Monday, June 16, 2014

The 221st General Assembly those far—Day 3, Reflections

I intend to blog my reflections while attending the 221st General Assembly in Detroit.  Thus far I’ve had a love/hate relationship with technology.  I can post to my Facebook timeline via my Iphone and Ipad more easily than logging into my blog account via my laptop.  I haven’t figured out how to blog from my Ipad.  So look… for my facebook posts for photos and brief comments.  I will try to post my blog at the close of each day.   After a flurry of activities the first two days, I write now as I sit observing committee meeting.   I will try to catch up in this post.

Friday, Eileen and I arrived with materials for the APCE (Association of Presbyterian Church Educators) Booth in the Exhibition Hall.  Just down the aisle I met Sara Dorrien and Will Christians who had just completed setting up the booth for the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  They greeted me with broad smiles and shared the news, “We got engaged to be married last night!”  Congratulations Sara and Will!  I then made a first walk through the Exhibits.  Three quick observations: 
·         The PC(USA) has apps.  The OGA (Office of the General Assembly) has a “Guidebook” app for this 221st GA which provides the schedule for the GA meetings and events, which I/you can then personalize.  It gives the times, place, and maps for the activities I selected.  Slick!   Another app is for prayer and Bible study for this Assembly.  The  D365 app for daily devotions is show cased at the Young Adult Ministry booth in the Exhibition Hall (See the next bullet point).  One recommendation being considered at this GA will be funding for the development of an app for nurturing and supporting mission practice of disciples.   
·         The PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) staff persons are younger.  A young twenty something PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) staff person helped my download a Daily Prayer app which has the daily liturgy and scriptures in the Book of Common Worship, Daily Prayers, onto my Iphone.  “How cool!”  The YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) program hosted a reception Sunday night celebrating its 20th anniversary.  The room rocked, and buzzed with energy.  T.J. Piccalo, a veteran of our Camp Greenwood Staff was there fresh back from a year in Northern Ireland.    
·         Our Church has Resources.  The Exhibit hall is filled with booths  to connect with the resources of the denomination and networks associated with the church.  One I noted is Research Services.  They provide guidance and support for congregations and presbyteries doing strategic planning, help for engaging groups in discernment, and Mission Insight, U.S. Census demographic data, available for every congregation to help leaders understand the demographics of their nearby community.  One reason to come to these assemblies is to be introduced to the new resources to support us in ministry.

Saturday, the 221st General Assembly opened with worship.  Three bus loads of Presbyterians from Lake Michigan Presbytery arrived in the nick of time for this opening worship service.   This was a new experience for me as I tried to touch base with as many of these visitors as possible and guide our folks to the worship area and point to restrooms.  Holt/First brought a large group of young people.  Others are volunteering.  What a joy to see so many of our members having a taste of the GA experience!

After lunch, the Assembly began with orientation for commissioners and receiving greetings from the host presbytery and COLA, Committee on Local Arrangements. 

A Personnel Connection:  I found myself sharing with all who would listen, that the labyrinth in the Exhibit Hall was designed by my nephew, Jason Best.  He is a landscape architect.  He designed the labyrinth incorporating the Presbyterian Seal in it as a gift for my brother the Rev. Charles Best on the occasion of his 35th anniversary of his ordination in 2007.  His church, the Monaghan Presbyterian Church, in Dillsburg, PA, had just moved out of their historic building into a new church building on 15 acres.  The labyrinth was installed in the landscaping on the church property in honor of his father’s, and my brother’s 30+ years of service there.  Jason is now the co-moderator of the Trinity Youth Conference, once a Synod sponsored conference.  The proceeds of the canvas labyrinth on sale support this beloved conference known as TYC.  Although Jason is not mentioned at the display, here writes a proud uncle!   

Opening Worship:   It is always inspiring to worship with a large gathering.  And so it was.  We worshiped in the plenary space, so we were really spread out.  Singing and liturgy readings were awkward as we were so spread out.  The young contingent from Holt sat in front of me.  What an experience for them!  I was honored to be a communion server for this service.  Memorable!  Holy Communion will be celebrated at every worship service.  This is a new practice promoted by my colleagues in the Association of Middle Council Leaders to instill more spiritual practice at the Assembly.  COLA is scrambling to recruit enough communion servers!  Opportunities to volunteer still are open, I think.

Presbyterian Outlook Luncheon:  This luncheon attracts the "who's who" list of the denomination, including most past moderators.   I sat with Bill and Pat Fuerstanau.  

 Two Opening Plenary Highlights:  Assembly planners highlighted the racial tension in Detroit and our country playing excerpts of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the March on Detroit, June 1963.  We discussed in small groups how King’s speech was mirrored in our personal experience of racism.   The COLA report and orientation to commissioners played a U-Tube of the 6 presidents of the 6 Presbyterian Corporations (OGA, PMA, PILP, BOP, PF, PPC) singing  a new version of a “Les Mis” in which they lip synced  with voice overs by professional Broadway singers, of their G.A. anxieties, to thunderous applause.  This is not your parent’s PC(USA)!  These leaders have a sense of humor!  Check it out on U-Tube. 

Wrestling with technology:  There are blessings and curses with our love/hate relationship with technology!  We love the advantages.  We hate the learning curve!  The OGA (Office of the General Assembly) stretched itself again this year.  See above concerning the “Guidebook,” a welcomed and helpful new innovation.  A new online voting process was introduced on Saturday only to fail when tested.  The internet support was not sufficient to support it.  Curses!  The OGA modeled how to test out a new system and are to be commended for taking a risk, and for not being rattled when it did not at first work.  They moved to a backup electronic voting system, which they began using in Birmingham in 2006, and which has served us well.  It did not prove reliable either on Saturday.  Curses again!  So for the election of the moderator on Saturday night, they voted by paper ballot.  So it goes.   

Election of the Moderator of the 221st G.A.:  Normally, this provides Assembly watchers an early gauge of an assembly.  This year all three candidates nominated supported a change in the church’s stance on same sex marriage.  All of them expressed a respect for those who may disagree, and promised to be a bridge-builder.   There was little difference in them.  They were all articulate, and accomplished leaders.  There seemed little difference in their responses.   The election provided no gauge of this Assembly except, in my opinion, the absence of a conservative option among the candidates.  Heath Rada was elected by a large margin on the first ballot.  Another personnel note:  Heath was the president of P.S.C.E. (Presbyterian School of Christian Education) in Richmond, when my wife, Eileen attended there.  Also, I learned that Heath was the best man at Dave and Pat Milbourn’s wedding.   Heath has much experience in leadership and mediation in the church and as executive director of the American Red Cross.   

Sunday Worship:  The Assembly worshiped at many congregations throughout Detroit Presbytery.  Eileen and I worshiped with the Calvary Presbyterian Church in northwest Detroit.  We were given a tour sponsored by the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.  The author of a study paper with recommendations “the Gospel from Detroit” led our tour of the old Packard Plant, closed in 1958.  The white flight from the city and economic decline began immediately after World War 2.  The Packard plant is symbolic of this.  The post war public policies including the GI Loans and FHA, red lined black communities llimiting loans.  No investments were made in Black neighborhoods.  Lost economic base, lost employment, lost institutions, lost churches , and decay we witnessed are the result.  After worship we visited the wall, built by the white community in the 40's in the suburbs to keep the black community out.  Detroit is the canary in the mine of what can happen in urban centers elsewhere.  “The Gospel from Detroit” is a major report/paper before this Assembly in Committee 8 (Mission Coordination).  Look for it in the documents on “PC-Biz” for committee 8.  We have had no Urban Ministry initiatives for decades.  This study calls to change that, and to invest in urban ministry, and to reclaim the city for Christ.  The Calvary Presbyterian Church, and Rev. Kevin Johnson, who is a member of the GA Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and co-author, is a leader in Detroit Presbytery leading the way for reclaiming the city for Christ. 

Sunday Plenary:  Greetings were brought from Ecumenical Delegates.  And by a 92 year old African American Presbyterian who shared his reflections.  Sorry I missed his name.  He brought the Assembly to its feet with a thunderous sustained applause with his comment that as a minority in the church, “there have been many things which have annoyed me and made me feel unwelcome in the church, but I never left the table.” 

Sunday Evening the Commissioners met in 15 committees in closed session to get organized, for group building and worship.  Observers like me attended receptions for everything under the sun:  I got to four: to greet the moderator, 1001 New Worshiping Congregations, Fossil Free P.C.(U.S.A.) a new group bringing an overture to the Assembly, and Young Adult Volunteers celebrating the 20th anniversary of this program.  The YAV reception rocked!

Note, I was too tired Saturday and Sunday to write up this blog… G.A. is a marathon of a lot of walking, events, conversations….     

OGA Breakfast:  Two young adults led worship, powerful and to the point, followed by the speaker Lillian Daniel, senior minister at First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois and author of “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.”   She is young, smart, funny, and right on in her critique of the church and the "Nones".  I have not read her book, but based on her speech, it is an essential read for ministry today.

Committee Hearings:  Similar to Congressional hearings, people can sign up to speak to overtures.  They get 90 seconds to speak.  The Committees hear one after another, alternating pro then con, without question or comment.  Committee #10 Civil Unions and Marriage, which I observed, heard thirty persons speak, followed by small group discussion and prayer.  Then after a break, the committee heard overture advocates speak in support of the overture they wrote.   I am serving as a “Presence Keeper” for the Association of Middle Council Leaders.  Presence Keepers observe and intentionally pray for the committee as they work.  I am assigned Committee #10.

Covenant Network Luncheon was well attended.  Mark Achtemeier, former professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, spoke powerfully on the biblical, theological, and pastoral importance and gospel mandate to change the church’s position on same sex marriage, and how he as a conservative, evangelical scholar came to change his mind.  Personal Note:  Mark is a seminary classmate of mine.      

I have taken the afternoon away from the committee deliberations to put these thoughts down to share with those who read them. 

Please note that you can comment on this blog.  Please use this and others to engage in conversation….

I’ll be attending a Tiger’s Baseball game tonight.  This outing is sponsored by the Special Offerings committee--a fundraiser!  No blog tonight.  Next blog will be on Tuesday night, when most committees will have finished their work.  Until then….

The Deep Peace of Christ be with you.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

General Presbyter Sabbatical Plans

It has been my honor to serve as General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan since January 2008. Now after six and a half years of service, I am very appreciative that the Staff Services Committee and Leadership Team have granted me a three month Sabbatical for rest and rejuvenation of spirit and body. My Sabbatical is scheduled for Monday, June 23 through Sunday, September 21, 2014.

On a personal note, this summer is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of Eileen's and my dating relationship.  We will celebrate the 38th anniversary of our marriage on August 14th.  July 14th will be the 30th anniversary of my ordination.  We have served side by side in the P.C.(U.S.A.) over these years, with the Presbyterian Mission in Brazil, then congregations in North Carolina and Virginia while seminarians, and then congregations in Pennsylvania and New York and now the Presbytery of Lake Michigan.  This is my first Sabbatical.

Sabbatical Plans:  Eileen will be taking an unpaid leave of absence to accompany me on a Pilgrimage to Scotland June 25 through July 24th. We will tour Edinburgh and London, then spend a week (July 5-11) at Iona for a conference "Facing Our Environmental Challenges" with David Osborne, a professor of theology.  The conference will not center on the science of climate change or global warming, but on the theological implications and psychological dynamics at play concerning our reluctance to engaging this global challenge. This is a great concern of mine, which I believe has profound implications for faithful leadership in the coming years.  I believe this leadership challenge transcends the issues which absorb our daily attention.  We will then explore the Scottish Highlands, and conclude with a brief stay at the the Northumbria Community in Northern England, a community which has given us the "Celtic Daily Prayer" Book.

After a week's rest at home, we will visit family in Pennsylvania and Long Island as we normally do.  Eileen will then return to work on August 19th.  I will then have five weeks at home for reading, resting, prayer and contemplation, enjoying the biking trials and rivers of Southwest Michigan.  I will join you at the Presbytery Retreat at Geneva Shores, September 15-16, and will return to work on Monday, September 22nd.

I have contracted with Nelson Lumm and Larry Boutelle, both honorably retired minister members of the Presbyter, to fill in as acting General Presbyter for head of staff, administrative leadership and crisis management for 12 hours a week during the Sabbatical.  Pastoral responses will be delegated to COM and other available persons.  Use the following email address and phone number to contact them:,  and/or 269-381-6337 ext. 1.

Prior to the Sabbatical, I will be attending the 221st General Assembly in Detroit June 13-21, during which I will be blogging here and posting my impressions on Facebook.  Please join the Presbytery of Lake Michigan Facebook group for photos and videos. The deliberations of General Assemblies often focus us on what divides us. However, Assemblies also point to what unites us.  This Assembly will celebrate Holy Communion every day.  Mission co-workers will be commissioned, and mission stories will be shared, which we all celebrate.  However, Presbyterians have always been rigorous in discerning the will of God on pressing matters contemporary to ministry. This is part of our DNA as Presbyterians.  Presbyterians nation wide, as well as within our Presbytery, agree on some matters and disagree on others.  I suspect this will be true again this summer as well.

As I will not be with you in the aftermath of this summer's Assembly, I share here my commendation and prayer.  I commend to you our Lord's "Other" Prayer in John 17:11, "Protect them (the disciples) in your name that you have given to me, so that they may be one as we (the Holy Trinity) are one."
Our unity is the content of our Lord's other prayer, his hope for the disciples as he prepared to leave them. Such unity does not mean unanimity, but unity in our diversity as expressed in the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.  "The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church's membership" (F-1.0403).  This diversity is not always seen in our congregations, but is more apparent when we come together in the larger contexts of Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assembly, and ecumenical relationships.

So I call upon the teaching and ruling presbyters of this presbytery to honor our historic principle of showing mutual forbearance toward one another, and fulfilling our ordination vow to be governed by the church's polity and to be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God's Word and Spirit (W-4.4003e). Christ's call to discipleship is to love not only our neighbors with whom we agree, but also our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).  The Church calls us and we covenant together to be a friend of colleagues.  Sometimes this is hard, but I believe the Spirit of God is in the midst of us in profound ways when we walk that path.

The Leadership Team and I want to model for pastors and Sessions the gift of Sabbatical for the vitality and health of ministry.  May God bless our pilgrimages!  

May the Grace and the Deep Peace, which we know and share in Christ, be with you.

John Best,
General Presbyter