Archive for June, 2010

The General Assembly – Don’t Believe Everything You Read

June 27, 2010

The General Assembly – Don’t Believe Everything You Read

This weekend begins our big, national, biennial General Assembly meeting. There are a huge number of issues that commissioners are asked to vote on and make decisions about. People will sometimes look in newspapers or on the web to learn what kind of decisions have been made. The most important thing to keep in mind when reading reports about what the Assembly did is not to believe everything you read. You have to read everything with a grain of salt. Why? Because what is reported is not always true. Here are some examples:

One year, a news report came out on a Wednesday morning that the denomination had voted to change its behavioral sexuality requirements for ordained elders, deacons, and pastors. This was not true. What had happened was that the Assembly committee that was reviewing the requested overtures on Monday and Tuesday had recommended a change in the requirements. They were passing on their recommendation to the full plenary of the whole Assembly, but the denomination had not changed its ordination requirements.

On another occasion, a news report came out on Friday night, that the denomination had voted to change its behavioral sexuality requirements for ordained elders, deacons, and pastors. This was not true. The Assembly had voted to recommend to its local presbyteries that the ordination requirements be changed. What many press people do not understand is that the General Assembly does not have the authority to change our Book of Order. They can only recommend that the presbyteries change the Book of Order. And any recommendation will take another nine months before we know how all of the local presbyteries will vote and whether a change will be made or not. So, even though the press reported that our ordination sexuality standards had changed, nine months later, a majority of the presbyteries had voted not to change them, so no change was made.

On previous occasions, a lot of press has been given to decisions that the General Assembly made on volatile issues such as Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. Sometimes, they have reported only on certain phrases or sections of a report, rather than on the complexity of the full report. Some of our reports are complicated and multi-faceted, and don’t fit nicely and neatly into a little box. By ignoring parts of the statements that the GA has passed, they can make it sound like the GA took a very narrow, one sided position, when if you had read the full report, you would see the GA adopted a paper that was much broader, with great appreciation for the complexity of the issues.

So, when you read about the decisions of this week’s GA in the press or on the web, and if you are tempted to get frustrated and angry, remember, don’t believe everything you read. If you take some time, and wait for more information to come out, you will sometimes discover that the initial reporting was not accurate, and perhaps even wrong. Please be in prayer for our GA commissioners this week.

The General Assembly Tries to Make Good Decisions, But…

June 14, 2010

The GA Tries to Make Good Decisions But…

The General Assembly tries to make good decisions.  Honest.  They really do.  We send some really good people.  And most of them have good motives.  Unfortunately, good decisions don’t always happen.  It is usually a struggle to get there.  The reality is that many factors work against making good decisions at GA.  God can bring good decisions out of the GA.  But, it’s usually in spite of our process, not because of it.  How does this happen?

One thing that hinders good decisions is that we try to do too much.  We attempt to tackle too much business, solve too many problems, and answer too many questions.  We ask people to make too many decisions in one week.  The Assembly will take action on about 750 pieces of business.  When the plenary is asked to vote on 750 issues in three days, how well do you think commissioners know all the ins and outs and reasons and ramifications of their decisions?  It is not physically and mentally possible to know everything you need to know about every issue.  So, you skim the reading.  You rely on other people’s opinions.  You trust what other people say.  And you pray that your vote does no harm.  But, there’s too much business and not enough time.  So, the GA tries to make good decisions, but it is really hard.

One thing that hinders good decisions is that we have too many commissioners.  Have you ever tried to have a deep, thoughtful discussion with about 750 people?  It’s pretty hard to do.  And what if you walked into the room only knowing 5-10 of those people?  How easy is it to make decisions on seemingly important issues with over 700 strangers that you just met in the last few days?  When we make decisions at the session level, we usually have some relationship with each other.  We know something about each other and where we’re coming from.  Even at a presbytery level, if you are a regular attender, you can get to know people, build some level of relationships, and know who you are talking with.  But, at the GA, you are not in relationship with all of these other strangers.  It’s hard in that environment to ask the probing questions and really gather all the information necessary to make the right choices.  Having too many commissioners means that extroverts and strong personalities dominate the conversations.  Most introverts and those who are afraid of public speaking (the #1 fear in America) keep silent, don’t participate, and don’t make their views known.  So, we don’t really know what most commissioners think, only how most commissioners vote.  The Presbytery of San Diego is sending an overture asking that the number of commissioners be reduced to the levels that we had some years ago.  Approving this would not only save us a lot of money, but would help alleviate some of this problem.  So, the GA tries to make good decisions, but it is really hard.

One thing that hinders good decisions is that we ask people to function in a different culture that they are not used to.  Over 70% of commissioners are generally attending their first GA.  Experience on a session usually does not prepare people for the culture of the GA.  Experience in a presbytery often does not prepare people for the culture of the GA either.  It is a foreign environment for most people.  It is run by parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order that people are not familiar with or confident in.  It uses a lot of language and jargon that people don’t understand, but it’s embarrassing to keep interrupting to ask what the words and acronyms mean.  Commissioners often feel like they have to make a decision before they leave to go home, when in reality, many decisions should probably be delayed until the next Assembly when more questions can be answered, more information can be shared, and more ramifications can be thought through.  So, the GA tries to make good decisions, but it is really hard.

One thing that hinders good decisions is that most people argue from experience, feelings, and opinions, rather than seeking guidance from the scriptures and prayer.  Sure, we always open and close with the perfunctory prayer.  Sure, there is a worship service scheduled every day of the week.  But, in committees and in the plenary sessions, when the most controversial issues are being debated, you don’t hear many people pointing us back to the scriptures, our confessions, and our theology.  You hear tear-jerking stories that tug on our heart strings.  You hear American cultural values.  You hear people go off on tangents that are not related to the issue at hand.  So, the GA tries to make good decisions, but it is really hard.

And finally, one thing that hinders good decisions is that many of the people with the most knowledge do not have a vote, and many people with very little knowledge do get to vote.  There are staff and committee people at the national and local level, who live with these issues every day, have been wrestling with them for a long time, and know the consequences of approving and not approving them.  Yet, they do hot have voice or vote. On the flip side, you have well-meaning, hard-working people, who have never thought through some of these issues prior to a month or two before the GA begins, who do have voice and vote.  So, we put seemingly important decisions in the hands of people who are still trying to get up to speed on what these decisions will mean, while people who have thought these issues through for years, are not asked and are not allowed to vote.  So, the GA tries to make good decisions, but it is really hard.

There is a good overture coming from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy (St. Louis area) that is asking to re-look at how the General Assembly meetings function.  There are a few others asking to change how the GA week operates.  It would be a step in the right direction if these overtures would pass.  Our General Assembly operates in a system that probably served us well at one point in our history, but not anymore.  Sure, God can use anything, but we’re really not giving God much to work with.  It is not a surprise when the GA does not make good choices.  The GA really does try to make good decisions, but it’s really hard.

Is the General Assembly Week Still Important?

June 7, 2010

Our General Assembly meeting is a little less than a month away.  In the weeks leading up to the Assembly, many people look forward to it with hopeful anticipation, wondering what will happen this year.  In the weeks following the Assembly, many people are angry and frustrated about the decisions that were made and the process that was used to reach those decisions.  After every GA, a number of our presbytery staff have to go around visiting sessions and congregations and pastors and holding special presbytery meetings, trying to answer the “why” questions.  Why did they make that decision?  Why should we still send money?  Why should we stay in this denomination?

Behind all of the emotion is an assumption that what happens during the General Assembly is important.  It assumes that the business of the Assembly is relevant and important to our congregations and to the world.  I would humbly suggest, that at this point in time, much of it is not.  I can believe that General Assemblies in the past used to be important.  And I can imagine General Assemblies one day in the future becoming important again.  But, in this liminal, inbetween time we live in right now, the number of decisions that the Assembly makes that are actually important is very, very small.

Some decisions are important to the national denomination.  I think confirming the election of the Executive Director of the General Assembly Mission Council and electing a Stated Clerk are important for the denomination, because they work all year round and direct the staff.  I think approving the budgets are important because they guide us in what we do in different areas of ministry and set the level of per capita that congregations should pay.  But, even these decisions have minimal impact on our congregations.

Instead, the Assembly spends a lot of time approving papers and studies that few people will read.  Many of them will sit on a shelf collecting dust and we will wonder if it was worth all of that time to write them.  We will tell our U.S. Government, foreign governments, and big corporations what to do.  These kinds of actions indicate we are still living in a previous era, in a former narrative, in an obsolete imagination.  I don’t think any national governments will read what we write.  I don’t think any corporations will pay attention to our pronouncements.  I don’t think these decisions will change anything.  They may make some of us feel good to say them, but even many of our members will ignore these statements.  If we agree with the statements, we will use them to justify our position.  If we disagree with them, they won’t change our mind.  It’s an exercise in futility, but we keep doing it, because we’re still living in this old imagination of what a GA should be and do.

The GA will discuss social issues.  We will talk about sexuality, marriage, health issues, gun control, etc.  But, what difference will they make?  If the GA approves recommending changing our sexuality and ordination standards, the presbyteries will vote it down again, and nothing will change.  People who like the GA decisions will try to use them to further their agenda.  People who don’t like the GA decisions will get angry or ignore them.  But, in the end, very little will change.  Why?  Because the imagination our GA week is living in, no longer matches where we live as a church or as a people.  Why?  Because the overtures and the business that come to the Assembly, still are not asking the right questions.

How many decisions of the GA will help our congregations become more involved in the mission of God in our world?  How many actions will help us figure out how to engage the discontinuous, adaptive change going on around us?  Will the future of our congregations be strengthened by any decisions of the GA?  Does the GA prevent us from, or help us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a fallen and sinful world?

Most of the overtures and issues that the GA will spend its time on are not the primary ones that will affect the future viability of our church.  Most of them are secondary issues.  Few if any of the GA’s decisions will make any difference in the life of our congregations.  There is a good overture coming from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy (St. Louis area) that is asking to re-look at how the General Assembly meetings function.  There are a few others asking to change how the GA week operates.  It would be a step in the right direction if these overtures would pass.  Because, until General Assembly meetings are organized under a new imagination, asking a different set of questions, and around the primary issues we are wrestling with today, the GA week will not be important.

If the General Assembly week was still important, I would probably get mad.  But, it’s not.  So, I don’t.  They key for the future is developing a new imagination for what General Assemblies can and should be.  It means asking different questions.  It means focusing on different issues.  It means cultivating new conversations.  General Assemblies can once again become positive, Spirit-led gatherings of God’s people.  They can learn to re-invent themselves.  We can eventually get there.  But, we are not there yet.