Not everything at General Assembly has been gratifying. I’d like to reflect on two points of acute frustration.
The first frustration arose near the end of the report of Committee 5- Mid-Councils. We spent a great deal of time on the plenary floor on Thursday on the report of this committee. Throughout the report the various parliamentary machinations that slowed us down all evidenced a deep lack of trust in the councils (governing bodies) of our denomination. (An example– I can’t remember the specifics at the moment, but the committee was recommending that GA staff members prepare some sort of resource, and there was an attempt on the floor to form a task force to do this– it seemed we didn’t trust the staff in Louisville to get the task done.)
This lack of trust, to my eye, suggests a need for change… big change… radical change in the way that we live church. And yet, at the end of that report the committee recommended that we rescind an action of the prior General Assembly that called for Synods (larger, regional governing bodies) to make a plan for re-drawing their boundaries, reducing the overall number of Synods. This call from the 221st General Assembly, which we were being asked to rescind, was an invitation to significant change in the councils of our church. Attached to this majority recommendation was a minority report that called for a body to be formed who would apply pressure for change and effect change if synod leaders don’t make it happen themselves within 8 months of the close of the Assembly. I strongly favored the minority opinion as Synods (to my eye) have avoided change when left to their own devices (unable to bring proposals for change after two years time?? not engaging with resources in the denomination happy to help?). And I have some empathy– jobs are on the line. It’s hard to lead change that might cost you your job.
But I also haven’t heard a robust case made for why we even need Synods anymore. I don’t believe Synods made that case at this Assembly, as the fruit of their labor the past two years. And I frankly think that, at this point, dissolving Synods and redistributing their resources to their member presbyteries is the way to go. If we can’t have less of them and the potential new opportunities for collaboration and embodiment of the mission of the larger church that a reduction of the number of Synods could bring, then I say have none of them.
But instead, when given an opportunity to force change (if only on a small scale) in some of the councils in which this Assembly was evidencing a lack of trust, we gave the Synods a pass. Keep doing what you’re doing. Never mind what you were charged to do. What?
I almost made a substitute motion to dissolve synods and redistribute their resources. But I was afraid, at that late point in a LONG report, that someone might shoot me. And I was afraid of how that would hurt people I love who work for Synods. And so I didn’t. I voted against the majority report when that became the main motion and let that be that. Frustrated…
And now on to frustration 2– Later in the meeting, during the report from the committee on polity and church order, a recommendation was presented to us that we revert to the title “Minister of Word and Sacrament” to describe ordained pastoral/clerical leaders in our denomination away from “Teaching Elder” which became our title when the new form of government took effect several years ago. “Teaching Elder” is not a new term. It was plucked from other usage in Presbyterian past. It is, in the current form of government, juxtaposed with “Ruling Elders”– those lay leaders ordained as decision-makers in our polity. So we have three ordained offices– “Teaching Elders,” “Ruling Elders,” and “Deacons” in our church at present. And Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders work together in the higher councils of the church (presbytery, synod, and General Assembly) to make decisions that effect the whole church– hence our Presbyterian name– Presbyter meaning elder; we are a church governed by elders (not bishops… nor congregations…)
Our theology of ordination teaches parity between clergy and laity– and is backed up by the practice of ORDAINING lay folks. Those ordained are set apart from the rest of the body only by function– to fulfill needed functions for the good of the order of the church. The current titles are far more effective at reminding us of the parity between offices in the church and the functional differences between us. Yes, I know, that Teaching Elders/pastors do more than teach… that is not the only function of a pastor. And it could be said that Ruling Elders do more than rule. But the core, distinguishing function of our clerical office, as I understand it, is the work of teaching the faith– proclaiming the gospel, equipping the saints for the work of ministry. And the core distinguishing function of our lay elders is governance. Too often members and even ruling elders in Presbyterian congregations want their pastors to make all the decisions– they want their pastors to be CEOs, but… that is not what we were ordained to do. Teaching Elders/pastors MODERATE church sessions (the board of ruling elders in Presbyterian congregations)– we facilitate the decision-making process of this board. We can cast vision, but a healthy session will make that vision their own, or reject that vision if they feel it is not God’s will. The titles Teaching Elder and Ruling Elder help to remind us of our distinctive functions and of the fact that we are in this together– two forms of the same basic thing.
But the prior title– Minister of Word and Sacrament– the title I bore for most of the first decade of my pastoral ministry, is much less effective at communicating what we believe ordination to mean. First of all, all baptized members of the church are ministers– servants of Christ. Why call only some ministers? And secondly, my bigger concern is with the rest of the title– “of Word and Sacrament.” Reformed Christians stand with other Protestants in affirming that the church is to be identified in the world by only two marks– Word and Sacrament (word rightly preached– and heard, Calvin adds– and sacraments properly administered). When, in our very title, the two visible marks of the church are attached to one office of the church, I believe this leads to too much of the church’s identity being tied to this office– who we ARE as a church rides on our clergy; when you want to see the church in the world, look to our clergy. This undercuts the parity at the heart of our theology of ordination. It obscures the purely functional nature of ordination.
American Presbyterians, for our entire history, have had vigorous fights about who should be ordained to this one office of the church. These fights have often led to division. This observation is part of what drove my dissertation project. While I don’t think that a change in titles alone will exorcize a tendency to elevate one office of the church above the rest (a practical tendency that runs counter to our theology of ordination), I think a change in titles, particularly for use in house– when we are gathered in the councils of our church making decisions together– is an important tool. I understand that we are unlikely to identify as “Teaching Elders” at the hospital or even in ecumenical gatherings. We likely won’t even ask parishioners to call us “Teaching Elders.” This work we do has many names– and we should use the title that works in those contexts in which we find ourselves. And nothing on the books keeps us from pluriform identification. When I was identified formally as “Minister of Word and Sacrament,” I was, most everywhere, Pastor Sarah. When identified formally as “Teaching Elder,” I have been, most everywhere, Pastor Sarah. But at presbytery and general assembly I am a Teaching Elder Commissioner, serving side by side with Ruling Elders, reminded, by our titles, that we are in this together, equally empowered to lead the church.
But now presbyteries are being asked to change our constitution back. I voted against this change, but did not speak on the floor about it. This is my greatest regret from this assembly. There were so many red paddles, I thought “Why add another voice?” But I heard no one make the argument I have to make… who knows if my voice would have made a difference. But I regret that I didn’t try. I may try to influence the presbytery response to this change… it won’t take effect unless a majority of presbyteries approve it. I commit to writing about this and talking about it with whomever will listen. This will be my penance for failing to speak on the floor. Beginning now…