Without Undue Delay

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, May 6, 2021

Our “Directory for Worship” instructs that children’s baptism should be administered “without undue haste or undue delay.” (Book of Order W-3.0403) Such a directive is quintessentially Presbyterian. We always seek the middle ground – something I pointed out in last week’s letter.

The Easter season lectionary readings include several baptism stories. Last Sunday we encountered the Ethiopian eunuch asking Philip to baptize him immediately after he affirmed his faith in Jesus. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) Next Sunday’s texts include Peter’s rhetorical question concerning the household of Cornelius that had just received Christ, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” In both cases, the request for baptism was granted, “without undue delay.” They did it (gasp!) without session approval – and Peter got called on the carpet for doing so.

This became the pattern of the early Christian community. Those who requested baptism had professed faith in Jesus – what more was needed? Nothing. Instruction on baptism’s meaning followed, rather than preceded their baptism.

Presbyterians are notoriously slow in making church decisions. A hurried decision is likely to be a bad one. So we believe. And yet…

There are times when an expeditious decision is far preferable to a delayed one. One place where that struggle arises is with the process of finding a new pastor. Traditional Presbyterian wisdom holds that finding a pastor should be a deliberate, unhurried process. But does that always help us? What would our pastoral call process look like if it proceeded not only “without undue haste,” but also “without undue delay?”

During the pandemic we have seen a higher rate of pastoral transitions than ever before. 46 of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s 130 congregations have undergone pastoral changes since COVID broke out. Are we able to navigate these transitions in a way that benefits, rather than damages, our ministries? Can we move into our next phase of life and ministry without undue delay?

Russ Crabtree, whose work many of us know through his Holy Cow! mission study process, wrote a book entitled Transition Apparitions: Why Much of What We Know about Pastoral Transitions Is Wrong (Magi Press, 2015). In it he cites the findings from 125,000 church member interviews to argue that our search process for pastors typically takes way too long. (He acknowledges that in some situations a longer transition is preferable, but the exceptions prove the rule.) Survey evidence indicates that church attendance, giving, and vitality drop significantly after six months without a pastor. In our denomination, a typical pastor search process lasts 12-18 months. In one church I attended, the process took three years, and the church never recovered from the losses it suffered during that season.

I cite pastoral changes as one evidence of the ponderousness with which our beloved institution moves. One of the things in our church that needs to change post-pandemic is our ability to flex. We’ve had to practice flexibility in new ways over the past year, as we have considered if, when, and to what extent to close – then the same to reopen – our sanctuaries for worship. These conversations have been traumatic in some of our congregations. Moving quickly is hard enough; adding to it all the political layers that complicate these decisions has made it even harder.

In my reading, two words have repeatedly arisen as descriptors of the post-pandemic church that will thrive – nimble, agile. A vital post-pandemic church will be able to operate like jazz, improvisationally, and not be bound to the ways things have always been done.

Presbyterians prize their orderliness, and justifiably so. Our allergy to disorder has proven to be a true “superpower” that has helped make us a “long haul” community. But at this unprecedented time, a different superpower will be needed. We will need to develop agility to act “without undue delay” just as well as we have proven ourselves rock stars at acting “without undue haste.”

This will require us to make some changes to our manuals and bylaws. It may lead to us changing our Book of Order. We must prayerfully ask ourselves what shifts in our modus operandi are necessary if we are to become the kind of church that can be more nimbly responsive to the movement of the Spirit. Such flexibility will be more necessary than ever in the days that lie ahead.

Yours in seeking to follow the Spirit,

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