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Task force approves final Form of Government report

Proposed overhaul ready for 2010 General Assembly save minor editing

September 23, 2009

Louisville

The new Form of Government Task Force of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has The Form of Government Task Force has submitted the final draft of its report to the 219th General Assembly (2010).

The task force voted unanimously at its meeting here last month to approve the report.

The new proposal makes some changes from the recommendations regarding the Form of Government (FOG) that the General Assembly considered in 2008, but it keeps intact some key recommendations from that first plan, including some considered controversial.

Among them:

  • The proposal would drop the phrases “Minister of Word and Sacrament” and “elder” in the denomination’s FOG, replacing them with “teaching elder” and “ruling elder.” That’s an effort, according to task force co-moderator Cindy Bolbach of National Capital Presbytery, to return to historic language used by the church and to emphasize the parity that the Reformed tradition sees in those roles;
  • The new rules would say that an associate pastor or an interim pastor of a particular congregation could not be called as the next installed pastor of that congregation, but it adds a provision for making an exception to those rules so that limitation could be set aside in individual cases by a vote of approval of three-fourths of the presbytery.

One provision that ruffled some feathers in the 2008 proposal did get dropped — it would have required a pastor working in a validated ministry to regularly proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as part of his or her work.

Some had complained that such a requirement would be too restrictive for those serving in validated ministries, which can be anything from working for a non-profit agency to hospital chaplaincy, particularly in places where it might be difficult for them to find a position as parish associate that would allow them to fulfill the requirement.

By now, the FOG proposals have a somewhat long and convoluted history. The 2006 General Assembly created the task force and instructed it to report back to the 2008 assembly, giving it the job of creating a new polity for the denomination that would be shorter and more flexible — a tool to better allow Presbyterians to work in ministry in a complex, multi-ethnic world.

The assembly gave the task force a fairly free hand, although any changes it proposes would have to be approved by the assembly and then by a majority of the PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries.

And it declared two areas to be off-limits: no changes could be made in the language relating to the property trust clause (involving ownership of property in the church) or to standards limiting ordination in the PC(USA) to those practicing “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”

The original task force’s proposal was sent back by the 2008 assembly for more revisions and to give the church more time to consider it, and asking a new task force consisting of some of the original members plus some new ones to continue refining the proposals.

Bolbach, co-moderator of the original task force, was joined as co-moderator by the Rev. Dan Williams, a pastor from Shenandoah Presbytery who was vice-moderator of the 2008 assembly committee that considered the original task force’s recommendations.

One decision both task forces agreed on was having a separate “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section at the beginning of the Form of Government.

While many pieces of the “Foundations” are part of the current FOG, they’re scattered in various places. Pulling them together into a new section means “it’s easier to use it as a teaching tool,” Bolbach said in an interview.

At many of their meetings over the last three and a half years, task force members have batted around ideas, precise wording and the nuances of what they’re trying to say.

In describing the marks of the church, for example, the task force affirmed that the church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” — then stuck to that same order in discussing the specific marks, to avoid having anyone conclude they were trying to raise up any of those features or marks as more significant than another.

The task force decided against creating a category of “inactive member” of a presbytery — figuring that the “member-at-large” category would cover such circumstances and that it wasn’t providing for inactive member status in congregations, either.

And the task force tried to find solid ground on the tricky question of whether interim pastors or associate pastors should ever be allowed to become the next called pastor of a congregation they’ve been serving.

This question raises strong feelings for some in the church. So the task force responded by saying that kind of succession wasn’t permitted — but then providing a means for exceptions to be granted when a presbytery thought that was appropriate.

“We know that’s going to be controversial,” Bolbach said. “Our task was to create a polity that is flexible, and it doesn’t make sense to have this flat-out ban.”

But if the General Assembly disagrees, she said, the task force has structured the recommendation in such a way that all the assembly would have to do was pass an amendment deleting the procedure through which presbyteries can grant the exception.

Another point on which the task force tried to respond to concerns involves eliminating any specific references to a Committee on Representation, part of an overall move to allow governing bodies more flexibility in how they structure their work.

In general, the task force proposes using the term “council” rather than requiring specific committees to exist.

“We don’t say anywhere in the document that you have to have a Committee on Ministry that has that title or a Committee on Preparation of Ministry that has that title,” Bolbach said. But some were concerned that without a requirement for a Committee on Representation, balance of race, ethnicity, gender and age could be lost.

So language was added to say that “the councils of the church shall give full expression to the rich diversity of the church’s membership and shall provide for full participation and access to representation in decision-making and employment.”

In using that wording “we tried to make sure our commitment (to diversity) was stronger than ever,” Bolbach said. “We kept to our mandate of a polity that’s adaptable while at the same time really reinforcing the commitment to diversity and inclusivity.”

The task force also plans to use the upcoming months to try to convince the church to make the changes it is recommending.

“We’re going to be out there telling the church why it is important to do this,” Bolbach said. The message will be: “Here’s why we need it, here’s why we think the General Assembly should adopt it, and presbyteries ought to approve it.”

Throughout this process, the task force has asked Presbyterians to study its recommendations and to comment.

“The task force was very encouraged by the number of comments we had, the number of presbyteries that asked us in the period since last summer to come and talk about our work,” Bolbach said. “There is still a small segment that says (of the Form of Government) that it’s not broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed.

“I think there are fewer people who believe now than believed in 2008,” Bolbach added. “It really has taken time for people to get their heads around the question of can our polity make a difference in the effectiveness of the church?”

And, “if we’re going to change, how should we change?”
 
The complete report of the new Form of Government Task Force is available online.

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