Sunday, June 08, 2008

Two Tightly Controlled Elections

The newspaper on Saturday carried another sad and shocking story from Zimbabwe. "President Robert Mugabe banned party rallies and detained his rival" the teaser read in the Seattle Times.

Okay, so why did my mind flash immediately to the coming Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly's election of a Stated Clerk?

The newspaper teaser sounded just all too familiar:
  1. Someone in office and expecting to win gets challenged.
  2. All challenger campaign rallies are banned. (In our case, the total campaigning ban for stated clerk is due to new standing rules first proposed by the office from which the candidate in power is running. The rules were then approved without consideration by General Assembly in a consent agenda. Strangely, these new rules happen to have sprung from a process first kicked off by allegations that supporters of the present Stated Clerk had attempted to manipulate the previous election.)
  3. Although of course no rival is being physically detained, the challengers might as well be, for election regulations have lowered a cone of silence over them.
  4. Somehow challengers must try to become known and elected anyway, even given the many imposed disadvantages.

Think maybe President Mugabe got hold of our new rules and picked up some tips on how to run an election from a position of incumbent power? We Presbyterians apparently have written the book!

Were it so, it wouldn't be the first gift the church has given Mugabe. He rose to power as a violent rebel commander, funded in part by World Council of Churches dollars earmarked for liberation causes. The PCUSA still funds the WCC to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year.

Remember when Mugabe's men shot down an airplane carrying missionary families and then murdered those who survived the crash? That didn't keep him from being the darling of WCC liberationists, however, and the honored host of a WCC assembly, once he had seized power.

Ah, your per capita dollars at work!


Blogger Red_Cleric said...

Ouch! the difference is that one of these has planned out this whole strategy and the other one has just happened upon something that works to their advantage.

I'll let the reader decide which is which

Alan Wilkerson
Portland, OR

7:22 AM, June 08, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

You're right, Alan. Good distinction.

In Zimbabwe, there is a rotten, corrupt, maniacal individual at work.

In the PCUSA, there is a ridiculous, over-controlled, antidemocratic system at work.

That's a necessary distinction to make. Thanks.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:06 AM, June 08, 2008  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

The change in the rules clearly states the reason: This is a CALLING, not a popularity contest. Your reaction is a little late since this change was voted on in 2006. I wonder why?

Mary Ellen Lawson
Mount Pleasant, PA

9:31 AM, June 09, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

Mary Ellen,

Why now? First, the article came out Saturday. It's hard to comment on a news story before it runs and one reads it.

Second, now is the point where the mistake made in 2006 is being felt. Most commissioners had no idea what they were doing when the rules change slipped through G.A. in a consent agenda. But right now, when a well-known member of the present staff has become the anointed and presumed successor, and anyone running against him is at a terrible disadvantage because of such uptight new rules, we experience the consequences of bad legislation.

Third, right now is a great time for commissioners to feel the inequity, because they are the ones who could actually do something about it, such as by suspending the rules or by approving a Commissioners' Resolution that would make it better four years from now.

Now, in terms of the position of Stated Clerk being a calling: yes. May it be so.

However, how do Presbyterians determine a call? Not through ignorance. Not through the banning of information. Not through stifled interchange. Not through forbidding critique of performance. All of that works against discerning God's will and works in favor of a rubber-stamped but rather mindless vote for a presumptive successor. That is no way to determine a calling!

Our Presbyterian system is predicated on many people exercising their best and most prayerful judgment collectively. It is not intended to operate through control by those who happen to have gained influence over the many and have an inordinate, concentrated power to get what they choose.

Give the commissioners full information. Let the various candidates be truly known. Allow their differences to have full play. Don't showcase one through lots of face time, through early and extensive publicity, and through the privilege of office--while all the time embargoing any information or familiarity with the others, other than a tightly controlled and tiny little standardized dollop of publicity that is granted to the challengers.

That is a method controlled by those nervous about a vigorous election in which the commissioners have ample information to seek God's mind on a person's call. Why fear the open exchange of information?

It appears that a binary world was constructed--either (1) a calling, in which some group tells the commissioners who God has called and the commissioners are supposed to humbly bow in recognition, or (2) a popularity contest, in which the election becomes a flim-flam circus of politicking and cheap gimmicks.

It seems to me that there must be at least a third option, where candidates get ample opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities, gifts, calling, beliefs, and purposes, and the commissioners get to know them, so that they can make a prayerful, informed, and fair determination of whom God is calling to this position of service.

So why retreat to a narrow, controlled, pinched election, when it could be a nonanxious, robust, fully informed opportunity to seek God's will? That's what I ask.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:53 AM, June 09, 2008  
Blogger kerry said...

I have concerns about this years GA. The larger ones are about the process of discernment and the permanent changes to that process being advocated by the people who appear to stand to gain from them.

The proposed Form of Government is a massive step backwards. It opens the door to feudalism. Any one who can get a few friends into the right jobs at presbytery can write their own job discretion in the local hand book and become an effective feudal lord. Some of us have seen abuse of power carried out in the current system. The removal of the regulatory functions of the church opens the door wide to these abuses and removes necessary mechinisms for the redress of grievances.

Some of the biggest dangers are Presbyteries using their arbitrary taxing power to punish congregations who challenge an entrenched presbytery leadership or the use of lower taxes to reward churches who protect the leader and promote the leaders pet ideas.

In the same way what if congregations that make waves at presbytery find that their numbers of seats they hold are reduced? What if Executive Presbyters arrange to give congregations an extra seat provided it is filled by a vocal supporter of the Executive Presbyter? The argument could be made that the special seat was given to a person because of their strong “mission” inclinations.

When under the proposed new rule can a pastor be removed from a congregation when the powers that be in the presbytery disapprove of his or her teachings? How closely must one tow the line to protect their job? How can a pastor appeal a sanction either to the full presbytery or to the higher governing bodies?

How will the end of designated per capita prevent the redirection of funds away from ground level work and toward political lobbing. Rather than buying food for the hungry we could do mailings for politicians who have concern for the poor. Then the politicians who received the benefit of the mailing or the study or the demonstration can show their appreciation to the church leaders who delivered them.

The church needs discipline and transparency. The regulatory functions are needed to protect the churches mission and theology. We tried to paper over theology and just do “mission, mission, mission” before and the results have not been good so far.

Kerry Jennings Trenton MO

12:34 PM, June 12, 2008  
Blogger kerry said...

It is 10 hours before the deadline for ovatures for commissioners to the GA. I have an idea for 2010 "spending transparance" for the church. If four states Louisiana, Mississippi, Utah, and Washington can do it so can we. The policy can be advanved at any level of church goverment. Why shouldn't anyone be able to pull up the spending of the church on the internet? Call it trust building.

kerry Jennings

11:21 PM, June 21, 2008  
Blogger ZZMike said...

Pardon the intrusion into the topic. I don't have your eMail address.

PC(USA) is considering once again the Belhar Confession:

Belhar Confession

(scroll to end)

This is evidently one of those "we'll keep trying till you get it right" things.

What's your take on this?

3:56 PM, June 22, 2008  
Blogger ZZMike said...

PS: My apologies. I'm on a new PC, and forgot to add my identity:

Mike Zorn
Santa Ana CA

3:57 PM, June 22, 2008  
Blogger Rubber Nathan said...

I am a young guy so I have always been part of the over-bureaucratic version of the PC(USA). I don't really know any different. However, it has always seemed strange to me that our denomination has a central office with a bishop-like stated clerk who is some sort of semi-official spokesperson for the rest of us. As a Minsiter of Word and Sacrament, I hold no illusions that pastors should be running this church. That function belongs to the elders, does it not? And aren't pastors basically specialized elders with no greater privilege than any other ordained elder? Why is it then that some 'elders' who occupy certain offices, say...the office of Stated Clerk, are raised up above local elders Myrtle, Rufus or Jim Bob? Seems a little strange to me that the first among equals would hold so much power over the way we do business. Strange isn't the right word. Scary...that's better.

10:22 AM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger Rubber Nathan said...


Nathan Lamb
Hartford, IA

10:22 AM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger kerry said...

Institutional memory can be a tremendous asset for a church. I would offer a small string of memory to contextualize the debate over replacing the Form of Government (FOG) of the PC(USA).

A persistent portion of the church had called for the cutting funding or elimination of controversial activates of the church. The Washington Office is only an example from a list projects that were seen as counter productive or at best unnecessary by some members and clergy. Then in Birmingham’s 06 General Assembly the church cut money for over seas missionaries with the rational that there was no money for them. Equivalent cuts were not made in what some saw as the politicized segments of the church apparatus. This was experienced as a slap in the face by some evangelicals in the church. They responded with press, parliamentary debate, alternative amendments and suport for nominations from the floor.

In that context two years of the work on the alternative FOG took place. As FOG came out of the closed meeting process and was addressed by the church a pattern emerged. FOG transplant is more likely to be campaigned for by those who supported the funding cuts to missionaries. To my subjective eyes the higher your pay grade in the church the more you want FOG replacement. I feel the grass roots were calling for the reversal of the cuts in 06 and are now crying for relief the risks and burdens of the new FOG.

Many ask for specific explanations of how our constitution is limiting our mission. Lack of consultation and trust are pushing our mission into new forms with some large churches sending their own missionaries and smaller churches giving to para-church missionaries organizations. How will new FOG improve our relationships? Will it take money unilaterally and if it doses what kind of mission workers will be funded?

If every thing the church dose is mission then nothing is mission. Mission can mean task. In Christian usage mission has come to mean evangelism in difficult places. It has gained respect by it’s associations with the great commission and generations of heroic work and even martyrdom. If every task is mission then mission is just another task.

Also the new form of government obscures and maybe removes the parliamentary process by which the defenses of missionary funding was attempted. Inclusively requires that the rule sets be equally known by all involved. A churning of organizational forms and rules insolates the most well informed insiders from the ruling and teaching elders charged with holding them accountable. It feels to me that as the grass roots get less comfortable and ask harder questions the insiders turn up the churn rate. Will organizational charts that change so fast no one bothers to print them for distribution escalate into a constitution that will be in legal effect before it’s written? Or will the church confirm that all handbooks are complete and church members trained in their use before the old FOG is terminated?

Kerry Jennings, Trenton MO

2:27 AM, June 24, 2008  
Blogger kerry said...

“Such a person has an unhealthy desire to quibble over the meaning of words. This stirs up arguments ending in jealousy, fighting, slander, and evil suspicions.” 1 Tim 6:4 ½

I was tempted to get in a bible quoting fight/ambush with some one tonight. By the grace of God it didn’t happen. The subject of the potential fight would have had nothing to do with the FOG report and plenty to do with money and I'm not saying more. What I half to confess is that I am the person Timothy warned you about. The first person I need to not trust is my self. You should keep an eye on me too. “Me, myself and I” is what Glenn Kaiser calls the unholy trinity.

I’m still going to shoot my mouth off about FOG. My opinion is that the committee presented a prudent disposition of the report (with the help of many voices). Both the task force and the committee were given missions to perform that were titanic. The last General Assembly and maybe some people who interpreted the task to the task force bit something off and told some one else to chew it. It was razor wire and rock salt and nobody can chew that. Rewrite one portion of a constitution giving maximum flexibility and bring us all together and make us fruitful where decades of other efforts have failed. It reminds me of some one who works two years on a graduate thesis before they see that their central question and their data set don’t support the weight of the assignment. Then the committee had to grade the thesis. (The committee moderator’s image of the work as a trial didn’t quite work for me because I could never tell if the defendant was the constitution or the replacement constitution. There wasn’t cause to give either one the death penalty.) Here is next year’s theology ordination exam question: evaluate the response of the committee and write the dialog of you explaining your decision to the task force.

Some one said that we shouldn’t throw out two years of committee work but the alternative was to throw out more than 200 years of church work. So we do neither and instead we continue the work of the church. I still speak in favor of using very direct solutions to very specific problems and voting on each solution separately. But remember I’m the problem. I was looking for the word “court” in 1 Corinthians and found the word “careful”. As in, “So be careful not to jump to conclusions before the Lord returns as to whether or not someone is faithful.”

Kerry Jennings, MO

2:07 AM, June 27, 2008  

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