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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Public Presence
May 30, 2019

Because there are more Presbyterians per capita in Western Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the country, it is often said that Presbyterians are especially dense in Pittsburgh. (Rim shot, please!) Because of that, Presbyterian events are more likely to make the news here than elsewhere. I talk frequently to local reporters, because they consider Presbyterian happenings newsworthy due to the many Presbyterians in our region.

Denominational struggles with “hot-button” issues that have contributed to congregational departures have gotten lots of local media attention. Our public presence is often linked to culture wars and how they divide our society into “red” and “blue” zones. Congregations that are more “red” are portrayed as dissidents that often depart the denomination, while loyalists are cast as more “blue” in their commitments. The biggest public story of Presbyterians in recent years has to do with the divisions among us.

Such stories may sell well, but they do not fully describe the essence of our fellowship. We are still a broad-spectrum community, with congregations that represent the entire range of convictions on matters of cultural debate: wealth distribution, environmental integrity, welcome to foreigners, pro-life vis-à-vis pro-choice, gender and sexuality, patriarchy and misogyny, racism and white privilege, and more. We are far from being a “blue” monolith. Our public perception is far from the reality of who we are. Nevertheless, our public reputation matters.

In the New Testament church, a positive public reputation was stipulated as a qualification for church leadership. (1 Timothy 3:7) Paul repeatedly invoked his status as a Roman citizen when he was under pressure. (Acts 16:35-39; Acts 22:22-29) Public engagement mattered so much to John Calvin that he kept his office not in the church or the academy, but in City Hall.

Soon after arriving in Pittsburgh, Tammy and I chose a dentist near the presbytery office. He asked what brought us to Pittsburgh. When I told him my role in the office down the street, he told me of all the hopes everyone had when the presbytery moved its offices into the neighborhood. Presbytery celebrated its move to 901 Allegheny with a big block party back then, and the neighborhood was thrilled at the prospect of all we would contribute to its wellbeing. Neighbors assumed that the regional office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – a denomination renowned for its passion for social welfare – would surely infuse into the North Side some much-needed mission outreach and community building. Alas, the dentist told me, that inaugural block party was the last they saw of any of us. Were it not for the sign identifying us, they would not know we were still around.

I share that story not to damn us, but to illustrate what happens far too easily – we become blind to our lack of public engagement even while busily talking about how important we think it is. Thank God for our congregations that are deeply involved in the life and welfare of their neighborhoods.

We are true to our DNA as Jesus’ followers when the needs of those nearby move us to action on their behalf. Just as Jesus healed the distressed he encountered on his pathway, we are called to make a real difference for those who struggle on our streets. Our public presence should be first displayed in our concern for and engagement with the needy nearest to us.

Moreover, we are true to our DNA as Jesus’ followers when we bring together those who differ, rather than splintering into factions of like-minded affinity groups. We ought to be known publicly as those who unite rather than as those who divide.

Thankfully, the spirit I find in most of our congregations is devoted to uniting rather than dividing, to truly engaging our communities rather than simply talking about doing so. I celebrate the good things God is doing among us, while acknowledging that this good news is still an untold story in the public arena. May God help us to make such a difference in the world around us that nobody can miss it.

Yours in shared public presence,

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

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