Friday, February 27, 2004

Who speaks about unborn victims? 

I am incensed.

Reverend Carlton W. Veazey, president of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, began a press release today with these incendiary words:

"The "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" (H.R. 1997), passed today by the U.S. House of Representatives, is morally offensive to the millions of Americans who take their religious beliefs seriously. On their behalf, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice calls upon the Senate to defeat this deceptive, dangerous bill" [emphasis mine].

Hold it right there, Mr. Veazey! I take my religious beliefs VERY seriously, and you do NOT speak on my behalf, not when you practice particularly hard-ball secular politics under the guise of religion. I'll have nothing to do with that hard-hearted gamesmanship, especially when it is the life and value of unborn children you so quickly trash to get to your real point: defending abortion at any cost, even when a bill is not about abortion.

What makes that preborn child a CHILD and not some scientific term like embryo or fetus? Wantedness.

Any mother who loves the child growing within her, anyone talking to that mother, any father taking joy in what God is creating refers to the unborn baby as a child, or a baby, as in "Oh! My baby just moved. Did you feel it?" Only those with harsh political motives will yank the personhood from that baby to call it "unwanted tissue" or "a fetus to be destroyed." Only the heartless would wish to depersonalize that precious baby solely to protect a spurious political "right" with no biblical precedent. (Don't our bodies belong to God, and not to ourselves?)

Veazey continues: "We who are staunch defenders of the dignity and value of human life, as a bedrock religious principle, are not fooled by claims that the intention of this bill is to protect life. The real intention, in our view, is to establish a religious belief-that personhood begins at the moment of conception-as the law of the land and in this way to undermine women's right to an abortion."

Doublespeak! One cannot "defend the dignity and value of human life" by violently ripping it up! Veazey and RCRC may be staunch defenders of Roe v. Wade, but NOT of life. That's preposterous. How dare they try to claim territory so far removed from their cruel borders!

And about the "real intention" of the bill, which Veazey seems to think he knows? Well, tell this to a mother whose baby was killed before it was born. Tell her that her baby is not important; what is really important is defending a political stance no matter what, even when it's not under assault. The one under assault is a baby in its mother's womb! One would think Christians might want to protect rather than detest such a helpless little miracle.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Two Towers," the evil Saruman fears the wise wizard Gandalf's intentions. I love the next line: "'The treacherous are ever distrustful,' answered Gandalf wearily."

Indeed. But do they have to act as if they're speaking for me? And why in the world do they do it with PC(USA) financial support?

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Ash Wednesday's besmeared foreheads 

As a pastor, when I took part in Ash Wednesday services, I found imposing the ashes a tremendously moving experience.

These foreheads—each one different!

Old, bony, thin-skinned foreheads of saints so soon to become dust themselves. Pious, faithful foreheads of people wanting to express their commitment to Christ. Well-made-up foreheads, perfect with foundation and powder, assaulted by ugly, gritty ash under my thumb, little bits of ash wafting down to the perfectly willing nose of a disciple. Shy foreheads, hard to find behind overhanging hair and downcast demeanor.

Young, fresh, pink foreheads of 7-year-olds and 14-year-olds who know nothing of death and decay, now smeared with ash as I startle the forehead bearers with news of their eventual, unthinkable death. People I love, who, with the ash, I’m reminding that they, too, will die, reminding myself that I’ll lose them some day.

So different and moving this stream of foreheads that I despoil! As a pastor, it moves me to tears.

Ash Wednesday is a wonderful service I’m pleased to have found in Presbyterian churches in recent years. It reminds us so graphically of sin and death, which lead us to forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus Christ.

"Transforming Families" reaches final form 

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) today in a meeting by conference call finally approved the final form of the draft policy statement "Transforming Families." This draft has met the 120-day deadline for items to be submitted to the June 2004 General Assembly and will be part of G.A. business again this summer.

This is about the 19th version of a paper that has been in process for over six years. ACSWP submitted their proposed paper "Families in Transition" to General Assembly in May 2003 amid a torrent of sharp criticism, not only from the church but also from academic quarters. The General Assembly committee rejected that draft in order to present a brief substitute statement produced in committee.

The full General Assembly was on the verge of adopting the committee's substitute policy paper when a motion passed to refer both the original ACSWP draft and the G.A. committee's draft back to ACSWP for revision. Much better theological work was requested, as well as consideration of the concerns expressed in the G.A. committee draft.

Since that time, ACSWP has followed a tortured path with more twists and turns than a good novel, but has produced in the statement approved today a vastly improved policy paper for this year's General Assembly to consider. From my quick reading of what has been an ever-changing document, I estimate that the paper is about 98% of the way toward where I would like to see it end up. It appears pretty good and fixable.

Once the paper is published in its final form, I'll join many renewal voices in critiquing it and suggesting minor changes. But today a major milestone was passed, and there appears to be a good way forward.

Chairman Nile Harper used considerable diplomacy and generosity in order to help ACSWP produce a paper that better represents biblical values and the morality and sensitivities of the vast majority of Presbyterians. Maybe this can be a model for future papers from ACSWP.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

A quick study for "The Passion" 

Tomorrow Mel Gibson's "The Passion" opens in theaters. Already the secular press is abuzz about the movie, and lots of people will be going to see it and asking questions about it. In addition, the novel "The Da Vinci Code" is spreading all kinds of misinformation about the Gospels, but it has people talking. This just may be a tremendous window of opportunity for personal witness.

Are you prepared to answer questions about the historicity of Jesus and the accuracy of the Gospel accounts? (You may gulp now.)

Here's a tremendously useful article on a website by Mark Roberts, pastor of Irvine (CA) Presbyterian Church: "How Can We Know Anything About the Real Jesus?"

While you're at the website, look at the other scholarly yet practical articles Mark has written and compiled, including a thoughtful analysis of "The Passion."

Bookmark Pastor Roberts's website blog, and return often.

Friday, February 20, 2004

TTF: No longer motionless 

DALLAS – The Theological Task Force moved today—and seconded and passed—its first two motions in its existence. It moved and approved a preliminary report for General Assembly in June, and it moved and approved a recommendation for G.A. to approve: “That every presbytery be encouraged to create intentional gatherings of Presbyterians of varied theological views to covenant together to discuss the affirmations in the Theological Task Force’s (TTF) preliminary report, utilizing the resources being developed by the Task Force; and that sessions be encouraged to do the same.” That’s more concrete movement than we have seen in any of the prior meetings, and this was by design.

The TTF has been moving—glacially, some would contend—from a polarized conglomeration of people who didn’t know each other (but knew what they were chosen to represent) into an admirable, close-knit, mutually affirming family of gifted siblings who love each other enough that they can kid among themselves, wrangle respectfully over important ideas, learn from each other’s expertise, and pull together on difficult items.

Today, for the first time, I saw them glimpse a brief and inchoate vision of what they might yet be able to do or say to help the church. It didn’t come together, and I can’t explain what it would be (because they don’t know yet), but, like a mirage, something began to appear possible in the group psychology around the tables. Voices of differing ideologies were voicing somewhat similar words: hopeful, encouraged, enthused, optimistic, relieved, grateful, blessed, looking forward to the next meeting, and even pregnant (from a man!). Possibility was in the air.

Report to G.A.
Their preliminary report to this year’s General Assembly begins their move toward completion of their task, rather than ever-expanding research. It begins with routine reporting of their process, but after two pages moves into “Preliminary Affirmations about the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church.” The central affirmation is that peace, unity, and purity “have already been given to us in Jesus Christ, and the task before the church is to live into the fullness of that gift.”

They affirm that “Jesus Christ Himself is the Church’s peace,” and thus “the Church must draw that strength it needs for peacemaking from beyond itself, from the One who invites us to a common witness and worship.”

They affirm that “Jesus Christ Himself is the Church’s unity.” They write: “It is a necessity: union with Christ means union with all the other members of Christ’s body, including those with whom one would not ordinarily choose to associate.”

They affirm that “Jesus Christ is the Church’s purity,” and “any effort to achieve peace and unity at the expense of purity cannot succeed, nor can we live ‘a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called’ unless, ‘bearing with one another in love,’ we make ‘every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:1–2).”

The report goes on to assuage some fears: “The Task Force is not seeking any solutions that compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ…,” the “report will not simply pose political solutions but a way of living that has clear theological and scriptural integrity,” and “any proposals that we set before the church must be the outgrowth of Presbyterian ways of ordering church life and giving it direction.”

The report concludes by asking, “Are the church’s members prepared to work, pray, and sacrifice for a more faithful way of life together?” They urge the church to be so prepared, because “if so, we are confident that God will show the way. Indeed, God has shown us the way, and the truth, and the life. God has given us Jesus Christ.”

This report began in a much shorter version and was aided substantially by breakout meetings of a writing group. It gives an accurate portrayal of what the TTF believes and where it fervently wants the entire denomination to arrive by dint of investment of energies across the presbyteries.

Lively discussion on ordination
Earlier today, before and after lunch, TTF members lead the group through teaching and reflection on three aspects of the topic of ordination: its biblical basis, its theological basis, and its polity and practice. Mike Loudon led an extensive walk through the various Old and New Testament passages that deal with ordination, noting that while a number of passages touch on the subject, unfortunately none offers cut-and-dried instruction.

Sarah Grace Sanderson-Doughty provided a great mix of lecture and discussion on what John Calvin wrote about ordination. Of note was the number of offices Scripture might suggest versus the four that Calvin embraced: pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon.

Gary Demarest walked TTF members through the many changes in the questions ask of those being ordained, both in the northern and southern streams of the Presbyterian church, noting that he has served as pastor under about a half dozen sets of ordination questions! It is interesting that the ordination questions in the PCUS in 1977 contained the question: “Do you promise that if at any time you can no longer accept the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture or the guidance of our Confessions in their essentials, you will on your own initiative make known to your presbytery the change which has taken place in your convictions since the assumption of this ordination vow?” While most questions are still around, at least in altered form, that question no longer remains in any form.

This set of three teaching sessions sparked a vigorous and thoughtful discussion that seemed to provoke comments remarkably united in spirit. An interesting factor that came out was the apparent disconnect in our theology and practice: We Reformed people fervently believe in “the priesthood of all believers,” yet we expect of members much less adherence to our theology than we do of ordained leaders.

Stacy Johnson brought up several issues, among which was what he called “integrity issues.” He asked, “What do you do when you have a congregation that changes the ordination vows of their own volition?” He considers this breaking fellowship.

Barbara Wheeler reminded the TTF that they “need to be clear that we’re not an ordination task force to untangle all the issues around ordination….” She said that was done before, and the recommendations were not adopted. “What we need to ask is this: ‘What do we need to understand and clarify about ordination in order to further the peace unity and purity of the church?’”

Scott Anderson talked of how a light bulb went off for him in the talk about the qualities of life expected of ordained leadership. He saw that “the difference between officers and members is more than just function. Do we expect them to be ‘better’? We’ve said yes. If that’s true, then how does the doctrine of sin enter into this need for officers to be more mature as Christians?”

Where to from here?
The discussion didn’t solve anything but did lead to some more areas to be investigated, such as Anderson's question. The key thing about the conversation was that disparate voices seemed to be coalescing in somewhat similar statements. At least there didn’t appear to be wildly divergent, irreconcilable, case-hardened pronouncements.

The next meeting, August 3–6 back in Dallas (tentatively), has TTF members excited in hungry anticipation. They can sense some resolution jelling, and August is the beginning of crunch time for the Task Force. In August, the rest of the church will probably gain the first inkling of what this group will propose. That is, unless the spirit built over nearly three years that evidenced itself at this meeting remains only a hazy mirage in the burning August sun of Texas. Mirages don’t satisfy.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Our Moderator's priority 

DALLAS -- Susan Andrews, Moderator of the General Assembly, spoke to the Theological Task Force this evening. It was a clear and heartfelt talk, obviously not just a one-size-fits-all stump speech.

She began: "Even though the church out there may not agree with me, the future of our church is not up to you" [the Theological Task Force members]. She was preaching to the choir on this, and they gratefully applauded. "The future of our church is up to our Reformed and always reforming God."

While I agree that God--not a task force--is sovereign, saves us, and leads us into our future, it does sound odd to me to hear words meant to describe the church being applied to God: "our Reformed and always reforming God." That may be an unintended moderatorial slip, since I don't believe God has done anything needing reform, and God, unlike the church, remains quite immutable.

Later in her talk, after delivering some feedback she's heard from around the church, Andrews spoke of those who mistakenly put purity or peace ahead of unity in the "peace, unity, and purity" formula. But then she made a case for putting unity ahead of the other two, noting approvingly the way "unity" is emphasized in much larger print in a logo used by the Task Force.

Task Force member Stacy Johnson, a Princeton Seminary professor, asked Andrews: "Your comment seems to suggest that we put unity above the other two, but aren't all three to be held in creative tension?" He added that he might tend to agree with her, but he understands the mandate to emphasize all three.

Andrews replied, "As I read Scripture, I see that unity rises above peace and purity.... I'm not sure common ground can be found unless the ideal of unity--and that's not uniformity of practice--is [emphasized]."

Moderator Andrews's after-dinner message added some energy and candor to a day not particularly sparkling with consequence. Tomorrow is another day, however.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Saturday GAC concluding newsbits 

LOUSIVILLE The General Assembly Council plenary room was decimated today on this final morning of meeting. No, there wasn’t some disaster, but early departures had thinned the ranks by a tenth or so (the true meaning of “decimated” for you lexicographers). But spirits were high, and business proceeded apace.

Here are the remaining bits and pieces I collected, with no attempt at exhaustively covering the business. (I suggest reading accounts in Presbyterian Outlook, Presbyterian News Service, and The Layman Online for further coverage.)

• This morning, the General Assembly Council was addressed briefly by the Executive Director, John Detterick. He was upbeat, obviously pleased over what he termed a “new day” in the life of GAC. A year ago he was lamenting that the budget cuts were not done in a strategic way, and he sought changes in the process. “You have responded in ways that exceeded my expectation,” Detterick said, “and have achieved what I could only hope we would do.” He has been observing the GAC for ten years now, and he praised this group: “This is the first time in ten years that I’ve seen the Council take charge proactively, intentionally to set the direction of the General Assembly Council…. For the first time in ten years you gave the staff strong leadership and direction, and now the ball is in our court.” That ball isn’t going to be easy to hit, Detterick warned: “Our planning won’t be easy. In fact developing the 2005–2006 budgets will be very difficult…. Our alternatives will be agonizing.” The reason is that jobs and programs will be affected. “The next three months will be the most difficult,” he warned, asking the GAC to “keep the staff in your prayers.” But he does see the time coming when there is an abundance of resources because “this day you have set a new direction…. Now we have the opportunity to make our planning much more than shifting numbers.”

• Once again—about the third time so far in this meeting—curriculum publishing was held up as a shining example of financial success. In the 2003 budget, it was budgeted to lose $1.05 million for the year. They did better than expected and lost “only” $.87 million. And thus they were praised for their success again and again. One has to wonder about the wisdom of a curriculum enterprise that is structured to lose $1.05 million on income of $4.5 million. It reminds me of the story of the guy who bought pencils from a supplier for 20 cents and was selling them for 15 cents. When asked how he was going to make a profit, he replied, “Volume!” The curriculum reply would be, “Subsidies!” Somehow we have decided that putting the Presbyterian name on a curriculum is so important that the denomination as a whole has planned to subsidize about 23% of every piece sold. Not a GAC member brought up questions such as this. Instead, everybody seemed as pleased as punch with this “success” story.

• It is interesting and probably significant that all the GAC elected leaders for next year have been part of the Mission Work Plan Team. It appears that the GAC will certainly be invested in their plan.

• The Contribution to Shared Mission Costs issue (designated gifts to be charged a 5% overhead cost) was nearly a non-issue this time in the report of Mission Support Services. However, Philip Butin, President of San Francisco Theological Seminary who was previously behind the report, introduced an amendment that would have removed the Theological Education Fund from the assessment. His reason was that the seminary presidents had been under the impression that the assessment would cap the administrative costs TEF pays, but they found out that the 5% assessment would be their “contribution” unless their actual administrative costs exceed that amount. If so, they would pay the greater amount. Butin spoke of the value of theological education, the partnership they have with churches, and the dwindling denominational support for our seminaries (5% of SFTF’s budget). But GAC remained unconvinced. Preferring to harvest some new income, they defeated Butin’s amendment, and TEF stayed in the plan. Then the plan itself passed unanimously without further discussion. Now about $900,000 a year will flow away from causes designated by the giver to flow into work favored by GAC.

• Want to know how the GAC as a whole scrutinizes, discusses, and debates the all-important denominational finances at this juncture? Well, had you sneezed, you would have missed it. The financial reports were approved as a consent item among budget items and other reports for the 216th General Assembly (2004) in the Mission Support Services report.

• Eleven proposed amendments to our Constitution will flow to General Assembly from GAC. These arise out of concerns raised in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a missionary in past decades, especially from consultations with the victims. They would allow for greater care for victims, give presbyteries more options, and add openness to the process. One would give presbytery the ability to appeal a PJC decision when now only the accused can appeal.

• The Presbyterian Foundation manages about $1.6 billion and beat the market average on its investment return. Good news.

The other reports were minor and routine. There was no need for an executive session. By 11:40, GAC was adjourned. That means this is your last GAC newsbits for this session. I hope the news has been useful and the comments fair. I know the opinions expressed were immaculate.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Friday GAC newsbits 

Today the GAC slogged through a day full of activity in mostly cheerful community, with a single testy turn toward the end. While everyone was waiting for a vote count for vice moderator, one GAC member began to entertain the group by telling an amusing story. As he launched into the story, another member stopped him short with the pronouncement that if he was going with the story where it appeared he was going, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Poof. The air went out of the room for an awkward moment as the story teller sat down. How difficult it is these days to negotiate a path among heightened sensibilities!

Well, here are some of the things I gathered today:

• The Mission Work Plan yet remains semi-fluid, although it’s considered to be 99% final—well, kind of. Almost. Pretty much. How do you pin down something like that? After hours of consideration and agreement in this meeting and months prior to it, after a dizzying array of ideas, opinions, and suggested rewordings, after a whole lot of tinkering, we still don’t have a final document for this plan that will so greatly affect the denomination. A team still gets to edit it. Then, it was promised, the GAC members will be able to see the changes and comment on them. But the hitch is that they won’t be meeting before the document is finalized and thus won’t be able to approve it. Approval is left mainly to the Mission Work Plan Team, and then the GAC Executive Committee gets it for the final stamp of approval.

• GAC affirmed today a reasonably final set of Core Values that will guide their work. On Wednesday I gave you the original ones. Here is what happened to those draft core values:

1. “Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ” became “Proclamation: Listening for and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.” Notice the political correctness of changing “proclaiming” (done with certitude) into “listening for” (note how it’s not “listening to”) and “sharing” (more tepid and unsure).

2. “Demonstrating faithful stewardship, accountability, and open communication to build trust within the Presbyterian Church (USA)” became two new core values: “Stewardship: Giving, working, and living faithfully and responsibly” and “Trust: Communicating with integrity.”

3. “Welcoming and nurturing all people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ” became “Nurture: Supporting and caring for each other.” This sounds much weaker, more human-needs driven, and less Christocentric to me.

4. “Challenging the church to transform the world in light of God’s realm” became “Openness: Expecting to be transformed by the God of Justice and Love.” (At least, I think this new core value is the descendent of the original one. The family resemblance is getting weak.) Notice the theme of “justice love” that has been added. And rather than the church being God’s agent of transformation as part of the Kingdom of God, now Christians are the ones to be open to change. There’s not even a passing whiff of triumphalism allowed, it appears.

5. “Serving as a covenant partner in the Presbyterian connectional system and in the ecumenical community” became “Partnership: Living in community with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and people of the world.” The swap of “community” for “covenant” sounds oh so trendy.

6. Two more core values were added:
a. “Celebration: Embracing our Reformed tradition through Word and sacrament.”
b. “Vision: Serving with joy, living in hope, hearing and responding to diverse voices, and obeying God’s will.” This smells of compromise: One side makes sure we will listen to “diverse voices,” but the other side says that nevertheless, we still need to obey God’s will. So we include both to keep everyone mollified.

So how do you score the changes? Are these "final" core values better or worse?

• In the specific objectives for the Mission Work Plan goal of Evangelism and Witness that was “approved” today, you won’t find mention of classic evangelism and witness at home! Objectives include strengthening churches and starting new ones. They include small churches and rural churches, camps and conferences. The objectives even include witness and evangelism internationally. This is all good, but does it mean we can witness personally away from home with foreign nationals, but don’t have any plans to help Presbyterians pass on the faith to families, neighbors, co-workers, and so on at home? How can we have an evangelistic goal without actually DOING evangelism? It appears that these objectives reflect pretty much the institutional reality of what we are accomplishing now evangelistically as a denomination: practically nothing.

• It became apparent today that large groups have only so much energy for minutia. After struggling word for word on line after line on the Mission Work Plan, as the GAC got near the end of the document, sweeping agreement on large parts of it became common. GAC members seemed to have simply exhausted their ability to be engaged. (Note: This is something to remember any time one orders the business of a meeting. Anything one wants to slide through relatively unexamined should be buried late in the meeting among the tedious stuff.)

• GAC member Bill Saul reported on the $40 million Mission Initiative, saying, “In a major way we are now ready—and it’s taken a lot of time—to start making the major donor calls en mass.” He enthusiastically referred to the “$40 million PLUS that we are raising, and we WILL do it.”

• Nancy Kahaian, a pastor from Indiana, was elected chair of the GAC on the first ballot. She will begin her responsibilities following General Assembly in June and will be joined by Paul Masquelier as vice moderator. Paul is retired executive of the Presbytery of San Jose. By the way, current GAC Moderator Vernon Carroll just has to be one of the most gracious, patient nice guys in this denomination. His hard work, pervasive competence, and courteous spirit need to be applauded.

Tomorrow brings a number of further reports, and adjournment by noon. And I doubt if we’ll be regaled by any more tall tales tomorrow. Any funny business will have to be of the unintended variety, such as the fatigue-induced slip of the tongue today: “Let me briefly run through you—uh, with you.” Pause, and third try: “Let me tell you what we did.”

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Thursday GAC newsbits 

Today in Louisville, General Assembly Council began its work in separate division meetings and then flowed back into plenary after lunch. It was a reasonably quiet day without a lot of news, but here are some scraps I picked up:

• When we were led in singing by GAC member Rob Elder and Chair Vernon Carroll, the entire room was relieved that there was no wardrobe malfunction.

• The 2006 General Assembly, that will meet in Birmingham, Alabama, has been rescheduled to begin two days earlier than previously announced. It will convene on Thursday, June 15, and end on Thursday, June 22. Since General Assemblies normally begin and end on Saturdays, this change will necessitate some modifications in the flow of the week.

• When General Assembly Moderator Susan Andrews greeted GAC, she made an insightful observation: “Our military chaplains probably provide the largest ministry to young adults in our denomination.” Amen, and may God protect them all!

• At a past meeting, the GAC decided to schedule their spring meetings immediately prior to General Assembly rather than a couple of months earlier. That decision allowed them to attend GA on the heels of their GAC meeting, but they knew it meant that they delegated final approval of the budget recommendation to their Executive Committee, because that recommended budget had to be submitted at least 45 days prior to GA. Now, as that situation approaches, there is some nervousness about that fact, since jobs and programs are on the bubble and GAC won’t be meeting again until just before General Assembly in Richmond in June. They seem uneasy about giving the Executive Committee the sole authority to approve what is bound to be some program and staff terminations in the 2005–2006 reduced budget the Staff Leadership Team (SLT; think “top management”) will propose for adoption.

• I think I have this right and can chart the perilous path budget plans will take between now and GA: (1) GAC will give the SLT the major priorities for the budget, along with a percentage of the overall pie that each of the priorities ought to receive; (2) the SLT will come up with specific proposals for budget impacts (many jobs and programs merged, diminished, or cut; some jobs and programs created or enhanced); (3) GAC Executive Director John Detterick will meet with the division heads to talk over program and personnel implications for their areas; (4) by April 1, SLT will have a final budget proposal (with specific cuts and changes) to send to the GAC Mission Work Plan Team; (5) the Mission Work Plan Team will get the budget proposal to the GAC Executive Committee by the end of April; (6) the Executive Committee will meet May 7 and 8 to approve their final version of the budget proposal to send on to General Assembly the next week, thus meeting the rule that it must be in at least 45 days prior to G.A.; (7) the Office of General Assembly will publish this report for the rest of us to read prior to G.A. Finally, General Assembly will approve the budget in June. If this takes the normal course, enormous pressure will be put on the G.A. commissioners not to monkey with the budget, because any changes would upset a balance carefully worked out by staff leaders. Commissioners will likely concur with the proposed budget in its entirety.

Here in Louisville on Friday morning, GAC members will receive and read reports from each of the division meetings, prior to the resumption of plenary meetings from 10:00 to 5:30, with a break for lunch. Of special interest will be proposed revisions of the crucial Mission Work Plan that has people jittery, because it will drive budget decisions. Somebody’s ox is bound to be gored.

In addition, GAC hasn’t yet officially approved the previously controversial and postponed plan to “tax” designated giving 5% to help cover overhead and handling costs and to produce some more income for GAC-prioritized projects. (Think of it as (choose one): (a) a plan to take money away from projects donors want and give it to what GAC wants, or (b) a fair way for various funds to pay their own actual costs.) The majority of the plan’s most powerful opponents with large constituencies have been quiet, however. The Mission Initiative (a special fund drive to raise $40 million for missions and new church development) is expected to be exempted, due to prior promises to donors. Opposition from Presbyterian seminary presidents largely vanished once they figured out that this would mean only about a .08% loss of revenue from the Theological Education Fund, and in some years might even cap the administrative fees they already pay. Validated ministries such as the Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship will receive a bargain 1% rate. That pretty well eliminates the big hitters who had opposed what is now termed the “Contribution to Shared Mission Cost,” which is expected to harvest $900,000 in fees from designated giving in 2005 and put it into the undesignated pot. Whether this was a skillful ironing out of a few difficulties or a shrewd buyout of the protesters is still being discussed in the hallways.

On Saturday GAC will meet in plenary from 8:30 until an expected noon adjournment. That means you’ll get just two more GAC newsbits reports before you’ll have to wean yourselves from the pleasure. Learn to cope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Wednesday newsbits from GAC 

The General Assembly Council (GAC) meeting in Louisville began the day in plenary and then moved into break-out meetings by divisions (Worldwide, National, Congregational, Mission Support Services). Here are a few more items I came across today:

• The GAC is working on a labored process to put together the “2005–2006 Mission Work Plan.” What, you ask, is this? Kathy Lueckert, Deputy Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, described it as “a two-year plan for our mission work and resource allocation.” It’s a way of saying what the GAC priorities are for its work, what it hopes to accomplish, how much it will cost, how resources will be allocated, and how GAC will hold themselves accountable to the whole church. This is a big deal, because it’s about what exactly our national church does and where the scarce dollars go. You can imagine there are some nervous sacred cows these days.

• The current draft of proposed core values for GAC, presented for further refinement at this meeting, contains these five values:
1. Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ
2. Demonstrating faithful stewardship, accountability, and open communication to build trust within the Presbyterian Church (USA)
3. Welcoming and nurturing all people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ
4. Challenging the church to transform the world in light of God’s realm
5. Serving as a covenant partner in the Presbyterian connectional system and in the ecumenical community.
It will be interesting to note how these draft core values get shaped by discussion and revision here at GAC. A bunch of opinions were offered today, including one to make the five core values more succinct by adding three more. Hold on to this initial list and compare it to the values that come out at the end of this meeting. It will be a good indicator of what the GAC considers truly important.

• What once was called “discipleship,” a rich biblical term, is now called “spirituality,” a hip contemporary term that frequently means something unconnected with Christianity or even in opposition to it. The change might be perturbing, except that the spirituality goal is described in excellent discipleship language: “We are called to deeper discipleship through Scripture, worship, and prayer, seeking growth through study, stewardship and service, and relying on the Holy Spirit to mold our lives more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”

• Money matters remain nettlesome. GAC needs to figure out how to deal with a potential $1.85 million shortfall for 2005, and another $3.15 million for 2006. In addition, these figures assume $900,000 of new revenue from a controversial 5% overhead “tax” on restricted giving—to be called “Contribution to Shared Mission Cost”—that is not yet actually approved (although Mission Support Services today supported it). And what’s more, by prioritizing goals and objectives, GAC has identified about $2.8 million of important new work to be done. This money has to be found by halting old work presently being done. This is where things get really difficult: What decreases or gets dropped?

• Our Presbyterian curriculum department is performing not as badly as expected. They lost $870,367 in 2003 (about $249,000 from operations and $621,000 from writing off useless inventory), compared to an expected loss of $1,050,082. We continue to spend almost a million dollars in order to have a curriculum used by a relatively small percentage of Presbyterian churches. Joey Bailey, deputy for Mission Support Services, hailed this as an “unbelievable turnaround,” credited to curriculum publisher Sandra Sorem.

• In 2003, around $1 million in potential evangelism grants to congregations and presbyteries was not spent, primarily due to two factors: (1) there were too few qualified applications for the grants, and (2) the presbytery 50-50 match was not available from enough cash-strapped presbyteries. In other words, General Assembly attempted to make more money available as grants to groups with good plans for evangelism, but too few churches submitted plans that qualified or had presbyteries that could join in matching grants to fund their ideas. Thus, that money gets swept into uncommitted, unrestricted funds to be used as needed in the following year. That means it is lost to evangelism.

• From a purchasing report, I found out that air travel expenditures exceeded $2 million in 2003. This figure as of November 2003 was 6% less than the same period in 2002. In 2000, the figure was $3.1 million.

• More than 12 million copies were made last year by the PC(USA). In reaction to this report, trees everywhere visibly shuddered and Presbyterian backs ached from lugging those copies to and from meetings. However, compare this figure to 17.4 million copies made in 1997. Perhaps the Internet really does save paper.

On Thursday, the various divisions continue their meetings in the morning, and then in the afternoon, the entire GAC convenes in plenary session again through Saturday noon. The detail work mainly gets done in divisions, but the final decisions come out of plenary.

More to come later.

More advice for candidates 

Berkley Blog reader John L. Speight wrote to supply some other instances of sage advice for ministry candidates about to be examined on the floor of presbytery (scroll below to the end of “Little GAC Newsbits” from February 10 for the previous posting):

1. “Don't turn out any foxes that you are not willing to chase”—advice to his polity students at Union Seminary by Ben Rose.

2. “Don't open a can of worms. Some of those ministers and elders take very seriously being ‘fishers of men’ and love to go fishing.” This advice is from John Speight’s father, James E. Speight, Sr., a ruling elder, who died before John began seminary. He spoke it to John’s uncle, The Rev. D. B. Shackelford, who in turn passed it on to John in 1973.

3. “If you feel compelled to speak out, wait a few minutes. Someone else will probably say just what you wanted to say and say it better”—James E. Speight, Sr., to a young minister at his first presbytery meeting.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Little GAC newsbits from Louisville 

From observing the Executive Committee of the General Assembly Council (GAC) and the combined meeting of the GAC and the Committee on the Office of General Assembly (COGA) in Louisville today, here are some of the items in process that you may find of interest:
• John Detterick, Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, will be receiving a 2% pay increase this year, which appears to be somewhat the standard, since our mission co-workers will also be receiving a 2% raise.
• Up to 420 resource persons and denominational staff are approved to attend General Assembly this year in Richmond, Virginia. That’s almost one staff or elected leader for each commissioner from the presbyteries. When one adds in presbytery and synod staff, which easily would be another three hundred people, General Assembly draws about 1.5 workers and resource persons for each commissioner.
• The $40 million Mission Initiative appears to be gaining some momentum. A year ago there were around five qualified prospective major donors; now there are about 1,500. Of course, it’s one thing to talk about prospective donors, and another to count donations in the bank.
• It likely will be recommended not to add a new national special offering on top of the five current ones. The new offering would have been to help fund world missions. General Assembly requested that the possibility be investigated, but GAC found little support for the idea through polling and several focus groups.
• On a sad note, in the next six years, as much as $814,000 may need to be spent on handling yet two more possible instances of multiple sexual molestations on the mission field. Inquiry is beginning and care will follow concerning these sordid episodes from decades past.
• Out of the sensitive work of the first Independent Committee on Investigation (dealing with a missionary’s many sexual transgressions), GAC will likely be proposing a number of changes to the Rules of Discipline, to be voted on at G.A. and sent on to the presbyteries for approval.
• The Worldwide Ministries Division gets 14% of its funding from unified, unrestricted mission giving, meaning that if congregations withhold unrestricted giving and don’t redirect that money back into extra-commitment-opportunity giving to missions, overall missions support will suffer.
• The General Assembly per capita amount for 2005 will probably end up being either flat (compared to 2004) at $5.51 or actually go down a nickel to $5.46. If it goes down the nickel in 2005, it would go up a dime to $5.56 in 2006, to raise roughly the same amount over the two-year period. The GAC Executive Committee recommended taking both options to General Assembly to let commissioners decide. The net result of eliminating a General Assembly in 2005 (approximate cost: $2 million) is that per capita won’t be going up for two years. Then again, we won’t see the major roll-back of per capita people might have expected from saving roughly a million dollars a year for two years.
• The Saturday-afternoon opening session of General Assembly will probably involve commissioners and delegates rotating among three short orientation meetings at three nearby sites. Previously the orientation has been less distinguishable as part of the opening plenary session of General Assembly.
• Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick brought the fiscal news about 2003: “We had a good year in terms of financial management.” Expenses ended up about $800,000 under budget for 2003, which means that we were able to put about $300,000 back into reserves, rather than spend down about $500,000 of reserves, as was planned.
• Now, here’s some good advice for the ministry candidate going into his or her examination on the floor of presbytery, as spoken years ago to John Kuykendall, interim President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (and it needs to be spoken with a rich southern accent): “Boy, don’t let out any more snakes than you can kill today.”

And that’s the bits and pieces of news I found today in Louisville. GAC meets until Saturday noon, and several final decisions ought to be made prior to then.

Rooked by a bishop 

Why is it that whenever the new Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson opens his mouth, the word "shameless" comes to mind?

This time it's not even about his homosexual practice. It's about dishonoring the Lord God. Not content, I suppose, to violate only ONE of the Ten Commandments with relish, Robinson has obviously decided that another is superfluous, the one about not taking God's name in vain.

"'My God, we've got Episcopalians looking for their Bibles! Who would have thought it?' the bishop quipped, as the congregation erupted in laughter." So we've got a bishop and a congregation who think God's name is best used to form a funny exclamation.

I'm not laughing.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Look who knows what “chastity” means! 

There are those who for political reasons want the church to be confused about the meaning of “chastity” in our Constitution, as in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). I contend that that is ridiculous, because everyone on either side of the gay-ordination question knew exactly what “chastity” meant when they chose up sides either to support or oppose it.

Indeed, Covenant Network came about primarily to oppose putting “chastity in singleness” into our Constitution, because they knew full well it would constrain practicing homosexual persons from being ordained. The primary purpose of Covenant Network right now is to remove “chastity in singleness” from the Constitution for the same reason. They really DO know what it means.

Evidence of this knowledge that “chastity” means “abstinence” or even “virginity” pops up out of the mouths of those who are anything but conservative in their theological stance.

For instance, recently at the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy meeting, committee member Ronald Stone and others successfully eliminated the words “chaste and disciplined lives” whenever they appeared in the “Transforming Families” draft policy statement. Why? Ronald Stone elaborates: “I raised four children. I would never teach them to be chaste; that means a virgin. I always taught them to be responsible.”

Stone, a member of the Board of Advisors of Covenant Network, clearly sees that to be chaste for a single person means to abstain completely from sexual intercourse. No ambiguity for Ron. He doesn’t believe people need to abstain, and that’s why he removed the wording about chastity from the ACSWP paper.

It is obvious that “chastity in singleness” means that sexual practice for single heterosexuals and all homosexuals is forbidden. That is, it is obvious to all but those who choose to try to confuse the matter.

Sunday, February 01, 2004


The more I think about the actions of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (scroll down to the two previous postings), the more I realize that guilt management plays a key role in their decisions to cut out solid language and add in permissive and ambiguous language. There are two basic ways to try to get rid of guilt:

1) Make nothing really wrong, when you get right down to it, so whatever you decide to do is okay. Leave that wife to run off with a younger woman? No problem. Do it a second time, if you want! Follow those hormones into bed if you’re young and hot, without any thought for the context and commitment of marriage for sexual intercourse? Hey, it’s only natural. Kids will be kids. Allow illicit urges to pull you into a bathhouse for some anonymous sex, or into a same-sex partnership? Who says those urges are illicit? Get with the culture, man! If there’s nothing like a well-honed conscience or a well-regulated social context or especially a well-disciplined church body to assert that some activities are indeed wrong in and of themselves, then—Voila!—there’s no guilt. Well, no psychological guilt, at least.

2) Let people come into direct, stark, painful contact with their real ontological guilt before a holy God, be broken by their guilt, confess it to God, turn from the indulgence of the sin that produces that guilt, and allow Jesus Christ to wash that guilt away with abundant grace, and the Holy Spirit to reorder one's actions and priorities.

The ACSWP has chosen the first method. Nice people that they are, thoughtful and compassionate, they don’t want anyone to feel bad, and so they refuse to allow the “Transforming Families” paper to call any activities truly wrong. “If we don’t call it wrong, then nobody feels guilty, and everything’s okay,” they seem to think.

But that’s wrong, “millstone around your neck” wrong! That brand of pseudo-compassionate thinking has two enormously harmful consequences: First, people still feel guilty, because there’s something of their Creator’s conscience remaining in them, even though our culture and the ACSWP try their best to scrub any lingering trace away. Something good within them still whispers that they have done what is truly wrong, and they ought to feel guilt because they ARE guilty. So they still ache late at night when their conscience echoes God’s conscience within them.

And, second, those who are duped into ignoring God’s law and their own consciences remain in a state of unconfessed sin, a terrible place to be! The true ontological guilt they HAVE before God remains, whether they feel or acknowledge it or not. Sin such as this leads to death. To “shelter” people from knowing the true burden of unforgiven sin and guilt they are accumulating is to consign them to damnation. Who would ever want to place people in such a state, when the atonement of Jesus Christ can wash them sparkling clean? It is hideously UNLOVING to hide from people the consequences of their sinful actions. How utterly foolish and even heartless not to want to bother people with their guilt!

The ACSWP wants to offer people a flashy new product called “Guilt-Be-Gone!” It’s a fraudulent and dangerous product for consumers and ought to be taken off the market immediately. The old-fashioned Christian remedy for guilt remains the true miracle product everyone should employ.

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