My Thoughts on Non-Geographic Presbyteries

16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3.16)

by oldschoolclassic

John writes this in his letter to Laodicea, one of the letters he is instructed to write to seven different churches. While the other letters have some words of encouragement, John’s letter to Laodicea lacks any sympathy and instead is harsh, blunt, and straightforward. This gives an impression that God doesn’t only dislike things that are lukewarm, but is repulsed by it, hence the negative connotations associated with being a “lukewarm” Christian.

To most, a “lukewarm” Christian is considered to be wishy-washy, not fully committed, non-zealous, and therefore useless. “Lukewarm” seems to universally suggest that anything at room temperature is a bad thing. Food served lukewarm, whether it is meant to be served hot or cold, is unacceptable. Not only does it not taste right, but it makes us question whether the food is still edible and hasn’t yet turned into a petri dish of bacteria. On a hot summer day, a gulp of iced, cold water is refreshing. On a cold, rainy afternoon, a sip of a hot, steamy beverage is satisfying. I don’t know if anyone can think of a time when they have craved a tall glass of room temperature water.

However, I would like to make a case that maybe “lukewarm” has gotten a bad rap. Certainly, drinking room temperature water is better for your body’s ability to digest than ice cold water. As a mother, I always tested the temperature of the milk in the bottle to be lukewarm and not too hot. As a baker, ingredients should always be at room temperature in order for the ingredients to blend together easier so that the butter will whip, the cake will be moist, and the bread will rise. And to quote Goldilocks when she was tasting the Bears’ porridge, “This one’s too hot; this one is too cold, but this one is just right.”

Recently, the Middle Governing Bodies Commission met. They are tasked with making and recommending necessary changes that would affect the functions of presbyteries and synods in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) denomination. John Vest, one of the members on the commission, wrote a blog reflecting on whether more non-geographic presbyteries should be allowed to form based on theological differences. The desire to form more non-geographic presbyteries came out of a conference sponsored by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, where the formation of non-geographic presbyteries was given as one option to address the division PCUSA is experiencing in light of passing an amendment that gives room for GLBQ to be ordained in the church. PCUSA has always had advocate groups that represent the extreme temperatures of the church. Since the passing of this amendment, many groups that have long fought for either side of the issue, such as Covenant Network and Presbyterians for Renewal are having to recalibrate their sense of purpose. Also, new groups have formed to address the future of PCUSA, such as NEXT and the Fellowship of Presbyterians. So, the question is whether or not non-geographic presbyteries is a viable answer to how a denomination can remain together in the midst of diversity. My answer is no.

In a previous blog, I posed these questions about non-geographic presbyteries: Is there room and safe spaces for diversity? Or is the only answer to separate into groups with none to little accountability? What does this say to our core principle that we are connectional? I am not convinced that non-geographic presbyteries are a solution, but a cover up for a deeper rooted issue and that is how our denomination as a whole handles diversity. What happens when within these non-geographic presbyteries, another diversity group rares their “ugly” head, do we form non-geographic presbyteries within non-geographic presbyteries? A perfect example of this is Korean-language presbyteries. Until last General Assembly in 2010, people assumed that all Koreans were hunky dory when it came to Korean-language presbyteries. And although many had their concerns about forming another one, the vote in committee clearly did not express that. It overwhelmingly passed. It wasn’t until I and 2 other colleagues of mine spoke up on the General Assembly floor that people realized there are important issues that need to be addressed: lack of women being ordained and finding calls and lack of inclusion for non-Korean-speaking/2nd generation Korean-Americans. What pains me is that by speaking out we made ourselves and our sisters vulnerable. We betrayed our people by “airing out our dirty laundry” in public – a public that is predominantly white and in many ways supports a system that made Koreans want to form non-geographic presbyteries in the first place.

But, what was the answer for us, what choice did we have – women in those presbyteries that struggled years to be ordained? Are we to now push ahead to form our own non-geographic presbytery based on racial ethnic women who can’t get ordained in their own ethnic group? The answer is no. First of all, besides being absurd, we don’t want to. Our struggles hasn’t been about trying to have our own way. Our struggles have been to have a voice and be included in the wider body. I find it ironic that “those who have the power” are fighting so hard to segregate themselves from the rest of the body. GLBQ have been fighting for inclusion, not separate but equal. I get it. And I know that people will disagree that it isn’t about “power,” but about deep convictions on interpretations of scripture. But for someone like me who has had a myriad of scriptural references thrown at me regarding my sense of call based on gender, age, and race, it is about power. The proof for me is that in the blink of an eye, the denomination moved from years of the majority excluding GLBQ to bending over backwards trying to figure out how to keep everyone together, but separate. Instead, our attention should be on making PCUSA healthier and more inclusive.

If we don’t figure out how to deal with our diversity then we are deciding that the only way to get along is by not getting along. As a denomination, we do not handle diversity well, whether it is gender, race, QGLBT, immigration, justice, age, socio-economics, size of church, and theological. As a denomination, what we are good at is forming committees and special offices that focus on different aspects of diversity, such as Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries. But I think it is safe to say that forming Gay People Ministries or Conservative Theological Folks Ministries is not the way to go either. We can’t control whether or not churches or people leave the denomination. It has happened in the past and it will continue to happen. But what we can control is how we address issues of diversity within our denomination. What is happening now should be a challenge to all of us and our denomination as a whole to see how systematically our structure fosters the good and the bad of living in diversity. We spend so much energy on the extremes of our theology and differences that so much of who we are and what God calls us to be is lost. On all levels of the denomination (congregational, presbyteries, and General Assembly), we should examine and change how we make decisions, how we operate, and how we function. And I’m sorry, but the answers are not going to come from big, white steeple churches. This goes for both sides. The system is made for you all. The answer has to start with all those who have not benefitted from the system. By forming non-geographic presbyteries, the diversity issue will not go away. Not dealt with at its core, it has its way of raring it’s ugly head and mucking up the temperature of the water. Because most racial ethnic congregations tend to have a more conservative theology, if they were to join these non-geographic presbyteries, what happens when differences arise within these presbyteries based on race, socio-economics, or immigrant issues?

I’m tired of the extremes. I am ready for lukewarm. Lukewarm, where the cakes rise, the butter whips, mission is nurtured, congregations are supported, visions come to fruition, and grace is in abundance.

11 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Non-Geographic Presbyteries

  1. Theresa,

    Thanks for this passionate and insightful critique. I was hoping our denomination’s history with ethnic specific Presbyteries (Korean, Black, etc) would factor into MGBComm’s discussion of this possibility, because those structures often typify the notion that to get along requires not getting along. Even though there are times when I feel diverse groups need a Sabbath from each other, I’m also aware that power, inequity and duplicity inevitably creep into such strategies for managing diversity. Ultimately as you say, refusing one kind of diversity will not prevent us from having to engage yet other forms of diversity we find uncomfortable. If the goal is as many divergent voices in PC(USA) have suggested, being missional, I fail to see how being missional within our neighborhoods and communities will free us from engaging diversities of all kinds. In fact, being missional will lead us diving straight into that which makes us uncomfortable.

    I’m not sure how we grasp or recover that faithful, authentic way in which Christians are called to engage cultural or theological diversity. I think we can rule out receiving it by committee or ministry office. I wonder if there are individual Presbyteries that would be willing to take this up as their banner, to experiment in new ways to incorporate the presence of such diversity into a greater project to be missional. Might there be a mission, important to the wider community, say joblessness, that in being addressed by our presbyteries could help bring us not so much out of lukewarmness as you identify it, but out of lethargy and self-absorption, prying us loose to engage those who differ from us but are nevertheless a part of the solution to a larger problem or human being for whom God calls us to care?

  2. Thanks for this important perspective, Theresa.

    I hope I’m not coming across as a proponent of non-geographic presbyteries. Mostly, I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate as I think through this issue.

    I agree with you that diversity is a vital aspect of what it means to be Presbyterian. I also believe that coming together as a diverse people to discern the will of God is one of the great strengths of Presbyterianism. I feel that much of the gut level rejection of non-geographic presbyteries comes from a fear that this would spell the end of diversity within our church.

    But, given how our polity and structure are designed, I’m not totally convinced that the presbytery level MUST be the place where this diversity is held in the creative tension on which our way of begin church thrives. The missional ecclesiology on which the nFOG is based suggests that presbyteries primarily function to enable and support the mission of local congregations. Disagreement at this level can—and I think has—been an impediment to the mission of the church.

    If we allow for non-geographic presbyteries—and I don’t think that this will result in the entire denomination suddenly realigning itself—we will need to find other ways to ensure that the creative tension that comes from our vital diversity is still informs and shapes the life of the church as a whole.

    Ideally, I wish that every level of our denomination would reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom, but I’m not sure that this is realistic at this moment. Plus, I question if enforcing arbitrary geographic boundaries—in a time when geography doesn’t mean what it used to—is the best way to force us to engage diversity.

    And, if the only way that we will engage diversity is by being forced to do so, we’ve got much bigger problems than where or how we draw presbytery lines.

    1. Thanks John. Your committee has a hard task before them. I surely didn’t think you came across as a proponent, but merely trying to look at the issue from all sides and I truly appreciate that. Prayers for you all as you wrestle with all these issues.

  3. Your insight is amazing, your articulation eloquent, God’s Spirit in you – active and working wonders beyond what can be imagined! Thank you for your courage.

  4. Thank you for this. The rush to “non-geographic” presbyteries seems to be all about creating like-minded groups who can do mission because “we” all get along. What about when we don’t? What about when a pastor and congregation get into conflict? How will we mentor men and women who have heard God’s call to ministry? How will we help congregations fill vacant pulpits and pastors find their next call? There is more to “doing mission together” than agreeing on the issues. Who will be the voice of reason who raises the uncomfortable, unpopular, and necessary question to “what we all agree on?”

  5. Well — this is a different way of thinking for me. My thoughts about non-geographic presbyteries have always centered on language difficulties. By the time those for whom English is a second language have figured out what is happening on the floor of presbytery or GA, the issue has been processed with out their input. I have considered them a hand up rather than a push away. And you are right, the ordination of women is a sore point, not to mention the 2nd generation people who do speak English. Perhaps the multicultural church can offer a solution to that dilema. That is what the purpose of becoming a multicultural denomination is [or was when we decided to try in earnest by 2010.] I think we can agree that the only way to take advantage of diversity is to surround ourselves with it so that we can understand differently. Yet what I hear you saying is that racial ethnic diversity issues emerge primarily in terms of presbyteries. I probably have misunderstood, but my dream is that we learn from the traditions of culture and the experience of difference. To me that starts at the congregational level and therein lies the greatest struggle for the PCUSA.

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