How to Preserve an Institution

January 3, 2012

As anticipation mounts for the “Orlando Meeting” of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, some interesting pressure points are turning up. A remark made by a ministry colleague got me thinking about how “institutionalist” Presbyterians may try to undermine Orlando’s agenda. What sort of strategy might be employed to derail the efforts to establish either a New Reformed Body or some back-porch waiting room for those who need to differentiate from their presbyteries? Here are some scenarios, some based on “deep background” information, others purely speculative. If I were a person committed to preserving the structure and institution of the PCUSA:

1. I would look around and identify the organizations that make the denomination look good to the world and with our global partners and pressure them to stay in the fold. These organizations might be global-mission-oriented or perhaps providers of education and/or medical care to underserved populations. The idea is to find the appealing poster-child that will influence the uninitiated that the PCUSA hasn’t changed its message or its mission.

2. Despite the fact that our so-called Presbyterian seminaries have a very thin attachment to the denomination (no doctrinal accountability and little, if any, direct financial support), now would be a good time to strengthen any ties that do exist, and get those professors and academics on board with the “let us enjoy our diversity” message. One way to do this would be to enlist as many seminarians as possible for committee vacancies at all levels of the church. Opening PCUSA pockets for increased support would work, too. The PCUSA will need these future scholars later, when what passes for Christian doctrine under the guise of “always Reforming” needs fresh faces and young voices to argue its relevance.

3. I would make promises about parity and a level playing field, enticing evangelicals to try one more time to dialogue for the purpose of demonstrating unity in Christ.

4. I would identify the PCUSA very closely with “the true Church,” from which any movement to separate would be considered schism and therefore reprehensible.

5. I would continue to picture in PCUSA brochures the diversity of race and ethnicity that does not truly exist within our denomination as a way of keeping racial, ethnic, and language specific congregations from leaving. [The percentage of non-White, non-Hispanic Presbyterians in the U.S. is 9%, compared to 34% in the overall U.S. population.] In my neck of the woods, many, if not most, of our racial/ethnic congregations fall more to the conservative side of the theological spectrum and are more likely to seek refuge in a language-specific non-geographic presbytery or leave altogether. Their departure would be a particular tragedy for a denomination that has tried patiently for decades to attract racial diversity to church membership.

6. I would promote the agenda at every level of church governance to acquire church property from departing congregations, no matter the cost in souls, in order to assure (through sale of said properties) the financial viability of an otherwise shrinking denomination. Evangelicals do not really need church buildings anyway, do they? Let them meet in tents.

Beloved church, please take heed to the prophetic word through Jeremiah (chapter 7):

        1The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:  2 Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD.  3 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.  4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”
        5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, . . . 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  9Will you [break the Ten Commandments] 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations?  11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:1-11, NRSV)

By quoting Jeremiah, I am saying that we must examine what we are doing when we insist on calling our church property the property of “the true Church,” and go about assigning it through unjust means to those who, more accurately, are interested in preserving the institution of the PCUSA. The true church is the one that “amends its ways and its doings,” that is, aligns its life to God’s commands in a spirit of humble repentance. The true church is not a den of robbers. The true church does not take refuge in buildings. The true church meets, gives, breaks bread, proclaims the transforming gospel, and worships not a god of human making but the LORD. All Presbyterians involved in the painful process of separation from each other must examine their motives regarding property, regarding differentiation, regarding the “trueness” of Church. The folks gathering in Orlando in three weeks, I believe, are trying to find and align with the true Church and to become a vital part of its message and mission in the world. Those who do not agree that this movement is necessary or wise must also examine their motives for making differentiation difficult. “I too am watching, says the LORD.”



5 Responses to “How to Preserve an Institution”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you Mary-may many take heed.

  2. Joe Duffus Says:

    This is a fabulous essay. I agree with all of the tactical thrusts as being classic ways that any organization is slowly subverted and can be maintained by appeals to keeping things “orderly.” And, as Presbyterians, we do love our order.

    Point number 3 is probably the most obvious, but I think also the most likely to break down first. How can it be that a large majority of voting members of presbyteries approved changes that are so widely disapproved of by the rank-and-file pew-dwellers like myself? The outrage from church-goers is reaching the stage where they are starting to drive the demand for separation from PC(USA). I would expect more churches to decline to pay their per-capita, more churches to suffer membership “declines” as some loyal members ask to be taken off the rolls of their congregation as a way to avoid funding the national denomination, even as they will continue to attend faithfully and give to the local church’s needs exclusively.

    Dr. Richard Mouw made a wonderful observation relating to point number 6 above when he asked an Episcopal bishop whether the fortune that denomination had spent litigating the departure of unhappy congregations from the Episcopal Church would not have been better spent on mission work and on direct aid to hungry people than given to lawyers on both sides? Just so.

  3. Casey Jones Says:

    [The percentage of non-White, non-Hispanic Presbyterians in the U.S. is 9%, compared to 34% in the overall U.S. population.]

    Is 34 % of US population really non white and non Hispanic?

    I would have thought it was 34% non-white or Hispanic.

    • revmary Says:

      Right; I double-checked the statistics (a 2008 extrapolation of the 2000 census) and “Non-white, Non-Hispanic” means all racial/ethnic groups other than white + Hispanic.

  4. L. Lee Says:

    Thanks for this post.
    I am studying John 10 for a women’s group today and it is about the good shepherd. The oppisite of the good shepherd are the ones who are robbers and thieves, who do not enter by the sheepfold door which is Jesus. The true church is the one who knows the good shepherd, hears his voice, is known by him and follows him.
    Interesting connection to what Jesus said to leaders in JOHN 10…. who wanted things there way and contrived to get their way and missed God’s best.

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