A member of the congregation I serve was elected to serve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer. This is my open letter to her, published here with her permission.
Dear Ruling Elder M,
Over the past few months, as you have applied to serve as the Ruling Elder Commissioner from our Presbytery to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) next Summer in Detroit, I have been so pleased. I have been pleased for you: your election is an affirmation of all the work you do for our Presbytery. I have been pleased for our congregation: we will feel even more connected to the larger structures of our church for years to come because you have served. I have been pleased for our Presbytery: you have already demonstrated how you will use this work to enhance the connections we have with each other simply by visiting other congregations and introducing yourself as their Commissioner. And I have been pleased for the Presbyterian Church (USA): you bring a positive attitude and down-to-earth perspective to the work you will do with the other commissioners. I believe God is pleased, too, and although God probably has God’s own reasons to be pleased, I like to think that some of them are the same as my reasons.
I was a bit concerned, though, when I learned you were randomly assigned to serve on the Social Justice Issues Committee of the Assembly. As you now know, that is the committee which will study and make recommendations to the whole Assembly about how to act on overtures and other business related to many social justice issues. You and the other members of the committee will tackle a dizzying array of subjects: abortion, homosexual leadership in the Boy Scouts, gun violence, child abuse, poverty, and more. None of the issues you will have to address are simple, and most of them ignite deeply-held and passionately-expressed arguments on both sides. Your work will not be easy.
As you prepare for your work, listen to testimony, and participate in committee debates, you are likely to have a range of emotions. You might find yourself afraid of the implications of some of the stances the Assembly is being asked to take. You might find yourself frustrated by the work of listening and arguing. You might find yourself saddened by the tragic situations which the overtures and referrals highlight. You might find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of the social problems you have to deal with. And you might become angry because people disagree with you about how the church should speak to these problems. All of those feelings are a part of the work you have been called to undertake, and to negotiate that exhausting range of feelings, I hope you will take care of yourself through prayer, long walks, plenty of rest, and conversations with friends and colleagues. And did I mention prayer?
As I have thought about the work of your committee, though, I hope you will not let yourself dismiss any of the work you are being asked to do as unimportant. It will be tempting. Many of the issues you will have to consider do not have any obvious impact on your life or the life of our congregation and presbytery. Some of the issues might not even seem to be appropriate things for good church people to talk about. Many of us doubt that those in power listen when the church speaks about these issues. But if you allow yourself to say your work is unimportant, then you will do yourself and the church a tremendous disservice.
You will do a disservice to yourself because you will make it easy to convince yourself that the work of your committee is a waste of time. You will start to resent the time you have to be in the committee and at the Assembly, and you will start to long for some excuse to get out of that work. You will make yourself miserable with that resentment and longing.
But you will also do the church a disservice if you start to think the work is unimportant. You will foster an attitude which is already prevalent in the culture of the church and which is literally tearing the church apart. Recently, a large church in California voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). According to an article from the Religion News Service in the Christian Century magazine, one of the reasons the leaders of the church cited for leaving the denomination is that the Presbytery of which they were a member adopted resolutions on some controversial social justice issues. The article said that the church leaders “considered the resolutions a distraction from its core mission.” Instead of engaging in conversation about the issues being raised with their brothers and sisters in their Presbytery, they chose to consider the work unimportant. And from there, it was easy for that church to sever their relationships with all the rest of us.
The Assembly’s work of responding to the overtures and other requests to take stances and actions on social issues is pastoral work as much as it is anything else. It is the work of listening to people who are passionate about particular causes. It is the work of allowing people to tell their stories which have led them to take stances on those issues. It is the work of affirming those people, their experiences, and their passions as God-given gifts which can help us discover new truth, goodness, and beauty in God’s emerging kingdom. You will not agree with everything people say about the issues with which your committee will be presented, and you do not have to vote the way the advocates want you to vote. In fact, that would be impossible; you will discover quickly, if you haven’t already, that the passions run deep and hot in our church on all sides of the issues you will talk about. Some overtures should be voted down, and some issues should not be acted on. If your committee is really willing to do the best work, you will be able to get away from the yes-or-no, up-or-down stances you will be asked to take and come up with ways to speak to the social issues before you with a new grace which will bring a greater peace to the church and the world.
But to dismiss the work as unimportant would be to say to the people who are passionate about all sides of the issues that the things which are important to them are irrelevant to you and to the church. That is not what people who are trying to be in relationships say to each other, and it is antithetical to the way Christ commanded his followers to work. You were with us as we worshiped on Maundy Thursday last month, and you heard me read Christ’s new commandment to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” People who love each other do not dismiss each other’s passions as unimportant. In the church, when we are at our best, we may not agree about what stance to take on these issues. But we seek to understand others’ stances and the experiences and stories which motivate them because the people who hold them are a part of our fellowship, and so the passions which drive those people are a part of our fellowship, too.
Please know that I will be praying for you while you prepare and serve as a General Assembly Commissioner, and I will encourage the other members of our congregation and Presbytery to pray for you, too. I will pray for you and your fellow commissioners to have wisdom and compassion, to show good judgment and better grace, and mostly to be open to God’s Holy Spirit to guide you and, through you, the church into whatever future God desires for us. And I will be praying that you do not become so afraid, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or otherwise exhausted by your work that you can’t engage it well. But especially, I will be praying that you do not allow yourself to dismiss any of the work you are called to do as unimportant.