards system that chains offer to benefit their business. Most hotels are in fact independently owned and operated franchises.

This week I was on a flight out west, only to have it turned back to Pittsburgh due to a mechanical problem. Eventually the flight was canceled altogether. As a result, I missed my meeting, and the airline company graciously agreed to refund my ticket in full. But it was a different story for the hotel – I called to cancel my reservation, only to be told that I would still have to pay for the room. They cared nothing about the reputation of the hotel chain of which they were a franchise; their own rules where what mattered to them.

Do we sometimes treat our affiliation with the church more with a franchise mindset than with a team perspective? It can begin at the personal level, where some of us were taught that being a Christian is essentially an individual matter – whether or where I affiliate with a church is considered secondary and optional. In the secular world, the impact of this mindset is seen in the burgeoning population of folk who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

John Calvin endorses an ancient saying from the third-century church father Cyprian, “One cannot have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.” Calvin makes clear that he’s referring to the visible church, not some invisible spiritual entity. Might the fact that we find “independent churches” acceptable be rooted in the deeper issue that we see no scandal in people being independent Christians?

Franchises of major brand names typically have little relation to each other. In fact, they often see each other not as members of the same team, but as competitors. Many auto dealer ads testify to that in spades: “Buy from us, and we’ll beat the price on any vehicle offered by others who sell our brand.”

Might we have fallen into something like a franchise mentality as congregations? We may well share a “brand” with other congregations, but that has little bearing on whether or how we work with each other. Imagine a presbytery composed of congregations that saw themselves not as independent franchises, but as interdependent teammates….

Last weekend our presbytery’s Executive Committee met on retreat, and heard a challenge from our Mission Study Team concerning what it means to be a presbytery, and how we might live more fully into that identity. Being Presbyterian in Pittsburgh is more than simply sharing the same name brand – it is being part of a team that is called to bear witness together to the Good News of God’s love in Christ. Until we do it together, we will not bear the fruit God intends the church’s witness to bear.

After extended deliberation bathed in heart-stirring worship, the Executive Committee committed wholeheartedly to lead us into a new way of being presbytery that is all about teamwork at the core. The chief focus of our core operations – staff, committees, meetings, etc. – will be to get congregations to work together, rather than to regulate and to resource congregations in their individual ministries.

Recently Tammy and I heard the Pittsburgh Symphony, and were blown away by the power of all those world-class musicians coming together in common cause. Each has had a lifetime of personal instruction, but without a skilled conductor such as Manfred Honeck bringing them together, they could never make the world’s greatest music sound as it should. As we move forward with a clearer sense of vision for what it means for us truly to be a “presbytery,” one of the changes will be that we who serve as your leadership staff will become more like conductors that bring together the wonderful players among us (i.e., our congregations and their leaders), and less like personal coaches that seek to strengthen players individually. We believe that the music of the Gospel requires that all the pieces play together seamlessly, interdependently, concertedly. Only then will the great power and glory of the Gospel symphony of reconciliation sound forth clearly, so that the world knows the immeasurable greatness of God’s love revealed in Christ Jesus – a love that never quits.

This entails new ways of understanding, conducting, and staffing our presbytery mission. Stay tuned – there is more, much more to come.

Gathering the symphony,

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

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