In many a joke about the changing of lightbulbs , we Presbyterians are regularly accused of holding on to nearly everything from the past. (Change? Why would we?! No matter that the bulb is burned out.) I know a Presbyterian minister who would save burned-out bulbs from the church building, marking on the package when they were replaced and storing them in a church closet. Talk about maintaining! It is a symbol. Often, we hold on to persons, places, or patterns that perhaps served us well in previous eras, but often cease to make sense in a time that calls for redeployment. Maintaining burned-out bulbs just to prove we once existed: It is a fair critique, making us worthy of the punch line.
But storing up broken bulbs from the past is not our only temptation. There is an opposite problem as well. We worship the Father and serve the Son amid a culture of religious neophilia: a love affair with the new and novel. Many seem to assume that nothing good could come out of the two Christian millennia that precedes, shall we say, 1968? Despite the fact that we are stewards of a confession “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), we are often persuaded by eager shepherds or by restless sheep to make frequent change in the body of Christ for change’s sake. Changing bulbs every week, whether needed or not: That’s no good, either.
And so, with much humility but with great courage, we Presbyterians seek to walk the thin line of faithfulness to the living Jesus: neither holding on so tightly to patterns or pleasures of the past that the Holy Spirit finds no room among us to move, nor standing wide-eyed and grinning before the window pane of every shiny new churchy trend. It is a hard but holy balance. We are to practice what Eugene Peterson has called “a long obedience in the same direction.” In this sense, “maintenance” and “mission” are not opposing forces, as if one would have to choose between them. They are, in fact, two sides of the coin that is mature faith in Jesus as Christ. He who is alive also “gives good gifts to his people” (Ephesians 4), asking us to maintain them in the power of his Spirit. He is our life and light (bulb), and that’s no joke.
Last week, I noted four features of our presbytery’s common life which I feel called to maintain in my ministry with you as our Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk. Allow me this week to offer four more:
– I sense a strong call to support and further the good patterns of officer and leadership development in place in Shenango, great events like LeaderFest and our pastor retreats. These gatherings are precious gifts in our common life, always holding great promise to deepen our communion and enhance our effectiveness in ministry. As one who has shared fellowship in other presbyteries, I can attest: Although these quality gatherings are not unheard of in other bodies, they are not common, either. I will do everything in my influence to keep these gatherings working for us, especially as we face an inevitably leaner financial future.
– With the respective retirements of the Revs. David Dawson and Jerry Mahaffey, it was decided by our presbytery to merge the roles of EP and Stated Clerk. As I take up the work of serving as your Clerk, I sense a call to maintain good order and clear procedure in our common life. Indeed, I am honored to follow Rev. Mahaffey in this role, and celebrate his many years of faithful service to our body as Stated Clerk. Going forward, my own conviction is that good order is good pastoral care. The more members and commissioners who understand what is going on in our meetings, when procedures are clear and accessible, when our polity works for us and not against us, we are all freed up for the real work of our assemblies: discerning the the mind of Christ, the teaching of scripture, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. Order and decency are holy means to a holier end: making ourselves available to Jesus for his work and witness. In these uncertain ecclesiastical days, let us be good stewards of the relative stability enjoyed in Shenango.
– I sense a call to maintain the open and supportive atmosphere of the presbytery office, including the maintenance of the excellent electronic communication avenues that have been developed over the years. Presbyteries do not exist so that buildings can be maintained and staff employed. I believe it is the other way around: As a regional council of pastors and elders, we hire competent staff and maintain shared resources in order that our congregations are better equipped for their service to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Here in Shenango, we enjoy a terrific facility and have working for us caring and competent staff. Let us be good stewards of these good gifts for as long as we can.
– Finally, I feel a deep sense of call to maintain the best of Rev. David Dawson’s 22-year legacy of executive service in our midst. As David has been for me a pastor and friend during my first six years of membership in this body, I am honored to follow him and to maintain his faithful contributions to an ethos of presbytery life that resists unnecessary regulation, fosters relationships among our leaders, and is firmly focused on congregations “as the basic form of the church” (Book of Order) and the basic local unit of Jesus’ mission in the world. I will do everything in my influence to maintain and expand these precious gospel dynamics.
After my return from General Assembly, I’ll begin sharing with you my sense of call about areas of cultivation in our common life and work.
Grace and peace to you,