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A letter from Bob Butterfield in Portugal

Fall 2013

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal (IEPP) is full of devoted, hard-working members, but it’s definitely a church in which victories are only partial and short-lived.  All during the first nine months of 2013, the IEPP flirted with financial collapse as the current Executive Commission, which manages the IEPP’s affairs, struggled desperately to pay off the debts incurred by previous Executive Commissions.  The worst of these debts was a $100,000 court judgment against the IEPP for illegally withholding a pastor’s salary.  After fifteen months of tense negotiations between the Executive Commission’s (new) lawyer and the pastor’s lawyer, during which time the IEPP was in constant danger of having the court freeze its assets and effectively put it out of business, an agreement was finally reached at the eleventh hour.  This was nothing short of a miracle and a great victory for the IEPP.

The current Executive Commission (of which I am a member) has been leading the IEPP to transition from a thoroughly opaque administrative system, one in which a small group controlled the information and won the cooperation of others with favors and special privileges, to a transparent system.  In this system there are no payoffs, but everyone has access to information and an opportunity to make his (her) voice heard.  This is a noble and democratic goal.  The problem, however, is that to make such a transparent system work, there have to be recognized pathways and procedures for communication, and these have not yet taken shape in the IEPP.  Fortunately, one of our strongest pastoral leaders, a man who serves as pastor on a volunteer basis and has a management job in industry, understands communication systems and is working hard to help the IEPP in this area.

On the ecumenical front, things have never looked brighter.  The efforts of the Protestant-Catholic Reconciliation Team, of which we are a part, have had a very positive effect here in the central region of Portugal, and prospects for the future are especially encouraging because of the attitude of Pope Francis.

As for our two congregations, the people are genuinely delighted to have us back.  Six months is a long time for any congregation to be without its pastor, and the welcome they’ve given us has been heart-warming.  Because education is what particularly suffered, not just during our absence but for years before we came to Portugal, one of our congregations has made the very interesting suggestion that we do worship services that intentionally combine education and adoration: the sanctuary as classroom, the classroom as sanctuary.  Another of their suggestions, which we have already implemented, is that I give them homework assignments based on the lectionary. 

Our overall assessment of the situation in the IEPP is that the congregations we know are in surprisingly good shape.  What problems exist are mainly at the national level and derive from the fact that the IEPP, much like Portugal itself, is inexperienced at being democratic or financially self-sufficient.   As the IEPP struggles toward democracy, Presbyterians here value us as colleagues and frequently use us as sounding boards.

Keiko and I want to express our thanks and appreciation to all you kind and generous Presbyterians (and some UCC folks too) who invited us to your congregation or presbytery meeting, hosted us (often in your own home), and treated us so graciously throughout our itineration.  We visited congregations and/or attended presbytery meetings in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, and California.  As a result of our visits, many Presbyterians who either hadn’t thought much about global mission, or didn’t know much about Portugal, now realize that it is definitely a place where we need to be working and where local Presbyterians really appreciate our presence.

Our desire is to see the IEPP survive and flourish and thus maintain a strong reformed voice at the theological table in Portugal, and we are doing everything we can to make that happen.   We know that we (and the IEPP) need your prayers, your in-put, and your financial support too.  Working here takes a lot of patience, persistence, and love, and it definitely calls for a long-term relationship.  We invite you to make this your relationship too.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Bob

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 276
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