Mid Councils Newsletter, February 9, 2015
What a difference a year makes for us in the Midwest. Last year, when I was still working in a presbytery office, I had none of the face-to-face meetings that were supposed to happen in January and several in February were postponed or changed as well. The snow just kept coming and it was also bitterly cold. At one point I was wondering how we were going to be able to get to the garbage cans directly behind our house to take out the trash! So, COM met by phone—not recommended—and other meetings were just postponed. I talked to a mom of a grade school age student. When school was finally in session one Monday in February (the big snows kept coming on Sundays and schools were often closed on Mondays) she told her child to get ready for school. The child said “We never have school on Mondays!” How quickly we can imagine that something is an “always” or “never” part of our lives.
Because our weather has been so mild, comparatively, this year, I have, so far, made it to every obligation. One of those was a discussion about reference checks conducted when a pastor is being considered for a new call. Around the table there were very experienced members of COMs. It became clear even with this experienced group that we can sometimes forget (like the child who thought there was never school on Mondays) what we are required to do and what we are encouraged to do as presbytery leaders at those times of transition.
Perhaps the most important thing for us to remember is that anyone who is engaged in ordered ministry or any certified Christian educator is a mandatory reporter with regard to abuse of minors or those lacking mental capacity in most circumstances (see Book of Order, G-4.0302). You will see that there are some provisions about privileged communication that are superseded by a reasonable belief of future harm to the victim. When the presbytery becomes aware of allegations against or actions by one of its members or a member of one of its churches that involve children, in almost every case the next phone call should be to the proper authorities. No one on behalf of the presbytery should undertake any further investigation until those charged by the civil authorities to investigate such actions or allegations have completed their process. This is not the time to try to counsel someone or to try to hide something “for the sake of the church.” This is not the time to give a clear reference check to a person under this cloud. That should come only after the person is either cleared or prosecuted.
Beyond those—thankfully rare—egregious circumstances, what is the best practice for reference checks? The Committee on the Office of the General Assembly will be talking about this at its next meeting. In general there are several kinds of reference checks that now happen: presbytery-to-presbytery (often by staff); PNC checks with the references on the PIF; an examination by the COM or a subcommittee of it; and some kind of criminal background check that might also include credit and driving background checks.
The place where the discussion will focus is the presbytery-to-presbytery reference checks. Here are some of the issues that surfaced. First, sometimes a presbytery representative will give false information, either on purpose (because they are trying to help someone get a new job) or because they do not know the whole story of a person’s ministry. Second, with the changing face of presbytery leadership, the people who are talking to one another on the phone may not know each other and may not know how deeply they can trust one another. I have heard stories of presbyters who gave a frank assessment of the gifts or lack thereof of a member of their presbytery to a colleague on the phone. Two days later, that person storms into the office or sends an angry email (I got some of these) because the person from the other presbytery shared the details of that assessment with the PNC and they shared them with the candidate. (Ouch.) There are also dozens of presbyteries who now have someone who is a volunteer—a COM moderator or the like—who does these reference checks. I know when I would get a call from such a person, I was hesitant to say much. I did not know them and did not know if they were really who they said they were. Being a believer in total depravity, I could create a story for myself where it was really the spouse of the candidate who was calling me and I would be faced with an angry member of my presbytery if I said too much. Third, PNCs place great trust in the presbytery-to-presbytery check. They believe that once they get the green light from the presbytery office they do not need to do much more checking. For members of a PNC who may or may not have ever been involved in any other hiring decision anywhere, doing due diligence in this arena is new territory. If that presbytery-to-presbytery check proves to be unreliable or false, it creates a hardship at the church and a rift in the relationship between the church and the presbytery.
As you do this part of your work, I am sure you have run into other interesting situations. Some of this falls into that kind of unwritten “we always” or “we never” area of our work. If you have any suggestions for topics for further discussion or suggestions for solutions, the subcommittee of COGA working on this will welcome your suggestions. You can send them to me and I will pass them along.
From time to time, leaders of presbyteries are asked to provide churches with good news about the Presbyterian Church. Oftentimes this happens in the midst of deliberations about denominational affiliation. Here is a resource that might be helpful in that or other circumstances.
A reminder to all presbyteries. The Standing Rules of the General Assembly now require that commissioners to the General Assembly be elected and their names reported to the Office of the General Assembly no later than 180 days before the Assembly. That date for the next Assembly will be December 21, 2015.
National Capital Presbytery is seeking a Director of Congregational Development and Mission. They have provided the following links for more information:
Position Description: http://www.thepresbytery.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/newPD-Dir-CD-12-8-14.pdf
Big Tent 2015
University of Tennessee Conference Center
July 30–August 1, 2015
Experience that deep sense of community one would expect at a national gathering of Presbyterians—a great big family reunion! Join us for a wide variety of workshops, all under one Big Tent, a conference that will inspire and equip Presbyterians to live missionally. Click here for more information.
Preachers for Worship Services Include:
Laurene Chan, Director of Youth Ministries, Cameron House
San Francisco Theological Seminary
Paul Roberts, President
Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary
Jana Childers, Professor of homiletics and Speech Communication
San Francisco Theological Seminary