PCUSA’s Renewal Leader Fights Ministry Invalidation
by Terry Schlossberg
The Reverend Parker Williamson, executive editor of an independent publication in the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) called The Layman, is taking his presbytery to church court. In a dramatic and well-publicized turn-around, the Western North Carolina Presbytery voted last February not to “validate” his ministry with the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC), as it had done every year since 1989.
Loss of validation is less significant for Reverend Williamson than for his ministry. He is a minister in good standing in his presbytery, as he has been for 32 years, and the presbytery continues to recognize him as one of its own. It is his ministry that they do not wish to validate. The action does not limit the ministry, but Williamson and others believe it not only unfair but a strike against orthodoxy.
Formerly Pro Forma
The Presbyterian Constitution requires that each presbytery (there are 173) validate each minister’s ministry each year and, until recently, most presbyteries have treated the requirement as pro forma. The constitution requires that the ministry conform to Scripture and to the historical confessional statements of the church.
Validation is not an issue for ministers serving as pastors of churches. It is other forms of service that are beginning to be treated as problematic. Some of these are mentioned in the constitution by way of example, including not only chaplains and missionaries, but also social workers, counselors, and administrators. The list is in practice much longer and the language used to describe a ministry is so broad that almost any employment an ordained person takes can be (and usually has been) interpreted as a calling.
A presbytery would find it difficult to evaluate some of the “ministries” it approves: positions in hospitals, schools, or community agencies, for example. The relationship between the minister and the ministry in the validation process is vague.
Some decisions appear to be based on a presbytery’s like or dislike for a person or organization. Two years ago Central Florida Presbytery refused to validate the ministry of a minister who moved to that presbytery to assume the position of executive director of a conservative or renewal organization called The Presbyterian Coalition. The presbytery ruled that the coalition was not a validated ministry of the PCUSA and refused to validate the minister to that ministry, although, in fact, the presbytery itself sets the criteria for validation.
Although the constitution requires presbyteries to have written criteria for validating a ministry, many have none. Williamson’s presbytery produced no written criteria to cite in deciding not to validate his ministry. Its only charge against him appeared to be “destructive journalism.”
If the presbytery has no established criteria for validating a ministry, on what basis could it deny validation to Williamson, particularly after having validated his ministry for so long? One reason surfaced in a news story by the denominational press: a Statement of Conscience adopted by the PLC and made public at the time Williamson’s re-validation was being considered, which says, “We no longer believe that either the General Assembly per capita budget or the unrestricted mission budget of the PCUSA is worthy of support.” (Per capita is often called a “head tax.” It is used to pay for such things as denominational administrative costs, special committees, and the National and World Councils of Churches.)
The PLC cited such influences on the denomination’s life as the feminist challenge to Trinitarian language, recent challenges to belief in Jesus as the only Savior, official support for abortion, and the failure to enforce the constitution’s prohibition against the ordination of homosexuals. The statement urged Presbyterians to “exercise their stewardship responsibility and right to determine how money entrusted to them is spent,” and consider redirecting their per capita contribution and mission gifts “to ministries at home and abroad that are demonstrably faithful to the gospel.”
The chair of the presbytery’s Validated Ministry Task Force said the statement “tipped the scales” for them. One member of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, the committee to which the task force reported, said, “How can we validate a ministry that does not validate the ministry of the entire church?”
Some say the issue is “all about money.” The denomination has been losing upwards of 35,000 members each year since the reunion of the northern and southern streams in 1983 and is facing serious financial troubles. Over the past two years, the denomination has cut more than $7 million from its budget, eliminating 85 jobs, including missionaries in the field and staff positions at its headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Stated Clerk (the highest constitutional office in the denomination), Clifton Kirkpatrick, has said that ministers and elders are constitutionally barred from recommending the withholding of per capita (though the church courts have repeatedly ruled otherwise). The Constitution does not give permission to withhold “as a form of protest,” he claimed.
Since Williamson’s presbytery made its decision, a church court in the Kansas City area ruled in favor of a session (a congregation’s governing body) that had been punished by its presbytery for failure to pay its full per capita. The constitution gives to each session the right and responsibility to decide this matter, and church courts repeatedly have upheld the voluntary nature of per capita. That decision implies that Williamson’s presbytery was wrong to invalidate a ministry that expressed an opinion about contributions that are in fact voluntary.
A Rocking Boat
The Presbyterian Coalition, an unofficial group like the PLC, whose mission is to uphold the constitution and confessional standards, acknowledged that the PCUSA has deep theological and moral disagreements and wondered if the presbyteries will now validate ministries only on the basis of their financial support for denominational entities, without reference to orthodoxy. “Shall we now consider out of conformity that which exercises conscience in matters of stewardship?” they asked.
The PLC is one of sixteen unofficial groups of Presbyterians whose leaders make up the Presbyterian Renewal Network. These groups—which include Presbyterians Pro-Life, Presbyterians for Renewal, and Voices of Orthodox Women—could be described as a movement to uphold and further the classical Reformed understanding of the authority of Scripture and the confessional teachings of the denomination, which often puts them at odds with actions and policies taken by denominational entities and governing bodies.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are groups who wish to see the denomination become more theologically “progressive.” They include the Covenant Network and the Witherspoon Society, which have broad “progressive” agendas, as well as those more narrowly focused “pro-gay” groups such as More Light Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve. All these groups advocate for the normalization of homosexual relationships and encourage resistance to the church constitution’s prohibition of such behavior by ministers. Yet presbyteries may and do ordain ministers to serve some of these organizations and validate their ministries year after year.
Many rank-and-file Presbyterians are disturbed by the conflict generated by the opposing forces and do not wish to see the boat rocked. They perceive that the controversies, and thus those engaged in them, are largely responsible for the denomination’s decline in membership.
The renewal groups in particular are often regarded as disturbers of the peace, but the combat is an inevitable result of opposite convictions about basic tenets of Christian faith. The PLC is a favorite target of criticism, because of its size— The Layman may be the largest publication in any of the mainline Protestant denominations, with a mailing list that exceeds 600,000 churches, families, and individuals—and its refusal to be muzzled. As an independent publication, it probes situations when the official church press remains silent. It is quick to expose what it regards as wrongdoing.
Five times since 1971, the PLC reports, agencies of the General Assembly have tried to bring charges against the organization and make them stick, but each time the General Assembly has “determined that the charges were without merit.” The PLC’s leadership suggests that denying validation of ministry to their chief executive officer is just another attempt to silence them.
The case against Williamson raises two questions. First, Williamson’s case against his presbytery is based largely on procedural grounds: the protection of the rights of due process for ministers. Williamson says that the presbytery is using the validation process to try his ministry without a court and without the opportunity of a defense. Lack of due process is a reason he is resorting to church courts.
Many see the process as letting the church exclude a minister whose ministry it does not like. The criteria are vague and the presbytery is not obliged to produce evidence to support its decision or to let the minister present a defense. The validation by some presbyteries of men and women in ministries that do not comply with the constitution raises similar questions.
But due process is not the only concern his case raises. The Reverend O. Benjamin Sparks, editor of another independent publication, The Presbyterian Outlook, used Williamson’s situation to raise questions about the legitimacy of a process that validates virtually any job a minister takes. He asks if the church can rightly ordain a minister to one of an endless list of so-called ministries that in practice include such activities as insurance sales.
Sparks argues for validating ministers only to pastoral positions. “I serve in a presbytery where the number of installed pastors and associate pastors is less than half of the total,” he wrote, “which theoretically gives non-pastors control over a budget they do not help to raise.”
Setting the budget is only part of the problem when a presbytery is made up of more clergy who are not serving in churches than those who are. A minister serving a congregation is accountable to the local church’s governing body and serves in the presbytery alongside elders from that congregation. Limiting the membership of presbyteries to pastors and elders would tend to make those bodies a much better reflection of the mission and the concerns of congregations.
On the other hand, when a minister serves a hospital (or university or seminary) with its own mission and its own board, the minister is an autonomous member of the presbytery and is likely to bring only his or her own personal interests to its work. That minister has no accountability to the governing body of a congregation and in most cases represents neither the concerns nor the mores of a congregation.
These “specialized clergy” are not preaching, or teaching, or practicing pastoral care in a congregation. They are accountable only to themselves.
Those ordained to these “specialized ministries” often constitute more than half the clergy membership of a presbytery. They often are more willing and available to serve on presbytery committees than are pastors serving congregations.
These “specialized” clergy can swing votes in presbytery meetings on significant issues. They are one important reason why a denomination whose pews are filled with majorities of orthodox believers is nonetheless described as a “liberal” denomination. There is plentiful research to show that specialized clergy are significantly more liberal theologically and politically than church members, elders, or pastors. A poll by the Presbyterian Church’s Research Services in 1996 revealed, for example, that while only 7 percent of church members and 8 percent of elders want to see homosexuals ordained to ministry, 32 percent of specialized clergy would like to see that happen.
The validation process allows presbyteries to approve clergy who are unaccountable to sessions as voting members of their bodies, eligible to serve at the General Assembly and in every other higher governing body committee and entity of the church. As a body, they are eager to influence the direction of the denomination.
As Sparks puts it, “This action of Western North Carolina Presbytery opens a long-needed invitation to assess the meaning and nature of validated ministry.” It is difficult to see how the PCUSA has anything to lose by moving toward restricting valid ministry to men and women serving as pastors of its churches. They should be the decision makers in the governing bodies of the denomination.
Willy-nilly validation of ministries is probably the most significant culprit responsible for the gap between the beliefs of Presbyterians in the pews and the significantly more liberal decisions of the higher governing bodies. When more than half the clergy members of a presbytery are unaccountable to a congregation’s ruling body, the representational intent of the Presbyterian form of government is thwarted.
It may be that justice will be done if Parker Williamson’s appeal to the church courts results in restoration of his validation of ministry. Justice certainly will not be done if he is singled out for invalidation because his ministry is deemed too controversial. But it may be that a greater justice will be done if, as a result of the controversy stirred by this event, validation is eliminated for any minister who is not serving a congregation. It could be the start of a revolution.
For more information on Presbyterian renewal movements and the nature of the controversies in the PCUSA, see:
• Presbyweb (www.presbyweb.com)
• The Presbyterian Lay Committee (www.layman.org)
• The Presbyterian Coalition (www.presbycoalition.org)
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“Parker’s Back?” first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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