Tooling Along

Jan 21, 2003 11:51 PM EST

LOUISVILLE - It was my first time ever with Congregational Ministries, and - just my luck - this was the day they chose to be tools.

It was Helen Morrison's idea. She's the feisty, bespectacled moderator of the Congregational Ministries Division Committee (CMDC). "We're going to do this fun little exercise," she announced. "If you were a tool, what would you be? We'll start on my left."

I think Morrison may have gone first, but I was abashed at the time and don't remember what tool she said she was. Snake light, stud finder, thread cutter, whatever.

But the committee members jumped right in. A pleasant fellow volunteered that he'd be a hedge trimmer, because he likes to keep things neat, and off they went. It didn't seem to make them as uncomfortable as I'd have been (I thought idly, it not having dawned on me that I, too, was to be a tool). These are hard-core church people, I thought to myself, they're used to being put on the spot: They know that any Presbyterian in a meeting can be called upon to pray at any time.

Dale Morgan, a committee member, was an extension cord, because she likes to connect people. John Bolt was a "trouble light," because in his other life he works for The Associated Press. Delores Register, presumably a former optometrist, was "something tiny, like a Phillips screwdriver." Sandra Sorem of Congregational Ministries Publishing was a router, because she's getting good at gouging her way through obstacles. The Rev. Syngman Rhee, a former GA moderator, was a saw. The Rev. Joe Small of the Office of Theology and Worship was a tape measure. CMD Director Don Campbell was a weed whacker. The Rev. Barbara Renton, the GAC moderator, was a snow blower (possibly stuck on ON, given Louisville's weather these days).

I was one of the last to pick, maybe 30th. All the good tools were taken. It was clear that no one was supposed to be a tool somebody else already was. I was feeling sort of glad, but sort of sorry, that none of my reporting colleagues was there. I said I was a Roto-rooter. Nobody asked me to elaborate.

When the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, the General Assembly moderator, came in, Morrison ambushed him and demanded to know what tool he was. "I like to till the land," he said. "A tiller is wonderful."

When somebody claimed to be a dado, there was an uncomfortable silence.

When everyone had spoken, Morrison said, "Thank you very much. You're a wonderful shed."

That's that, I thought. Here it wasn't even 9 a.m., and I'd already been promoted to tool. I hadn't even had my coffee. (There is a well-equipped coffee shop in the Hyatt's lobby, but its hours of operation are very like a soccer score, nil-nil.) Excuse me, what dimension are we in?

Just when I thought it couldn't get any stranger, the person sitting next to me leaned over and said, "I like a man who does needlepoint."

"Me, too," I muttered, sincerely enough, and looked around, and sure enough, there was a needlepoint guy - James Kirk, a committee member and shop vac. He's making a colorful squarish something. Put in two years on this committee and you get to see if it's a sweater or a muffler.

Mission Support Services was never like this.

Comic relief is not unusual at GAC meetings. But it was striking that this meeting was just getting under way -all the committee had done so far was pray and be tools - and already there was plenty of tension to be relieved.

The mood was dampened somewhat by awareness of the church's chronic shortage-of-money problem and the prospect of further layoffs and program cuts. Not long after the division meetings began on Tuesday, John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, and Kathy Lueckert, his deputy, made the rounds, talking about the "challenges" of the 2003 and 2004 budgets: a $1.53 million deficit for 2003 and a $2.65 million shortfall for 2004. They talked about the adjustments they have in mind to make the numbers come out right. Lueckert said all the mainline denominations are in the same boat, and there may be "some comfort in the common misery," in "knowing that it's not just us."

The committee members didn't seem much comforted. Rhee complained about "the continuous picture of deficit." David Wallace remarked that Detterick and Lueckert had painted "a very negative picture." Nancy Kahaian said the SLT's approach to establishing budget priorities "seems to be piecemeal," adding drolly, "It would be nice to be informed along the way exactly what the process is." Another member lamented that he'd witnessed "one long decline" in PC(USA) membership and revenues since 1992.

Detterick said he and the rest of the GAC's Staff Leadership Team (SLT) were anxious to have "the guidance of the council" in deciding what are "the things that are really important, programmatically, for the GAC to do," and defining "the kind of culture that ought to exist at the Presbyterian Center." He asked, "Where is God calling us, in this environment, to go?"

In a paper distributed to the members, Detterick listed the SLT's priorities as those identified by the 205th General Assembly back in 1993: evangelism, social justice, partnership and spiritual formation. He explained how the SLT went on to identify 12 broad program areas that it considered "most essential to the work of the GAC."

Bolt said some of the priorities set by the SLT "are so general as to be meaningless," and said he was struck by "the absence of some things" he'd expected to find on the list of the "most-essentials," such as Theology and Worship.

"It just seems to me we're being asked to do a lot of things, none of which is working," said Kirk.

The tension went up a notch that first afternoon when Alex Metherell, an elder from California, presented a petition to Abu-Akel that seemed to bear enough signatures of minister and elder commissioners to force a special called meeting of last year's General Assembly. The deficits Lueckert and Detterick had talked about didn't take into account the $400,000 to $600,000 cost of an extra Assembly.

After Detterick and Lueckert left, the committee moved on to more pleasant work.

After looking at a report of an end-of-term appraisal in which members of his staff pronounced him "an ideal leader" and "a joy to work with on a daily basis," the committee unanimously recommended Donald G. Campbell for appointment to a second four-year term as CMD director.

Campbell presented a list of seven goals he'd created for CMD "in anticipation that I would be reconfirmed." The most interesting was No. 4, exploring the possibility of creating a Book of Common Education as a complement to the Book of Common Worship."

Goal No. 5 was, "The Timing, Priority and Urgency of goal fulfillment of goals #1-#4."

Campbell said the appraisal process had given him "an even greater appreciation for staff, in terms of what they've been through in their work for the church in the service of God." He said it didn't seem right that he should "get the praise, when other people do all the work."

There was similar pleasure in hearing the report of Congregational Ministries Publishing (CMP), the often-beleaguered producer of PC(USA) educational curriculum.

Publisher Sorem announced that CMP has finished the first components of "We Believe," a new curriculum ordered up by last year's GA, which set aside $750,000 for the purpose.

"We Believe" will be unveiled during the annual meeting of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE), which begins later this month, and will be ready for churches to begin using this fall. Sorem said lots of educators in the church are "eager to try it," although many "are going to wait and see."

Campbell said of the production of "We Believe" in less than a year, "It's nothing short of a miracle, folks."

According to Sorem, preliminary figures indicate that CMP finished last year "over-expended" by only about $300,000. That modest deficit will likely be covered entirely with CMD funds, including "a good bit of it from CMP," she said. Were it not for an unexpected inventory "write-down" of more than $140,000 last January, and a $60,000 loss on Spanish-language materials, CMP might actually be flirting with profitability, she said.

As evidence of improved management, she cited CMP's receivables, which now stand at about $40,000, down from almost $500,000 last year. "I feel extremely encouraged," she told the committee.

"We believe in 'We Believe,'" she said, adding a short while later, "I don't really believe it, but I believe we've really made it." Believe it.

Morgan, a former Christian educator, said she'd read most of the "We Believe" materials and has no doubt that it will be well received. "This is one of the most important things we have done in a long time in this denomination," she said. "This is so good. Fantastic stuff. This is going to be loved all across the church."

Campbell recalled that, when he attended his first GAC meeting less than four years ago, CMP had a deficit of $5 million and was "one vote away" from dissolution. That called to his mind a Presbyterian News Service headline referring to a "$5 million bailout" that still makes him angry. "We've come a long way," he said.

Committee member Raymond Greenhill agreed. "In those days," he said, "there were two colors in CMP: Its balance sheet and income statement were red and its outlook was black."

Sorem had another success to report: the publication of the Children's Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study, which she said is "just flying off the shelves." The new book sold out its first edition of 15,000 copies before it was printed, and a second printing is almost gone. "We've had a lot of positive response from people all across the church," Sorem said.

She was lavish in praise of her staff. She said, as Campbell had before her, that she felt a little sheepish about getting the bulk of the credit when others had done the bulk of the work.

Acting on a recommendation from the Office of Theology and Worship (TAW), the committee voted to ask the GAC to urge presbyteries to conduct workshops on the New Presbyterian Catechism and undertake studies of the French Confession of 1559 ("focusing on its relevance for the contemporary church"). The General Assemblies of 1998 and 1997, respectively, had suggested adding those documents to the Book of Confessions. Small said both documents are worthy of study, but "neither has yet demonstrated" that it ought to be made part of the PC(USA) constitution.

The CMDC will ask the 215th General Assembly to encourage each presbytery in the PC(USA) to "arrange for the celebration of the Lord's Supper in one of its churches each Lord's Day." Small said John Calvin thought it would be good "to require that the Holy Supper of the Lord be held every Sunday at least as a rule." The Book of Order says it is "appropriate to celebrate the Lord's Supper as often as each Lord's Day," at least "regularly and frequently enough to be recognized as integral to the Service for the Lord's Day."

Small said "few Presbyterian churches celebrate the sacrament weekly." In the rationale offered by the Office of Theology of Worship, it says "the move in many congregations from quarterly to monthly observance is welcome," but inadequate to "fully express the central convergence of Word and Sacrament."

When the Geneva civil authorities refused to allow the celebration of the Lord's Supper every Lord's Day, "At least for a while, Calvin managed to schedule services in Geneva churches so that the sacrament was celebrated somewhere in the city on every Lord's Day."

Similarly, "Celebration of the Lord's Supper each Lord's Day is a possibility in every presbytery." The rationale goes on to suggest, "A presbytery might provide a special communion set to be used in the church that celebrates the Eucharist for the whole body."

The pressure was off when it was time for the committee to decide whether or not to continue the Interfaith Listening Project for a second year.

That's the program that brought Muslim-Christian teams from around the world to the United States last year to talk about and model interfaith dialogue, by all accounts an unqualified success.

It was easy to concur with Worldwide Ministries' recommendation that the program be reprised, because doing so would have no financial implications: The money - the budget for last year was about $75,000 - has already been set aside.

In its last order of business, the committee reelected as its chair - who else? - Helen Morrison, nail gun.

By John Filiatreau