Reflections from the Presbytery of Lake Erie
The last three days of general Assembly business can feel like ‘drinking from a fire hose.’ Decisions, upon decisions, upon decisions. With over 700 people voting it is simply not possible for everyone to speak to every issue. And with dozens of motions there is plenty of opportunity for differing perspectives. Of course, many of the items are included in the omnibus motion but others require healthy dialogue. Having said that, your commissioners (along with 700 of their closest friends) have been busy addressing these items:
SATURDAY, JUNE 25
- The General Assembly concluded with a presentation from the host presbytery – Giddings-Lovejoy – about the 223rd General Assembly, which will be held in June 2018.
- Established General Assembly per capita to fund our work at the national level for 2017 of $7.50 per member and 2018 of $7.73 per member.
- Concluded with worship of God.
Other topics – too numerous to mention in this brief summary – also captured the attention of your commissioners. All five of your commissioners – Al Bennett, Rick Cepris, Sue Mueller, Nicola Vitiello and Megan Whiteman – worked very hard in seeking to discern God’s will. You can hear more from them on Tuesday, June 28, at the presbytery meeting.
This was a General Assembly where there was an increased level of cooperation. They took actions on particularly symbolic and historic items, including:
- The adoption of the Belhar Confession. This is an historic moment for the global village in which we live.
- Recommendations to clarify the Directory for Worship. These recommendations will come to the presbyteries for discussion and vote in the coming months.
- The election of the first African American Stated Clerk of the denomination – Rev. J. Herbert Nelson. This is particularly important in a time where racial relationships are highly visible in the world in which we live.
- Reconciliation efforts were clearly evident – in terms of racial issues as well as actions toward the LGBTQ/Q community.
- The Way Forward Committee laid out ambitious pathway toward discussions that could have an impact for many years to come.
FRIDAY, JUNE 24
Friday morning began with the election of a Stated Clerk. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons had served for eight years and had announced his intention to retire a number of months ago. The committee to review applicants recommended Rev. J. Herbert Nelson. David M. Baker also was nominated. Thirty minutes were provided for questions to the candidates. Rev. J. Herbert Nelson was elected as the new Stated Clerk for a four year term. He is the first African American to fill this position in the PCUSA.
In the Church Polity and Ordered Ministry report on Friday morning the proposed overture from Lake Erie was officially disapproved. While disappointing to some there continue to options on the topic of electronic meetings.
Several overtures dealt with teaching elders who have renounced jurisdiction of the church and their re-involvement in Presbyterian congregations. For further information on this topic it is best to refer to the reports from Committee 6, Church Polity and Ordered Ministry and the actions taken by General Assembly.
One of the key committees this year at General Assembly was ‘The Way Forward’ Committee. The committee acknowledges that substantive discussion could be quite valuable given the current pressures within the denomination. Two groups were established. One group is a commission of 12, with rather wide ranging authority, to talk with the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the Stated Clerk about the best way forward. The second group, titled Vision 2020 team, to develop a guiding statement for the denomination and make a plan for its implementation. This action will generate lively debate on future directions for the church.
In recent months there has been an increased discussion in the PCUSA about fossil fuels. In fact the General Assembly committee voted to recommend a reduction in Presbyterian investments in companies that are involved in the sale of fossil fuels, however, the entire Assembly voted overwhelmingly to stay on the current course while continuing discussion on the best way forward on this topic.
THURSDAY, JUNE 23
- Discussion over care policies for children as well as senior citizens and the referral of resources to churches on this matter. This action urged sessions, presbyteries, synods and General Assembly to evaluate their family leave policies.
- After several years of discussion it was voted to retain the current configuration of 16 Synods. This has been a dialogue for a number of years. The vote was 72% to 28%.
- Other presbytery boundaries were altered with mergers and other transitions.
- Retiring Stated Clerk Grayde Parsons was honored for his eight years of service to the PCUSA.
- ‘The Way Forward’ Committee recommended the formation of a commission of 12 people who would address a wide range of issues. Central to their work is discussion on whether the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the Stated Clerk might function more effectively if they are combined in some fashion. This would, of course, take a great deal of discerning discussion but the Assembly approved this by a significant majority.
- Actions were taken to make the pay scale from highest to lowest at the Presbyterian Mission Agency no more than a 5 to 1 ratio. It will take some time to accomplish this.
- The General Assembly voted to endorse the proposed overture concerning the African American male. This was an overture that the Presbytery of Lake Erie had also endorsed. The one major revision is that the original recommendation of $5,000,000 to support this effort was not included in the motion adopted by the Assembly.
- Statements were adopted in relation to resources on reconciliation, white privilege, racism, apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Hawaiian Natives.
- Statements were also adopted in relationship to inclusiveness of all God’s people and apology for harm done to the LGBTQ/Q community.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22
Where do you go for answers to ‘sticky’ issues for the Committee on Ministry? How do you respond to dilemmas that emerge in the Committee on Preparation for Ministry? What are some of the most recent publications of John Knox Press and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation? You have a yearning for peace ministries. Where do you go for information? These questions – and many others – were answered on Wednesday morning in a variety of educational opportunities for commissioners and other church leaders.
Wednesday also was the time for Ecumenical Service of Worship in which Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church preached. This is a particularly colorful service in which mission partners from around the world participate in worship leadership and celebrating the sacrament of communion.
The afternoon turned to General Assembly business. Included were many actions on the consent agenda. Not every action is recorded here but some of the highlights include:
- Approval of Rev. Dr. David Esterline as president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Dr. Leanne Van Dyk as president of Columbia Theological Seminary. Esterline, who spoke in Lake Erie Presbytery last November, was actually installed to his new office on May 9, 2016, however, the General Assembly approved him as president.
- A newly revised Directory for Worship was approved. This document has been discussed and reviewed for a number of years. It will go to presbytery for vote in the coming months.
- The ‘Affirmation of Creation’ document experienced the first extremely close vote (305-264) in favor of approval. Ruling Elder Al Bennett of Lake Erie Presbytery spoke on the plenary floor to this document.
- The final adoption of the Belhar Confession (94% to 6%). Belhar is the first confession included within the Book of Confession which originated in the southern hemisphere. It is a significant tool as the world looks at reconciliation at a time of escalating division. Immediately following the adoption of Belhar representatives of the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa, including Alan Boesak, spoke with great passion about what this action by the PCUSA means to the Reformed Christians of South Africa.
A final daily update will be sent out on Monday, June 27. You are encouraged to follow the business in the next two days on www.pc-biz.org. And you are also warmly encouraged to hear from your commissioners next Tuesday at the Presbytery meeting at the Fairview Church. They will lead worship as well as the open space discussions. You won’t want to miss it!
TUESDAY, JUNE 21
Committees have completed their work at General Assembly. In a whirlwind of prayer, questions, answers, discussions, motions, substitute motions and recommendations a multitude of recommendations emerged. Tuesday evening is generally an ‘open’ night at General Assembly, as most of the committees complete their work by late afternoon. After a great deal of work your commissioners enjoyed a casual evening me together. In addition to all five of your commissioners they were joined by Lyn Cepris, Bill Holmes and David Oyler. Great conversation in which they all shared what God has been up to in their committees as well as the experiences they have had with others.
Tomorrow through Saturday morning there are at least three categories of motions that will come to the plenary sessions:
- Motions that are quite straightforward with no controversy. Included in this category might be:
- Approval of seminary presidents (like David Esterline at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) who have been selected since the last General Assembly.
- Review of minutes from the previous General Assembly.
- Reports from our mission partners around the world.
- Reports from organizations like the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and the Presbyterian Foundation that are generally not controversial but quite important.
- Motions that have broad consensus but are still very important. Included would be:
- The final ratification of the Belhar Confession. At this point this action is primarily a formality but it is the first time in more than two decades that a new confession has been added to the Book of Confessions.
- The increase in experience apportionments for pension benefits for pastors.
- Motions around which there are more strongly held positions. Some of them may be controversial. Some of them may make the newspaper. (If you see actions taken over which you have questions you are encouraged to speak with one of your commissioners or David Oyler for further discussion.) Included may be:
- Statements about fossil fuels.
- The Way Forward Committee which has engaged in conversation about a significant redesign of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the Stated Clerk.
- The election of a new Stated Clerk to a four year term. There are two candidates – J. Herbert Nelson (recommended by the committee) and David Baker. The Clerk will be selected Friday morning.
- Statements on Middle East issues.
- The possible restructuring of Synods.
- The plight of the African American male, an overture that the Presbytery of Lake Erie had endorsed.
- Various other social justice issues.
The next three days are full ones for your commissioners. Pray with them as they make decisions on behalf of the larger church!
MONDAY, JUNE 20
Monday is always a very busy day at General Assembly. The committees – all 14 of them – are hard at work. Of course, you have to realize that a committee has around 60 to 70 people serving on each one. Not quite like a local church Session meeting! In their deliberations they will come to vote on a number of proposed overtures. Their recommendations will then go to the plenary session that will run from Wednesday to Saturday.
A few points of particular interest from the committee discussions:
- The recommendation of Committee 4, Church Polity and Ordered Ministry, is to disapprove the overture from Lake Erie Presbytery. The committee vote was 16 in favor; 42 opposed. While that is not the final vote of the General Assembly it does certainly provide a recommendation. (Your overture advocate – Ruling Elder Bill Holmes – did a splendid and articulate job of speaking on behalf of the overture despite the recommended disapproval.)
- Some of the committees engaged in conversation that were filled with thoughtful, and opposing, positions. It is a delightful way to recognize that faithful Christians can hold opposite positions yet still claim the same Savior. Included in their discussions on recommendations that will make their way to the plenary session:
- ‘The Way Forward Committee’ which is beginning to engage in conversation on whether the Program Mission Agency and the Office of the Stated Clerk ought to be combined, or redesigned, in some fashion.
- Statements on immigration matters as well as fossil fuel issues. This is the committee on which Teaching Elder Nicola Vitiello is serving.
- Continuing discussions on Middle East issues. This is the committee on which Teaching Elder Rick Cepris is serving.
- Reports are being finalized as well on social justice issues as well as ecumenical and interfaith relationships, the committee on which Young Adult Advisory Delegate Megan Whitman is serving.
- Theological issues, as well as actions in relationship to the Presbyterian seminaries, the committee on which Ruling Elder Al Bennett is serving.
- Mission decisions will also be recommended on, the committee on which Ruling Elder Sue Mueller is serving.
Your commissioners had a very full day on Monday; and they still have a number of days to go. Pray for their ability to be energized and to listen and discern well. And to get some rest!!
More to following Wednesday morning!
SATURDAY, JUNE 18
SUNDAY, JUNE 19
Greetings from Portland!!
General Assembly is off to a great start as Presbyterian Christians from across the country and ecumenical delegates from around the world have gathered! And your five commissioners from the Presbytery of Lake Erie are hard at work. You are encouraged to pray for them as they discern God’s will across the coming days. Those five commissioners:
Ruling Elder Al Bennett, Bethel Church, Cranesville
Teaching Elder Rick Cepris, Emmanuel Church, Erie
Ruling Elder Sue Mueller, Girard Church
Teaching Elder Nicola Vitiello, Girard Church
Young Adult Advisory Delegate Megan Whitman, Fairview Church
A few statistics as this special week begins. As of May 24, 2016 the following were registered:
141 young adult advisory delegates
20 theological student advisory delegates
8 missionary advisory delegates
14 ecumenical advisory delegates
In addition, more than 1,700 others are registered and 1,000 volunteers from Presbyterian Churches across the northwest.
Even more important than numbers are other significant items:
- The young adult advisory delegates are divided into 4 groups of about 35 youth. Megan Whitman, of Lake Erie Presbytery, was selected as Co-moderator of one of those groups. It speaks well of her developing Christian faith that she was chosen. (By the way, Megan will be a freshman at John Carroll University in the fall. Keep her – and her faith formation — in your prayers.)
- On Saturday evening Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson were elected co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly. Jan, from Chicago Presbytery, and Denise, from National Capital Presbytery, will bring energy to their task. The rules have been changed recently to allow for co-moderators. This change was initiated due to the fact that it is now a two year term and often difficult for one person to commit the time that is demanded across two years.
- General Assembly can be followed by accessing pc-biz.org. Later in the week you can also watch a live streaming of the proceedings. Spend some time learning about the ministry of your church in Portland!
More to follow as God’s work is done in Portland.