In Los Ranchos Presbytery you won’t find clandestine meetings of segregated groups of presbyters happening behind closed doors. A fresh wind of the Spirit has led them to engage in an open season of presbytery-wide discernment together. The third event, held Saturday, April 27, featured diverse voices, including Laird Stuart, Jack Haberer and Dana Allin, and the subject matter was both deep and wide.
The three were intentionally chosen to represent a variety of viewpoints on issues confronting congregations in discernment today. Stuart represented the viewpoint of those who are more progressive and appreciate the direction the denomination is moving. Haberer represented those who self-describe as evangelical and who are staying, while Allin represented those who are leaving.
Saturday’s event was part of Los Ranchos Presbytery’s presbytery-wide process that “came about when many churches on their own and in clusters were struggling with the direction of the national denomination,” according to Mike Conan, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Lakewood, Calif., and a member of Los Ranchos Presbytery.
Conan said, “Most of us were having a positive experience in our local presbytery, but felt the decisions coming from GA and especially the change to 10A were too big for some of us. We even got to the point of proposing a new gracious separation policy. But, then something radical happened. One of our local leaders, Doug Rumford from Trinity United, felt like we needed to bring everything out into the open. He felt that we as a presbytery should discern our missional vision, our theological convictions and our denominational affiliation out in the open together, without threat of repercussions.”
That idea gained traction, and Conan said, “The presbytery voted almost unanimously to listen to each other and discuss the issues and concerns together, this was appealing to everyone, because there was fear that the ‘evangelicals’ were only listening to each other rather than the whole body.” That vote opened up the space for churches that wanted to engage in a season of discernment to do so out in the open.
To get things going, Conan recalled, “We started by gathering everyone into small groups, putting people around tables with people not from their churches with total freedom to lay everything out there — their fears, their concerns, whatever. A lot of presbyters had a lot of issues and the general feel from 250 people that came was of release!”
The presbytery called together a Strategic Coordinating Team (SCT) including Conan. The SCT “gathered up all the questions and concerns and started planning follow up events that would deal with these topics more specifically. The event on Saturday was our third event and I believe it illustrated the freedom and openness we were allowing in our presbytery.”
Following the presentations by Allin, Haberer and Stuart, the three also participated in a panel discussion of three topics:
Reflecting, Conan offered, “I thought having the three views up front was very helpful. Each speaker was articulate and had a good handle on the issues.”
The process has proved edifying to many, and Conan reflected that, “Throughout the process I have engaged in countless robust conversations within our presbytery, and I could see clearly where the three main worldviews in our presbytery were represented in regard to the issues within our denomination. Many people were surprised at the broad spectrum of beliefs allowed for within the PCUSA. At the same time there was common ground between them as Presbyterians, though admittedly not that much ‘same beliefs,’ at least there were moments where we could see a connection of the three worldviews.”
In terms of feedback from other participants, Conan said that he “heard back from many people that they were so thankful that they could hear it straight from the person’s lips rather than someone’s caricature of someone else. It brought a lot of clarity to a lot of our elders within the presbytery.”
Conan admits that the process has “felt very strange.” Although he is a fourth-generation Presbyterian he admits that he has never heard of anything like, let alone had the privilege of participating in, something like what is happening in Los Ranchos. “I have been so thankful to be a part of a presbytery that is trying to deal with this together out in the open, rather than fearful behind closed doors ‘strategizing.’ Our presbytery Pastor Steve Yamaguchi texted me early on a phrase that he has repeated many times: ‘Together we stand.’ So far it has felt like we are in this together and if some end up moving denominations, they will still be a part of the Los Ranchos family.”
With the event on Saturday, Los Ranchos completed the series of meetings planned on the issues which were raised at that first meeting in January. But the process of discernment is full swing in many churches.
Conan said, “A number of our local congregations are discerning at the local church level as well. This process has kept us accountable and forced us to be honest and as impartial as possible as we discern.”
Part of the process for the presbytery has been a re-write of their property policy.
Conan said, “It was just completed. Our last meeting together in this season of discernment will go over the practical steps needed if a congregation at the end of this journey should desire realignment. As I look around the country our last step seems to be most presbytery’s only step. I am thankful for this season we have had together to understand and listen to each other, I believe all congregations who went through this process have solidified their beliefs and will make wiser decisions.”
You can find resources related to the Los Ranchos process and follow future developments at http://blog.losranchos.org/