Monday, January 23, 2006

Attend; shun! An exclusive interview of Jim Berkley

It has come to the attention of the Berkley Blog that a certain Jim Berkley, Interim Director of Presbyterian Action, was quite upset by what happened to him when he attempted to observe the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) last week in Louisville. He has written a flurry of articles about it: a blog on Thursday, two blogs on Saturday, and a news and commentary article on Saturday.

So why is this guy so ticked off, anyway? The Berkley Blog has managed to arrange an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview with Berkley, who, truth be told, just happens by coincidence to be the writer of the Berkley Blog.

Berkley Blog: Look, Mr. Berkley—

Jim Berkley: Please—you can call me Jim.

Blog: Okay, uh, Jim, from how we heard it, you just waltzed into the ACSWP meeting at a conference center in Louisville and acted like you owned the place. You demanded papers to read. You forced your way into private rooms for meetings. You expected to be treated like one of the committee members or their friends. Then, when you didn’t get what you wanted, you threw a hissy fit. What makes you think you’re so almighty important?

Jim: Whoa! Down, boy! You’re showing a little attitude there. Where’d you get that version of the story?

Blog: That’s the way it seemed to the committee leaders you dealt with, didn’t it?

Jim: Yeah, it certainly seemed that way, from the reception I received. The truth of the matter is that I was merely trying to exercise the “basic right” of every church member “to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church,” as our denomination’s very fine Open Meeting Policy puts it. I went to the meetings, expecting to observe them, like any other meetings I commonly attend. I tried to be pleasant and courteous, but I also turned insistent when I was thwarted at every turn. I did argue quite forcefully the legitimacy of what I was requesting.

But we need to be clear. This wasn’t about Jim Berkley and whether Jim Berkley was being treated like someone important or not. This was about a key aspect of our church government.

Blog: And that is…?

Jim: Open government. Again, let me quote from the Open Meeting Policy that is in effect in our church and certainly ought to be honored: “The work of the church is strengthened when it is done in a spirit of openness and trust. Church members have a basic right to know about the work done and the decisions made by entities within the church. Church leaders have a basic responsibility to honor that right by conducting their business with a spirit of openness and vulnerability to public scrutiny.”

Look at those key words: “a spirit of openness and trust,” “a basic responsibility to honor that right,” “vulnerability to public scrutiny.” With that kind of spirit in place, our church-government processes are enhanced. We just plain get better government when things are in the open and not hidden away in secret. We’ve decided that as a denomination, and our responsibility is to live like that in action and not just on paper.

Blog: But really! The ACSWP doesn’t want to open up its meetings. It likes doing its work in private. Why should it have to have open meetings?

Jim: The policy makes it very clear: “open meetings shall be the norm,” and “meetings shall be open to all interested persons.” Why should ACSWP think it operates in a policy-free zone? The committee members especially need to open up their meetings if they feel inclined to close them. That is the exact reason we have a policy—to save groups from their own petty instincts toward secrecy. It’s part of the checks and balances in place because Presbyterians truly believe in the T from Calvin’s TULIP: total depravity.

Blog: Let me get this right: Are you saying ACSWP is depraved?

Jim: You said it. Thanks! They’re totally depraved, just like all the rest of us. They—and we—are all subject to sin in all aspects of our work. That’s why it is good for all Presbyterian meetings to have a little sunshine policy, so that others can see what is going on, form opinions on it, comment on it, and be used by the Holy Spirit to effect changes if necessary.

We all benefit from such open exchange in the marketplace of ideas. Any group descends into parochial group-think by barricading themselves from outside scrutiny and input. It’s not good, and I dare say that many of the previous failed ACSWP reports are evidence of such tunnel-vision problems. Yet, here they are, perpetuating the process that got them in trouble. That makes no sense.

Blog: And so you get on a high horse and ride in like somebody important who ought to be treated special.

Jim: Not at all. I simply ought to be treated like any other church member who has taken the time to visit and observe his or her church at work. I should be accorded Christian hospitality. The group ought to act as if of course I belong there, because this is the work of the church¸ and not their clubby little enclave. They ought to make available to any observer the basic papers that make the meeting make sense. They ought to welcome the scrutiny, praying that everything they do would shine brightly in the Kingdom of God and allow people to see what a super job their committee is doing.

I mean, think of it: If you’re producing a great product through an honorable process, what’s there to hide?

Blog: Hey, I thought I was the one asking the questions! I know there have been times when news stories have gone out about partially drafted papers, and then people got all upset over aspects that never even made it into the final draft. Why shouldn’t the ACSWP wait to get pasted for what the committee does produce, rather than getting blasted for what it might produce?

Jim: That sounds like a fearful group that is grasping for elusive control it really shouldn’t want and never can obtain anyway! Where is its confidence in Presbyterians to think and discern? Where is its confidence in its own thoughts and words to win the hearts and minds of believers, trouncing false allegations or mean-spirited attacks because the committee’s thoughts and words just ooze biblical faithfulness and utter reasonableness?

Where, I ask, is the committee’s submission to the task given it to broadly include the wisdom of the church in its deliberations? As the “Forming Social Policy” statement reads, ACSWP is to work things out in a “manner in which the whole church can participate (advise, offer input, etc.) in its deliberations.” You don’t exclude the very people you are supposed to include! Wisdom doesn’t begin and end with the committee members. What makes them think that they need to hoard their work to themselves, lest someone else might see it and—horrors!—offer some good suggestions that might actually improve it?

Blog: Okay. Okay. So they let people crash the party. But Mark Tammen from the Office of the General Assembly told them they didn’t need to make their papers available, didn’t he?

Jim: Don’t get me started! Yes, he did. Somehow he was able to read a very clear policy and rule that an open meeting could also maintain secret papers. People could physically attend an open meeting, but they needn’t be given any means to comprehend what is being said. All the papers can be kept secret, and thus about 95% of the discussion is rendered meaningless.

If that’s an open meeting, then I’m a monkey’s uncle! Ridiculous! That’s your per capita money at work, rendering a clear policy merely “aspirational,” something that can be aspired to, but—Gracious, no!—doesn’t actually need to be followed.

Blog: I get it that you feel rather strongly about this personally. This is about you, isn’t it?

Jim: Yes and no. Yes, in that I got to bear the brunt of officious rejection, which was no picnic, and endure the grinding frustration of being rendered paperless during hours and hours of meetings turned into maddening mysteries. I didn’t give up four days of my life and travel all the way from Seattle to be shunned like a party crasher. So, yes, I’m personally not very happy about that kind of shabby treatment.

But this really isn’t about me. I’m not important. I don’t deserve any particular attention. I was there to represent church members, Presbyterians as a whole. I was there to report and comment on the process and the ideas, so that church members could get a picture into how their ACSWP was handling the important business of the church.

Now this is important: The way I was treated, then, was actually the way the ACSWP chose to treat the church! Denying me what should have been graciously and cheerfully delivered was to haughtily deny the church information that is theirs to know. It was to say, “This is our business, and you (the church) don’t belong in it. Bug out!”

And don’t forget, reporter Evan Silverstein of Presbyterian News Service was equally denied access. He was there to report to all of us what was going on, and ACSWP very thoroughly frustrated his task and wasted his time. Believe me, he was disgusted by it, too.

Blog: Okay. I think I have a pretty good idea now of how you feel. Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t give you a chance to say?

Jim: Thank you. That was a gracious question—and brilliant. I’ve used that one before, myself, when interviewing people.

Let me point out one little anecdote that I think illustrates the disconnect between the ACSWP and the church. The ACSWP members are simply not like the church as a whole. They don’t come close to representing us.

Here’s what happened: Witherspoon Society activist and commentator Eugene TeSelle was in attendance as a consultant on a paper the ACSWP has in process, and he sat in on parts of the rest of the meeting (outfitted with papers, I might add). After one session, he came over to me to cheerfully point out a book he had recommended to the committee. The book was Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, by Ron Sider and Diane Knippers. He seemed pleased with himself for providing the committee insight into the evangelical mind by suggesting this book. I think he considered it a broadminded gesture, given his marked progressive viewpoint.

That was great of him to do. It was fair and broadminded. But don’t you think it odd that a committee of the whole church, a committee that ought to be broadly diverse, a committee in a denomination that is just 18 percent liberal in orientation but 38 percent conservative—isn’t it odd that the ACSWP members would need a book to introduce them to evangelical thinking, as if conservative Presbyterians were an odd species to study from afar? Wouldn’t you think they’d have four or five conservative committee members to interpret that large segment of the church to two or three liberal members?

Ha! Think again.

Blog: Okay, then what can people actually do about this?

Jim: I'm glad you asked. If they think this is the pits, they need to let their respectful case be heard. The leaders of the ACSWP and of the denomination need to know that this kind of monkey business in our church is a disgrace, that we do believe in the rule of law and not of whim. Here are some people to write:

Nile Harper is chair of the ACSWP:

Chris Iosso is staff Coordinator for ACSWP:

John Detterick is Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, and ACSWP is lodged under his authority:

Helen Locklear is Deputy Executive Director of GAC, and she is directly responsible for oversight of ACSWP:

Mark Tammen is Director of the Department of Constitutional Services:

Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, supervises Mark Tammen:

I'd ask folks to do me a favor and cc me when they write or when they get a reply: And thanks for letting me get this off my chest.

Blog: The pleasure was all mine.


Blogger Andy said...

Secrecy is the last resort of cowards.

Er... I didn't mean to suggest anything personally about the members of the... I mean, I'm not saying that they're... oh heck. Let's just leave it at that.

Don't give up.

-Andy Scott
First (and still the only!) PC
Bentleyville, Pa.

7:23 PM, January 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All three of us (Me, Myself and I) enjoyed the interview!

Someone also once said that talking to yourself is the perfect way to ensure an intelligent conversation.

So true....

10:20 AM, January 27, 2006  
Blogger Bruce Byrne said...


I think Blog owes you an apology. He was rude and insensitive. Time and time again you were cut off and not allowed to finish your sentence. By suggesting that “this is all about you...”, Blog was letting you know from the start that your point of view would be discounted. Nice job, though, despite the hostile environment.

Bruce Byrne
Concord, CA

1:51 PM, January 27, 2006  
Blogger Apostle John said...

Interesting and fascinating :)

6:56 PM, January 27, 2006  

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