Wednesday, April 15, 2009


You probably know the word prestidigitation already: fast (as in presto) fingers (as in digits), sleight of hand, legerdemain. It's the magician drawing your attention with one movement, while deftly removing your wallet with another. That's prestidigitation.

I think it is time to coin a new word: presbydigitation. This word would be defined as Presbyterian sleight of hand concerning numbers, as in reluctantly meting out some budget figures, but drawing attention away from or withholding equally significant numbers at the same time. That's presbydigitation, and presbydigitation appears to be happening again.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been trying to ferret out what went wrong with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) budget (see here and here). For the second time in as many budget cycles, the Stated Clerk has needed to announce major budget cuts a mere three months into a two-year cycle. Just when the OGA was starting to use a budget approved only a few months earlier, it found the budget untenable and in need of drastic emergency cutting.

Hmmm. What's going on?

Rather than an answer to that question, I find that we've received presbydigitation.

Two years ago, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick proclaimed that "over 95 percent of per capita apportionments are being paid," as if it were a good thing. He was correct on the percentage, apparently, but he left the wrong impression that 95 percent was good or normal. It was not.

Traditionally more like 98 percent of per capita apportionments were being paid. That year, approximately twice as much per capita had been withheld, and that withholding was causing problems. Kirkpatrick, however, chose presbydigitation over a clear account of what was wrong.

Now this March, our new Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, a protégé of Kirkpatrick, has perhaps learned too much from his mentor. In announcing his need to slice his recently begun budget, Parsons fingered "the economic downturn," which "has undercut the value of OGA’s investment reserves."

What Parsons conveniently neglected to mention is that per capita receipts were down $1 million at year-end 2008, compared to the previous year. Nor did he mention that the General Assembly budget had been overspent by a cool half million dollars last June. Presbydigitation.

It's sad and disconcerting that apparently our Stated Clerk has either:

a) failed to personally pursue the money troubles to the source or relied on and passed on only incomplete information from others, or

(b) decided to tell a version of the "truth" that fails to leave the correct impression that the whole truth would have provided, a partial-truth version that masks damaging or difficult information the Stated Clerk might not want the public to know.

If (a) is the correct alternative, then we have an uninformed and careless Stated Clerk. If (b) is the case, then we have a deceptive and crafty Stated Clerk.

Personally, I don't care for either of those alternatives. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) deserves far better. And what's more, I think Gradye Parsons can do much better than either (a) or (b) would imply. Parsons is typically a good and conscientious leader, and this kind of behavior is not characteristic of such character.

It seems to me to be time for the OGA spokespersons to tell the full story of what is happening with per capita finances: the big drops in per capita pay-up, the GA cost overruns, the shrinking number of Presbyterian "heads" to pay per capita, and, yes, also the disastrous stock market that shrunk investments. Lay it all out. Chart the facts and trends. Come clean.

Then, I would wager that most Presbyterians would be happy to be fully informed, rather than vengeful or accusatory. Yes, San Jose was a costly place, so General Assembly going over budget isn't surprising. Yes, it is a distrustful time, when people don't easily cough up donations, so per capita pay-up being down is understandable. Yes, losing cash reserves in the stock market is all too real.

We Presbyterians can cope with the truth, and with the truth, we can start to devise appropriate remedies. What we cannot stand is being handled, being spun, being managed, being propagandized. What we will not abide is presbydigitation.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ecclesiastical Isolationism

I wonder if a form of church isolationism isn't taking place.

When a country thinks it can be isolationist--all safe and protected by borders and the open seas--it soon learns that wars and oppression gain strength and end up on the attack. An isolationist country soon loses its isolation and becomes the focus of invasion.

It seems to me that the same effect can overtake Presbyterian congregations that grow weary of defending the faith, grow excited about "just being missional," grow distant from the very real ideological disputes in the denomination, and thus grow vulnerable to invasion and ruin by the very entities these congregations had decided to benignly ignore.

It would be a wonderful respite not to have to defend orthodox doctrine, not to have to fight the gross secularization of the church, not to have to muster the troops once again to retain biblical standards. Oh the leisure of just forgetting such unpleasantness!

But oh the danger!

Kelly Kannwischer, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, is a fine person performing a great ministry. Recently she has written about what PGF is going to do. What she says makes good sense in many ways. It is definitely valuable and needed.

However, I fear that the PGF agenda is inadequate, given the Presbyterian world in which congregations operate. PGF reminds me of a colony joyfully planting fields and cultivating crops--and talking cutting-edge agriculture--while all around the colony destructive forces collect to overrun the prosperous band. This colony also needs to urgently take up defense, as distasteful as it may seem to the farmers who aren't soldiers.

I left a comment to Kelly on the article. Here is what I wrote:


That's great, but...

What are you going to do about a denomination that is going astray and in doing so can greatly harm if not destroy the missional work of all your churches?

Every Presbyterian church is connected. If the denomination completely falls apart or abandons the majority of Reformed theology or plays the harlot with non-Christian beliefs and practices, every single Presbyterian church will feel the consequences. The stink raised by the denomination will be attributed to every congregation that bears the Presbyterian name!

What's more, no church is invulnerable to attack and perhaps even confiscation of property and deposition of leaders. The 500-pound-gorilla churches like Peachtree may feel immune, but in no time, even such a church could be hurt badly and even destroyed by a presbytery that so chose to oppose it.

Most churches aren't the mini-denominations like the tallest-steeple churches, and they are completely vulnerable to who is running presbytery. Property can be taken, sessions can be declared dissolved, and pastors can be removed. And then what? How is missional work to continue in such a toxic or devastated

Just what does PGF plan to do about a denomination teetering on the brink of disaster? You're good people, but all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to be merrily involved in other things deemed more important. Then Presbyterian power politics can turn on you and bite you where it hurts.

I've waited for a PGF answer about this problem, and I haven't heard much, except that such protective and restorative work seems rather yesterday and is pretty much being left to those who apparently must not get the missional message and must still like to fight instead.

That's not much help.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA