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Presbytery Engagement Team (PET)

In my many years of ministry, I have had some difficult and challenging assignments. Early in my ministry, I was assigned by the Presbytery the task of closing a church. It was a small, declining congregation that had been struggling for survival for years. My job was to moderate the meeting of the congregation for the final vote. Going in my understanding was that the Presbytery had completed the necessary work with the congregation to bring it to this final vote. I was shocked to discover how angry the congregation was. The congregation not only voted not to close, but the threat of closure so energized them that they managed to turn things around.

The most difficult assignment, by far, was the one in 2015 that required 1 and 1/2 years of work. Four of us, 3 teaching elders and 1 ruling elder, formed a Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) to work with a congregation that had decided to seek dismissal from the PC(USA). The issue of seeking dismissal from the denomination had been brewing for many years. The focus of the displeasure was around the issues of human sexuality, in particular the ordination of LGBT candidates and same-sex marriages; biblical authority and the doctrinal belief that salvation can only be found in Jesus. The Presbytery of San Francisco drafted its Policy for Reconciliation and Dismissal of Congregations in 2010. The politics behind the process by which our policy was drafted is a story in itself. It was carefully orchestrated by the evangelical faction in the Presbytery. In the first years following approval of the policy, several large congregations successfully negotiated their dismissal, taking their property with them. The prevailing measure of a successful dismissal came down to who got the property. Despite the fact that the policy provided steps for reconciliation as well as dismissal, it was evident that by the time the congregations communicated their desire to the Presbytery, they were beyond seeking reconciliation and had begun strategizing for dismissal and how to take the property with them.

Our team met with the session of congregation “S” for its initial meeting in October, 2015. We went in committed to the work of spiritual discernment and to achieving reconciliation. Going in, we were informed that the session was opened to that in light of the fact that the congregation was not united in seeking dismissal. We quickly learned that the pastor and some key vocal elders on the session had their minds made up and their interest was to gain as much leverage as possible to achieve their objective, namely dismissal and possession of the property.

After many meetings with the session, an open chat with the congregation, followed by many meetings with small groups in the congregation, a Special Committee of the Congregation (SCC) was formed as the next step in the process towards dismissal. By the time we reached this stage, we were concerned primarily with the health and well-being of the congregation regardless of the outcome of any vote. At our final meeting with the SCC to negotiate terms for dismissal, the PET presented its Proposed Terms of Dismissal. The highlight of our proposal was that the real property, of which congregation “S” is the primary trustee remain as the property of the PCUSA to be used for the mission work of the PCUSA.

This particular assignment challenged me to engage in some significant biblical and theological reflection, including very personal testimonials to the congregation. When confronted by the claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven, I shared that my son was married to a muslim woman. On the issue of same-sex marriage, I shared that I had performed several same-sex weddings. Furthermore, the congregation knew that I had been very public about where I stood on the ordination issue. If I can express any gratitude for this difficult assignment, it would be my appreciation for the depth of resources and support from writers whom I respected and from friends and colleagues. In the course of the many conversations with this congregation, the following quotes are representative of what informed and guided my thinking:

“The Bible is a human product: It tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, And not how God sees things.” (Marcus Borg)

“Everyone reads the Bible selectively, no exceptions. The question for everyone, is—‘what do I select (to follow, to value, to credit) and why’?” (Robert Coote )

“We don’t change minds. We change hearts, and changed hearts change minds.” (Paul Andrews)

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (John 14:5-7 )

“What is Thomas asking here? If we don’t properly understand his question, it’s highly likely that we’ll miss the meaning of Jesus’ answer. It’s clear he is not asking anything like ‘Will people who have never heard of you go to heaven?’ It’s clear he’s not thinking about Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrian, followers of tribalism in Africa or South America, much less modern secular atheists or skeptics of modern or postmodern bent. He and his disciples are thinking about themselves, the disciples, and only themselves—in their dismay that Jesus their leader will now go somewhere they can’t follow… Clearly, taken in context, these words are not intended as an insult to followers of Mohammed, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, Enlightenment rationalism, or anybody or anything else. Rather, the “no one” here refers to Jesus’ own disciples, who seem to want to trust some information—a plan, a diagram, a map, instructions, techniques—so they can get to God or the kingdom of God without or apart from Jesus, since he has just told them he is leaving them for a while at least.” (Brian McLaren)

At our final meeting with the congregation, I shared what my daughter, Robin, posted on Facebook on Christmas Day, 2015: “Christmas celebration at our house: 31 people, 3 dogs; 6 Muslims, 3 Catholics, 1 Buddhist, 21 Protestants; 1 Australian, 1 Pakistani, 5 Iranians, 1 Mexican, 7 Japanese, 3 African American, 2 Taiwanese, 6 Caucasians, 18 Chinese. I love my diverse family”!

At a straw vote taken on Sunday, February 26, 2017, congregation “S” voted to suspend the dismissal process. The pastor later in the week announced his resignation and that his last Sunday would be March 26, 2017. The Committee on Ministry and the Presbytery staff went to work immediately to begin the healing work with the congregation. And the Presbytery Engagement Team was dismissed at the May, 2017 meeting of the Presbytery.

2 thoughts on “Presbytery Engagement Team (PET)”

  1. I’m unclear about the meaning and difference between Reconciliation and Dismissal in this context. Is it like a married couple sitting in front of a marriage counselor to establish whether the marriage can be saved or not?
    Then the contest over property rights enters whether for need, greed, leverage, revenge and probably some of each.

    Behind all this must be some other deep burning disgruntlement not sufficiently surfaced and resolved. The ready catalyst is LGBT issue. Was that sufficiently explored, openly discussed and reconciled before calling in PET?
    Sometimes in calling in a third party, another “expert”, “mediator” is an affront and adds to the high stress. Just checking items on a List on some prescribed scale doesn’t mean the time is ripe for moving on to the next step.

    1. Gwen, it is what I have always loved and appreciated about you—challenging me to go deeper on issues as you do here comparing my PET work with marriage counseling. There are definite similarities—the Presbytery wanted reconciliation with the congregation from the start (we did not want the marriage to be dissolved) and to our dismay, by the time we entered “counseling”, we discovered that it was too late. So your question of whether the Presbytery had sufficiently explored, openly discussed, sought reconciliation prior to calling in PET is the BIG QUESTION. Personally, knowing the “players”, I believe sufficient work had been done by the Presbytery prior to the calling in of PET; and the intervention of PET was the last ditch effort (hoping and praying for the best). On the one hand, in representing the Presbytery we (the PET) were the “spouse”; and on the other hand, we also played the role of counselor/mediator (which in fact was our primary responsibility). It is important to note that PET was called in at the request of the congregation. So whatever PET finds itself dealing with is pretty much dictated by where the congregation is by the time of the intervention.

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