Professing Our Roles

I am settling back in from summer and vacation, wearing “grown-up clothes” (long slacks, shoes, and a tie) as I ride down to my second job. Monday was Labor Day, I was wrapping up vacation, and was so relaxed that I forgot to make my TRB post—hence this Thursday bonus. But today, with my first day being up-and-moving before the sun, I am definitely back to work.

Work intruded in places during my vacation time, as it is wont to do with pastors. In particular, there was a matter that came up that needed a bit of consistory attention that some of my elder and deacon colleagues didn’t feel could wait the two weeks until I was back and we were meeting anyway. “Can we meet without pastor on Sunday after worship?” I told them that they could, but to remember that, without me there, they couldn’t have a legal meeting, so they were limited in what they could do.

This brought a response from one deacon who thought all of this was a bit silly. If everybody but one person could be there, and that one person didn’t get a vote anyway, this was just a stupid technicality. I think I may have audibly sighed—as Kathleen—and then took time on vacation to write a note to all the deacons and elders about why we do what we do, and why it is not just a silly rule. Thank God for an on-line Book of Church Order and for people like Fred Mold, Al Janssen, Rett Zabriskie, Stacey Midge, and Dan Griswold who have shoved enough polity into my head that I didn’t need to go find a library with RCA books in it.

What I said wasn’t all that profound. I cited the BCO, and I talked about the three-fold ministry of Christ requiring three different offices to accomplish it, and I pulled in a bit of the Liturgy that we shared when all of them were ordained and installed: the minister does not serve without the elder, and neither without the deacon. And I would like to think that I remembered to speak to how, when we make household decisions, we bring our whole selves into it; the parts of us that love home repair projects or exotic vacations don’t work independently of the parts that remember the family budget or make sure that the children and the pets are fed. In fact, in our best household decisions, those of us who are married include our spouses in the conversation. So it is that, when we make decisions for our congregational household, we need to think about all of the implications; those who think that the budget decisions can be made without reflecting theologically, for example, need to re-read the gospels.

Now, I would like to think the my consistory colleagues are the only ones needing such a refresher, and so I should be focusing more on the issue of professional boundaries, of being drawn into that kind of a discussion while on vacation. No, I’m not off the hook there. But anybody who witnessed the plenary debates at the RCA General Synod 2014 knows that this learning deficit is not simply part of my little Albany suburb. There are many office-bearers among us who lack a clear understanding of the difference between office and function—or, at the very least, an appreciation for why it matters. And it goes beyond that: I was recently in an on-line conversation about why we have doctrinal standards anyway, including the mention that there are ministers of the Word and Sacrament who simply do not consider the Belhar Confession to be a standard, and do not consider themselves bound by it. Now, what does that do to the idea that we are all in covenant together, relying on the Holy Spirit to speak to us through assemblies.

So, I could complain about all of this, and I could scold the ecclesiological degenerates who don’t appreciate office or the Standards or other elements of how we are put together. But this seems a bit like downgrading the blind person who didn’t properly answer the question on the blackboard. Or I could add my voice to the occasional chorus that calls for us to abandon these quaint, continental, pre-Enlightenment elements of our order in favor of straight up democracy or clear lines of authority or congregationalism or Arbitron ratings or whatever—you know, something that modern Americans easily understand. But this feels a bit like refusing to maintain my car because I’m not an auto mechanic.

All of this relates back to the topic of my last blog post: professionalism. Professionals are, in the earliest, most basic definition of the term, not people who are paid, but people who profess. Ours is a teaching, explaining, exegeting role all the time. The professors of theology in the RCA (we are unique in having those) have that role ever so much more so, and generally on a larger stage, but we are called to be explaining, again and again, what being Reformed is all about. We need to take every chance to teach and explain and point out where it is working, again and again.

The first thing that makes this difficult is that it consumes time. I was annoyed at having to use time on one vacation day to line out why our offices work better together than they do separately. There are many times when the common sense approach—office doesn’t really matter, we can just do this—is clearly quicker and easier. But, when we let this slide on the little things, we aren’t building up those muscles for the bigger things; when it really would help to use our full theological understanding of office, order, theology, et cetera, we find that too many people in the room aren’t equipped to do so.

The second problem is that these used to be things that everybody who was Reformed always knew. John Beardslee, III, the late professor of Church History at New Brunswick Seminary, reminded me once that people used to learn to be elders and deacons around the Sunday dinner table: the whole extended family had dinner together, and children heard their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles—it was an all-male thing back then—talk about what was going on at church, where they had just been, and what the consistory was/could/should be doing about it. I say he reminded me, because that helped me recall such Sunday conversations from when I was very young. This is an element of what Norman Kansfield has called “theology by genealogy,” and it stopped working so well as society shifted after World War II, but we never thought to replace it.

So now, when we are in the thick weeds in a discussion, and we try to lean on our theological tradition, based on some of our oldest and deepest understandings of Scripture, to find a way to live together, those who are the proponents are often shouted down and/or blithely ignored, because that approach would require effort. But, if we want to be treated as professionals, we need to do the work of professionals: professing. Our long vacation from this is over. It is time to get back to work.


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