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Presbytery in the mirror … and furthermore

‘Town Hall’ meetings give New York City Presbyterians chance to weigh in

January 19, 2012

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NEW YORK CITY

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on the turmoil and hoped-for resolution in New York City Presbytery. ― Jerry L. Van Marter

 There was a healthy turn out for all three of the Presbytery of New York City’s “Town Hall” meetings ― one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn and The Bronx. New participants far and away outnumbered those attending for a second or third time.

 The General Council decided going in that everyone’s comments ― positive and critical ― would be written down for future study and reference for the Council’s final report to the  Jan. 24 stated meeting, but they would be collected without attribution. That decision created a relaxed atmosphere which fostered far-ranging, free-wheeling and overwhelmingly constructive conversations.  

 Surprisingly, there were several instances during each evening when people who notoriously disagree with each other on the Presbytery floor ― often vociferously ― found themselves in lock-step agreement. The epiphanies of these agreements underscored the Town Halls’ purpose: to better understand which life-path you wish to take, you need to enunciate what you disdain and where you don’t want to go.

Almost immediately there was major agreement: the need for a better level of “understanding” by the presbytery. If the body’s unique strength is fueled by the diversity of the people of the Big Apple, perhaps it is this diversity which is the presbytery’s biggest challenge in defining its mission.

Spread across five Boroughs, New York’s Presbyterians trace their ancestry to every corner of the globe (except Antarctica) and from countries where English is spoken as the second or third option. The New-York Historical Society counts 168 languages in the borough of Queens alone!

The Presbytery was chided for being somewhat slow in recognizing the uniqueness of each borough: while together, the nearly 100 congregations and fellowships represent the city, individually each reflects its particular neighborhood. Certain “front-burner” issues relevant to congregants in Queens or on Staten Island are often irrelevant to residents of Brooklyn or Manhattan or The Bronx…and vice versa.

In other words, many participants said, the presbytery should encourage the congregations to meet regularly on a borough-specific basis. Anecdotal examples presented included initiatives in The Bronx and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where clergy and congregations meet regularly not just for Bible Study and fellowship but also as a way to potentially resolve “neighborhood issues.” 

There was even one suggestion that the presbytery “de-centralize,” where the boroughs would meet exclusively up to four times a year than come together as the whole presbytery two or three times a year.

Inevitably, the discussion of money and the over-arching financial situation enveloping all corners of the presbytery embedded itself into the fabric of each Town Hall. While passionate, the conversations’ demeanor remained calm and cool, including discussion of the hottest hot-button money issue ― how to best utilize the Presbytery’s endowment dollars.

Like many endowments, New York City’s was built through bequests with donor-specified purposes. Each town hall explored potential ways the presbytery might properly use restricted “mission endowment dollars” to better-serve its own mission endeavors and still be within the parameters of  religious corporation laws.  

With roughly half of New York City’s nearly 100 member congregations only able to afford very limited ― or worse, no ― pastoral staff, one of the biggest “Hallelujah moments” cheered the concept of the presbytery underwriting some portion of these congregation’s pulpit staffing.  

Yet, there was push-back against underwriting, ranging from the belief that a congregation which can’t afford some measure of on-staff clergy should reconsider its existence as a congregation to concerns that underwriting sets a bad precedent since a myriad of underlying reasons ― not strictly financial ― contribute to the dearth of pulpit coverage.

Attendees from some churches without a stable pulpit situation cited how the lack of regular clergy frustrates efforts to rejuvenate their congregation through membership growth. They also described going from elated to the deflated when “church-shoppers” visiting across several Sundays ultimately don’t stay. The feedback usually points to the difficulty newcomers have connecting to a congregation with no regular “presence” in the pulpit.

As for bricks-and-mortar issues, when it was pointed out that Biblical guidance is a bit thin regarding “the issue of church buildings and property management,” there was unanimous sentiment each evening that a building is not a church.

That said, the attendees also made it clear that, as human beings, we are culturally acclimated to wanting a place to “do church.” If that place is a church sanctuary and we hold that a church sanctuary is a “House of God,” then most of us do not wish to leave this House wanting – we wish to make this House a comfortable Home.  

Sadly, New York City’s aging building stock is fast-becoming a money pit, siphoning-off potential mission dollars for upkeep and repair. While everyone agreed that crafting a “buildings solution” was not possible during the town hall meeting, there was agreement that the challenges of re-thinking the issues of “place” and of “building” cry out for a deeper discussion in a different forum.

Delving deeper into the nature of the underlying turmoil which helped prompt the town hall gatherings, conversations landed on the touchy triad of “trust (total confidence), mistrust (total lack of confidence) and distrust (trust with verification).”

It was suggested that perhaps a contributing factor for the angst might be due those commissioners who do not fully grasp the concept of Presbytery-as-legislative body. As with any political entity, especially one where dissent is built into the polity, haggling is inevitable.

For some, another salt-in-the-wound frustration comes when political “battle lines” (for lack of a better term) are drawn around particularly fractious issues. Since the body doesn’t always divide into the same “political camps,” it is disconcerting to some commissioners that they are often allies and then antagonists and then allies again in the span of a few minutes.

The fall-out from these mythic floor fights back-washes over all the congregations: too many face an uphill battle recruiting “new” Ruling Elder commissioners, which perpetuates the myth of the “lifetime seat.” With an increase in the average age of the commissioners ― some seemingly retaining their seat “for life” ― and others openly questioning whether some commissioners might be past their “prime and effectiveness.”

Most agreed that the presbytery’s “Way Forward” will be that much smoother if it takes the strong, positive step to mollify the body’s frustrating knack for spotty communications. The lack of clear communication was cited as a key contributor to the presbytery’s “identity problem” among the congregants: while a healthy percentage may know what the presbytery is, an equally healthy percentage has very little idea what the Presbytery does beyond seemingly begging for congregations’ apportionment dollars while providing little, if anything, in return.

For example, the first e-mail announcing the town hall gatherings arrived Oct. 5 ― a mere six days ahead of the first gathering. While some congregations were able to pass the word via their internal networks, others complained that the late notification gave them just one Sunday for the traditional pulpit/worship bulletin mention, a woefully inadequate “heads up” for such an important series of events where everyone was invited.

Attendees also suggested that, by issuing the town hall invitations only in English in a presbytery with a considerable number of Spanish- and Korean-speaking congregants, the body could easily be mistaken for being dismissive of ― or even disinterested in ― the interests of these constituencies. 

Spotty communication was also cited for stoking the rumor mill. New York City Presbytery has not closed a congregation in more than two decades, yet the hottest, most persistent rumor claims that the body is on a mission to shutter congregations.

Just before each town hall concluded with prayer, attendees applauded the presbytery for its willingness to be scrutinized “six ways from Sunday.”  When the Presbytery of the New York City took a long, hard look at itself in the mirror under the glare of fluorescent lighting…the mirror didn’t crack.

Jim Nedelka works at a major broadcast network and is a regular contributor to The Presbyterian News Service. An ordained Ruling Elder for three decades, he recently completed a seven year tenure serving as the Elder Commissioner from Manhattan’s West-Park Presbyterian Church to the Presbytery of New York City, as well as a two-year term on the Administrative Commission for Home Street Presbyterian Church in The Bronx.

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