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June 13, 2008: Evaluating the nFoG

For me, the top issue coming to the 218th General Assembly (2008) is the proposed new Form of Government. No great revelation there. Over the next couple of posts, I am going to try to lay out in a systematic way why the best thing the GA could do is disapprove the nFoG.

Again, before I begin, I want to be very clear about this: I believe the Task Force did an amazing job producing exactly what they were assigned to do. They constructed a document that meets the instructions set forth for them by the 217th General Assembly (2006). My critique is not of the people involved or of the way they handled their task. They have been open, they have solicited comments, they have been forthright in their recognition of the choices they made. I may be the most vocal critic of the nFoG, so please hear this: I believe the members of the Task Force should be commended for their hard work, for the time and energy they put into this project, and for giving us a clear alternative to consider. Theirs is a job well done. They have constructed a new house, from scratch and per instruction, in an incredibly short time.

My argument is that the house they were commissioned to construct will never be the house the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can move into. We can study it, we can amend it, we can try to tweak it and mold it, but it will never be the house for us. And, if we persist on trying to force it into being the house for us, we perpetuate uncertainty; worse, we lose time and opportunity to pursue other options for change.

"Persist and study" seem to the direction we are being encouraged to head. The comments from the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) indicate that further study and amendment is the preferred course of action for those who would advocate in favor:

The COGA reminds the commissioners to the 218th General Assembly (2008) that this is the fifth proposal to revise our Form of Government since 1993.2 If the commissioners of the 218th General Assembly (2008) determine that the study and consideration of the proposal that would naturally occur in the presbyteries, as they considered it for approval, would be inadequate, but instead believe still further consideration and study by the wider church is necessary, the COGA proposes that the commissioners of the 218th General Assembly (2008) authorize a more extensive examination of this proposed Form of Government than has been made in any of those five previous proposals, one that gives every interested Presbyterian an opportunity to consider and review it.

However, if the commissioners to the 218th General Assembly (2008) believe such a study is necessary and wise, the COGA proposes that it be authorized to:

Develop a study process that would engage every presbytery, assisting the presbyteries to engage their members in an examination of this proposed Form of Government.

Make use as needed of task force members, the Office of the General Assembly, and other interested parties in designing and carrying out this study.

Collect all suggestions gathered in those studies and consultations and forward them on to the Advisory Committee on the Constitution for considerations for modifying the current proposal.

The COGA further advises that the Office of the General Assembly be directed to bring such amended Form of Government proposal to the 219th General Assembly (2010).

A couple of thoughts:

1. That four previous assemblies have said no four previous times goes to show that "just say no" is a reasonable response.

2. The "study" option proposed here is the same concept as the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity -- have the committee go out to stump in the presbyteries on behalf of this thing. Yet, we have to ask the question, why should we invest money to fix up a house we are not going to buy?

Read that again and think about it: why should we invest money to fix up a house we are not going to buy? Why should we expend per capita money to support a tour of presbyteries -- presbyteries already demonstrating disinterest in pursuing this option -- in order to create amendments that will then have to be considered and amended by the next Assembly, to be voted down if and when finally given to the presbyteries?

It is not good stewardship of time and resources.

As I will explain further tomorrow, changing our polity is not the answer because polity follows behavior, it does not lead it. If we are unwilling to change, the changes in polity will not make a difference. If we are willing to change, the polity change is not necessary.

So, over the next few posts, let me suggest an alternative approach for commissioners and advisory delegates who might be wondering, "How do I know if the nFoG is a good thing?"

Is the nFoG a better option than what exists now?

That's the basic question. Is it better? And, how can we tell?

In order to approve the nFoG, the Assembly should have to be convinced that approval of the nFoG will make us more missional and less regulatory. It is not sufficient to take a summary swipe and say, "Well, it might work." If approved and it doesn't work, the PC(USA) is done. There's no going back to what we have now once we have abandoned it. If approved and the nFoG does not work, historians will point to it as the proximate instrument of dis-integration of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

So, how do you evaluate it? Three questions:

1. Does its purpose match our needs?

2. What do we lose if we make the change?

3. What are the unintended consequences?

In order to be fair and thorough, you have to assess the good with the bad. Not only do you ask, "What would be accomplished," you also have to ask, "what are the risks?" Remember, if approved by GA and a majority of presbyteries, this becomes the controlling document -- there is no escape clause, there is no way for minority congregations or presbyteries to decline the invitation to participate.