As I See It General Synod ARPTalk Chuck Wilson

As I See It: General Synod

As I See It General Synod ARPTalk Chuck Wilson

Once again, for the third year, General Synod will not meet at Bonclarken. In 2019, Synod met in Pennsylvania, at Geneva College, in Beaver Falls. Last year, because of the stringent Covid protocols in North Carolina, Synod met in the facilities of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina. Once again, because of Covid protocols, the folks at Bonclarken requested Synod not to meet at Bonclarken. Unexpectedly, a few days later, President Biden, CDC officials, and the governor of North Carolina lifted Covid protocols; however, by then it was too late to reverse course (see Form of Government, 12.9).

A Contentious Meeting

The items on the table for General Synod portend a contentious meeting.

On Tuesday, May 11, Second Presbytery met in the sanctuary of the Greenville Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. On the agenda were a retirement request and the examination of the Revered Todd Matocha to be the Senior Pastor of the Greenville congregation. Mr. Matocha's examination was stretched out and a bit long because the members of Second Presbytery enjoyed conversing with him. He did an outstanding job.

Just before the presbytery was adjourned, a member of the presbytery asked to speak. He spoke fervently. The following is my verbatim of what he said: "I have just received my Synod packet. I encourage each of you to read it carefully. And I ask you to read between the lines. There is more to the reports than is written. I am aware of hidden agendas. I know of things promised which were reneged on."

The speaker's words were received with silence. Most of us wanted to go home. Some of us had an Executive Committee meeting following the closing prayer.

The words of the speaker indicate a loss of trust. Asking people to "read between the lines" impugns motives and clearly declares a loss of trust. Whether I agree or disagree with the speaker's point-of-view or the way he made his point, the sentiment he expressed is not uncommon. He is not alone. From where I sit, I see a loss of trust throughout Synod. Particularly, I see a loss of trust in all our boards and agencies and all who are connected with them.

What Is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian?

When people say, "I'm an Associate Reformed Presbyterian!" what do they mean? Usually, it means "I'm a member of such-and-such congregation, and all other congregations in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church are just like my church." Of course, that is naïve; nevertheless, that's the way many think.

Other times, it may mean a person is interested in ministry overseas, and World Witness is the outlet for the person's interest. At times, it means an individual desires a special project begun and is willing to invest a large sum of money with a board or agency to get the project underway. Well, there are many answers. I once thought I knew what it was to be an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, but I'm not sure now.

The boards and agencies of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church were originally organized to be the glue which held the General Synod together, and, also, the means whereby to give focus to the mission of Synod. Unfortunately, as is the case with bureaucracies, over a long period of years, they take on a life and identity for themselves; a life and identity which may be detrimental to the organization which gave them birth. We in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church are not exempt from this rule. As far as I know, there is no immunity for this malady.

A Many Splintered Thing

Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by just watching."

Instead of being a "many splendored thing," the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is a "many splintered thing." No two presbyteries are alike. Our boards and agencies are independent parachurch organizations, each having its own director which the board or agency hires without Synod's input, its own board of trustees to which the director is responsible, its own charter, its own legal identity, its own 501c3, its own budget, its own power to raise monies, and its own constituency. For you who do not know, the Moderator of General Synod and the Executive Director of Central Services have no authority over our boards and agencies. All they can do is give pious advice.

The only thing our boards and agencies have in common is an insatiable appetite for "more money." Do you know the musical The Little Shop of Horrors? The storyline goes like this: Seymour Krelborn runs a flower shop in a rundown neighborhood in New York City, he has a blood-drinking and flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, and Audrey II talks and sings. Audrey's refrain is this: "Feed me, Seymour, because, if you feed me, I can grow up big and strong." The voice of Audrey II is Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, and he has an incredible baritone voice.

Like Audrey II, the cry of our boards and agencies is "Feed me, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church!" The Denominational Ministry Fund (DMF) is no longer a ministry fund, and to call the DMF a ministry fund is laughably absurd. One of our seniors ministers refers to the DMF as the "salary fund" for the directors of our boards and agencies. After a number of years of service on the Board of Stewardship, I call the DMF the Denominational Bureaucracy Fund. Indeed, the DMF exists to feed the bureaucracy of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. And, as is the case with bureaucracies everywhere, our bureaucracy is ineffective, costly, and a drain on our resources to the point the bureaucracy is crippling General Synod and limiting our ability to do the ministry of growing the church. Our bureaucracy has become cancerous.

For years, there have been complaints. One of the complaints goes something like this: "Why are the directors of our boards and agencies payed six-figured salaries? These directors are paid like the Senior Pastors of our largest congregations, and they don't work as hard as those men- not even as hard as the pastors of our smaller congregations! What do they do?" Another complaint goes like this: "For all the money we put into our agencies, what do we get? The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is floundering. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian footprint is not expanding (yes, it is stagnant) overseas. We no longer educate our college students. We no longer train our ministers. Our church magazine is little more than a chatty church newsletter." It is no stretch to say we pay a great deal for little. In my opinion, when the average salary package of a minister is about $60,000, the salary and expense packages of the directors of our boards and agencies are an embarrassment. As an aside, let me hasten to say that Bonclarken is an exception and is a well run organization.

A Broken Sense of Ministry

We use a great deal of "pious speech" in talking about ministry. I have heard people talking about doing ministry in coffee shops, in doing ministry by playing chess in parks, in doing ministry by running camps, in doing ministry by organizing and running Vacation Bible Schools, in doing ministry by education, in doing ministry by running a hospital, and a myriad of other things. That's just pious talk. Do you realize these are subsidiary and auxiliary things. These are not bad, but they are subsidiary and auxiliary, and, in our case, they have become substitutes for what is primary.

If we ask the New Testament "What is ministry?" the answer is not what we are doing. The answer is found in the Book of Acts. The ministry of which Peter, Paul, Silas, and Barnabas speak is planting churches. If we are planting churches, the subsidiary and auxiliary things follow. If we are not planting churches, the church is dying, and the subsidiary and auxiliary projects are nothing but exsanguinated and rachitic apparitions of ministry which diminish the church and dishonor Jesus "who gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5.25).

According to Acts, church planting is the task of local congregations. According to our Presbyterian form of government, church planting is the task of the local congregations as they constitute a presbytery. In the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, we have put church planting in the hands of the professionals/experts in the denominational bureaucracy of Outreach North America (ONA). In the last ten years, the ONA bureaucracy has not unified or given vision to church planting in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The opposite is the case. The professionals and experts have run off with their own ideas regarding the manner of doing church planting, and then they complain and wonder why they are resisted and not followed. The answer is self-evident: they are not trusted. Instead of being a glue which unites the Synod in a common vision, church planting by ONA is a wedge which divides. If you are unaware of this, then you have not attended a meeting of Synod in the last ten years. Our professionals and experts have failed. However, they did not forget to cash their paychecks.

It is no secret there are discussions regarding the restructuring of the boards and agencies of General Synod. In my opinion, this is long overdue. With the passage of time, bureaucracies lose their effectiveness and have to be restructured. It has been a long time since we have used our people resources and financial resources well. It has been a long time since we have restructured anything. Years ago, I heard Steve Brown say that Presbyterians had better get whatever they are doing right the first time, for it will take them 400 years to fix it. I can't disagree with Steve. Perhaps, this explains the moribund nature of Presbyterian denominations - whatever the stripes. Does it explain why we are dying?

Of course, this discussion is uncomfortable for most of us. It is upsetting for me. I'm old and don't like change. However, if we don't do something differently, we are going to die (and maybe we're already dead and no one has had the grace to pull the plug on the life-support machine). What we are doing is not working - and this is systemically true throughout our denominational structures.

Job One: The Pastor

As Dr. Duncan Rankin points out in his excellent article in the report of the Board of Stewardship, "Job One" in any denomination is the pastor. The Apostle Paul left Titus in Crete that he "should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders [that is, pastoral leaders] in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1.5). A cursory reading of the pastoral epistles reveals the paramount nature of the pastor.

Paul's directives to Titus, Timothy, and others are weighty and critical for the health of the local congregation and the denomination. A church without a pastor is like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. A mess! Yes, as Dr. Rankin says, "Job One . . . is the local pastoral ministry."

Promises have been made to our pastors regarding their retirements. In my 50 year lifespan in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, we have funneled millions of dollars for silly programs which have not contributed to church growth and health. To our shame, we have fed the beast of non-growth instead of the growth of congregations. It is safe to say we know how to deplete congregations, but we don't know how to fill congregations. And, may I ask, how healthy would our ministers and employee's Retirement Plan be today if we had redirected financial resources to the Retirement plan, instead of funding bureaucratic structures which cry "Feed me!" and produce little other than division? Whether we like it or not, we have been artful at casting millions of dollars at nothing for the glory of God! I think Jesus would say, "You have been poor stewards of the talents I gave you to watch over!"

Why don't we have a bevy of young ministers in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church who are filled with enthusiasm for planting and growing congregations? Could it be because we have not treated our ministers well as a whole? Sure, we have 20 or so larger congregations which pay their ministers very well. But we also have many smaller congregations which struggle to pay the pastor's salary. The one thing which both the larger congregations and the smaller congregations have in common is the promise of a Retirement Plan for their pastors. And that promise has been good enough for many who were willing to live and serve sacrificially!

Today, why would a young minister want to serve in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church? Look around, we don't have many young pastors. And the ones we have (especially the ones who have the skills for planting and growing) are thinking of going elsewhere. I can't fault them.

A friend says the following about being a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church: "You don't have to be crazy or drunk to be a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, but both crazy and drunk certainly help!"

We have failed ourselves, and the smart people we have trusted have failed us in the oversight of the Retirement Plan for our ministers. I am told the proposed plan before us this year is the best of three unsavory options. Whatever the case, $8,500,000 is needed to fund the proposed plan - and the money is needed now.

Taking their fiduciary responsibilities seriously, and realizing monies are needed immediately by the Board of Benefits, the members of the Board of Stewardship have attempted to do their part in capitalizing the proposed plan for $8,500,000 in two ways. First, the Board abolished the Foundation Board and distributed $2,000,000 to the Board of Benefits. Second, FOR THIS YEAR ONLY, the Board of Stewardship voted to recommend draconian cuts to our boards and agencies in order to transfer $1,633,000 to the Board of Benefits. Essential services are funded. Our boards and agencies have reserves which will enable them to operate without support for a year. You also need to know, the votes for the major cuts were unanimous.

For the reader's information, no one on the Stewardship Board was pleased with what they thought was their duty. It was a torturous thing to do, and all the members of the board left a grueling 13 hour meeting saddled with a sad feeling.

For obvious reasons, the Board of World Witness was exempted from cuts. Every one fears the stranding of one of our missionaries. No one wants to see a replay of an Andrew Brunson.

There are those saying our larger congregations will not support the proposed cuts in the DMF. I can only ask: do they think so little of our ministers, and are the ministers of those larger congregations so uncharitable and unsympathetic to their poorer brothers in the Gospel as to say, "I have mine; you get yours!"? I hope this isn't the case. If it is, any discussion about the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church as a viable Christian denomination is impious bluster!

These are my thoughts,


Charles W. Wilson

the ARP Retirement Program 2020

As I See It

the ARP Retirement Program 2020


2021 began with the announcement of the death of the Reverend Henry Lewis Smith, my friend since 1970.

In the summer of 1972, my wife and I became Associate Reformed Presbyterians when we united with the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven, Florida. Henry was the founding pastor of the congregation. More than a pastor, Henry was my friend and mentor. What little I know about the political nature of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, I learned from him.

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church owes a theological debt of gratitude to Henry Lewis Smith. Today, of all the Presbyterian denominations in the United States, on paper, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is the most theologically orthodox.

In 1969, theological orthodoxy in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church was on the verge of collapse. In those days, we lived in the menacing shadow of the old "Southern" Presbyterian Church (PCUS). Whatever they did, we thought we had to follow suit. If they chose to chase theological liberalism, Neo-orthodoxy, and novelties in ecclesiastical polity, many of us thought we were obliged to follow. Henry Smith was not of that opinion.

On the front burner at the meeting of General Synod in 1969 was the issue of the ordination of women to the office of elder. The liberal wing of General Synod was embarrassed we didn't ordain women. In the New Testament, however, eldership is always defined as male-leadership. For us the question was this: do we follow what the Bible clearly teaches or do we makeup our practice according to the ideas of the culture and follow suit with the "Southern" Presbyterians?

In 1969, a revision of the Constitution of the denomination was before General Synod for adoption. This constitution allowed for the ordination of women to the office of elder. Along with Jim Coad, Jr., Grady Oates, and others, Henry Smith led a coalition of pastors and elders who upheld our Biblical and historic position on eldership.

This debate was fierce, the vote was close, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Henry Smith. Because of his resolute faithfulness and incisive leadership (and, of course, the faithfulness of many others), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church did not follow the "Southern" Presbyterian Church into theological heterodoxy and, ultimately, ecclesiastical absorption into the latitudinarianism of the PCUSA. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church remains Biblically faithful - a denomination which is historically and theologically Reformed, evangelical, and Presbyterian.

Thank you, Henry Lewis Smith. Well done good and faithful servant.


Let me tell you a story.

A man goes into a restaurant and sits down at a table. A waiter comes up and asks, "What would you like to order?"
The man replies, "I will have a cherry pastry and a cup of coffee WITHOUT cream."
A few minutes later the waiter comes back and says to the man, "Sir, we are out of cream. All we have is milk."

Obviously, the waiter is dumber than a box of spaghetti noodles. I don't know which is dumber: my joke or the fictitious waiter.

Unfortunately, what comes next is not a joking matter. Are we in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church the waiter? How can we be so articulate theologically and then be dumber than a box of spaghetti noodles when it comes to dealing with business matters? Specifically, our ministers' Retirement Plan!

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is a denomination of small congregations with modest budgets; however, we are not without resources. According to the most recent book of minutes of General Synod (October 22-23, 2020), which was distributed in March, there are 18 congregations which are able to contribute $50,000 or more (and, usually, MUCH MORE) to the "Denominational Ministry Fund" (DMF) and an equal amount to "Synod Benevolences." And the faithfulness of our smaller congregations is not to be minimized (especially with regard to Synod Benevolences). Our total denomination giving was reported at $70,884,935 (and often our giving is under-reported). Our giving to the DMF was $2,525,146, and $2,339,303 was contributed to Synod Benevolences. Total DMF and Benevolence giving was $4,864,452. That is a 6.9% level of giving by our congregations to denominational causes in just two categories. When one realizes the total level of giving by a church member in the US is just 2.5%, we see we are a generous people.

In the past, when recruiting ministers to serve in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, our trump card was our Retirement Plan. We boasted we could compete with the PCUSA. I remember in the late 1990s when reports to Synods by the Board of Benefits touted our Retirement Plan was oversubscribed. I remember sitting beside Jim Coad, Jr. when the Board of Benefits announced a cost-of-living increase in retirement benefits. Jim said to me, "You can expect this every other year. These people know what they are doing" I retired in 2011. I have never seen a cost-of-living increase.

In the call of a minister to a congregation, we declare and covenant the following to the minister: "That you may devote yourself wholly to the Ministry of the Word, we promise and obligate ourselves to . . . [p]ay into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Retirement Fund as prescribed by the General Synod." Presently, this is an amount equal to 12% of the minister's salary. The nasty secret is 12% isn't applied to the minister's name - only about 6%.

Something has gone wrong! How is it our Board of Benefits has failed our ministers, denominational employee, and the denomination as a whole?

First of all, we need to note the Board of Benefits is set up in a manner which does not allow for the ministers on the board to be the voting majority. Over the years, we have had a patronizing attitude toward ministers in which we have treated them as clueless regarding financial matters. An attitude which discounts the fact that ministers (and other Synod employees) are the only ones who benefit from or are harmed by the manner in which the Board of Benefits is managed. The recipients of the Retirement Plan were not and are not in charge of their financial retirements. We have trusted the experts, and they have failed us.

Second, the Board of Benefits failed our ministers and Synod employees in the financial crash in 2008/9. I don't remember an alarm bell being sounded until 2013. What were they doing for five years?

The first time I was aware of the retirement crisis was at the meeting of General Synod in 2013. I was assigned to the Moderator's committee on benefits. In a contentious meeting, we were informed of massive changes to the Retirement Plan. When asked what happened, the representatives from the Board of Benefits hemmed and hawed and were not forthcoming. They put on a show of CYA. When I asked, "How often do you check the market?" we were informed something like the following, "We are obliged to review market activity twice a year, but, since the recent crisis, we have been watching more often." The members of the Moderator's committee were horrified by both their negligence and by the condescending attitude of the representatives from the Board of Benefits. But with great certainty, they assured us, if we adopted their measures, the Retirement Plan would be stabilized for the foreseeable future. Dutifully, the Synod adopted their recommendations.

The promise of stabilization to the Retirement Plan was not long lived. Again, in 2019, at the meeting of General Synod at Geneva College, in Pennsylvania, the Board of Benefits came with another plan to stabilize the Retirement Plan. Our experts had failed, AGAIN! Their solution was such it left Synod in turmoil. At that point, a motion was made and passed for a "Blue Ribbon" Committee to be formed to prepare a plan to recapitalize the Retirement Plan.

Third, the Board of Benefits has failed us in that we have unwisely put our trust in "the experts" to watch over the retirement of our minsters and Synod employee. That was as dumb as a box of spaghetti noodles! Then, we required our ministers and Synod employees to participate in the Retirement Plan and our congregations to support the participation of their ministers in the plan, saying, "we promise and obligate ourselves."

Financial gurus earn their livings by giving financial advice. Financial gurus who serve on our Board of Benefits (and other places) are not paid for their services. Why are we surprised when we discover the welfare of our Retirement Plan is not their primary priority? Here's a question which illustrates what I mean: when was the last time the chairman of the Board of Benefits attended a meeting of General Synod?

Not surprising, the solution presented by the Board of Benefits is a business solution which does not recapitalize the Retirement Plan but dissolves the Retirement Plan. Their plan is the best of three awful plans. The plan is similar to plans used by secular corporations to get out of the retirement business. Is a secular, corporate solution the magic elixir for the church? Such was the argument used to establish our old plan. As I was informed in 1975, our plan was like the social security plan but solvent. What has happened to "solvent"?

At this point, I don't know what or who to believe. I am told we need to get out of our present Retirement Plan because it is too expense to maintain; but, being a bit of a cynic, I ask, Is this proposal to get out of the minister's retirement program driven by the weariness of the experts on the Board of Benefits who are working gratis? I can understand how they would be weary of such a tedious and time-consuming and profitless and thankless task.

I am told we need to get out of our defined benefit plan because our ministers and employees have no say in the running of their individual plans. I am told we need to go to a defined contribution plan in which the ministers and employees have control; however, the plan obliges the ministers and Synod employee to participate in a denominationally controlled plan. And, yes, this is convoluted and makes my head hurt. It says one thing and does another.

At the beginning, I was told we needed $8,000,000 and then its was $13,300,000 in order to buy out those not yet retired and to stabilize payments to those already retired. Now, after a big pow-wow of the experts, I am told we need $8,500,000. At this point, I don't know what to believe.

Well, what do I think?

One, I think we are a small denomination. However, we are not poor. As a denomination, our annual receipts are over 70 million dollars. That's a lot of money. With a giving level of 6.9% to the DMF and Denominational Benevolences, we are generous. The question is this: are we generous enough to fix a problem which negatively impacts many our ministers and Synod employees?

Two, I think if we make a promise, we are obliged to keep it. I don't know how a Psalm-singing group of people can get away from Psalm 15.4, which reads that the person of biblical faith is one "who swears to his own hurt and does not change." And in light of Psalm 15.4, I also think the weakest part of the Board of Benefit's proposal is in the section on questions and answers, question #5 which asks, "Does the Church have a responsibility to what it has promised?" The answer given is masterful obfuscation. Their answer is NO. However, the answer should be a simple Yes! The answer is we pay what we promise. If it can't be done, then we ask the one owed to forgive the debt owed. The debt stands if the one owed is not willing to forgive the debt. Is this how you read Psalm 15?

Three, I think the option we will choose is to raise the 8.5 million dollars recommended by the Board of Benefits and hope the smart people have done their ciphering correctly this time. If past experience is a measure of future results, then, in about ten years, we can expect to hear we have a five million dollar deficit which should have been addressed in 2021. You see, we are good at losing heart and doing just enough to get by. I think we may have perfected the art of kicking the can down the road. If I am still alive in ten years, we will see if I am a prophet. If I am alive, you will hear a loud I TOLD YOU SO!

Four, I think a goodly number of pastors in our smaller congregations will be hurt badly by this terrible settlement. Above, I said we are a generous people. I hope we are also a merciful people. I pray we will have the grace and forethought to set up a fund to help those who are harmed by this settlement. If we don't, we are not a good people!!!

These are my thoughts,


Charles W. Wilson