A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, August 20, 2020

Beloved of God, have you noticed that we are in a time of great shaking? Protests and counter-protests have been escalating into violence, and efforts to crush them forcefully, whether by troops or gangs or militias or vigilantes, only heighten the chaos. Portland. Seattle. Kenosha. Chicago. Louisville. Atlanta. Washington. And yes, Pittsburgh.

Add to this the waves of pandemic viral spread that have shaken apart the institutions that gather us, from sporting events to conventions to festivals to artistic events to schools to church.

Church order has been dramatically disrupted – something especially painful for Presbyterians who pride themselves on doing everything “decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40) We don’t know what to expect of the future or how to plan for it, as we continue to be tossed capriciously by the untamed dragon known as COVID-19.

Congregations yearn to return to normal ways of doing their work but see no way yet to do so. Some have already determined not to convene again until 2021, and Pittsburgh Presbytery has decided that presbytery meetings will be online-only for the remainder of 2020.

We have been shaken to the core.

There’s a whole lot of shaking going on in the Bible. The ungodly shake with terror, shake their heads in scorn or disbelief, or shake their fists in anger. God shakes the nations in judgment. The apostle tells us that God shakes things up so that which cannot be shaken will remain. (Hebrews 12:26-27) Shaking separates the wheat from the chaff.

So what remains unshakable, when so much is being shaken around us and among us? Our Book of Order has maintained a section of historic principles of church order that have remained unshakable for hundreds of years. (F-3.01) These remain as bedrocks of our life together:

  • Freedom of conscience for each person
  • The right of churches to establish and enforce their own order
  • The inseparability of truthfulness, trustworthiness, and goodness
  • The obligation to bear with one another despite our differences
  • Leadership by election rather than appointment or seizure
  • Church authority as a moral rather than coercive force
  • The church’s right and mandate to exercise discipline when its members err

Many other principles of government have been added to these from time to time, but these have proven consistent and unshakable for as long as there have been Presbyterians. Whatever shaking we may yet endure, these foundational commitments will remain firm.

So what might be shaken out from the church in this season of disruption?

  • Structural racism
  • Centralized institutional governance
  • Inward focus on preserving church life as we know and like it
  • Ability of each congregation to maintain its own buildings, programs, staff, and mission
    • Sharing buildings may become necessary
    • Sharing ministries and staffing may add vitality to our witness

Presbyterians are planners. Every year at this time, we craft and launch new programs for the academic year. Some pastors outline their sermons for the months to come. But suddenly we find ourselves unable to predict what our situation will look like in the near or long term. Who knows when and how we will be able to gather again? How many of our people will come back to church after an extended hiatus from attending worship?

Jesus tells his followers not to worry about how to respond when things go in unanticipated, distressing directions. In that moment, the Holy Spirit will give you what you need, he assures them. (Mark 13:11) Ministry in Jesus’ name requires the capacity to improvise – not to wing it, but to draw in that moment from the wells of the Spirit’s gifts.

As a jazz pianist, I practice an art form that requires of me the capacity for musical improvisation. I am constantly exploring new chord progressions and melodic turns while I am playing. As creative as those twists may be, I build them around a core set of anchors that constitute the skeleton of the song. The ability to improvise well depends on my knowledge of and commitment to the song’s foundational structure.

And so it is with the church. Learning and enacting new ways of life and mission when we have no script requires us to be ready to risk new ways of living and witnessing, with the help of God’s Spirit. Doing that well requires that we remain securely anchored in our foundation. Our Presbyterian forebears have bequeathed to us trustworthy foundational anchors (see the first bulleted list above). Yet as sure and abiding as they are, they are not the foundation itself – “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11)

Yours in following Jesus,

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