With the passage of a new form of government and new ordination standards, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did a lot — and commissioners at this summer’s 220th Assembly would be wise to use this meeting to take stock of the denomination, said Cynthia Bolbach, outgoing moderator.
Bolbach spoke with the Presbyterian News Service June 26, during a break from chemotherapy treatments she is receiving for cancer. “I’ve been so uplifted by the outpouring of prayers by so many people,” she said, adding that she will mention her illness during her June 30 sermon during opening worship at the Assembly. “I’m astonished at how many people really care.”
Bolbach urged caution by the upcoming Assembly in Pittsburgh.
“I’m not sure we can absorb anything that’s another huge change,” said Bolbach, who will pass the gavel to a new moderator the evening of June 30. “We’re still absorbing 10-A” (a constitutional amendment that permits the ordination of non-celibate unmarried persons, including gays and lesbians, as church officers).
“I don’t think we’re ready to make any sort of statement on same-sex marriage,” Bolbach added, “though pastors in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal need some protections that could be useful.”
Bolbach said she does hope the Assembly “really gets its hands on” the report from the Commission on Mid Councils, which is proposing sweeping changes in the governance structures of the PC(USA), including the elimination of synods as ecclesiastical bodies and the creation of non-geographic presbyteries.
“I hope the Assembly won’t focus so much on non-geographic presbyteries (perhaps the most controversial recommendation in the report),” she said, “but will take a long deep look at what we want the church to look like going forward.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen many changes in the past few years and some are uneasy about the future, but Presbyterians must continue to have discussions about these fears, Bolbach said.
“I think we’re doing that,” she said. “Even though we have uneasiness, we’re also on the path to try to get us to a sustainable future in a 21st-century culture.”
Bolbach, co-moderator of the New Form of Government (nFOG) Task Force, said she stood for moderator in 2010 to raise the visibility of the nFOG proposal, which was touted as a more flexible approach to structure and governance. But many people still criticize the nFOG for being too centralized and top-down, she said, noting “I have no idea how anyone can say nFOG is a centralized, top-down document."
She recalled the debate in her own presbytery ― National Capital ― where one speaker who called nFOG “top down” was followed by another who termed it “congregational.”
“I guess that’s just human nature,” Bolbach said. “People look at these things through their own prism.” But she hopes this year’s commissioners will look at issues more dispassionately.
Bolbach said her two years as moderator, during which she visited with many groups and ministries across the denomination, was “profound” and gave her a new sense of hope.
“I wouldn’t have been nearly as hopeful two years ago,” she said. “It’s a vibrant denomination, but you don’t really realize it until you’re out there and you go from place to place and you see all these things happening.”
Change is possible, but it isn’t easy, Bolbach said. “I don’t think we have any other choice.”
One needed change is the involvement of ruling elders, she said. Unless they’re retired, it’s too hard for ruling elders to get involved in presbyteries. And though the younger generation of teaching elders seems to be blossoming, younger ruling elders see presbyteries as “amorphous masses” with little connection to their work in congregations.
Bolbach, a ruling elder herself, would like to see a younger ruling elder as moderator — a task she admitted would be hard for someone with a secular career to manage. “They’d almost have to be independently wealthy,” she said.
As for whoever is elected moderator of the 220th Assembly, Bolbach advised: “Take the job seriously but not yourself.” A non-anxious presence and a sense of humor have served her well and are the best moderatorial assets, she said.
Bolbach will leave Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon to spend some time at the beach with friends, a long-standing tradition. But while her time as moderator will be over, her interest in Assembly proceedings will not — she plans to watch live streaming of the Assembly at the beach.
Chuckling, she concluded: “That’s pathetic, isn’t it?”