General Presbyter’s Report to the September Presbytery Meeting
by The Rev. Dr. Janet M. DeVries
1 Corinthians 12:27-28
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.
F-1.0301 The Church Is the Body of Christ
- The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world (1 Cor. 12:27–28):
- The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
- The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
- The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
- The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
Most of you know that my father was a Presbyterian pastor. During the last two years of his life, I would travel from Arizona to Iowa where I’d spend a week a month with him. I came to value this time as some of the most treasured time we spent together. Sometimes he’d talk to me about his pastorates, his particular regrets or delights, or about people who had shaped his life. He was an avid reader and by his chair were a Bible, a copy of the latest Christian Century, and sometimes the New York Times book review. I have the bad habit of collecting books. And anyone who has visited our offices knows that my book collection is its own resource center, thanks to my father’s library and mine. Honestly, friends, my book fetish was in the gene pool inherited from my dad.
My father chaired the Personnel Committee of every presbytery in which he served – typically more than once. He also chaired Committee on Ministry more times than I can remember. He served on the General Assembly’s Nominating Committee for six years. And in 1955, he served as a commissioner to General Assembly when the first overture passed in the old PCUSA which made way for the ordination of women, including his two daughters. Other than that, he never wanted to go to General Assembly because it wasn’t where he thought he saw the church at its best.
During those late-in-life visits, the most relentless question he would ask me, often when I would first walk in the door was “Jan, will the church make it?” I found the question disorienting, ironic for a retired pastor to be asking, calling up in me responses I wasn’t sure I wanted to make. So I would ask him, “which church?” and then I came to realize that he meant the whole church – sometimes the last congregation he served, but also the whole PCUSA, and sometimes all of what we used to call mainline Protestantism or even the church catholic.
Reflecting on those conversations with my dad has caused me in the last six months to think about church leadership – both mine and yours. And God has provided some people along the journey who have been conversation partners or whose own church crises have added to my understanding of leadership.
I am still haunted by his question because so much of Christianity is different than what I knew as a child and assumed would always be. I always thought our pews would be full. I assumed we’d be a leading denomination in our communities and in the nation. And I now live in a world where Christianity is growing faster in what is called “the global South” meaning the southern hemisphere rather than in the north. When I worship at United African, or at Binnerri Korean Church, or when I listen to Princeton Abaraoha give witness to God changing his life as a young man in Nigeria, I am reminded that the ease with which these brothers and sisters speak about God in their lives is a tremendous gift to me as a Euro-American Christian whose ancestors came from Germany and the Netherlands 6 generations ago.
Today I want to talk about what I believe leadership in the church means – in two dimensions. One is about the integrity of leadership and what it means to us in the Reformed Tradition. The other is to think about it as covenant – covenant with each other and with God. And I ask you to get out your pens and to think about what else leadership means to you as you understand your own ministry as a ruling or teaching elder, and send me an email to tell me.
- First, leadership in the Reformed Tradition always takes a wide-angle view, not fixated on single issues or tunnel vision, because we believe in a sovereign God of the whole big human picture, not a personal deity in one corner or part of it related only to us.
- Leaders have humility, piety, and deep reverence for God, because God alone owns the church. Leaders who know that have keen awareness of their own limitations, which protects them from idolatry, greed for money or prestige, and becoming puffed up with their own importance. Leaders understand that God’s Spirit works in and through us and therefore in the Church.
- Leaders know how to work with other people, because we discern God’s will and do the church’s work in concert with fellow Christians. In the Reformed Tradition, there are no jobs for a solitary CEO or a person without interpersonal gifts and graces, such as a capacity to listen carefully to persons of many perspectives. Leaders are always in dialogue with other Presbyterians and other Christians, attentive to individual perceptions and open to God’s Spirit to expand and redefine our understandings. Such attentive listening to each other and to God leads to respect for one other and dependence on the Holy Spirit to transform us and the church we love.
- Leaders embody the values and seek the ends that the church has written into its confessions of faith and polity. Leaders use the Book of Order to discipline the church’s service of God, yet without confusing the instrument of discipline with the God who is served. Leaders protect minority rights at the same time they abide by majority rule. Leaders respect Christ who is Lord of the conscience of persons with whom they disagree. Leaders know that polity is a tool of the church to order its life to give expression to faith.
- Leaders believe the church of Jesus Christ is one whole fabric woven from the lives of all the baptized faithful. Leaders are servants of unity both in the Presbyterian Church and in the whole family of Christ. Leaders’ gifts are given by God to build up the Body of Christ. We value the unity of the Body of Christ more than we value our individual biases or predispositions.
- Leaders know that the validation of their calling does not come from getting and keeping any position or office, but from helping a community solve its problems and fulfill the task to which the Church of Jesus Christ is called, which is “to increase the love of God and neighbor.” (H. Richard Niebuhr). The Apostle Paul says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” That treasure is the Church, bound by its deep respect for tradition and open to the transforming power of God’s Spirit to form and reform it in this age and all the ages to come. At the core of leadership in the Reformed Tradition is the God who created us, redeemed us in Jesus Christ, entrusts to us this treasure in earthen vessels, and calls us to be transmitters of the dynamism of faith and the richness of our tradition.
Most of us who come to presbytery meetings are teaching or ruling elders, and as such, we are each expected to be leaders. We’ve been called as leaders of congregations or ministries, trained by seminaries. Or, we’re ruling elders who have been through training and have familiarity with the constitution, and whose gifts for ministry have been discerned by people in our congregations. We often don’t stop to think about characteristics of leadership in the church – ours or the person next to us at this meeting or session meeting. Together we are leaders of the PCUSA, whether for our particular congregations or in our service on committees and structures of the church or presbytery.
In the last several weeks in Grace Presbytery, I have found myself in different settings where teaching and ruling elders struggled together to talk about what God was calling them to do and to be. One was a remarkable group of about 200 people from 25 congregations gathered together to talk about what the future looks like in each of their congregations. Tough conversations about problems with membership loss or fewer dollars, or how to build a youth group or attract new members. Also conversations about the strengths of each congregation and how to think of those afresh and to open themselves to new ways of doing ministry and being the church. How appropriate that this program in partnership with Grace Presbytery and the General Assembly is called “New Beginnings” and that its model is members/ruling elders working with pastors.
And another story working with a church where the relationship between pastor and elders has been strained for some time, where learning to share leadership is a task to begin again for this session and pastor.
And here we are at First Longview, a congregation which in the last two years has been challenged to its core to revisit what it means to be on this corner in this community, and has come through the flood strong and vital.
In every instance, it is a privilege to be a witness, sometimes as a fly on the wall and sometimes more directly involved. For in the PCUSA, as in Christendom, the church is given to us in earthen vessels with the challenges to build both an institution of faith as well as a community of faith, and to call it “church.”
It is my father’s question, “Jan, will the church make it?” You are the church’s leaders. What do you think?