The Covenant Network: The Work Ahead

Brian@Conference2015Executive Director Brian Ellison addressed the 2015 Covenant Conference on Saturday, November 7, lifting up our vision for the organization’s mission and ministry now and in the future, in a talk entitled “The Work Ahead.”

 
The State of the Covenant Network has never been stronger. That’s not because we have the largest staff we’ve ever had, or the largest budget – trust me, it isn’t that. It’s not because our work has its most manageable target or identifiable end goal. It isn’t because the church we serve is now … finally … just and generous. The Covenant Network is strong today not because we know the answer to every question, or because we have planned our every step.

Rather, the Covenant Network is strong—as strong as it has ever been—because out of transition has come openness; and out of openness, discernment; and out of discernment, focus.  Because it is led by a board of creative and faithful people who are emboldened by their passion, their wisdom and their courage. Because it is has as its foundation, yes, some recent success, but also a rich history, deeply rooted theology, and a high level of engagement with church and society.

The Covenant Network is strong as it has ever been because it is forced today to be more dependent than ever on what is outside itself, outside its board, outside its staff. We are dependent on the wisdom and partnership of others, many of whom are very different from what we have been in the past. We are dependent on the generosity of supporters, necessarily including some new ones. We are dependent even on the openness of those who disagree with us to believe with us that the Church can and must live into the oneness that God has already given it in Jesus Christ.

Which is to say: The less we have seen ourselves as having power, the stronger we have become.  And today, we begin a new season in a good long life, trusting in God to lead us.

An evolving mission

When the Covenant Network was founded in 1997, its purpose was very narrowly construed: Get rid of G-6.0106b, a task that the founders have said they thought would take a couple of years.

Over the past year, we’ve done some soul searching as a board over whether that, and that alone, was really our mission. In conversation with board members, old and new, it emerged that the reality for many was that our mission did grow through the years, but that growth was a natural evolution. It was always about a vision for the future, a vision for the church, an idea about who God was calling us to be that would require the kind of help that we could provide.

And so it is, as you have heard in all sorts of ways this week, that we have come to where we are today. Having won votes. Having seen ordinations. Having officiated marriages. Full of joy and gratitude. But not yet having reached the vision that Pam Byers invited us to term “a church as generous and just as God’s grace.” Not yet having a church that is safe and empowering for all God’s children in many presbyteries and congregations. Not yet able to bear fruitful witness to God’s reconciling love for all people, without regard to how they look, or how they speak, or how they are, or whom they love.

The mission of the Covenant Network going forward is not so different from what it has always been: to work toward a truly inclusive church, as generous and just as God’s grace. It is to model and shape a church that is not only welcoming but also affirming of all. A church where hearts and minds embrace what our polity now permits. A church for all God’s children—and we really mean all.

Growing edges

We recognize that to be authentic and effective in that work in the church, we have some growing edges ourselves.

First, our board needs to be more diverse. We know it, and we’re working on it, and it’s a huge priority. We’re proud of recent additions to our board for the wisdom and experience and vision that an increasingly diverse set of voices are bringing us. But we have further to go, and we welcome, always, your suggestions for board members who both share the Covenant Network’s historic commitments and who bring us new perspectives and experiences that we and the church need.

Second, we need to be aware—as J. Herbert Nelson reminded us yesterday—that we have historically operated from a point of privilege, and that, if we’re being honest, we will realize we still do and that we must therefore learn how to work as partners, allies, faithful colleagues and friends in a journey, not thinking we alone have the answers or solutions, but willing to sacrifice our own status as well as resources to help the church we all love find a better way.

Third, we need to successfully pivot the public perception of our organization from being largely about constitutional change, into recognition of what we have long been and will especially be going forward: committed to pastoral, educational, equipping ministry, and courageous witness.

And of course, we need to find ways to pay for all this.

Re-committing to our historic work

So bearing all this in mind, and open to continuing to grow and change, here are some of the ways we intend to live into our calling. Much of what we will do will look familiar to those who’ve been watching:

We’ll be at General Assembly, advocating vigorously for matters of inclusion and justice.

We’ll provide resources and help. You can always call us, and we’ll connect people to each other in presbyteries, regions, congregations.  We’ll offer pastoral care and strategy, in love and humility, wherever it’s needed. We’ll write material that shapes the vocabulary of grace in the PCUSA.

We will seek to model healthy conversation with those with whom we disagree, building relationships that lead to transformation.

And we will keep articulating theological and biblical foundations, with conferences like this one that give the church a vocabulary and framework for becoming something new.

New ways to strengthen the church

But in the years ahead, we’ll also do some new things—and these are some of what we’re most excited about. Indeed, some of this new work has already begun:

We have already begun to convene intentional conversations with racial/ethnic caucuses, leadership of various organizations, and others who speak for communities within the Presbyterian Church about how we can effectively partner for advocacy and transformation. We’re doing a lot of listening, and we are committed to continuing to listen—not believing we have the answers so much as believing we have an obligation to give ear and amplification to voices long silenced.

In conversation with the World Mission area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, we have offered ourselves for conversations with global partner churches as those partners take on their own conversations about matters of sexuality and marriage. In places where there needs to be healing, we will seek to be a reconciling voice. And where there needs to be understanding of the biblical, theological and pastoral road we traveled as a church to get where we are, we will tell that story in ecumenical and mission settings.

We are committed to seeing resources old and new translated into other languages, including Spanish and Korean, and to developing new materials that are culturally sensitive and truly helpful in making the case for acceptance and affirmation in all the cultures represented in the PCUSA. And even in English, we will continue to develop new practical congregational resources, like liturgies and conversation guides, and model church policies, for leaders and for all Presbyterians.

And we will carry the banner for the Belhar Confession going forward, ensuring that after its final approval at next summer’s General Assembly, it does not (as Clifton Kirkpatrick put it) sit on a shelf, but rather is lived into, powerfully and relevantly guiding our common life.

In a moment, a panel will gather here to talk about the way forward, how each of us—as disciples, as pastors and church leaders, as congregations and as mid-councils, as a denomination—can live into God’s new day. As that conversation continues, today and beyond, know that the Covenant Network stands ready to lead and to listen, to accompany and to serve, as we grow together toward a truly inclusive church, as generous and just as God’s grace. May it be so.

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