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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Mission Interrupted?
November 1, 2012

This week “Super-Storm Sandy” unleashed massive destruction across the Northeast. Its shockwaves will continue to disrupt the lives of millions for weeks, months, and perhaps years to come. I remember well touring Charlotte nine months after it was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and the streets of the Queen City were still choked with masses of debris awaiting removal. It has taken years to deal with the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast and some of it will never be repaired. This week’s storm has dramatically redirected the nation’s attention from “small” things like the World Series and national elections to things far more important – the safety and welfare of countless people whose homes, lives, and livelihoods have been shattered, not to mention the many who grieve the loss of loved ones whose lives were snatched by the storm. Presidential election campaign rallies were scrubbed as the candidates did all they could to minister instead to a nation’s gaping wounds. Our own area got off relatively lightly, but countless folk to our east and south will be looking to our churches for help, through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) as well as through Pennsylvania Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (PA VOAD). I know we will be generous in responding to these urgent needs for assistance.

While the PCUSA establishes some budgeted support for PDA, it relies primarily on special appeals to fund our emergency responses. Pittsburgh Presbytery has consistently received awards from General Assembly recognizing us as one of the top presbyteries nationally in responding to such appeals. You may at any time send a gift to PDA for assistance to those affected by Sandy through your congregation, through our presbytery, or directly to national offices, knowing that at least 95% of your gift will go directly to those in need. You may also enroll there to volunteer in disaster relief efforts.

One of the images of the church that has persisted through the centuries is of a storm-tossed boat, modeled on Noah’s Ark. That is in fact the logo of my alma mater, Duke Divinity School. The boat’s mission is to arrive safely at its destination with its precious cargo intact – that is, to bring men and women safely to salvation’s harbor in God’s kingdom. But when it is buffeted by storms while plying the sea of life, it can become so overwhelmed by the gales tossing it side to side that its destination becomes the least of its worries; its full attention is riveted on weathering the storm.

Those called to pilot this ship called the Church have a double responsibility – to keep the vessel on course with its primary mission, while keeping it from being capsized by cross winds. Their work will fail if they disregard either the storm or the charge of staying the course.

My experience in every form of ministry has been that my time, energy, and resources are often commandeered by unanticipated storms. Some of them seem small, yet they are persistent; others seem so large or so unforeseen as to threaten imminent disaster. All of them feel like distractions from accomplishing our mission as Christ’s church. We don’t budget for storms, we budget for reaching destinations. We staff for navigation, not for bailing water.

Even though storms are always part of the journey, it seems to me that the storms upon us these days are among the most intense ever. “Climate change” is not just a meteorological phenomenon, but an ecclesial one as well. More than once I’ve heard pastors recently describe their situation as “the perfect storm,” and more than once I’ve felt similarly myself.

One of the great storms currently facing our beloved church is the storm of congregations and leaders questioning whether to remain in our fellowship. Meanwhile, presbytery has been wrestling hard for the past year with fashioning a policy to accommodate those who are considering departure, even as we wish wholeheartedly that they would remain in our fellowship. Some congregations seeking to explore departure are ready and willing to follow this policy, while others resist it. All of this requires of presbytery leaders a massive investment of counsel, prayer, and dialogue with these congregations and their leaders – all at a time when presbytery staff is dramatically reduced for several reasons. Fewer hands, more work – really, that’s not unlike the challenge faced by many congregational leaders as they confront their own storms.

I have come to wonder over the years whether the storms are less a distraction from than they are inherent to our God-given mission. In terms of presidential election politics, might it be that the candidates’ responses to the hurricane’s ravages will give us a more insightful look at their capacities to lead a nation in distress than what we might learn in the safe environs of a debate hall? So with the church, it may well be that the way we handle the storms that seize us says as much about our saturation in the grace of the Gospel and our confidence in our Lord’s near presence, as how well we navigate toward the mission goals we established before the storm hit. As we face our current storms, may we never lose sight of the final destination, where God will be all in all, and we all will be joined in the one song of thanksgiving that pours continually from the saints to the One who redeemed them from all their afflictions, and set them high upon the rock of safety.

For the sake of Christ’s mission,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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