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A Letter from the Ministers to Presbytery

Keeping our Word
November 8, 2012

We who belong to Christ’s church are sustained by the grace of God through promises – God’s sure promises to us in Jesus Christ, our own baptismal promises to turn from evil and follow Jesus, and the community’s promises to equip and sustain us in keeping those promises. We cast ourselves upon a Savior who, Scripture assures us, remains faithful to his promises even when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13). We commit ourselves to forgiving each other’s failures even as God in Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:14). We do all we can to sustain our own promises before God and one another, and to help our sisters and brothers do the same.

Those called to office in the church commit themselves to additional “ordination vows.” (Book of Order W-4.4003) Our forebears called them simply “orders.” All of us who serve the church as teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons have made these vows to the church before God; as with our baptismal promises, we all are called to help one another keep them. That obligation is especially true for those of us called to presbytery leadership. That is why we are writing this letter of exhortation and admonition to you, our beloved brothers and sisters across Pittsburgh Presbytery.

In affirming our ordination vows, all ordained officers have given our word to be “governed by our church’s polity, and [to] abide by its discipline.” We have pledged to be “friends among [our] colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit.” We have promised “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church” – not just of our own congregations, but of the whole body of Christ. We have covenanted to build up rather than tear down, to abide by our constitution rather than simply doing what is right in our own eyes.

This can be especially challenging for congregations and their leaders who feel constrained to seek departure from our fellowship. How can teaching and ruling elders lead a congregation on such a journey with integrity, while remaining faithful to their ordination vows? Should conscience leads us to leave the fellowship of our church, our Book of Order directs us “peaceably to withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism.” (G-2.0105n)

Our Book of Order does not itself make provision for congregations to be dismissed with property, but in September our presbytery adopted an orderly process for dismissal with property, consistent with the Book of Order. This process had been shaped by a task force that met for many months to prepare a proposed policy, including representatives from presbytery staff and committees, as well as from congregations that had requested a presbytery dismissal policy.

Here’s the rub – some of our congregational leaders seeking to disaffiliate from us dislike the dismissal process outlined in our policy, and have therefore determined to leave our fellowship by simply declaring their departure unilaterally, setting aside entirely the dismissal process presbytery has established. They have called congregational meetings for the purpose of taking self-dismissal actions not permitted by the Book of Order, actions which therefore cannot be endorsed by presbytery. They seek to be freed from our fellowship by removing references to the PCUSA from their corporate bylaws and declaring their congregation’s relationship to the denomination merely a “voluntary affiliation.” They assert outright legal ownership of the property that they have been holding in trust for the larger church. By these actions they seek to use civil legal means rather than the church’s process to effect their dismissal. For members of Pittsburgh Presbytery who feel compelled to leave our fellowship and wish to take with them the property they have been using, the promises we made to be governed by our church’s polity require that we follow our presbytery dismissal policy in doing so. Withdrawal neither requires nor justifies breaking ordination vows on the way out.

We are by no means questioning the integrity of all who feel convicted to explore departure from our presbytery and from the PCUSA. We may disagree with them, but we can and do affirm their integrity so long as they follow transparently the course for departure that our polity provides. We who remain committed to stay with the PCUSA and Pittsburgh Presbytery need likewise to guard our hearts and to constrain our words and actions to remain always gracious in our dealings with those who are honorably seeking the Lord’s direction about whether to remain in our fellowship.

Our presbytery-approved dismissal process affords a level playing field by providing that, if the congregation and presbytery are unable to reach terms of departure that are mutually acceptable, all will submit to neutral binding arbitration. If you believe you are called to leave our fellowship, we implore you to do so honorably – and we will honor those who do.

We charge all of us who have been claimed by God and set apart by the church for ordained ministry – let us keep our promises!

For Jesus’ sake,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
the Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Portz, Senior Associate Minister
The Rev. Carol Divens Roth, Interim Associate Minister

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