“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
As I mentioned last week, this month I have several opportunities to check in with the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the national level.
The Board of Pensions shared their difficulties trying to manage the rising costs of the medical plan, and anticipate that there will be a significant change to the benefits program for pastors, probably effective in January 2025. Their pension fund continues to be over-funded (150% of anticipated pension payments), but they cannot use those funds to pay for medical coverage. We participants could not read what might be in store (whatever the changes are won’t be previewed for another year), but there’s a chance that the “one size fits all” approach to benefits will go away, and the kinds of benefits will be negotiated as part of a pastor’s compensation package. This will lead to more flexibility, but also more complexity, and for some pastors, more cost. If you want to join in the discussion this summer, there will be virtual town halls conducted. The Board put together a website focused on this “Season of Rebuilding.” The website is https://seasonofrebuilding.pensions.org/ and if you hit the button under “Engaging the Church” you can register to participate in a town hall.
Last week I was outside Baltimore, at the training for new presbytery leaders, called Presbytery Leader Formation (PLF). As I mentioned last week, the high turnover of what used to be called the “exec position” in the presbyteries has brought high demand for this training, and some shifts in the kind of people who fill the position. There is a little bit of racial diversity (though much of it is coming from Southern California), and there is a noticeable shift to younger leaders who may not have many years of pastoral leadership before taking this role. Also, presbytery staffs continue to shrink, so there are many part-time leaders, and quite a few people holding a hybrid role as presbytery executive and stated clerk. In a session for those who are already serving this way, the old wall between the two functions is not real for them, except for judicial cases. So a couple of people were very interested in the arrangement we have with Steve Salyards as Stated Clerk for Judicial Process; off-hand I know of three presbyteries that have made that a distinct function.
But what struck me was the spirit of the group. The participants were positive, open-hearted, and appreciative of each others’ differing contexts. They also seemed more introverted, which was a shift from the palpable extroversion of prior leaders. And I didn’t notice the posturing that sometimes comes when you get many people in similar leadership positions. In fact, some brand new execs from very large presbyteries (like Grace in Texas and New Hope in North Carolina) came after only weeks on the job, and they were just as humble as the other participants.
By the end of the week, there was a general sense that the PC(USA) has a bright future ahead. The folks know there are issues and challenges, but there wasn’t the general sense of loss or doom or cynicism that sometimes mark such gatherings. While at the Board of Pensions meeting, one new exec commented on the negativity he had witnessed already, and expressed hope that the Presbytery Leader Formation approach would be more positive. He suggested that as an African-American pastor, his cultural background incorporated knowledge of brokenness in the world with a strong affirming faith in a good God. This could be just one advantage of increased diversity, to bring that faith into the leadership roles of the church.
Next week several leaders from the national staff will be visiting Southern California. Though I am not very involved in the inner workings of the national church these days, I get a sense that there is much trepidation there, as the “Unification” of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) seems to be moving ahead. The recent resignation of Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson as leader of OGA adds more uncertainty.
It has always seemed to me that the realization of deep change in the church has gone in waves; first to notice, of course, are the congregations, and then the presbyteries that work with them. It could be that this change has been going on for long enough that these new, younger execs do not have memories of the “glory days” of massive, well-endowed presbyteries—and they are diverse enough not to think the days when the PC(USA) was 98% White were so glorious. I think some parts of the national church have been protected enough from day-to-day church life that they are facing the challenges only now. My hope is that they will listen with new openness to the experiences of those who have been struggling for a while, not only to incorporate their needs in future planning, but also to take hope when they see that what they feared will not kill them. For better or for worse, we now face challenges that were unheard of before: churches leaving the denomination or closing down, tragedies such as natural disasters or mass shootings with increasing frequency, and of course the pandemic. And the frequent response to this troubled life is gratitude—that God never abandoned us, and that we are part of a larger church family that can help each other through the hard times.
Today is Ally’s last active day as Stated Clerk for Administration, leaving us with confusion about the future while being grateful for her presence and her ministry these last 3.5 years. And this Thursday, the liturgical calendar marks the Ascension of Jesus, in anticipation of the Day of Pentecost on May
In the midst of the confusion and grief and mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and upcoming ascension (read: departure), those poor very human disciples were told that they would receive great power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, enabling them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to their neighbors, their cousins, and then to the whole world. Perhaps that is what we are experiencing today, a mini-Pentecost, a new unleashing of the Holy Spirit on us confused and grieving human disciples. Perhaps the potential was always there, but we didn’t notice it because we were so sure of ourselves and our own power that we didn’t seek any help from God. In any case, as we are hungry enough to seek God’s grace and assurances right now, may we receive the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim anew, for this time and this place.