Monday, May 16, 2016

The Sausage Factory

There is an old saying, attributed to Otto von Bismarck: "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." The biennial General Assembly is our Presbyterian sausage factory. For many, the process of considering and shaping amendments to the Book of Order, reviewing and approving policy statements and resolutions, determining our mission priorities, and electing leaders is unseemly because it appears to the untrained eye to be as much a political process as it is a spiritual one.

I believe, however, that what Winston Churchill said of democracy applies equally well to our Presbyterian system:  that it is "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Indeed, if the General Assembly were entirely political, it would be unbearable. But it is very much a spiritual process, albeit an incarnational one.

As Presbyterians, we believe that the will of God is best discerned through gathered assemblies of ruling and teaching elders prayerfully deliberating what God might be saying to the church today. It is a conversation that is surrounded in prayer, and conducted in conversation with the Bible and our Confessions. 

But we are a large and diverse communion who sometimes hear God speak in different accents and inflections. This has been true of governing assemblies going back to apostolic times. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, we know only in part, and we prophecy only in part. And, we are universally inclined towards sin and self-interest. That is why we need to hear and deliberate with others who provide perspectives that might be a corrective to our own. And, it is why we never claim to have discovered the one, true answer to the issues that confront us, but offer them as our best understanding of God's will at this time, while preserving the right of conscience for those who disagree. As an extra corrective, those matters which would amend our Constitution are sent for ratification by the 171 presbyteries of our church.

Even so, ours is not a perfect system. It is constantly in need of review and improvement. And there are always criticisms - some helpful but many short-sighted. But that is the beauty of our system. If we believe in a living God who calls us to be faithful in a changing world, we will necessarily have to live in the tension of determining how we too must change to be faithful in our mission, witness, and service. The alternative would be to calcify our beliefs, shut out the movement of the Spirit, and declare that we have it all figured out already, so all we need to do is celebrate our uniformity and condemn those who disagree.

But in and between the debating and the voting are other extraordinary ways that God speaks to the church at the General Assembly: through inspiring worship, shared bible study, fervent prayer, bold witness, and joyful celebration. We are the most diverse of Presbyterian denominations, and that diversity makes our discernment livelier, and our witness stronger.

One last saying: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed is always being reformed according to the Word of God). Reformation means change; and even good change is always accompanied by disagreement and resistance. People of good faith can disagree, but need not be disagreeable. It is always our prayer that our love for one another exceed our political passions. But you can't cook sausage without a little heat, so fire up the grill - the sausage is coming!


Welcome to the fifth biennial installment of the Insider's Guide to the General Assembly. The purpose of this blog is not just to report what the Assembly does in Portland, but to reflect on how it happened and what it means for the church.  If you want to get a sense of how this works, I invite you to take a look at my previous Insider's Guides:,,, and (You might notice I shortened the URL address for this edition.)

Let me introduce myself. In October 2015, I began serving as the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lake Huron in Michigan. Previously, I served for almost 13 years in both synod and presbytery leadership and over 20 years in parish ministry.

I am also what people call a "polity wonk."  I am one of a select group to have served on both the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (1997-2003) and the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (2006-2012).  For my last two years on the ACC I was constitutional adviser to the Mid Councils Commission (MCC1). You can find a more complete curriculum vitae at my personal website, 

This will be my fifteenth General Assembly dating back to 1983 -- not as many as some but more than most. I have attended as a job-seeker, local arrangements host, Assembly assistant, observer, overture advocate, mid-council executive, ACC member, and corresponding member.

Look for pre-assembly blog posts in the coming days and weeks about how to sort out the players at the Assembly, getting the most out of your Assembly visit, and my regular preview of the top issues coming to the Assembly. Then, during the Assembly, I will post daily updates of Assembly highlights, lowlights, and sidelights.

Every Assembly is unique, and brings unique surprises.This one will undoubtedly shape the future of the PC(USA) for years to come. I look forward to sharing it with you.