You Can’t Pick Your Family
Acting Head of Staff
You Can’t Pick Your Family
“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.”
This phrase was immortalized for me in a Peanuts cartoon given to me in sixth grade by my math teacher, Mrs. Smith. Plot twist: Mrs. Smith also happened to double in my life as Aunt Marian. The same Aunt Marian who happened to be the organist at church. Oh, and did I mention that there was a second-grade teacher in the same school who happened to be my mother? That’s right, my mother and my aunt taught in the same school building.
And yes, it’s true. You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.
Families are a nuanced thing. Some people have amazing families, some people have complicated families, and for some people, family is a source of great pain, loss, and even tragedy. For me, my family of origin is amazing – full stop. But, as I learned at an early age, not everyone’s family was like mine. Family can be messy and complicated. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, something else happens: new people become family. And sometimes, these people are not the people you would ever choose to be family. But that doesn’t matter, you didn’t choose them. Someone else, who is your family, chose to bring someone into the family, and now you’re stuck with them as your family. And then, sometimes, people who were family are no longer family. And then, sometimes, the cycle starts again with new people coming into the family. I haven’t even mentioned what happens when younger family members join the crew, whether through birth, adoption, or marriage. I think I’ve made my point: families are complicated. Important for sure, but complicated. Hold this thought; I’ll come back to it.
This past spring, following the Landscape Study, a small group of people from the Executive Committee and I sat down to review and review the mission and vision statements of the Presbytery, primarily so they could be entered into the Ministry Discernment Profile (the new version of the MIF) for the General Minister. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with mission statements, as I think the process of developing them can be incredibly valuable, but, often, the energy and momentum around them is completely lost the moment after they become official. Going into the process, I knew my goal: keep it as short, simple, and to the point as possible. No fluff, no filler, no unnecessary theological language. The group quickly got around the phrase “assist and support the witness of our congregations and members,” and I took that and ran. My first suggestion was as follows:
Pittsburgh Presbytery exists to assist and support the witness of our congregations and members.
Boom. Simple, concise, and to the point. What wasn’t to love?
Well, without unpacking the whole story for you, here’s what was finally adopted by the Executive Committee:
Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community of Jesus Christ that exists to assist and support the witness of our congregations and members as we actively participate in the mission of the Triune God in the world.
As you can tell, I ultimately lost the debate. While I still love the short version and think it has value, begrudgingly, I can admit that the two phrases added before and after are not just important or helpful but essential.
This week, I will reflect on the first phrase: “Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community…”
As I’ve discussed in this space before, there are two different ways to define a Presbytery: Who it is and what it does. The opening statement defines the nature of our community – one that is called together to share in a covenant relationship with one another. Put another way, Presbyteries, comprised of their congregations and minister members, are a family in a theological sense.
That sounds all well and good, but it’s my observation that everything I mentioned about families earlier also holds for a Presbytery family. The truth is that Presbyteries, according to our Book of Order, aren’t defined by affinity (points of common interest/agreement) but rather by proximity (geographical location). And when you define things by proximity, you will combine into one group of people with a good diversity of understandings and values.
Before I go further, I need to add one caveat: I acknowledge that within our Presbytery, people feel differently about the very nature of church and church association. For some, church is something they self-selected into for any number of reasons, and their sole source of loyalty is to their local congregation. They could care less than one iota about a broader understanding of being a Presbyterian, let alone this idea of a Presbytery. I get that. In doing new member classes for ten years, I found that the people who chose to join the church I served seldom named the fact that we were a Presbyterian church as any part of their reason for joining. They named everything else (geography, family connections, programs, etc.), but the word Presbyterian was seldom mentioned. In short, I acknowledge that this idea that a Presbytery is a covenant community is not uniformly shared even within our own Presbytery.
But, after seventeen years of being a member of this Presbytery, I want to be clear about one thing: I believe, without hesitation, that Pittsburgh Presbytery is who we are not because of our choosing but because of a common calling we’ve received. While this may sound hopelessly idealistic and naïve, let me be clear: I was active in Presbytery life during some of the most tumultuous seasons over the last seventeen years: debates about amendments and the subsequent church dismissals, the threats of and actuality of legal action, and the broken relationships that stemmed from all of it. I once got booed by fellow Presbyters after I spoke on the floor. I found myself on opposite sides of these debates with people I regarded (and still regard) as close friends, and in part because of these disagreements, we now find ourselves in different denominations. And yet still, without hesitation, I affirm that we are called together as a community, not of our choosing but because of the common calling we’ve received.
But the truth is still true and must be acknowledged and named: Pittsburgh Presbytery is a place of vast theological diversity. If you were at the September Presbytery meeting, you heard me talk about the tremendous range that exists just within the bounds of our Presbytery when it comes to theological perspective. Using information from Holy Cow Consulting’s assessments, we know that our congregations range from the 4th percentile to the 98th percentile when it comes to theological perspective. In other words, within just our Presbytery, we embody the full range of the historically mainstream Christian churches within the United States when it comes to theological perspective. When I run all the numbers and balance the results for church size, the current data set reveals that the average person attending a church in Pittsburgh Presbytery falls into the 50th percentile when it comes to theological perspective. Even more fascinating is that within our congregations, there are many that have a high or even very high level of theological diversity just within themselves. Even congregations are not monolithic when it comes to theological perspective, let alone the entire Presbytery.
Here’s the tension I feel deeply: Believing that we are called together as a covenant community, all while acknowledging the tremendous theological diversity within our midst, creates an unmistakable tension. And, if nothing else, it can make it more difficult to embody the idea of community as, in many ways, it’s just easier to withdraw from one another and mind our own business.
But how often do we find the easy road is the faithful one? Not often, at least not in my experience. When I read scripture, I usually find God directing and calling people into uncomfortable and challenging spaces, where they’ll be tested not only in their faith in God but in their trust in one another. And the truth is that the nature of a theologically diverse covenant community is one that I sometimes find to be a self-contradicting mystery.
But then, there are the moments. The moments in which this mystery, in the power of the Holy Spirit, makes sense. In the past year, I’ve had two occasions where I’ve visited with congregations who sat at the very opposite ends of the theological spectrum in short order. Once just one week apart and the other within a matter of hours. In all of these places, despite the seemingly vast difference in theological perspective, I experienced the unmistakable and palpable presence of the Holy Spirit in each place.
As I said earlier, families are complicated. Presbyteries, defined as a family through the covenant relationship we share, are complicated. We have our disagreements, our weird dynamics, and our history. We aren’t always on our best behavior. We don’t always love one another the way we’re called to. And yes, on occasion, there are moments when we ask ourselves, “Why bother? It would just be easier if they would go away/shut up/leave”.
Being in my role, I sometimes find myself in the awkward spot of having someone from outside our circle decide to take a cheap shot at someone in our circle. “Oh, <insert name here> is one of yours?” When this happens, I’ve learned to pause and collect my thoughts before responding because if I’m honest, my first impulse response is neither charitable nor helpful. I’ve learned to this: “Yes, in fact they are, they’re one of ours, and I’m glad to have them.” Full stop. Whether they be conservative, liberal, or middle of the road, younger or older, someone who I am in lockstep with or couldn’t disagree with more and find a bit on the irritating side, it doesn’t matter. We’re in a covenant relationship, and while I can complain about my covenant partners, no one else gets to talk badly about my people.
After all, we’re family. With all the challenges and complexity that come with being family, we’re family. Despite our vast theological range, we share a common sense of call from the Triune God and have been called to share in life together. Is that easy? Absolutely not, but the way of faithfulness is seldom marked by what is easy.
As we enter 2024, my hope and prayer for us as a Presbytery are simple: Acknowledging the differences within our fellowship, we decide that we love one another and desire to be in a relationship with one another that we’re willing to do the hard work that entails. I am not suggesting that we pretend we all agree and take a “can’t we all just get along” approach. No, I’m talking about a “you’re my person, and I’m your person even if we don’t always get along, and we’re going to walk this journey together not because we even necessarily want to, but because God has called us to do so.”
I said it was simple, not easy.