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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Place at the Table, Part One
June 30, 2016

I was privileged to sit next to former Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Clifton Kirkpatrick on the first leg of my flight home from General Assembly last Saturday. In reflecting on General Assembly’s historic actions to name leaders that broke all previous molds (see my final “Portland Post”), he told me that our current pattern of electing new commissioners to each General Assembly is actually only a few decades old. For most of our history, General Assembly commissioners – and by extension, its leaders – came primarily from a small pool of people who already were established church leaders. It was not unusual for a presbytery to send the same commissioner repeatedly to General Assembly, because he (and it was all men back then) was a known, proven quantity.

Gradually this pattern was challenged and eventually changed over the third quarter of the 20th century, parallel to women becoming eligible for ordination (first as elders, then also as ministers). General Assembly as an “old boys’ club” eventually became a thing of the past. The same became true for presbyteries and local church sessions, with rotation and representative diversity of officers becoming a Book of Order mandate. Gradually we came to understand that since all members of the Body of Christ have spiritual gifts to benefit the rest (1 Corinthians 12:7), there is a place at the leadership table for many more than we had imagined. Through this seemingly mundane practice of mandated rotation, we opened up possibilities for new leadership to emerge, and for the church thereby to be more receptive to ongoing reform by the Holy Spirit.

Some have bemoaned that our church today doesn’t have a stable of high profile hero-leaders like it did in past generations. This is no doubt related to mandated rotation and representation. Does this mean we have fewer real leaders, or more?

If rotation of leaders becomes an end in itself, and we select people for leadership only on the basis of their eligibility and availability, we undermine the church’s cultivation of true leaders. All who have served on a Nominating Committee at congregation or presbytery levels know how tempting it can be to fill leadership slots simply by finding breathing bodies willing to sign on. Another way that church leadership is weakened is by the church adopting the notion that every member ought to have a turn in a leadership chair, as though being on session or being a commissioner to presbytery or general assembly is a “right” that all members equally possess.

But when rotation is engaged as a challenge to ongoing disciplined discernment of which new people the Spirit is raising up to lead the church, and we thereby identify new men and women who are truly gifted for church leadership, the church’s leadership is strengthened. The question that nominating committees need to keep asking is not, “Who is willing to serve?” Rather, “Who is the Spirit raising up as new leaders for the church?”

Everyone who trusts in Jesus as Savior has a place at the Lord’s Table. No exceptions. Everyone has a ministry gift. No exceptions. But not everyone is equipped to lead. Yet, more are equipped to lead than we currently know. And sometimes that means we get surprised by who God raises up. It may be an African-American Stated Clerk for a denomination that is just five percent African-American (according to the Pew Research Center). Or it may take the form of two female Co-Moderators of the General Assembly in a church that has never before had two women in its moderatorial office. It may also mean that some of the usual suspects will be relocated from their established leadership chairs into new places of ministry. 

None of us deserves a seat at the leadership table. Yet the Lord raises up some of us to fill those roles, and sometimes God chooses the least likely as leaders. People such as Moses the tongue-tied as the great lawgiver. People such as the virgin Mary to bear the Messiah. People such as Paul, the early Christians’ greatest enemy, as one of their top leaders. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

What gifts has the Lord given you to offer to the church? Might the Spirit be calling you to serve in presbytery leadership? This summer our presbytery Nominating Committee is considering whom to nominate for service on our various leadership teams, as well as for the office of presbytery Moderator. If you believe the Lord may be calling you or someone you know to serve in presbytery leadership, please let us know by way of email to Cathy Nelson.

Yours in the Spirit’s calling,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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