I recently read a “letter to the congregation” from the clerk of session to the people of one of the largest congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The clerk was addressing the issue of the denomination’s redefinition of marriage, the ongoing vote in the presbyteries, the position of their particular church, and the concern being raised by members about a lack of communication or sense of direction on the issue.
This happens to be a very large membership congregation in a culturally conservative city but in a presbytery that voted to approve same-sex marriages in PCUSA churches by PCUSA clergy. The people read about it in the secular press and the clerk is apologizing that the leadership did not communicate more effectively.
Now you’re wondering, “Why bring it up here on Layman Online?” Because the clerk of session says several things in the letter that are worth surfacing for conversation.
In the opening, closing and middle paragraph of the one page letter, the author refers to “the next General Assembly meeting in May.”
Fact Check: The General Assembly of the PCUSA meets biennially in even numbered years. The next meeting of the GA is not until the summer of 2016.
Is it possible that no one in this many-thousand member congregation knows that? Is it possible that those who read and approved the letter’s inclusion in the church newsletter do not know when or how often the GA meets? What does that communicate to the people of the congregation about the leadership’s engagement with the denomination at the most basic level?
The other troubling thing about the letter is the misunderstanding of the role of the elders and the session evidenced in sentences like these:
- “Since elders are voted on by the congregation, we are expected to act as representatives of our church body.”
- “In my opinion, the members of this session are, as always, very representative of our congregation of which a majority likely feels as (the senior minister) does that marriage should remain as defined in the Bible.”
- “Just as some members of our congregation have different opinions on this issue, so do some on the session and we need to be sensitive to that.”
- “I am confident the sense of the session is the sense of the congregation, which is as it should be.”
No mention of the role of the elder as a representative of Christ, selected and set apart by God (yes, through the voice of the congregation), to serve as His representative, leading the people always and in all ways to do His will.
No mention of the role of the session in discerning the mind of Christ in leading the people of God – regardless of the opinions of various members or even the “sense of the congregation.”
No mention of following God’s pleasing and perfect will, “which is as it should be.”
If the session is just an assemblage of folks who reflect the “sense of the congregation,” in what sense are they the spiritual leaders of the church?
I find the lack of understanding of the role of the elder, Godly leadership, the issues of purity, holiness, marital fidelity and even the lack of accuracy related to system of Presbyterian governance and the cycle of voting, most disturbing. We are where we are in the life of the PCUSA in part because ruling elders have abdicated spiritual authority over the life of the congregation. It is time for elders to reclaim the mantle of leadership and lead as those who have the very authority of Christ for the life of the Church. And if they do not, they should not be surprised when the members of the church call them out for their failures.