Landon Whitsitt is nothing if not pithy.
He made this statement at an Executive Transitional Ministry Training in 2015 and – although I’ve written about it before – I want to revisit the statement because it has happily altered our Committee on Ministry culture for the better:
You can put a toilet in the kitchen but we’re going to tell you that putting a toilet in your kitchen is a very bad idea.
In Presbyterian Church World, the Committee/Commission on Ministry (COM) is the center of power that assists congregations in calling new pastors, retiring current pastors, ordaining and installing pastors, handling congregational conflicts often involving a pastor, ensuring that pastors have healthy boundary training, etc. In fact, COM not only assists, we are one of the legs of the “three legged stool” that approves changes in ministry along with the individual pastor and the congregation. (All three legs have to agree for something to happen.)
In some Presbyteries COM is the bad guy.
COM has the reputation of saying no when a congregation wants to say yes. And I totally get the frustration when a congregation that knows itself really really well wants to call Cousin Eddie to be their next pastor because they believe that Cousin Eddie would make a fine preacher and it would save them so much time to call him.*
We Presbyterians have certain iron clad requirements (like Cousin Eddie has to have seminary training in the Reformed tradition, proper examinations, a clean background check) but apart from that, we hope to be a permission-giving entity.
Here’s the beauty of Landon’s pithy saying:
- It gives a congregation permission to make a foolish choice. Unless we – the Presbytery – knows that this pastor is an embezzler/sexual predator/serial killer, we are granting permission for a congregation to make a decision they will probably regret, if not today then a year from now.
- It demands that the COM (through liaisons assigned to each congregation) must have a trusting, personal relationship with our congregations so that it’s clear to the congregation that we want you to thrive.
- It moves “the Presbytery” from being the bossy institution to being a partner in ministry. We know you can have a stronger leader than Cousin Eddie.
Just this week at a COM training, more than one person quoted this saying. I believe it should be the mantra of each Presbytery because the truth is that the Presbytery (or Conference, Diocese, etc.) exists to strengthen our congregations. At least that’s why we should exist.
Denominational mid-councils or entities certainly do not exists to perpetuate institutions. No. Never. (Or at least not anymore.)
So, churches – you can pick Cousin Eddie to be your pastor, but we’re going to tell you it’s a bad idea. You can pick that suave former Lutheran who was removed from ordination for reasons nobody is willing to share. You can pick that clergywoman who has left her last three congregations under a cloud – but she is available! You can pick the Pulpit Candy. But – if it’s a poor choice – we are going to tell you.
And it’s not a poor choice because somebody in the Presbytery doesn’t like they way they wear their hair. It will be a poor choice because we’ve seen what happens when churches call a pastor who:
- Looks great on paper and even in person, but we’ve learned that the pastor is a bully.
- Seems so charming, but has a history of not-yet-chargeable incidents in previous churches.
- Might be inexpensive to call (eg a retired pastor to whom you don’t have to pay health or retirement benefits) but you get what you pay for.
- Is exactly what you had before (and remember you fired that guy.)
God (and the Presbytery) want your church to thrive and grow and transform the world for good in the name of Jesus Christ. Let us help you do that.
[*Presbyterians “call” pastors. We don’t “hire” them. A pastoral call assumes that the Holy Spirit has moved through the voice of the congregation and others.]
I love the way this metaphor addresses so many important truths in our church/COM relationships.