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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Time to Sow
November 12, 2015

God made a world that runs on cycles. The creation story in Genesis 1 is a story of God working in cycles – of evening and morning, of labor and rest. The cycles of the seasons bring wetness then dryness, warmth then cold, planting then harvest. Cycles are a sign – indeed, they are a requisite – of life on planet earth.

Just as with individual lives, institutions and cultures go through life cycles. The church is no exception. Throughout history it has demonstrated the same life pattern as the rest of creation, rising and falling, waxing and waning. Revivals and reformation bring bursts of new life to the church, but the church never stays on their pinnacles for long. Nor does it die in the valley when it descends from them. The same Spirit that invigorates it at its high points sustains it at its low points.

Not long ago one of our pastors told me (as many do) that he prays for me regularly. I am grateful beyond measure for all the prayers sent my way! He went on to explain that he can’t imagine how hard my job must be. Others have said the same to me, and they are usually thinking of all the church troubles that are continually cast upon our office. But his concern was a bit different. “I can’t imagine what it is like to spend your best energies presiding over decline.” I did a double-take; I had never thought of my work in those terms. I wanted to protest, but then I thought – our numbers overall are declining in many categories. The same is true for nearly all denominations and presbyteries. I thought about the congregations I had been privileged to serve, all of which had grown in my time with them; now this!

Then I considered the longer history of those congregations – I was privileged to serve them during a growth season in their life cycle, but all of them have also experienced seasons of decline. What mattered for the long haul was not their current trajectory so much as their remaining “persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to sow and a time to reap. Harvest is a season of increase. But what about seasons of decrease? Then it’s time to sow.

Much ink is spilled over the loss of membership of churches, or of civic clubs, or of volunteer associations in recent decades. Some mourn the losses, while others who are disillusioned with those institutions retort, “Told you so.” Some even celebrate the decline of institutions that have disappointed them. I believe with all my heart that another narrative is called for – not mourning, not cynicism, not schadenfreude, but increasing our faith as we sow good seed.

Paul speaks to this directly in Galatians 6:7-10, urging us to “sow to the Spirit” in sure hope that it will provide a bountiful return. He contrasts that to sowing “to your own flesh,” by which he means focusing on ourselves alone. The realm of the Spirit is the network of relationships in which God has connected us to others as members of one body. The critical difference is this: Are we going to invest only in ourselves, or also beyond ourselves? Co-investing our labors with a covenant community of congregations (aka “presbytery”) tangibly expresses our understanding that we are called to invest in common purpose, rather than in isolated labors. Keeping our ministry and resources to ourselves is to sow to the flesh. Sharing them with the wider community for the common good and for the love of our Lord is to sow to the Spirit.

Paul closes this discussion with an exhortation not to be weary in doing what is right, because it will yield a harvest of blessing. Don’t flag in your labors for the Lord, even and especially when you are not in a season of harvest. Stay the course, don’t be discouraged, trust the Gospel seed to bear its good fruit in due season. “So then,” Paul concludes, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)

So, beloved, take heart – it’s time to sow! It’s time to “sow to the Spirit,” to invest in the welfare of the community in which God has placed us. Especially (Paul says) we need to sow into our “household of faith.” That means our congregation, our presbytery, and our larger PCUSA fellowship, as well as our ecumenical partners. Of course we should sow into our larger human community also. Failure to sow into the well-being of others in favor of sowing “to our own flesh” is to choose death (“corruption” is Paul’s word, a synonym of death). How much better, how much more joyous, how much more evangelical, to sow life instead!

Your partner in sowing,

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

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