Letter to PCUSA Special Committee on Same-Sex Marriage

September 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

The last PC(USA) General Assembly created a committee to study the issues of civil union and same-sex marriage and to make a report and recommendations to the next General Assembly, which meets in June 2010.  They recently released a preliminary report without recommendations, and requested comments and recommendations from all parts of the denomination.   Information on how to submit comments is found in this press release.

I have written a letter to the committee and e-mailed it.  I present it below for you to read.  You are welcome to comment on it here, but I would also suggest sending your own opinion to the committee.

September 29, 2009

General Assembly Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage
Presbyterian Church (USA)
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Dear Members of the Committee,

I would like to begin by thanking you for your service on this committee, with its very difficult charter and topic.  Your ability to work together amicably gives me hope for the resolution of troubles in our denomination.

I am a member and deacon at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville NJ.  I would like to make it clear that my words represent only myself, and not the opinions of my congregation.

I would also like to make my position on these issues clear before making the requested recommendations and comments on your document.  I am strongly in favor of the position that homosexuality is not a sin, and therefore believe that gay people (I use that term to include all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people) should be ordained in Presbyterian churches and should be able to fully participate in Christian Marriage in the PC(USA) as defined in your document.

I would like to add some on-the-ground information to your knowledge.  Here in New Jersey the law provides for civil unions for gay couples.  An analysis of the implementing statute shows that those civil unions were intended to be identical to civil marriage in all but name – the statute clearly shows an intent to define these relationships as equal to marriages in all parts of State Law.  Our experience has been that while these rights are often granted, there are cases where through ignorance or intentional acts those rights are denied.  This includes denial of visitation in hospitals and denial of medical benefits for civil union partners because those benefits are provided under the ERISA law.  The interim report of the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission http://www.state.nj.us/lps/dcr/downloads/1st-InterimReport-CURC.pdf details these issues.

I, too, believe that our denomination is not yet of one mind on this issue.  I do not believe that we will ever be unanimous on nearly any issue, but I do believe that we will someday – through a move to agree or through departures – form a concrete opinion on gay marriage that may be implemented throughout the denomination.  We are in that “middle time” that always accompanies the discernment of proper interpretation of Scripture in the face of new information and new revelations by the Holy Spirit.

One question before us is this:  Will we choose to inhibit those new ideas as being contrary to some people’s interpretation, or will we try them out as expressions of others’ interpretations before ultimately accepting or rejecting them?  At various times in our history we have done both and someone is always unhappy.
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Another problem that our current rules and policies create is the Catch-22 situation of both affirming the right of gay couples to civil unions (216th General Assembly in 2004) and prohibiting them from exercising those rights in the church.  We have told them on the one hand that we WANT them to form life-long partnerships between two people and that they CAN’T do so inside the church.  In this we act to drive a wedge between the church and those couples.  Whether or not you support gay marriage in the church, I think that we can all agree that driving people farther away from the church and farther away from God is a bad idea.  Those who oppose homosexuality lose the ability to influence these men and women, and those who are in favor of gay rights lose the ability to support stable families.

Last, we have long affirmed the right of our members and leaders to differ and still be faithful.  We have also placed the decision-making power over individual marriages with Ministers of the Word and Sacrament (on whether or not to perform the ceremony for a given couple) and Sessions (on whether or not to allow the ceremony to take place within the building).

Therefore, I commend the following recommendation to the committee for action:

That the Committee recommend to the General Assembly an Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order as shown below:

  1. That the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 is advisory and does not constitute a restriction on the performance of marriages or civil unions between members of the same gender in those states of the United States of America that permit them by anyone authorized by the Book of Order and the state to perform marriages (W-4.9002, G-14.0562d).
  2. That the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 is advisory and does not constitute a restriction on the use of church property for marriages or civil unions between members of the same gender in those states of the United States of America that permit them as long as they are authorized by the Session using similar procedures as those used for heterosexual marriage (G-10.0102d,o).
  3. That no Minister of the Word and Sacrament or Commissioned Lay Pastor is required to perform a marriage or civil union that the Minister or CLP feels is contrary to their conscience. (W-4.9002)
  4. That no Session is required to allow the use of church property for a marriage or civil union that it feels is contrary to its conscience. (G-10.0102d,o)
  5. That no Presbytery or Synod may pass a rule restricting the Ministers or Commissioned Lay Pastors or Sessions within its jurisdiction from performing or allowing the use of property for a marriage or civil union, due to the freedom of conscience protected by the Book of Order and our polity (G-1.0305, G-6.0108, Bush et al v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh – Remedial Case 218-10).
  6. That any part of any prior Authoritative Interpretation or General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission opinion contrary to this Interpretation no longer has force or effect.

It is the intent of this Authoritative Interpretation to provide a compromise position.  This would expand the definition of Christian Marriage to include those between members of the same gender, but would not require any Minister or Session to be involved in such a ceremony.  Since marriage is not explicitly required for to perform any function in the church, it is not necessary for someone who does not support same-gender marriage to recognize such a marriage performed by another Minister or in another church.  There is a strong case that ordination requires a very specific type of marriage, but it is unlikely that a Session or Presbytery would find an officer-elect being examined to be acceptable due to their actual or presumed sexual practice if they were concerned about that party’s involvement in a same-gender marriage or civil union.

I thank you for your time and consideration and apologize for this letter exceeding the requested 1000 words.  I wish you well in the remainder of your work.

Yours in Christ,

Mark Smith

New Church Roles

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion, Young Adult, Youth 

Yesterday has to be something of a record for me being invited to take on a new church role.  Luckily all of them are manageable and most are one-time or short-time needs.

The role that is most visible and important is that I was asked to be the Vice-President of the Deacons next year.  This in turn makes me the President of the Deacons the following year.  Now, the Vice-President has no real responsibility other than perhaps leading the deacon meeting if the President can’t be there.  I have figured out two other responsibilities, though:

  1. If the President of the Deacons for another church dies, the Vice-President attends the funeral.
  2. In the event that the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville is attacked, the Vice-President will make coffee in an undisclosed location.

The President of the Deacons does have serious responsibilities.  Those include:

  1. Working with the Associate Pastor to create the agenda for the monthly deacon meeting.
  2. Leading the monthly deacon meeting.
  3. Producing the schedule for coffee and greeting each Sunday, including tracking the changes.  This will be easy for me – I’m already sending out the reminder e-mails each week.
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  5. Preaching on Deacon Sunday.  (I asked my wife if she thought I could do that, and she said “No problem.”  Then I asked if she thought I could do a full 15 minutes and she said that cutting me off would be the problem!)
  6. Serving as the deacon member of the nominating committee.

So, barring any changes, I’ll be doing the President job in the 2010-2011 year.  Of course, each position is in addition to my regular role as a deacon, the deacon ministry team that I belong to and my little job sending out the reminder e-mails.

Another job that I was asked to perform is to serve on a small team working on a particular curriculum for our Youth and Young Adult program.  That group is only expected to meet 3 times or so, so that’s not a big addition.

I was also asked to attend a meeting to talk about planning a major regional church event.  A presbytery committee is starting the process, but the group that was invited is ecumenical.  This could be interesting.  I have a little bit of awe at being invited as most of the other names on the list that I recognized are religious professionals of one form or another.

And the last one is to help with some computer issues in the Computer Lab at our church, and potentially to substitute for someone during Vacation Bible School.  I’m likely to do that if the schedule works.

As I said – except for the deacon responsibility these are all small things today, and I will likely do all of them.

TO Committee!

April 11, 2007 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

(well, at least To Task Force)

I met with our pastor last night about the “other idea” that he had.

It seems that he’s been reading a lot of the stuff on my blog (Hi, Jeff!) – particularly the stuff that I’m writing about new members and visitors.

He’s looking to put together a task force to study how the church is perceived by visitors, seekers, and the surrounding community.

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Beyond that, the charter and membership are still up in the air.  We’ll probably get the team together in May to organize, and then take the summer for each member to do some homework (probably some books to read) and get started in earnest in the fall.

I will likely have to limit my blogging on this Task Force to what we are willing to say publicly.  I will probably do some blogging about the committee process in general, particularly successes.

One thing that I can promise – I want your help.  I will be asking questions over time about how each of you handle different issues or answer different questions in your community.  I’ve found that I have a fairly diverse audience of church-related people (and others!) and I’d like to leverage that to help.  In return, I promise that by the end of our process I will blog some useful information gained by experience – just as I have with the Reconnecting with Faith retreats.

NOT to committee, at least not this one

April 3, 2007 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Life, Religion 

I got a call last night on the answering machine from a member of the Stewardship committee.  This was my “contact later” mentioned in the letter from the pastor.  (I blogged this previously here).

I called her back today.

I started off by mentioning the fact that my pastor had sent me a separate e-mail talking about another initiative that he’d like to speak to me about.  That initiative – which deals with visitors, seekers, and the perception of the church in the community – is a much better fit for me.  It falls right in line with my personal experience, my retreat experience, and some of the things that I’ve written for this blog (which is apparently what brought me to his attention in the first place).  He also specifically mentioned that I should choose either this new initiative or the stewardship committee, but not both – in order to avoid “new member overinvolvement” syndrome.

Then I mentioned my concerns about last year’s stewardship campaign (detailed in my blog post referenced above).  I also listed the good that I took from last fall’s campaign and how I increased my pledge 25% above my original plan based on one speaker’s message about taking risks knowing that God will provide.

She explained that they plan to use Herb Miller’s Consecration Sunday program for next year’s campaign, and that they are trying to get the focus from keeping the church heated to giving what you are called to give.  I agree that this is the correct tack to take when it comes to stewardship.  However, I’m not sure that I’m a good fit.  The last thing that I want is to be the lone voice of dissent no matter how valuable that might be to the committee.  Remember – I’ve only been a member for 6 months.

I’d also like to see some concentration on the gift of time and talents rather than just money.  Based on my committee work here thus far, it seems that the congregation suffers from the usual church disease – a small number of people do a lot of the work.

I really believe that the other “visitor/seeker” initiative is a better fit for me because:

  • It’s something that I’m really passionate about
  • Working on it doesn’t necessarily require knowing lots of other members
  • It’s more focused on giving to individuals rather than taking/accepting from them (I put my youth group work in this category too)

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I think the way that we left it is that I’m not interested in the Stewardship committee.  I’m hoping that my feedback will be well received (it was clearly heard and understood).

As for the other initiative – Tuesday will tell (next Tuesday, that is).

While I was dreading this phone call, I think it went well.


In other news, my blood pressure is acting up.  I got refused by the blood center for a platelet donation last night because my BP was too high.  They tend to get a higher reading than the doctor every time (probably because I go to them straight from work and straight from the highway), but I checked at home this time and it really was that high.  I have a physical scheduled for later this week anyway.  I’ve been on medication for high BP for over 10 years, but maybe my body has adjusted and they need to up the dosage.  We’ll see.  Mom’s BP has been all over the place (from normal to very high) for years, so I guess I inherited a problem.

A Little Busy

April 2, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

Church has me a little busy right now.

The Green Team has decided that for our Adult Forum on Earth Day, the program will include me first doing the Biblical basis, one of the co-chairs doing the science behind our environmental problems, and a 3rd speaker (I don’t remember who) speaking on what each person can do to help.  We’re going to have lots of handouts (including my paper) and some samples of compact fluorescent light bulbs and such.

To that end, I have until the end of next week (April 13) to get my presentation together.  I have 15 minutes to present what is in my paper.  I’m planning a powerpoint presentation with the verses, and I’ll talk to the rest.

I’m also an advisor for the youth group.  April 22 is not only Earth Day, it’s also Youth Sunday – with the youth doing pretty much everything for the service.  I’ll be helping out with planning and execution of that as well.  At this point, I’ve been appointed “King of the Ushers”.  Hopefully we won’t have a Fall of the House of Usher.
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The Tuesday after Easter I have a meeting scheduled with the pastor to talk about a new initiative related to visitors, seekers, and how the church is perceived by them and the community.  That is right up my alley (as my other blog posts have indicated) and I’m really looking forward to this.

The church is in the final stages of calling a new Associate Pastor – Mary Alice Lyman.  She will be preaching on April 15 with a Special Congregational Meeting immediately following to vote on her call.  On April 14 there is a reception in the evening to meet her, and there’s a pancake breakfast on the 15th for the same purpose.

Things should quiet down a bit towards the end of the month.  It’s a good kind of busy.

To committee or not to committee

March 23, 2007 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

I got a letter from my pastor last night.

He wants to invite me to join the Stewardship Committee.  Next year, the committee will apparently be using Herb Miller’s “Consecration Sunday Stewardship” program, focusing on the spiritual need to be “givers” rather than the church’s need to “receive”.

It’s nice to be asked.  However ….

When I joined the church, we were asked to fill out a stewardship questionnaire.  On the page were a list of major church committees, and we were asked to check those that we were interested in.  Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, Stewardship is one that I chose not to check.

I also have some fundamental issues with the way that the church in general goes about asking for money.  Giving is too often a demand in the church.  I feel that giving in the church should be voluntary – each gives as they feel moved (called, even) to do so.  If the church comes up short, they tell us so and we adjust our giving to make it up.  I really don’t care what other people give – it’s only important to consider my own giving.

This past year, the church (through the pastor) threw around actual numbers.  In one sermon, Pastor Vamos said:

One tangible indicator of our generosity is this–our giving to the
church. The health of this organism. We need to say that. If our
congregation is struggling to meet the bills, something is wrong. Your
giving to this church is an indicator of whether you’re living
generously. If you’re making over $90,000 and giving $50 a week–your
intent may not match with the reality. There’s something wrong with
that picture.

The use of an actual dollar amount in the sermon is what bothered me the most.  That sermon almost caused me not to pledge this year.  In a later sermon, a guest preacher exhorted us to take risks with our giving, knowing that God will make it work.  On the basis of that guest’s sermon, I increased the amount that I pledged by 25% over what I’d planned to give.

Later, Pastor Vamos compounded the error of using specific numbers.  During his “State of the Communion” sermon, he spoke about the actual pledges received:

There are some interesting statistics that you can take home and mull
over. I remember from college statistics that the mean is the average,
and so our average pledge from this past year is $2,206. And that’s a
lot more than it was last year, and so that’s terrific. But the
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are below–is $1,500. And I’ve been told that the mark of health for a
congregation is when the mean and the median are close together,
because it means that we’re not as dependent on those large pledges.
And don’t get me wrong–if you’re one of those larger givers, we hope
that you will increase your giving, because that really affects our
ministry greatly. But this really represents a challenge to those who
are below that mean and are able to, if you have the gifts, to be able
to do more. It’s a challenge for us to think about that, how we can try
to make the mean and the median match up a little more closely.

It was even worse than that.  We were given a bulletin insert that showed a bar graph with each pledge from smallest to largest (the smallest being under $100 and the largest being $20,000).  We were also given the average household income for the county, the average household income for the town that the church is in, and what a 10% tithe would be for each of those incomes.  These were compared to the average and median pledges.

The use of specific numbers in financial stewardship is the use of guilt in the church.  It’s measuring us against each other rather than measuring us against Christ.  There’s no question in my mind that the church must be funded in order to survive.  There’s also no question in my mind that giving of your time, talents, and money are required for a faithful Christian.  It’s just the use of specific numbers that bothers me.  Following Christ is not about guilt – it’s about the grace of Christ’s sacrifice and our attempt to be as Christ-like as possible to thank God for that miracle.

Lest you think that I’m griping because I’m cheap, my pledge was above the average.  It’s important to remember that I am a part of a two-church household, and Carolyn pledges a similar (probably identical, but I’m not sure) amount to her church.

So the problem for me is this:  If I’m uncomfortable with asking others to give money, if I’m uncomfortable with the way that stewardship campaigns have been handled in the past – should I join the stewardship committee?

Perhaps my presence would moderate some of the things that bother me.  On the other hand, I really don’t want to find myself at odds with the rest of the committee and my pastor on a regular basis.

What do you think?

I really wish they’d chosen me for one of the other committees.

The letter says that “in the next couple of weeks, someone from the current committee will be calling to see if you are willing to serve.”  I hope I have an answer by then.

The Lawrenceville Presbyterian “Green Team”

January 12, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Environment, Religion 

Last night I attended the first meeting of the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church “Green Team”.  The Green Team is charged with:

  • Reducing the church’s
    environmental footprint
  • Increasing our visibility
  • Educating our community
  • Inspiring our community
  • Connecting with other organizations
  • Advocating for public policy change
  • Connecting our efforts with our faith

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The primary focus to start is to come up with and estimate ideas for the church’s upcoming capital campaign.  To that end we are talking about solar panels on the church, insulation, central A/C and/or geothermal energy for the manse (which is currently using window air conditioners), motion detector light switches, bike racks for parishioners, etc.

I went into the meeting thinking that I’d be really useful to the team given my experience with solar panels for home, a hybrid vehicle, and a few other green ideas from home.  It turns out that this church has some seriously committed environmentalists.  One man has a nearly-zero-energy home, others have been advocating in the community.  I felt like a midget among giants.  I hope that I can contribute.