Today: how one church is changing my mind about the Church

Sunday, June 2, 2013. Today, I witnessed what Kingdom life could actually be. Today, I participated in the end result of a two year process of prayer and discernment and reading and study and task forces and subcommittees and newsletters and, and…all of which resulted in a remarkable decision: we decided, 95% in favor, to leave the PCUSA and join the ECC (Evangelical Covenant Church). Today, I observed a charter Presbyterian congregation, generally older but getting younger, choose a radically new direction in order to forge a future together.

Today, one church changed my mind about the Church.

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I have served Westminster Presbyterian for almost seven years now as Minister of Worship and Music. It has been a charge not always gilded around the edges and, at times, fraught with peril and flying feathers. The church to which I first came was chaotic, dysfunctional, darkly suspicious and untrusting. They were, in a word: broken. We were front-page news in unfortunate, even scandalous ways, and were still convinced that our ship was afloat.

In my first year we lost a Pastor to admission of numerous counts of sexual harassment along with most of our staff. An artsy, indecisive, left-wing music director was forced into the uncomfortable cadre of leadership left in the wake of the human debacle that was Westminster at the time. I generally squirm in such scenarios but rose to the challenge (more or less) with fear and trembling. We were a congregation in crisis, chaos and spiritual renovation.

What got lost along the way were a bloated sense of self-importance, an uncomfortably conservative-exclusivist milieu, and pretty much all our youth and young families. It wasn’t a ghost town. It was more of a wind swept plain before spring planting. But there was to be one more storm to blow through town. His name? Well, let’s call him Roger. He came to us in the role of Interim Pastor. In a sense, it’s a bit like hiring a First Mate to steer a moving ship once the Captain has bailed. It is meant to be a short-term gig and pave the way for, what is in the PCUSA, a Designated Pastor to the end of obtaining a Senior Pastor.

Roger was a short, self-assured, theological bully. He blew into town with guns ablazin’, mouth awaggin’ and a well-oiled self-importance intact. Whatever remaining hope I had for this struggling place evaporated in the steam of his charging train, bull-in-a-china-shop, ministry style (he proudly considered himself the “bulldog pastor”). In his brief tenure (thank God), he singlehandedly destroyed my committee, a host of other committees, shouted and otherwise cajoled loudly and insistently, and pretty much insulted most everyone else. He was everything a pastor shouldn’t be. Stepping back from the experience however I’m forced to concede that the very good administrative and structural work he did not only paved the way for the coming of someone else to take his place but also, ironically, sealed his own fate.

In the trail of dust and carnage left behind we’ve hired a new Pastor, Reverend Duncan MacLeod. Duncan is a clever, winsome fellow of numerous abilities, overweening confidence (although graced with the humility lacking in his predecessor) and, most important of all, a great sense of humor. He would need that. His capable, relaxed style of leadership, together with an astonishingly humble and wise Session (elder-leaders in the Presbyterian tradition) guided us through the hazardous waters of ecclesiastical politics recently bubbling over in our denomination. The numerous, big ticket issues facing many mainline denominations have made their presence known, loudly and insistently, at PCUSA doors. The turbulent environment of this overly white, liberal, old boys club had become just poisonous enough to our particular DNA that, to be the strange animal we are and do gospel business the way we do it, we needed to vacate.

Easter Praise 3

I’ve played the church game long enough to know that many churches have split over much less than what we’ve endured. We were chartered in 1957 as Westminster Presbyterian Church, a church plant of First Presbyterian, Yakima. We’ve faced down our demons and become well acquainted with our own scar tissue. Gratefully, the strange little group to which I was first wed has become, under Duncan’s leadership, let’s say…integrated. I would now describe us as unabashedly multi-generational, multi-ethnic (at least we’re trying), politically broad, and theologically diverse congregation. Those things are important to us; important enough to make whatever adjustments necessary to assure our continued presence as such.

Is it groundbreaking? For us. Is it precedent setting? Not as such. Is it unique? Of course not. No, nothing like that. Rather, it is indicative of a congregation longing to stay together and become who we already are by embracing what we are becoming. The next time you drive by, our sign may be different but the conversation will be just as lively, the swing in our step just as jaunty, our singing just as robust, our faces a bit more wrinkled, our doors a bit more open, and our fellowship…? Rich.

Today, one church changed my mind about the Church.

(September 5th marks the seven-year anniversary of my tenure at Westminster Presbyterian Church. I love these people and will go to the wall for them. Thank you, dear friends). 

10 thoughts on “Today: how one church is changing my mind about the Church

  1. Lois

    Sounds not a little like 1st Pres, Colorado Springs. Blessed be the saints who stick with it to the end, for they’ll get the t-shirts!

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    1. John, who’s to say, really? They work well in many cases. In others, not so well. Another local congregation is absolutely thriving under the leadership of an Interim. Go figure. All I speak to with any authority is our own story. Make no mistake, we’ll suck again, big time. But, for now, this is good. Very good.

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    2. David Ramsey-Warner

      As with many things (not all), the practice of interim pastors (and their failure/success) depends on its context. Having been involved in other churches, directly and indirectly, I can tell you that it is always a struggle, even under the best of conditions. As long as human beings are involved, there will always be a measure of self-importance and vanity for those who hold the position. We can’t always be the best judge of our own character, and so an outside voice is wisely recommended. Only a humble heart, either individually or communally, directed at a loving and just God, can know which tine of the fork to follow.

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      1. Well said, David. These days I have a great deal more compassion for those called to serve churches under less than ideal conditions. As you and I both know, the church is a tangled web of human detritus, both good and…well, not so good as well. Lord, have mercy.

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  2. Church, just like one’s own family… relationships need to be worked on, expectations fully voiced, not necessarily completely understood, but at least voiced. It is one big family with all the same issues natural siblings have. I’ve never met a perfect family and I’ve never met a perfect church. We are all in process of being changed for his glory. Glad to hear you stuck with it. 🙂

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    1. I’m glad you were willing to share this bit of my journey with me as well. Thank you. I tell people that the true test of one’s community is not when things are floating like clouds across an azure sky but when shit is piled high and deep all around us and we cannot see our way out because of it. For right now, things are well. May God guide us in an ongoing transition.

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  3. Have you read “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery?” While you might not agree with all it says, I suspect you would find it interesting in light of your experiences.

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