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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Welfare of the Saints
October 1, 2015

We are amid a series exploring the ways in which presbytery provides critical assistance to congregations in fulfilling the mission of the Church. We began by looking to the “Great Ends of the Church” (Book of Order F-1.0304) as a working summary of the church’s mission, followed by a conversation about presbytery’s critical role in establishing the public credibility of the church’s proclamation of the Gospel, the first “great end” of the church. Today we move to the second of the “great ends” – the shelter, nurture, and fellowship of God’s people.

Sometimes the welfare of the saints is understood as competing against mission for priority in the life of the church. We often hear “mission” defined in terms of what we “give away” to those beyond our fellowship, while “fellowship” is about what we do for ourselves. While “giving away” is fundamental to Christian mission, if a church does so at the expense of tending its own well-being, there will eventually be no church left to accomplish Christ’s mission. Peter exhorts church leaders to “tend the flock that is in your charge” as good stewards of “the chief shepherd.” (1 Peter 5:1-4) Presbytery is called to play a significant role in the welfare of the congregations it shepherds.

Before becoming Presbyterian, I led music in a large, non-denominational congregation with a magnificent new church campus, much of it built literally by the hands of its members. Not long after I arrived, a dispute arose between the senior pastor and the elders, and with no body beyond the congregation to which they were accountable, a tug of war ensued that led to the church’s demise. Words cannot express what I felt as I saw bulldozers raze in a single day what took years of the saints’ sacrificial, hopeful labor to erect. Because we had no regional body to which we were accountable, our ability to do Christ’s mission imploded. The place that had nurtured the faith and service of hundreds of people no longer offered them safety and shelter, and they scattered everywhere. Nearly 35 years later, many of those good folk still stay away from church altogether due to their disillusion.

The presbytery serves as both advocate and mediator for congregations and their leaders when disputes arise. Whether the root cause for the dispute lies primarily with the pastor, session, or congregation, being part of a presbytery provides recourse to congregations and their leaders whose relationships have broken down.

Unhealthy congregations are unable to carry forward the mission of Jesus. Tending to the wellness of a congregation and its leaders is a first-order priority of the presbytery, if that church is to be fruitful in Christ’s mission. For many years, presbytery relied on triennial visits to its nearly 150 congregations by its Commission on Ministry (COM) to assess and nurture their health. Often these visits were felt by pastors and sessions to be more about policing and fixing than about encouraging and caring, and COM found itself as welcome as a visit from the IRS.

One of the reasons we have subdivided Pittsburgh Presbytery into four branches is to break down COM responsibilities to a more manageable economy of scale. COM now comprises four regional teams of eight, with each team responsible for some 35 congregations. Each of the eight members of a branch COM team is given special responsibility to be an advocate for four or five congregations. In this way, COM is trying to step up its care for the welfare of congregations and their leaders. COM advocates are asked to maintain ongoing supportive relationships with the congregations they serve as advocates.

Perhaps your COM advocate has visited your church or requested to be on your mailing list, and you haven’t known why. Or perhaps you’ve never seen or heard from anyone you know to be your COM advocate. This is a new program, and we’re still finding our way into it. COM is committed to improving its care for the welfare of congregations; if you don’t know who your COM advocate is, please let me know, so we can strengthen that relationship.

At one time or another, several of our congregations have been so assailed by difficulty that they nearly despaired of finding their way forward – only to find presbytery ready to help them significantly until their equilibrium was restored. Presbytery is no magic miracle worker for troubled congregations and pastors, but this much is certain: when troubles arise, congregations and pastors in our presbytery are not left on their own. For this great gift, we can only give our Lord – and each other – great thanks!

Yours for our welfare in the Lord’s work,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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