Friday, December 17, 2004

Partnership for good, partnership for God, Part 1

Part 1: Base hits and foul balls

Step up to homeplate, Presbyterians, it's your turn at bat in the highstakes game of mission.

Mission no longer belongs to the pros. Sure, we still have the greats, the established mission superstars who have a lot to teach us. But they're mainly on the sidelines, and the walk-on league is the new major league.

The ballpark gates are wide open. Everyone's a free agent. Any one of us with a yen for doing good can find ourselves wearing a team shirt and waving a bat at homeplate, wondering just how well we'll hit that ball.

Our biggest surprise is that the pitcher is slinging hardball, pitched with a curve at 130 mph. No slow ball in this game. And so we wonder: Will we get a base hit? Foul the ball? Strike out?
Individuals, congregations and presbyteries are stepping into major-league missional roles and finding steep learning curves. Into that situation a new stream of material is beginning to be developed that recognizes this new playing field - and offers truly helpful training.
In a sense we're discovering that mission is not quite as easy as it looks, just like driving or cooking or flying. The pros have made it look easy, and so we unabashedly step up to plate only to find the game a bit tougher than we expected.

Hmm. In the back of our minds a little voice pleads for some mentoring in this wild game. Maybe, we admit, there is some collective wisdom somewhere, some manual it just might be handy to learn from.

Welcome to mission in the 21st Century, the new team sport.

The Presbyterian Church has seen this trend coming and has been thinking a lot about partnership. Not just its own partnerships, but also all these new networks and partnerships and joint ventures that pew-level congregations are kicking up.

Surprise! - the PCUSA has found a genuinely helpful voice, offering up insights borne of 200 years of mission involvement around the world.

The 215th General Assembly (2003) presented the church with a paper affirming that “Presbyterians Do Mission in Partnership.” You can read that paper online and can be ordered free in printed form as well.

This month the PCUSA has come up with practical-level guidelines on healthy mission partnerships - based on the GA-approved paper - that I would commend to you. These guidelines have a ponderous name -- "General Guidelines for International Partnerships Between PC(USA) Congregations, Presbyteries and Synods and International Church Governing Bodies and Institutions."

The Guidelines are not yet posted on the PCUSA Website, so I'm presenting portions of that document now for your benefit.
Within the guidelines are some valuable insights that churches and presbyteries, frankly, need to learn to do well if we want to hit base hits and avoid foul balls. Those foul balls are the all-too-easy mistakes we can make in mission that dishonor Christ and disable the cause of Christ.
This article will present one part of the guidelines, and in a subsequent article I will continue with other parts.

As we go about joining with other Christians in mission and ministry, the Guidelines suggest, we are all called to seek these:
  • To answer God’s call in mission, not serve our own needs by ‘doing good;”
  • Opportunities for initiatives in mission by any partner, not one-sided efforts;
  • Mutual respect, not paternalism;
  • To be independent (self-propagating, self-supporting, self-governing) church partners with a mission vision, not dependent churches focused on survival;
  • Interdependent partnerships that are of benefit to all partners, not one-sided dependent relationships;
  • Mutuality, not one-way mission;
  • Opportunities and recognition for “the least of these,” not exploitation to the benefit of the more powerful;
  • A growing web of partnerships, not exclusive or private relationships;
  • To meet the holistic needs of churches and people(s), not serve narrow agendas;
  • Open dialogue, prophetic challenge and mediation of differences, not coercive or manipulative imposition of solutions;
  • To honor the integrity of the church context, structures and social dynamics, not to subsidize another’s central church life nor exert undue pressure to change or conform.
The paper reminds us that "All international partnerships are called to seek the day when Christ’s church in all its diversity may show its unity for the sake of the gospel, not promoting or being content with division in Christ’s Body."

These 12 points, each paired with their "foul ball" opposites, each deserve further discussion. But you can do that on your own.
I trust your mission team to have a fruitful discussion asking what each statement means, and whether you have been hitting base hits or foul balls. Now is always a good time to improve your game, even mid-game. Please take this as a coach's advice. Players that excell receive coaching with humility and a teachable heart.
Coming up - Part 2: Forming a winning team

-- Dave Hackett

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Monday, December 06, 2004

Guest Blog: The importance of discerning ramifications

This letter, first shared privately with the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity, has a new perspective on matters before the Task Force that deserves broader sharing.

It asks the Task Force to give itself a new goal: Providing the PCUSA with the information, insights and tools for making crucial decisions before us. And it asks the Task Force to consider the implications of our decisions on ecumenical partners and on our ability to expand ethnic diversity in our church.

With permission, I am putting the letter in its entirety in this blog. I welcome reflection by readers on how our international church partners can be given voice to assist us in considering the weighty theological questions before the PCUSA.

-- Dave Hackett

Here is the letter from Harold Kurtz to the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church:

Dear Theological Task Force Friends:

I have been following your work as a Task Force and I have been impressed with the quality of the materials that you have been generating over these months. They have been instructive for many of us as we wrestle in our own hearts and minds with the issues confronting our denomination.

You are now embarked upon what I assume we would agree is the most difficult and controversial issue confronting our denomination—whether or not to ordain avowed, practicing homosexuals into leadership positions which means approving homosexual practice as an acceptable Biblical lifestyle.

It is often said that we Presbyterians make good decisions when we are presented with all of the facts. I assume that most of us do not believe you will be able to come up with a definitive recommendation about how we should settle this issue.

But most of us do believe that among other things you will present the denomination with clear statements about the implications of approving or not approving such an action.

In the interest of having all things out in the open so that we might have all the facts for decision making, I would urge you to seek out possible implications in two areas:

  1. First of all, what would approval of the ordination of practicing homosexuals do to our ecumenical relations?
  2. Secondly, what would it do to our desire and commitment to ethnic diversity within the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

Implications on ecumenical relations

First of all, what would such an action do to our ecumenical relations both with regard to what we might call our traditional sister Churches in the Western world of Europe and North America and then our sister churches in the two-thirds world of South American, Africa and Asia.

We have always rightfully prided ourselves on our commitment to ecumenism. Part of that commitment involves taking seriously the opinions of our ecumenical partners.

When I began my journey in Presbyterian mission fifty years ago I received advice that has instructed me through those years and been the central factor in a faith journey with Jesus challenged, expanded and enriched.

I was told during orientation; "You must put aside our normal, western attitude of spiritual, intellectual and theological superiority and listen to and be instructed by the people and sister churches with whom you come in contact."

Of all the advice I received in those days, this was the most profound and the most life transforming. This advice given by the Church to her missionaries in those days must now be heeded by that mother Church in wrestling with this critical issue.

In pondering this and talking to denominational leadership, I have been cautioned against our asking for or seeking through denominational channels an official response from our ecumenical partners. Such a request would throw our agenda into the courts of their Churches and cause them undue turmoil over something that is not their priority as well as possibly causing strain in our relationship over something still in the discussion stage. In other words, we would be imposing our cultural agenda on them.

However, we do need their input on what they believe the Bible and tradition says about homosexual involvement as an alternative life style and therefore what it might do to our relationship.

Such information can be obtained in a non-threatening, non-disturbing manner. We have two people to whom we have given official responsibility for helping to interpret the world Church to us—Dr. Marian McClure as director of the Worldwide Ministries Division and Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick who is the Stated Clerk and also our chief ecumenical officer. They know our ecumenical partners and the world Church.

They need to be asked to give their opinion, their best judgment call. It should be subject to correction, in an on-the-record statement so if a sister community has an objection that objection could be freely received and noted. I strongly believe that for the sake of all of our decision making, Cliff Kirkpatrick and Marian McClure should be asked very specifically their opinion about what reaction we could expect from our most critical and influential sister churches.

Among our historical ecumenical partners where there might be problems, I immediately think of the Roman Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and other members of the Orthodox family such as Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, and Ethiopian, and the World Anglican Communion.

Those communions have read the Bible far longer than we have and their cultures are much closer to the culture of the New Testament. That cultural framework plays a critical role in how we interpret the scriptures as well as tradition. At least we ought to be informed by them and perhaps others as well.

We should also be given information on the possible response of our two-thirds sister churches many of whom are now in membership larger than the PCUSA.

Among those that come to my mind as significant are sister churches in Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, India, Thailand, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba.

Certainly others could be included and, of course, a combining of impressions from different parts of the world. But these are part of our family, our ecumenical relations. We ask them for opinions on many matters. We ought also to be open and honest about how they might feel and be instructed in appropriate ways by their reading of scriptures.

Implications on ethnic diversity

The PCUSA as a denomination that has committed itself to being ethnically diverse. We have taken action at General Assemblies to deliberately focus on increasing our diversity and in practical ways have supported a variety of immigrant congregations within the US as well as supported African American and Native American initiatives. We can point to success in many places.

These communions need to be asked about how their ethnic communities would react to a decision of our denomination to approve of the lifestyle and ordaination of avowed, practicing homosexuals. This should be on the record for all of us to know as we deliberate.

I believe it is the task forces’ responsibility to provide us with that information as best they can.

Among the prominent immigrant communities I think of are Korean, Brazilian, Taiwanese, Arab, African, Southeast Asian, Pakistani, and Indian.

The National Ministries Division can be a resource in this fact-finding effort since they have ties with many of these groups and could add to the list.

You as a Task Force have been given great responsibility. I know from public comments that you have cautioned the PCUSA that we can’t expect you to be the answer for all of our problems. Finally, that responsibility of decision-making resides with us as members of this particular communion of faith.

But, as you have said in your deliberations and have already done in certain areas, you can provide us with the information, insights and tools for making our decisions.

As we make decisions with reference to the homosexual lifestyle, we need from you open, honest, forthright information about how the wider family of Christians feel and what effect particular decisions might have on our relationships.

I urge you to provide us with this information that we may be prepared for the decision making process that lies ahead.

Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely in Christ, Harold E. Kurtz (Sr Associate, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship)