Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What to Expect from a PUP

As of last week, the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (PUP) was slated to make forty-six visits to presbyteries, synods, and events in 2006, following many such meetings already in 2005. They come to promote their final report, destined for General Assembly consideration next June. A pattern for those visits has become apparent. It goes like this:

· Very nice people from the task force speak passionately about the process and personal interactions experienced during their four years together.

· Great emphasis is made on the initial diversity of the group, their rich experiences together, and the final unanimity of their report and recommendations.

· Often aspects of their study and the report are cited—a particular slant on history from the 1920s, pleasing narrative sections on Christology, the joys of alternative means of discernment, and so on.

· Their intense experience that required prodigious expenditures of time and effort is held up as a model that everyone should follow (as if it were practical or even possible for the general population of Presbyterians to spend about three hundred hours together).

· Then the audience is broken into small discussion groups to share feelings, as in a focus group, where opinion is sampled. In this case, however, there is no real feedback mechanism, other than occasional reporting back to the large group the small groups’ impressions.

· That’s it. The juggernaut moves on to the next susceptible venue, to build even more momentum for the report's approval at General Assembly in Birmingham in June.

Do you notice what’s missing?

Most often, there is precious little or no time given to discussing the substance and implications of the report’s recommendations. When all is said and done, sparkling little turns of phrases in the general report will mean very little. What would be approved by General Assembly and enacted would be only the “Recommendations” section of the report, and even those approved recommendations wouldn’t include the “Rationales” interwoven among the recommendations. Yet these crucial recommendations may be subjected to scant examination or discussion in many presentations. Sometimes there is no such assessment.

What is sold in the meetings is the feel-good wrappings, rather than the package of enormous changes the Theological Task Force report actually would deliver. Presbytery after presbytery is letting this sell-the-sizzle format deprive presbyters of an opportunity to discuss the crucial governance implications of the report, results that could wrack the church with dissension and alter drastically our Presbyterian form of polity.

In many instances, there is no opportunity to question the task force presenter(s). Sometimes a few moments are allowed for questions, but the task force members may dodge pointed questions or skirt the issues, returning inevitably to their experience together. Many presbyteries have allowed themselves to be talked out of any meaningful opportunity to interact on the substance of the report at all, leaving their vigilant presbyters frustrated and their unaware members in a fool’s paradise.

The key for any group wanting to interact meaningfully with the report is to center on the recommendations, particularly Recommendation #4 (on adding other means of decision making) and Recommendation #5 (on allowing ordaining bodies to grant exceptions to clear standards). To make the meetings useful, presbyters must insist on a meeting format that encourages critical thinking about the substance of the report and offers abundant opportunity for questions that range beyond the surface niceties into the major implications of the proposed polity changes.

If the report is coming to your presbytery, here are some tips:

· Encourage people to read or at least scan the report. Alan Wisdom offers some very handy tips to save time. Some presbyteries find that 80 percent of the presbyters know little or nothing about the Theological Task Force or the report, making them prime targets for propaganda rather than active seekers of better understanding of a complex report.

· Find out who is responsible for the event and help them set an agenda that majors on analysis of the report itself, particularly the Recommendations section. You don’t need a sales job.

· Do not allow presbytery to be turned into a passive audience, able only to “share impressions” with other presbyters in a meaningless exercise that stifles genuine discussion of the substance of the report and its implications.

· Set up an open and balanced process, providing for official input from presenters troubled by the report’s implications and knowledgeable about its content, to balance the knowledge and enthusiasm of official presenters from the task force.

· Provide ample time and encouragement for significant questions and answers—with follow-up questions allowed—utilizing a panel of both task force presenters and skilled skeptics, for balance in the answers and analysis. See “Questions Begging for a Diligent Answer” for questions you might want to be prepared to ask in such a forum.

The report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is a major event, with enormous consequences. Your presbytery deserves the opportunity to chew on the meat of the ham, rather than only sample the honey baked on the surface.


Blogger Andy said...


At the PUP session I attended (sponsored by Shenango and Beaver-Butler presbyteries), the crowd was actually a little pushy, if not downright hostile. This despite the fact that the presenter (Mike Louden) is 1) one of the task force's more conservative members; 2) a native of the area; and 3) a personal friend of some of the people asking the most devastating questions.

The folks who came to this event knew the contents of the report as well as the presenter did. I don't expect that it was a typical crowd (Beaver-Butler has the reputation it does for a reason), but it certainly wasn't what you describe. In short, it may not turn out to be the pushover you fear (and others hope for).

Rev. Andy Scott
FPC, Bentleyville, Pa.

2:03 PM, December 14, 2005  
Blogger Jim said...


I hope I'm wrong about this from now on! I hope that presbytery after presbytery has the knowledge and feistiness (hold the hostility part!) to ask questions as your presbytery did, questions that need to be thought through.

We Presbyterians are in danger of having surface gatherings fueled by brief impressions and spin doctoring. We need to wade in and think through the very real consequences of a report such as the Theological Task Force's.

If people really WANT the PCUSA to be a loose confederation of idiosyncratic little fiefdoms by presbytery, bound no more by feality to biblical and confessional authority, they can vote for it. But we'd cease being the Presbyterian Church of our heritage and Constitution, and we'd no longer be faithful to our Lord.

What would be tragic is if people voted to cause that consequence simply because the wool had been pulled over their sleepy eyes.

Jim Berkley

4:53 PM, December 14, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ours was a PUP pushover!

They weeded through written submissions to the questions they thought they could handle.

A preview of the upcoming GA? Is "the fix" in the works?

9:49 AM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger Rob said...

Is the fix in? I'd think GA will be a lot harder to control than the average presbytery meeting, but I'm sure they'll try to control it as much as possible.

What mystifies me about this report is why people like Mike Loudon and Gary Demarest would sign off on recommendations 4 and 5; I can only conclude that this is yet another example of the erosive effect of wanting to be liked.

1:15 PM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger Marty said...

I don't think that the PUP session you attended was sponsored by Beaver-Butler. If it was, very few BB pastors were in attendance.

I was not at the meeting but the report I have received from those who were there is quite different. The people I spoke with (including the moderator)had a different impression about it. There seemed to be no hostility towards Mike. The questions were direct but not out-of-line with ones posed by people sincerely concerned about the future of the PCUSA.

Considering the PUPs failure to say much that was helpful, devastating questions should be asked. I see nothing wrong with a line of questioning that seriously calls the PUP to task about its prospective usefulness for the great problems we have.

Respectfully submitted,

6:56 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Andy said...


I know Shenango sponsored it; I was told that B-B had something to do with it as well. I may have been misinformed.

I didn't mean to suggest that the 'devastating questions' were unwelcome, or that the crowd was personally anything less than amicable toward Rev. Louden. I only meant that the atmosphere was decidedly skeptical, as it should have been.

Andy Scott

6:30 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Marty said...

Thanks for clarifying that. I agree.

Marty Sweeney

6:03 AM, December 22, 2005  

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