Category Archives: governing bodies

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).

PC(USA) Passage Of Amendment 14-F: Reaction

Word has quickly spread through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this evening that Palisades Presbytery on a voice vote approved Book of Order Amendment 14-F making it the 86th presbytery to do so. While unofficial, everyone – and as you will see in a minute I do mean everyone – has taken this vote to mean that the amendment has reached the majority mark for the passage of the change to the Directory for Worship section W-4.9000 changing the definition of marriage.

There has been official reaction with three resources being added to the PC(USA) Marriage web page. These include a video statement from the Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, a letter from GA Moderator Reda and GA Vice Moderator Kwong Abazia, and an Advisory Opinion regarding the new wording. In the letter from the Moderator and Vice Moderator they encourage presbyteries to keep discussing and voting:

Though we know that this amendment received the necessary majority for approval, we encourage the congregations, presbyteries, and synods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to continue to be in conversation about marriage and family. We hope that such “up/down” voting does not mark the end, but the continuation of our desire to live in community; a partnership that requires prayer, the study of Scripture, listening to and with one another, and a dedication to partnership in the midst of our diversity of opinion. The change will go into effect with the other changes to the Book of Order on June 21, 2015.

The Presbyterian Outlook has an article posted with reaction from both sides. In addition, related groups on both sides have issued statements. The statement from the Covenant Network Board says they are grateful for the passage of the amendment and that with its passage “our denomination steps forward into a new chapter.” The statement concludes by looking forward:

As an organization, we are deeply committed to helping the church live joyfully and peacefully into this new and more inclusive day. Our national Covenant Conference will focus on these issues this fall, with dates and location to be announced soon. We are in a season of discernment about the goals and objectives that will guide our work in the coming years and look forward to sharing more in the next few months.

Similarly, the statement from the More Light Presbyterians also praised the result and said “This vote is the culmination of decades of selfless service by so many people.”

While nothing is posted on The Fellowship Community web site, its executive director, Paul Detterman, is quoted in the Outlook article as saying “I’m saddened by the passing of the amendment. I think we are listening to each other rather than listening to Scripture and the voice of God through Scripture . . . We’ve eroded some of our ability to stand on the teachings of Scripture by this vote.” (ellipses in article)

[UPDATE: The Fellowship Community has now posted a pastoral letter.]

And the Presbyterian Layman has an article posted with this quote from the president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, Carmen Fowler LaBerge:

“The passage of the amendment is further indication of the erosion of Biblical fidelity within the PCUSA. There is nothing new to say in response. Just as we repudiated the action of the General Assembly in issuing the Authoritative Interpretation we now stand in firm opposition to the passage of this amendment to the denomination’s constitution.”

I will stop there tonight but there is plenty of verbiage out there about the vote from individuals, presbyteries and news outlets.

At this point I am going to let the data point accumulate a bit more before doing any more analysis of the voting trends. So back in a few weeks with that.

Top Ten Presbyterian News Themes Of 2014

As we close out this eventful year I will once again join the numerous sources putting out top ten lists for the year that was. And as in past years my primary focus will be on stories, or themes, that were seen across multiple Presbyterian branches with a few more selective ones thrown in.

General Assemblies and Same-Sex Relationships

This was probably the top news theme of the year: The Church of Scotland GA sending to the presbyteries, and the presbyteries approving, language for churches to opt-out of the traditional standards. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 221st GA approving language to redefine marriage in its Book of Order and it appears on path to approval in the presbyteries. The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand approving a change to their Book of Order to prohibit same-sex marriages. And momentum is building around an overture to the next Presbyterian Church in Canada GA that would remove the prohibition against ministers being in a same-sex relationship.


This was a category that really caught my attention this year but which I have yet to write up in detail. In any year there is interesting seminary news, like Doris J. García Rivera’s installation as president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. But this seemed to be a year with more initiatives than normal.

These included the reorganization of the Free Church Seminary as the Edinburgh Theological Seminary. There was also the new joint initiative between Reformed Theological Seminary and Redeemer Church in New York City.

More radical seminary initiatives include a non-accredited communal seminary associated with Church of All Nations in Minneapolis and San Francisco Theological Seminary has launched a Center for Innovation in Ministry with a workshop on the theology of video games.

But the one that I have found most interesting is the Redesigned Master of Divinity Program at Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller listened to their alumni and launched a new program which is described in part like this:

Many graduates can no longer count on traditional systems to create jobs for them. They will have to invent new ways to minister. Our reshaped curriculum is designed to prepare students with entrepreneurial skills.

One of the interesting things about this new initiative, and Fuller in general right now, is the prominence of Presbyterian leadership. In addition to Mark Labberton becoming President last year, the initiative is under the oversight of Scott Cormode, the Academic Dean. Behind the Vocation and Formation part of the initiative are some well-known Presbyterian faces that include Tod Bolsinger, Steve Yamaguchi and Laura Harbert.

Congregations Switching Branches

The moves between branches continue with the PC(USA) once again transferring more churches than it closes. And in the Church of Scotland there has been a slower, but noticeable, departure.

The other interesting movement is churches moving from the Reformed Church of America to the Presbyterian Church in America. Last Spring one of the flagship churches, University Reformed Church, voted to transfer. This fall five churches in Illinois have also voted to make the move.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

The General Assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand considered this issue. In the PC(USA) the Assembly did not approve an outright divestment but referred it to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee for further consideration. The PCANZ instructed their Property Trustees to divest and recommended that individual churches do likewise.

Independence Referendum in Scotland

The Church of Scotland was prominent in the time leading up to the Scottish Independence Referendum with an open session at their General Assembly that presented a variety of voices on the subject and further national and regional level gatherings leading up to the vote. Following the vote there was a service of unity hosted by the Kirk.

The Free Church of Scotland also held a session at their General Assembly and issued their own material providing viewpoints on Independence.


For the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this was certainly a hot topic with a GAPJC decisioncivil legal challenges, settlements and high-valued negotiations. For this post the full extent of the property news is left as an exercise for the reader but there are still a lot of open questions and at the moment there seems to be momentum in favor of the hierarchical church.

Another property news item is the Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The historic structure was sold to a developer and it’s future is uncertain. Some preliminary demolition has begun and efforts are underway to try and preserve it.

PC(USA) Ethics Investigation

In a still developing story, it was revealed that four PC(USA) church development employees associated with Presbyterian Centers For New Church Innovation were the subjects of an internal ethics investigation for not following policy in setting up an outside non-profit corporation to facilitate distribution of 1001 Worshiping Communities funds. Initially there were administrative actions taken but as the story grew the four were placed on administrative leave and an outside law firm brought in to conduct an independent investigation. At year’s end it was decided that firm had a conflict of interest and a new firm was chosen.

Israel-Palestine Actions

The other hot topic leading up to the PC(USA) General Assembly was issues around Israel-Palestine. At the previous GA a proposal for divestment from three companies who profited from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory failed by a very narrow three-vote margin. The proposal was returning to this GA. In addition, a PC(USA) affiliated group, The Israel/Palestine Mission Network, (IPMN) issued a controversial study guide Zionism Unsettled that questioned Israel’s character and identity. While IPMN does not speak for the PC(USA) the study guide was sold by the official Presbyterian Distribution Services making the distinction fuzzy in many minds. In addition, there was some advanced controversy when the commissioner chosen to moderate the related commissioner committee was asked to step down because a number of people questioned his impartiality.

The 221st General Assembly did approve the divestment proposal by a slim seven-vote margin, but the action also encourages ecumenical dialogue in the region and affirms the denomination’s commitment to Israel and the peace process.

The Presbyterian Distribution Service dropped Zionism Unsettled shortly after the Assembly and it is now available on the IPNM web site. However, studies around this topic are available on Thoughtful Christian.

Women’s Ordination and Related

The religion gender issues news this year was dominated by the Church of England and the completion of the process to have women serve as bishops. In fact, in Presbyterian circles it was a very quiet year for complementarian/egalitarian discussions, which in itself is probably news.

The one big item is the decision by the Mizoram Synod conference to reject a long-standing request from Kohhran Hmechhia, the Women Ministry of the Presbyterian Church, to ordain women theologians.

In another story, history was made when Michael Barry and Liz Hughes tied in the first round of voting for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Rev. Barry was elected in the second round by one vote over Rev. Hughes and a third candidate, Rev. McNie. This was the strongest showing that a female candidate has had in the election.

Death of Ian Paisley

Among several notable deaths in the Presbyterian community, the death of Ian Paisley stands out for his iconic status in both Northern Irish religion as the leading founder of the Free Presbyterian Church and for his important roll in politics and reconciliation in Norther Ireland.

And a couple of other Presbyterian-ish stories

Knox 500

While the date of birth of John Knox is not known with certainty, the best information suggests that it may have been in 1514 making this the 500th year of his birth. This was marked by the Knox 500 Conference in Edinburgh as well as the making of a documentary about him titled “Give Me Scotland.”

Spectacular Viking treasure hoard found on Church of Scotland land

Not your typical religion news story but a very important archaeological discovery involving the Kirk and a couple of its ministers as well as a metal detectionist.

And let me take a moment to throw in two transitions: The retirement of Jerry Van Marter after over 26 years with the Presbyterian News Service and Jack Haberer stepping down from the helm of the Presbyterian Outlook to return to parish ministry. Best wishes to both in their new settings.

And those are some of the highlights of 2014. Now as we look ahead to 2015 – and many of my friends around the world are already there or now busy celebrating Hogmanay – I wish all of you a very Happy New Years and best wishes for the coming year.

May you balance your ardor and order and remember to be decent and in order.

Happy New Year!

A Brief Note On Texas Church Property Court Cases

There was a brief ripple on the church property legal front this past week as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Texas Supreme Court Decision regarding the Episcopal Church cases. Personally I found this to be an expected outcome and frankly a non-event for reasons I will explain in a minute, but it occasioned a look at another Presbyterian case that has some related characteristics.

The Texas case is the one I discussed recently where the Texas Supreme Court overturned the summary judgement granted to the mainline Episcopal Church in the lower courts based on it being a hierarchical denomination. The Texas decision then sent it back down to the trial court for a full hearing on neutral principals but The Episcopal Church appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court which this past week included it in a summary order of the cases that they declined to hear.

As I said in the lede, nothing in this struck me as unusual as the high courts prefer to weigh in after a case has run its course in the lower courts. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has, to my knowledge, yet to accept any of the recent church property cases for review. As a more experienced observer of the Episcopal church property cases, Allan Haley who writes at the Anglican Curmudgeon, says in his analysis of this order:

The order was expected, because neither decision by the Texas Supreme Court was final. The U. S. Supreme Court almost never agrees to review lower court decisions until they are final. In these two cases, the Fort Worth matter was sent back to Judge Chupp’s court for a trial, and the Church of the Good Shepherd case was likewise sent back to the trial court in San Angelo for further proceedings.

The action by SCOTUS now frees both of those cases to move ahead.

Reading further in his analysis I was interested to see that the parties who have left the mainline Episcopal church have filed for summary judgement and how, in his view of the cases, now it all comes down to one specific question:

In Fort Worth, Bishop Iker’s attorneys have filed a motion for summary judgment which is scheduled for a hearing in December. Given the decision by the Texas Supreme Court, the only question remaining for the trial court to decide is whether or not ECUSA managed to create a valid trust in the Diocese’s property which the Diocese did not revoke when it decided to withdraw in 2008. In Texas all trusts are deemed to be fully revocable at any time, unless the language creating the trust states otherwise.

I am not sure that is the only issue to be resolved but I don’t follow these with the focus or knowledge Mr. Haley does. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

This news has brought to the forefront another Presbyterian case that I have not previously included in these discussions, that of Windwood Presbyterian Church in Houston. As a Christian Post article details the history, they began the process of getting clear title to their property back in 2008 and departed for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians this past May with the property issue still unresolved. As in the Episcopal cases they initially lost on summary judgement in the Texas courts because of the hierarchical church argument but the August 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision caused the Appellate Court to vacate their earlier decision and send the case back to the trial court for a full hearing.

But Mr. Haley’s comment above about whether a valid trust was created caught my eye because that will clearly play a role in this case. Windwood was a member of the PCUS at the time of the union creating the PC(USA) and the PCUS churches had the option of avoiding the trust clause.  I quote from the fourth page of the Appellate decision (emphasis mine):

The Book of Order also contains a provision permitting a local church, with in eight years of the formation of the PCUSA, to opt out of the trust provision if it had not been subject to a similar provision before the formation of the PCUSA. Windwood never exercised this right.

While Windwood has multiple arguments for it’s clear ownership of the property under a neutral principles approach, it seems that their not having exercised this option is a significant hurdle they have to cross. This would appear to be an acknowledgement by the church back in 1991 (eight years after the union) that they are subject to the trust clause in a hierarchical church. I am curious to see how all this balances out as the courts see it.

As a side note, I would point out the case of Timberridge Church in Georgia where Atlanta Presbytery successfully argued that the opt-out was only one of several tests of whether the trust clause was in place and that the congregation was still subject to it in spite of exercising the option. But to my knowledge, that case is unique regarding the interpretation of the opt-out option.

So, as usual, each case carries its own nuances. And, based upon past history on these cases, whichever side prevails in the trial court appeals can be expected. We will see where all this leads.

Presbyteries Begin Voting On Same-Sex Marriage Actions

With General Assembly season now behind us we move into the portion of the year where the actions of the General Assemblies that require presbytery concurrence are now being considered by the lower governing bodies.

Coming from three of the Assemblies we have proposed actions that have implications for same-sex marriage/partnerships within the church and the progress is being closely watched within each branch. Here is a brief summary of what to watch and where each is at this time.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a proposed constitutional amendment that now needs to be approved by the presbyteries. This change in the language of Book of Order section W-4.9000 has been bundled into the Amendment booklet and is now referred to as Amendment 14-F.

Presbytery voting has begun and the Office of the General Assembly is, as always, the official tracker of the votes. They have created a page specific to the marriage amendment that has not only resources about the GA action and that amendment, but a nifty map of the presbyteries that have reported their vote and which way it went. I have to admit that with only a few recorded so far it is a bit tough distinguishing between the shades of purple they use for yes and no, but once it begins to fill in the difference should be more obvious. And interesting to see that the Dakota nongeographic presbytery was geographically placed in southern Saskatchewan.

If you want the official tally of the voting on all amendments that is still there and shows that to date three presbyteries have officially recorded their votes ( 1 yes and 2 no on both 14-F and Blehar at this time ). Also interesting to note that the official page for the Belhar Confession does not have nifty map.

And for the polity wonks it is helpful to remember that the PC(USA) now has two less presbyteries for a total of 171 meaning that it takes 86 to approve a Book of Order Amendment and 114 to approve a change to the Book of Confessions.

For up-to-the-minute unofficial reporting I see that the Covenant Network is keeping an on-line tally with the presbytery voting results including the number of yes and no votes, something the OGA does not include. As of two weeks ago their tally was two presbyteries on each side.

While I will be doing a much more detailed analysis as more data are available, here is a quick comparison of the first four data point in comparison to 10-A. I will leave it for another time to discuss whether the comparison of two amendment that deal with significantly different equality questions is appropriate. Abstentions are included in the totals and the percentage after the total is the change in the number of total votes from 10-A.

Presbytery 14-F Yes 14-F No 14-F Total 10-A Yes 10-A No 10-A Total
New Castle 73 (74%) 24 (24%) 99 (-14%) 79 (69%) 34 (30%) 115
Palo Duro 25 (45%) 30 (55%) 55 (-35%) 35 (41%) 50 (59%) 85
San Diego 22 (22%) 76 (77%) 99 (+14%) 21 (24%) 66 (76%) 87
Yukon 27 (59%) 19 (41%) 46 (-22%) 21 (36%) 38 (64%) 59

So far we have two presbyteries with no on both, one yes on both and one switch from no to yes. In three out of four cases we see a significant decrease in the number of total votes cast. With 167 presbyteries left to go there is still a lot of data yet to be collected so I won’t go any further with this analysis now.


Church of Scotland

This past May the General Assembly 2014 of the Church of Scotland approved an act related to ministers in civil partnerships that affirms traditional language but includes proposed language (all found as an Appendix to the Legal Questions Committee report) for churches to request to depart from the traditional standards and it is now being voted on by the presbyteries as special legislation under the Barrier Act. There are 46 presbyteries and a majority of 24 are required for concurrence leading to the General Assembly giving it final considering in 2015.

The Principal Clerk’s office does not keep the official tally of the votes online but a group of evangelicals in the Kirk, Forward Together, has been monitoring voting. In a statement from last week (30 October) they indicate that they know of three presbyteries who have already voted no on the overture. That statement also contains a list of known dates of presbytery votes with the largest single day on the list this past Tuesday (4 November). The deadline to vote is in December.

In particular, the vote against by the Presbytery of Lewis received some publicity probably enhanced by the issuance of a statement following the vote. The story was picked up by the Stornoway Gazette and the KaleidoScot web site, among others.

Holding an alternate viewpoint on the question is Affirmation Scotland which says that they are disappointed the legislation does not go farther but supports it as an intermediate step. One of their affiliated churches, Greyfriers Church in Edinburgh, has recently made it clear that they are an inclusive congregation and that should the act be confirmed they will be an affirming congregation and request a departure from the act should the circumstances arise.


Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

In their General Assembly about a month ago they reaffirmed their support for marriage between one man and one woman and the Assembly sent to the presbyteries special legislation under the Barrier Act that would confirm that language in their Book of Order.

The act must be approved by a majority of the eleven presbyteries, two synods and two church councils.

It is relatively early in their process so we will see what announcements are made as it moves forward.



At this point the process is moving forward in each of the branches. While the Church of Scotland voting will be wrapping up in the next couple of months the other two branches will take a bit longer. As I indicated above, I will be taking the PC(USA) voting data and adding that to my database to see what observations we can make about that branch. For the other two there is a paucity of previous votes for statistical comparisons so we can only keep an eye on them as current snapshots of their denomination. We will see what happens.

The Diversity Of Dismissals From The PC(USA)

As regular readers know I have not just been following the many twists and turns of the dismissals of churches from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as an outside observer but at the level of my own presbytery I have found myself deeply involved in the process. And so it is with a great deal of interest that I have been following the recent news about dismissals of churches elsewhere. And while I have been seeing the mainstream media focusing on the “stay or go” side of the story, because of my level of involvement locally I have a great deal of interest in the fine details of the terms under which the churches are considering dismissal. My intent today is to drill down a bit into that aspect of the story with regards to two recent cases.

First, I did want to reflect for a moment on how dismissals have changed over the last two or three years. I have always been intrigued that before about three years ago the largest churches in the PC(USA) seemed to be staying with the denomination even if they were expressing concern about the direction that the church was headed. From my discussions with others the reasons seem to be two-fold. The first is that they did not see a good place to go. The only destination similar enough to the PC(USA) for most to even consider was the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and over the years there were a good number of churches that headed in that direction to the extent that now the EPC has more than doubled in size based on the number of congregations. But as the EPC was working through these growing pains it was generally not seen as a good destination for what passes as a mega-church in the PC(USA). With the founding of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in 2012 a more suitable destination was available.

To be completely accurate, one of the churches on the list, First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, did transfer to the EPC. But while it was the first on the list of largest churches to depart it was at about the same time that ECO was founded and another church, First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, began their dismissal process soon after.

The second reason is that the PC(USA) was trying to work out what was meant by Gracious Dismissal. As I will talk about in a minute, it looks like we still are. So while the motion was passed by the 218th General Assembly in 2008 it appears we have reached a point where a number of the kinks have been worked out and there is some greater understanding of what might be involved. This was aided by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision in Tom, et al. v. Presbytery of San Francisco (Tom decision) that somewhat clarified the application of the Trust Clause in these matters.

So, we have transitioned from a point where none of the 15 largest churches in the denomination were actively moving towards departure just a few years ago to the point today where several have or are considering it. If we consider the 2011 list of the 15 largest churches in the PC(USA) there are two churches that have now been formally dismissed ( including FPC Orlando to the EPC ) and three more that are in the dismissal process, at least at the beginning of this month…

Which brings us to one of those churches that voted this past Sunday and in doing so decided to stay with the  PC(USA) – First Presbyterian Church of Houston.

As I mentioned above, the media story here has been “stay or go” and while there was a strong majority of the membership that voted to transfer to ECO they fell 36 votes short of the 2/3 supermajority required in the dismissal agreement with Presbytery of New Covenant. This was out of a total of 1,681 members who voted.

One article from the Houston Chronicle gave these thoughts from pastor and head of staff, Teaching Elder Jim Birchfield:

“This is the toughest possible outcome in many people’s minds,” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield
said. “To fall a few votes short will be very tough for them. I’m a
little bit disappointed. I came out very strongly and passionately in
favor of (the move).”

Birchfield said it was too early to assess the long-term
repercussions of the attempt to switch denominations, and he declined to
predict whether some members will leave the church as a result. He said
his immediate task is to begin smoothing over the differences for the
sake of keeping the 3,100 member church intact.
“We have to begin reconciling the two sides, and that will begin
immediately,” he said. “We’ll also begin reconciling among the
leadership. For the most part, we have had a very gracious debate.”

I would note that there is a longer article from the Chronicle available to digital subscribers.

Other news sources covered similar aspects of the meeting with the Texas Tribune providing this description of the debate:

For more than an hour on Sunday, church members provided testimony for and against leaving PCUSA, some of it tearful.

Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s
“theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.”


Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does
not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to.
They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision,
and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further
isolate young members from the church.

In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared
the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes
itself by its homophobia.”

For a more nuanced look at the meeting I would refer you to the article from the Presbyterian Outlook which has a bit more on the process and procedure.

But returning to the Texas Tribune article, one paragraph caught my attention and I want to use it as the starting point to drill down a bit. They describe the property of the church like this:

First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling
denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns
property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million
endowment. The church is 175 years old.

Now consider the material that was provided by the church from a link that was on it’s Season of Decision web page. The link has now been removed but as of this writing the document with the details of the terms for possible departure is still available. (But could disappear soon.) Besides the rationale for the departure the document has some legal notes, the report of the presbytery team and the details of payments the church would have had to make to the presbytery. I have not figured out which of the two listed options would be used but the larger of the two would have been payments to the presbytery on a five year declining scale totaling $343,236. The rationale for the amount is not given and based upon negotiations in my own presbytery I would not expect it to be so. But for a $100 million property and $18 million endowment it seems like a pretty good deal. This will become more apparent in a minute.

One other item on that page caught my attention, particularly in light of the actual vote tallies, and this could have changed this picture dramatically. While no specifics or formulas are given there is this paragraph about additional payments:

There are two additional payments that might be made to Presbytery. The amounts are not known at this time. If the required majority votes to be dismissed and more than 10% of our congregation vote to remain in PCUSA, and a petition to start a new church is signed by more than 25 members, and Presbytery approves the new church start, we will owe a payment to start a new church. In addition we will likely be required to make a voluntary gift to the Presbytery’s New Church Development Fund.

It is interesting to wonder about the what-ifs had those extra 36 members been there and the vote had gone the other way, but just barely, what the magnitude of these payments would have been. (And I had to smile at the language about being “required to make a voluntary gift…” Probably a required gift of a voluntary amount.)

Let us now turn our attention to another vote, this time at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in San Francisco Presbytery scheduled for this coming weekend. When I started hearing details of this church dismissal I had to think that the presbytery was taking the instructions in the Tom decision very seriously:

When a congregation seeks dismissal under G-11.0103i (now G-3.0301a), it is the responsibility of the presbytery to fulfill its fiduciary duty under the Trust Clause. This fiduciary duty requires that the presbytery exercise due diligence regarding the value of the property of the congregation seeking dismissal. Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake. Payments for per capita or mission obligations are not satisfactory substitutes for the separate evaluation of the value of the property held in trust.

According to the information on the church web site the payment to the presbytery will be $8.89 million if the congregation votes to accept the terms and request dismissal. Yes, it is 1.5 orders of magnitude larger than the terms that FPC Houston got. In addition, for FPC Houston the quorum requirement was 30% of the membership, it is 50% for Menlo Park. And the required supermajority is 3/4 for Menlo Park while it was the 2/3 for FPC Houston. The differences due to presbytery policy are striking for two churches of very similar size (3,567 members for FPC Houston and 3,382 members for Menlo Park according to the 2012 list). As my title says – The Diversity of Dismissals.

The PC(USA)’s polity places dismissals firmly in the authority of the presbytery and each church was obliged to deal with their presbytery in coming to an agreement about the terms of dismissal. One of the places that Menlo Park discusses the terms of the agreement is in Pastor John Ortberg’s February 2nd sermon. In there he talks about the process of arriving at these numbers saying:

Where did this figure come from, and why is it so high? Sorry for the complexity around this, but we want to be as transparent as we can. From the perspective of our church, part of what is suboptimal in our current denominational system is that there are no clear objective guidelines to arrive at a financial figure in a process like this one.

But regarding this financial number, in looking at a lot of the material on their web site I have not seen a breakdown of where this number actually comes from, if there is per capita, mission, property and new church development built into it.

For more details about the voting process there is a short video clip online from February 16th where Ruling Elder Ken Perez discusses what is coming up. In that discussion he also announces that a 5 year reversionary clause on the main property has been added by the presbytery to the terms of the agreement. The church’s main web page about the dismissal has a lot of information and there is another page devoted to this weekend’s vote.

Let me return to TE Ortberg’s February 2nd sermon for a moment and highlight a couple of the comments he made. In his discussion he talks about the various options the congregation has relative to the large cost of departure. Besides paying the millions of dollars, one option is that they could turn down the offer and stay. Another is that they could walk away from their property. He discusses how neither of these fits the missional vision of the church. The fourth option is litigation and he responds to that option this way:

We could say, “We’ll go to court.” However, we think public litigation would be a bad witness for the church. It’s not good for the bride of Jesus. It’s not what God is calling us to do, and nobody wanted to do that.

While not doubting that this is their rationale in avoiding this path, and respecting them greatly for it, it is also worth noting that based on case law in the State of California, specifically the Episcopal Church Cases decided by the State Supreme Court, they would have an uphill battle in retaining control of the property through civil court.

I want to make two final comments about Menlo Park PC’s missional vision as expressed in a couple of different places. In the church’s online material the argument that is regularly presented for transferring is that the necessity of working with the presbytery is burdensome and getting in the way of their missional vision. As TE Ortberg says in that February 2nd sermon:

As you all know, we have a vision. We believe we have a mission. We want to reach thousands of people for Jesus Christ around this Bay Area that needs him so much. We want to launch new sites to help us do that.

We believe we simply cannot do that effectively if we remain in the denomination.

And this is a sentiment that is echoed in the comments by RE Perez where he talks about the issues they have had with the presbytery. Instead of emphasizing what may be a mismatch in the visions of the two governing bodies it sounds to my listening that he is leaning to a more congregational form of government and he wants to get the presbytery out of the way so the church can have more autonomy and flexibility.

Taking this one step further, as I look at all this material throughout it there is a tendency to speak of problems with the denomination when some of the issues are specifically with the presbytery. Picky polity point I know, but we do work on hierarchical structure where presbyteries do have identities and some autonomy from the synods and the General Assembly. It strikes me that the PC(USA) is getting painted with too broad a brush.

The second item I wanted to mention is a good article from The Almanac titled Changes Ahead for Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. In some ways I think the article does a better job of in explaining the church’s vision than the church’s own online material does. For example, it does discuss the issue of the church wanting to expand as a multi-site church while running up against the limitations of geographic presbyteries. It says:

MPPC Communications Director Nicole Laubscher
said ECO’s 110 churches are organized into nine presbyteries by both
geography and similarity, such as size, as opposed to geography alone as
done by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“For us it’s about the pace of change,” she
said. ECO offers more flexibility, whereas PCUSA is designed for small
churches in a single location. “It creates tremendous barriers.”

When MPPC first sought to expand outside Menlo
Park, she said, “It was really hard. At the time, we didn’t know if we
would just get a no. Instead of being supported, encouraged and helped,
it was another barrier to hurdle. … it’s just not the right framework
to support a larger, multi-site church.”

In PCUSA, the presbytery, or regional
governing body, is responsible for planning and placing new churches.
Tom Conrad, chair of the PCUSA team selected to deal with the proposed
departure of the Menlo Park church, agreed the concept of opening
multiple sites doesn’t fit well with that organization’s system; as a
result, there are “precious few” multi-site churches.

The article also does a good job of exploring the downside to the dismissal agreement.

Some former and current members of MPPC said
they think the theological differences are influencing the church’s
desire to change organizations.

Debra Holvick, who stopped attending several years ago, got re-involved to be able to participate in the upcoming vote.

“This was the church I was baptized in, I went
to Sunday school there, I was married there, my father’s memorial was
held there, my mother remarried there and my children were raised
there,” she told the Almanac. “That church has been a huge part of my
life, so I felt responsible for it and I don’t want them to take it in
an unchristian-like direction and say this is part of who I am.”

Ms. Holvick said taking a stance against gay
clergy and same-sex marriage may not be a major motivation for changing
denominations, but it does come with the package.

Later on there are comments about whether the almost $9 million buy-out price could be “better spent funding scholarships and buying food for those in need in the local community…”

So we wait for the meeting this Sunday to see how the congregation as a whole discerns the will of God regarding its future affiliations. Stay tuned…

[Ed. note: For the record, I did resist using the cliché “Houston we have a problem” as a subtitle to this post. But yes, another post and its correction did use a variation on it.]

Church Dismissals In The Synod Of Southern California And Hawai’i — Part 2: Some Numbers

In the first part of this discussion I gave a bit of my experience with responding to a remedial complaint that was filed after the Presbytery of San Gabriel dismissed two churches to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

With the mediated settlement of that complaint and dismissal of the case by the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission it opened the door for San Gabriel and other presbyteries in the synod to resume the process of working with churches that had requested dismissal. So what does the landscape look like now?

A Quantitative Analysis of Churches in the Dismissal Process
I scanned the web sites of all eight presbyteries in the synod and found three presbyteries that make their meeting minutes available on their website and in the minutes they listed churches that have requested beginning the dismissal process. Each presbytery has their own process so the lists are slightly different based upon the process. I may add to this analysis as I am able to get further information for other presbyteries. I do know that I am not missing much from past years because based on the Presbytery Summary Statistics reports through 2012 most presbyteries in the synod have not dismissed any churches and only a couple have dismissed at most one church.

Listed below are the churches that I found from the presbytery records and after them their status and reported membership for 2012 from the PC(USA) statistics.

For the Presbytery of San Gabriel there are two churches now dismissed and the presbytery has formed Pastoral Engagement Teams for three additional churches that have requested dismissal:

Glenkirk Presbyterian Church, Glendora – dismissed (1127 members)
First Presbyterian Church of Covina – dismissed (344 members)
First Presbyterian Church of Monrovia – engagement team (222 members)
San Gabriel Presbyterian Church of San Gabriel – engagement team (165 members)
Korean Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church of Rowland Heights (865 members)

For the Presbytery of Santa Barbara in reading Stated Clerk’s reports I found the following churches that have written to request dismissal. There is one more church, Emmanuel Presbyterian of Thousand Oaks, that first requested dismissal and then asked to have the request removed temporarily. These churches are listed as reported in the document and while the PC(USA) database name may be slightly different in general matching the church and the statistical report is not a problem. Here are the listed churches and sizes:

Malibu Presbyterian Church (303 members)
Orcutt Presbyterian Church (286 members)
Solvang (314 members)
Port Hueneme (192 members)
Templeton (178 members)
Morro Bay Presbyterian Church (159 members)
Community Presbyterian Church of Cambria (192 members)
Community Presbyterian Church, Ventura (387 members)
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Camarillo (269 members)
Cottonwood Community Fellowship, Los Alamos (20 members)
Orchard Community Church, Ventura (264 members)

Finally, the most recent Presbytery Council report from the Presbytery Los Ranchos has a complete list as of that date of the churches that have notified the presbytery that they have either entered discernment or are requesting dismissal:

Christ, Huntington Beach (enter discernment) (505 members)
First, Westminster (requests dismissal) (250 members)
St Paul’s, Anaheim (seek dismissal) (52 members)
Christ, Lakewood (seek dismissal) (152 members)
Community, Long Beach (included with Lakewood) (84 members)
Los Alamitos, Good Shepherd (seek dismissal) (617 members)
St. Andrew’s, Newport Beach (enter discernment) (3064 members)
Journey Evangelical, Westminster (seek dismissal) (243 members)
Trinity United, Santa Ana (enter discernment) (1556 members)
Wintersburg, Santa Ana (seek dismissal) (467 members)
Cornerstone (worshiping fellowship) (seek dismissal) (fellowship – not included)

So there is the data set. Let me add at this point that for both the churches requesting dismissal as well as the statistics for the presbyteries as a whole New Church Developments (NCD) and Fellowships have been excluded because statistics are not reported in the same way as chartered churches. It should also be remembered that this is a forward looking analysis as only two of the churches in the lists have actually been dismissed and three in Los Ranchos have only entered discernment. It also presumes that all of the members of a church are transferred with the dismissed congregation, a situation which is common but on occasion a continuing or remnant group may be identified.

For the analysis that follows you can see my spreadsheet showing all the churches in each of these presbyteries and the statistics I discuss.

For the Presbytery of San Gabriel if all five churches are ultimately dismissed the presbytery could lose 2710 of its 9429 members or 28.7% of its membership. These five churches have an average membership of 542.0 compared to the presbytery average of 214.9. Their median size is 344 while it is 89.5 for the whole presbytery.

For the Presbytery of Santa Barbara the departure of these eleven churches would reduce the presbytery size by 2564 or just a bit more than one-third (34.1%) from the current total membership of 7510. The mean size of the churches requesting dismissal is actually a bit less than for the presbytery now, 233.1 versus 242.2, and the median is slightly higher, 264 versus 220.

For the Presbytery of Los Ranchos the potential membership shifts are significantly larger. Membership could drop by 37.4% with a loss of 6990 members from the current total of 18,699. The churches that may depart have an average size of 699 members which is almost twice the average size of churches currently, 381.6. Similarly, the median would be 358.5 versus the current median of 216.

Looking at the largest churches, in San Gabriel the Glenkirk church is one of three similar sized large churches in the presbytery. In Santa Barbara the largest church on the dismissal list is only the fifth-largest in the presbytery. However, those familiar with PC(USA) churches will quickly recognize the presence of St. Andrew’s of Newport Beach on the Los Ranchos list. At 3064 members it is one of the largest churches in the PC(USA) missing the 15th place on the 2012 annual list of large churches by 20 members. It is almost twice as large the second largest church on the possible dismissal list and a bit more than twice the size of the largest church on the remaining list. It accounts for 16.6% of the possible membership loss and without it in the list the average size of possible departing churches drops to 436.2 and the median to 250. Each of these is now much closer to the current average (381.6) and median (216) of the presbytery.

For all these statistics I have been comparing the descriptive statistics with the set of churches currently in each presbytery. For comparison purposes the denomination wide numbers have a mean church size of 180 and a median size of 89. Los Ranchos and Santa Barbara are both above those sizes for the current presbytery, the group of possible departing churches and the remaining presbytery after departures.  San Gabriel before dismissals has a slightly larger mean and is right even with the median. After these possible departures the first two would remain above but San Gabriel’s mean and median would drop below the national numbers for 2012. However, with both the departures from the PC(USA) and the ongoing general declining trend it would seem likely that San Gabriel’s future size would still mirror the denomination as a whole.

So what does all this mean and should we care?

To begin with, the pattern seen in these three presbyteries is similar in magnitude and statistics to that seen previously in the presbyteries of Mississippi, Tropical Florida and Central Florida, but not in the Presbytery of Alaska. It looks like we can statistically verify the conventional wisdom that in the great majority of cases the PC(USA) is preferentially losing larger churches to dismissals to more conservative or evangelical reformed bodies.

The clearest implication, at least in my mind, is that the preferential departure of larger churches will have a non-proportional impact on governing body finances. Governing body financial needs don’t scale linearly with membership or number of churches but their income generally does. (And yes, for the moment let us presume that these congregations were at least paying something in per capita and mission giving although I am aware that there was a trend among some of these churches not to.) There are a lot of fixed costs in staff and administration that will be there whether there are 50 churches or 75 churches. To lose generally about one-third of revenue, particularly from the larger sources, will have a major impact on budgets because there will not be proportionally lower expenses to the governing body.

From a polity and theological point of view, the implication is that initiatives by those with a progressive viewpoint in the PC(USA) to change the Book of Order will have a greater chance of passing GA and the presbyteries. Changes in voting patterns can be attributed to a number of factors including individuals having a new perspective, the replacement of older elders, teaching and ruling, with younger ones, the attrition due to members leaving individually as well as departures of churches as a unit. At some point an analysis of all this would be worthwhile.

It is tempting to conclude from this analysis that conservative churches in the PC(USA), as represented by those seeking departure, are in general larger than moderate or progressive churches. This does not immediately follow since it can be argued that larger churches would leave preferentially because they are in a position to better support themselves in a fledgling body like ECO while smaller churches are more dependent on financial, administrative and spiritual support that governing bodies of an established church, like the PC(USA) are able to offer.

Returning to the 2012 list of the 15 largest churches in the PC(USA) there is a strong suggestion that larger churches are more likely to be conservative. Of the 15 churches on the list six of them (Peachtree, Christ, Highland Park, Memorial Drive, Bel Air and First Bellevue) also appear on the membership list of the Fellowship of Presbyterians. While not half, the question is raised whether that is proportionally more than moderate and progressive churches that make up the remaining nine spots. This is reinforced by checking the list of member churches of the Covenant Network and there are only two (Fourth, Village) that appear on the list. I have another analysis in progress where preliminary results show that conservative churches, departing or staying, are more likely to be larger than their progressive counterparts. Hope to get that finished and posted later this week.

So the data on dismissals in the PC(USA) gro
ws. It will be interesting to see how each of these requested dismissals progresses and I have other information that there could be some interesting developments in a couple of cases. We will see what happens.

Church Dismissals In The Synod Of Southern California And Hawai’i — Part 1

It was just about one year ago now that at a special called meeting of the Presbytery of San Gabriel two churches were dismissed to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). In this two part piece I want to discuss the journey that this started as well as take an analytical look at where a couple of presbyteries in the synod are headed at this point. I don’t know if this first part is of any interest to others but what I first envisioned as a brief intro to where the synod is has now turned into its own moderately detailed discussion of my experience with this case. If you just want to see the quantitative analysis feel free to just jump to Part 2.

Part 1: Judicial Case Against The Presbytery of San Gabriel
On 20 October 2012 at a special meeting of the Presbytery of San Gabriel the dismissals of Glenkirk Presbyterian Church of Glendora, CA, and the First Presbyterian Church of Covina, CA, were approved. Polity wonks may recognize the timing of this action was just before the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC) rendered its decision in the case of St. Andrews Session v. Presbytery of Santa Barbara (St. Andrews decision) and the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) decided the case of Tom and others v. Presbytery of San Francisco (Tom decision).

Relevant to the San Gabriel action the St. Andrews decision called into question the validity of ECO as a reformed body and the Tom decision raised some issues with the details of the process and the terms of dismissal. The leadership of San Gabriel recognized the implications of both of these cases and began a process to take actions to bring future dismissals into compliance and to try to remedy deficiencies in the two dismissals already approved. In addition, a revision of the Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP) included not just the specific requirements of the Tom decision but also the numerous lessons learned from the first application of the policy.

However, a remedial case was filed by 12 members of the presbytery specifying nine defects in the presbytery action based on the St. Andrews and Tom decisions. The SPJC accepted the complaint and issued a stay of action putting the dismissal of the churches on the agreement date of 31 December on hold. San Gabriel Presbytery itself put on hold all additional requests for dismissal and other presbyteries in the synod also stopped or slowed down their dismissal processes waiting for the outcome of this case since it might clarify the earlier SPJC decision about the status of ECO as a reformed body.

Before I go any further I need to do the full disclosure thing: I was asked and agreed to serve on the Committee of Counsel that responded to the complaint. Therefore, while I had a front row seat for this judicial process that seat was from the defense table so I have a particular perspective on all these proceedings. In addition, the comments, views and perspective that I will be sharing here are mine alone and, expect in the rare instance I state otherwise, do not necessarily reflect the perspectives and opinions of the other two members of the Committee of Counsel, our legal help, or the leadership of the presbytery.

Following the decisions the presbytery set about to try to retroactively fulfill the spirit of the St. Andrews and Tom decisions by doing three things. The first was to begin the previously mentioned revision of the Gracious Dismissal Policy. The policy was extensively rewritten, incorporating both the lessons learned as well as a great deal of language taken directly from the Tom decision, and this new draft policy was distributed early in 2013. Three opportunities were provided at open sessions outside of regular presbytery meetings for members of presbytery to ask questions and provide feedback. A first reading was done at the March presbytery meeting and the revised GDP was approved by the presbytery at the May meeting with a couple of amendments from the floor to the gracious dismissal process.

While the new GDP is loaded with procedural adjustments based on lessons learned, there are to my mind two significant changes based upon the Tom decision. One is the now explicit requirement for the consideration of the value of the property and the implications of the trust clause in the negotiated agreement with churches and the presentation to the presbytery. The second is the explicit inclusion of the requirement that a 10 year reversionary clause be included in any agreement so that if within the first 10 years after dismissal the church would leave a reformed body the property would revert to the presbytery or the church would have to make payment for the property. This was a point of a lot of discussion — not whether or not to have the reversionary clause but what to actually put in the GDP. In the modern world of the PC(USA) there is a line of thought that you don’t specify numbers in policy documents but take everything on a case-by-case basis. So there was discussion about whether to specify a number and if a number was specified whether to make it binding or advisory and how large a number to put there. It is worth noting that in the debate around these matters the two dismissed churches made it clear that they intended the switch to ECO as a permanent move and not a quick route to independence. I sensed that a few in the presbytery were skeptical of this claim but time will tell.

The second action the presbytery took was to hold a stand-alone debate and vote to approve ECO as a reformed body that a church can be dismissed to. In the original action this was bundled into the dismissal vote itself. This passed the presbytery with a roughly 2/3 approval. Following the vote Dr. Jack Rogers was given the opportunity to speak about, among other things, why his expert testimony against ECO in the St. Andrews case applied only to the union presbytery issue and not dismissals of congregations.

Finally, at another presbytery meeting a member of the pastoral engagement team for the presbytery presented all the financial information that the Tom decision now calls for as well as the ministry rational for the agreements negotiated with each of the two churches that asked to be dismissed.

At the same time that this was going on members of the presbytery leadership were meeting with groups of the twelve individuals who had signed the complaint. The objective was to share the steps the presbytery would be taking as well as discuss possible remedies they might be interested in. I was not part of these discussions and so can not speak specifically to them. Furthermore, I can not speak to anyone’s particular motivations, but over the next few months ten of the twelve individuals contacted the SPJC and asked that their names be removed from the complaint.

The two remaining complainants and the Committee of Counsel continued with the judicial process including entering into mediated negotiations and with those negotiations in progress asking for a postponement of a pretrial conference in March. By the time we reached the rescheduled confer
ence in May the complainants had agreed to drop all but the two charges that dealt sepcifically with the trust clause.

It was actually at the May pretrial conference, during an adjournment of the SPJC, that we finally all agreed in principle to a specific framework for a settlement. The SPJC set a trial date and we told them we hoped we would not need it.

Over the next few days the framework was filled in and a final settlement was worked out. This settlement included a statement acknowledging that while the presbytery acted in good faith in the decision of 20 October, in hind sight and with the new guidance of the Tom decision there were details of the process that did not meet that guidance on the implementation of the trust clause. In acknowledgement of the trust clause and the presbytery’s new GDP each church extended the reversionary clause to 10 years. In addition, they each made an additional payment as a symbolic gesture of a payment for the property and in recognition of the legal expenses the presbytery had incurred on their behalf.

Beyond that there was recognition of the revisions to the GDP, of which the complainants had their input, and the presbytery will be asked to send an overture to the 221st General Assembly asking the Office of the General Assembly to provide more guidance for presbyteries seeking to discern which reformed bodies churches may be dismissed to. The settlement does not however require the presbytery to approve such an overture.

The churches fairly quickly made the necessary changes and payments on their side and in late June they, and their clergy, were transferred to ECO. The new GDP was approved in May and the pending overture is the last piece that needs to be presented to presbytery. Once that happens I am looking forward to having the Committee of Counsel being dissolved, hopefully with thanks.

Some reflection on the experience
First, it is impossible to ignore the emotional toll all this took on me at all points in the journey. I have many friends and colleagues in the two churches that requested and were granted dismissal. I fully understand that they did what they felt they had to do. It did take some doing to say goodbye and then help them on their way as I helped to defend the presbytery’s actions. Similarly, almost all of the original 12 complainants are friends that I have worked with over many years in this presbytery and synod. This was for me very much a family struggle and while I am glad that I could be part of the resolution, I am saddened by how this originally developed and the tensions and, yes, hurt feelings it caused.

Second, I believe that the eight months in which we settled this was
about as quickly as the judicial process would allow. It was done using
the alternative dispute resolution and did not go to trial. There was a
lot of work involved but we could set the pace of the mediation sessions
and make it happen without having to set those dates with the SPJC.

said that, the logical extension is to ask whether this had to go to
the judicial process at all. The two remaining complainants did indicate
their view that the judicial process is an important part of our polity
and they felt it offered them the protection and supervision they sought
in resolving the complaint. From my perspective I would have rather tried to work it out earlier and gone to the judicial process if that failed. However, because of both the timing of the dismissals and the window to file a complaint – remembering that the charges were based upon cases that were decided in the weeks following the original action – the complainants felt time was short and if they were to keep the judicial option open they needed to file the complaint.

Finally, and this is one point where I think I can say my sentiments are shared by the rest of the Committee of Counsel as well as some of the presbytery leadership, I am very grateful for the patient way that the two dismissed churches stuck with us in the judicial process. They were as gracious about the delay as the presbytery was in dismissing them in the first place. We kept their leadership updated concerning what progress was, or was not, being made and when the additional terms were being discussed they might not have been eager to have modifications but they were extremely helpful in making it happen.

So that is a moderate-length version of where the Synod of SoCal and Hawai’i finds itself at the moment. While this case did not go to trial and so did not definitively settle the question of the eligibility of ECO as a reformed body that churches can be dismissed to, the fact that this case is no longer raising that and other questions within the synod means that presbyteries can once again feel comfortable with having their dismissal processes proceed.  In Part 2 I take a closer look at the dismissals in three of the synod’s presbyteries.

2013 General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Ireland

Beginning in a few hours we turn our attention to the western side of the North Channel for the penultimate General Assembly in the British Isles. At 7:00 PM this evening, Monday 3 May, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will convene. This year will be a bit different as the Assembly takes one of their very occasional trips away from the Assembly Hall in Belfast (the last time was 22 years ago), this year to meet at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry.

If you are interested, here is some helpful information:

  • The Church has produced an excellent outline of their meeting on the Assembly page. There is also a news item with a narrative of the meeting and highlights for each day
  • The reports that were published in advance are available on the Reports Page
  • There are usually news reports from The Press Office. There is the news page or I will update if a separate page is used.
  • If you need a polity refresher you should check out their unified document, The Code as well as their Guide to Assembly Procedure
  • In the past the PCI has done a wonderful and prolific job of tweeting the Assembly at @pciassembly. For the meeting the hashtag is #pciga13
  • Other Twitter accounts related to the church that could be interesting are @PCIYAC from the Youth and Children department and @pciSPUD from the Youth Assembly
  • The best observer of the GA to keep an eye on is Alan in Belfast on both Twitter @AlanInBelfast,  and his blog Alan in Belfast
  • The local news site Slugger O’Toole with their Twitter @sluggerotoole is also a good source that might have some coverage
  • Finally, there will probably be PCI commissioners tweeting. Let me start with the moderator of a past General Assembly @staffordcarson. (And on a side note, Dr. Carson is up for approval by the Assembly to a new position. UPDATE: He was approved as the new Principal of Union College. ) Update: I would add to the list James Currie (@jcbelfast) who is active with PCIYAC and pciSPUD.

Regarding live streaming we have this unfortunate statement from the Arrangements Committee (pg. 7):

Web Streaming and ‘Twitter’
9. The Arrangements Committee regrets that due to technical restrictions, the General Assembly will not be streamed this year.  However, proceedings may be followed on ‘Twitter’

The raises a couple of questions in my mind, one being the quotes around Twitter. (Are those scare quotes?)
But further, in an advanced facility such as the Millennium Forum why are there technical issues with streaming? It seems the key word is… restrictions. It leads me to conclude that the requirements of the venue are that they handle the streaming at a cost which is prohibitive to the church. Another thing I see is that portions will be broadcast by the BBC so there may be restrictions to competition there. It may be something else but those are my guesses at the moment. For those of us who enjoy the stream and are interested in the business and decisions reached we still have Twitter but the lack of streaming is a disappointment when it seems easy enough to do.

There are two evening events of some interest. The first is a series of seminars on Tuesday evening at Magee College. It was founded by Presbyterians but is now a branch of the University of Ulster. The series of presentations will reflect on Presbyterian history and tradition. The second is “Christ Transforming Culture” on Wednesday night in the meeting space. As the description says of the event “Through drama and music the Moderator and others will lead an
exploration of how the Assembly theme, ‘A Place of Transformation’
impacts on the Church and individual Christians and on the culture of
where they work and witness.”

A number of interesting items of business on the docket. There is a report on Baptism from the Doctrine Committee (pg. 13 of the report) The report concludes that baptism by immersion is not necessary and is not the most appropriate method but does not recommend forbidding it.

There is an interesting report from an Advisory Committee to the General Board that includes a section (beginning on page 32) about helping resolve conflict in congregations. The many recommendations include better training of Elders and this:

(iii) The Church should seriously consider the Church of Scotland and PC USA [sic] model of having an interim Minister for up to a year, where there has been a long ministry of say 15 years or more. This would allow a Congregation to adjust, grieve if necessary, think of themselves without the previous Minister, deal with any outstanding issues and prepare themselves for a call.

In my experience, both are good moves and I might suggest shortening that 15 years down a bit to ten or even seven.

There is also some tension related to the trajectory the Church of Scotland is following on same-sex partnerships and the ministry. There are a few points that this may present itself during the Assembly including the Church and Society report as well as Ecumenical Relations. In particular, the Moderator’s Advisory Committee of the General Board is looking to open conversations about human sexuality within the church.

Finally, the Priorities Committee of the General Board (report beginning on page 39) is conducting a Structures Review that is looking at the form and function of the church. Among the issues it sees that resonate with the findings of a similar panel I have been on is about communication between bodies within the church with the report saying ” The current engagement that takes place between Presbyteries and Boards is at times very sparse.” Like that understated wording.

Almost all of there are General Board committees and will be part of the General Board report on Tuesday.

So there is lots going on this week and we look to the social media outlets for updates. Our prayers are with the Assembly and the incoming Moderator, the Rev Rob Craig. May the Holy Spirit indeed be moving among you in your discussions and discernment.

General Assembly Season 2013

Ah, the First of May — the start of General Assembly Season 2013! 

Coffee? Check.
Alarm clocks set? Check.
Internet streaming? Check.

It looks like we are all ready to go so here is this year’s line-up:

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Tasmania
  14 May 2013 (begins)

  General Assembly
Church of Scotland

18-24 May 2013

  General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland Continuing
20-24 May, 2013

  General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland
20-24 May 2013

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of South Australia
  27 May 2013 (begins)
North Adelaide, S.A.

General Assembly
United Free Church of Scotland
29-31 May 2013

  139th General Assembly

Presbyterian Church in Canada
31 May – 3 June 2013
Toronto, Ontario

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Ireland
3-7 June 2013

80th General Assembly

Orthodox Presbyterian Church
5-11 June 2013
St. Mary’s College
Moraga, California

Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland
10-12 June 2013

209th Stated Meeting of the General Synod

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

11-13 June 2013
Flat Rock, North Carolina

183rd General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
17-21 June 2013
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

41st General Assembly

Presbyterian Church in America
17-21 June 2013
Greenville, South Carolina

33rd General Assembly

Evangelical Presbyterian Church
18-22 June 2013
Highlands Ranch, Colorado

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Queensland

  24 June 2013 (begins)
Clayfield (Brisbane), QLD

  N.S.W. State Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia
in the State of New South Wales

1 July 2013 (begins)
Croydon, N.S.W.

  77th General Synod
Bible Presbyterian Church
1-6 August 2013
Grand Island, NY

  National Youth Assembly
Church of Scotland

16-19 August 2013
(Technically not a governing
body, but still an Assembly I track)

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia

9 September 2013 (begins)
Surry Hills (Sydney)
(note: this is a triennial Assembly)

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Victoria
  October 2013

  General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Western Australia
  25 October 2013
Bassendean, W.A.

A few branches have biennial assemblies so those with their next assembly in 2014 include the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

These are the ones that I am tracking at the moment.  I will update as
appropriate.  If I have missed one, or have information wrong or incomplete, please provide the appropriate information and I will update the list.

And, to make the GA season complete here are two more items…

The first is the series of articles I wrote as an introduction to Presbyterian General Assemblies five years ago.  My GA 101 series consists of the following

GA101: Preface
GA101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?
GA101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture
GA101: The Cast of Characters – A score card to identify the players
GA101: The Moderator – All Things In Moderation
GA101: Where does the GA business come from? – Incoming!
GA101: Doing the business of GA — Decently and in Order

Yes, what started as a six part series expanded into seven
completed articles with two more unfinished ones in the queue.  (Maybe
this will give me some motivation to finish those up.)

And finally, on to the ridiculous.  Lest we take ourselves too seriously, a couple years ago I had a little fun with the General Assembly and in the post passed along the GA drinking game and GA Bingo. Please play both responsibly.

So, for all the GA Junkies out there I wish you the best of GA
seasons.  May you enjoy the next few months of watching us do things
decently and in order!