Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Proposed Form of Government

As I was looking over the recommendations for changes in the Form of Government section of our Book of Order, I was struck initially by this paragraph:
3.0202 Governed by Presbyters

This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling and teaching elders, also called elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Teaching elders, also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament, shall be committed in all their work to equipping the people of God for their ministry and witness.
I was ordained as a Ruling Elder in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and this is a welcome recognition of the equal nature of what the PC(USA) calls "Elders" and "Ministers of Word and Sacrament". It seemed to me at the time that, by dropping the ruling and teaching designations, it created an implicit hierarchy of presbyters in the church where there had been not only parity of numbers in the various councils from Session to General Assembly, but parity in the value of each office. It's good to see the names reflect that.

As I read further, I saw a significant change in how members are defined, and thus how numbers are reported:
G-1.04 Categories of Membership

The membership of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) includes baptized members, active members, and affiliate members.
The category of inactive member is not on this list. In addition, there seems to be no clear path to remove a member who has become inactive or moved away, and further has not responded to contacts and counseling. This is not a punitive sort of thing, nor is it excommunication (impossible, of course, in a denomination that has open communion).

I should make it clear that people whose health prevents them from active participation are not "inactive" to my way of thinking. In the same way, family members who have moved away from the area, but choose to maintain their membership in their parent's congregation are certainly not "inactive", even if they come only once a year for a visit. When the Congregational Care Committee (or whatever it is called in other congregations) tries to make contact, they can often determine what the situation is. Sometimes it is an easy call. Other times, when multiple attempts to contact the person fail, placing them on the inactive roll serves to "hold their place" pending a clarification of their intentions.

I should note that the new proposal does make it incumbent on the Session to review annually the active roll and counsel with "those who have neglected the responsibilities of membership". It just does not provide a framework for dealing with those who choose not to respond over a period of years.

One practical effect of not having a separate inactive category is to retain members on the active roll who neither participate in the life of the congregation nor provide financial support, yet are counted when it comes time to transmit the per capita assessments up the denominational ladder.

All-in-all, though, simplifying the Book of Order is a worthy goal, and what I have read so far is a good rough draft. I think the section on membership needs a lot more work.

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