A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
October 21, 2019
I write this from the annual meeting of Mid Council leaders, where we have enjoyed much provocative discussion about new possibilities for being a vibrant church into the coming decade. It is one thing to talk about new possibilities, and quite something else to make way for them, welcome them, and nurture them.
We Presbyterians love decency and good order. (1 Corinthians 14:40) We are not only “people of the Book,” but of the books that shape how we live out the Book – our Book of Order and Book of Confessions. Living by the Book of Order further stipulates that our meetings comply with Robert’s Rules of Order (G-3.0105).
We have so long been people who have conducted themselves “by the books” that we can hardly imagine living any other way. And thus we have construed Job One of presbytery to assure that we do just that.
Long generations of congregations and pastors have thought of “presbytery” as the church’s “compliance office,” whose primary task is to assure each pastor’s and congregation’s conformity to the Constitution. It is still often the case that when I visit a congregation on a Sunday morning, some in the congregation wonder if they are in trouble, rather like the panic a driver feels upon seeing a police cruiser in the rearview mirror with lights flashing.
Our denomination has been working hard to forge a very different identity. Ten years ago the Book of Order was trimmed substantially from being a comprehensive Church Operations Manual that presbyteries police, to a mission handbook that encourages congregations and presbyteries to shape their ministries in ways most appropriate to their context (within the bounds of our core commitments to biblical fidelity, fair representation, equal opportunity, and governmental transparency).
To borrow from Jesus’ teaching about Sabbath, our beloved “decency and good order” is meant to serve us, rather than our being forced to serve it. (Mark 2:27)
Will we focus our energy on preventing the church from coloring outside the lines, or on blessing and nurturing whatever the Spirit raises up among us that seeks to reach out to the world around us? Are we more inclined to keep our ministries under control by assuring adherence to our rules, or to free them to flourish by opening wide their possibilities?
This weekend, Mid Council leaders were challenged to focus our work more on making ministry possible, and less on merely assuring compliance to rules. We are not scuttling our rules. They often save us from a lot of grief. Yet cultivating a culture of possibility requires that we embrace experimentation, that we ask first what is possible rather than what could go wrong.
In Pittsburgh Presbytery we have demonstrated such a posture by blessing all kinds of New Worshiping Community projects that would never have been considered, let alone launched, had we waited until we had precluded every possibility of failure. Instead, we have sought to bless and support those who have visions for new mission outreach, even if they look different from anything we've done before.
I have noticed two recurring expressions of resistance to new possibilities in how the church pursues its mission. Both stifle the church rather than leading it to flourish.
First, some tend to respond to new proposals, “We’ve never done it that way before.” At its best, this objection seeks to focus our support on the tried and true. Yet the God who is always doing new things (Isaiah 43:18-19) can never be confined to old patterns. When we reject something new, we may miss the Holy Spirit who is always moving unpredictably. (John 3:8)
Second, I hear others dismiss new proposals out of hand with “Been there, done that.” It didn’t work before; it won’t work now. I must confess that I wonder whether they have truly tried this new thing that has been proposed. Yet even if they have, now may be exactly the right time for something that may have been ahead of its time when it was first attempted.
“We’ve never done it this way before.” “Been there, done that.” Either way, our resistance to new possibilities cuts us off from where God is moving in our time and place.
Our posture toward those who seek to explore new ministries is a significant predictor of whether we will thrive or capsize as a church. May the Spirit open us to welcome new possibilities, risky as they may feel to us!
Yours in the adventure of ministry,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister