Friday, March 30, 2007

Outside money buys Presbyterian constitutional change

The title of this posting is meant to grab your attention and get you thinking. I want you to discover that I’m referring to something different than what you probably expected. The title is true; it is just not referring to what you probably think it is.

For instance, critics of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the renewal group in which I serve, fall all over themselves imagining a vast right-wing political conspiracy that is buying its way into Presbyterian processes to destroy the denomination. This isn’t about that, mainly because “that” is a figment of an overcynical imagination.

Some people get positively unglued when they find out that member organizations are looking at denominational matters, seeking solutions to problems, writing them up as suggested resolutions, offering them to interested parties, and helping representatives present them cogently and effectively in meetings of governing bodies. Somehow this must break some code of holy ignorance, it appears.

The self-appointed whistle-blowers act as if:

(a) having knowledge of a subject and investing in preparation to present it is unholy (this is refuted by Presbyterian-polity expert, the late Marianne Wolfe [see booklet page 18, #2 and #3]);

(b) helping representatives speak knowledgeably on an issue has never been done before by the theological left; and

(c) exclusive license to provide information ought to be granted to the political and theological bias of denominational staff members and unrepresentative entities.

But the title above isn’t about that nonsense, either.

The title is about U.S. Presbyterian money being used to change the constitution of the Evangelical [Presbyterian] Churches in Syria and Lebanon. That’s right: American money and influence bought western-style policy changes in indigenous churches in the Middle East. You can read about it in a Presbyterian News Service article, full of congratulations to Presbyterian Women for making the $10,000 grant that oiled the constitutional changes.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am pleased with the constitutional changes for the Presbyterian churches in Syria and Lebanon. It is wonderful that finally women will be able to sit in as judges in cases that so greatly concern their own welfare--such as divorce and inheritance law. In a country where actual civil law is carried out by the church judicatories, women especially need to be represented. It only seems fair.

Thus, it is a good thing that Presbyterian Women made the grants and the churches’ constitution was able to be changed in this beneficial way.

Okay, so if Presbyterian Women, an outside organization, is doing a good thing by being beneficially involved in the life of another church in another country, does it not stand to reason that renewal groups such as Presbyterians Pro-Life, One By One, and Presbyterian Action also could be applauded rather than scorned for their intended beneficial influence on their own denomination?

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I look forward to the time when Presbyterian news sources equally laud the theological insight and necessary balance that Presbyterians Pro-Life brings to abortion considerations, for instance. Or the stories of hope and love that One By One offers those wanting to break the trap of immoral desires. And it would be great for the Presbyterian Action contributions to social-witness policy to be recognized as positive, rather than marginalized as unwanted. Such groups have much to offer, but not if they are systematically excluded or even vilified, as they have been by even such groups as Presbyterian Women!

The Lebanese and Syrian Presbyterians could have denounced Presbyterian Women and said, “Yankee, go home, and take your egalitarian values with you!” But instead, they had the wisdom and grace to welcome their help in this case, and the churches will be better off for it. Certainly the PCUSA could learn from the Evangelical Churches in Syria and Lebanon.

Just one final aside: I wondered why $10,000 was needed to effect a simple church constitutional amendment. Was it necessary for calling the constitutional assembly? For printing new constitutions? For promoting the excellent reasons why the amendments should be approved?

I e-mailed the Presbyterian Women office today, March 30, asking those questions. I’ll add an addendum when someone responds with a copy of the grant proposal. Watch with me for the response, but given my track record at getting any reply out of Louisville recently, don’t hold your breath.

11 Comments:

Blogger Aric Clark said...

Very interesting post. I agree that people in the PCUSA should welcome thoughtful, well considered polity advice, especially from insiders. I understand from friends and from observing the situation in the Sacramento Presbytery that often the reason people bristle isn't so much because they are opposed to reasonable advocacy for change according to the constitution, but because of the contentious, sly, even deceitful manner it often appears. Calling an emergency session of Presbytery with the minimum number of days allowable in the by-laws and a series of already prepared resolutions and a phone-tree to summon ideologically aligned presbyters to the meeting thereby virtually guaranteeing a majority is technically all playing by the rules, but it is an abuse of the spirit of those rules. That kind of gamesmanship - which people on the left can be as guilty of as those on the right, is what makes people suspicious of interest groups.

Incidentally, I've begun a series of responses to Gagnon on my blog which will run throughout February. He has emailed me suggesting he will take time to respond when his schedule clears up some. I encourage you to come and join in the conversation. It may merely confirm your opinion of me, but there is always the possibility you'll be surprised.

2:47 AM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Aric Clark said...

I meant April. Don't know why I wrote February. It's been a crazy semester.

2:48 AM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Miner,

Thanks for commenting. I would advise, however, a little more care in referring to people's motivations and actions. In particular, you are part of a presbytery, and to decree its actions contentious, sly, and even deceitful is a serious charge to lay at its feet. Are you sure that is what you intend to say about the leadership and members of your presbytery?

You provide what you consider to be evidence: "[1] Calling an emergency session of Presbytery [2] with the minimum number of days allowable in the by-laws and [3] a series of already prepared resolutions and [4]a phone-tree to summon ideologically aligned presbyters to the meeting thereby virtually guaranteeing a majority is technically all playing by the rules, but it is [5] an abuse of the spirit of those rules" [numbers added]. Let me comment by number.

1) I believe the proper term would be a "special meeting" or a "called meeting" of presbytery. It is not an unusual action, and the bylaws provide the proper means to do it. Most corporation bylaws provide for such meetings, usually to cover timely business or to give greater time to consider business that would otherwise dominate a regular meeting. Perhaps you haven't been around the block enough times to realize that a called meeting of presbytery is not some spurious device?

2. The bylaws provide for the amount of notice needed to make the meeting legitimate. If that minimum was met, there is no room for fussing. That number of days is considered sufficient notice. If it seemed short, it was as brief for those who favored the resolutions as it was for those like you who opposed them.

3. A called meeting must be about specific business and that business only. Thus, resolutions would need to be prepared beforehand in order to be listed as the business for the meeting AND for people to inspect so that they can speak cogently to the issues. That is FAIR PLAY and proper procedure, rather than something devious.

4. The phone tree is called "getting out the vote." It is one of the first and most legitimate ways in the book to do grassroots organizing. The opportunity was just as available for those ideologically alligned with you to do your own phone tree. If you got outmaneuvered, whose fault was it but yours? Shouldn't voters (commissioners) be at presbytery anyway? What is underhanded about encouraging them to take part in the discussion and vote? Nothing.

5. There was no "abuse of the spirit of the rules." You lost. The fact of the matter is that your viewpoint happens to be the minority in Sacramento Presbytery. Don't cry sour grapes and act as if the presbytery were rigged, just because your side didn't prevail. Calling a legitimate process "gamesmanship" demonstrates little respect for those who did play by the rules and moderated a fair meeting.

I believe you owe an apology to your presbytery moderator, your presbytery council, and the majority of your presbyters who voted differently than you would have. Would you like to do so here?

Jim Berkley

3:24 AM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Aric Clark said...

Jim,

I acknowledge that it is perhaps unfair speculation on my part to refer to people's motives, since that is unknowable. I rescind that portion of my remarks. Otherwise I'll respond briefly:

1) I recognized in my comments that the actions they took were all technically legal (with the possible exception of the constitutionality of the resolutions themselves). Many things are legal in every society which still fall below the standards of respect. Called meetings may not be unusual, but the particular way this one was handled was insulting.

2) The minimum is precisely that - a MINIMUM. two weeks notice is not sufficient for most pastors and elders to arrange their schedule. Clearly this is an area of the bylaws that needs some revision. However, the time was NOT as short for supporters of the resolution as was revealed afterwards many people had already been informally prepared to expect the meeting. This meant there was unequal time for preparation of arguments.

3) Very well, after rereading the bylaws on this, you're right about the content of a called meeting. Even so the point about time for preparation above still applies.

4) The very fact that you use words like "outmaneuvered" indicates that there is a flawed and unhelpful paradigm at work here. Presbytery is supposed to be a practice of cooperation, an extension of worship and union in the body of Christ. We are not enemies, though we disagree. Importing secular political techniques demonstrates how broken our relationships are not how effective our system is working. Yes commissioners should be present, but again, time was a clear factor and since many who supported the resolutions knew about it in advance it is disingenous to just say "commissioners should have been there". You cancel weddings and funerals at the last minute for a called meeting you weren't prepared for.

5) It isn't crying sour grapes to point out legitimate abuses. You don't seem to understand the difference between the "spirit of the rules" and the rules themselves. Following all the rules doesn't in the least mean you have treated others with respect. This isn't a game of "who can control the church". That attitude is as unchristian as it gets.

I apologize for taking up so much space here, especially since the original post was not directly related to the Sacramento Presbytery's situation.

11:25 AM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Aric (the Miner),

Your latest reply boils down to an admission that I was right, but you still complain about three matters: 1) the short time between the call for the meeting and the meeting, 2) something more vague about "the spirit of the rules" and more (Rodney) Dangerfieldian about "respect," and 3) your idealism about spiritually rarified presbytery meetings.

1. This is the most serious, because what you are implying is this: Some sly group of your opponents (who happen to be in power in the presbytery and able to make meeting decisions) got together and devised a plan to thwart a fair consideration of certain resolutions that they wanted to receive presbytery approval. So they plotted together among themselves on the sly to get their allies all informed and organized and then spring a meeting date at the last minute, hoping to do two things: a) keep opponents from being prepared and b) keep opponents from even being able to attend. All of this was done by certain evil others to gain unfair advantage over you and people who think like you.

So THIS is what you think your presbytery leadership does? This is what you are accusing them of doing? Then say it to THEM. Don't bring your complaints here to a blog! Stand above innuendo. Take your charges directly to the parties involved, people you must consider to be dishonorable and underhanded.

Remember, this is YOUR presbytery, your COLLEAGUES you are accusing. These are also the people you hope to one day join as a fellow presbyter. You need to treat them with greater fairness, I would think.

Also, weddings usually are on a pastor's calendar for months. The presbytery called meeting would as likely land on a wedding for a friend as for a foe on this matter. Funerals, on the other hand, are often scheduled within a week. If a funeral would come up for the called meeting day, again, it would just as likely affect a yea vote as it would a nay vote.

2) When you rail about breaking the spirit of the rules or about not giving respect, you again impute the motives of the presbytery leaders. Are you prepared to charge them with purposefully trying to pull a fast one? With disrespecting you by manipulating the process? If so, charge them. Make your case. If not, then don't throw such terms around. Most likely, the item came up in Presbytery Council, and they chose the most likely date that the majority thought would work best for as many people as possible. It fell within the bylaw restrictions, and they went with it. There is no need to imply disrespect, manipulation, abuse of power, or any other bad motivation to a matter that was probably pretty pedestrian. In fact, it is rather intemperate of you to do so.

3. I'm more with you on this one. You are being idealistic, and I'll take idealism over cynicism any day.

Presbytery meetings ought to be made up of theologically astute and orthodox commissioners who are highly conversant in the intricacies of matters and will hold decisions to a strict theological test, always operating with openness, decorum, honor, and respect, under the lordship of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

Unfortunately, we human beings get involved, and something less results.

There is no such thing as an immaculate decision. People with ideas they sincerely believe to be from God clash with other people with different ideas they sincerely believe to be from God. Constitutions, bylaws, and parliamentary procedure do their best to create a fair and reasonable means to finally decide. Prayer and spiritual discernment, statesmanship and goodwill, fairness and reasonableness, humility and love all combine to chart a noble path toward a right decision, too.

But in the midst of that, careful, effective planning and even strategizing take place all the time. It would be irresponsible NOT to do so.

Ask More Light Presbyterians if they have any strategies they are working on (see http://www.mlp.org/article.php?story=20060925224231570). Ask the artful dodgers who write polity guidebooks for the Covenant Network how their strategy is working to brazenly make words say just the opposite of their meaning (see http://covenantnetwork.org/resources&statements/Guidelines%20for%20Examination%20(2006).pdf).

Aric, people organize all the time. It is part of the way ideas truly get considered and considered with some understanding of all that is involved. Presbytery is at its best when in a prayerful and respectful atmosphere, it DOES think deeply about what it believes, what it practices, what it proclaims.

Such good work is not done by a lot of ill-informed, unprepared, indolent presbyters coming to a meeting with nothing in mind and nothing to do. There is nothing particularly spiritual about ignorant complacency. Groups that provide pertinent information and sound arguments for or against a proposition stimulate the best thinking of presbytery. That is GOOD, not somehow distasteful.

You say, "Presbytery is supposed to be a practice of cooperation." Great. Your presbytery considered and made a decision. Cooperate.

Jim Berkley

3:47 PM, March 31, 2007  
Blogger Grace R. said...

Jim,
In response to your comment "Calling an emergency session of Presbytery....using a phonetree to summon idelolgically aligned prebyters to the meeting thereby virtually guaranteeing a majority is technically playing by the rules." As a council member of the Presbytery, I can assure you that every single church in our Presbytery was called personally by council members to notify them of the meeting as soon as was possible.
Grace

12:44 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Grace,

Thank you. That's one more piece of evidence that shows the fairness of the process.

I hope you didn't think that I was the one accusing the presbytery of using shady tactics! What you quoted was not MY "comment," but rather the words of one of your Sacramento Presbytery inquirers who is in seminary. He who is from your presbytery and under your care apparently thought presbytery council would be underhanded in its process.

I replied to him:

"When you rail about breaking the spirit of the rules or about not giving respect, you again impute the motives of the presbytery leaders. Are you prepared to charge them with purposefully trying to pull a fast one? With disrespecting you by manipulating the process? If so, charge them. Make your case. If not, then don't throw such terms around. Most likely, the item came up in Presbytery Council, and they chose the most likely date that the majority thought would work best for as many people as possible. It fell within the bylaw restrictions, and they went with it. There is no need to imply disrespect, manipulation, abuse of power, or any other bad motivation to a matter that was probably pretty pedestrian. In fact, it is rather intemperate of you to do so."

You make my point. We agree. Thank you.

Jim Berkley

1:50 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Grace R. said...

Jim,

Sorry about the name confussion. I appreciate your responses.

Grace R.

3:29 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Aric Clark said...

Jim,

I'm disappointed. I feel you've misrepresented me, twisted my words and been very patronizing throughout this conversation. I did not intend to get into a conversation about Sacramento Presbytery and should not have allowed myself to get sidetracked. I brought it up in my first comment as an illustration of my point, which is that people are suspicious of advocacy groups because of a perception (right or wrong) that the tactics they use are sometimes dishonest.

I never imputed dishonest motivations to the leaders of Sacramento Presbytery. My comments were regarding members of the presbytery and not the official structure - apropos of your original article about advocacy groups. You were the one who made the conversation about presbytery leadership.

Ironically, this exchange has demonstrated exactly what I mean by gamesmanship. I began this conversation saying that I AGREE with you about the value of groups like IRD, but that I felt people opposed them not because of some kneejerk opposition to outside organizations, but because there is a common perception that these organizations sometimes engage in dishonest tactics to support their agenda. Instead of addressing the substance of my remarks you went after my illustrations and supporting details, patronizing me and making the conversations revolve around my character rather than the issue. You advise me to "say it to THEM. Don't bring your complaints here to a blog! Stand above innuendo." but you have no knowledge about my involvement in Presbytery and what I am or am not doing, and I was not bringing my complaints to your blog, but attempting to add what I considered an interesting detail to your consideration of the actual topic of your post.

Considering that I am one of those people that you probably conflict with on a regular basis around the role of IRD, a much more effective approach than the one you have been taking is to ask, "Why do you perceive our actions to be dishonest?" and "How can we work with you to demonstrate that, though we disagree, we are interested in cooperation rather than sabotage?"

I had hoped when I originally found your blog that you would be interested in some genuine discussion of issues we might both find profitable. I now begin to fear that you consider listening to those who disagree with you a waste of time.

10:44 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Jim said...

Aric (the Miner),

You sound like you are finally realizing that you have done yourself no favor by broadcasting uninformed accusations about your presbytery. You used your presbytery as an example exactly because you thought it a good case of abuse of the process. As it turns out, the process was not abused; you just didn't know how these things are supposed to be done, who makes decisions (you thought it was some faction, when it was the presbytery council), how called meetings work, and so on.

In other words, you were speaking disparagingly about people and events about which you had insufficient knowledge to speak fairly and circumspectly.

Look, you are young. You are inexperienced. I'm glad I wasn't broadcasting my every rookie thought to all of cyberspace when I was a seminary junior, because I'm sure I had some dillies, too.

So, you were making accusations. I called you on it and pointed you toward how things probably happened in perfectly respectable ways. Now Grace R. from the presbytery council confirmed my hunches. Now, I suppose it is incumbent on you to mend some bridges with your presbytery leaders, since they were the ones you indicted in your opening flury of misperceptions.

As I think about it, perhaps we're dealing here with another aspect of truth, which I find you have a hard time perceiving when it's biblical truth. Perhaps you have a hard time perceiving it when it is experiential truth, as well.

To you, "your truth" is that your folks were wronged by Sacramento Presbytery's handling of an issue. But as we take apart your perception piece by piece, you are found to be wrong time and again about the facts. The FEELINGS of being wronged may be very real, but your feelings come from what turns out to be a misperception of what was done and what should have been done.

You were not wronged, and feeling wronged does not somehow make it true that you WERE wronged.

You wrote: "I began this conversation saying that I AGREE with you about the value of groups like IRD, but that I felt people opposed them not because of some kneejerk opposition to outside organizations, but because there is a common perception that these organizations sometimes engage in dishonest tactics to support their agenda."

I believe you are correct, and the shame is that the "common perception that these organizations sometimes engage in dishonest tactics" is as patently misinformed as your illustration was. Sacramento Presbytery wasn't playing fast and loose with the rules; nor are groups like IRD. Nor am I in responding to your comments by ferreting out your mistaken assumptions.

It is rather ironic, actually. You set out to give an example of wrongdoing by interest groups, and you actually provide a classic example of wrong perceptions by those who falsely accuse interest groups of wrongdoing! Here it is, as clear as can be.

Okay, so how IS an upright group (such as Sacramento Presbytery or IRD) supposed to defend itself against people who unjustly accuse it of doing wrong that it never actually did? How can we head off what turn out to be ignorant and unfounded accusations? I'd love to know that, because we have such sham charges hurled at us all the time by those who haven't bothered to check their facts but are awfully good at cynical speculation.

Cooperation is a two-way street. If I am doing things that are upright and fair, and then the first thing I have to do in relation to you or others with a beef is to dig out from under the mud that is slung at me, that's not a very good way to begin cooperation.

Come to think about it, why should I have to "demonstrate" that I'm not out to sabatage things, anyway? Do I begin a relationship with you by asking you to demonstrate that you're not a canibal? I think we can start with the assumption that you're not!

Aric, you sound like a decent, thoughtful guy. To be brutally frank, I think your theology is attrocious, but as a person, you sound earnest and sincere. I would assume that you are well intended. But as I have said before--and perhaps you find this patronizing--I would counsel you to exercise a little more restraint in what you write, and a lot more humility. Your undisciplined mental wanderings are out for everyone to read, and there may come a time when you blush over memory of the content of what you wrote and rue the consequences. Just a word to the wise.

We can probably let this thread drop, but do continue to comment on my blog. I'll come back at you if I think you're in error, but the rigor of that kind of give and take is good for both of us. Iron sharpening iron, you know.

Jim Berkley

11:45 PM, April 03, 2007  
Blogger Aric Clark said...

Jim,

I know that a number of people from my presbytery read your blog. I would appreciate it if you, could help me by pointing them to this post on my blog:

http://aricclark.blogspot.com/2007/05/107-to-74.html

Aric

7:24 PM, May 08, 2007  

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