Mark D. Roberts

Part 8 of series: The PC(USA) and Church Property
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In my last few posts I’ve been suggesting a process for a congregation that thinks God might be leading it to leave the PC(USA). So far the steps are

1. Put on the whole armor of God.
2. Congregation leaders should communicate with leaders from other churches that have considered leaving the PC(USA), or have left, to learn about what was good and not good in their process.
3. Congregation leaders should communicate with the presbytery.

The next step would be:
4. The congregation should engage in a discernment process that is prayerful, biblical, humble, open, truthful, loving, respectful, fair, and timely.
I must admit that I do not have direct experience with churches leaving their denomination. I can’t offer the sort of wisdom one would receive from someone who has been down this road before. (Hence Step #2 above.) But I do have a few thoughts about what an appropriate discernment process would include.
First, it should be prayerful. Literally . . . full of prayer. The main point of a process to consider leaving a denomination is to discern God’s will. Thus a congregation should turn to the Lord and ask for his guidance. Those would believe they know that God’s answer will be in advance would do well to publicly surrender their agendas and desires to God’s gracious sovereignty.
Second, the discernment process should be biblical. I’m using the word “biblical” in two senses. On the one hand, the process should be guided by biblical principles for human relationships and for determining God’s will. On the other hand, the process should include ample study of biblical passages relevant to the issue(s) at hand. If, for example, a church is thinking about leaving the PC(USA) because of it’s view of homosexual behavior, the passages that address human sexuality should be studied by the congregation.
Third, the process should be humble. More accurately, all involved in the process should be humble before God and before each other. Such humility would include an admission by all that “I could be wrong in this.” Moreover, it would reflect the humility of Christ applied to human relationships. I’m thinking of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2, for example:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:1-8)

Fourth, the discernment process should be open. I’m thinking a various dimensions of openness. Key deliberations should not be held in closed meetings. No smoke-filled rooms here (or coffee and donut filled rooms, as the case may be). There should also be encouragement for congregation members to share openly their thoughts and feelings. Any effort to railroad a specific conclusion should be avoided, both by congregation leaders and by presbytery leaders. (See my confession below.)
Fifth, the process should be truthful. Biblical truth should be foundational. Truthful representation of various specific issues is crucial. For example, the tendency of both sides of the gay ordination debate to misrepresent the other side should be avoided.
Sixth, the discernment process should be loving. Yes, of course this is obvious, but it needs to be said . . . and done. We’re called to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Now this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t disagree, or that we must pretend that we can all get along theologically. But our communications should imitate the love of Jesus as represented in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In almost every congregation considering leaving the PC(USA), there will be members on both sides of the issue. This means the potential for mutual injury is huge. In fact, I think it’s unavoidable. No matter what conclusion a church reaches, some folks will disagree with that conclusion. Some will leave the church if it stays. Some will stay with the PC(USA) if it leaves. This will be painful. But if the process is governed by love, that pain doesn’t have too include bitterness and unforgiveness.
Seventh, the process should be respectful. Respect is due from each person for each person, especially among those who disagree with each other. People should be free to disagree about ideas, but not to impugn each other’s integrity. Respect should also be given to denominational officials. (Photo: Not an example of a respectful process.)
Eighth, the process should be fair. Now what does that mean? Among other things, it means that every person will have the chance to voice his or her opinion and to be heard. It means that if there is a strong majority in the congregation, the minority will be treated well and heard sensitively. It means that votes will be taken by secret ballot so people don’t feel awkward about disagreeing with others.
Finally, the process should be timely. It should be neither too long nor too short. I’m not able to put a specific number of months on the ideal range, though I can imagine something like three to nine months. If a process is rushed, then people will not have the chance to pray adequate, think carefully, speak openly, and listen attentively. If a process is dragged out, the church will be hurt by the delay. Let’s face it. If a congregation is considering leaving the denomination, this will take a great deal of that congregation’s time and energy. It will, for a season, distract a church from its mission. I can envision church leaders wanting to accelerate the process to a sprint and presbytery leaders wanting to slow it down to a crawl. Neither pace will be edifying to the congregation, or even to the presbytery. Church leaders, both in the congregation and in the presbytery, should be sure that the timetable for the process is neither too short nor too long. (If you’ve been involved in such a process in the past, I’d be interested in your input here. Please leave a comment below.)
A Confession: If I ever get to the point where I think I need to leave the PC(USA), I expect I will be extremely impatient with those who aren’t moving at my pace. I can just envision a congregational meeting in which well-intended but inexperienced people say things like: “Well, have we ever tried to change the Book of Order to make it more biblical?” or “Have you ever sat down with the people who disagree with you and tried to understand their perspective?” I will want to scream in frustration. After all, I’ve spent more than thirty years of my life dealing with the gay ordination issue in the PC(USA). I’ve been involved in many efforts to try and change the Book of Order for the better (as it is, today, but perhaps not for long). I’ve listened to “the other side” for hours and hours. If I ever decide it’s time to leave the PC(USA), this decision will have come after more than thirty years of effort and hundreds if not thousands of hours of thinking, listening, studying, praying, and writing. The problem is that many, many other people will not have invested such time. They’ll need time to understand the issues and the options. I will need to work very hard to demonstrate the first quality of biblical love: “Love is patient . . . .”
As I’ve been surfing around the Internet, I found a document prepared by the Presbytery of the Cascades called “A Process for Congregations Considering Leaving the PCUSA” (download PDF file here). There’s a lot of wisdom in this paper, both with respect to process and concerning specific issues that congregations might forget (like legal matters, insurance, etc.). I’m not saying that this document is perfect, but it has a lot to offer. (If you know of similar process documents produced by other governing bodies or churches, from both PC(USA) or non-PC(USA) sources, please let us know by leaving a comment below.) In my next post I’ll suggest what I think should be a presbytery’s response to a church that, having gone through an appropriate process, votes to leave the PC(USA).

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