The meeting of General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church this year was at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. In 2015, at our invitation, the delegates of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America traveled south, to Bonclarken, to meet with us, and this year, at their invitation, the delegates of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church traveled north (or most of us did) to meet with them.
Traveling roundtrip, a total of 24 hours in the backseat of a Lexus, with my knees stuck under my chin was not the high point of the meeting of General Synod. For me, the high points were two: (1) Geneva College and (2) an ax-throwing excursion in Pittsburg. Doubtlessly, Geneva College, tucked away in the rugged hills of western Pennsylvania, is beautiful — and the weather was accommodating for us.
As is my custom, I hung out with a gaggle of young guys. On Wednesday afternoon, when we should have been attending a myriad of boring meetings with the old people, we snuck off to Pittsburg to an ax-throwing joint. And, yes, photographs on Facebook are posted in order to convict the guilty.
Now, I want the reader to know, I did not participate in ax-throwing. There are some things I am afraid to do. It is not wise for a legally-blind man to throw an ax at a wooden bullseye, for the ax bounces back on a miss. My goal was to leave the premises with ten fingers, ten toes, and without an ax sticking out of my forehead. Besides, I am too cheap to pay $35 to throw an ax. Nevertheless, the experience was great fun, the camaraderie with those young men was delightful, and the experience was a high point I will long remember.
Well, this is a report of the meeting of the 2019 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. What happened? I shall not attempt to cover everything: rather, the significant issues.
Special Committee on Denominational Ministry Fund Giving
The task presented to this committee was to study why congregations are reticent to give to the DMF. The answer by the committee was received as information and is now buried deeply in the paper of the minutes where the light of day rarely shines. Actually, the action by Synod is a mercy. Neither the committee nor General Synod understands why we struggle to get our people to give. Guilt manipulation in the name of denominational loyalty does not work. People give when a great vision is put before them. Somewhere in the Bible we read, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29.18). Now, I am very aware the word “vision” refers to Scripture. Indeed, this makes the point. Are the congregants of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church being challenged with a Scriptural-based and God-exalting vision for Christ and His church which seizes the heart, inspires the soul, and loosens the wallet for a God-honoring goal which is so great it is bound for failure if God is not in it? All we seem to do is chide our folks for not financing our bureaucratic agencies in the manner to which they want to become accustomed.
Special Committee to Produce a Directory of Private/Family Worship
Another year was given to do this.
Why? Why are we doing this? Why do we need to slay more trees for paper for new books and study papers on this subject? Why not Google or visit the local Christian bookstore? Here is the best question: What do pastors do?
Special Synod Committee to Study Homosexual Orientation
Outstanding work was done by this committee. The “Position Statement on Human Sexuality” was adopted along with the committee’s “A Brief Explanation of the Statement” as a footnote (see https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1k9DpIpenDfxzQaU--6PFad5f8jz-Mdcu).
The position statement is excellent, and the exegesis is no less excellent.
Special Committee to Review Complaint/Appeal
This is a protracted issue involving a disciplinary action by (old) First Presbytery concerning Rev. Scott Robar. This has turned into a complex mess because so many things have been mishandled. The latest was the losing of Robar’s appeal to Synod last year. A special commission has been appointed to deal with the matter.
Perhaps this commission can figure out how to read and calculate the sequence of procedures in our antiquated Book of Discipline which is not a flowchart. If not, in a couple of years, I feel sure a North Carolina judge can help us in our reading and calculating sequence, and especially in writing a large check.
Committee on Inter-Church relations
In the name of sweet church relationships, why do we inflict such agonizing pain on ourselves. Why insist on hearing from our cousins in NAPARC? Do we not have an official meeting of NAPARC yearly? Interestingly, we are keen on hearing from our cousins in NAPARC, but we ignore our daughters in Mexico and Pakistan. When was the last time a delegate from Mexico or Pakistan spoke to a meeting of General Synod?
Years ago, I voted for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to join NAPARC. At the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do. Today, I think I must have left my sane-pills at home. What does NAPARC do? Why are we in NAPARC? I know why NAPARC was founded. When he returned to Jackson, MS, Dr. Morton Smith took about 20 minutes of our Systematic Theology class to tell us. Nevertheless, what does NAPARC do now that we should spend time to hear from our cousins, and we should send delegates to inflict the same pain on them?
Now, give me a reason to spend my time, and I am with you. Actually, I think General Synod should be longer. Instead of reports and greetings, I think there should be some 2 Chronicles 7.14 time with us claiming these words of God: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven. . . .” In 45 meetings of General Synod, I have never seen such a thing done. Silly me! There are reports to be heard and motions to be made!
Theological and Social Concerns
Once again, we are studying the office of deacon. Honestly, many have never been comfortable with what is or isn’t a deacon. Our vows of congregational obedience are problematic for many. Dr. Mark Ross brought reason and direction to the debate when he argued in favor of the committee’s recommendation to change the vows based on the nature of the office as interpreted by our Standards. He also added that a change will be helpful for those members of General Synod who object to women deacons on the grounds that placing women in the diaconate as the office is now framed places them in a position of authority over men in the local congregation.
Committee on Worship
We have now approved the Book of Psalms for Worship and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal to be added to our “Recommended Psalters and Hymnals” to be published on Synod’s website and to be ignored by many of us.
Before I comment, let me say I am a traditionalist in worship style, a lover of singing the Psalms and traditional hymns, and one who finds most contemporary Christian music and worship styles painful. Brothers and sisters, we are double-minded here. We say one thing and often practice another. And what does it mean when someone says, “We’re going to start a contemporary service”? It means he going to find a guitar, a set of drums, and his version of the “Dixie Chicks” to lead the singing of Christian radio music badly — very badly.
Where I find this divide the most acute is in our church planting. The perception of many is that church planting is being pushed along by those who have a vision for “church” as “contemporary.”
William Dunlap Orphanage
If only all our ministries were administered this well. I know the benefits of this ministry through the Collins Children Home in Seneca, SC, which is about 5 or 6 miles from where I live.
I have a friend in the PCA who describes the relationship between the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine College and Seminary as a love-hate relationship. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is unable to do the things necessary to reform Erskine but is also unwilling to let the institution go. Others have referred to the relationship as symbiotic; however, the relationship is not beneficial to either the church or the college. It is a parasitic relationship which is killing both. The relationship is also a crazy-maker. That is, it makes us crazy.
At the 2018 meeting of Synod, the following motion was made and passed: “That the President of the Erskine Alumni Association as an ex-officio member of Erskine College and Seminary’s Board of Trustees be removed from Synod’s Manual of Authorities and Duties (p.45)” (Minutes, p. 510). This year, the following two motions were made and passed: (1) “That Synod reinstate the Alumni President’s position as an advisory, non-voting member of the Board of Trustees,” and (2) “That, in the interest of consistency with all other boards of the church, and in compliance with SACS, Synod make the Moderator’s position on the Board of Trustee as advisory, non-voting member”(https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1k9DpIpenDfxzQaU--6PFad5f8jz-Mdcu).
As I said before, Erskine issues make us crazy. Last year the motion to remove the alumni president from the Erskine board was made with the knowledge of and approval by President Gustafson. Standing near him, I heard him say, “This needs to be done.” Remember the motion was then passed overwhelmingly. Now, a year later, the board asks General Synod to reverse itself and reinstate the alumni president, and, then, in the name of consistency and compliance to SACS, to remove the Moderator of the General Synod from the board as a voting member and give him the status of “advisory, non-voting.”
Who says we are not crazy? How does one know when he is an Associate Reformed Presbyterian? The answer: when the above makes perfect sense.
There is a difference between the alumni president and the Moderator of General Synod. The Moderator is the chief officer of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church which owns Erskine. “Consistency” is a red herring. I have been in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for nearly 50 years, and the Moderator has always served on the Erskine board as a voting member. I can safely say there is no living person in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church who can remember when the Moderator was not a voting member of the Erskine board. It takes genius to come up with such nonsense. It is pure political hokum.
Well, it has been a while sense we have seen the SACS boogieman brought out to frighten the children of General Synod. The folks at SACS do not give a good tittle whether the Moderator serves on or votes on the Erskine board. As I said, the Moderator has served on the board for more than 50 years with voting status. However, there is something the folks at SACS care about. They care about the $1,708,490 deficit Erskine ran last year.
In the last audit, the warning from SACS was do not make more than a 5% draw from the endowment. Well, here is what has been done. In preparing the budget for this year, a 7% draw was made on the endowment (that is, a 7% draw on an endowment of about $42 million is about $2.94 million). At the end of the year, how is a deficit of $1.7 million resolved? There are only three possibilities: a very large gift; a bank loan; or another draw on the endowment. If there was a gift, we would have heard about it. Money from a bank is possible because there is a revolving line of credit; however, I doubt if the credit line is large enough to absorb the whole deficit. The horn-of-plenty is the endowment. This means the actual endowment draw is well over 7%. Now, add this: the Annual Fund failed to reach its goal by $500,000 and the reported earning on investments was about -7%. And this during an up-market!?! So, when do the auditors from SACS return for a peek? And what do we call that day? Doomsday?
So, what is going on? President Gustafson is attempting to find a way to pay the salaries of a shrinking and less than stellar faculty and a growing athletic staff of coaches-and-more-coaches. My sources tell me of the 300+ expected freshmen this fall, only about 40 are non-athletes. Perhaps, Dr. Gustafson should entertain the possibility of getting rid of the entire academic staff; it is not needed and a waste of resources for the athletic programs. The coaches can be paid extra for teaching the academic subjects — like in high school.
In his recent meeting with the alumni in Columbia, President Gustafson announced the need for a new dorm. There is no room for the female students who are being pushed off-campus by the overwhelming number of male athletes — 135 football players and 100 baseball players this fall. But how on earth is a new dorm to be funded? Now, remember the bill for the renovations to Carnegie during the Carson years has yet to be repaid.
To make matters worse, the alumni association is up in arms. As I was told, they do not trust President Gustafson or Paul Bell, the director of the Erskine Alumni Association — and neither do I. At this time, the alums are investigating the formation of an independent association, and my sources tell me it is going to happen. Well, we shall see, but I am not going to bet against them. What will this mean for Erskine? I do not know! This is a field I have never seen plowed.
The situation at Erskine is like going to a dance and finding out all the all girls look like Olive Oil. What a nightmare! One of the members of the Facebook alums described Erskine as “Lost in space.” Either metaphor works.
Well, was there a bright spot in the Erskine report? Yes! The seminary ended the year $28,247 in the black.
Board of Benefits
Since the retirement of Ed Hogan as the Director of Central Services, the retirement fund for our ministers has not had the best leadership. Thankfully, Roger Wiles is giving competent leadership, and he is not afraid to deliver bad news, offer corrections and alternatives, and change personnel.
The retirement fund was greatly impacted by the “Great Recession” of 2008 and 2009. The fall of the market and the lack of timely management of the assets turned an advancing program south (see Index 34: Board of Benefits, “History of Benefit and Contribution Rates,” (https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1k9DpIpenDfxzQaU--6PFad5f8jz-Mdcu).
I served on the Moderator’s Committee on Benefits in 2013. When I asked how often the fund was checked, I was astounded to hear the representative from the board say they were obliged to check it twice a year. After that, Synod was informed if the plan the Board of Benefits was presenting was not adopted the Retirement Fund would be underwater by $14,000,000 by 2019. Well, we adopted the plan, absorbed the pain of reduction in benefits while increasing larger contributions, and are underwater $13,200,000, which means 20% of our active ministers will be without retirement coverage if drastic measures are not taken immediately.
What happened? We are in the midst of the “Trump bump” in the market, which is one of the greatest “bull markets” ever. Well, when the actuary makes a mistake, financial pain follows. The questions now are two: (1) how do we re-capitalize the retirement fund? and (2) do we turn to an alternate plan?
As Rev. Andy Putnam pointed out, we may be on the verge of a “fire-sale.” A plan has to be put together whereby the retirements of those presently retired are protected and the contributions of those presently serving are compensated. The implications to fix this are drastic. What happens if we have to redirect the funds of our boards to the Retirement Fund? What happens if we have to sell one of our hard assets (and our hard assets are the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Center, Bonclarken, Dunlap, and Erskine College and Seminary)? What happens if we have to redirect the DMF for a protracted period? Obviously, all the issues involving the Retirement Fund are going to be painful. And, if we do not know how to fix this mess, there is a Federal judge who does.
Time was bought by the passing of the following motion: “That all matters regarding the Board of Benefits Report concerning the Retirement Plan be referred to a ‘blue ribbon’ committee appointed by the Moderator made up of six members (with the Vice Moderator as a member and Chairman) (1) to investigate and prepare an independent report on all matters relating to the ministers’ retirement plan, (2) to work in cooperation with the Special Committee on DMF spending, (3) to develop a plan for the recapitalization of the Retirement Plan and offer alternative options, and (4) to report back to the next meeting of the General Synod.”
Since Synod, I have received a number of phone calls regarding our retirement plan. The question asked was: “Do we have to participate in the retirement plan?” According to the directives of Synod and our presbyteries, the answer is Yes. The next question was: “What would happen if we chose to do something else?” My answer: “Nothing! You will be fussed at about denominational loyalty; however, at the end of the day, you will not be thrown out of your presbytery, and you can do what you want.”
The most controversial matter was an issue regarding the resignation of a missionary. The resignation was disputed by members of First Presbytery. They contended First Presbytery has not dissolved the call of the individual involved.
There is a hard question which needs to be asked of our office of World Witness: what is World Witness doing to advance the footprint of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, our missionary endeavors advanced the footprint of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church by planting, discipling, and growing the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of Mexico and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of Pakistan. Where are such efforts today? Since 1972 when I became an Associate Reformed Presbyterian, I have not seen the footprint of our our denomination advanced by our office of World Witness.
What I have seen is the Office of World Witness become our denominational parachurch. We support others; we do not advance the footprint of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Let me repeat: World Witness has become something like a parachurch organization. It is to be fed; it does not advance the footprint of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
The new editor of The Quarterly, our adult Sunday School magazine, is Dr. Ian Dugid, who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This is a good thing; however, it is also a sad thing, for there was no one in Due West, at the college or seminary, found for this job.
Outreach North America
What does Outreach North America do?
In the RPCNA, the director of their home missions is an unpaid volunteer who is the pastor of a congregation. In the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church our director of ONA is paid $167,000 and attends a Baptist church. In the RPCNA, their denomination budget for church planting is less than $300,000 for everything. In the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, we budgeted $537,000 to ONA this year. Both the RPCNA and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church have the same number of active church plants. In the RPCNA, public worship involves singing the psalms exclusively and a cappella (and, according to my sources, this is happily embraced by their young people). In the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, public worship style is a matter of contention.
Once again, why do we need ONA? Church planting is the responsibility of our presbyteries. If our presbyteries are not willing to do the work of church planting, throwing money at a denominational bureaucratic agency is not the solution. It is a waste of precious resources. And, in the case of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, it is the breeding ground for unproductive and protracted conflict.
One, we are to study whether Freemasonry is compatible with being an Associate Reformed Presbyterian. As a good friend pointed out, Masonry is similar to Rotary but the vows are secret. He continued, “A better question is whether being a member of the Democrat Party is compatible with being an Associate Reformed Presbyterian. With the views we affirm on abortion and homosexuality, those views would preclude membership in the Democrat Party.” Now, that is insightful. I think this is a better question to study.
Two, voted not to create a position of “Assistant Pastor.” The main difference between an Associate Pastor and an Assistant Pastor is this: an Associate Pastor is called by the congregation and an Assistant Pastor is hired by the Session.
Three, the Moderator is directed to write a letter to the members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the President, and the Canadian counterparts reminding them of the sacredness of life and also reminding them they will give account of their actions before the Lord Jesus Christ. Who can speak evil of this? However, it is a waste of paper.
Election of Moderator and Vice Moderator
The present Vice Moderator Rob Roy McGregor III was elected Moderator by acclamation. His Vice Moderator is Rev. Rob Patrick.
I really enjoyed the ax-throwing excursion. It was a lot of fun. Some of the young men were Associate Reformed Presbyterians and some were Reformed Presbyterians. All of them (some ex-athletes) were bested by the geeky 20-year-old son of an Associate Reformed Presbyterian minister. Righteous!
Synod was not much fun. I do not think our delegates understood the gravity of the issues.
In an extended conversation, I was asked: “Aren’t you praying for God’s blessing on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church?” I did not know how to answer. I am fearful of asking God to bless what He is judging with withering. A sense of repentance and of changing of direction I do not see.
Let’s go ax-throwing!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson