Sunday, June 17, 2018
There is no particular order to what follows.
It was a very short assembly. The opening worship service began at 1:30 Wednesday afternoon and, except for the closing devotional at 8:00 Friday morning, everything had been done by 10:00 or so Thursday evening. I think part of the reason the Assembly moved so well was that Irwyn Ince was a very effective moderator.
The Overtures Committee is to be commended for their excellent work. I just wish that all presbyteries had sent commissioners.
The informational reports are a waste of time. The information is in the Commissioner’s Handbook. Let the commissioners read those. Then the various committees wouldn’t have to spend money making infomercials.
The Committees of Commissioners for the various permanent committees and agencies have become rubber stamps for the committees and agencies. They are supposed to function in a checks-and-balances fashion, but they have long since ceased to do so. I was embarrassed for the Covenant College CoC with regard to the issue about putting women on the board. It struck me that the CoC in that case served as the advocate for Covenant College, rather than the devil’s advocate.
This assembly began the process of making consistent our constitutional statements on the nature of marriage.
The ratio of TEs to REs remained about 4-1. I don’t entertain any real hope of this changing anytime soon, though I continue to pray for a change.
I am becoming more convinced that we don’t need an annual GA. It didn’t strike me that there was anything done this year that would have been damaged by being put off to next year.
I still think we need a delegated assembly. As it is, “grass-roots Presbyterianism” looks more and more like the Southern Baptist convention with wet babies.
Perhaps, with 87 presbyteries, it is time to start thinking about synods. If presbyteries need to divide (or “multiply” as apparently the new buzzword is), that could be handled at the synod level without the need for the GA to render a judgment on it. As it is, the Assembly usually rubber stamps those requests.
Perhaps we could improve the TE to RE ratio if only the following TEs were allowed voting privileges: TEs who are currently serving as pastors, associate pastors, assistant pastors, RUF ministers, and those serving pastoral callings on the mission field. As a seminary professor, I would happily give up my voting privilege to someone who is actually pastoring a local church.
I’ll revisit these issues next year.
Saturday, June 09, 2018
At the congregational level, there is not much difference between a congregational church and a PCA church. Congregational churches are often ruled by a board of elders, elected from among the members, which is also the case with Presbyterian churches. But, as far as church government goes, that is where the similarity ends. Presbyterians hold to the idea of a connectionalism through graded church courts. The “courts” language is unfortunate, as it gives a certain twist to the meaning of those bodies, and their purposes, that is not intended in the name. But that is a consideration for another post.
Unlike congregational churches, Presbyterian churches are partially defined by their identity as “connectional” churches, that is, congregations of the same denomination are vitally connected through the church courts. In the PCA, the session is the court of the congregation. The presbytery is the court of the churches in a defined area. The General Assembly (GA) is the court of the denomination as a whole. The difference between these courts and, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention and the SB Conventions in the various states is that decisions of the higher courts are determinative for the policies and practices of the lower courts. In other words, a decision by the presbytery affects all the congregations in the presbytery. A decision of the GA affects the presbyteries and the local congregations.
The question is whether the PCA is functionally a connectional church. My experience is limited both by time and area, in that I have been an ordained teaching elder (TE, minister) in the PCA for only a little over twenty-two years, and all that time I have served in Calvary Presbytery in the Upstate of South Carolina. But I was raised in the UPCUSA (now the PC[USA]) and served in various capacities in that denomination until I joined the PCA in 1981. My experience there was not much different from what I have experienced in the PCA. And my experience tells me that most PCA congregations are functionally congregational. Unless the area is saturated with PCA churches, one local congregation is at most vaguely aware of other PCA churches. There seems to be little cooperative work among them. The existence of presbytery and GA is acknowledged, but the existence of those courts seems to be more theoretical than practical (at least in the minds of congregational members).
How do we, as TEs in the PCA, change that reality in order to make the church connectional in practice as well as in theory? First, we can attend presbytery regularly (along with the allowed number of ruling elders [REs]). Then we give our congregation a report on the actions of presbytery. Did the presbytery take candidates under care? Did the presbytery license or ordain a man to ministry? Is the presbytery planting a church? Were decisions made at presbytery that will affect our congregation? It will benefit the congregation to know these things, to remind the congregation that they are connected to other congregations with similar goals. Second, we can make the concerns of presbytery a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists that most churches make available to members. Third, we can attend GA (with our allowed number of REs) and again inform the congregation about the actions of GA, particularly regarding things that will affect our congregation and/or the character of the denomination as a whole. Fourth, we can make the concerns of GA a regular element in our pastoral prayers and in the prayer lists we make available to our members. Fifth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of presbyteries. In this practice, it can be particularly helpful to contact the stated clerk of each presbytery to ask if there are particular concerns of that presbytery that we can pray for. Again, this keeps church members reminded that we are a vital part of a much larger national (and international) church. Sixth, we can make it a practice in church prayer meetings to pray regularly through the list of the committees and agencies of the GA. These committees and agencies regularly publish newsletters that include prayer requests. Seventh, we can in our prayer meetings particularly pray for upcoming meetings of our own presbytery and the annual meeting of GA.
These practices can accomplish two things. First, they will regularly remind the congregational members in a tangible way that they are not alone in their gospel labors. Second, we are reminded by James that “the prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect” (James 5:16 CSB). Such prayers, along with the Word and the sacraments, are the very lifeblood of the church.
Sunday, June 03, 2018
The time has rolled around again for the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA GA). It is made up of REs (ruling elders, members of the ruling boards on local congregations) and TEs (ministers). The meeting and its purposes are briefly defined in the BCO (Book of Church Order—the policies and procedures manual for the PCA) and much more thoroughly treated in the RAO (Rules of Assembly Operations—the policies and procedures manual for the GA itself). The meeting itself is run according to the RAO and RRONR (Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised—the guide to orderly discussion for meetings, especially necessary for a meeting as large as the PCA GA, which generally has 1,200-1,500 commissioners).
The meeting can be, and usually is, overwhelming for first-timers. I suggest that any TE or RE who is attending for the first time attend the workshop that is scheduled for first-timers. It will help you get a handle on things, and the meeting will not be quite so overwhelming. But to get you started, here are some guidelines. First, if you have a laptop, download the Commissioner’s Handbook. That contains all the necessary information. If you don’t have a laptop, you can get a hard copy, but you will want to get it ahead of time (you’re pushing your luck at this point). Second, look through the docket. That will orient you as to what happens when. Third, read the key elements of the Handbook. Some people want to think that every page of the Handbook is equally important, but that’s not true. The budget material, for example, is largely opaque to those without some experience in accounting. Even if you have experience in accounting, there is no way to tell, just from looking at the numbers, whether these budgets make sense or not. From my perspective, the important parts this year are the Overtures (true every year). If you don’t understand the overtures, find someone to explain them. Next is the report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial Reconciliation. The report has been two years in the making and deserves careful study, whether you agree with certain portions of it or not. Third is the report of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). There is no opportunity to debate the decisions of the SJC, but you ought to at least know what the cases and issues are that have risen to the level of the GA.
The last things to read are the informational reports of the committees and agencies of the GA. This information will be repeated on Thursday afternoon. After that, you can read the budget reports. In total, there are some 634 pages to the Commissioner’s Handbook, but not all of it will need to be read closely. Having at least read the key elements and skimmed over the rest will prepare you to take part in the Assembly and not feel completely lost.
A note about speaking at the Assembly. If it’s your first meeting, it’s probably best just to sit quiet and listen. If you decide to speak, 1) Make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you’re not sure, be quiet. 2) Speak briefly and to the point. Don’t ramble. Prepare some notes to keep you on task. 3) Remember that you’re not the only one desiring to speak, so don’t hog the microphone. 4) Pay careful attention to men such as Fred Greco, David Coffin, and a few others. These men know what they’re talking about and they present a good model for anyone else to follow.