Reflections from the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge
General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
FRIDAY, JUNE 24
Business as usual? Hardly so. Not at this General Assembly.
It began with the election of Co-Moderators to serve GA, an historic first in a church that has always elected a Moderator and a Vice-Moderator. Instead of a Moderator leading most of the Assembly assisted occasionally by a Vice-Moderator, our Co-Moderators alternated equally at the podium this year. This kept freshness in the Assembly and helped prevent burnout for the person in the Moderator’s chair. Moreover, this is the first time that the PCUSA has elected two women to serve in the Moderator’s office.
Second, this Assembly approved two major constitutional changes – a recommendation that presbyteries approve a revised “Directory for Worship” as part of our Book of Order, and the addition of “The Belhar Confession” to our Book of Confessions. The revision of the Directory is less about changing the shape of our worship than about making the Directory clearer and more useful for worship planning, but it does include a few substantive changes. Belhar adds to our Book of Confessions a strong statement on the nature of the church’s unity amid its diversity. Moreover, it stands as the first statement in our constitution that comes from our brothers and sisters in the global South. Together, these two constitutional documents will exercise a great impact on the church for many years.
A third unprecedented action was the Assembly’s election of the first African-American to serve as our denomination’s highest officer, Stated Clerk-elect J Herbert Nelson. I have been privileged to count J Hebert as a friend for many years (yes, the “J” is always part of his given name), and can testify unequivocally to his passionate love for our Lord and commitment to his church.
Each of these historic milestones signals a strong current of intent to widen our arms – to one another in leadership and fellowship, and to the surrounding world in evangelism and justice. One marker of these widening arms was the Assembly’s resolve on Middle East peace issues, that the church be equally attentive to the wellness of Israelis and Palestinians. Another marker is the Presbyterian Foundation’s promotion of positive investment in business and education as a primary means for helping Palestinians and Israelis alike, a story told on this video that Moderator Edmiston urged those present to share around the church.
Yesterday saw debate and decisions on some of the most controversial matters before the Assembly. Outcomes of those deliberations are published in the Daily GA News. The thread that runs through those resolutions is that each was a vote to keep dialogue open between those who are at odds in difficult matters, from Israeli-Palestinian peace issues to sexuality divides to fossil fuel industry divestment. GA’s actions demonstrate a confidence that reconciliation, not alienation, is the final word for those who trust in Jesus.
In worship yesterday, Rev. Jerry Andrews reminded the Assembly that our reconciliation with God has been already accomplished in Christ, yet we are called to be reconciled with God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20) Similarly, reconciliation with one another is a gift, yet it requires our intentional commitment. How is that going for us?
THURSDAY, JUNE 23
Portland reality caught up to us today: cool temperatures and all-day rain prevailed, after several days of warm sunshine. Welcome to summer, Pacific Northwest style! This part of the world is perpetually green, due in no small measure to its frequent rain. When Jesus talks about rain falling on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), he is pointing out that God indiscriminately pours out blessing, not hardship. Rain is good, especially in its Portland version of light showers regularly watering God’s green earth.
General Assembly is no light shower, but a torrential downpour of business. Just as a cloudburst can bring traffic to a near-standstill on our highways, so it can be in church business. It happened today, as things got slowed down considerably mid-day by a flood of procedural details. Fortunately, it was able to get back on schedule by the end of the day.
This year’s Assembly included an unprecedented committee on “The Way Forward” for the church. It brought together the recommendations of groups that recently reviewed our national church offices, feedback gleaned from public surveys and meetings initiated by Moderator Heath Rada over the past year, and a number of overtures related to shaping the church’s future. This reflects a growing desire across the church to find some new ways to carry forward Christ’s calling, as well as some real frustration over how things currently stand in our administrative and mission patterns. The Assembly acted to appoint a special “Way Forward Commission” to address (and possibly adjust) our current national office operations, and a “Vision Team 2020” to discern our core identity and mission as Presbyterians amid rapidly changing conditions within and around the church.
This evening our presbyteryâ€™s amended overture on launching programs to address the particular challenges facing African-American men was finally brought before the plenary Assembly. Several commissioners rose to urge the Assembly to pass the overture, whereupon it passed unanimously, followed by a rousing ovation. The church urgently wants this work to go forward! The committee that considered our overture amended its funding plan, essentially asking us to challenge the church to fund this work through special appeals to donors. Considering GA’s enthusiasm for this initiative, I believe we will be well able to do this, with God’s help.
It is most appropriate that our church’s final approval of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in our Book of Confessions, and GA’s approval of our overture petitioning the church to make a difference for African American men, were enacted a mere 24 hours apart. Belhar urges us to act for justice in our Lord’s name, especially in regard to issues of race. As we engage the work that lies before us, let us always remember that it is all for Jesus’ sake.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22
On Wednesday, the General Assembly began meeting as a plenary body, to act on recommendations from its committees that had been meeting earlier in the week. Most committee decisions were affirmed at the outset through an omnibus consent motion — one vote passed them all. To be included on the consent agenda, a committee action needed more than a 75% affirmative committee vote, and to have no constitutional or financial implications for the national church.
The first significant “non-consent-agenda” business item was consideration of a thoroughly revised “Directory for Worship” (part two of our Book of Order). This revision, under preparation for twelve years, is significantly shorter and flows more gracefully than the current version. It includes several substantive changes in our liturgical practice, including the welcome of people to the Lord’s Table on the basis of their interest in following Jesus rather than whether they have been baptized. It also makes celebration of the Lord’s Supper the norm rather than an addition in the Service of the Lord’s Day. The Assembly passed the revised “Directory for Worship” by an enthusiastic voice vote; now, presbyteries need to concur in order for it to become part of our Book of Order in place of the current Directory for Worship.
The second significant action of Wednesday’s plenary Assembly was the final approval, by a 94-6% margin, of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in our Book of Confessions. A super-majority of presbyteries already affirmed it after the 221st General Assembly recommended its adoption, but it needed the ratification of the 222nd General Assembly to authorize its inclusion.
In yesterday’s letter I noted that the various GA committees seemed to be better equipped this year to consider difficult matters by virtue of having first engaged the Bible studies they had undertaken together. If you would like to access those Bible studies for use in your particular situation, please find them here.
One more highlight — Wednesday the seminaries offered luncheons to their alumni and supporters. As a member of the Board of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I attended the PTS luncheon, where faculty member Dr. Roger Owens offered a compelling address on the critical significance of letting go, drawing upon the story of Simeon’s request that the Lord let him go in peace after he had seen the baby Jesus. (Luke 2:29-32) What is the Lord asking us to let go, if we are to embrace fully God’s future for our life together?
TUESDAY, JUNE 21
Most of the General Assembly committee work was finished yesterday, and this afternoon our plenary sessions begin, during which the Assembly as a whole will vote to approve or disapprove committee recommendations on each item of business. Many of the items will be on a consent agenda that involves no debate; but the more controversial ones will be considered in detail.
A noteworthy feature of this year’s committee work has been the effort of several committees to amend resolutions in order to to bring unanimity or near-unanimity on matters over which they had been initially divided. This was not possible for every controversial proposal, but it did happen for several. It demonstrated the power of working together in good faith when we differ, something that was stressed in the Bible studies that each committee followed at the beginning of each session. Perhaps those studies were the critical key. They could be of great benefit to any group in the church, especially when conflicts arise. Incidentally, these committee-based Bible studies took the place of past years’ practice of conducting plenary worship services on Monday and Tuesday of GA; plenary worship returns today, and will take place each of the remaining days of the Assembly.
Pittsburgh’s overture is a good example of a committee finding its way toward a united outcome after having been initially divided. The overture was docketed for just thirty minutes of conversation on yesterday morning’s agenda, but the committee quickly discovered that while it applauded the intent of the overture, it was deeply divided about both the scope and the funding of our proposed project. And so they went to work on it, emerging three hours later with an amended version they endorsed unanimously. Some of the success is certainly attributable to the hard work of the committee, but much of it is due to the Holy Spirit’s work in giving the committee a heart to come together, and in helping Rev. Eugene Blackwell stir the committee with his opening statement supporting the overture. His presentation elicited a rousing ovation, setting the tone for the hard work that brought the committee into full agreement on how to move forward. While we do not yet know how the overture will fare in the full Assembly, it is not too early to honor with great thanksgiving the hard work of the whole team that prepared our overture, as well as to Eugene in particular.
MONDAY, JUNE 20
“Death by Committee” — so I heard someone describe a church that was looking for a new pastor, and had cited as its strongest asset that it had lots and lots of great committees. Committees are, of course, necessary for business to get done decently and in order, and I am the first to express gratitude for strong committees. But when doing the work of the church is nothing but committee meeting upon committee meeting…
Well, it can feel rather like that come Tuesday morning at General Assembly. Sunday evening, all day Monday, plus Monday evening, and now it’s Tuesday morning — and all that’s on our horizon is to keep on meeting with this same committee. It is enough to numb even the most ardent soul. Yet it is not in vain — committee recommendations carry great weight in how the full Assembly votes on each item.
Our own delegates are scattered across nine of the thirteen GA Committees. Some are dealing with controversial matters, others with more mundane things. Each is important. The committee dealing with Pittsburgh’s overture was supposed to take it up yesterday evening, but the Moderator of the committee decided that everyone was too tired to do it justice, so the committee went into recess and will consider our overture this morning instead.
Committees may feel like mere bureaucracy, but they actually have a theological basis. When decisions are made by a large group, only a few most extroverted or opinionated people typically get to express their views; but when a group is smaller, a larger percentage can share their wisdom with the body. Each person has a gift of God’s Spirit to contribute for the benefit of all. (1 Corinthians 12:7) Committees are a practical way of making room for each Spirit-gifted member to have an impact on the whole body. Thank God for committees!
But let us remember that the work of the church never ends with committee actions. Even the best of committees are only the staging area for the church’s real work of participating in Jesus’ mission for God’s glory. Committees are helpful, and sometimes necessary, yet they must always point the way to something greater than themselves.
How is it in your congregation, or in our presbytery? Are our committees always mindful that they are serving the church’s larger mission? As we pray for our GA commissioners, plowing through the committee work that they have been assigned, let us pray also for committees in our congregations and presbytery, that the Spirit will guide and empower them always to serve the mission of the whole church rather than their own interests.
SUNDAY, JUNE 19
Sunday is a relatively quiet day at the General Assembly. It is a good time to reflect on the Assembly theme, “The hope in our calling.” (Ephesians 1:18) This theme seems especially relevant as we digest the recent survey figures indicating ongoing numerical decline in PCUSA membership in 2015. Is there any good hope for our future as God’s people known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
On Sunday morning Assembly attendees visited the worship services of numerous local congregations. Some of us attended First Presbyterian Church of Portland, where one of our own members, Craig Barnes, served as guest preacher. He invited us to consider the question of how to maintain hope in a time when all seems to be going wrong. Drawing on the story of Israel’s exile to Babylon, he reminded us that our hope rests not in our present circumstance, but in God’s promise ultimately to make all things right.
The Assembly met in plenary session Sunday afternoon to hear the report of the Stated Clerk Nominating Committee, which nominated the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson of National Capital Presbytery to succeed the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who is retiring after serving eight years as Stated Clerk of the PCUSA. Some of us will recall that Dr. Nelson delivered a stirring sermon at our presbytery meeting in February 2012. A second person was also placed in nomination to serve as Stated Clerk, the Rev. David Baker of Tampa Bay Presbytery. The Stated Clerk election will take place next Friday, June 24.
On Sunday evening each of the General Assembly committees met for team building. On Monday morning, the work of the Assembly starts in earnest, as each committee begins reviewing the proposals that have been sent its way. Committees are expected to wrap up their deliberations and to finalize their recommendations to the full Assembly by Wednesday morning.
Pray for our commissioners, as they work with their various committees over the next two days. They are seeking diligently to know the mind of Christ. And pray also for our overture advocate, Rev. Eugene Blackwell, as he presents our presbytery’s overture on addressing the plight of African-American males to the committee on mission coordination. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to work in them and through them to the glory of God!
SATURDAY, JUNE 18
Saturdays at General Assembly are all about orientation – beginning with orienting ourselves to God in worship. Thousands of observers gathered yesterday with commissioners at the Portland Convention Center to be treated to great music of many genres, a wonderful sermon by outgoing Moderator Heath Rada, celebration of Holy Communion, and commissioning of all who have been called to serve as delegates to this Assembly.
Commissioners enter the plenary hall by way of a special entrance that leads directly to their seats in a restricted area. As they move toward their assigned section, they pass by a large baptismal font reminding them that they are called to this service by the same God who claimed them as God’s own in their baptism.
After first being oriented toward God as the One who has called us here, commissioners were further oriented toward the work of the Assembly throughout the afternoon – how to use voting machines, how to ask questions on the plenary floor, and the like. The evening ushered in the final act of orientation, the election of the Assembly’s Moderator. This year’s election was between two teams, each of which had offered to serve the church as Co-Moderators, if elected. Both pairs presented themselves well, handling questions from delegates with great grace and good humor, while clearly communicating their deep faith in and love for our Lord Jesus.
After their presentations, the Assembly elected Rev. Jan Edmiston (Chicago Presbytery) and Rev. Denise Anderson (National Capital Presbytery) as Co-Moderators 432-136 on the first ballot. As the new Co-Moderators were ushered into the plenary hall after the vote, commissioners began spontaneously singing, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me…” Rev. Edmiston serves as an Associate Presbytery Executive, while Rev. Anderson is a congregational pastor. Together they will moderate the Assembly meeting over the week ahead, and will then serve as ambassadors for this Assembly over the next two years. Send your prayers their way!
Today we fan out around the greater Portland area to join various congregations in worship. The Assembly will reconvene with a presentation from the Stated Clerk nomination committee, followed by reception for our new co-moderators. Finally, commissioners will gather in the evening with their particular committees to prepare for their work that begins early Monday morning. Already I have found that some of our commissioners are weary from the time zone change combined with the sheer volume of material they need to master. Keep the prayers coming!
Welcome to the first “Portland Post”! Each day of General Assembly (GA) I will publish a message letting you know what’s happening at GA, so you can be accurately informed about GA events, and so you can pray more specifically for GA. These messages are meant first of all to inform the good people of Pittsburgh Presbytery, but I hope they will be of some interest and benefit to others as well.
Here is a list of all who are representing Pittsburgh at GA — please hold these people in prayer by name throughout this week:
Elder Peggy Bonfiglio, First UP Tarentum
Rev. Donna Giver-Johnston, Ben Avon
Elder Leslie Kaplan, Sixth
Rev. Jay Lewis, Mt. Hope Community
Elder Alan Perry, Bidwell
Rev. James Ramsey, East Union
Elder Bucky Savatt, Ken Mawr
Rev. Heather Schoenewolf, East Liberty
Young Adult Advisory Delegate:
Alyssa White, Liberty PC
Rev. Eugene Blackwell, House of Manna
Elder Carla Campbell, Stated Clerk
Rev. Sheldon Sorge, General Minister
Other prayer requests:
- The assembly convenes at 11 a.m. today with opening worship. Pray that there will be a strong sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence moving among those gathered for the assembly.
- This evening GA Commissioners will elect Co-Moderators for this Assembly, who will continue to serve as ambassadors for this GA for the next two years. This is the first time that there has been a provision permitting two people to present themselves for election as Co-Moderators, rather than as Moderator and Vice-Moderator. Two pairs of candidates have been nominated to serve as Co-Moderators:
- Rev. Denise Anderson (National Capital Presbytery) and Rev. Jan Edmiston (Chicago Presbytery)
- Rev. Adan Mairena (Philadelphia Presbytery) and Ruling Elder David Parker (Salem Presbytery)
Sunday through Tuesday our GA commissioners will meet in committees, each of which will consider a set of reports, recommendations, and overtures, and advise whether GA as a whole should adopt each proposal. Commissioners will then convene in plenary Wednesday through Saturday to vote on these various recommendations. Our own Pittsburgh overture on supporting programs to benefit African-American males will be considered by Committee 10 on Mission Coordination.
All assembly business is posted on www.pc-biz.org, where live-streaming of plenary events can also be viewed. I will be tweeting GA updates at @pghpresbytery, if you’d like to follow us on Twitter, and all of our posts and tweets will also be posted on the Pittsburgh Presbytery Facebook page. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest and best information on everything GA!