Monday, June 11, 2012

Greater Things You Will Do! Jesus was nearing the end of his earthly ministry, and the disciples were becoming increasingly anxious. In a world without their Master in his familiar, physical form Jesus assured them, “You will do even Greater Things,” than what you have seen, and if you need anything at all, “Ask me.” Have faith. See John 14:12-14.
Demonstrating Faith The Presbyterians in the northern New Jersey region have demonstrated faith for more than a three centuries. Followers of Jesus moved from Connecticut with a land grant from King George to establish a new church in Newark in 1666. Data from this period testifies to thousands of changed lives, with dozens of new communities of faith sent from our spiritual birthplace, Old First Presbyterian Church in Newark. On June 22, 1870 the Synod of New Jersey established the Presbytery of Newark including the city of Newark with the townships of Woodside, Belleville, Bloomfield, Montclair, Clinton, and Caldwell. Presbyterians, with those of other faiths, worked and fought hard for justice, peace, and freedom ensuring that civic, commercial, and educational institutions flourished.
Newark Presbytery today represents a spiritual lineage of world-changing spiritual vitality in the Reformed tradition. The people who are connected to our places in the community are part of the Vine, and we bear fruit as God brings the increase.
What is your experience of Greater Things? Remember, you are a gift to the world. Let it be opened!

Greater Things You Will Do! Are you in?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Clergy for the Public Good?

Do clergy serve the public good? Of course!, you quickly say. Right. That would be my first response, too. But how do you know that's true, besides anecdotal testimony and personal experience. I'm not saying its not true, I'm asking what evidence-based data supports the contention that clergy serve the public good? As we learned to inquire from Grissom, cite your source.

According to tax professor John Witte, Jr., Modern American laws of tax exemption of church property are rooted in two traditions, each of considerable vintage:
  1. Common law tradition, which accorded such exemptions to established churches that discharged certain governmental burdens; and
  2. Equity law tradition, which accorded such exemptions to all churches that dispensed certain social benefits
(From the Southern California Law Review, Volume 64, January 1991, Number 2, p. 368.)

So churches get a break. Nice. But why? Professor Witte observes the social capital benefits that churches (generally) provide to our communities. Churches not only dispense social benefits through their religious activities, exemption proponents argued, but also discharge state burdens through their charitable activities (ibid., p 388).

Long ago, on most every town's Welcome to Our Town sign were etched words similar to these: Welcome to Our Town, a great place to live, work, and worship. Is this still true? In fact, take a look a find a similar sentiment on your town's sign. Send me a photo of what it says. Is the public gathering place for the worship of God a public service today?

What about the clergy? A current Groundswell campaign invites signers to petition the Department of Education to reinstate clergy participation in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. PSLF was meant to encourage Americans to pursue higher education and public service by guaranteeing that long-time employees of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations would have their federal education loans forgiven after 10-years of public service employment. Sounds like a great idea. However, clergy were excluded on January 31, 2012 when they introduced new language that now restricts participation in PSLF and effectively excludes clergy from the program.

To appeal to common law, or equity law, is a strong argument that clergy deserve forgiveness for federal education loans. (The fact they qualified for such funding is gift in any case.) I'd like to see evidence-based data demonstrate the value that churches and their clergy provide to the community. Evidence is a more formidable argument than habit or case law.

Many churches have drifted from behaviors of social capital contribution to the common good. Too many churches ignore their responsibility to invest in community energy. Like silos of self-interest, some churches withhold gifts to the community they procure the property tax exemption. Though most churches are beneficial, and most clergy serve the common good, it is a mistake to affirm that all churches and all clergy deserve the tax exemption on property and housing.

Since 1960, churches have declined in membership, which is symptomatic of the reduced social value perceived by their communities. (See my attached graph illustrating this decline, comparing the Presbyterian Church membership to other organizations over one hundred years.)

People show up where they receive a blessing. When there is no sustaining reciprocal exchange of blessings between the church, its clergy, and the community, social capital is diminished, and the argument for a church's property tax exception or clergy's forgiveness of federal education loans is severely weakened.

What do you think?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Newark Matters

Our presbytery takes its name from New Jersey’s largest city and we are proud of the past and current Newark ministries demonstrating God's love. We are exploring new ministry opportunities among our ten Newark congregation's leaders, community partners, schools, and organizations such as Young Life. Open tables for conversation will be set for celebration and discovery to strategically resource current and emerging visions. Setting conversational spaces to develop new ministry is critically important for every organization see kings to employ innovative strategies to change the world.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Your Spaces Matter. Your congregation’s ministry blesses the entire world and ensuring your buildings’ safety and usefulness is vital. Unfortunately, the aging-out of our buildings is posing unprecedented stress on many congregations. Our presbytery offers sessions access to resources to help assess and remediate the condition of your buildings.

Review your ministry goals and evaluate how well your buildings support your mission. Consider inviting an experienced team from the presbytery's board of trustees for a walk-thru with you. As a result, many churches have discovered new ways to reduce costs, repurpose space, leverage repairs, and put more money into mission through presbytery partnerships.

Your building is a community assess point where you to deliver Good News experiences. Optimize your spaces. Your spaces matter.

In what says have you repurposed your space to meet current and future mission objectives?

Thank you pastors!

Pastors Matter. A part of my call is supporting and coaching our pastors. I can share with you that some struggle to keep discouragement at bay. The challenges our pastors face can be daunting, and their faithfulness is deeply appreciated. Teaching elders and ruling elders strive to resolve sometimes differing expectations and outcomes from ministry. Many stressors are historically rooted and should not be the pastor’s burden to bear.

Pay attention to your pastor’s needs. Give your pastor access to tools and resources that provide a more efficient or effective service to your congregation and to the community. Invest more money for their continuing professional and spiritual development. Encourage them frequently and pray regularly for them. The Committee on Ministry stands ready to support your session and minister so that ministry honors the work and the gifts our pastoral leaders generously offer us. Thank you pastors!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Job Intersection

Rule or Teach? What's your job description in the PC(USA)?

Presbytery is now a council of teaching elders and ruling elders, no longer a governing body. According to Joe Smalls, formerly of the Office of Theology and Worship, the foundations of Presbyterian polity and the form of government reveal that ruling elders does not refer to power or governance, but to their ruling-out, (measuring as with a ruler). This is great news. Ruling elders are called to discern their faithfulness to the Gospel in the life of the congregation. Effective elders discern and lead in innovative, contextual mission.

Teaching elders, on the other hand, are called to a responsibility for teaching the Faith. “Teaching” does not simply refer to formal educational events, or preaching. Teachers of the faith clarify the Gospel in the real world context as a congregation celebrates the sacraments, prays, learns, and works together in outward-directed service to the world. Healthy teaching elders collaborate with one another and understand the necessity for skill improvement, and learning about their community and world, to fulfill that responsibility faithfully.

At the Intersection of Faith and Context.

Teaching elders deepen congregational understanding of the whole gospel at the intersection of faith and context. Ruling elders discern the “growth” of the congregation and mobilizes its gifts in their community context.

These teaching and ruling elders become presbyters as they gather from many congregations in what we can now call, thankfully, a council. When presbyteries were governing bodies, “council” was the term many used for a subset of the presbytery rather than the whole. But “presbytery council” was really a kinder way of saying “executive committee.” Newark Presbytery, for example, is a council, as is the whole session, and the whole general assembly. The name indicates an assembly to consult together, discussing how to change and grow to become more like Jesus Christ. We are not organized to hear reports and vote. Councils are called to give prayerful, thoughtful, sustained attention to the faith and how to live authentically in our context as disciples of Jesus. There should be positive outcomes for individuals, congregations, community and world from our council gatherings. When you hear “council,” think Nicaea, or Barmen, rather than the local school board or the Congress.

Governance is not the remedy to building the church; courageous discernment leading to missional outcomes is. God invites us to realign, regroup, retool, and rebuild our ministries on the foundation at the intersection of faith and context as ruling and teaching elders.

Where's your job intersection?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Future's Foundation

As if on a wilderness journey for forty years, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been rebuilding its crumbling foundations in an attempt to keep its ministry strong. We can rebuild and strengthen our foundation, but we are increasingly unclear about what the building emerging on the foundation should look like. What is the church to be like in years ahead? Everything has changed, even Legos.
Building Blocks For What? I remember Legos in a container of assorted colors and sizes that I could assemble into whatever I imagined. Now, Legos are primarily kits of over specialized pieces. My grandkids don’t just want Legos, they want Star Wars Legos, or Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, or Prince of Persia Legos theme sets. There’s even an Advent Calendar Lego set! Where is the imagination in that? Though still fun, it has evolved into a prescribed step by step process that yields whatever is on the box, not what’s on the mind.
Forty years ago, church in North America was prescribed. Presbyterian churches depended on people who grew up in the church to continue what was previously learned. Back then, it might have been fine if churches were primarily pastor- and program-driven. Seminaries produced pastors the churches needed and churches nurtured candidates to keep the church going as it had been. Expectations were well established and communities depended on the stability associated with the Church to help stabilize its citizens.
We depend on Robert’s Rules of Order when the presbytery functions as a governing body of debate and regulation. Jesus warned us about the dangers of building a house on the sand. We need foundations. But the foundation Jesus’ was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount was not our rules, but his rules when he said, “These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on (Matt. 7:24a). Jesus’ foundational words included:
Don’t pick on people or criticize their faults; Don’t play a holier-than-thou part, just live your part; Don’t be flip with the sacred; Don’t bargain with God; Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them; Don’t look for shortcuts to God; Be wary of false preachers.

The Apostle Paul invited everyone to embrace, and be embraced by, a Christ-centered life. Jesus is the foundation and we are cautioned to build upon that foundation with care.

Building on the solid foundation using old directions, tools, and guides will not produce the church this world deserves to experience God’s love today. With no prescribed set of building blocks and no Presbyterian building kit with step by step instructions, we have new roles to live into to get us to the next place of building mission.

“But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish person who built their house on sand” Matt. 7.26.

“Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! ” 1Cor. 3.10-11.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Community Matters

Who benefits most from your team or session mission? How much more could be realized if new partnerships were nurtured the community at large, not just the "faith" community? Our newly emerging Newark Presbytery Community Transformation Corporation is redoubling its efforts to bless our neighbors. By engaging in new ministries sited at our existing properties, opportunities for sustainable initiatives will transform not merely the host church, but help reconnect and empower new relationships and new futures.

A congregation must not seek to experience health and vitality if the community around the congregation is not included in that same experience.
Newark Presbytery, Elizabeth Presbytery, and Palisades Presbytery have been exploring how realigning our resources could lead to new health, growth, and vitality of all our congregations. We ask God to use us to bless the 4.5 million people that live within our bounds. Imagine… 28,000 plus Presbyterians (our tribe) discovering new, innovative, authentic, and tangible ways to demonstrate God's love in the name of Jesus Christ to the millions of our neighbors (God's tribe). Now, that's a really something that's worth exploring.
Throughout the Synod and national church, God's listening people are setting aside preconceived, ineffective notions, self-interest, and former ways of being the Body of Christ so that more and more people experience joy and abundant living.

After all, our mission is to resonate and represent the love God has demonstrated for the whole world. Community matters. What matters to your church?