News from the Executive Presbyter/Stated Clerk
When the Form of Government was updated in 2011, the responsibilities of the four councils of the church were listed under an interpretation of the three notes of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition from the Scots Confession:
· Provide that the Word of God may be truly preached and heard
· Provide that the Sacraments may be rightly administered and received
· Nurture a covenant community of disciples of Christ
The latter note is often listed as “ecclesiastical discipline rightly administered.”
One of the acts of nurture/discipline given to the session is “reviewing the roll of active members at least annually and counseling with those who have neglected the responsibilities of membership” (G-3.0201c). Is it fair to say that we hear the first part of this responsibility – review the active membership roll annually – but miss the second half – counsel with those who have neglected the responsibility of membership? In a congregation I served, when potentially removing someone from the active members roll was being considered, a question would come up almost immediately: are they contributing financially to the church? The task of reviewing the membership roll was seen as a financial issue, as it ultimately related to the amount of per capita apportionment paid to the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly.
That is an important consideration, but it is not the only consideration. I think the most important consideration begins with this question: “Are we helping this member bear witness to God’s love and grace and be involved responsibly in the ministry of Christ’s Church?” That is the definition of a faithful member in G-1.0304.
G-1.0304 goes on to describe involvement in the church that goes far beyond “supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents” (fifth on the list). The list includes:
· proclaiming the good news in word and deed,
· taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation,
· lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support,
· studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life,
· supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents,
· demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church,
· responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others,
· living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life,
· working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment,
· caring for God's creation,
· participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.
This list concludes with a sentence that I believe is one of the more important ones in the Constitution, and is perhaps one that is often overlooked: “reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful.”
If we did that regularly – and the session can see that this happens (and the former Book of Order gave the session this responsibility) – I suspect the task of reviewing the rolls of the congregation would be
much simpler and less time-consuming. We are talking about the first mark of a vital congregation from the Vital Congregations Initiative: Lifelong Discipleship Formation. Are we challenging our members to lifelong discipleship by encouraging them to assess the integrity of their membership in Christ’s church, and explore ways in which that membership can be increased and made more meaningful? Or are we just letting people drift away without counseling with them on their spiritual needs – regardless of whether those needs can best be met within our congregation or elsewhere?
Reviewing the membership rolls is far more than identifying a list of people that might be removed from the active members roll and reducing their per capita hit. Reviewing the rolls is a form of ecclesiastical discipline that should begin with reaching out to members and counseling with them about their level of involvement in Christ’s church. It means extending pastoral care to them with the intent of restoring them to more meaningful membership. When the process for reviewing the rolls was spelled out in the Form of Government in the past, it envisioned a process that could take up to two years to complete:
· identification of members who were less than active in the life of the congregation
· extending pastoral care with the intent of “reactivating” the member
· after one year, notice could be given that the member would be removed from the active members roll if their participation in the congregation did not increase.
· Pastoral care continues to be given with the intent of encouraging active participation
· If after another year the situation has not improved, the session may (not “shall”) remove the member from the active roll.
[NOTE: the process for members who moved away envisioned one year to complete: identification of member, reaching out with encouragement to transfer to a church in their new community, with suggestions of nearby Presbyterian congregations, and removal after one year if a transfer had not been completed.]
That’s the process of “spring cleaning” as it has been envisioned over the years. Again, it is a form of ecclesiastical discipline. While the matter is not defined in the Rules of Discipline, the spirit in which it ought to be done is addressed in the Preamble to the Rules:
the purpose of discipline is to honor God by making clear the significance of membership in the body of Christ; to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community … The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ. (D-1.0101 – D-1.0102)
The great ends of the church include “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” (F-1.0304).
Again, the issue is less “what is this person costing the church?” and more “how can we help this person have their spiritual needs met, whether with us or elsewhere?” May we consider the significance of our membership in the body of Christ, that we may be presented faultless in the day of Christ!
Executive Presbyter / Stated Clerk
Rev. Dr. Dan Williams