I attended what may have been my worst presbytery meeting ever this week, and after more than 30 years of attending presbytery meetings, that’s saying something.
What made the meeting sad and difficult was that the Presbytery of Tropical Florida “dismissed” nine congregations, their pastors, and all of their property (conservatively worth more than $17 million) to other “Reformed bodies.” What all of that ecclesiastical language means is that our presbytery said good-bye to nine congregations who in the weeks to come will become part of other denominations.
In personal terms, I said good-bye to nine gifted colleagues, many of whom have become my friends.
Forty-five congregations remain in the presbytery…for now.
Most of the departing congregations will end up in something called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which was formed last January. For more information about that body, here’s a link: http://www.fellowship-pres.org/eco/
In nearly every case, the congregations who left the presbytery – and therefore the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – explained that their former denomination had moved in a direction that no longer felt comfortable to them. And last summer’s change to the Book of Order – allowing the ordination of gays and lesbians – was for them the last straw. Requesting dismissal was for them an act of conscience.
I hesitate to write about this situation for a number of reasons, but chief among them is that most people don’t know what a denomination is, or what a presbytery is, and furthermore don’t care. Most people who are members of First Presbyterian Church are (blissfully?) unaware that they are part of a larger body of Christian churches. Most of us came to this church because we loved the people here, or the music, or the preaching. Denominational affiliation is hardly ever a factor in someone’s decision to join a church.
However, the article that appeared Tuesday morning in our local newspaper, the Sun-Sentinel, calls for some explanation and reflection.
Our presbytery, it should be noted, has been hit harder than most. Most presbyteries are in the process of dismissing a congregation or two; very few will experience the sort of loss that our presbytery experienced this week. In a denomination of around 2 million members and more than 10,000 congregations, the overall statistical loss is not expected to be significant.
But this is about more than numbers.
As I work my way through the sadness I experienced on Tuesday, I feel some hope. Nearly every presbytery meeting I attended over the last three years was characterized by conflict – sometimes overt, though more often it was just beneath the surface. We were so clearly not of one mind about how to do the business of the church. It was always there. And at times it was debilitating.
So, the departure of these nine congregations is expected to lessen the conflict. We will finally be able to get on with the business of being the church.
I believe that the church’s mission is larger than whatever issue popular culture happens to be wrestling with at any given time. Right now our culture is wrestling with the issue of sexual orientation, and that conflict is almost inevitably played out within the church. Within my lifetime I have listened as the church has argued about the role of women, abortion, capital punishment, nuclear proliferation, immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a host of other divisive issues.
My hope has been (and continues to be) that as a church we will model something better to the culture around us. Rather than dividing ourselves along ideological lines, I continue to hope for a church that wants to serve Jesus Christ, first of all, and to find a way to stay together in times of division and conflict.
I do not believe we should ignore our differences. I support thoughtful and respectful conversation. And I think the most difficult position to hold is the one we have right now – namely, our determination to be one, a body of believers who are committed to the work that Jesus Christ has called us to.
When people ask me when our church is going to take a stand, this is what I say: “We have taken a stand, and that stand is to stay together, despite our differences, to model something different from the rest of culture. Separating is the easier choice. Finding a way to stay together – now that takes courage and hard work!”
Allow me to end – though I am aware that much more could be written – with a personal note. One of the reasons for the sadness I felt this week is that my ties to the Presbyterian Church run very deep. I was not raised a Presbyterian, but as a young adult, when I most needed it, I suddenly found myself embraced and welcomed by the Presbyterian Church. And I have not forgotten the grace I found within this denomination, the kind of grace that has allowed me more than 30 years of ministry.
But that isn’t all. Not long ago my older daughter was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My daughter serves a congregation that is strong and vital, one that not only proclaims the gospel, but lives it out in its mission and ministry. So, my ties to this denomination now run through my own family.
I am hopeful for our future. I do not make that statement lightly. I see the obstacles plainly. But I continue to do my work convinced that the ministry of this church is larger than, and more important than, what divides us today.