March 26, 2019
Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission — Looking for a good read for your congregation and leaders? I join with our General Assembly Co-Moderators in recommending this book! The authors are Presbyterians who share their stories and challenge us to remember our calling:
“Here is the eternal pattern of the Incarnation. Jesus did not use his advantage or privilege as a trump card of power. He did not stay separate from the world around him. … He emptied himself as an act of service that has guided us for centuries. Is this our calling? Self-emptying rather than self-preservation. We believe so, but we also know it is scary for leaders who see their roles as maintaining the ABCs … attendance, buildings, and cash. Remember that the most frequent commandment in Scripture is, ‘Do not be afraid.’ ”
Whether large or small, our congregations are “anchor institutions” in and for our communities. Like universities and hospitals, our congregations are rooted in our communities through mission, relationships, investments, and they have the potential to make a difference to all in the community:
“Your congregation is an anchor institution for your community! When all is said and done, the lifeblood of Christ’s movement will always be the local church. It is the staging platform for mission, the beachhead where we help bring the kingdom of God to earth. And despite all its challenges, we hope you do believe wholeheartedly in its future.”
What better time, with the seasons of Easter and Pentecost on the horizon, to take and read together to catch the fresh breeze of Christ’s Spirit blowing in and through your congregation and community.
Grace & peace,
March 1, 2019
Transparency. Integrity. Character.
Yes, they apply to the ministry of the Presbytery, our staff, and our budget. My last blog addressed the “per capita” dimension of the ways your giving makes a difference. Another dimension of your giving is what I call “mission giving.” Check out the new brochure which presents a variety of ways your giving makes a difference: Brochure on ways your giving makes a difference.
In 2018, the Presbytery was entrusted with approximately $311,000 for the mission of the Presbytery. I confess that a larger percentage than I like of those funds go to me/my position: 39%. Other ways your giving made a difference is $65,000 for Birmingham UKirk minister, Main Event, church officer training, and camps and retreats where our children and youth learn the faith. About $28,000 goes to the mission budgets of the regional Synod and the General Assembly mission of the PCUSA. Some $60,000 goes to maintaining the office, telephone and internet communications, and insurance. Approximately $12,00o keeps our financial status healthy and managed.
I give thanks to God for the 24 congregations who give faithfully to this mission of the Presbytery. Your giving does make a difference.
Grace & peace,
January 25, 2019
Per Capita Numbers Are In!
As I wrote previously, I have been moved to make a resolution for this new year: be more transparent about the Presbytery’s per capita and mission giving and expenses in the coming year. The year begins with a look back to recognize the generosity of the Presbytery in 2018. There is much to give thanks for!
We have 71 congregations from which we could expect to receive funds for mission and ministry. The amazing news is that 67 congregations contributed $194,253.18 for “per capita”! To translate, that means that 94% of the congregations in the Presbytery of Sheppards & Lapsley contributed 92% of the amount due. How does that compare across the country? 69% (119) of the Presbyteries pay 100% of their per capita due the General Assembly.
According to the PC(U.S.A.) web site, “many wonder where did Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s system of funding the General Assembly come from, and why is it a flat rate? As with so many other issues, American Presbyterians have long struggled with the means of supporting their mission and ministry. Rejecting England’s system of patronage by the wealthy, American Presbyterians’ Scots forebears supported their ministers by pew rents. By the middle of the nineteenth century, pew rents had fallen out of favor. But how would a national body, meeting annually to conduct the work of the church, support and sustain those assemblies? In 1857, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. promulgated a flat apportionment based on a presbytery’s population, called the Plan of Mileage. At 5 cents per member, the Plan of Mileage would pay into a Delegate Fund, from which commissioners to General Assembly could be reimbursed for their travel. The apportionment was understood to be voluntary, but presbyteries were required to pay their share, regardless of any congregation’s delinquency. From 1860 to 1869, 90 percent of presbyteries participated in the plan, whose revenues were reported under the heading Commissioners and Contingent Funds. Upon reunion of the Old School and New School denominations in 1870, this heading was changed simply to General Assembly Tax.
“Conflict over the apportionment was constant. A new plan put forward in 1884 was repealed in 1887, “productive of much disappointment.” The 1900 General Assembly would finally, firmly establish the General Delegate Fund, while acknowledging that the assessment relied on pure good will: “None of our Church courts are clothed with the power to assess a tax upon the churches. Apportionments to meet the expenses of the several bodies may be made; but the payment depends upon that voluntary liberality which flows from the enlightened consciences of the people, who may be confidently relied upon to return whatever is necessary for the conduct of our ecclesiastical business.””
I give thanks to God for the 67 congregations who have supported our Presbytery, our Synod, and our General Assembly this past year. May your faithfulness and witness inspire others in the coming year.
Grace and peace,
January 2, 2019
A Resolution for the New Year!
I seldom make “New Year’s Resolutions.” They seemed so artificial and contrived to me, and could be made at any time. Well, in conversations with ministers and elders, I have been moved to make a resolution for this new year: be more transparent about the Presbytery’s per capita and mission giving and expenses in the coming year.
This Presbytery has been blessed with generous and faithful supporters of Christ’s mission in this region and throughout the world. Congregations participate in that mission of the larger church through “per capita” giving and “mission” giving. The Presbytery pays the “per capita” required by the Synod and the General Assembly, even if congregations do not contribute.
For 2019, the “per capita” is $23.40 for each member of each congregation in the Presbytery of Sheppards & Lapsley. Of that, $8.95 goes to the Office of the General Assembly. $3.98 goes to the Synod of Living Waters. $9.47 stays in Sheppards & Lapsley. And, $1.00 goes to campus ministries in the Presbytery.
What difference does your per capita make? It makes possible our quarterly meetings where the well-being of the church is addressed, where ministers are received, where the mission of our congregations is celebrated, where connections with Living River, the Presbyterian Home for Children, and the Congo Partnership are renewed. It is how we share mutually and equitably in the costs locally, regionally, and nationally to come together to discern the leading of God’s Spirit for the future.
“Mission” giving is the gift of the congregation to the ministries of the Presbytery which is divided among the Presbytery (88%), the Synod (3.5%), and the General Assembly (8.5%).What difference does your mission giving make? It supports retreats for small church leaders, camp scholarships for children and youth at Living River. It makes possible Youth Council and “Main Event” leadership training. Mission giving provides support for those being called into ministry, and for ministers and congregations seeking to serve Christ and neighbors.
Grace & peace,
October 28, 2018
from Ed Hurley: We are invited to gather with Temple Beth El Tuesday evening. South Highland church parking lot is available for those who might like to attend the 6:30 PM service of prayer and solidarity on the front steps of Temple Beth El. The temple is two blocks up from South Highland. Parking there would be very difficult but our lots are available.
A Word from Rabbi Jonathan Miller:
How can I describe to you the heaviness in my heart? As a nation, we will once again bury worshippers. This time we turn our attention to Jewish people who went to celebrate the Sabbath and name a baby at the venerable Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. How can we as a nation comfort the families of the dead and wounded police who came to rescue those people pinned inside the synagogue? Again we exclaim that we are shocked. But after all the shootings in the temples and churches, the nightclubs, the high schools, the concert venues and movie theaters, how can we pretend to be shocked? In today’s America, what exactly is shocking about the murder of worshippers in a synagogue?
The shock of this latest assault on America is that it is no longer shocking. We are numbed, somehow accepting the fact that all of us are vulnerable.
President Trump’s campaign slogan is to “Make America Great Again.” Oh, how I wish it were so simple. The America I grew up in was also a divided country. We were divided by civil rights and the Vietnam War. But we did not need to have police guarding every synagogue and church. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama shook the nation and changed the course of our history, for the better. But that was a singular earth-shattering moment.
Today, we cannot recall all the people who have been killed in churches, synagogues, and temples. The extraordinary evil has become commonplace.
As school children, we might have been afraid of lunchroom bullies or communists very far away, but we did not dream of needing to pass through metal detectors to get to our homerooms or armed guards in our elementary schools. No one gave a thought about being shot up at a concert or movie theater.
President Trump found fault with the security at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Are we expected to live in armed camps to protect ourselves and our children, even when we wish to approach God with joy in our heart? Are armed guards and surveillance cameras what makes America great?
What has happened to us?
The words we use define our reality. And hateful words lead to hateful actions. The killer in Pittsburgh did not enter the synagogue quietly. He first screamed, “All Jews must die!” and then he opened with his deadly fire. If he hadn’t been taught by words that it was good to “All Jews must die,” the community in Pittsburgh would have had a joyous Sabbath celebrating new life. The words we use shape the reality of the world in which we live.
The Bible tells us that God’s very first action was the act of speech. God created light and darkness. All that followed came into being by the power of God’s speech. Speech, our own uttered and intentional thoughts, define the way we see the world and react to it. People who say “I love you” act with love. People who say, “I hate you” act with hate. Speech comes first. Speech creates reality.
The Gospel of John in the Christian Bible echoes the book of Genesis. It opens by declaring that in the beginning was the word. The word was with God. The word was God. And then later in the chapter, the word becomes flesh.
The Gospel writer was all too wise. Flesh grows around the words we use. And we are seeing the incarnation of hate in the hateful speech which permeates America.
What we are living through is more horrible than we could have imagined.
In the Jewish liturgy, when we come to our silent devotion, we begin by asking God to guard our speech and keep us from evil thoughts. The sages who came before me knew that our thoughts and our speech could become tangible in our lives, in our flesh, and in the way we see and treat others.
As hatred expands in our country, violence will inevitably follow. We should all pray that God will guard our speech and guide our thoughts. This should be a moment when we turn away from the hate filled speech which divides us and deadens our country. And we should hold accountable our leaders and our friends and our community when their speech becomes ugly.
Ugly speech hurts. Ugly speech kills. And ugly speech keeps America from being as great as it ought to be.
September 3, 2018
Some Vacation Reading — A House United: How the Church Can Save the World
I usually avoid books that make such claims as in this title. God in Christ, not the church, is what can save the world! Yet, several people I respect recommended this book by Allen Hilton, so I carried it with me to the beach as I vacationed with family.
The world of the author is the same one most of us experience in the United States now – divisive, angry, identity stereotyped politics, extremists both in the church and in our culture. How can the church save this world? Hilton challenges Christians to remember Jesus’ prayer and commandment in the Gospel of John. Jesus prayed that his disciples might all be one, and that the world knows it.
The first step is for the church to address and be healed of our divisiveness; then, we might model ways for the culture to be healed of its polarized politics. The only way the church can be healed is to bring our differences into the church, to celebrate and respect those differences as God’s gift to us. Hilton takes us back to Paul and the Corinthians where, in the midst of their conflicts over food, worship, and sex, Paul calls us to celebrate the gifts of the Spirit for the common good. Now is the time for us to include our different perspectives on God and Christ and humanity as gifts of the Spirit for the common good.
One important gift of diversity is to welcome our different ways of reading and honoring the authority of the Bible. Hilton agrees with Pew research that suggests “liberals” do have different ways of reading the Bible. The deeper and more divisive issue is that liberals do not read the Bible enough. The model he recommends comes from the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai – they disagreed on most everything, but their debates over issues stayed in community, and were “a disagreement for heaven’s sake.”
Hilton’s summarizes his book: “God gives us our difference as a gift – an asset rather than a threat. I believe God gave the American church and the whole republic both liberals and conservatives, and by our elective segregation we ungratefully leave that gift unopened.” The challenge is to recognize that being together with our differences make us better as we stay in community, engage in conversations so that we may listen and learn from our differenct perspectives. When the church welcomes God’s gift of difference, then, we may have a graceful word for our culture.
Grace & peace,
July 3, 2018
So, What Happened at the General Assembly?
A good answer to that question I heard: “Some wise decisions were made.”
Many different summaries of what happened can be read. I like the brief summary by Jerry Van Marter which can be found at https://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/6/29/highlights-actions-223rd-general-assembly-2018-150/ Other organizations offer their summary. I recommend the Presbyterian Outlook summary also (https://pres-outlook.org/2018/03/2018-ga-bulletin-inserts/. I confess my bias for this publication since it has published some thoughts of mine over the years.
Some of the wise decisions made at GA?
(1) I have been following the work of “The Way Forward” Commission formed in 2016 to address substantive issues in the culture of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. Some actions taken give me hope:
- Restructured PC(USA) A Corp to be representative of five of the six agencies of the PC(USA)—previously the A Corp board was identical to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The new A Corp board is composed of eleven members, representing each agency, with the exception of the Board of Pensions, plus at-large members.
- Authorized a “financial sustainability review” to examine “per capita” and mission giving.
- Reported an administrative action issued by the commission calling for greater transparency, particularly in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and freedom for national staff employees to speak their minds in addressing the culture without retribution or retaliation.
(2) Fossil Fuel Divestment continues to be a passionate topic as well as divisive. The committee presented a motion that would declare divestment, yet by 332-178, the assembly voted in favor of a minority report that called for the PC(USA) to continue its corporate engagement with fossil fuel companies—through its Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee—rather than divest from those companies. After the minority report became the main motion, it was approved by the assembly 409-106. I was surprised by the swing towards support of the minority report, and think the reality of how we can make a difference for the healing of God’s creation became clearer.
(3) Per Capita is increasing, but not nearly as much as had been announced months ago. The concerns expressed by my colleagues across the country were heard. The 2019 & 2020 General Assembly per capita was set at $8.95 per member—an increase of $1.25 (or 15.8 percent) per member over 2018. The assembly established a team of twelve to fifteen persons to “review the current per capita-based system of funding the ministry of councils higher than the session, for financial sustainability into the next ten years.” The request was also made to explore ways of reducing the cost of future General Assemblies.
(4) Racism and Poverty were addressed in a variety of ways.
- Stillman College was included in a document that addressed and seeks to improve the relationship between the General Assembly and Historically Racial Ethnic Institutions
- Acts of public witness sought to engage issues of racism, poverty, and violence in St. Louis in Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson’s “Hands and Feet” initiative. After a dramatic march by nearly 1,000 Presbyterians to the City Justice Center, the offering from the opening worship service of more than $54,000 was given to ArchDefenders, a faith-based group that bails low-level offenders out of jail. Nearly three dozen people, victims of St. Louis’ cash bail system, were released from custody with the money.
- The “challenge of being black”, black men and black women, was addressed with calls to raise awareness and develop action plans to heal the sin of racism.
- Approved “The Gospel from St. Louis” which tells the stories of congregations engaging the systemic issues of racism, poverty, and violence.
- Initiated a process to study Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
(5) Paid Family Leave was the focus of long debates. No one was “against” it. The issues are cost, consistent standards, and financial support. This was a learning moment for some in that the assembly was reminded that one council (the GA) cannot tell another council (the Presbytery) what must be required, other than by changing the Book of Order. Nor can the GA tell the Board of Pensions what it must do. As good Presbyterians, the assembly referred the matter to a task force to report back to the next GA actions to develop denomination-wide standards and financial support for paid family leave for church workers.
So, what happened at GA? God’s people were yearning to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the 21st century: seeking justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with our God.
Grace and peace,
June 7, 2018
Per Capita? Effective Witness!
“Per capita” is something many Presbyterians talk about in derogatory terms. The “head tax” is seldom discussed in a spiritually inspiring manner. It has gotten a lot of publicity the last few months in response to the Office of the General Assembly and Stated Clerk’s recommendation for increasing the OGA’s per capita some 47% over the next two years. Many of my colleagues, including myself, objected in print to the way this proposal was presented. Now, the Stated Clerk has reported that he will seek to amend the original proposal so that the OGA’s per capita is increased 10% for 2019 and 10% for 2020.
The issue for me has always been connecting the identity and mission focus of the OGA to the per capita. I attended a meeting earlier this week and heard that the Stated Clerk sees this connection to be the key issue. He is hopeful that an overture to the GA and reports from special committees and commissions will provoke the conversation needed now and for the next two years. Who are we, the PC(USA), called to be and do as followers of Christ in the 21st century? How do we focus on that sense of God’s calling, and fund it?
“Per capita” is one way we live out our connectional nature as Presbyterian followers of Jesus. This is what our Book of Order says: “The funding of mission similarly demonstrates the unity and interdependence of the church. The failure of any part of the church to participate in the stewardship of the mission of the whole church diminishes that unity and interdependence. All mission funding should enable the church to give effective witness in the world to God’s new creation in Jesus Christ, and should strengthen the church’s witness to the mission of God. Each council above the session shall prepare and adopt a budget for its operating expenses, including administrative personnel, and may fund it with a per capita apportionment among the particular congregations within its bounds. Presbyteries are responsible for raising their own funds and for raising and timely transmission of per capita funds to their respective synods and the General Assembly. Presbyteries may direct per capita apportionments to sessions within their bounds, but in no case shall the authority of the session to direct its benevolences be compromised.” (G-3.0106)
At this time in the life of the PC(USA), I see the key expression to be “effective witness in the world to God’s new creation in Jesus Christ.” The original proposal from the Stated Clerk reflected the cost of the OGA to do the work that the office has been asked to do by previous General Assemblies. Many recognize that “effective witness” should not be that expensive when priorities for mission are made clear. The revised proposal of a 20% increase reflects the cost of doing the work that has been asked and using financial reserves.
I encourage the “per capita discussion” to become an avenue now for the church to clarify what we are called to be and do to provide an effective witness to God in this 21st century. This Presbytery has gone through that process to clarify who we are and what we do …. partner with and equip . . . and shaped our organization and budget to reflect that calling. Let us now support and encourage the Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, in leading the General Assembly in that same work.
Please keep in your prayers J. Herbert Nelson and our commissioners (Leeann Scarbrough, Ed Hurley, Deborah Thomas, Mark Hopkins), and our Young Adult Advisory Delegate (Julie Potts) as they meet in St. Louis on June 16.
Grace and Peace,