Answering the unasked questions

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A reader submitted the following Cincinnati Enquirer story along with a list of questions left unanswered by the story. But before we get to some of those questions, let’s set the stage. Here’s the lede:

When the Seventh Presbyterian Church closed last fall after 160 years, the congregation created a $2 million “legacy fund” to carry on the church’s support of soup kitchens, shelters and other programs for the needy.

The goal was to continue the good works of one of Cincinnati’s most historic churches long after its doors closed and its members scattered to new places of worship.

But instead of paying tribute to how the church lived, the legacy fund is a reminder of how it died.

It’s a great idea for a story, an opportunity to explore some of the larger questions of denominational life and process. But we’ve already hit our first question: Which Presbyterian church body is Seventh affiliated with? We can probably rule out “independent,” considering the church’s name. But we don’t find out — at any point — that the church was part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Okay, we’re given another tease just a few paragraphs later:

The fight is about more than money, although that’s a big part of it. It’s also about strong personalities, years of real or perceived slights and disagreement over how a shrinking congregation in the heart of East Walnut Hills should have gone about the business of reinventing itself.

Just keep that in mind for a bit. Much later, the story gives us many more details about the battle — the Presbytery of Cincinnati is trying to get the legacy fund while the former members say church law is on their side.

Here’s another line that led to a question:

Seventh Presbyterian had about 700 members at the start of the decade, but those numbers had fallen to 60 by last year.

As the person who submitted the story said, “That’s a calamitous drop by any measure, but it’s not explored.” I also learned that it wasn’t true. This denominational media outlet said, “According to PCUSA Research Services stats, membership dropped from nearly 120 in 1998 to 60 in 2008.” Still a big drop but losing 60 members in ten years is different than losing 640 members in eight or nine years.

The story explains that the congregation decided to find a permanent pastor who could help them dramatically change their future. They hired a headhunter and found a minister who specializes in helping congregations in similar situations. The section of the story detailing that search is pretty interesting. The congregation ended up calling the Rev. Ian Lamont:

But the presbytery’s committee on ministry disagreed. Committee members didn’t think he was a good theological match for the congregation and found his strong personality “unyielding.”

Some church members felt Lamont, who could not be reached for comment, was targeted because he was considered too conservative by a more liberal presbytery.

Whatever the reasons, the committee’s rejection of Lamont meant Seventh Presbyterian could not hire the man its members had spent a year trying to find.

What does that mean — “too conservative by a more liberal presbytery”? Too conservative on what? What are the doctrinal issues in play?

And throughout the story there are references from congregants to perceived poor treatment from the presbytery. I want more than a summary statement about “strong personalities, years of real or perceived slights and disagreement over how a shrinking congregation in the heart of East Walnut Hills should have gone about the business of reinventing itself.” I want to know what the particular disagreements were.

If you want more information, you might try reading from that piece linked to above. It comes from the Presbyterian Layman. They give the whole blow-by-blow and here’s a sample:

Lamont only had “preliminary” interviews with members of the [presbytery's commission on ministry] and when he met with [General Presbyter Jim] DiEgidio, the questioning centered on the issues of women’s ordination and homosexuality, he said. Making no apologies for his conservative stance, Lamont said his answer to those questions were that he would uphold the constitution of the PCUSA and the Confessions.

And there’s much more detail and information. Again, this Cincy Enquirer story is a great idea. But just a bit more exploration of the underlying issues would go a long way.

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  • dalea

    Sometimes local stories like this assume a knowlege of neighborhoods and local events that needs clarification when the story goes national. We need to know more about the East Walnut Hills neighborhood to understand this. From what little I found, it is very near downtown and has a university. And restored housing. Which usually means there is a large GL population living there. Which may explain the Presbytery’s decision. The stories need a lot more context.

  • Steve Salyards

    Good article on the coverage of this news. Just a technical note on your otherwise helpful editing of the Layman article quote.

    In the original the Layman uses the acronym “COM” which is widely understood in the PC(USA). That is the Committee on Ministry – a Committee each Presbytery has as required by the church constitution. In the quote from the Layman you helpfully expand it to “presbytery’s commission on ministry.” While the difference between a committee and commission is, in general, usually a minor one, to Presbyterians (of many branches, not just the PC(USA) ) a commission is a very different animal than a committee. A committee is a group that gets together to do work and present it to the governing body. (In the case of your article the governing body is a presbytery.) A commission is a special group made up of members of the governing body that is empowered to act on behalf of, and with the full authority of, the governing body within the limits the governing body sets when the commission is established. Most committees can go on forever, most commissions are created with a limited lifetime to deal with a specific issue. (There are exceptions to both.)

    I bring this up not to debate trivia, but as your blog is about “getting religion” we Presbyterians realize that most people don’t get certain subtleties of our governance, this being one.