Thursday, December 14, 2006

What's a responsible Presbyterian to do?

I just encountered another instance of frustrating stonewalling on the part of a Presbyterian Church (USA) official. Sadly, the experience is all too common.

Normally the incident assumes this pattern:

  • I read about a situation that is perhaps troublesome, but I’m not sure. Something may seem amiss, but there are aspects of the matter that first need following up before any determination can be made.

  • I thus e-mail specific questions to the church official responsible for the matter. Maybe there is an incipient problem. Maybe not. That’s what I’m trying to find out by obtaining some unambiguous facts. I try to be clear, thorough, and respectful in the correspondence, but I am dealing with ticklish matters that often the official would just as soon weren’t examined very thoroughly.

  • I wait.

  • I wait a little longer.

  • Then I ask again, pointing back to the first correspondence.

  • I receive a hasty, sometimes-testy response that either (a) discloses only part of the information asked for, or (b) misses the point of my clear queries altogether and provides only sketchy, often-irrelevant material.

  • I am forced to persist. I thank the official for whatever material was useful and ask again for answers to the other original questions--usually concerning the heart of the matter. I bend over backwards to number and list the questions to make it easy to respond.

  • One of four things then happens: (a) the official tells me he or she can’t be harassed like this any more and abruptly stonewalls any further correspondence; (b) the official portions out a tiny bit more of the information and continues to ignore the more pertinent questions; (c) I get no response at all; or (d) I finally get most of what I originally requested. Option d is rare.

There appears to be a pervasive tactic operating in many Presbyterian offices. Questions are to be delayed (Maybe the questioner will forget and give up!), deflected (I’ll answer another question and ignore the pertinent one), delimited (I’ll give out only the easy parts of what the person wants), or derided (Who are you to ask me such impertinent questions?).

If the officials can make obtaining the information hard enough, perhaps the questioner will just give up and go away. It often works.

That serves the bureaucrat well; the hound loses the scent. But the church as a whole remains uninformed about the official’s actions or inaction.

Who definitely is not served by such deceptive tactics is the church. That means that you are not served.

Legitimate questions that ought to be answered get brushed away. Important information that should make a difference in decisions never comes to light. Once again, knowledge is power, and power remains firmly grasped in the hands of the obscurantist officers of the church, who serve self-interest rather than the interests of the church as a whole.

Here’s the provoking example from today:

Two times lately, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC) has released books that embarrass Presbyterians and propound theology in contradiction to our Reformed convictions: in July, Christian Faith and the Truth behind 9/11 by David Ray Griffin, and in November, Why Christianity Happened, by James G. Crossley. The publishing house’s board of directors actually repudiated Griffin’s 9/11 book, but kept right on selling it.

Thus, I’ve heard many people ask that if the PPC keeps acting in independent and harmful ways, why don’t we figure out a means to disassociate the PPC from the Presbyterian Church (USA)? “Why not cut the ties and end the embarrassment?” they wonder. That’s a good question, and it’s worth thoughtful consideration.

I thought I’d heard somewhere that the PPC each year gives its operating surplus to the church, so that rather than costing the church money, it actually helps support the church. If that were true, then cutting off the publishing house would mean forfeiting income. So I figured it would be good to follow up on that aspect.

I wrote the denominational Chief Operating Officer, Joey Bailey, to find out how much PPC donated over the last few years to the PCUSA. I couldn’t find any line item in the official income statement from General Assembly. After a couple of miscues with Bailey (who was actually helpful!), I got his clear reply that income from space leased to PPC is the only income the PCUSA derives from PPC.

Now I was interested in whether the PPC had a sweetheart deal with the PCUSA for the leased space or paid market rate for its offices in the Presbyterian Center. I wrote Davis Perkins, Publisher of PPC, to find out the particulars of the leased space and to ask for the PPC “audited financial statements” to check out the particulars, as Joey Bailey had suggested. Bailey later also wrote that PPC paid full market rate for its leased offices.

When I heard back from Perkins today, after waiting more than two weeks, I received a reply that basically said that he didn’t like what (he thought) I intended to do with the information, so he wasn’t going “to divert staff energy away from essential publishing activity to generate the information you are requesting.”

Although a publisher would obviously have at his fingertips something as basic as a copy of the PPC income and expenses, Perkins wasn’t about to send it to the likes of me! Instead he shuttled me back to the General Assembly Council Internal Auditor for the audited financial statement.

Further on in Perkins’s note, he wrote that since “the PPC Board has fiduciary responsibility for the publishing organization,” my “obvious recourse would be to query them….” Now it needed to be a board action to simply forward some basic information? Ridiculous!

That’s known as a brush-off. When in doubt, a nervous official often will hinder and obfuscate. I had expected Davis Perkins to be above such petty practices. I was proven wrong.

In my reply to Perkins, I made an observation about a common criticism of the press:

When the press writes an article without doing extensive research, it is told that it is irresponsible. When the press responsibly seeks public information in order to present accurate facts, it is told that PPC cannot "divert staff energy away from essential publishing activity to generate the information you are requesting."

I left Perkins with this comment: “And church bureaucrats wonder why the people of the church are so disaffected? Look in the mirror. You do your cause no good.”

Such are the frustrations of the common Presbyterian trying to exercise due diligence to comprehend the workings of a denomination, some of whose leaders would prefer not to be bothered with being accountable.