Will what happened in Portland stay in Portland?
Practicing our polity at home
FROM THE EDITOR: Here on the Presbyterians Today blog we post thoughts from many different points of view. One of our goals is to think about who we are as a church and engage in respectful conversation about what we believe, what we practice, and where we are going.
Today’s post is longer than usual because it’s a conversation. Presbyterians Today blogger Derrick Weston and the PC(USA) co-moderator T. Denise Anderson discuss our church at the denominational level. Derrick looks at things from the outside, as someone who has never been to General Assembly. Denise describes what she sees from the inside, as the new co-moderator. We invite you into their discussion…
DERRICK WESTON: I watched the 222nd GA as I have since 2004 – from a distance and with only mild interest. I’ve never actually attended a General Assembly. I peek in on the multiple hashtags on Twitter (#GA222) and skim the articles that appear on Facebook.
This year I was pleased to see Belhar added to our Book of Confessions. I am thrilled to by our new stated clerk and co-moderators. These are beautiful things that speak of our aspirations as a church.
But there was a strong disconnect this year, maybe stronger than what I’ve felt in my previous years of being a fly on the digital wall, maybe because so much was (and is) happening in the world:
- The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.
- The House Democrats sit-in to attempt to force a vote on gun control.
- Brexit and the resignation of the British Prime Minister.
- The a stand off in Oaxaca, Mexico between police and teachers that killed a dozen people.
- The acquittal of the third of six officers here in Baltimore in the death of Freddie Grey
While all of this was going on, our denomination spent millions of dollars to descend on Portland, Oregon and vote on issues that very often just seem symbolic. I suppose part of the disconnect for me is the fact that I have served three small churches who couldn’t have cared less about what happened at GA.
The churches were worried about how to keep the lights on. They were worried about how to care for aging buildings with the resources of an aging membership. They were lamenting the fact that they couldn’t afford a full- time pastor. To them, GA was an “other” like the federal government: “fat cats” making decisions about how we run our church (a bit of hyperbole… but not much).
The moments when the GA did make decisions, about which the people in the pews actually cared, it was usually because they were angry. I remember entering the pulpit one Sunday after amendment 10-A passed allowing for the ordination of LGBT brothers and sister and finding an article critical of the decision lying on top of my bulletin. The congregant who placed it there left the church the next week. Interpreting what happens at GA to be one of the least fun aspects of the pastoral job.
I realize some important things happen at our assemblies.
I’m glad for the new initiatives to address the plight of African Americans in this country. That’s a big deal.
And I am proud of the diverse representation that Tawnya Denise Anderson, J. Herbert Nelson, and Tony De La Rosa bring to the church leadership. But none of that changes the fact that the church is still over 90% Caucasian and our average member is over 65.
“We have a long way to go,” I hear every year, yet I don’t actually see us moving.
For the General Assembly to actually affect the lives of actual people in the actual pews, it would have to deal with the issue that actually matters: money.
We are not, by any means a broke denomination. Instead, we are a denomination that has a wildly uneven distribution of wealth and a great deal of assets that need to become liquid.
Acts 2:44 it says that the believers of the first church had all things in common. That’s not the same as holding property in trust. We have pastors who make 6 figures and others who are underemployed so the congregation can avoid paying for benefits.
We have church buildings that are grand enough to host symphony events while others struggle to keep the roof from caving in. In the church of Jesus Christ, this ought not be so.
We give lip service to caring about African American pastors, while many in our denomination who are doing the work on the front lines have to have second jobs so that they can do the ministry that their community so desperately needs.
We talk about a “way forward” without creating a safety net for those who are coming out of seminary with no prospects of finding work that matches their calling. I could go on…
I do believe we need to gather. But we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that policies made at the national level have a significant impact on what happens locally.
And so I wonder: What if we began to gather at the margins of our society? What if we began to hold our assemblies at border towns or reservations? What if we met and merged with a Pride parade or marched with a Black Lives Matter rally? What if our gathering was less an exercise in deciding how we want to be church and more an exercise of actually being Church for those who need to experience the liberation that Jesus Christ has to offer?
Were we to do that, I’d be at GA every time.
T. DENISE ANDERSON: I want to say that I’m grateful to Derrick for sharing his thoughts. His is a valid perspective, because the fact is most of us in the PC(USA) will never get the opportunity to go to General Assembly. Save for perhaps our active Ruling Elders and the “polity wonks” among us, many in our churches will be oblivious or indifferent to what we do at our biennial assembly.
Many of our churches are preoccupied with keeping the lights on and the doors open. I serve such a church, and perhaps their interest in this General Assembly was largely (if not solely) related to my candidacy for Co-moderator. It’s usually when our denomination makes news for more controversial reasons that some of the members of our churches are ever engaged, which then means interpreting GA is more about damage control than debriefing.
Derrick asks some pointed questions: “What if we began to gather at the margins of our society? …What if we met and merged with a Pride parade or marched with a Black Lives Matter rally?” These are questions GA participants themselves asked — and answered.
General Assembly opened during Portland’s PRIDE weekend, and many Presbyterians represented at the local parade, including some of our Young Adult Advisory Delegates and contingents from Covenant Network of Presbyterians, More Light Presbyterians, and That All May Freely Serve.
Our racial/ethnic caucuses normally host official dinners during General Assembly. This GA, however, the Hispanic/Latino-a National Presbyterian Caucus decided to go in a different direction. Instead of a pricy plated dinner, the Caucus spent their time at the Union Gospel Mission serving dinner to and eating with local homeless citizens. Each caucus member spent their own money to participate in the action. I commended caucus moderator Tony Aja on their action and encouraged other caucuses to follow suit in St. Louis, the location of the next General Assembly.
Speaking of St. Louis, our new Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, has indicated his intention to explore and formulate some sort of justice action ahead of the assembly that will indeed be part of our proceedings and witness as we gather in that city.
There is something prophetic about the fact that our next two assemblies will happen in St. Louis and Baltimore respectively, and I don’t think that was by accident. Our leaders are hearing God’s call to seek justice and be repairers of the breach, and we ask for prayers as that call continues to be discerned.
Derrick questions whether our actions at GA are largely symbolic, considering the world’s unrest and the expense associated with holding a meeting of that scale. As a participant of General Assembly, not only can I say that participants were aware of and in tune with the events unfolding throughout the world, but that the work done there was more than symbolic. Particularly for those who are concerned about whether their church will continue to bless their unions. Particularly for those with young families, ailing family members, or who plan to have a family in the near future and were watching intently to see what we’d do about family leave policies in our denomination. Particularly for the employees of the companies we contract. Particularly to the interfaith partners who are watching our engagement in Israel-Palestine.
Being church has as much to do with how we will invest our money, what we say collectively about the sin of racism, and whether we affirm the practice of sanctuary in the midst of an immigration/refugee crisis as anything.
What I will say is that actions at the assembly do not automatically translate to actions in the pews. That takes work on the part of leadership to interpret the assembly’s actions (and not just the more sensational ones). Our leaders will have to preach and teach the Belhar Confession and our revised anti-racism policy.
As leaders we have to help our congregations live into what we’ve discerned and determined at the assembly. What’s more, we help our congregations understand that they are the General Assembly.
This is not a gathering of denominational “fat cats” making decisions in a vacuum. These are working professionals who are so committed to the witness of our tradition that they will use vacation time to discern God’s will for our communion.
These are pastors like the ones who care for them.
These are chaplains, elders, campus ministers, and counselors.
These are faithful people who spend copious amounts of time in prayer, discussion, and discernment (and, yes, action) in response to God’s call.
While the system of participation has its limits, the monies we spend holding the assembly allow for hundreds of young adults, theological students, and mission co-workers for whom attending GA would normally be cost-prohibitive to be present and heard. This, I believe, is an act of justice, in that it broadens the spectrum of gifts and perspectives that are represented.
To that point on justice, however, Derrick is right in pointing out that many of our clergy are underemployed. And, if I may add to his point, we should remember:
- 36% of our active Ministers of Word and Sacrament are women, which is not proportional to the more-than-half female membership of our denomination.
- Female ministers are more likely to be called to temporary pastoral relationships or half-time positions, meaning that their job security is nowhere near their male counterparts.
- The gender wage gap is actually wider in the profession of ministry than in most other professions. And your row is even harder to hoe if you are an immigrant woman, LGBTQI, or a woman of color.
The disparity in resources must be understood intersectionally, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia that undergirds it must be named. Derrick is right in calling us to think about the immense privilege and resources we have and how they may be most justly employed.
While it is true (and might always be true) that we have a ways to go, we are certainly in motion. And God continues to reform us according to God’s word and the ways in which God needs us to be witnesses in the world. I don’t think, however, that we can rest on any laurels we manage to accumulate with certain actions at any assembly, nor should we be afraid of drastic and perhaps even daunting changes that will help us be more nimble as a church. But I’m encouraged by what I saw at the 222nd General Assembly that we might be more poised than ever to follow God to some exciting territory. My prayer is simply that we keep that momentum.
And I hope to see Derrick in St. Louis!