Presenting issues

One thing about being a minister is that we often have a good, hard look underneath the shiny, happy exterior of the families in our churches. Whether people want us to look at the underside or not, it’s usually pretty clear within a few years of being in community together. As, I’m sure, our shadow side is clear to them.

Families are extremely interesting. And they can be heart-breaking. As powerful as hurricanes are, I have not seen a natural disaster that can cause the devastation that a family can. There is often a person in which all of the dysfunctions of the members surface. It is the teenager who, at some gut level, understands that his mother is an addict, even though no one is willing to admit it. He gets tired of the charade, and so he begins to tell people that all is not right in family. Then, all of a sudden he becomes the problem, instead of his mother’s addiction.

So, there is the issue, and the “presenting issue.”

It happens in a thousand different ways. Often it’s fascinating to watch the dynamic, and sometimes it’s extremely painful to watch how strong emotions emerge in intense relationships.

It happens in our churches too. The presenting issue can be whether we cut the communion bread into squares or circles, or whether someone returned the linens to the church kitchen, and people may be ready to split the church over these petty things. But the real problem lies somewhere else.

In the Presbyterian denomination, right now, the presenting issue is ordination. We have fights over LGBT inclusion, and as real and serious as those are, we also have something going on. I’m not sure what it is, but it is truly dysfunctional. And the people who are victimized are the very men and women we are supposed to be loving and supporting through their calls. For instance, I know people who are kept out of the system, not because they are homosexuals, but because they accept homosexuals.

I’ll tell you a quick story, which has nothing to do with my LGBT advocacy. We were ready to move from one step of the ord process to another (inquiry to candidacy, for all of you Presbyterians out there), and at the same time, the committee chairs were changing. The first chair was ashamed of her files. Her recordkeeping wasn’t as tidy as she had hoped, she was embarrassed, and so she didn’t hand off her paperwork for six months to the next chair.

It sounds like a small thing, and it was. But, by the time the next chair got the papers and got caught up, my husband and I were way off on our ordination process. Here’s the rub. When we graduated, Brian had finished all of his requirements, we both had small, rural churches waiting on us, and yet, we could not move into the manse because of that lapse in the process.

We were homeless for six months, because of one folder.

We got kicked out of seminary housing and had no place to go. We left our stuff in a professor’s garage, and had to give away our cat. We slept in tents in parks, and couch-surfed at friends’ apartments. We painted houses, did post-construction work, and cleaned homes, but when the odd jobs ran out, we literally had no money to eat and no roof over our heads.

Because of one folder.

Everyone knew what was happening to us. No one did anything to help us. No one questioned the process.

It can be a sick and inhumane system. It can literally destroy people. And yet, no one is allowed to complain.

Well… it’s been ten years, and I don’t have to report to a committee any longer and no one questions my ability as a pastor. So it’s safe to look back, and I see absolutely no reason for the abuse that we had to suffer. And, as I watch my friends and colleagues suffer in the same ways, I wonder what we are doing. It is clear that we have a presenting issue on our hands, in which we allow the dysfunctions of our denomination to be played out on our youngest and most vulnerable. The very people that God has entrusted to our care. The very men and women we should be nurturing, loving, and encouraging.

What can we do to make it stop?


27 thoughts on “Presenting issues

  1. Wow. That’s the question ain’t it? The irony is that the PCUSA system is one that works literally from the bottom up and we have all the political tools at our disposal to make changes. The LGBT ordination issue will work itself out from the legitimation issue where we stand now (which does not mean that it will solve many other known and unknown issues related to it). This piece will resolve due to ground up activism.

    But the system itself needs to change in many many ways. So maybe the question is, why don’t we change it? I think it might have to do with the simple fact that people do not think they have enough time to invest in making these changes. It takes a lot of energy. The thing with this sort of self-talk is that we expend our energy in places where we perhaps unconsciously will find the greatest reward. Maybe most of the ordained folks who have been through the trial don’t feel that they will receive enough of a reward for fighting the good fight? If you have a buffet of your own problems to solve, why spend all that added effort on someone else’s? So more folders sit on crowded desks.

  2. I spent 2 1/2 years employed at a job which payed near minimum wage, raising a daughter on my own, while I went through the call process. Yes, Carol – I am a Presbyterian – it can be a sick and inhumane process, all of the hoop-jumping and bureaucracy.
    But being a Pollyanna, I want to point out something about your situation. I once worked with an executive who said (and I agree) that the best thing we can do as a denomination is to turn our candidates out into the streets for 6 months – then they will have the perspective that it is God who provides for their needs, not the church. My suspicion is that both you and your husband are just a bit more prophetic and bold, assured that God will take care of you.

  3. At the last GA near the end of one of the talk out sessions in the midst of all of our debates about ordination, membership, and marriage, a older gentleman approached the microphone and commented (and I am paraphrasing) that “it is saddening to me that we spend so much time talking about these same issues, as important as they may be, and do not think more about what we could be doing in areas of mission, especially to Africa and the third world, and evangelism. There are people who are dying physically and spiritually while we debate.” Watching live at home I was struck by this comment. I was even more struck by the stated clerk’s short and truthful response: “we only debate what you all send us.”

    My growing frustration within the PCUSA is not with some generic group, ‘Louisville’, ‘GA’, ‘the GAC’, ‘the presbytery’, or ‘the denomination’, but with the able bodied ministers and elders who will not step up and lead. There are great, prophetic, passionate voices out there, but where are they when leading needs to take place? I agree with Drew that “The thing with this sort of self-talk is that we expend our energy in places where we perhaps unconsciously will find the greatest reward.” We are more willing to blog and have discussions inside affinity groups than leading within the larger church. This is tougher and often less rewarding work. At the end of the day, we are the denomination. Any change that happens, happens from us. If ordination standards and processes need to change, and I agree they do, then talk with you CPM or express your willingness to serve to the nominating committee or propose an amendment to change it. My experience as of late, however, has been that the most vocal dissenters are often the ones who do not serve nor wish to serve on any presbytery or higher committee. That unwillingness to serve, converse with people of dissenting opinions, and lead is ultimately what I think is holding us back.

    The great irony of all of this, is that the folk that feel so disenfranchised from the leadership in the PCUSA are perhaps its most powerful voice when they speak and are lead more collectively. The election of Bruce Reyes-Chow, after basically a grassroots movement off of Facebook, being a case in point. Even more than that, my experience as a younger minister working in leadership positions in my own presbytery is that many of the “powers that be” desire the energy, enthusiasm, new ideas, talents, and perspective of precisely the people who are usually more willing to blog than sit in a committee meeting. I recognize that there are those who are (actively) excluded from church leadership and that not all presbyteries operate as described above, but my constant hope is that enough do or would if leaders (and not just dissenters) would step up to take on the issues that face the church and denomination. Those generations of ministers and elders that came before us are culpable for the sins of the church of which they were a part, we are and will be culpable for the sins of today unless we actively seek to change things. It is tragic that so many fine people are abused by the ordination process and you can read a number of blogs detailing the hoop jumping, but at what point does that sympathy turn to positive action and leadership to change things?

  4. So what are proposals for a solution? I also went through a grueling process and was left floundering while my inept absentee CPM liaison was being promoted to chairperson of CPM. Following repeated stalls from the committee, I ended up graduating from seminary and relocating in order to transfer my candidacy to a presbytery that could honor the covenant which my previous presbytery was content to break.

    I thought (naively) that once I was ordained and pastoring a church I could put my passion and experience to work by joining CPM. How quickly I realized that such a committee was reserved for the illuminati of the presbytery.

    With good candidates being left out in the cold and unqualified candidates being granted exemptions through the process, what can be done to fix the broken system?

    My vote is that we reform the entire CPM process. Let’s stop putting the burden on inquirers/candidates to bravely navigate the bureaucracy without help. Reform the system so it’s less of a committee process and more of a mentorship/discipleship experience – and shift the responsibility back to presbytery to hold themselves accountable with clear and measurable goals so that more folks don’t end up waiting on lost folders or committee votes or emails from liaisons that never get sent.

  5. Timothy,

    Thanks for the very important comment. Just for the record, in my own case… I’ve been on the Council and the Chair of Committees in every Presbytery I’ve served. Right now, I’m on Council and I’m the Chair of the Ministry Division of National Capital Presbytery, which is the Division that oversees CPM. If you talk to anyone in our Presbytery about me, no one would say that I’m not putting in the time. In fact, they’ll probably tell you that I’m on too many committees.

    I’ve never served on the GA level, but that’s not because of a lack of trying. I’ve just never been selected in the nominating process (talk about the illumanati…tee hee hee).

    So, yes, I do believe in working hard on a grass-roots level. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m blogging, but not willing putting in the hours.

    But, I do see the importance in blogging in all of this. My connections in the blogosphere have kept me aware of what is happening. It’s made me realize that my case was not isolated. And, I know that these stories reverberate outside of seminary housing, outside of our small committees, and allow us to be more aware of the issues.

  6. No. no Carol your reputation of serving on committees and leading precedes you. I actually think the combination of blogging and committee work is actually quite effective way of communicating, participating, and leading at the connecting point between the ‘grassroots movements’ and the ‘seats of power’. My critique is for those blogging and dissenting from the bleachers.

    One additional comment: two of the most frequently cited verses within the BOO are G-4.0403 and G-9.0104a.

    “G-4.0403 The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall give full expression to the rich diversity within its membership and shall provide means which will assure a greater inclusiveness leading to wholeness in its emerging life. Persons of all racial ethnic groups, different ages, both sexes, various disabilities, diverse geographical areas, different theological positions consistent with the Reformed tradition, as well as different marital conditions (married, single, widowed, or divorced) shall be guaranteed full participation and access to representation in the decision making of the church.”

    “G-9.0104a (with b and c) a. Each governing body above the session shall elect a committee on representation, whose membership shall consist of equal numbers of men and women. A majority of the members shall be selected from the racial ethnic groups (such as Presbyterians of African, Hispanic, and Asian descent and Native Americans) within the governing body, and the total membership shall include persons from each of the following categories:
    (1) majority male membership
    (2) majority female membership
    (3) racial ethnic male membership
    (4) racial ethnic female membership
    (5) youth male and female membership
    (6) persons with disabilities.

    b. Its main function shall be to advise the governing bodies with respect to their membership and to that of their committees, boards, agencies, and other units in implementing the principles of participation and inclusiveness to ensure fair and effective representation in the decision making of the church.

    c. The committee on representation shall serve both as an advocate for the representation of racial ethnic members, women, different age groups, and persons with disabilities, and as a continuing resource to the particular governing body in these areas. The committee on representation shall review the performance of its own governing body in these matters and shall report annually to it and to the next higher governing body with recommendations for any needed corrective action. The committee on representation shall consult with the nominating committee of its own governing body.”

    The more individuals avail themselves of these rights, contact both their committee on representation and nominating committee, and presbyteries take these thing seriously, I think the healthier the church and denomination will be.

  7. Leslie,

    I find great strength in the fact that our misfortunes are often our greatest strengths as ministers. Thanks for the reminder.

    Sometimes when I talk about seminary debt, or ord exams, or the call process, it’s easiest for me to talk about what I went through, because these are all sensitive issues, and I’m in a safe, supportive church that allows me to talk about them. Not everyone is. But, this post is not intended to be about me, the victim. This post is about me, the perpetrator.

    Now that we are in power, what can we do? How can we support our emerging pastors? Even if we can’t get into the systems, how can begin to reform them? We could do it from the inside or the outside… it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just clear that something is broken.

  8. While I agree that there is much about the process that could use adjusting, I can’t help but think that much (most?) of the time it’s not the process that’s at fault, but the execution of it. In Carol’s case, it wasn’t the process that failed her, it was an individual who didn’t fulfill their responsibilities. (Should there have been a way around that? Yes. But the issue was caused by someone not doing what they were supposed to do, for whatever reason.)

    The real issues, it seems to me, are more in line with Timothy’s frustration about leaders not leading. We are fortunate in this presbytery (West Virginia) to be blessed with several young, first-call pastors and we’ve worked hard to get them into positions where their voices can be heard. But they are also willing to accept — and in some cases seek out — those responsibilities. While we do have some very good and active leaders, I wish more of our veteran pastors — whether they lean right or left — would join in. Frankly, I am fed up with seminary-trained pastors who denigrate and dismiss their presbytery responsibilities. And I remind them at every opportunity that they TOOK A VOW to participate. And it’s often congregations that those pastors lead who are the most unhappy with the larger church. There is a connection there, but that’s a discussion for another time.

    There are often good and solid reasons behind the process — and I’ve often seen it where the process did just what it was supposed to do. Frequently it’s when we don’t honor that process by actually working it that we find ourselves in trouble.(If this sounds like a stated clerk talking, well it is.)

  9. I don’t want to fall too much into a pattern of just saying “thanks” without contributing to the discussion itself, but I think I’ve said as much as I dare for the moment on this issue (still being in the ordination process, myself, in fact currently being an Inquirer where I used to be a Candidate before stepping out 7 years ago).

    Still, I really do appreciate that there are clearly folks out there who understand that the process, as it stands, is imperfect.

    I mean, yes, EVERYONE knows “it’s imperfect,” but only to the degree that, as a human endeavor, it MUST be. What you and others have provided is actual understanding….

  10. So how can we be totally inclusive, Carol? If one group comes in and another leaves isn’t that still being exclusive? There’s suffering on both sides, Carol. It’s not exclusive to one group.

  11. Amazing. And you’re still Presbyterian! Did y’all…or the churches that were waiting for you…ever consider just moving forward with it anyway, and waiting for the process to catch up?

    It’s interesting that you think that the gay/lesbian ordination quagmire is the presenting issue and not the real issue. Is the underlying issue the inhuman clumsiness of our polity, or is it something else?

  12. David,

    No. We never considered just moving forward. But, then, we didn’t know you at the time. Now we would surely be inspired by your church-squatting ways.

    I don’t think that gay/lesbian ordination is the presenting issue. I do think the ordination process in general is though.

    It seems like the underlying issue is our basic inability to treat people well. We’re upholding the letter of our polity, without any regard to people’s lives.

    We have a defensive mode to our churches, we’re more bent on keeping the riff-raff out than we are in inviting people in.

    What do you think it is?

  13. Stushie,

    Yeah, that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Conservatives feel excluded when progressives are too inclusive.

    To me, the difference is that there is no amendment barring conservatives from being ordained, but we are barring people in same-gender relationships. And people who have sex outside of marriage (which, really now, how many of our elders and deacons have never had sex outside of marriage?).

    I hope that we can find our way out of this one, with our unity intact, but I’m afraid we may not.

  14. Aye, it’s a fine art, church-squatting is. You think Alban would be up for hosting a Webinar on the subject? 😉

    I tend to view our mindlessly abusive call process itself as one of the presenting issues to a larger issue. Other similar issues include:

    1) Presbytery Parlimentary quagmires. I’ve been at the meetings of presbytery where we’re voting on a motion to amend the amendment to the motion, and it eventually reaches the point where it’s so convoluted that even The Dread Clerk Roberts couldn’t tell what the hell is going on, and both progressives and conservatives are starting to laugh at the sheer insanity of it all.

    2) Session Records Review. Our clerks of session have to keep books, Big Books made of paper, that they are obligated to cart out annually to be reviewed against Big Book Protocols. Electronic records? Not permissible. Searchable, web-postable record-keeping? Don’t even think about it. Who would want a church that transparent? This is 1952, after all.

    I’m totally with you in your assessment that these and other issues are symptomatic of a church that relies too heavily on organizational process for its unity, and too little on a shared sense of Christ’s calling. Are we united by our polity, or by the indwelling of the Spirit? The two don’t have to be separate things, but if our polity is a source of frustration and for pastors and lay folk alike, then they clearly are.

    And that should trouble us.

  15. I think we need to give our executives more authority. I’m sure they feel just as powerless as a pastor does over a local congregation.

  16. The coldness of our common life is a recent phenomenon– if you’ve ever had a chance to talk to pastors who were around 50-60-70 years ago, presbyteries were very different creatures.
    Large presbyteries that sustain full-time permanent staff are not a product of the 1950’s in our life together– they are a product of the ’70’s. Hundreds of pastors and 50-100 congregations spread over vast geographical/cultural distances don’t tend to see themselves as one thing, and thus don’t behave that way. Presbytery becomes “them”, power gets concentrated in the professional staff’s hands (Rick– whoa, man– wrong direction!) pastors/congregations begin to feel disenfranchised by large meeting up-or-down parliamentary votes.
    Conservatives are sure that it’s a progressive conspiracy; progressives are sure it’s a conservative conspiracy, and everybody can support their favorite conspiracy theory from all the casualties– congregations run over, candidates treated as things, wounded pastors shot, etc.
    Presbyteries must shrink in size to the point that everybody, pastors and congregations, can know one another. That means that the average presbytery will not support full-time staff, adding to your previous post.
    The reason that we cannot find a way to live together is that the only surgical implement this 1970’s corporate model for our common life possesses is a chainsaw.

  17. First,
    The root of the ordination issue? Authority of scipture, with the addendum the proper methods of interpretation of scripture. It really isn’t about sex—if folks would understand this we could come to discuss the above and likely conclude we aren’t going to agree on a commonly held view on authority of scripture and proper methods of interpreation (the heart of why some are progressive and others are orthodox in their views).

    Our call system is really a mess—on that we agree. But we Presbyterians love process and so we develop all these hoops. No one seems to ask “is it necessary?” only “Would this be a good thing to add?” Often, we add good things that are not necessary so we end up with a mountain of those good things that then must be checked off.

    Once, I was reading ordination exams and, during a lunch break, I started talking about this issue and why we need these exams. (I am a pastor who passed all exams the first time in case anyone is thinking I have an ax to grind.) I asked the group at the table with me why we needed these things because all these folks have already taken classes on the subjects from fully accredited and approved seminaries and had passed those exams. If seminaries aren’t preparing these people properly, then let’s take it up with the seminaries and get them to do the training and examining we want. I later found out that the head of our denomnation’s ordination examination process was one of those at the table with me 🙂

    Personally, if a candidate has passed all the classes we require, did well in field ed. (I would have more of that area), has been examined for mental fitness, will attest to holding orthodox beliefs (yes, an essentials list), and will then attest that they will follow our polity—-then I feel no other exams should be needed. Why is any more than that needed?

    But we do love process and we like bureaucracy.

    God’s blessings to you,
    Matt Ferguson
    Hillsboro, IL

  18. A stronger executive would have been able to move the file along.

    We act as though the goal of being Christian is process. We try to get people involved in the mission of Jesus Christ, and so we appoint them to some committee. And then we get burned out of committee work, become bitter, and the whole thing turns inward.

    If the file needs to get from here to there, lets get it there. And then lets spend the rest of our time doing ministry.

  19. I am an elder and professional educator (retired professor, which means I know a bit about how testing works and doesn’t work).

    I have just successfully helped someone finally get through the theological exam required or ordination (when those who should have helped him did not step up in a way that really addressed his problem). The process had failed my friend through 3 exams over a year and a half, when I discovered this and stepped in to help. The presbytery and CPM did finally work out an oral exam strategy that worked.

    So from this experience and from reading the literature on struggles women have had with the ordination process in our and other denominations, it seems to me it should be time to review the whole ordination process and rebuild it from scratch.

    What happened to Carol and Brian and to many others should never have happened.

    It is time to review the whole record keeping process and to figure out how to establish electronic records that can be passed in a timely way from chair to chair of committees.

    We owe our new and old candidates no less.

  20. Some background on me: I’ve been ordained for 30 years and have served on CPM and frankly the system still frustrates me.

    I don’t think a stronger executive would necessarily help. What if the executive is the one holding up the process? It happens, particularly in presbyteries with strong execs.

    I’m sorry but the way to deal with it is and always will be politics. Complain to your pastor. If your pastor is unwilling to do something find a pastor in the presbytery with power or someone on the CPM who is willing to do something. But make sure you don’t insult the chair of the CPM in public because then you will never get ordained. Behind the scenes politics is and will always be the way to go.

    See if you try to reform the system the people who oversee the new system will find ways to mess things up if they choose to do so.

    I think The Who said it best: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss!”

  21. Your nightmare did not have to happen, imo. I am a presbytery Stated Clerk and I know there are ways to fix something as idiotic as someone losing or not passing on a file. I suspect your CPM, Stated Clerk, EP, et al were, well, unimaginative at best. Or they were pharisaic Presbyterians wedded to the letter of the law, sans grace. Or at worst they just didn’t like you and semi-deliberately messed up your process. Or perhaps demon-possession was involved.

  22. Hhmmm… demon possession? That was one explanation I never thought of!

    Actually, my call story is usually one of the denomination extending me great grace, and allowing me to be ordained. It was a mercy that I never experienced in my Evangelical upbringing.

    Both stories are true. I just hope that the story of frustrating neglect could be avoided more often.

  23. My son started hassling his Sunday School teachers and pastor to join the church when he was in 5th grade. Because of interruptions in that church, and because we moved (so I could attend seminary), he couldn’t join the PCUSA until he was in 9th grade. He was so proud he endured 2 bad haircuts and a necktie so he could be presentable on his big day.

    He threatened to leave school during the study time before Regents’ Exams in New York so he could go to Montreat with his old church. He talked our little rural church into sponsoring a bunch of kids and a couple adults on an inner city mission trip to Philadelphia, and then got himself sponsored to go to LA to work with Faceless International, a group that studies and fights human trafficking. He preached last week and blew everyone away.

    He wants to be a commissioner to presbytery, but he can’t, since now he’s not ordainable. You see, my beautiful Presbyterian son is gay.

    Tell him it’s not the presenting issue.

    I don’t mean to pick on you Carol; I think you’re right on track and doing important stuff! But how many kids do we have to turn away before we so-called grown-ups figure it out?

    In serious, everlasting Christian faith and love,

    • Oh, Leslie. This is such a tragedy. I am so sorry.

      I certainly did not mean to belittle the pain and heartache that your son and your family feel. Please forgive me. And I hope that some day he will be able to forgive our church.

  24. Carol,

    My son would be the last person to call his faith a tragedy–as long as we keep trying to figure out ways for all who are called to serve, even when they’re called to ordination.

    And there’s nothing to forgive. Just pray for all those in the same boat!


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