Donald M. Poundstone
After forty years, attending general assemblies of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church can feel like déjà vu all over again. Each annual gathering, of course, has its distinctive features and flavor. But year after year a dozen standing committees report on their work and plans, and such reports usually don't differ much from ones delivered twelve months before. The agenda doesn't change a lot.
This doesn't mean that assemblies have little to offer those who attend. On the contrary, coming together to do the important work of Christ's church with about 135 other commissioners (ministers and ruling elders) is a heady and blessed experience. New friendships are formed and old ones renewed. Advisory committee meetings and full business sessions come packed with useful information and, quite often, afford stimulating and challenging discussion and debate. More important, as the "governing body of the whole church" (Form of Government, XV, 2), the general assembly plays a crucial role in shaping the worship, life, and witness of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This summer's meeting made good strides to advance the cause of the Reformed church, and did so with a remarkable spirit of harmony and love.
On the beautiful evening of Wednesday, July 9, on the tree-lined campus of Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Washington, the Rev. Robert Y. Eckardt, moderator of last year's assembly, called the Seventy-fifth General Assembly of the OPC to order. He preached on Matthew 16:18 and reminded commissioners of the faithful presence of Christ in his church. He challenged men to serve with confidence in the Lord's care for the church and his determination to build his kingdom.
Following the roll call, which showed 138 commissioners present, the Assembly without opposition elected as moderator the Rev. Alan D. Strange, a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. One of the church's preeminent parliamentarians, Mr. Strange conducted the Assembly through its business with clarity, precision, grace, and gentle humor. After adopting the docket and performing several other matters of preliminary business, those assembled retired for the evening.
The commissioners spent most of Thursday, July 10, in advisory committees, reviewing written reports and discussing recommendations offered by the Assembly's standing committees.
The Assembly reconvened after dinner on Thursday evening with prayer and the singing of a hymn. (Seasons of prayer and praise, including daily devotional times before the lunch break, punctuated the entire week.) The Rev. Donald J. Duff, the Assembly's stated clerk, reported on his work. The Trustees of the Assembly evaluated his performance over the past year as "superior." (Mr. Duff had to be hospitalized Saturday evening. He was released three days later, apparently having suffered a slight stroke. He returned to the Assembly and resumed some of his duties.)
Mr. Luke E. Brown, ruling elder from Hatboro, Pennsylvania, reported as statistician. The OPC experienced a net growth of 221 persons last year, bringing communicant and baptized noncommunicant membership at the end of 2007 to 28,799, despite the departure of a sizable congregation to another Presbyterian denomination. There are now 263 local congregations and 57 unorganized mission works in the OPC. Offerings throughout the denomination for all causes totalled $45.8 million, down slightly from the level reached in 2006. This amounts to $2,224 per communicant member.
Just before the presentation of reports by the Worldwide Outreach committees (Christian Education, Home Missions, and Foreign Missions), the Rev. Ross W. Graham, representing the Committee on Coordination, gave a brief summary of "the whole work of the whole church," using a colorful and informative brochure designed for that purpose. (This brochure is now available for use by members in all our congregations. It's an excellent tool for family education and guidance in prayer.)
The Rev. Danny E. Olinger, general secretary, and Dr. James S. Gidley, president (and a ruling elder in Sewickley, Pennsylvania), reported for the Committee on Christian Education (CCE). They called attention to the large number of active ministers at or near retirement age. In response to what has been called a looming ministerial crisis, the CCE conducted two Timothy Conferences in April to present the challenges of the gospel ministry to high school and college students. The Rev. Bryan Estelle, a participant in the conferences and professor at Westminster Seminary California, spoke about encouraging signs he witnessed of zeal for serving Christ among young men in our church. Another conference is planned for 2009 in New Lenox, Illinois.
Mr. Olinger stressed the importance of summer and yearlong ministerial internships as aids to preparing men for pastoral ministry. He also noted that a 2009 summer slate of courses is being scheduled for the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC, instead of offering any courses this fall. Mr. Strange, vice-president of the CCE, reported steady progress on the development of a Psalter-Hymnal for publication within the next several years.
The Rev. Thomas R. Patete, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and executive director of Great Commission Publications (GCP), talked about the happy and fruitful association over thirty-three years between the OPC and the PCA in this joint venture to produce Christian educational materials. GCP publishes, among other things, Sunday school curriculum, vacation Bible school and catechetical materials, and two editions of Trinity Hymnal.
The Rev. John R. Hilbelink, president of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE), introduced about fifteen church planters and regional home missionaries in attendance at the Assembly. Mr. Graham, general secretary of CHMCE, reviewed this year's unparalleled growth in starting new churches in the OPC: through early July, the Committee had already approved twenty church planters, more than in any other entire year. Some of the men currently engaged in church planting told the Assembly how God is blessing their labors. The Rev. Richard R. Gerber, associate general secretary, spoke with thanksgiving of how God overcame huge legal obstacles and allowed him and his wife to adopt their baby granddaughter. Mr. Alberto Gomez, leader of our Spanish-language mission work (Iglesia Nueva Vida) in Phoenix, Arizona, recounted the story of his pilgrimage to the Reformed and Presbyterian faith, and his recent mission trip to Cuba.
The Rev. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., president of the Committee on Foreign Missions (CFM), introduced Mr. Mark T. Bube, general secretary of the Committee. Mr. Bube reminded commissioners to lead their people regularly in prayer for our foreign missionaries. He then conducted the Assembly on a grand pictorial tour of our eleven mission fields. Along the way, the Rev. Tony Curto spoke about his regular visits to Ethiopia and the mighty work that God is doing there to build Christ's church. The Rev. Woody Lauer told of his new evangelistic and teaching responsibilities in Japan. The Rev. Al Tricarico reported on the work of evangelism in the Karamoja region of Uganda and thanked the many OP pastors and elders who have visited the field.
The Rev. Jonathan Falk addressed commissioners about his suspended work in Eritrea and his prospective labors in Uruguay. (Jon and his wife, Margaret, departed for their new South American field in early August, and will engage in intensive language study there for three months before starting work with local Presbyterian groups in what is widely recognized as the most secular nation in Latin America.) Associate general secretary Douglas B. Clawson presented the pressing need for additional missionaries in Suriname, Haiti, Uruguay, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Believers on several of our fields face severe persecution for the sake of Christ. Remember them in your prayers!
The Rev. James L. Bosgraf, chairman of the Committee on Coordination (COC), reported strong financial support for the ministry of Worldwide Outreach in 2007. All three program committees (Christian Education, Foreign Missions, and Home Missions) met their approved budgets, receiving total gifts of $3.12 million (including a record Thank Offering of almost $800,000). Mr. David E. Haney, director of finance and planned giving, introduced a packet of information entitled "If I Should Die," prepared to help church members plan for their future. The Assembly then quickly voted an 11 percent increase in the budget for the Worldwide Outreach program from 2008 to 2009, up to $3.4 million. (Contributions of only $165 per communicant member next year will fully fund that budget.)
By far the greatest amount of time at this Assembly was devoted to consideration of a revised Directory for Public Worship. As the result of a decision by last year's Assembly, two full days were set aside to consider the Amended Proposed Revised Version (APRV) of the Directory for Public Worship, which, if approved, will become part of the OPC's constitution. (The current Directory, adopted by the Sixth GA in 1939, has been in process of serious revision by the church for nearly twenty years.) The Rev. George R. Cottenden, chairman of the Committee on Revisions to the Directory for the Public Worship of God, presented the APRV for consideration and amendment by the Assembly, with a view toward its being sent to the presbyteries for approval.
Commissioners debated the revisions, section by section, over the next two days. Issues that stirred up the most spirited and extended discussion included whether to allow nonministers, and even unordained persons, to publicly read the Scriptures in worship; suggested changes in the forms for administering the sacraments; and whether to impose strict uniformity in the wording of baptismal and membership vows. Numerous close votes reflected commissioners' desire both to get it right and to respect their brothers' consciences. At the end of the day, the Assembly had virtually completed revising the Directory, except for several suggested forms for particular services. After debate ended, the commissioners soundly defeated a motion that would have recommitted the APRV to the Committee on Revisions and asked it to distinguish more clearly between the (prescribed) material best suited for a directory and (advisable) material more properly suited for a manual. Work on the revision will resume at the next assembly.
On the Lord's Day morning, July 13, commissioners worshiped at several OP and other Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the area. That night they gathered in the concert hall on the PLU campus for a worship and communion service arranged by the session of Emmanuel OPC in nearby Kent. The Rev. J. Peter Vosteen, pastor of Lynnwood OPC in Lynnwood, Washington, led the service and preached from 2 Kings 2. Echoing a theme from the opening sermon on Wednesday evening, he showed how the gift of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit guarantee the presence of God among his people.
Ministerial pensions and health insurance receive scant attention in the pages of New Horizons. They are, however, matters of great importance to ministers, sessions, and, because they pay for them, members of the church.
Mr. Roger W. Huibregtse, president of the Committee on Pensions (and a ruling elder in Green Bay, Wisconsin), reported on the OPC's retirement plan for ministers and the hospitalization and life insurance plan for ministers and other full-time employees of our church. Assets in the pension fund increased 7.65 percent in 2007; the fund has experienced a slight decline so far this yearmuch smaller, however, than losses in the overall stock market. Because of continued low participation (only 25 percent of OP ministers) and several large claims over the last two years, the Assembly authorized the Committee "to take steps to terminate the hospitalization plan, effective March 31, 2009." Some ministers, especially those whose family members have preexisting medical conditions, expressed concern about their ability to obtain other coverage, although portability laws may offer some protection. The Committee will assist churches and presbyteries in moving ministers to other health care plans. The Assembly voted to thank Garret A. Hoogerhyde and his family for their decades of faithful care to participants in the OPC Health Plan.
The Rev. Ronald E. Pearce, secretary, and Mr. David E. Haney, president, reported for the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM). The Committee helps OP missionaries on half a dozen foreign fields with local diaconal needs, and assists as well believers in Iraq and Sudan, and people still suffering the effects of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters. The CDM budgets over half a million dollars a year for the relief of those in need.
The Rev. George W. Knight III, chairman, and the Rev. Jack J. Peterson, administrator, presented the report of the Committee on Ecumenicity and Interchurch Relations. The Committee seeks to maintain various types of relations and contacts with thirty different Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the U.S. and around the world. The Assembly heard addresses from fraternal delegates representing five of those churches. Of special interest to this reporter was news of promising exchanges and conversations with leaders in the Presbyterian Church of Brazil (PCB), a church numbering 800,000 members that now desires to "get a relationship started with the OPC, including dialogue for missions and cooperation." The Assembly unanimously invited the PCB to enter into a corresponding relationship with the OPC.
Only two overtures from presbyteries came before this Assembly. Responding to the first overture, commissioners denied the request of the Presbytery of the Northwest to amend the Form of Government to involve presbyteries earlier when a congregation is thinking about leaving the OPC.
In response to an overture from the Presbytery of New Jersey, the Assembly "expand[ed] the bounds of the Regional Church of New Jersey to include the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico." Two Orthodox Presbyterian congregations already exist in San Juan. The Assembly's action gives further evidence of the growing Spanish-speaking presence in the OPC.
The Rev. Robert B. Needham reported as chairman of the Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel. Twelve OP chaplains currently serve our church as missionaries on active duty. Mr. Needham gave thanks and praise to God that, to date, no Orthodox Presbyterian soldier or marine has been killed in combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. Army chaplain Paul T. Berghaus spoke of the many evangelistic and other opportunities in his work.
The Seventy-fifth General Assembly concluded its work on Wednesday, July 16. The Seventy-sixth General Assembly is scheduled to meet next year at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from May 27 to June 3.
God in his gracious providence exempted this General Assembly from the struggles and agonies of judicial appeals, complaints, and controversial overtures of previous years. The only written protest was withdrawn after the Assembly overwhelmingly granted its plea to reconsider an earlier action. Even the numerous close votes on the revision to the Directory for Worship did not reflect deep-seated or fundamental differences of outlook. The church seems to be moving forward in love for God and the unity of our confessional commitment. For that we give him all praise and glory.
The author recently retired as the regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Southern California. Reprinted from New Horizons, September 2008.