Covenant Network Regional Conference ~ Philadelphia, PA
Keynote Address by the Rev. Dr. Mark Hostetter
February 7, 2015
I remember back in communicants class in 8th grade, before classes on Sunday mornings, the pastor would look at our sleepy teenage selves, slouching there and hoping to fade into the background. Maybe it was just to get our energy level up, because it really did get our hearts racing, the pastor would look over our group, striking terror in the deepest part of our hearts as he slowly passed his glance over each one of us, one by one, and said, now who will open us with prayer? [pregnant pause]
So now that we’re all paying attention, you can exhale, and unclench your stomachs, as I lead us in a brief word of prayer: Lord of all creation, we draw close to you and to each other this morning. Catching up, renewing friendships, making connections, help us to gain the inspiration, the vision, the skills and the stamina, to continue our work as Christ’s disciples, making your limitless love known to all. In the name of the One. Amen.
First a word of thanks. To Cindy Jarvis and this congregation, for hosting us today, and for inviting me to speak. To Brian and Tricia for their tireless work, crossing the country time and again, in this seemingly endless struggle. And a quick thanks, too, for the warm welcome I’ve received this morning. You know, I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. I’m both the son and the grandson of Presbyterian ministers. Early years in the manse in Carmel, New York, then all summer, every summer, up at the Presbyterian Camp in Holmes. My grandfather was a member of this Presbytery, moderator once, and pastor up at Doylestown. The Presbyterian Church is my family. And I feel that warmth, that welcome, here today too.
With the upcoming Supreme Court arguments in March and a decision expected by June, of course today I need to talk a little about marriage, the topic for 2015 for the Covenant Network’s Regional Gatherings: “Marriage Matters – Living into Marriage Equality.” It’s an interesting place we find ourselves in, here in 2015. Things are changing so fast. We’re finding unexpected allies. And, at least in politics at large, it feels like even the opposition is realizing the inevitable. But how many times in story and in history, has complacency led to defeat? From the fable of the tortoise and the hare, to military defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, it’s not over until it’s over.
I love the tag line of Covenant Network. It’s right there at the top of every webpage: “Toward a Church as Generous and Just as God’s Grace.” Its goals are dual – inclusion, yes; justice, yes. But it’s justice AND unity. Barbara Wheeler, CovNet director and longtime prior President of Auburn Seminary, where I’ve been board chair for the last ten years, has spoken to this group many times. And her approach is clear: “Our mandate at Covenant Network is to teach the truth, and our mandate is to embrace our opponents, without giving up on either one.”
Winning the battles are one thing. It feels nice, and we see what a difference it makes in the day-to-day lives of so many. That’s the justice part of Covenant Network. But you’re equally as good, maybe even better, at that second part. The “gracious” part, the “unity” part. And that too is what we are called to be as Christians.
Presbyterians are the ultimate reformers. Right from those early days of Calvin in Geneva 500 years ago. “Reformed, ever reforming” we chant. Yet we debate about reforming. We resist reforming until there are no other options. We separate and split about reforming. And then we come together again.
It’s not just on these LGBT issues. For the last 15 years, I’ve been one of the pastors at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, Old First, coming up on our 300-year anniversary in 2016. Throughout our history, as a congregation, we’ve been at the center of these controversies. Again and again, this denomination battles over theology and polity, belief and behavior, the fiercest Christian warriors. Passionate and unrelenting, all-or-nothing polarization, it’s in our DNA.
Our congregation at Old First was at the center of the battles between the Old School versus the New School back in the 1830’s, fighting for freedom of belief in the face of charges against us made by the Old School – of “unsound doctrine and laxity in discipline.” Sound familiar? Words of those who seek to exclude.
And in the 1910s and 1920s, with the Fundamentalists versus the Modernists – the Fundamentalists convincing the General Assembly that to be a Presbyterian you had to believe in five specific fundamentals or you would be excommunicated for heresy. Their top five list: the infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection, and the second coming. I’m not sure most Presbyterians even know what those things mean. Just that they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
And I’d just like to point out, in this august gathering, in this city of brotherly love, that battle was New York against Philadelphia. Harry Emerson Fosdick of Old First New York preaching “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And in response, Clarence Macartney here in Philadelphia, who was the Moderator of the General Assembly, preaching “Shall Unbelief Win?” You think we have drama! I think maybe it might make for a great made-for-TV movie series: “The Presbyterians.”
And it’s the same players, over and over again. Our own Auburn Seminary took the lead back then as well, and 66 progressive delegates to the GA in 1923 signed onto the Auburn Affirmation, boldly titled “An Affirmation Designed to Safeguard the Unity and Liberty of the Presbyterian Church.” Sounds like Covenant Network kind of stuff to me. Justice and Unity.
Yes, here in 2015, for sure there is some kind of spirit moving across the waters of our church and our nation. You might say there’s kind of a “kairos moment” happening throughout the PCUSA. The venerable, 300-year old Presbyterian Foundation just went through a major restructuring. Now there’s an organization resistant to change. I often say, if the national church keeps contracting — its budget is now a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago – we may be left with congregations, and presbyteries, and the Presbyterian Foundation. And sometimes I’m not sure about congregations and presbyteries. The Foundation is here to stay.
As a securities lawyer and a CEO and with the perspective of a minister to boot, I was able to help their leadership think through the needs of now, cut through the decades of layers of organization, and shed millions and millions of dollars of unneeded operations and expenses. All it took was a willingness to ask “why?” What do we do uniquely, that no one else can do? And then leave the rest to others.
Camp and Conference ministries of the denomination are in the throes of restructuring. I’ll talk a little later about my experiences as Chair of the Ghost Ranch board, but with declining financial support of presbyteries – not because they don’t love their centers, simply because they don’t have the money anymore – these camp and conference center crucibles of faith formation are learning to become self-sufficient and are professionalizing their leadership, getting the skills and training needed to not only survive, but to continue to provide the place where over 60% of all Presbyterians still say it’s the place where they had their single most powerful faith formation experience.
And our seminaries are talking change. I know it’s happening – I just came from the annual gathering last week of the Presidents and Board Chairs of our 12 Presbyterian seminaries. It’s a great group of passionate Presbyterians, an off-the-record chance to compare notes. Those ivory towers of “we’ve always done it that way” are trying to figure out who are the new religious leaders of our time, for new ministries, where are they coming from? What are they called to do, and how do we equip them with what they need to be prepared for effective leadership?
So what does that mean for us? How does Covenant Network move ahead in these heady times?
First, let’s talk about justice. Lest anyone think that we can move on, it’s not over yet. Amendment 14-F has only been approved by 30 of the 171 Presbyteries, and 13 have voted “no.” The resources Covenant Network provides are critical, as they have been, time and again over the past 20 years: the biblical study guides, the personal testimonies of changes of heart, the dialog outlines, the sermons and articles, the video clips. Covenant Network is the go-to organization. Its website is accessible and chock-full. Everyone should be familiar with what’s available.
And let us not water this down – it is about justice. In these recent days of racial tensions, the message that “black lives matter” has rung out, clear and strong. For all of us in Covenant Network, we remember that all lives matter, for GLBT people and for their families. Justice delayed is justice denied.
It’s about CovNet being the light in the darkness. It’s about living out the vision of justice we seek; to paraphrase our nation’s President, to be the change we seek. Just like the mantra for those coming out of the closet, we just need to live the life we envision.
The marriage issue has put the discussion in a new context. It’s about families, of all sorts. It’s about allies, even unlikely ones. CovNet has always personified reaching out to straight allies for social justice. Relating to the center remains the key, as many others have discovered.
But it’s not over yet. As society, as our church, moves along its arc towards justice, marriage is the issue of the day, just as ordination has been. And of course, even marriage is not the end of the debates.
One of the things I love most about Covenant Network, the uniqueness of CovNet, is that you are changing hearts and minds with a vision of living the lives Jesus calls us to – of welcome and inclusion and truth and joy; and yes, too, lives led with purity and proclamation and biblically-based witness and testimony and making Jesus the center of our lives and vision.
Reaching across the aisle, not demonizing those who disagree, that’s the power of Covenant Network. Engaging in respectful dialog, talking about issues, taking arguments one-by-one and one-on-one, not shying away from the hard discussions, giving reason, giving faith, giving testimony, giving hope. The power of Covenant Network lies in personal connection.
Personal connection is powerful. A dozen years ago, I helped organize a school for troubled teens — Summit Prep School, near Glacier Park in Montana. Summit was innovative at the time for its relationship-based, nurturing model of helping teens in difficulty get back on track. And over 1000 kids who would have crashed and burned, over 1000 kids have gone on to college. Because of relationship.
Parity, the new incarnation of New York City Presbytery’s ministry of Presbyterian Welcome, just held a workshop in partnership with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the New York City public high school for LGBT youth, where 30 high schoolers made it clear that the need for reconciling identity and faith is as great as ever. And it was the power of connection, of relationship, that empowered these students to action.
Personal connection, relationship – that’s the space where Covenant Network operates.
I know I’m preaching to the choir here – one of my absolute favorite things to do, literally. It’s not only about the changes Covenant Network has accomplished, the justice you have made real. It’s also about being the light of the world, the inspiration to those who still struggle in the darkness.
At First Presbyterian New York, we’ve got a membership of 1300, but on a good Sunday, there might be 500 there. And I’ll bet that out of those, 200 aren’t members, just people who are visiting the city, who look to Old First as a beacon of justice, who gain strength from its presence, its speaking its truth in love. A beacon – just like CovNet – a beacon of light in the darkness.
At my money management firm, there too we tried to live the vision we sought. Integrating the values of our faith with our day-to-day lives. Living out those values, with firm practices that meant no one had to be fearful for who they were, or who they loved, or make excuses for why they needed to be at a kid’s soccer game, or attending a funeral. Living out our values is bigger than just their impact on our lives. It gives strength to others to do the same.
So, like any preacher, I have a hard time giving a speech without bringing in some scripture. In the quiet, after-kids-bedtime nights recently, thinking about today’s conference, I brought to mind what’s been read from our lecterns these past Sundays. The lectionary recently has been in the beginning of John’s gospel, John’s creation liturgy, and if you take a look at John 1, it repeats over and over, the same words, every ten verses or so, the words: “the next day, the next day, the next day . . . .”
Jesus, logos, was the creator in the beginning – the creator of all that came into being, and the life that is the light of all people. Then Jesus in John’s account, on each day, on the next day and on the next day and on the next day, Jesus was a creator, a continuing, continuous creator of new community.
Covenant Network is a tireless disciple of that creator of community, and takes this creation to heart. Day after day, year after year, you keep on creating new community, responding to the call of the Holy Spirit. The very process that is at the core of Covenant Network, is at the core of our faith. Relationship, personal connection, engagement. And in a real way, that’s what will ensure that the second goal of CovNet is never forgotten. Justice AND Unity. So the battle for justice is not over, and your work for unity has just begun.
So many LGBT organizations and marriage equality organizations alike have begun to think about the questions you’re raising this year: “Living Into Marriage Equality” and just what that means. If we’ve won, and society is moving in the right direction, where should we devote our attention?
Now as I’ve said, the justice work is not over, so don’t stop now. And CovNet’s work of unity has just begun. You are sorely needed as healers of the breach. But still, it’s interesting to look a little farther out. Not that we’re ready yet for the full discussion, but the question is interesting. What’s the future incarnation?
As Covenant Network lives into the future, its future, it will be appropriate to begin to think about how best to accomplish its important work in a changed context. There’s lots of precedent of those who embraced change, and rose to even greater accomplishments. Family Pride Coalition, the national organization representing the families of the 10 million kids being raised by LGBT parents, around the time of the Massachusetts decision on marriage back in 2004, recognized that their success was dependent on broadening their appeal to all families and expanding their support from straight allies, so they changed their name from Family Pride Coalition to Family Equality.
And they’ve changed their strategy too, time and again, and that’s what makes them so effective. Family Equality – back then, Family Pride – began in response to a grassroots, local need, for support and encouragement. so families knew they weren’t alone. When Obama was elected, with the change of administration to one far more receptive, Family Equality worked to change federal forms, passport applications and customs declarations, to reflect the diversity of our families. Take a look: it’s no longer “mother” and “father” but “parent” and “parent.” The national shift in focus to marriage equality moved Family Equality in another direction for a period of time. And now, on the brink of possible Supreme Court action, they are working with states attorneys general to take the position that married couples, regardless of gender, are entitled to identical parental and other rights, making unnecessary any additional legislation to ensure equality for non-traditional families.
GLAAD (the one with two A’s) ramped up their media exposure with their annual awards gala, and now it’s one of the hottest tickets and widely-watched events in entertainment. Our own Presbyterian Welcome, Parity, while still serving the needs of LGBT people, is also reaching out its welcome in its non-traditional worshiping community called “Not-So-Churchy.”
Again, not yet, since the time’s not ripe, with all that’s still needed, not yet, but in the future, the question will need to be asked about long-term relationships with other groups in our church, groups such as More Light Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve, Parity. Sometimes I think about these organizations – not only within our church, but elsewhere, like HRC, GLAAD, Family Equality, Marriage Equality, and on and on – sometimes I think of them like denominations. There’s nothing wrong with people being drawn to particular affinities, just so long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re all on the same side.
Partnerships are becoming more of a reality. Just yesterday a partnership, actually more of a merger, was announced. California Faith for Equality has been dedicated to educating and mobilizing California’s faith communities to promote LGBT equality and safeguard religious freedom, working with the legislature and building a national network of faith leaders. Equality California, another well-known organization, has been focused on marriage and broader civil rights for LGBT people. The next phase in the work of Equality California is to assure that all LGBT people are fully accepted in their communities, and as we well know, the key to ensuring acceptance is engagement with communities of faith. So California Faith for Equality and Equality California are merging.
Everyone is talking about how to work together, and there are lots of resources available. Also just announced and released last week: Human Rights Campaign’s new “Project One America” from HRC’s religion and faith division. It’s an explicitly Christian conversation guide on creating safe and inclusive spaces, and includes prayers, themes for sermons and religious education, bible studies – good stuff.
The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force partnered with Family Equality to issue their faith-based curriculum, called “All In God’s Family: Creating Allies for Our LGBT Families” – curriculum and resources designed to make congregations more welcoming, a step-by-step guide to supporting LGBT families, and tools for facilitating community dialog, bible study, and community action. That partnership worked with COLAGE – Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere – to produce a documentary called “In My Shoes: Stories of Youth with LGBT Parents.”
These partnerships are essential, as they – and we – together help congregations extend God’s extravagant welcome to all of God’s families.
It is keeping the main thing, the main thing. Like justice. Like unity. And it’s responding to changes in culture, reading the signs of the times, where church must include a broader range of voices, showing religion as a force for good, for inclusion, and a place for living out our values.
And you know, the resources are not only within justice movements. Everyone by now knows well the You Tube campaign “It Gets Better,” providing hopeful messages to youth struggling with their orientation issues. It’s saved many teens’ lives. And LGBT role models are everywhere – not only the celebrity names in movies and music and sports, but the portrayal of characters in sitcoms and soaps and movies. I have to confess that on occasion I surf the net – for social trends, of course – and there are now soaps from a dozen countries, you name them: US, England, France, Spain, Germany, sure, but also places like Columbia and Finland, and these stories have moved beyond stereotypes and coming out stories. It’s actually pretty amazing, where almost inevitably the gay couple is the sole non-dysfunctional relationship in the entire show.
And with the maturing of the movement and LGBT civil rights in society in general, even that first generation of openly gay parents are now becoming grandparents. There’s a funny video on you tube – I leave it to you to put in the key words, “gay grandparents” and find that hilarious little one-minute clip of pure joy.
I wanted to talk just a bit more, too, about all the diversity in the PCUSA. I’m not talking about the usual ones – ethnic, economic, sexual orientation. Today I’m actually holding up as a blessing the theological diversity of our denomination. I was speaking with a colleague in the camp and conference world, Brian Frick from our national office, and we were talking about the differences between the three national conference centers – Ghost Ranch, Montreat, and Stony Point. In some ways, Ghost Ranch, Stony Point and Montreat each fill different roles in Presbyterian theology, just as Iona, Taize, and other monasteries fill different roles for the Catholic Church. Gatherings of theologians with similar theological roots yet with very different perspectives maintain and deepen our identity for the whole church. Iona and Taize, for instance, focus on very different areas than a Carmelite or Jesuit monastery, but they all are essential for Catholics.
Stony Point speaks to the social justice/action theology of the PCUSA. It’s in our roots, and one way we live it out nationally is through Stony Point. Montreat speaks to the Peter based theology, out of our Southern branch traditions – preaching, witnessing to the Word, again, an essential part of being Presbyterian. Ghost Ranch speaks to the John based theology – listening to the heart of God, focusing on the inherent good of mankind, and the interconnectedness of creation – another essential part of the PCUSA. Though their politics and constituencies might sometimes seem to be in conflict, they are held in tension within the church in a way that makes us stronger.
So I love Covenant Network, and the way it holds in tension the appreciation for the differences among us all. CovNet’s dual focus of justice and unity provides a unique and critical role in our denomination and in the wider church. You are a treasured blessing, above and beyond the amazing work you do.
So as we continue our family fellowship today, as we think and pray and strategize and hope, I want to leave you with my final thought. And my final message to all of you, you beacons of light and hope, you saints of Covenant Network,
A picture may say a thousand words, but my final word is just one. [Shows family picture.]
Because of what you have done, what you are, and in all that you do, you have made a difference. And you’ve made a difference for me personally and for my family. From my three young daughters, from my spouse, and from me, my final word to all of you here at Covenant Network is one of deepest thanks.
Go in peace. You are doing God’s work.
© Mark D. Hostetter, 2015
Mark Hostetter is Associate Pastor for Stewardship and Mission to the Corporate World at the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, and director of the new Master of Arts in Religious Leadership and Administration program at New York Theological Seminary. He has broad experience in business, law, government, and service on non-profit boards, including as Chair of the Board of Trustees of Auburn Theological Seminary. Mark and his spouse, Alex Habib, are the parents of three daughters.