Archive for September, 2014

Where Are We Now?

September 19, 2014

(The following report was given to a meeting of the Presbytery of San Diego on Tuesday, September 16, 2014, by Executive Presbyter Clark Cowden.)

Along with many of you, I have been involved in numerous conversations over the last couple of months, about our denomination’s General Assembly (GA) meeting held back in June, 2014, and the decisions made at that meeting. A number of people have asked me what I think about them. Tonight I would like to share my two main reactions with you.

1. The first is that I think the 4 commissioners that we sent from our Presbytery did an excellent job. And I think many commissioners do go to GA with good intentions, good hearts, and a strong faith in Christ.
But, I think our system has become stuck and dysfunctional. That’s not to say that nothing good comes out of GA, because some good things do come out of it. I think our 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement is great. I think the Living Missionally initiative is great. Some others are, too. But, every year I go to the GA, I feel like it becomes harder and harder to do good things. I still think we have too many commissioners who are overwhelmed with too much business to decide in too little time. We give people 3 months to become experts on sensitive subjects that others have studied for a lifetime. We don’t create the conditions where we can be at our best. I think we set ourselves up into polarized situations – where we push people into yes/no, up/down decisions. There is no room for nuance or simply saying – we’re not ready to decide yet.

I think the GA chooses decisions over discernment, taking positions over building relationships, and does not have a heart that is focused on congregations. I wish GA would follow the medical guideline – “do no harm”. When what they do is harming congregations, something is wrong. I have never heard of people streaming into Presbyterian Churches because of what the GA has done. But, I have heard of people who have left Presbyterian Churches because of what the GA has done, and that is wrong. When commissioners get to vote on issues at GA, but then get to go home and don’t have to deal with the consequences of their decisions, something is wrong. Who has to deal with the fallout? We do – the pastors and the session members who get the phone calls from angry members.

Historically, the Presbyterian Church in the United States started with congregations. Then, we created presbyteries to help congregations. Then we created synods to help presbyteries and congregations. Then we created a General Assembly to help synods and presbyteries and congregations. I think the GA should help and support churches and ministries and presbyteries at the local level. I don’t think we need to avoid controversial issues, but when decisions at the national level are hurting the ministry and membership of congregations at the local level, then something is wrong and something needs to change.

When we have members who leave our churches and stop giving their money, not because of what the congregation did, and not because of what the presbytery did, but because of what the GA did, then something is wrong. I don’t like that. It’s hard to lead congregations in ministry in today’s world. It is really, really hard. And for the GA to make it harder on us is just not right. I don’t like that.

2. But my second reaction is: does it matter anymore what our GA does? Do we put too much importance on their decisions? A recent U.S. Study of Congregations indicated that one of the five major trends today is a growing disaffiliation between congregations and their own denominations. We have long known that most people don’t join churches because of their denomination. They join because they like what is happening in the congregation. At the GA, decisions are made by only 600 of our over 10,000 members. How do we know that they are truly representative of our whole membership? The GA does not dictate to us what we have to do.

Now, if the presbyteries approve a change to the constitution, and if it’s not a “you may” or a “you should” but one of the few “you shalls” in the Book of Order, then yes, we do have to follow that. But, most of the time, the GA is just not relevant to our local ministry. We are free to do the ministry we believe Jesus Christ has called us to do.
And that is what I think we need to focus on.
I think the evil one tries to distract us into fighting amongst ourselves.
Instead of investing our time and energy into leading people to Christ, making disciples of all nations, and working for the transformation of the world, if the evil one can get us fighting and arguing with each other, then we’ve lost the battle.

I have said before that I believe the decisions that we make as congregations and as a local presbytery are more important than the decisions that are made by the General Assembly. I still believe that.
I have said before that I believe our denomination is a mission field, and that we still need strong, Biblical, evangelical, Reformed disciples reaching people for Christ and making a difference in the PCUSA. I still believe that.
I have said before that I believe we have the freedom to make all of the decisions we need to make. I still believe that.

But, I do not believe that we have reached a Tipping Point yet where I have to leave. One reason for that is because I have experienced something positive here in the Presbytery of San Diego.
It is important to us that we stay on track with sound, historical, orthodox theology, as we have articulated in our Essential Tenets and our Reformed Distinctives.
It is important to us to keep learning what it means to be missional. We know we can’t just sit back and wait for people to come to us. That is too passive and reactive. We have to go into our communities to join what the Holy Spirit is already doing there.
It is important to us that, as much as we can, that we build strong, healthy relationships with one another.

It was a little less than 7 years ago when we as a presbytery approved our initial missional vision. You’ve heard us use the language many times before. We said we wanted to lead, not leave. We said we used to be primarily a governing body, we are now primarily a relational community, and we hope to become a mission agency. At that time, those were aspirational statements. Those were what we hoped to do, but we hadn’t actually done anything yet. That’s a lot like what I hear from the Fellowship and ECO people. They are making a lot of aspirational statements which are good. That’s where we were 7 years ago. We were making a lot of aspirational statements. The difference is that now we have a track record. Now, we can actually look back and look at all the things we have accomplished.

We tried to create a culture where people were not afraid to fail – where people would venture out in faith and see what God would do. So,

1. We have encouraged our people to launch new ministries for the Kingdom of God. Chris Yanov formed Reality Changers to raise up first generation college students to follow the Word of God. Nate Landis formed the Urban Youth Collaborative which is now reaching kids for Christ on close to 80 school campuses across San Diego county. Our Solana Beach church created the North Coast Immigration and Citizenship Center. And now Geoff Hsu has launched Flourish to come alongside the local church and work for the common good of our city.
2. One of our long time missions, our Presbyterian Urban Ministries, has taken our goal of Moving Back into the Neighborhood seriously and they are doing some great ministry among the poor and the homeless and the immigrant population. Our director, Deb Mitchell, called right before the meeting tonight and said that she was sorry that she couldn’t make it, but they have had two hard days at PUM. With all of the heat, many homeless people have come in very irritated and angry and on edge. The police have had to be called and it has been a very difficult couple of days. I am so glad for the great ministry they are doing there.
3. We have started some new worshiping communities/new churches that we have heard about already this evening:
Daniel and Jeya So – Anchor City
La Jolla Pres/Urban Life – Orange Ave. Community Church (Jake Medcalf),
City Heights West (Chris Brewster), Southeast (Sarah Carter)
Oceanside – New Hispanic community
Tonight we voted for a Hispanic hybrid NCD at Grace Vista
We have sent 5 of our young leaders to a Discerning Missional Leadership assessment to see if they have the gifts for starting a new church. We are doing a lot.
4. Church revitalization
We have had 6 of our churches go through the New Beginnings in the past year – Oceanside, Southeast, Westminster Point Loma, Palisades, Chula Vista, and Northminster, and more of you can do this.
We have a link on our presbytery website to Mission Insite, a gift from our synod, to help you learn about the people who live in your neighborhoods and communities.
5. We have given out at least 14 Missional Experiment grants to our churches and ministries in the last couple of years:
Graham Memorial – Island Family Night
Hispanic Lay Leader Training
PUM – expansion into north county
Grace Vista – Neighborhood Resource center
Mira Mesa – community garden
Northminster – community garden
Oceanside – community serve day, Hispanic outreach
Pacific Beach – water bottle project
El Cajon – neighbor to neighbor
Faith – college ministry
Solana Beach – North County Immigration Citizenship Center
Southeast – gardening and tutoring
PUM – immigration certification training
First Pres San Diego – jazz vespers
6. Our annual Leadership Development Day is coming up on January 24, 2015 at La Jolla Pres. Flyers for this are available tonight. We want to encourage every single session to attend this event as your leadership training experience
7. And, at least five of our churches have now held Community Serve Days – Solana Beach, RB, Point Loma, and Oceanside.

So, when your church asks, “What does the presbytery do?” and is our money going to further the cause of Christ, you can say definitely YES! And if our presbytery had more money to work with, we could do even more ministry. Isn’t it amazing all of the ministry that we can accomplish when we make a decision not to fight over property and other issues?

I believe we are in a time and place where the only way we can make our denomination any better is if we focus our time and our energies on making our presbytery better. .

We have to stop worrying about what other Presbyterians are doing in other places.
We have to stop agonizing over other Presbyterian things that happen that we can’t control.
We need to focus our time and energy on what we can control, what we do here, who we are, and what we are going to be about.
All we can do is make our people and our congregations and our presbytery as strong as they can possibly be. We will trust God with the rest and we will not lose sleep over that.

I want us to invest our time in learning to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.
I want us to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all that X commanded us, for lo, He is with us always, even to the end of the age.
I want us to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent us, for in its welfare, we will find our welfare.

As Jesus once told Peter
If you love Me, feed My sheep
If you love Me, feed My sheep
If you love Me, feed My sheep