The bi-annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) just came to a close. This is the big meeting where this particular church gathers representatives from across the country and world to make decisions for their organization in terms of polity, theology, ethics, and so forth. It was an often heated and arduous week of debate, prayer, worship, and gatherings of friends. It also marked the first General Assembly I remember in which I was not Presbyterian.
The debate unfolded and witnessed hundreds of people not reaching consensus on crucial issues such as same gender marriage and divestment from organizations directly involved with Israel’s occupation of Palestine. I also saw resentments and frustrations emerge amidst those who could not fully agree on the majority opinion on a given issue.
I am not gong to say that there were specific “sides” but there were clearly two curves that skewed in two different directions. One opposed issues like same gender marriage and the other side was for it. This glosses over the complexity of what was happening from my view but this is the kind of pattern that seemed to be emerging from the outside looking in.
Issues and positions in a church of which I am no longer a member aside, I had to ask myself why the behaviors, language, and decisions that emerged in the Assembly affected me on such a deep level? What does any of this matter to me?
First, I have many friends in the Presbyterian church. Many of these friendships go back for two decades. With each I can find common ground as well as differences. I used to push away those who challenged me by arguing. Now I’ve learned to accept and respect those differences as we each approach each other with tolerance, humility, and love. I cherish my relationships too much to allow disagreements tear them apart.
Second, I have a personal history with the Presbyterian church itself that I realized I still resent. I was a religion major at a Presbyterian affiliated college. I went to Princeton Theological Seminary for not only an M.Div. but also a Th.M. I passed all of my ordination examinations and scored highly on the first try. I was approved by my own presbytery to seek a call for the ministry. I had a high GPA, took challenging courses, and could deliver a damn good sermon. On paper I clearly looked like a candidate called by God for ordination.
But I felt alone.
I never felt much support from my home congregation or presbytery other than checks to help my finances. To be sure I appreciated that help. However, I yearned for my mother church to mentor and know me. I felt like a child who sees support payments but never has a relationship with the parent who writes the check.
I remember feeling ashamed and guilty for envying my colleagues who were invited to preach at their home churches. At my home church I read a Scripture passage once for a “College Homecoming” service after my junior year of seminary. I pushed my ordination process up the hill and had to proactively navigate it nearly on my own. On paper and by the testimony of my friends and colleagues I was going to be a great pastor. But after sheer exhaustion and confusion from my process to be a pastor in the church I had called home, I lost hope and faith and pursued a different career.
Ten years later I tried to suck it up and reboot the process of seeking a call for ministry. I put together a lovely portfolio of all my work past and present. Two months into this and a few emails and meetings later I felt the same thing happening. I was told by three people to talk to someone else about pursuing a call. After 10 years in the work force I found that level of apathy appalling. So I put an end to my pursuit of ministry for good.
I’ve gone through some dramatic changes since that last try at ministry. I got sober, managed a mental illness, got divorced, worked through unemployment, got a new job, found a new expression of my faith, and moved. I worked through a lot of resentments and ate a lot of humble pie to clean up wreckage in my life that I had contributed in making. I have made plenty of apologies and continue to amend my life in ways that are kind, tolerant, and helpful. My past with the Presbyterian church was something I thought I had resolved – until this General Assembly.
The truth is that I still resent the Presbyterian Church not because I think I failed it, but because I still believe through all of the tumult of my own recent past that it failed me. It is a painful reminder that while so many people affirmed that I must be called to ministry, the church in which I had worked so hard to validate that call did all but cancel my check. The fact is that I passed everything and still felt alone.
As I watched the General Assembly unfold now as an outsider I could not help but think that this is about the same I had felt in my relationship with the Presbyterian church as a candidate approved to seek a call. The truth is that I may have never been a Presbyterian at all. I am Orthodox now and probably always have been but just didn’t accept it. It is assuredly not a mistake where I am right now. That is something in which over time I will nurture my acceptance and deal with the resentment towards the PCUSA.
But what about so many others who are going through the same challenges of apathy and total lack of nurture and mentoring right now? What does the process look like for so many bright and young ministers who are called by God to enact positive changes in the lives of others? Is the church setting them up for similar resentments if it is not validating their deep felt concerns and current feelings of being alone? If the Presbyterian church is the body of Christ, then unity is a necessary outcome. Diversity of opinion does not mean the same thing as disunity or chaos. These two provide a balance. The church is a unity-in-diversity.
“The Holy Spirit diversifies what Christ unifies” (Lossky, V. The Image and Likeness of God, p. 178).
I worry for these new ministers seeking basic validation and nurture from their mother church. I worry that they are facing sheer apathy rather than love from their home presbyteries and seminaries. Maybe I shouldn’t worry since I have moved on from the Presbyterian church to a place that did open up its arms and accept me exactly for what I was and am. But my heart breaks for those who the church itself is breaking. This sort of deceptive insidiousness is not how God functions in the midst of people. That kind of work is reserved for an entirely different spiritual entity.
Now more than ever humility and honesty are the beginning of healing. Humility with each other, honesty about who we really are deep inside, and not being afraid to open our vulnerability to each other heal people from spiritual sickness. I saw many young people extend these virtues outward in tremendous bravery during this General Assembly. My prayer is that the older generations will allow God lay waste the demons of pride and privilege in order to usher in a Body that is humble enough to admit it is not the beginning and end of God’s gracious activity in the world.