Open Letter to Trinity

Dear Trinity,

We will vote on June 15, 2014 to remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA) or be dismissed to ECO A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  I will vote to remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

From the beginning of the discernment process Trinity’s leadership had determined the PC(USA) was “deathly ill.”

I do not have a concern with our leaders’ consciences leading them to this point of view, but I do have a concern that the “deathly ill” perspective set the tone for, and was allowed to disproportionately influence, the entire discernment process at Trinity.  See my blog entry “Preconceived Notions and Outcomes” dated June 5, 2014.

The information presented to the congregation has certainly reflected this perspective and I have no reason to believe the information reviewed by the Strategic Futures Task Force or the session was any less bias.

When Trinity’s leadership started presenting their case for dismissal last year I could not believe what I was hearing.  In all honesty, as much as I love the PC(USA), what I heard at Trinity caused me believe that maybe the denomination really was “deathly ill.”

I have been a part of our denomination my entire life, either as a member or ordained pastor, and I have been in different congregations and presbyteries from the east coast, to the Midwest, to here in California so I thought I knew our denomination pretty well, but hearing what I heard at Trinity really caught me off guard.  My heart was turned and I began to believe my relationship with the denomination I had known as my mother in the faith was coming to an end.

I would understand if your heart has been turned too.

But I could not let it go.  What I was hearing just did not resonate with any of my experiences or relationships in the denomination.  Now, after months of researching, studying, praying, and communicating with Presbyterians outside of Trinity I have discovered what we have been told about the denomination is not the whole truth, not even close.

Moreover, Trinity’s leadership has said their goal was to be open and allow all voices to be heard, but in practice they have carefully guarded against and filtered any voice but their own.

And I am not the only one who has recognized this limited perspective.  Soon after Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force and other leadership began discussing discernment with the congregation last year, a group of members at Trinity, who have become known as the Fairness Group, also recognized the denomination was not fully, or fairly, being represented to the congregation.  Many in this group are ordained elders and deacons, Sunday school teachers, and other leaders in our congregation and Presbytery.

Alternate Perspectives Were Guarded Against

For example…

Trinity’s leadership sent their “Reasons” letter to the presbytery just days before the session was scheduled to meet with the Fairness Group and hear their concerns, leaving no opportunity for the session to receive input from the group before the letter was sent.

No member of the congregation who wished to stay in the PC(USA) was ever given a platform up front as a presenter like the leadership had at every forum, town hall meeting, worship service and congregational meeting.

No informational meetings about the PC(USA) were ever held like the one held with ECO.

The session denied a request to make the congregation aware of the three blogs written by Trinity members with an alternate perspective from their own.

The session denied a request to make the eye-opening analysis of ECO polity written by The Reverend Dan Saperstein, Co-Leader for Mission and Partnership for the Synod of the Sun available to the congregation.

To their credit, as our leadership became aware of the Fairness Group’s concerns they did provide a few openings for a balanced perspective, sometimes with hesitation though, and always with restraint.

Steve Yamaguchi’s presentation about the PC(USA)
Leadership made room for Steve’s presentation during a forum at Trinity, however it was on an evening when four or five other speakers from Trinity all spoke in favor of leaving the denomination.  A four-part video of Steve’s presentation is posted on the presbytery’s website.  No audio or video of Steve’s presentation was made available on Trinity’s website.

The Stay or Go presentation made by Jerry Tankersley and Gary Watkins
The Fairness Group requested a pro-stay PC(USA) speaker, however the session also invited a pro-leave PC(USA) speaker to present at the same time.   A copy of Jerry’s presentation is posted on Jerry’s blog.  No link to Jerry’s blog was provided on Trinity’s website.  No audio or video of the Stay or Go presentation was made available on Trinity’s website.

The Trinity Fairness Group’s letter to the congregation
The session did not agree to mail the letter to congregation as they had done with their own communications, choosing instead to make it available in the narthex and church office during the first two weeks of December, with their own cover letter.  A representative of the Fairness Group, rather than Trinity leadership, should have been invited to make the announcement in worship about the letter being available.  The letter was not made available on Trinity’s website.

Request for Representation on Joint Discernment Team Denied
Based on the straw poll results from last year it is clear there are many members at Trinity who would like Trinity to remain in the PC(USA), more members in fact than the size of the average congregation in the PC(USA), and more members than half of the congregations in Los Ranchos Presbytery.  The Fairness Group asked the session for representation on the Joint Discernment Team as a voice for these members.  They denied this request.

Congregational and Town Hall Meetings Provided Limited Opportunity for Dissension
In the session’s letter to the Fairness Group dated August 22, 2013, when they denied our request for a member of the Fairness Group to be placed on the Joint Discernment Team, they wrote, “Those who have concerns will have their opportunity to speak at a called congregational meeting that is part of the presbytery’s process.”

While I am very grateful for the opportunity the Fairness Group was given to meet once with the Joint Discernment Team there was no opportunity for the Fairness Group, or more importantly, any other dissenting members to speak at the congregational meeting.  Instead the congregation was given note cards to fill out and return with predefined question categories relating only to the joint discernment process.  Only a few selected questions were answered during the meeting and answers to the rest of the questions, which we were told would be posted online, were never provided.

I realize this was not the session’s meeting but there was at least one member on the Joint Discernment Team who is also a member of session and must have known this was going to be the format.  There is no indication any effort was made by the session to ensure the congregation would have an opportunity to speak at this meeting, as we had been told and were expecting.

At the Town Hall meeting held a monthly earlier on February 9, 2014 the moderator’s instructions to the congregation were that the congregation was not to make any comments, only ask questions.

Both of these meetings were held to one hour and structured without comments in order to be efficient, but again, this shows how little willingness our leadership had during this process for allowing any voice other than their own to speak freely.

PC(USA) On Trial Without Fair Representation

Trinity’s leadership essentially put the PC(USA) on trial without fair representation.  With little exception the positions of the PC(USA) have only been presented to the congregation by our leadership, the prosecution, who hold the “deathly ill” perspective.  I cannot imagine any defense attorney allowing the PC(USA) to be represented by the prosecution like this if our denomination was their client.

Derisive, Disparaging and Misleading Comments Being Made About The PC(USA)
Divisive and disparaging comments about members of the PC(USA) have been made by leadership to the congregation as if they were a joke. Comments like, “I didn’t know there were any Executive Presbyters who were Christian” which was said during a forum at Trinity last spring, and “Don’t worry, I’m not one of those kind of Presbyterians,” destroy the peace, unity and purity of the church which is something most, if not all of Trinity’s leaders vowed to uphold when they were ordained.

At times our leadership’s representation of the PC(USA) has not only been one-sided, and disparaging, it has been grossly misleading.  The half-truths they have spoken have unjustly damaged the reputation of our denomination, PC(USA) clergy, and members of our own presbytery.

Their half-truth unjustly damaged the reputation of the PC(USA) when the congregation was told the PC(USA) General Assembly refused to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the “singular saving Lord.”  I explain why in detail in my blog entry “Misused Words and Misleading Thoughts” dated December 20, 2013

Their half-truth unjustly damaged the reputation of PC(USA) clergy when the congregation was told 45% of pastors and 60% of specialized clergy in the PC(USA) do not believe that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”  I explain why in detail in my blog entry “X% of PC(USA) Clergy Don’t Believe” dated December 17, 2013.

Their half-truth unjustly damaged the reputation of members of our own presbytery when the congregation was told about “activists” working to influence Los Ranchos Presbytery.  I explain why in detail in my blog entry “Tilting at Windmills” dated January 7, 2014

Our leadership has led us to believe everything is going to be the same at Trinity if we are dismissed to ECO.  I have even heard a member of session emphatically state three times over “we’re all Presbyterian, we’re all Presbyterian, we’re all Presbyterian.”

Contrary to what our leadership is telling the congregation there are significant differences between ECO and PC(USA) polity.  You can read about these differences in my blog entry “Polity Matters…A Lot” dated February 5, 2014.

Truth Is In Order To Goodness
An historic principle of church order in the Presbyterian Church is that truth is in order to goodness (F-3.0104).

An essential tenet of ECO is pursuing the truth, even when such pursuit is costly, and defending truth when it is challenged, recognizing that truth is in order to goodness and that its preservation matters.  

Trinity’s leadership has restricted the whole truth about the PC(USA) from being shared with the congregation.

No Perfect/Purer Church

In the “Reasons” letter submitted to the presbytery our session wrote, “We seek an affiliation which is more biblically consistent in calling us all to faithfulness in our belief and behavior and which will give us freedom from politicized and polarizing conflicts.”

There is nothing preventing Trinity from teaching and preaching in a way consistent with its biblical beliefs, and leaving to affiliate with a more like-minded denomination could actually be more damaging to both Trinity and the PC(USA).  See my blog entry “Birds of a Feather” dated January 14, 2014.

Jerry Tankersely told us, “Billy Graham was right when he said that if you are seeking to join the perfect Christian church, the moment you join it, it will be imperfect.”

Along the same lines Tom Currie of Union Presbyterian Seminary has said over and over again, that the greatest heresy in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition is that, somewhere out there, there is a purer church. There is not.

When Steve Yamaguchi spoke at Trinity last spring he said, “I’ve never been more excited about the possibilities open to us in the PC(USA) so why would I leave?  When through scripture I hear Jesus calling to us stay, plant, work for my kingdom, make a difference for me.”

What You See And Hear Depends On Where You Are Standing

In The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis wrote, “For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing.”

My contention is that if you are looking at the PC(USA) from the “deathly ill” perspective, it will look “deathly ill.”  But, if you change where you are standing and look at the denomination with a different perspective it is possible to see it with great hope.

Ask yourself, where are you standing?  Have you done the hard work of examining the PC(USA) on your own or have you only been exposed to the deathly ill perspective provided to you at Trinity?  It has taken me months of researching, studying, praying, and communicating with Presbyterians outside of Trinity to get past the concerns we were presented at Trinity and rediscover a greater, deeper, and wider understanding and appreciation for our denomination.

It has been hard to sort the truth out from the misinformation, especially when it has come from people whom we trust and would not think to second guess.

For example, at the Stay or Go forum last September, Gary Watkins, pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach, mentioned severed mission relations with the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) over the issues of ordination of homosexuals and same-sex marriage.  But as PC(USA) Mission Co-worker Dennis Smith wrote in August 2013 the relationship was not severed.  Here is his letter A Letter From Dennis Smith in Argentina, August 2013.

The IPIB had concerns when the PC(USA) General Assembly voted in 2010 to remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders and deacons live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” But in the summer of 2013, a couple of months before Gary spoke at Trinity, the IPIB voted to continue their 30-year mission partnership with Presbyterian World Mission (PWM) despite their public stance against ordination of homosexuals and same-sex marriage.

The Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPB), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country, unilaterally broke relationship with the PC(USA) following our reunification in 1983.

Do Your Own Careful Research
Steve Yamaguchi told us last spring, when it comes to the concerns with the PC(USA), he senses there is more steam than smoke.  And he encouraged all of us to do our own careful research, to think for ourselves, and to be alert to the difference between propaganda and discernment.

Much of the alternative to the “deathly ill” perspective presented at Trinity is available in the three blogs written by members of Trinity. The session denied a request to make the congregation aware of these three blogs.

Since the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture are two of the key concerns Trinity’s leadership has with the PC(USA) let me guide you to two of my blog entries on these subjects first.

The first is “The Way, The Truth, and The Life ~ In The PC(USA)” dated December 31, 2013
The second is “Upholding the Authority of Scripture” dated January 2, 2014

A New Spirit of Leadership

I agree the PC(USA) has problems, but leaving the denomination is not the solution.  There is a better way.  The majority of congregations in our denomination are moving forward without hesitation.  Trinity however is stuck.  Any hindrance to our future ministry in the PC(USA) is our current leadership, not the denomination.

The Reverend Dr. Dana Allin, ECO’s Synod Executive, told Los Ranchos Presbytery last spring that he did not believe “leaving the PC(USA) is the only faithful option.”

Following the passage of amendment 10A twenty-four former moderators of the General Assembly wrote a letter pleading our denomination to “move forward as a unified and missional expression of the Body of Christ.”  Only one former moderator declined to sign the letter.

Even two of the three principal writers of ECO’s Essential Tenets are not leaving the PC(USA).

There are plenty of voices outside of Trinity who are speaking up for, and staying in, the denomination.  See my blog entry “Voices Staying PC(USA)” dated February 7, 2014.

It will take time to recover but with the right leadership, and the help of Los Ranchos Presbytery, Trinity can continue to move forward as a strong and vibrant congregation of the PC(USA).  
It is possible for Trinity to remain true to its core beliefs and remain in the PC(USA).  In fact I believe our denomination needs a balance of beliefs, centered on the gospel.  The presbytery and PC(USA) are better with Trinity, and Trinity is better as part of the presbytery and PC(USA).

In February 2004 Sojourners published two companion articles, one by Richard J Mouw, past president of Fuller Theological Seminary titled, “Why The Evangelical Church Needs The Liberal Church,” and a second by Barbara Wheeler, past president of Auburn Theological Seminary titled, “Why The Liberal Church Needs The Evangelical Church.”  I have links to each article on my blog entry “A Vision of Unity” dated January 22, 2014.

These are two leaders in the PC(USA) who come from very different places theologically, but have the grace to make room for each other and who see themselves as better because they stay together.  Trinity needs leadership like this.  The Presbytery and denomination need churches like this.  Trinity has been a church like this.  We can be a church like this again.

Not everyone will stay.  But not everyone will stay if Trinity is dismissed to ECO.  We have to recognize the split has effectively already occurred.  The question is how do we recover and move forward?

I believe we move forward when we have leaders who dare to rise up and lead with a spirit demonstrated by Richard Mouw and Barbara Wheeler.

The Presbyterian Way: Peaceably Withdraw

If in good conscience however you cannot remain in the PC(USA) let me suggest you abide by the corollary to our 18th century Presbyterian Historic Principles of Church Order which is, “That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism.”

Rather than creating a schism with the denomination over the differences you have with major votes it has taken you should vote on June 15 to allow Trinity to remain in the PC(USA) and peaceably withdraw yourself.  This is how Presbyterians settle irreconcilable differences.

Those of you who are inclined to leave the denomination could stay together and form a new ECO congregation.

I admired the guest from Doug’s previous congregation, First Presbyterian Church Fresno, who stood up in our Town Hall meeting in February and said if we were not willing to leave everything behind to make the move to ECO we needed to reconsider why we were requesting dismissal.

Prayer For Illumination

I have great confidence and hope for the mission of Jesus Christ in and through the PC(USA) but there is another reason I am going to stay PC(USA) I want to share with you as I close this letter.

Doug once prayed a prayer for illumination for God to “surprise us.”  There are areas of surprise which are off limits in ECO.  With whatever problems may exist in the PC(USA), and there are problems, I find it even more unconscionable to stay in a congregation and denomination where the elders (ruling and teaching) cannot pray the prayer of illumination without a wink and nod.  See my blog entry “Essentially an Idol” dated December 6, 2013.

It is up to your own conscience if you can.

Yours truly,
Eric Christiansen
Member, Trinity United Presbyterian Church