‘Guiding statement for the denomination’ begins to take shape
LOUISVILLE — The 2020 Vision Team is trying to work its way through a first draft of its report to the 2018 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – hoping to hit the right mix of being short, yet challenging; being grounded in biblical history and also looking forward.
For sure, it’s an intricate dance.
The 2016 General Assembly created the 2020 Vision Team, giving it this job: to develop a “guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation with all deliberate speed.”
During a nearly two-hour video conference call Dec. 14, team members discussed a draft from a writing team that’s been working in recent weeks, building on ideas from the team’s last in-person meeting, held Nov. 12-14 in Dallas. That draft included a preamble that described some of the Christian journey so far — drawing on biblical images — followed by a guiding statement with descriptions of what the PC(USA) is today and wants to be.
During the meeting, team members reacted to the language of that draft – saying what they liked, weren’t so sure about and what they still want to see — and at the end agreeing to keep writing. Here’s some of what they said.
Keep it short. There’s some tension, between wanting to include significant elements (regarding biblical tradition, mission and discipleship, for example) and wanting to keep the statement concise and memorable.
Sabrina Slater, a minister from New York state, said she likes the idea of “one sentence that can be remembered,” saying that the draft has “too many words” and while it’s a good start “the vision statement itself has not necessarily emerged as of yet.”
As Michael Fagans, an elder from Mississippi, put it: “Sometimes shorter is better.” He suggested a succinct guiding statement, with maybe supplementary material for those who want to go more in-depth.
Think about architecture. The team has debated a number of possible approaches for structuring the report — including presenting a short list of words to describe the denomination (this draft used four words, all starting with P), and then expanding briefly on those ideas. The architecture is still a work in progress.
Fagans suggested the idea of an invitation to the table and said he wants the statement to talk both about the present and to “look to the future” — to what the denomination might imagine itself becoming.
Deborah Foster, a mid council executive from South Carolina, spoke of the connections — that “we’re called to come to the table, rub elbows,” show hospitality to neighbors and strangers.
Some also suggested that the statement address both the current anxiety in the PC(USA) and the need for hope.
“Part of our crisis is that we’ve been a church that does mission,” but has done that work with considerable resources, Slater said. Now, “the needs of our communities locally, national and globally are growing.” Slater said the PC(USA) needs to find ways to do mission in new, different and contextual ways, yet with fewer resources.
DèAnn Cunningham, an elder from North Carolina, said she wants the statement to challenge Presbyterians — to ignite, invigorate, revive, push the church beyond its current borders. “Not enough of us have enough courage to step out,” she said.
Presbyterians worry because “people are leaving. Finances are dwindling,” Cunningham said. This statement can challenge the church “to do what God has called us to do with what He has given us, not what we think we should have.”
Consider the language. Should this be a message to the PC(USA), or to people outside the denomination, or somehow to both? What are the implications of that for the language that is used?
Jerrod Lowry, a pastor from Utah, said he wants something that’s “easy to translate” outside the church and which both “harkens back” to the biblical tradition and calls the church forward.
“We are quick to defend the past and who we have been … and the power that we’ve had,” Lowry said. He wants the guiding statement also to be about “stepping into something we never dreamed we would be, or be doing or saying.”
Salvador Gavaldá Corchado, an elder from the Presbytery of San Juan, said the statement can acknowledge that “this isn’t the first time we’ve been asking ourselves ‘what the heck is this church supposed to do?’ ” It’s an ongoing journey, he said — and Presbyterians need to have an openness to keep searching, and to understand that the answer “keeps moving.”
Fagans asked this: “Is it our job to make people comfortable? Or is it our job to make people uncomfortable?”
He wants the statement to acknowledge that “our country and I would argue our denomination have not come to terms or addressed two of our founding sins — that is slavery and that is genocide.”
Without doing that, Fagans said, “this is another vanilla statement people can feel good about and go on. … If we’re not grounding this in the context of the Presbyterian church in the United States, then we will be meaningless to Black Lives Matter, we will be meaningless to #MeToo. … Too many times, we talk about these biblical stories to say who we are and to lock up the status quo. To me, the church is all about Jesus Christ and upending the status quo.”
Josh Andrzejewski, a hospital chaplain from Virginia, responded that afflicting the comfortable might be done in broader strokes. “I do want to have a bold statement, but I don’t want it to be so specific that it has to be rewritten every six months or so.”
And so, the drafting continues. Bernadette Coffee, an elder from Texas who serves as the team’s co-moderator, said she intends to divide up sections for small groups to work on, and probably will call another meeting by conference call in early to mid-January.
The team’s next face-to-face meeting will be Jan. 21–23 in Dallas.