Kevin Finlay is a minister in the Howick Presbyterian Church
Aware of stresses that are occurring in my own region, it was really interesting to read the recent feed-back posted in an open letter to the Church, giving an over-all view that there may be stresses occurring in each Presbytery. I don’t know how it is in reality. I can only comment on my observations within my own experience. I can’t project those wider afield. In fact my perception was that other Presbyteries were further down the track and making a better fist of the changes. so I was surprised at the strength of the letter!
In making a contribution now, I want to look back in order to look forward. I am using thoughts which I have communicated within my Presbytery’s feed-back process. I do not want to comment on structural changes, each area has to sort those out for themselves. I want to dig under the surface to the culture. My reason for starting with a look back is to point to a new future, not just dredge up old issues.
My initial thought is related to the phrase “where there is a will there is a way.” I believe that there was insufficient “will” from its inception to make the Presbytery I serve in work following the re-formation of four areas into one. Therefore without “the will” there was “no way”. There was a significant opportunity to transition to something which was different from the past. However the default thinking seemed to be to try to carry on doing the work of these four regions as one large Presbytery. An expectation was that we would keep doing the same things in the same way, only over a larger area. This was unrealistic and it is disappointing that there has not been a more focussed effort to employ some greater thinking ‘outside the box’. Most likely this would have needed to come from outside PCANZ. I am aware of a limited capacity to think outside a system I am involved with.
In addition to the thought that insufficient consideration was given to the opportunity for new ways of doing things an aspect which might have affected the will for something new may have been a lack of letting go of the old. I believe there to have been significant patterns of disappointment, mistrust and under-functioning within the previous regional groups. The new structure was going to struggle to gain momentum when people brought their old hurts, prejudices, mistrust and pessimism based on their past experiences of their Presbytery. I suspect that in the transition to one larger Presbytery there was not sufficient time or energy given to letting go of the past and opening ourselves to a new and better future. Without this the larger system was possibly destined to flounder.
So, I believe there were opportunities in the initial set up of the larger Presbytery to do things differently for which there wasn’t a will. I am suggesting that this stemmed, in part, from a history of injury and mistrust.
Next, a thought which is not new, but worth mentioning here: structural change does not necessarily lead to cultural change, instead structural change follows cultural change. Over the years I have been a part of a number of different Presbyteries and within their operations I have witnessed some very un-Christian behaviour. When I first wrote this I listed a whole lot of observed negative behavioural patterns, which in the edit I have withdrawn. I expect as you read this you can add in your own examples. Have you been hurt by others within your Presbytery? How might others have been hurt?
A basic part of being Presbyterian is that we are democratic. For a democracy to work it needs a cultural environment of listening, care and concern. Democracy fails when the Fruit of the Spirit are not being lived out. If this is not so then important minority voices can easily be over-looked. While this raises its head in the same-sex issue, what I am pointing to is deeper than our handling of one issue. It relates to our whole way of being together. Is not the real test of genuine following of Jesus the evidence of love (John 13:35; 15:12-13…)? Would a visitor to Presbytery or one of its work groups, over a period of time, be motivated to say: ‘see how they love each other?’ If someone viewed our way of relating through a Health and Safety lens would they conclude that Presbytery was a safe place for people to be a part of? God calls us into community together. In the Presbyterian Church we have a wonderful opportunity for community through Presbyteries. Before thinking about what structure we need, could we start with questions like: how do we want to be when we get together? How do we want the love of God to be our guide when we meet? What does it mean to truly love?
Again, I cannot make limited observations apply across the country but, can we consider that unless we change the culture of our gathering together under the spotlight of the life of Christ it really doesn’t matter what structure we have: dysfunction will carry on. Over some of the behaviour seen in Presbyteries and with my own participation in them, my heart cries out, ‘Christ have Mercy’!
I believe that a time of confession and repentance would be valuable. Maybe across the country? One where we sit with prayers like: ‘search me O God’… and ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. If this could lead us into a place of restoration and healing where trust is built, then Presbytery could truly be a place which genuinely serves the mission and ministry of the Church. Then, trusting in our Saviour, we can we leave behind our past certainties and fears and we can step into a whole new way of being together – in love. I know we have work to do in our Presbyteries. We need to be about our business but maybe the next step is to consider a process which assists such an inner work of healing and restoration? From there we can be freed to ask how we want to live together. A fresh vision can be agreed to and flowing out of it a structure can be built to support our agreed direction.