Thank You Alice

I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.

Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.

Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.

At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”

You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.

Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”

One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.

Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.

Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)

But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.

So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.

Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.

As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.


[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]

Remembering All The Saints

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Once again it is the day of the year when I look back, reflect on those around me that have joined the Church Triumphant and have been an inspiration to me. Probably the best known hymn for All Saints Day is based on the poetry of William W. How. It is commonly sung to Ralph Vaughan Williams tune Sine Nomine (Latin for “without a name”), a term sometimes used for a new hymn tune for no previous words. It also strikes me as appropriate for the association with celebrating all the saints, some of whose names we may never know.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In the list of those who went on to their eternal reward one of my friends may be known to some of you. I worked closely with Ruling Elder Margy Wentz for a number of years at the synod level where she served for an extended period as the stated clerk and for a while doubled up and served as the executive as well. We have sometimes been on the same side of the table and sometimes on opposite sides of the table, but always at the table and I deeply respected her faith, sincerity and faithfulness. For as much as a polity wonk as I am, Margy had me beat by a mile and sometimes in discussing synod business she would say that I was the ardor to her order. She is one of the few people who can say that of me. I will miss her.

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In addition, I have lost several other friends and models this past year. For the following saints I give thanks for their witness and faithfulness:

  • David – whose wife Beth was my last entry a year ago. They were partners in ministry and an example to us all as they grew old together.
  • Pat and Jack – another couple whose faithfulness in looking after each other, and the church’s gardens, and many of the other details around the church, were an inspiration. They also had a long history of helping out in civic organizations here in town.
  • Beth – who lived to see more than a century and was a fixture in the community throughout that time. An example that Christians get out there and make things happen for the greater good.
  • Horace – a member of the Greatest Generation who saw and practiced the active linkage of his faith with community involvement.
  • Hi – Someone who did so many things quietly and with great love. He was a mentor to many, a tremendous example of faithfulness in marriage for better or for worse, and for many years the calm and knowledgeable voice hosting our church’s radio broadcasts each Sunday morning worship.
  • Wayne – another hard worker around the church with a quiet faith and a big heart.
  • Helen – who for many years faithfully attended worship, sitting across the aisle from my family, and even in her decline these past few years was regularly there in spite of the effort required to put on her Sunday best and the help she required to get her in her seat each week.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all these saints we give thanks to God for God’s influence in their lives and I thank and remember them for what they have done and for the inspiration and witness they have been to me. Well done good and faithful servants. May you enter into your eternal reward.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The Reformation Lives… At Least In Miniature

It is Reformation Day, the day on which we remember, if not celebrate, the tradition of a German monk turned university professor who is said to have nailed a debating document of 95 theses to a chapel door in Wittenberg 498 years ago. As the quincentennial approaches things are starting to ramp up. And that led to a very interesting event this past year.

luther_boxLast spring Playmobil released a special figure as part of the Luther 2017 celebration. (According to one source this was at the request of the German and Nuremberg tourist boards and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.) Literally overnight this became the fastest selling Playmobil product with over 34,000 boxes out the door in 72 hours. Needless to say, additional stock was quickly ordered.

luther_kleineWhat are we to make of this popularity? It should be acknowledged that Luther had a tremendous impact on the secular history of Germany as well as the history of the church there and around Europe, something I reflected a bit on a few years ago. So maybe we are just seeing a recognition of that historical significance?

Maybe it is purely a collector’s rush recognizing that it is being issued in conjunction with the wider celebration of the event. It is a commercial item to mark a significant anniversary so it is worth something sentimental now and possibly commercial later. (As you can see from the picture at the right I decreased the future value of mine by opening it and putting it together.)

But maybe, just maybe, the Reformation still means something. Does this “Little Luther” as some are calling it, still stand for something? (yes, pun intended) Does he come with a quill and book, rather than a hammer and parchment, to remind us that the lasting value of the Reformation was not as much in the theological debating points as in people being able to hear and read the Holy Scripture themselves in their own language.

I like to think it is the latter, that the work Luther and so many others started continues today. And while many more were involved in the Reformation I’m not sure a Playmobil version of Calvin, Beza or Farel would be as big of hits. However, if you want a set of – how shall I say this – some of the more colorful reformers maybe there should be a set that includes Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox.

It should be noted that this is not the only commercial tie-in to the Luther 500 celebrations. One particular site I know of is the Reformation 500 special collection from Concordia Publishing where you can not only get this dashing replica of Dr. Luther but a whole line of products. Not to be missed is the “Here I Stand” dress socks. (I’ll let that sink in for a minute. :) ) The real sign that this is catering to modern audiences is that there are three different containers for coffee,  but only one beer stein.

On a more cultural note it is an interesting success for Playmobil. An insightful article came out in the New Yorker last month where the author, Jason Wilson, wondered about the distinctions, and relative popularity, of Lego as compared to Playmobil. He came down on the side of the latter explaining it’s value like this:

No one would argue that Lego does not inspire creative, constructive play. But more and more Lego relies on its associations with pop culture in order to catch a child’s attention. The child may build and create, but the narrative is simply copied from the movie. It’s easy to snark, but Playmobil has quietly walked a different path over the past decade—slower, less flashy, more generic scenarios, much fewer licensing deals. This type of unscripted play is very good, for children and the culture. Playmobil may hold tighter to ideals of independent, imaginative narrative play, and it represents a less crass, less marketed, less ironic or knowing type of play.

In a sense is that not a little bit reflective of the Reformed faith – slower, less flashy but independent, imaginative and narrative? As opposed to marketed and associated with pop culture “in order to catch [the individual’s] attention.”

And so I will leave you with that.

And may you all have a merry “little” Reformation Day.


Moderator Designate For The Church Of Scotland 2016 General Assembly

RussellBarrEarly this morning the Church of Scotland announced their choice for the Moderator of their 2016 General Assembly. He is the Rev. Dr. Russell Barr, pastor at Cramond Kirk (pictured at left in an image from the Church of Scotland). However, he is well know in the church and community for his role in helping found the Fresh Start ministry to the homeless in Edinburgh. According to the Kirk’s announcement this organization “has helped 2,000 people get back on their feet in the last year.”

He has been at Cramond Kirk since 1993, recently served as the Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery, and also served as the convener of the Africa and Caribbean Committee of the Kirk’s World Mission Council. In addition to his theological training in Scotland he holds a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

He said of his appointment that he was “excited, honoured and overwhelmed” and that “It is humbling to be elected by your peers to serve the Church in this way.” Needless to say, among the issues he wishes to focus on during his moderatorial year are homelessness and food poverty. And he has expressed his support of the Tomorrow’s Calling pastoral recruiting campaign.

There has been significant media coverage of the announcement that emphasizes his work with the homeless including BBC News, stv News, The Falkirk Herald, Scottish Housing News, Edinburgh News from the Scotsman and Third Force News. I have the usual quibble with the last one whose headline called him “head of the Kirk.” No, Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, he is only called to be the Moderator. And one news source jumped the gun on the embargo and quickly made the article go away.

And so we extend out congratulations to Rev. Barr, thank him for his outstanding service in the past and assure him of our prayers for the future. Best wishes as he prepares for the Assembly and may you find your moderatorial year a rewarding experience.

The Discussion of PC(USA) Identity And Musings On An “Ecclesiastical Hackathon”

About a month ago the Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Heath Rada, issued a “Call to the Church” to rethink what the PC(USA) should look like and in doing so build trust within the church.  This started the wheels in motion for a discussion in the denomination about what the identity of the PC(USA) is now and what it should be. Specifically he said in his remarks:

It became apparent [within a small task force on mission funding] that we all believed a painful situation existed [in the PC(USA)] and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored. It was felt that our denomination needed to explore these matters in depth and that I should announce a CALL TO THE CHURCH to help in addressing them.

The statement goes on to list five areas of importance, from the church’s changing place in the wider culture to the theological institutions to the urgent need for action. And with that the statement outlines five steps to take but at multiple points emphasizing the need to involve all levels of the church.

In a follow-up article in the Presbyterian Outlook he updates us on the response he has gotten and what next steps might be. While some are a bit further off – specifically part of the preparation for the 222nd General Assembly – other steps were being implemented quickly. This past week we saw the first of those and that is a survey opened up by Research Services to gather input from the full breadth of the PC(USA). You are encouraged to “Join the Conversation” and you have until November 13 to respond on that survey.

Another step is the announcement of two Twitter chats with the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia (@LarissaLKA). The first chat begins this afternoon at 6 PM EDT (3 PM PDT) and will use the hashtag #pcusaidentity. The second chat is on Thursday November 12 at 9 PM EST (7 PM MST).

In reading that follow-up article a few things jump out at me. One is that the responses include “groups…wanting to be part of the conversation.” So must a group come forward to be included? Another is that Office of the General Assembly and Research Services will be the ones surveying the church and figuring out how to initiate discussions. It struck me that groups and offices in the national church seem to be headlining what looks like an institutional response. This is no surprise since at one point in the initial Call Moderator Rada wrote:

Again let me state the obvious. Someone has to take a lead. I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will (in accordance with God’s will) concerning who and what we need to be as a denomination.

An interesting article three weeks ago takes a very different approach…

The Presbyterian Outlook published an op-ed piece by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens titled “An Open Letter to Moderator Heath Rada: What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?

As Presbyterians you have to love the idea, but more on that in a moment.

Their idea is an open call and competition where people form teams of six individuals and come up with their ideas about what the PC(USA) should look like or be doing. As they say:

Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!

The idea is that a set of “rules and tools” would be issued by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and any group of six members of the PC(USA) would have a few months to assemble a team and present a plan, solution, strategy, what ever was being asked for.

A number of theological and polity positives jump out at me here. As the authors emphasize, we are a priesthood of all believers. Why should we let the brains at OGA and PMAB have all the fun with this. The Reformed community should be the specialists at crowd sourcing as we believe decision making and the corresponding mission are to be done at the lowest applicable level and our structure is supposed to allow the most people and those with particular gifts for the situation to be involved.

It is arguable whether groups of six are theologically supported here – seven is a more spiritual number or we could just think of two groups of six making twelve. But in our church history it was the group of the “Six Johns“, led by John Knox, that over four days wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560. Not exactly a hackathon since they were the only group working on it but still a model of a group of six that worked quickly to produce a product that changed history.

Now looking at this proposal I do cringe a little bit to see that the process is directed by the agencies at the top. They are the existing coordinating bodies after all and in a position to be able to do this so there is a solid rational for this. But let’s think a bit outside the box here.

What if we thought about this a bit more as a crowd sourced or grassroots project and tried to find another point to run this from. What if the responsibility were devolved to someplace in the church that is actively doing something like this, such as the 1001 New Worshiping Communities group? Or maybe an existing recognized affiliated body like the NEXT Church group or the Presbyterian Outlook board. Or maybe something completely different like a joint steering group made up of members of the Covenant Network and the Fellowship Community? Or a really radical thought: Just go for it!

The idea would be for groups that wanted to get involved to brainstorm changes and then send it to the next General Assembly from the bottom up. Get your group together and then take the idea to your two or three nearest presbyteries for endorsement as ascending overtures so they will be considered as business in Portland. If this hackathon concept is taken seriously maybe one of the commissioner committees at GA could have the responsibility for reviewing these and helping the Assembly to think in new ways. And remember, the deadline for proposed Book of Order changes is February 19, 2016, and for overtures with financial implications it is April 19, 2016.

So there you have my riff on the hackathon idea. I don’t think this is too far off from the ideas Landon Whitsitt discussed in his book Open Source Church. And remember, the hackathon – or whatever you want to call it – concept has two purposes: One is discussed above as a model for drawing more fully from the wisdom and knowledge of the whole group. The other is to involve more people in seriously visioning and thinking about the problem and empowering them to do something about it so they have ownership of situation. This is not answer a survey or participate in a guided discussion sort of thing. The idea is to empower any interested member to dive into the details, inner working and think about the problem at the deepest levels. Where it may go we don’t know so this certainly could be a “stay tuned” moment for the PC(USA).

Moderator Designate For The Free Church Of Scotland General Assembly

We are entering the GA preparation season with moderator candidates being announced and overtures being endorsed. So here one of the early announcements…

A couple of weeks ago the Free Church of Scotland announced their selection of the Rev. Dr. John Nicholls as their Moderator Designate for the 2016 General Assembly. Rev. Nicholls currently serves, in semi-retirement, as an associate minister at the Smithton Free Church of Inverness, but may be best known as the former chief executive of the London City Mission, a position he left back in May of 2013 after more than 20 years with the organization. He began his ministry at Ardnamurchan, Lochaber in 1975 before returning to his home town of London to serve at the London City Church and then the City Mission.

He began his higher education, according to the press release, at the Universities of Bradford and then Leeds studying mathematics and education. He completed his theological training at what was then Free Church College (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary) and his doctorate is in practical theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The Free Church press release says of him “Dr Nicholls, 66, is widely respected as one of the most gentle and gracious ministers in the denomination.”

The press release includes these words from Dr. Nicholls in response to the call:

“Although most of my years of ministry have been spent outside Scotland, the Free Church has been my spiritual home for over 40 years.

“It is a great honour to be asked to serve as moderator of the next General Assembly.

“Having seen much evidence of the vitality and growth of evangelical Presbyterian Churches around the world, it is exciting to see signs of similar growth and renewal in Scotland, with the Free Church growing in membership and in the number of its congregations.

“With record numbers of students enrolled at the Edinburgh Theological Seminary, these are days of renewed hope and expectation across the Free Church.

“In such a climate, the General Assembly becomes far more than a mere talking shop or business meeting.

“And yet, the work and witness of the Free Church will only truly prosper if there is a strong and healthy passion for prayer and for the Word of God, and a genuine love to Jesus Christ, among its ministers and members.

“That must be the most important concern of any Moderator and any Assembly.”

He and his wife Sarah have two children and four grandchildren.

Our congratulations to Dr. Nicholls and prayers and best wishes as he prepares for this new call. We look forward to his leadership as he moderates the Assembly and will continue to pray for him in the moderatorial year which will follow.

You Keep Using That Word…

[Prefatory note: Yes, it has indeed been almost two months since I last posted here, a full month beyond my planned quiet period. While I have several articles in draft form that I want to complete I have been busy on a couple of other fronts that has taken time away from my writing. I am hoping to be a bit more regular for the next few months. In addition, I have a large data acquisition and analysis project related to my Big Tent series that has been where I have dedicated my blogging hours. We will see where that goes.]

Today was one of those days where I ran across something that hit one of my sensitive nerves, raised my blood pressure and sent me to the keyboard to vent. It was an online article from the Presbyterian Outlook titled “Distance education: Seminary comes to you.” It is overall an interesting article from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary – and not from the Outlook staff – that talks about distance learning, particularly for those that don’t traditionally attend seminary. The lede begins with a quote from back in May from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), RE Heath Rada:

Recently Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked, “How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? . . . Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries’ oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?” The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) has been asking just these sorts of questions for the last 15 years and has answered with the development of a wide variety of online educational options for the theological education of laity and clergy.

Did you catch the wording? I did a quick check on the PC(USA) Book of Order and the words “clergy” and “laity” are not to be found. Even worse, this quote, and in places in the rest of the article, seem to use “laity” interchangeably with “ruling elder.” (The term is also used in places where they talk about other educational tracks that could include students from non-Reformed traditions so it may be awkward for the Presbyterians but technically acceptable.)

To be fair, this is not the only place in discussions of Presbyterian polity that you will find these terms used. But in a strict sense as I understand it Presbyterians know nothing of the laity in its traditional sense. To quote that bastion of knowledge, the Wikipedia article for laity,


Presbyterians do not use the term “lay”. Thus the Church of Scotland has “Readers”, men and women set apart by presbyteries to conduct public worship. This arises out of the belief in the priesthood of all believers. Ministers are officially ‘teaching elders’ alongside the ‘ruling elders’ of the Kirk Session and have equivalent status, regardless of any other office. In the Church of Scotland, as the Established church in Scotland, this gives ruling elders in congregations the same status as Queen’s chaplains, professors of theology and other highly qualified ministers. All are humble servants of the people in the congregation and parish. Ministers are simply men and women whose gift is for their role in teaching and possibly pastoral work. They are thus selected for advanced theological education. All elders (teaching and ruling) in meetings of Session, Presbytery, or Assembly are subject to the Moderator, who may or may not be a minister but is always an elder.

OK, Wikipedia is not my first choice for a credible argument, and in this case I disagree with a couple other details in the article and the emphasis is on the Church of Scotland, but I think it correctly makes the point that there is a priesthood of all believers and some are set aside for ordered ministry. Furthermore, teaching and ruling elders rule jointly and in the administration of the church generally either flavor of elder may hold any given leadership position.

Now, if you want the argument from a credible Presbyterian source, you can do no better than Teaching Elder Joe Small, the previous head of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In a talk he gave in 2010 before he retired he is quoted as saying “Clergy and laity are two words that should never escape the lips of Presbyterians.” He expands more fully on the historical development of the ordered ministry in the Reformed tradition in a chapter he contributed to a book on church governance.

If you want corroboration of this thought, two other giants of Presbyterian polity, John Bolt and Jan Edmiston have also spoken or written about the distinction and its importance. And yes, I have ranted about this before – as I said it touched a sensitive nerve with me.

So as I close this discussion, or a sequel rant if you will, I want to be clear that this is not just a semantic distinction. In my thinking about Reformed theology this is at the heart of how we view ourselves as the Body of Christ. Traditionally the use of the terms clergy and laity imply a difference in function and standing between the two groups. If we accept the concept of the priesthood of all believers this distinction does not exist. Yes, there is an ordered ministry for proclamation, one for spiritual guides and a third for mercy ministry. But these are always exercised within the context of the covenant community. It is everyone working together with some set aside (not elevated) for particular tasks.

OK, rant over. We now return you to your regular programming.

[And it is nice to be back. More about my summer later.]

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 2: He’s In My Church?

I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”

In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.

But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.

So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.

Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.

And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.

It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.

But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…

[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]

A Closer Look At Denominations And Twitter

My musing about Twitter accounts that I posted a week ago started a bunch of conversations and got me looking at it a bit more closely. Now fair warning – that post was the beginning of a look at the diversity of a denomination by thinking about how many different “voices” there are coming from that branch. Ultimately I want to find a way to categorize those voices on a diversity spectrum but a  couple of metrics I have tried already did not pan out. However, in casting the net a bit wider, that is in bringing more denominations into the data set, an interesting relationship appeared.

As we drill into that data a brief reminder about the data set. I was looking for official Twitter accounts from a denomination. My original list from the PC(USA) included the primary account, agencies, committees, periodicals and news sources. It did not include what I characterized as commercial project-specific accounts – like the Glory to God Hymnal and the Feasting on the Word series – as well as not counting seminaries and conference centers. As I move on to other denominations I will stick to these same parameters even though some have seminaries and conference centers with much closer oversight by their highest governing bodies. In addition, I am choosing at the onset of this analysis to include the inactive, duplicate and periodical accounts.

In this search for denominational Twitter accounts I found one more for the PC(USA) and have added that to the list in the original post and annotated it as an update. For the rest of the usual American Presbyterian branches I have these that I found:

ARPC – 32,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

RPCNA – 7,000 members (from current issue of The ARP)

OPC – 31,122 (from Statistician’s report to 2015 GA)

No official Twitter accounts found

PCA – 358,516 members (from Clerk’s summary of 2015 GA)

EPC – 149,527 reported (from statistical report to 2015 GA)

BPC – 3500 members (Wikipedia)

No official Twitter accounts found

ECO – 60,000 members (report from 2014 Synod meeting)

Cumberland – 72,370 members (2015 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2014)

CPCA – 7676 members (2014 GA Minutes Statistical Reports for 2013)

No official Twitter accounts found

So if we take these and plot Twitter accounts versus membership what do we get? Here is the graph.


That’s a pretty nice trend line there — all the data give a correlation of 0.990. Tough to beat that. But those who regularly deal with statistics will notice a couple of issues.

First and foremost the trend line is highly leveraged. That is to say that you have a lot of data on the left and then a really, really long space until you get to the PC(USA) on the right. When calculating the trend that isolated data point can dominate and pull the trend line to itself. Compared to the actual number of 39 Twitter accounts the trend line predicts 39.06 accounts. Yes, there is the clear possibility of leveraging.

Second, even the data point for the PCA is a bit isolated there away from the cluster. In a sense, we have the statistics of small numbers with three meaningful populations: the PC(USA) point on the right, the PCA point in the middle and the cluster containing everyone else on the left.

However, looking at the data and the trend line it still seems to be a decent fit. Yes, the PC(USA) has leveraged it but the predicted 9.11 accounts for the PCA is still reasonably close to the actual 10 accounts. So let’s test the leveraging.

Dropping the PC(USA) point from the linear regression and fitting only on the lower nine points, including the PCA, the correlation drops to 0.827. So there is a correlation drop indicating some leveraging but that is still a respectably strong number. But have a look at the plot…


So if the trend line is only based on the lower nine data points and then extrapolated out four times that distance to predict the PC(USA) value, it only over-estimates by 1.54. This is starting to look like a more robust relationship.

Having now had a look at the data let me tell you that what I found is significantly different than my expected outcome. You might have noticed that a bit of my bias crept into the last post regarding the PC(USA) having a high number of Twitter accounts. As I was compiling that list it seemed to me that the church had gone wild in creating accounts.  Well, when viewed from the perspective of number of accounts per thousand members (that would be 0.024 accounts/member for the trend line if you care) the number is right in line with everyone else. They just happen to be four times larger than the next largest branch so the number of accounts is four times larger.

From a statistical point of view I went into this expecting that I would never be able to plot this on a linear line. I was expecting to have to fit it to a log scale on the number of accounts axis. Furthermore, from past experience I also expected the leveraging to be more dramatic and the extrapolated line to miss by a wider margin. So I share this little experiment to document something that truly surprised me when I took a close look at it. And furthermore, the decision of which accounts to include and which to exclude from the count was made at the beginning and carried through the analysis. It would of course be interesting to try this again with other subsets but I have not tried those and will leave that for another day.

Now, what we can say is that the number of accounts that the PCA and the PC(USA) have are completely in line with each other and generally with the smaller churches as well. While the smaller branches scatter a bit more around the line the trend is generally evident in that cluster.

What we can not say is whether, from an administrative and social media point of view, the PC(USA) and maybe the PCA have too many Twitter accounts. There is a statistical relationship here but that does not tell us whether the number of accounts per member helps or does not help get the message out. Furthermore, this relationship does not answer any questions about the consistency or coherence of the message in social media or the diversity of the branch as a whole.

Some of my preliminary thoughts are what this might mean for scaling relationships of institutional structure and self-similarity as a means of probing institutional development. In particular, it might be an interesting on-going study to see how accounts might be added as ECO becomes larger and how accounts might go dormant as the PC(USA) scales back its operations.

But it is a very interesting relationship and I put it out there for any social media theorists or practitioners who might be interested in this sort of thing. As I said, I was surprised by the proportionality, robustness and consistency of the relationship. I welcome any of you that are interested to continue pondering with me what possible implications there might be.

A Brief, Preliminary Comment On An Interesting Church Property Decision

As regular readers know I tend to wait until I have a full court decision to break down a court ruling. In this case, This is a preliminary ruling, technically a memorandum decision, and both sides have 10 days to file responses before it is final, so I am going to trust a news article. Risky thing to do but 1) the ruling as reported seems straight forward and logical even if a bit different than usual, and 2) from the full reading the article seems fair and balanced so it seems reasonable.

From the Kansas City area KCTV 5 News reports that Judge Kevin Moriarty has reached a preliminary decision in the case of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley and Heartland Presbytery. I have discussed this church before concerning some of the nuances with the divided congregation with the two groups, an ECO group and a PC(USA) group, sharing a building until this gets straightened out.

The article begins with a very nice discussion of the situation with quotes from all sides in the matter. Good on-the-ground reporting. It is not until towards the end that it mentions the court ruling late yesterday and how Judge Moriarty diverged from the traditional legal approach in Kansas, that of hierarchical deference, and instead used neutral principles in rendering his decision. To quote the article:

Moriarty said in his ruling that church law claiming the property was held “in trust” for the regional branch wasn’t relevant. The deed names the local church, not the Presbytery. The mortgages name the local church, not the Presbytery. If the presbytery wanted a claim, the judge said, they could have placed a provision on those legal documents when they signed over the deed to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley decades ago.

The building and property, he said, belonged to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, not Heartland Presbytery, which had filed the suit.

Now, in a “be careful what you wish for” twist, the decision continues. The property may belong to the church and not the presbytery, but with two groups claiming ownership to which does the property belong? To this the judge invoked ecclesiastical deference and said it was a church doctrine dispute and the civil courts should not get involved. Therefore, since the property was established by the PC(USA) and one group was recognized by the PC(USA) as the True Church then it gets the property.

A most interesting twist where the property does not belong to the PC(USA) in spite of the Trust Clause, but belongs to the PC(USA) congregation because of history.

As stated, this is the draft trial decision and it may change on final and is subject to possible appeal. When I have more details, and if worth another post at this time, I will probably just note at the top that this post has been superseded and point you at a new one.

In my reading of these property cases this is new legal ground. We shall see where this goes…