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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Advance Maintenance
October 8, 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, and have followed with conversations about presbytery’s critical role in the church’s work of proclaiming the gospel authentically and assuring the welfare of God’s people. Today we move to the third of the “great ends” – maintenance of divine worship.

The very idea of including “maintenance” in a grand vision of the church’s mission may seem incongruous. “Maintenance” and “mission” are usually cast as opposite trajectories for the church, one focusing inwardly and the other outwardly. To be sure, the contrast between being mission-minded and being self-absorbed is critically important. Yet it can easily become a false dichotomy. As many of us in aging buildings know, deferred maintenance can cripple a church’s capacity to fulfill its mission.

I routinely get mail soliciting me to purchase a “maintenance agreement” for my aging vehicles or appliances. It invites me (usually for an exorbitant price, and with a ton of exceptions) to avoid the perils of deferred maintenance by opting for what I’ll call “advance maintenance.” It is of course a scheme for making money. I know that if I purchase the agreement, I’m very likely to get back less than what I put in, but that’s the price of the peace of mind that I won’t be hit with a devastating loss. It is really no different from any profit-making insurance plan.

But not all insurance plans are profit-driven. We read in early chapters of Acts that the first Christians pooled their assets, so that none of them would be left destitute in times of need. One of the church’s first administrative challenges was to deal equitably with the burgeoning needs of widows. (Acts 6:1-6) Because the community pooled its resources, they were able to free up seven very capable people from their ordinary work responsibilities to administer this distribution. Their coop enabled them to meet the needs of members who did not have sufficient resources of their own.

A presbytery is a “church coop,” where congregations invest together to assure that all of us have all we need when we need it. It is a non-profit advance maintenance pact, rooted in the conviction that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer. The presbytery is a coop that is designed to provide congregations and pastors the necessary counsel, protection, and resources to keep their ministries vital.

This “church coop” operates by an economic calculus different from that of the commercial insurance world. With commercial insurance, purchasers seek to preserve their own welfare and to minimize their own liability, while insurers structure their premiums and payouts so they make a tidy profit. Self-interest is what drives it from both sides. In a “church coop” we pool resources for the welfare of the whole body, not just of ourselves individually.

The forms of regional church coops vary from denomination to denomination. In some, members’ tithes all go to central offices for distribution, rather than being allocated by the congregation. In others, all giving to central offices is voluntary, and congregations are left largely on their own to navigate through challenging passageways. In our own denomination, congregations fund the coop we call “presbytery” to provide congregations and church leaders guidance and assistance with pastoral transitions, conflicts, missional retooling, leadership development, administrative concerns, new ministries, and more – without calculus for their own benefit or control. We do this through a combination of free-will giving and per capita giving to the larger church. To withhold mission or per capita giving is to deplete the pool of resources each of us needs to draw upon from time to time. Such withholding primarily injures not the presbytery (or synod or GA) itself; rather, we thereby injure one another, by reducing our collective capacity to give each other much-needed assistance at critical junctures in our various ministries.

Are we genuinely concerned about the “maintenance of divine worship” in the whole of the church? Or have we tapered that down to a vision for just our own ministry or congregation? We hark to our better angels as Presbyterians when we invest gladly in our “church coop” so that all our congregations and ministers can get all they need to be able to remain vibrant in their worship of God and in their service in Christ’s name. Indeed, such generosity toward each other is befitting not only to Presbyterians, but to all who understand themselves to be part of the Body of Christ in which no member can say to another, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

Dependent on all of you,

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

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