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