This is the first of three posts reflecting on the presbytery and the General Assembly while I am vacation. I will return to following the lectionary on the July 26 post after I return to the office.
Report to the Presbytery at the June 29-30 stated meeting at First, Salem.
I would like to start by sharing a story I heard during The Way Forward Committee Meeting at this year’s General Assembly in St. Louis.
Apparently, a reporter had asked Desmond Tutu how he had ever come up with a plan to end apartheid in South Africa. Tutu smiled and said, “There was no plan. All we had was a destination and a commitment to start walking.” I share this story with you because I think it reflects this time that we live in as well as how I have been approaching my position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. What I am going to report is really just what I have learned from committing to walk our way into a new future.
As of this date I have met with sixty-three of our ninety-six churches. There are another six that I met with prior to this particular wave of visits. I have ten more churches scheduled in July, August and September and another eighteen to still schedule sometime in the fall.
If there has been one thing that has become abundantly clear and that ties us together as the Presbytery it is this: We are a Matthew 25 kind of presbytery and church. Everywhere I have gone, whether small or large, progressive or conservative, all of our churches are marked by a particular commitment to serving “the least among us.”
- Gold Beach, on the southern Oregon coast is a small congregation yet every week they serve a soup lunch to the vulnerable of their community;
- There are international missions by churches such as First, Bend; Columbia, Vancouver; and Lake Grove that serve vulnerable communities and populations in Syria, Senegal and Gautamala;
- Grace in Portland has two dozen or so on Sundays yet they make and deliver forty lunches every Sunday to Prescott Terrace, a transitional housing facility near the church;
- Central, Eugene and First, Cottage Grove have invested deeply in supporting the homeless through investments in actual housing projects, and;
- Dozens of our churches provide space to groups and agencies that specifically reach out to “the least of these.”
I have also discovered something about my role. Although it already could have been assumed by reading between the lines of my job description it has become abundantly clear to me that my role will be to “help the presbytery and our churches negotiate an almost certain (and maybe radical) shift in how we embody Christian spiritual community.” While I do not yet have a clear vision of the future at this point I can tell you that I am getting some glimpses. I have visited enough churches to see some patterns, hear some common concerns and hopes, and catch a glimpse of the kind of questions that will point our way to the future. Here are some themes that I will be following up on in coming months:
- I have met with a number of congregations that are asking questions about how they organize themselves and how to honor our polity while they deal with the reality that half of their active participating congregants are not actually “on-the-rolls” members;
- A number of congregations are specifically focusing on the question, “How does the specific context of being in the Pacific Northwest affect our ministry commitments and priorities?” These congregations are wondering what it means to serve those who might refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or check the box “None” with regard to religious affiliation on the census.
- A number of our congregations have more building than they do ministry. I will be following up with them with conversations about how their building could be viewed as one of their greatest assets for ministry and how it could be re-purposed to serve the community in which they are located;
- A couple of congregations are looking a decade down the road and asking, “Could the future be buildingless congregations? Do we need to start planning and preparing for that?” I will be wanting to listen to the conversation and discernment going on in these congregations;
- More than half of our congregations are expressing a desire to have some presence and impact on the affordable housing crisis that has left almost no area of Oregon untouched. This is a good opportunity for us to develop partnerships and look to our ecumenical, non-profit and public private partners to solve this issue together;
- With the passage of the Vacant Properties Task Force report I will be working directly with our New Ministries Team and the Trustees. We have an amazing opportunity to now imagine and re-imagine potential ministries either utilizing the sites of vacant properties or directing the proceeds from the sale of the properties to re-imagined new ministries and the re-vitalization of our present congregations;
- There are a number of our congregations that are negotiating the shifts of their communities quite well. I will want to meet with them, learn from them and find ways to share their stories with the full presbytery.
The third thing that I have discovered is that we are going to have to do this together. I tend to be a person who will shoulder a lot of responsibility, but as I have met with our congregations and gotten a taste of the opportunities and challenges ahead of us I have had to admit to myself, “There is no way I can do this on my own! This is too big for little ole’ me!” This is my way of asking for help. I will promise to walk with you, guide you, support you, pray for you, and try to ask the right questions, but in the end we will need to grab hands and take this journey together—which, it shouldn’t surprise us, sounds pretty Presbyterian.
Finally, let me make a personal plea. The last few days have been troubling to me as it has for many of you as well. If it is true that we are a Matthew 25 kind of church and presbytery then one verse of Matthew 25 is particularly shouting at us right now. Jesus said, “When you welcomed the stranger, you welcomed me.” What I want to encourage you to do is to go back to every one of your congregations and wrestle with this text. I am less interested in where you come out than I am in your intention to sit with this text, pray about it, and listen for what God is saying to you about your commitment to “the stranger and the alien” in your midst.
I truly believe that we are in this moment where history is going to judge us by what we choose to do or choose not to do in this time. God is watching. The community is watching. Go back to your congregations and decide what this text means for you and your congregation, for your neighborhood, for your community and for your national commitments.
I want to express my gratitude for our staff. We have a great group of people who are committed, creative, bright and flexible. I look forward to continuing to work with them in coming years. And again, thank you for the privilege of being able to serve you.
May God bless our unfolding journey.