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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

GA ‘R’ Us!
June 14, 2018

Amid the sad scenario of final closeout sales currently underway at the bankrupt Toys ‘R’ Us chain, I am riffing on their brand name to highlight something important about General Assembly (GA). GA, like Presbytery, is nothing more or less than “us,” pastors and elders gathered representatively from our congregations to seek together God’s will for our fellowship in matters for which it is charged to make decisions. This week our national church gathers in St. Louis for its biennial gathering called GA. As from previous GAs, I will share with you a daily email during GA (June 16-23), to keep you abreast of what transpires there.

I often hear complaints about “General Assembly” to the effect that it is an independent entity with its own agenda that is disconnected from the church’s pulpits and pews. More subtly, some contend that the ministers and elders gathered at GA are somehow manipulated by GA staff to vote in particular ways that they favor. Aside from the fact that all GA staff are explicitly forbidden to seek to influence GA votes (I know; I used to work there), I ask more generally: In which universe are Presbyterian ministers and elders susceptible to manipulation by anyone? In my experience, Presbyterians are much more likely to resist, rather than capitulate to, anything that hints of manipulation.

Yet the gathered Assembly is a place where lots of lobbying happens. Not by GA staff, but by special interest advocacy groups. They press hard on matters over which they are passionate. In recent years such groups have worked hard at GA on some of our most controversial issues: full inclusion of LGBT persons in church life and ministry, advocacy for Palestinian brothers and sisters experiencing repression by the state of Israel, and fossil fuel dependency and depletion (to name just a few).

Creation care and human rights are of deep concern to all Presbyterians, but many disagree on how those commitments should play out. Advocacy groups urge commissioners to see our appropriate response from their perspective. At their most effective, they can swing close votes.

Stories abound of commissioners going to GA thinking one way about particular issues then being persuaded otherwise. Such stories are nearly always told in terms of commissioners experiencing a conversion of heart before the Lord, rather than crumbling under lobbying pressure.

Our representatives to GA are intentionally named “commissioners” rather than “delegates.” Delegates are expected to vote in a way that reflects the opinion of their constituencies back home. Commissioners are charged to act according to their own prayerfully-developed convictions. They are urged to be open to the movement of the Spirit and to vote their own conscience.

Some might think that changing one’s mind is an act of bad faith, or at least a signal of weakness. Indeed, James warns against the instability that accompanies vacillating uncertainty. (James 1:5-8) Yet, for Christians, “changing our mind” lies at the heart of our understanding of salvation. The Greek word we translate “repentance” means literally “changing our mind.”

Conversion is not just a one-time event by which people become rightly related to God. It is a continuing process, as theologian Darrell Guder convincingly argues in his insightful book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (which I highly recommend to sessions and pastor groups for study). Discernment of God’s will requires continuing renewal of our minds, according to Paul. (Romans 12:2) Followers of Jesus are marked by an abiding readiness always to learn more about who God is, what God has done for us, and what God requires of us. This requires the grace of “willingness to yield” to others, which James holds as an essential mark of godly wisdom. (James 3:17)

I invite you to pray by name for our presbytery’s commissioners and overture advocates to GA. Commissioners: Becca Abbott (Unity Church), Dan Beckstrom (Bethel Church, Bethel Park), Trent Hancock (Glenshaw Church), Tami Hooker (Mt. Washington Church), Hill Jordan (Valley View Church), Rob Marrow (Cross Roads Church, Monroeville), Beckie Price (Bethany Church), Steven Werth (Riverview Church), and Young Adult Advisory Delegate Benjamin Smith (Bethel Church, Bethel Park). Overture advocates: Dave Carver on the South Sudan overture (Crafton Heights Church), John Creasy on the fossil fuels divestment overture (Open Door Church), and myself on the per capita system review overture. Pray that we all will be open to and guided by the Spirit who leads us always into the truth. (John 16:13)

Yours in listening for the Spirit’s direction,

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

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