St. Andrew's Pastor Nominating process, from my perspective

Most of my blog has not only been a story of my personal spiritual walk, but has also been a story of my walk in a specific place: St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Newport Beach, California. I haven’t been posting with any frequency for half a year or more for many reasons, but the primary one is that the cognitive processing of my journey has been in a “listening” stage more than in a stage of outpouring of new conclusions. I recently went back and re-read my own posts here, and still find them to be a good reflection not only of my journey these few years but also of the trajectory I am on, both spiritually and intellectually, both theologically and in praxis.

St. Andrew’s is an interesting place. It is a very Evangelical, very mainline congregation – a combination that is unique and that was a good part of the reason it became home to me when I moved to California in 1996 – leaving First Presbyterian in Glen Ellyn, IL, which is equally Evangelical and mainline. We are full of people who are committed to a conservative faith, a conservative view of the family and of human sexuality, and also committed to living in loving relationship with each other and with God, according to the written rules of polity and the unwritten rules that have developed among us.

The thing I love most about the reality of the people around me at St. Andrew’s is their sincere commitment to do the right thing even if it costs them. The thing I find most uncomfortable about the reality of St. Andrew’s as I have experienced it personally is the exclusivity that comes from that same commitment to living in obedience as they have understood obedience. At times I feel very connected and nurtured and respected, and at other times I feel that if I were to reveal too clearly the places that I actually still need a Savior or the places that I don’t quite see things as they are taught from the front . . . well, that I would remain as I so often have felt over these years: like a little girl with her face against the glass watching a loving family from outside, but never invited in. (Of course, this sense of not actually being fully accepted socially and relationally is a common theme in most circles of membership, especially in large ones - whether conservative or liberal! It is not at all unique to me at St. Andrew's, and is not unique at all among churches!)

So now I will tell my personal story of the pastoral nominating process these few years – told as a church member who was never part of the inner circles of power, which are the (regular, not pastoral) nominating committee and the ministry committee at the center, and the session peripherally beyond that. I think one of the features of a larger congregation where there has been the same senior pastor for 3 decades is necessarily a political environment that holds dissenting viewpoints at arms length, and preserves a culture and theology that reflects those who are in accord with the status quo. I think there are themes that flow from this situation into what has transpired in our pastor search process these last few years, but they are not at all clear to me as one outside of that inner circle, and I suspect that if I were inside that circle I would be incapable of seeing anything outside the views that bound me to the others within it. In any case, this is just my understanding and reflection, and I may well have some details recorded here that are different from the official record or from any other person's account -- but I have done my best to be accurate and thorough without being overly tedious in details.

About 5 years ago the church became aware of the pending transition it would face as John Huffman Jr, the Senior Pastor of decades, moved to a normal retirement age and then past it. One of the Associate Pastors, Jim Birchfield, was a Bible teacher who drew crowds and fans even from other churches, and certainly from within St. Andrew’s. Like many associate pastors in other churches, he had his own circle of influence within the church and was at a stage where he was also being sought as a senior pastor in other churches. He also fit well into the inner circle of power at St. Andrew’s. So the conversations began about how sad it was that he couldn’t be considered for Senior Pastor when John retired.

(There are many reasons why associate pastors are excluded from consideration normally, including the one that is most mentioned, which is to prevent multiple internal associate pastors from competing for the spot. There is also a concern to avoid perpetuating an inner circle of power left by a long-time senior pastor, and additional reasons, including the ones which become clear with the rest of my story. But the starting point is simply that Jim normally would not be able to even be considered, and we wanted to change that.)

I was one of those who loved John Huffman’s preaching and also loved Jim Birchfield’s teaching, and actively prayed for a solution that would let us consider him in our coming search process, as well as one of those who talked about it with others active at St. Andrew’s. I was overjoyed to learn that our presbytery – Los Ranchos – had helped St. Andrew’s figure out a way that they could make that happen. The way was this: A co-senior pastor situation would be created, the second co-senior would be designated until a pnc had selected a new co-senior to call, the called pastor would replace the designated co-senior, then John would retire as the other co-senior pastor, and the called pastor would have his position amended to sole single pastor.

Our congregation agreed to this plan. Dr. Dennis Okholm, ordained and a parish associate, but with a career in theological academia, agreed to assume the designated co-senior pastor role and was so called and installed, and Dr John Huffman Jr had his position modified to co-senior pastor / head of staff. At the same time, Jim Birchfield was given the role of Executive Pastor and assumed not only the responsibility for almost all of the staff (Dr Huffman only kept a few reports out of the very large staff) and for the vision process that would take St. Andrew’s into the pastoral call process, but also continued many of his previous roles and pastoral relationships. He retained responsibility for the areas vacated by several program staff members in the previous decade and also took on these two major jobs of daily operations and planning for the future, and invested himself in it with apparent joy and drive.

Over several years, Jim led teams that researched our demographic and our perspectives as individual members of the congregation, wrote a comprehensive report, developed a comprehensive vision statement, created implementation teams for each element of the vision statement, and created a plan to actually execute and measure each element of the vision statement. He also hired staff to replace key ministry positions that were not called positions and participated in the redesignation of some called positions to new areas of responsibility. He managed the complete reorganization of the church, with its old entrenched “silos”. He had significant interaction with all of those in the inner circle of power, and so they – like all of us – had opportunity to not only see the ways Jim excelled but also the ways he was human.

A year ago a CPNC (Co-Pastor Nominating Committee) was recommended to and approved by the congregation. Every member of the CPNC was chosen as one who would have no associated controversy or disrespect by any of the various groups in the church community, and all were people who had great respect from all who knew them. They were people who would not only do their job well but would truly do it according to the values and interest of St. Andrew’s as a whole – and not only the inner circle of power.

The CPNC did its normal work – writing our cif, reading pifs, praying, talking, sorting –and ultimately chose a candidate other than Jim Birchfield. They made their final vote on June 29 – a Monday. They shared with Jim Birchfield that he was not their choice (and also who it was that was their choice) on July 3, as a courtesy before informing others. The following week, on July 9 and 10, Jim was given permission to inform the program staff, and on Saturday, July 11 at a Relational Discipleship team meeting informed the 12 people who were there (which included me.) That evening and the next morning, the congregation was informed by John Huffman that Jim had not been chosen, and that we would learn the name of the candidate who had been chosen the following weekend, after he had been able to inform his church. That Monday and Tuesday the cpnc and the presbytery and the program staff and the session all had meetings to understand what was happening and to try to manage some of the chaos that had ensued among the congregation with the announcement the previous weekend.

On Sunday, July 19 there was a 3.5 hour congregational forum in which some people expressed anger and grief, some expressed bewilderment and confusion, some took a clear position in unity with the cpnc and the process that had been followed, and some (like me) just listened, watched, and prayed. The following Wednesday evening, July 22, there was a second congregational forum in which some of the same venting went on, but which was focused more heavily on matters of order and on the financial arrangements that were part of the call. This meeting lasted 3 hours, and had more of a tone of peace and love to it, with some of the speakers specifically calling for mutual respect and love in convincing ways.

One of the significant points of order that was discussed in this Wednesday night congregational forum was that the normal use of a “substantial minority” in opposition to the candidate selected would not apply in this case because of the unusual circumstance of an internal candidate who had not been selected, and the expectation of a huge minority because of the anger and disappointment that the candidate was someone else. The Book of Order called for a simple majority, and the concept of a "substantial minority" to be considered was derived from the handbooks in use for the pastoral call process, not from the Book of Order. The concept of a substantial minority is normally used to counsel the candidate about how advisable it is to accept a call into a split church, or even to allow the church or the presbytery to reconsider the call. It was determined that in our situation the candidate fully understood what he was facing and that we as a congregation also understood that as we voted, and that the presbytery understood it as well.

On Friday, July 24, Rich Kannwischer and his family (who had flown in the previous evening) met with staff, elders, deacons, and pnc members for a luncheon. The following evening Rich preached, and he and his family met the congregation at receptions before and after the Saturday evening service. Sunday morning Rich preached twice, then was interviewed (as was the cpnc) at a called congregational meeting. He was then dismissed from the meeting for us to debate and vote on his call. The congregation approved a motion to release Dennis Okholm from his role as designated co-senior pastor (to return to parish associate) with little discussion. There was then substantial discussion once again on the call to Rich and the financial terms of his call.

A motion was made to recommend that a negative vote beyond 20% receive the consideration it would usually receive in this process but that had been determined to not apply here because of the special circumstances. There was debate, and then a verbal vote, which was not decisive. The vote was then retaken by both sides standing in turn, and the motion was defeated. There was more debate/discussion on the issue of the call, which met with increasing impatience from the congregation, who were hot and hungry and ready to vote. A motion was made to bring the discussion to a close and to call for a vote, and the motion carried. Ballots were distributed, marked, and collected face-down in the offering plates.

After voting, around a third of the members at the meeting left, and the rest were led in singing while the votes were counted. This time of singing was truly worshipful and warm. The results were finally announced (753 yes, 288 no), and Rich Kannwischer rejoined those on the platform to the warm applause of those who had remained and addressed us briefly, accepting the call. There were thanks to the cpnc committee members and to the guest moderator and to Steve Yamaguchi (executive presbyter of Los Ranchos) and Keith Geckler (stated clerk of Los Ranchos) and the cpnc were released from their roles. The moderator closed business appropriately, Rich gave us a benediction, and we went home.

My own reflections at this point are these: 1) there is a reason that Senior Pastors should come from outside the existing staff at a church, and I deeply regret the way this situation exposed Jim Birchfield to a 3-year working interview and the current result; 2) I am pleased with the work of the cpnc and with the polity of our denomination, and believe it has led us to the right candidate for our future; 3) I am glad for the way this has exposed us and shaken us up, and believe God will use that to refine us and heal the stuff that was well-hidden before this; and last 4) we’re all tired and hurting, on every side . . . and we need time now to rest, grieve, forgive, and move on toward a united future.

Adding my own analysis beyond that would not be helpful at this point, because I am also filled with mixed emotion, and because there is much to see as this coming year or two makes real the transition, with Rich starting September 1, John retiring in November, and Jim choosing to either invest himself fully into his role as head of Relational Discipleship or to simply do his job there while he actively pursues finding another call. All of us who have been active in lay ministry, all the support staff, and all the program staff have gone through major changes already in the last 2 years, and these next 2 years promise more of the same. I suspect that many – like me – will turn inward toward their own personal sense of call and walk, and trust God that He will be there as the story emerges and we each see where we fit in the new reality of St. Andrew’s. I also suspect that most will reinvest into this community, and that those who end up leaving will leave more because they no longer fit the conservative theology or because they find themselves unable to do the ministry that they are drawn to do than because of any of these changes in leadership, which seems at least to have perpetuated our heritage as a conservative evangelical church in our denomination.

So, with that unedited ramble . . . I am off to Forest Home for the week, and will have limited access to my blog, to email, and to FaceBook and Twitter. Thanks to everyone for your prayers!


At Monday, July 27, 2009 at 9:35:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honest,compelling, helpful reporting and analysis, and optimistic @ the future

At Monday, July 27, 2009 at 7:14:00 PM PDT, Blogger Brian Borchers said...

Not being a member of any church, I'll only comment that I've seen several of these transitions become very painful for members of the churches that were involved. It's got to be tough to say goodbye to a pastor that you've had for years or decades, and the choice of a replacement can bring out any latent tension within the church.

At Monday, August 31, 2009 at 9:52:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From this report it is evident that well-meaning people did their best to honor Christ. Nonetheless, it is also apparent that Rev. Birtchfield was misled, and that the leadership did not follow through on what was at least an implicit promise to extend the call to him. I pray for him and his family that they are not scarred by the injustice they suffered, and I do hope that the leadership of the church will offer sincere repentance and deep apologies to Rev. Birtchfield and his family.

At Monday, August 31, 2009 at 10:06:00 AM PDT, Blogger EmKay Anderson said...

To the author of the last anonymous comment:

At the conclusion of the meeting where we voted, Dr Huffman publicly quoted Dr & Mrs Birchfield as having said that they fully understood from the beginning that another candidate might be selected; and I am sure Dr Huffman was indeed quoting Jim.

However, there is no doubt that many members of St. Andrew's see it exactly as you state, and although the Birchfields don't see it as a breach of contract, I am sure it was an emotional blow nevertheless.

Thanks for your perceptiveness.

At Monday, September 28, 2009 at 6:43:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog has been a real blessing. As an member of First Presbyterian Church in Houston I can tell you that we are extremely excited about the prospect of Jim Birchfield becoming our next Senior Pastor. There was an electricity in the air at FPC Houston yesterday after our PNC announced that they had a nominee and we were even more excited about it once we knew who it is. Although we have been blessed by a wonderful interim pastor, the past few years have been very painful for our congregation due to the behavior of and divisions caused by our last Senior Pastor. So, I know what it must have felt like during the divisive times at St. Andrews.
We have also had the joy of knowing the Kannwischers for the past few years since Rich served at FPC Houston. I believe you are in good hands. Please know that your loss of the Birchfields is a gain for a congregation ready and awaiting new leadership and eager to welcome them with open arms. We will keep St. Andrews in our prayers as both our congregations continue to heal from the hurtful past and look forward to an exciting future with our new pastors.
In Chist,

At Monday, September 28, 2009 at 7:07:00 PM PDT, Blogger EmKay Anderson said...

Thanks, Paul!

We at St Andrew's are excited for your church & for the Birchfields! It looks like a very good match, & I am so glad that Jim's gifts will be used well!

We love the Kannwischers already, and I know God has been in control in every detail here.

Thanks for your prayers for us! As much as we will love the Kannwischers, we have the retirement of Dr Huffman & Dr Lydia Sarandan this year to process, as well as our loss of Jim to you, and of Rev Bill Flanagan soon to cancer. Although we rejoice that "goodbye" is never permanent for those who know the Lord, it still brings much pain!

Your sister in Christ,
Maria Anderson


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