Pastor’s Post: Our Connectional Church, Part 1
As I have often said, there are a great many advantages to being part of a “connectional” church such as the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Sadly, we often don’t think about this dimension of our church experience except when we read headlines about controversial decisions made by our General Assembly, which meets every other summer. If we can put that thought aside for a moment, I’d like to share some of the real positives we gain from our relationship to the PCUSA nationally and regionally. This is a big topic, and I will spread my comments over the next several newsletters.
During our recent stewardship drive, we shared information about the “per capita” donation (currently about $37 for each member) that we are obligated to send to fund the work of the church regionally and nationally. We learned that most of this money is utilized by the Presbytery of Long Island to support the life and work of congregations in our area. Presbytery is the body that maintains the standards for education, skills and conduct for our professional clergy. It also oversees a variety of educational and training resources for church members in things like how to be an elder, how to serve as a deacon, how to manage finances, and so forth. Presbytery has a variety of ways it can help local churches when they encounter challenges and difficulties. It also organizes support for many different forms of local mission and manages relations with other denominations and faith groups. The Presbytery board of trustees exercises stewardship of Presbytery’s funds and interacts with local congregations in matters of property and financial management.
Presbytery is composed of all active PCUSA clergy on Long Island and lay representatives of all congregations. The Presbytery meets five or six times a year to conduct business. The Massapequa session appoints a person as “commissioner” or representative for each meeting of presbytery. Clerk Joan Tischner has been a frequent representative. Levittown session elects a representative each year, and Maria Studer is the current commissioner with Marilyn Rodahan serving as alternate. Presbytery meetings are held in different churches, so sooner or later it meets near us. The next meeting of Presbytery will take place on Tuesday, April 17 at Bellmore Presbyterian Church, beginning at 12:30 p.m. and will last several hours. If you would like to visit Presbytery and witness it at work, please feel free to do so. If you let me know your plans, I will arrange to introduce you, so the commissioners are aware of your presence and interest. I should add that not all Presbytery meetings are held on week days. It meets, frequently on a Saturday, to allow for greater participation from lay Presbyterians.
Beyond our local area, we are connected with the Synod of the Northeast, which keeps offices in upstate New York and covers New England and the greater New York area. Then, of course, we are part of the General Assembly which includes representation from all parts of the United States. Next month, I will give you a report on the activities of Synod, and then, as we move toward the meeting of General Assembly in St. Louis in June, I will brief you on the activities of the national church and what important issues will be brought up at GA this year.
As I look back on the past two and a half years, I am pleased with what we have been able to accomplish together. I was speaking with one long-term member this past week, and she reminded me that we have in many ways already become one congregation. We are accustomed to worshipping together, we share in our social events, and our sessions and deacons’ boards and many committees are now meeting jointly. This has been possible because the experience of getting to know each other has been largely a positive one. Of course, we notice our differences, the small variations in worship tradition, the differences in building use and so forth, but these variations do not divide us. We share in the joy of our faith and in our commitment to maintain a witness to the Gospel of Christ in the Presbyterian tradition in this part of Long Island.
We expect that, with the guidance of our Merger Commission and the approval of Presbytery, we will complete a legal and financial merger of the congregations this year. I am hoping that this process will proceed smoothly and will not preoccupy us. However, we hope to have “all hands on deck” for the decisions that lie ahead about our worship arrangements. We have been alternating worship locations each week for over two years. This has always been regarded as a temporary arrangement because being reliably present in one place is important for newcomers and visitors. We can’t grow if people have trouble finding us!
I understand that the decision about where to worship is complicated and sensitive. For that reason, we want everyone to be a part of the decision-making process. Later this month, you will receive a survey that I hope you will respond to quickly and thoughtfully. Basically, you will be asked your opinion about where we should worship at 10 a.m. on Sundays, the reasons that lie behind your preference, and your thoughts about the future of the building that you do not choose. For example, should there be worship at other times of the week or month in the other building? Should we continue to use it for other purposes? Should we sell it? We also want to hear any ideas you have about long-range solutions, such as selling both buildings and finding or building a new place to center our church.
Your opinions will be incorporated into our decision-making process. The final choices about worship location and building uses will be made by the sessions meeting jointly or as a merged, new session for the new United Presbyterian Church. Any property sale will need the approval of Presbytery.
I am praying that we do not become so involved in these matters of property that we lose sight of our basic mission to declare the Good News to all and to provide worship services that inspire us and give us the opportunity to praise God and to invoke God’s blessing on us and our community. I know that change can be painful and disruptive, but let us keep in mind the example of Abraham and Sarah who were summoned by God to leave their settled life and to go out into the unknown, and Elijah who found shelter where he could in the wilderness and was fed by ravens, and our Lord himself who, during his ministry, had no place he could call his own.
Thanks be to God who in His mercy has given us the gift of His presence in our midst and the equally valuable gift of our fellowship with each other. May the Lord be a pillar of fire by night and of cloud by day going before us into the future.
Here we are, once again at the beginning of the liturgical year. I suppose it was the rhythm of the agricultural world in the northern hemisphere, the world that most of our ancestors inhabited until the last one or two centuries, that dictated that the drama of salvation would be played out in our worship during the winter months. For it is between now and Easter in the spring, that the lectionary takes us through the scriptures of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. In the old days, people had more time during the winter for the special holidays and feasts associated with the readings, while the earth slept and there was no sowing, growing and reaping.
It has become something of a tradition for pastors to sermonize against the materialism of modern Christmas. We all must admit that things have certainly gotten way out of hand in terms of the “getting and spending” that characterizes our Decembers. Our domestic economy is more or less built around the business that this special holiday generates. Long ago, Christmas became “secularized” so that millions of people who don’t worship or respect Christ celebrate it for all kinds of reasons. The beloved story, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was, in fact, a powerful statement of how Christmas can be viewed as a moment in which the innate charitable impulse that lies within most humans is brought to the fore and celebrated, all with no reference to Christ himself, or even God.
Maybe a way we can salvage the original meaning of Christmas this year is to start Advent with a reflection on the other man who is featured in this Scriptural story, that being John the Baptist. Now, we know far less about John than we do about Jesus, but what we are told suggests that he was about as anti-materialist as you can get.
He was the son of a priest, and early in his life he took to an ascetic existence, residing for extended periods in the wilderness, learning to live like an ancient “hunter-gatherer,” a way of life that had more or less disappeared long before the time of Christ. So far as we can tell, his ministry was similar to that of a Baptist country preacher in the U.S. a century or so ago. He preached fire and brimstone, he called people to repent, and he baptized. The Bible does not attribute miracles to John—he wasn’t a healer so much as a disturber. You could say that he prepared the way for Christ by disturbing the complacency of the people, opening them to the possibility of a new way of understanding their relationship to God and to each other. That new relationship would be based on forgiveness and love, and we continue to celebrate it with the generosity of Christmas.
Maybe our time needs a new generation of disturbers, so that we might better appreciate the love in which God holds us in spite of our sinfulness. Old complacencies need to be challenged before the amazing news of God’s grace can be fully appreciated. “We should think of Advent as a time to disturb as well as to celebrate.”