Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Albany Wisdom

I heard yesterday that Albany Presbytery had decided to close Jermain Memorial Presbyterian Church after some research done by an administrative commission. Now, I don't know whether Jermain Church should or shouldn't be closed, but it was curious to read one of the primary reasons for this action. According to Executive Presbyter Cass Shaw, Jermain Church members were “rude to one another and to their... minister.” Wow! If this is truly a substantial reason for closing a church, then there are a whole lot of congregations that need to start packing things up! No presbytery I've been in has ever backed me to the extent that I could threaten closing the church if the elders didn't treat me nice! Maybe I need to go to Albany Presbytery!

EP Shaw went on to say that “attempts by the commission to change the church’s culture and climate of conflict were not fruitful. The church has not functioned in a healthy way in a long time. The commission believes this is not the kind of witness that should continue, and I agree with its decision.” All I can say here is can we apply this principle for closing churches to some very large churches as well. I've certainly experienced a few good sized churches which are extremely "toxic" to the Gospel message, but then again, large churches have the money, power and prestige to impress Presbytery officials despite being embarrasments to Christ. Plus, what if we applied EP Shaw's criteria to our denomination, which has certainly "not functioned in a healthy way in a long time." I don't think the PCUSA would fare much better with this standard for closing up shop. Or do we give ourselves grace and patience as a denomination in the face of our "climate of conflict," but squash the heck out of small churches who act the same?

Finally EP Shaw explained that the powers that be in Albany Presbytery had “tried to help Jermain’s leaders understand that the church is more than a building, and it does not exist only for itself.” The key question the presbytery sought to raise, she says, is “what does it mean to be a church?” So I say okay, let's shut down all churches that exist primarily for themselves and do not have a good understanding of what it means to be a church! Since even the best churches wrestle with this self-centered focus from time to time, there won't be many churches left. I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther, "He who wants a perfect church clearly wants no church at all."

And while we are on this kick that the church is more than a building and does not exist for itself, is Albany Presbytery going to claim ownership of the building, sell it, and keep the proceeds for itself? If it does, then the Presbytery understanding of church isn't much different than what it accuses Jermain Church members of having. How about giving the proceeds away, say to Habitat for Humanity, or maybe give a generous gift to a church in the same neighborhood that is doing effective ministry? Somehow, I think the building will end up as much (or even more) a focus for the Presbytery as it is for the Jermain congregation.

So, after these comments, it is probably safe to say that I should not pursue any ministry opportunities in Albany Presbytery any time soon. You think?!