A few days ago I heard some buzz on Twitter and Facebook about a letter from some pastors in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA). People said it had showed up in my inbox, so I didn't pay any attention to the buzz--if the letter was meant for me, I would have received it, surely. And then a facebook friend posted the letter with the question, "what do you think of this?"
Here is a link to the complete letter, as published in the Presbyterian Outlook: "Pastors call for denomination to be “radically transformed” I encourage you to go read the letter. I'm not going to excerpt it, I am simply responding, because apparently it was written to the whole denomination. But go to the link and read it.
My first response was rather strong. All 45 signers on this letter are men. This doesn't mean that the letter has no merit, but it does mean that my first words were, "Please see yourselves out, boys."
The letter began with the greeting, "Brothers and Sisters in Christ." By itself that seems fairly innocuous, but I have been to my share of presbytery meetings over the last 15 years in 3 different presbyteries. When somebody begins a statement "Brothers and Sisters in Christ" or "My Esteemed Colleagues" or "Beloved Brethren" or any number of other endearments, the next words are bound to be something controversial--an insult disguised as concern, judgment clothed in love, an attempt to sugarcoat hard words. I've learned not to trust that greeting. I try hard not to use it.
The letter details the decline of our denomination (which is true of most mainline Christian denominations) over the last 40 years. And then it says this: "Homosexual ordination has been the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years. Yet, that issue — with endless, contentious “yes” and “no” votes — masks deeper, more important divisions within the PC(USA)."
It is easy to get caught up in this statement--I just backspaced over two paragraphs of my thoughts on this. But I believe the reference to homosexuality is a distraction--similar to the distraction of collecting only male signatures. It is a distraction intended to rile up those of us on the liberal edges of the denomination, thus further alienating the center and making the point for these pastors. The reference to meeting with the leadership of Covenant Network is also a distraction--this letter is not at all in keeping with the vision and mission of Covenant Network (and they have not yet responded).
Presbyterian polity smooths out the difference between large churches and small churches in our denomination. Every pastor has one vote. Every congregation gets one vote. Additional elder votes are granted to larger churches. Occasionally we add additional elder commissioners to balance between elders and ministers of the word and sacrament. This grants to small churches political power disproportionate to their size. It's how we do it in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and I imagine it is very frustrating for those who lead large churches. The writers of that letter are not just entirely men, they are also pastors of very large churches, commanding impressive budgets. A few statistics about the churches whose pastors signed this letter:
The smallest congregation has 190 members and an annual budget of $375,000. The next smallest has 591 members with an annual budget of $1,071,980. Of the 43 churches represented (not counting Presbyterians for Renewal), the average membership is 2309 members with an average annual budget of $3,765, 269. (All my statistics came from the pcusa's online membership stats published for the year 2009. These numbers are self-reported by the churches themselves.)
The tiny church I serve has 25 members. Our annual budget is $50,000. That is one-tenth of the annual deficit of the large PCUSA church next door in 2009. I work on a 1/3 time salary with no benefits. We worship, we visit the sick, we eat together, we care for our building. We do not have a color copier--or even a copier contract. I picked up our current black & white from Staples on sale for $179. It sporadically allows me to print 2-sided.
I say this to acknowledge that this letter indeed was not meant for me. The people I serve do not wish to attend a church with 2309 members. We'd be real happy with 50, and we're working on a process to get ourselves there.
I'm not everybody's cup of tea as a pastor--honestly, how many people go church shopping and think "Gee, I'd love it if the pastor was a divorced, queer woman?" But I am a pastor who serves a community. And more broadly I am connected with people who would not step foot in a church, but who sense in my own oddness that I might understand their life.
Would I love to serve a tall steeple church? Well sure. There's great work there, a healthy salary and housing assistance. There's medical insurance, for Pete's sake. I'd love a color copier and a Sunday school bigger than 3. I'd love the energy that comes from a room full of hundreds of people all buzzing for Christ. But that's not where I've been called.
My response to my "Brothers and Sisters in Christ," who wish to be well rid of me in this denomination, is that you are free to go--I'm not holding you back. But I do not have words for my sorrow at your clear contempt for who I am and my ministry.
Since we have not yet passed the nFOG, may I draw your attention to G-4.0000, Chapter IV of our Book of Order, "The Church and Its Unity"? I know I'm not the first to point to this chapter, so why belabor the point? And I know we could go back and forth citing the Book of Order and the Confessions and Scripture, and I know that we would remain entrenched in our positions, regardless of how many times we called each other Brother or Sister in Christ's name.
What I am wondering is this: why are you holding the rest of the church responsible for the declines in your own memberships? Because when I looked at the membership gains and losses for the same period of 2009, the 43 churches attached to this letter declined by an average of 52 members that year, or 2%. Some gained, others lost, but you too are seeing the decline. I do not blame you for the losses in my own tiny church. It is not the responsibility of the tall steeple, more conservative church in the next township, that my own church is not growing. We have real concerns within our own fellowship and township we are attending to. But I don't blame you. I celebrate that a person who does not find God at my tiny church can go next door and perhaps encounter Her there. I have even shared table with the pastors from next door, although I'll admit it was a bit uneasy.
It's not that I begrudge you leaving. It's not that I think I'm righteously entitled to stay. It is the contempt and disrespect with which you choose to fire your warning shot. Let me offer an example from Twitter*:
A few weeks ago one of my Twitter followers tweeted an announcement: "I have drastically cut back on my followers and people I follow. If you can see this tweet, consider yourself lucky." Sure enough, I checked, and I was one of the people he had unfollowed. I then watched a dozen people tweet their relief to this guy, "Wow, thanks for keeping me in the in crowd". "Whew! Glad I made the cut!" Etc. I unfollowed him, although we've had several good conversations over the last two years. But what I remember is that he felt the need to broadcast his disrespect for me--it wasn't enough to quietly let go and unfollow.
It was just a Twitter connection. This is just a church denomination. Most of you I have never met, you don't pay my rent, I don't bring you soup when you're sick. But I wonder at your need to make others feel small. And I think that might be the start of a good and healthy conversation, my Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ.
*And mea culpa. For in writing of this Twitter example, I have made another feel small. Remembering to pick at the log in my own eye is so dang hard.
A final update for those of you following this little drama: my Tweep and I made up and shook hands. A happy ending after all. And dang if he wasn't incredibly gracious about it too.
Other responses to the letter:
"Future of the Church" by Cynthia Bolbach, Landon Whitsitt and Gradye Parsons
"Presbyterian Big Shots" by John Shuck
A response from Presbyterian Voices for Justice
"From the Voice of a Young (and proud) Presbyterian" by Krista @ Rooted in Faith
"For Such a Time as These" by Sean Chow
GA Junkie's Analysis by Stephen Salyards