Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is your congregation ready for the Revised Form of Government?

Earlier this month the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to submit an amended version of the Revised Form of Government (called nFOG by some) to the Presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes.

During a break in the work of the Assembly Committee on the Form of Government Revision an observer voiced a concern to me that I summarize in the following hypothetical:

After adoption of the Revised form of Government, the session of a PCUSA congregation discerns that in order to participate in God's mission, a specific step must be taken that requires an affirmative vote of a congregational meeting. A member of the congregation is unhappy with the decision made by the rest of the congregation, and goes to court challenging, among other things, whether the members of the congregation had adequate notice of the meeting and whether a quorum was present. He argues that because Revised Form of Government gives the congregation the authority to determine its quorum and this congregation has not adopted a rule stating its quorum, the congregation needed to have at least half of the membership present in order to have a quorum. He also argues that the session had a responsibility under the Revised Form of Government to give adequate notice of the meeting, and that the way the session publicized the meeting did not meet that vague standard of adequacy.

What is the best way to head off this problem?

(a) The session should never let the congregation vote on anything with which anyone might disagree.

(b) The session's presbytery should overture the General Assembly to propose an amendment to the Form of Government that would specify what the quorum is for every congregational meeting, and determine what adequate notice would be for every congregation in the PCUSA.

(c) The session should call a congregational meeting at which the congregation could agree on its quorum and what notice of a meeting would be adequate.

(d) Stop the nFOG! The session should exert all of its efforts to ensure that the Revised Form of Government never gets adopted and they never get put in a situation where this hypothetical situation might occur.

(e) Maybe you have ideas of your own.

And now, as our vice-moderator would say, "Set phasers to stun ... we await results."

(a) If you selected (a), you are partly right that the session needs to do some groundwork (and sometimes a lot) with the congregation before taking important actions. But if the fear of displeasing a single member of the congregation will prevent the session from leading the congregation to join in God's work, this session may be too risk-averse to attempt anything.

(b) If you selected (b) you might do well to revisit the history of the PCUSA's trial with this very approach to specifying the quorum of a congregation. Only two years after the 1984 Reunion the church adopted the rule expressed in the current Form of Government as a replacement for a formula that specified the quorum of every congregation - a rule that was not working for many congregations.

(c) Option (c) makes the most sense to me, and is in accord with the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution to the 218th General Assembly (2008), in which it said "the right to establish a quorum for meetings of the congregation is assigned to the congregation itself by G-7.0305. It is not a power assigned to the session, or to any other governing body."

(d) If you chose option (d), you may have many valid reasons for opposing the Revised Form of Government, but you failed to recognize that it is a red herring in this hypothetical. If your congregation has not acted to determine its own quorum, you are just as vulnerable to a challenge in court under the current Form of Government as under the Revised Form of Government.

Let's take a look at what our current Form of Government at G-7.0305 actually says:

The quorum of a meeting of the congregation shall be not less than one tenth of the members unless the particular church upon application to the presbytery shall obtain the consent of the presbytery to a provision for a smaller quorum. A congregation by its own vote may fix a higher quorum. No meeting of fewer than three members shall be considered a congregational meeting.

Your disgruntled church member could go into court and argue that the first sentence does not say what the quorum is, but what it is not. If the congregation has never voted to state what its quorum is, how would you plan to show the judge that your quorum is not what this one church member claims it is?

(e) If you chose option (e) you may have other ideas, and I am eager to hear them.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

What do demonstrations accomplish? or Did Soulforce save the Presbyterian Church?

I am accustomed to seeing demonstrations at or around meetings of the General Assembly. I don't mind people exercising their freedom of speech as long as they don't interfere with the orderly conduct of the Assembly's business. I observed two demonstrations at the 219th GA, and they each have me wondering what the demonstrators hoped to accomplish, and what did they actually accomplish. (Obie Holmen asks about the effectiveness of civil disobedience strategies.)

On Wednesday July 7 there was a demonstration at the Assembly by a group from a Korean-language congregation in the Chicago area.

faction of Canaan Presbyterian Church demonstrating at the Minneapolis Convention Center, July 17, 2010

As I made my way from the Convention Center back to my hotel, members of this group handed out stapled packets of documents that adequately explained to me why an administrative commission of the Synod of Lincoln Trails was justified in taking the actions against which these protestors were demonstrating. Their distribution of literature may have been against some policy of the General Assembly. At no time did these protesters obstruct my passage to or from the Convention Center. Nor did they (to my knowledge) intrude into the meeting of the General Assembly.

This demonstration seemed particularly pointless to me. The protesters' concerns were not related to any piece of business that was properly before the Assembly, and the deadline for commissioners to introduce new business had passed days earlier.

On the other hand, the enthusiasm of the group in lining up to take photos to commemorate the trip does suggest that the demonstration may have served some group-building purpose for members of this faction of the congregation. They had gone on an adventure to Minneapolis, had taken a stand for something important to them, and could go home thinking they had done the right thing.

But the demonstration that received the most attention at the 219th General Assembly was the Soulforce civil disobedience action on Friday, June 9, when protesters entered the assembly hall and prayed in front of the podium until the Minneapolis police removed them. This protest was an expression of frustration over decisions not made by the Assembly.

On Thursday evening the Assembly had considered the report of the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues (Committee 12). This issue had its own committee because the 218th Assembly had authorized a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, but also because a number of presbyteries had sent overtures to the General Assembly asking for various actions concerning marriage. The special committee's report recommended that the issue continue to be studied across the church with a number of resources, but did not make any specific recommendations for policy change. A minority of the Special Committee had also filed a minority report with a different slant on the issues. The Assembly decided to send both the majority and minority reports from the Special Committee to the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for further study.

The Assembly then disapproved two overtures that would have reaffirmed the traditional understanding of marriage, and voted to answer a number of overtures calling for change by the previous action to send the majority and minority reports from the Special Committee for study. This action left those hoping for a change in policy frustrated by no sign of movement.

demonstrators calling for reconsideration of action on Committee 12, July 9, 2010The next morning when I walked to the Convention Center through the skywalk I passed demonstrators calling for the Assembly to reconsider the action. I don't know whether this sign-posting and sign-holding violated any rules, but they never slowed up my walk to the Convention Center.

During the morning session there was a motion to reconsider the previous night's action. It was debated at length and defeated.

In the afternoon the Assembly approved changes to the Pension Plan that would extend spousal and dependent benefits to same-gender domestic partners of plan members.

Then came the report of the Assembly Committee on Church Polity, in the middle of which the Soulforce protesters entered the Assembly hall. The timing of this protest is significant to me. The issue is not that it came after a series of successes for those working for full inclusion of LGBTQ Presbyterians. (John Shuck puts the protest in the larger context of the General Assembly's actions on LGBTQ issues. Antony offers a critique of the view that people should be happy with "a few legislative crumbs.") What is significant to me is the specific item the Assembly was considering when the protest began. The Assembly was discussing Item 05-21, a proposed authoritative interpretation about authoritative interpretations - a topic that may appear to some as a highly obscure point of Presbyterian Polity, but one which could have had significant implications.

In order to explain what I want to say about the protest, I need to make a brief digression to explain Item 05-21. (Dan Saperstein offers a detailed explanation of the issues, with which I largely agree. But it is interesting that Dan's article makes no mention of the protest that interrupted debate on 05-21.)

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has two ways of getting authoritative interpretations of the constitution. One way is that the General Assembly in plenary, after being advised by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, may adopt an authoritative interpretation by a majority vote. The other way is that when the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission is deciding a case or appeal, it may authoritatively interpret the constitution. The most recent authoritative interpretation is binding upon the whole church.

The question that was being debated was whether the authoritative interpretations by the General Assembly in plenary have an authority that trumps the ability of the General Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission when it is deciding a case. They don't, but an argument can be made to suggest otherwise, and a minority on the Assembly Committee on Church Polity offered such an argument.

The argument for this view depended on painting the GA PJC as just another commission of the General Assembly. The counter-argument, if there were commissioners ready to make it, would have been that unlike other commissions that the Assembly might appoint, the GA had no choice about whether to form its PJC, and could not give its PJC instructions, except perhaps to meet at a specific time and place.

It had been suggested to me that the energy for the minority report came from certain recent decisions of the GA PJC that included dicta apparently contrary to the clear intention of more progressive authoritative interpretations rendered by recent assemblies.

I had heard the argument for the minority view a couple times before Item 05-21 came up. Each time I had heard it, I found it difficult to grasp. Short of some appeal to emotion that would motivate the commissioners to support it, the success of the argument would require the Assembly commissioners to give it their undivided attention.

In the floor debate the proponents of this minority view carefully placed the elements of their argument before the assembly. They had a good rhythm, and were skillfully creating the impression that their view was rising out of the full body.

Enter the Soulforce protesters.

Moderator Bolbach stopped the proceedings, rebuked others who started to boo the protesters, had the Assembly sing and then pray, then let the Assembly be in a brief recess while the police came and removed the protesters.

During that short break the ACC huddled near our table to vote on verbal advice (that we would never give, as it turned out).

When the Assembly came back to order to continue debate, those on the podium needed to remind each other (and the commissioners) what they had been doing before the protest started. The debate continued, but with much less commissioner participation and more comments from Microphone 9 (the one used by elected members of the Assembly). The minority report was not approved, and the assembly approved the committee's recommendation.

Why? Part of me would like to think that it was because the ACC's written and spoken advice was so clear and persuasive. It is also possible that the minority never had enough votes to succeed from the beginning. But it is also possible that the interruption by the group of protesters tilted the playing field of the debate against the committee minority.

I'm glad this vote turned out the way it did, but I wonder: Did the hand of God intervene through that group of Soulforce protesters to protect the Assembly from making a mistake?

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Upcoming worship opportunities

I'll be preaching in a number of different churches over the next few weeks.

July 25, 2010. 9:00 AM at the Crooked Creek Presbyterian Church.
and 10:15 AM at the Appleby Manor Presbyterian Church

August 1, 2010. 9:30 AM at the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

August 8, 2010. 9:30 AM at the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church
and 11:15 AM at the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church

August 15, 2010, 10:00 AM at the Boiling Springs Presbyterian Church

August 22, 2010, 10:00 AM at the Cross Roads Community Presbyterian Church

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

About those manuals

FOG-cover-th.PNGJust a week ago the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and Revised Form of Government, with a number of amendments, and submitted the documents to the presbyteries for their approval.

One of the significant changes in this form of government has to do with increased flexibility in each of the governing bodies (called "councils" in the proposal). If approved, this flexibility will come with new responsibilities at every level of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In the months before the General Assembly, I heard numerous people voicing concern about the manuals required by the Revised Form of Government. The current manual provision in the Book of Order at G-9.0405 has mandated manuals of administrative operations for every governing body above the session since 1984. It would be reasonable to assume that these manuals exist by now, and do not require radical revision.

The new manual provision in the Revised Form of Government at G-3.0106 would mandate manuals for each council. This would give sessions the responsibility to develop manuals, if they have not already done so. Contrary to the fears voiced by opponents of the Revised Form of Government that it was a charter for presbyteries to control sessions, the manual provision would give sessions a charter for taking ownership of how they will participate in God's mission in the world.

If the task of developing a manual at the session level seems daunting, sessions will be able to start with the handbooks approved along with the Revised Form of Government. In many cases, the session may already have addressed questions asked in the handbooks, and will already have established policies that can be gathered into the session's manual.

Without regard for whether the presbyteries will approve the Revised Form of Government, it would be a healthy exercise for sessions to review the questions asked in the handbooks and determine whether they need to develop additional policies.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

In Minneapolis for GA219

waterfall fountain in park near Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis

My feet are already getting tired and sore from all the walking but there are some very attractive sites near the Convention Center. The waterfall in this park reminds me of the theme of this General Assembly, "Rivers of Living Water."

portico at Minneapolis Convention Center

kiosk announcing new website

Happy Cog has redesigned the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website. Its a nice, new look.

When the redesign first was rolled out this week, there were a number of broken links. Those seem to be getting fixed pretty quickly.

There are other technical difficulties during this assembly. The usual voting system had been destroyed in a warehouse fire. The assembly is using a wireless voting system, but during the election of the moderator, there were problems with making sure that everyone's vote registered.

I appreciated the Sunday worship service. The Order of Worship was a much thinner handout than we usually get. I am sure it saved a lot of paper as well as expense for the assembly. These are good things. Unfortunately, during worship the lighting was dim in a lot of areas, and I found the handouts virtually unreadable. This was compounded by the projection screens not carrying much of the liturgical information for the various responsive parts of the serviced. We usually have a necrology report listing the ministers who have died since the last assembly. This long list was projected on the screen at a pace that made it hard to read. Maybe I will find the list available somewhere else, such as on PC-Biz.

Minneapolis skyline from below

Sunday afternoon I gave a short talk to Assembly Committee 07. I discovered a few hours ago that a reporter in the room had written a news story about it.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

They must love the smell of sticker shock in the morning

Overheard at breakfast in a hotel restaurant:

Customer: Excuse me, where are the prices on the menu?

Waiter: Those are the numbers...

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