Report to the Presbytery of New Brunswick regarding “Sabbatical”

This is a copy of the joint report made by Loerlei Zup, the moderator of Council, and me, Regional Presbyter, at last night’s (Mar 11, 2014) presbytery meeting in Dutch Neck. Lorelei gives the council report (in italics); I add context and interpretation (in bold).

Wendy: At the last meeting I introduced a concept of “sabbatical” for the presbytery. Since then the council and others have had a chance to mull over that proposal … We followed up with a full day retreat at the Lawrence Road church on Feb 1. In addition to the council members we invited those members of council whose term was expiring this year, and all committee chairs.

Phil Bergey was invited to lead our process together. It was a good process. We began with a Bible reading and reflection that grounded us spiritually. And we were able to speak from our hearts, not just our heads. We identified issues in the presbytery — our relationships — that are not just related to different opinions or personalities, but issues of trust and power and mutual understanding.

When it came to talking about specifics regarding the Sabbatical proposal, there was, clearly, an “unreadiness” to move ahead without some clearer understanding of the process and outcome we’d expect from a prolonged period of discernment. And there was some strong opposition to the term, Sabbatical.

While I was speaking of the term from the perspective of “sabbath”, it wasn’t necessarily heard that way. I was thinking of sabbath as the “pause” or the “space” we routinely allow in our lives, the times we let go (or give up, as in Lent), in order to make space and be open for the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst — all of this in order that we “let come” or take on a new posture, new ways, new understandings, deeper faith, and better exhibit the kingdom of God in our world.

Some heard the proposal for Sabbatical as a suggestion that we stop working, dismiss the presbytery, take a vacation, or give up everything … I understand the confusion. There are times and places, particularly outside the church, where sabbaticals are seen as extended vacations, or a reward for faithful work. And even within the church, the “breaking in” of the holy, the inner transformation, the re-generative work of Sabbath … is not controllable or predictable … Sometimes Sabbaths are nothing more than a long nap. Sometimes “pausing” is more difficult than we thought and we spent the whole day doing laundry, filing our taxes, or binge watching the new season of “House of Cards.” Even when they are the best Sabbaths … the outcomes are not measurable, or complete, or definable.

Yet, while there is some obvious discomfort in the idea of “sabbatical” … There is also a very real desire in the presbytery to do something radically different. Do something that gets deeper — spiritually deeper — than merely restructuring our governance or adjusting our budget. I could introduce a new structure tonight that is more lean and effective, we could have a sustainable budget presented next meeting … Of course, even if we agreed on the priorities that would take, and it passed unanimously, it won’t affect the larger issues we began to identify at the retreat … Issues of trust, power, mission, fear, identity, and relationship. We can do another quick fix, but it’s just filling the pothole, not repaving the street, and certainly not allowing for the possibility the road could be better placed altogether, a better way forward.

Lorelei: Presbytery Council met in an all day retreat along with chairs of presbytery standing committees on 1 February 2014. Council then met on 11 February in person and February 28 via conference call. Here is where Council is right now:

  1. At this time, tonight, we are not asking for a suspension of the Plan of Presbytery or a sabbatical.
  2. We are asking the nominating committee to not seek further nominees except for constitutionally mandated positions. We do know that we have open slots on our committees. This is all right, we can work with this.

There are very few things that are constitutionally spelled out for us in the Book of Order:

  • Presbytery gatherings
  • Elect a stated clerk
  • Elect a nominating committee
  • Elect a committee on representation
  • Elect a permanent judicial commission
  • Care for candidates for ministry (CPM)
  • Care for pastors and congregations (COM)

Imagine that’s the core of an onion … Next layer contains those things that may not be spelled out in the Book of Order, but we consider them necessary to the functioning of the presbytery.

  • Care and oversight of personnel
  • Property issues and oversight
  • Fiduciary and administrative responsibilities
  • Communication

The outer ring of the onion are functions of the presbytery which flow out of our understanding of mission, and they are guided by our current needs, interests, and passions.

This is where we encourage, “where to or three are gathered.” It’s the River churches gathering to celebrate Holy Week together. It’s the urban churches working together to do mission and interpret the needs of urban ministry to the larger church. Its congregations joining each other on mission trips to Haiti or Ghana or for hurricane relief on the Jersey shore. It’s taking initiative and joining together to take dozens of youth to Triennium.

This is where we have great freedom to let go of things that don’t have grassroots support, and take on projects that fill a need, are an outgrowth of a particular mission, or take on a cause.

  1. We encourage you to work where your passion is, please contact the chair of the committee. We trust the committees to carry out the work as they see fit, set quorums you think proper, divide your work among small teams as you think wise, and co-opt members of the Presbytery on an ad hoc basis for particular tasks.
  2. We encourage Presbytery committees to let go of tasks that seem unnecessary, even at the risk of discovering that the task might have to be resumed. Try trusting smaller groups to complete tasks for the whole.

​These previous points are all things that are about where the presbytery is now, and what we need to do to live with the realities of the present.

​When Council looks outward, both to the future and to the world to which we are called to minister it sees the following:

  1. This is not just about structure, it’s first about rebuilding our relationships with each other and with God.
  2. We need to firmly set our foundation so we focus less on ourselves and our structure and turn more of our attention and actions outward, to the world in which we are called to give witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the life of service to which we are called by that love.

Defining “what is presbytery” is probably one of the most difficult tasks we have in moving forward. My definition: it’s the coming together of congregations, ruling and teaching elders in a way that supports each other so we can better exhibit the kingdom of God to a broken world. While we could all probably get behind that definition on an ideological level, we have very different “real” definitions: those definitions vary from the office staff at 820 Silvia St, to the gathered meetings, to the COM or CPM, or the nature of our structure. And we use different metaphors … I’ve heard lots of corporate metaphors, including the presbytery is franchise or the EP is the CEO.

Of course, no metaphor is complete, and most break down when you take it out a level or two … The council began asking the question: what about thinking of the presbytery as a mega-church (I prefer meta-church — but that’s for another talk) with 9,400 members, 39 campuses, 60 Pastors on staff, 107 additional teaching elders working in other mission fields or retired. What if our presbytery gatherings are more like in-service motivational and training days for our church leaders? What if we are less about a hierarchy of power, and more about co-workers on staff of one church with a unity of mission lived out in a variety of ministries?

What will it take to make that kind of shift in our expectations of the presbytery? That’s the kind of transformation we’re seeking. One which moves from a structure or an agenda or a corporate center — and embraces a common core of mission and ministry.

We will be seeking to embrace the postures we outlined in our mission statement adopted last fall:

  • Nurture and equip leaders and congregations, challenging them to take Spirit-led risks as we faithfully and continually and discern our call.
  • Identify and disciple emerging leaders and emerging communities of faith.
  • Become a spiritual community for each other as we connect all clergy and congregations in mission, witness, worship, and prayer.
  • Encourage congregations, members, and their ministries to partner in the work and witness of the broader Church.
  • Live out ordination vows as we serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
  • Embrace the permission-giving spirit of our polity.

  1. We need to think of the Presbytery as a support for the ministry and mission that happens through our congregations, not as a structured body that sits on top of them.
  2. We need to learn that the co-operative work of our various congregations, and of our specialized ministries, is the presbytery at its work, and that whatever structure we may have stands in service to that mission, not over it.
  3. Council does not yet know the specifics of getting from here to there. We are currently negotiating a short-term contract with Phil Bergey for the preparatory work of more clearly articulating our expectations of a long-term transformation process. We promise you this: whatever the council does we will involve the whole Presbytery in the process, we will not try to discern for the Presbytery or instead of the Presbytery.

Please continue to pray for our Presbytery, our relationships, and our future together.

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