Category Archives: education

Last Week In The Presbyterian Church In Ireland: Everyday Disciples And Essentials

Last week was a busy one for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with their Special Assembly on Everyday Disciples and in that the roll-out of the new Essentials discipleship program. A close look at the Essentials material in a moment, but first a brief review of the Special Assembly.

Beginning on Monday of last week, over 600 people gathered at Ulster University in Coleraine for this Special Assembly around the theme Everyday Disciples and focusing on discipleship. It was not a deliberative assembly but a four-day event to prepare and energize members in their own discipleship walks as well as reaching out to others. In the church’s news article in advance of the Assembly the Moderator of the GA, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely is quoted as saying:

As Christians, Jesus calls us to be His disciples in all aspects of our lives. The title and theme of our Special Assembly is in recognition of the increasing necessity for today’s followers of Jesus to be equipped by the Church to be effective disciple-makers in their various spheres of everyday life.

Many of us however, recognise that we have perhaps concentrated too much on programmes and activities in our churches and have not been as strong on providing the essentials to facilitate making mature disciples.

The daily keynote addresses from our two principal speakers and the range of seminars available will help us to consider seriously the need for daily discipleship. It will also help us to understand better how we can be involved in a 21st century reformation of church and society.

The two principal speakers were pastors from U.S. churches who spoke on the theme of discipleship with an emphasis on a believer’s life and the local church. The first speaker was Rev. Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church (with the PCA) in Atlanta. The second speaker was the Rev. Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. More on the speakers from both the PCI news article as well as one from the Belfast Telegraph.

I saw no indication of a live stream of the event but there was a healthy (OK, one non sequitur has crept in) and helpful Twitter presence so I would encourage you to check out the hashtag #everydaydisciples. And tracking there, from all that I saw the conference had a laser-sharp focus on the topic of discipleship and good quality keynote sessions and workshops. I appreciated the high quality of the stream of tweets but have resisted pasting any in here.

At the end of the Special Assembly a new discipleship program called Essentials was rolled out. I have purchased a copy and am favorably impressed with the focus, quality and helpfulness of this resource.

So, for your £12 you get the eight videos and five participants books with additional books £1 each. There is also a leader’s guide and a preaching plan included. And with the purchase you get access to the videos online for download in a number of different formats.

As you might have guessed it is an eight session program with each session taking the participants through a step in the journey of Jesus with his disciples. Here is a breakdown of the sessions:

  1. Come – COME AND SEE: Discipleship starts with awareness of Jesus before activity for Him
  2. Call – FOLLOW ME: The essential call of discipleship is to follow our Master Jesus
  3. Community – SHARE LIFE: We can’t do discipleship alone. We learn to follow Jesus as part of His church
  4. Culture – STEP OUT: Disciples don’t escape or embrace culture, but engage with it as they follow Jesus
  5. Courage – SPEAK UP: Disciples aren’t just called to live well in culture, but also to speak up for Jesus
  6. Cost – DENY YOURSELF: Following Jesus brings a cost in every area of our lives
  7. Challenge – GO MAKE: The challenge of becoming disciples who make disciples
  8. Continue – LOOK UP: We never graduate from needing Jesus but continue following him in every age and stage of life

I really liked this progression and thought it was a useful and logical way to develop the concept of discipleship. And it should be clear from the progression above that this resource, like the Special Assembly, was about both our own discipleship as well as equipping disciples to make disciples of others. I also liked that this is not a prescribed formula for doing discipleship but a journey and way of life from which helping others develop as disciples is an integral part.

Each session has a Before You Watch opening discussion with some intro questions and the Bible reading. The book gives a basic idea to keep in mind during the video and provides space in the book to jot down thoughts or comments. And in the After You Watch section a time to respond and discuss based on the five concepts of React, Reflect, Apply, Story, and Respond.

Each video is about 15 minutes long (plus or minus about one minute) and are all follow the same pattern, opening with a brief intro, then the Bible passage followed by a couple of individuals commenting and reflecting on the Bible reading. Finally, just under half the video is a member, or in a couple cases two members together, telling a part of their spiritual journey relevant to the topic of that session. The videos are well produced, the timing of them and the segments in them right for the audience and generally interesting to watch. The almost four minute promo video on the web page uses segments from all the videos and gives you a flavour for them.

It is worth saying up front that this series is not intended for a world-wide audience as it is produced for individuals from Ireland with themes and stories that resonate within their cultural setting and experience. For example, near the beginning of video three as the speaker talks about Christian community he makes reference to a number of experiences in that society in saying “Doesn’t Jesus know this is Ireland… We do division really well.” The cultural focus is definitely a benefit in getting the material out to the intended audience. For me it detracted little from the videos but if used in another setting some interpretation may be necessary if viewers are unfamiliar with the cultural themes.

Overall I was very favorably impressed with this resource. High quality and well thought out. I can only say that I went through the whole thing on my own and not with a group but it seems like it should work well. It is not high-pressure and the spiritual journeys shared in the everyday members of the church are well chosen and engaging and would seem to give plenty to talk about in a group discussion.

There were a couple of minor items that did jump out at me: One was that the scripture passages which, while appropriate, were not in chronological order. While session one and session two did come from early in the Gospels, session 3 then jumps to the end of John and the High-Priestly Prayer to talk about community. If the over-arching framework is disciples on their journey being developed by Jesus something more in order might have been more powerful. The second is pretty minor and that is a mention by the person in session 5 in telling his story talking about leading someone to Christ and the Sinners Prayer. It is a quick passing reference and not in the spirit of “this is how its done” but in some Reformed circles that particular prayer is not highly regarded for various reasons. (e.g. Ligonier, TGC)

Finally a couple of nice touches I liked in the series. First, the series is bookended in forming disciples – at the beginning the call to become one and at the end the commission to go and make them. And second, the final session ends in prayer – a good conclusion and reminder of where, as disciples, we are grounded.

Bottom line – I liked the series and found it a good framework and model for such a resource. Clearly some significant thought and testing has gone into designing it and producing it. Yes, it is produced with a particular cultural setting in mind but I think the value of this outweigh’s the downside of portability. And you can’t argue with the cost and I have not figured out if the production budget is depending on volume of sales or subsidy, but I suspect the latter. However, I can say I enjoyed working through the series on my own and can say I was stretched a bit by it.

My thoughts for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary… (to use one of our cultural idioms 😉 )

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Week Ending October 20, 2013

Another week on the quiet side in my news stream, and the couple of active items that were there are “works in progress” that I will defer to the next round when there should be something more to report than “the committee is thinking about it.”

So to begin with, a few items from churches in Africa:

Malawi: Domasi CCAP Advises Faithful to Vote – from; “Domasi Presbytery of CCAP Blantyre Synod has called on all its faithful
that registered for the 2014 Tripartite Elections to exercise their
rights and responsibilities by voting for leaders of their choice.”

M’mbelwa roasts Livingstonia Synod over Kanyika mine – from Nyasa Times; “M’mbelwa district council on Monday took a swipe at  CCAP Livingstonia
Church and Society for frustrating the mining of niobium at Kanyika mine
in Mzimba.”

Presbyterian University College Council inaugurated – from Ghana News Agency; “The
Right-Reverend Professor Emmanuel Martey, Moderator of the General Assembly of
the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, has inaugurated the 5th Presbyterian
University College Council at Akropong.”

A couple of notes from the Church of Scotland:

Have your say on Scotland’s future – from Carrick Gazette; The Church of Scotland is ramping up the discussion sessions ahead of the independence vote.

Church of Scotland proposes changing religious observance in schools to ‘time for reflection’ – from Christian Today; “The Church of Scotland has proposed changing religious observance to a ‘time for reflection’. The Kirk said a time for reflection in schools would help shift the
debate about religious observance in schools from an argument between
opposing views to learning together.”

And finally from the PC(USA) and the Presbytery of Chicago:

Wild patience: Years of discussion lead to signing of covenant between presbytery and Islamic communities in Chicago – from The Presbyterian Outlook

So there is what caught my eye for last week.

Web 2.0 And The Internet Are Changing The World — Follow-up

Last week the journal Nature published a news piece, Peer Review: Trial by Twitter , about the changes that social media, blogs and instant communication are having on how science is done, or more specifically, how science is reviewed.  For those thinking about this sort of thing in any realm I would suggest you have a look.

I won’t rehash the history of this, you can check out my earlier post, but here are a couple of the good lines in the new article about how things have changed:

Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on
other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather
than at small conferences or in private conversation.

To many researchers, such rapid response is all to the good, because it
weeds out sloppy work faster. “When some of these things sit around in
the scientific literature for a long time, they can do damage: they can
influence what people work on, they can influence whole fields,” says
[David] Goldstein [director of Duke University’s Center for Human Genome

For many researchers, the pace and tone of this online review can be
intimidating — and can sometimes feel like an attack. How are authors
supposed to respond to critiques coming from all directions? Should they
even respond at all? Or should they confine their replies to the
conventional, more deliberative realm of conferences and journals? “The
speed of communication is ahead of the sheer time needed to think and
get in the lab and work,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow
at the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Mountain View, California, and
the lead author on the arsenic paper. Aptly enough, she circulated that
comment as a tweet on Twitter, which is used by many scientists to call
attention to longer articles and blog posts.

and finally

To bring some order to this chaos, it looks as though a new set of
cultural norms will be needed, along with an online infrastructure to
support them.

The article then has a good discussion of where fast, open reviews have been tried as well has whether or not they worked.  It also outlines some interesting ways that social media and Web 2.0 are being integrated into the traditional infrastructure.  I’ll leave it for those interested in this sort of thing to have a closer look.

Equipping Elders

A few days ago I was musing on the training and continuing education (or lack thereof) of ruling elders in Presbyterian churches.  This has been a continuing reflection of mine to try to figure out how to better equip ruling elders for not just their administrative duties but their polity and spiritual shepherding duties as well.  Being a good elder is not easy and takes work.

It is always worthwhile for ruling elders to be reading their branch’s confessional standards on a regular basis, and to be familiar with their polity documents (The Code, Book of Forms, Book of Church Order, Book of Order).  But there is a need for resources to fill in between those documents and to help understand their context.

For a broad overview of Presbyterianism for not just ruling elders but members as well, my church, and others I know, have used Donald McKim’s Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers with good response. For theological background I have enjoyed the “Armchair Theologians” series of books on religious figures like Augustine, Calvin and Barth.  These are easy reads that give a good overview of each individual’s life and theological thought (which are usually linked).  I could see that academic theologians might have problems with the details, or lack of details in the books.  And for some the illustrations might be a problem either because it always represents God as the stereotype man with the flowing beard, or because it portrays God at all in violation of the Second Commandment.  And the PC(USA) has a low-cost set of studies at that are designed for leadership training and discussion of current hot topics.  I can not tell you anything further about these because I have not purchased any yet but I have seen good reviews from others in the PC(USA).

But that is a perfect lead-in to a brand new resource that is both comprehensive and free for download…

A big thanks to the Presbyterian Church in Canada for putting together Equipping Elders.  (And to Colin Carmichael, the Associate Secretary for Communications, for bringing it to my attention.) This 194 page resource is available as either the free download or for 20$CAN from the PCC Book Room. for a 3-hole punch loose-leaf version to put in a binder.  And what surprised me is how “platform independent” this is; it is very much about being a ruling elder and some, but not much, is directly tied to the PCC.

Probably what impressed me the most about this resource was how comprehensive it is – how much useful material is in one place.  It addresses important topics that ruling elders need to know to be good shepherds of their flocks:  Congregational care and home visitations along with suggested prayers for praying for members’ needs on those visits.  Understanding the implications of different sized congregations.  Why membership matters.  Stewardship.  And, relevant to this post, why and how elders need to keep on learning themselves.  The book says:

Ordination to ruling eldership in The Presbyterian Church in Canada is a lifelong commitment to a call to ministry in and with the church. Whether serving as term elders, experiencing periods as inactive elders, or attending session meetings monthly for 20 years, all elders are always elders.
     This ordination for life means that elders have responsibility for developing their skills, learning more about their ministry and growing in the faith. Elders need to be lifelong learners. Lifelong learning assumes that we all continue to learn new things over the years, whether this is through formal training, reading, discussions with others, experience, or picking up new information and ideas from a variety of sources.

Check it out, and if you know of any similar resource that puts that much practical information for ruling elders in one place, at any price, please let me know.

Called Meeting Of The General Synod Of The ARP

As observers of Presbyterian denominations know it is a very rare event for a denomination to call a special meeting of its highest governing body.  At about this time today a Called Meeting of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church will convene at Bonclarken Conference Center in Flat Rock, N.C., to hear the report and act on the recommendations of the Moderator’s Commission on Erskine College and Theological Seminary.  This Commission was created by the 205th General Synod last summer and the minutes of the Synod meeting (p. 44, 47th page of the PDF file) record the adoption of the following Memorial from First Presbytery:

That First Presbytery encourage the 2009 General Synod to instruct the Moderator of Synod to form a special commission to investigate whether the oversight exercised by the Board of Trustees and the Administration of Erskine College and Seminary is in faithful accordance with the Standards of the ARP Church and the synod’s previously issued directives.

Erskine College and Theological Seminary (“Erskine”) are linked educational institutions in Due West, South Carolina, founded by, and still associated with, the ARP.  In case that is not obvious from the name, the institutions are named for one of the principal leaders of the secession Presbyterian branch in Scotland, the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, who helped establishe the Associate Presbytery in 1733.  It is worth mentioning that the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church descends from this branch and is not, nor was ever, a part of the mainline American Presbyterian branch.  Furthermore, the ARP can trace its founding to 1822 without any subsequent reorganizations making it the American Presbyterian branch with the longest time period since the last division or merger.

Erskine is still associated with the ARP — the vast majority of the trustees are elected by the General Synod and it is considered an agency of the church.  The College on its web site is not as clear about this association.  It refers to its status as a “Christian institution” and its Mission Statement does refer back to its ARP origins.  The Theological Seminary describes to itself as “organically and historically related to Erskine College” and the Mission Statement is:

Erskine Theological Seminary is an educational institution of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Seminary has been called by God and commissioned by its host to serve not only that denomination, but also the entire Church of Jesus Christ. The mission of Erskine Theological Seminary is to educate persons for service in the Christian Church.

According to the minutes (pg. 10) the ARP General Synod budget for 2009-2010 includes $617,000 in unrestricted funds for support of Erskine College.  In addition, Erskine is the beneficiary of special offering funds and occasional special allocations.

I don’t know how far back questions started to be raised about the Christian world view of the College but I do know that there was significant discussion by the 204th General Synod (2008)  as reported by ARP Talk, and various reports suggest that there were issues well before that Synod.  (ARP Talk is an unofficial source of news, commentary and advocacy edited by the Rev. Dr. Charles Wilson that has devoted a lot of electronic ink to the Erskine debate.)  The heart of the issues with Erskine has been with the infallibility of Scripture and whether the faculty upholds and teaches in accord with that belief.  As a general statement of the Synod, but clearly aimed at the college, the Synod took the following action, described as the most significant since 1979.

That the 2008 General Synod go on record by stating that the position of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on Scripture is that the Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts.

While that position went into the minutes it seems to have had little affect on the college.  ARP Talk continued to report from students, faculty and alumni about the world view of some members of the faculty.  Independent blogs were set up that both advocated for change at Erskine as well as another that defended the school.

Additional perspective on the situation comes from an article by Joel Belz in World Magazine which describes the dynamics that have caused the present tensions in the following way:

It’s true, of course, that such a prickly relationship between a denomination and its colleges and seminaries is hardly a new thing or a newsworthy matter. But this may be different. There is, for example, no mountain of evidence that the two ARP schools have lurched noticeably leftward in recent years. What’s happened instead is that the sponsoring denomination has itself moved decidedly to the right—and now wants to take firm steps to bring its college and seminary with it.That’s a rarity in the ecclesiastical and educational history of America.

This was a high-profile issue at the 205th General Synod last summer and coverage included blog reports from ARP bloggers Brian Howard (three parts – 1, 2, 3), and Tim Philips (with a whole bunch of his follow-up articles).  There was also a lot of Christian media coverage of the meeting including the previously mentioned article in World Magazine, at least two articles in the Layman, and the Evangelical Press News Service (provided by Tim Philips).

At that meeting the minutes (pg. 71) record the Report on Erskine College and Theological Seminary where the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and the Pres
ident say:

A few students have publicly criticized Erskine for failure to live up to its Christian profession and some of those criticisms are valid and are being addressed. Because Erskine does not require a profession of Christian faith for admission, there will always be some students who do not embrace our mission statement or live by Christian values.

Every year Erskine hires some new faculty and their appointment is probationary for the first year. In their application and during interviews, they subscribe to our mission statement and to Synod’s document on the Statement of the Philosophy of Christian Higher Education. They also affirm Synod’s view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. New faculty are carefully evaluated by the Academic Dean and some of those professors who do not embrace or practice our mission are not invited to return. One or two senior professors have been singled out for criticism and the administration has investigated those criticisms and taken appropriate action. Erskine has sought to faithfully measure up to the expectations of Synod to be a Christ-centered institution. We, like many ARP churches, have not always succeeded but we sincerely strive to please Christ in all that we do.

In addition, there was a panel discussion one evening where the President and a Vice-president of Erskine answered questions posed in writing and during the debate the next day the Synod granted voice to Erskine students to address not only the synod committee but to allow a representative to speak to the full Synod.  In the end, the Synod approved the Memorial, quoted above, and a Commission was appointed.  It was announced in January that the Commission was ready to report and the Called Meeting of General Synod was scheduled for this week.

The Aquila Report provides us the text of the Preliminary Report of the Commission — the full report will be distributed to the General Synod today.

The Commission does not mince words — It comes to the following unanimous conclusions (summarized here – read the report for the full text of each):

  1. The General Synod has been negligent in its oversight of Erskine College and Seminary.
  2. There are irreconcilable and competing visions about the direction of the college and seminary among the members of the Erskine Board of Trustees.
  3. There are irreconcilable and competing visions about Erskine’s mission as a liberal arts college on the Erskine Board and within the Administration and faculty… Despite vocal differences among the faculty and Administration, it was not evident that the trustees have given any clear direction in these matters.
  4. It became evident to us as we listened to all the parties concerned that Erskine College and Seminary stand at across roads as the search is conducted for a new president. The General Synod must speak clearly at this critical juncture so that the message of our interest in Erskine’s success is unambiguous. The next president must have the full support of the ARP Church and its Board of Trustees of Erskine College and Seminary.
          In our candid conversations with trustees, faculty, and members of the search committee, we came to the conclusion that no presidential candidate could garner the whole-hearted support of every Erskine Board member. It would be grievously unfair to the next president and potentially disastrous for these institutions if he does not have this unqualified support.
  5. Almost without exception, present and past members of the Board of Trustees believe that the size of the Board is a significant obstacle to effective governance.
  6. In an effort to govern the institutions effectively with such a large number of trustees, the Board is subdivided into several committees. While committees can be an effective means of utilizing the special experience and skills of trustees, the committee structure presently employed by the Erskine Board is a hindrance to proper governance and oversight because, in the nature of the case, the Board relies heavily on its Executive Committee. The result, despite the best of intentions among those serving on the Executive Committee, is that most trustees are left without knowledge about large parts of the institution entrusted to their care.
  7. The structure and composition of the Board of Trustees are problematic for the faithful oversight of the seminary.
  8. The ideological divisions on the Board have created significant challenges for the Erskine faculty. The College faculty are rightly troubled that the Board of Trustees and Administration have given them little guidance for the implementation of Erskine’s mission. The lack of clear directives has led to widespread faculty confusion about their responsibilities to the ARP Church in the classroom setting.
  9. The Board has been negligent in its responsibility to hold the Administration accountable for the faculty it employs. The Board has not instructed the Administration to evaluate the faculty either on the quality of their teaching or on their ability to integrate faith and learning in the classroom.
  10. The so-called “culture of intimidation,”found by Second Presbytery’s Committee on the Minister and His Work several years ago, is still present on the campus. There is an atmosphere in some quarters of Erskine College and Seminary that is inimical to faithful implementation of the mission.

The preliminary report does not present recommendations but instead says:

This Commission has been constantly aware that the very nature of our work is sensitive. It involves the reputations of trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, and students.The goal of our report is that Erskine College and Seminary emerge from this process with the tools and vision necessary to fulfill the missions the ARP Church has given to them. This goal must also inform how the Commission reports certain conclusions.

Some have asked that our entire report be delivered to delegates weeks in advance of the called meeting of General Synod. We are sympathetic to this line of thinking. We, too,want the delegates to have sufficient time to discern the Lord’s will prior to the hour of decision.

However, it should be evident to all that the discussion and debate over Erskine over the past several years has generated much heat and little light. This is at least partially to be explained by the widespread use of blogs, internet discussion boards, and “Facebook” as methods for disseminating sensitive information.

We believe that the release of some conclusions and our recommendations would have the effect of depriving the General Synod of the deliberative process such a premature action is meant to effect. Our report would then be removed from the carefully reasoned and prayer
ful deliberations of elders and ministers in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ and would instead be subject to the publicly-voiced opinions of anyone with internet access, whether or not they hear the Commission’s full report or have any real interest in the future success of Erskine College and Seminary. The realities of what takes place on the Erskine campus and among the trustees are nuanced and delicate.

Debate about these matters should be marked by the fruits of the Spirit of God and not the sometimes mean-spirited clamoring that so often occurs on the internet.

Conclusions like these have caused not a little bit of concern from various quarters in both the church as well as academia, and have produced a new round of media attention.  There is an article from Inside Higher Ed that recaps the story to this point, discusses some of the implications, and quotes one anonymous faculty member saying of the report “They are not traditionalists. I’m a traditionalist. They are extremists… I am not sure what they want except control.” 

The other dynamic in this drama is the announced retirement of the Dr. Randall Ruble as Erskine’s President on June 30.

So, with an attitude of prayerful support and discernment, and what I hope is not “mean-spirited clamoring,” I and others await the Spirit-led discernment of the General Synod.

I would conclude by adding one further prayer concern for those traveling to the meeting — Tim Philips has arrived there and is blogging about the meeting.  He reports this morning that with snow expected there is a concern whether the meeting will have a quorum so that it can actually take action on the report.