The timing of an overture about pulpit committees for Associate Pastors is in question, as the original author made a motion to do that very thing only a month prior…
It was at the problematic congregation meeting of Midway where Ruling Elders Jim Wolff and Robert Whitaker brought a motion on the behalf of the Midway Session to elevate three currently serving Assistant Pastors to the office of Associate Pastor. The formation of this motion on the Session was controversial.
Both Ruling Elders presented the motion to the congregation and spoke passionately in favor of its passage. The congregational meeting itself then continued in controversy as a divided vote and the method of voting were points of contention despite the motion presented being passed.
The meeting resulted in multiple complaints being filed by Midway members against the Session. These complaints seem to have alleged that the Session is responsible for what appear to be numerous procedural errors surrounding the calling and conduct of the meeting. The lack of a pulpit committee in this instance was of particular concern to many. In any case, it is the responsibility of Sessions to determine that proper procedures are followed during congregational meetings. F.P Ramsay’s Exposition on the Book of Church Order states in this regard:
We have said that the meeting is under the direction of the Session ; and who but the Session can determine who of those present are voters? The Moderator of the congregation is, at the same time, the Moderator of the Session in session at the same time, and he must ascertain who are voters, through the Session.F.P. Ramsay, Exposition of the Book of Church Order (1898, p. 127) on VI-3-4
This logic would also extend to the motions being presented. Sessions should determine that motions being brought before their congregations for approval have been vetted, studied, and determined to be constitutional. They are responsible for the content of such motions, as well as ensuring proper circumstances for voting through the moderator during congregational meetings. It would seem that Ruling Elders Jim Wolff and Robert Whitaker believed the motion they brought was constitutional at the time they offered it.
The complaints about the July 19, 2020 congregational meeting were dismissed by the Session. Ruling Elders Jim Wolff and Robert Whitaker voted to deny the complaints.
Ruling Elder Robert Whitaker then authored an overture for the presbytery’s consideration on the topic of electing Associate Pastors without a pulpit committee. This proposed overture read:
Proposed Amendment to BCO Section 20
Whereas a congregation may wish to elevate, by promotion-in-place, an assistant pastor, previously and duly called by the session, and now faithfully serving the congregation,
Whereas the BCO does not presently provide a process for this specific change in relation from assistant pastor to associate pastor,
Whereas the BCO does not prohibit such a change in relation from assistant pastor to associate pastor,
Whereas application of BCO 20-2 in this specific case is not appropriate because called pastors currently serve the church and no search is required,
Whereas a BCO process specifically suited to this case would be helpful to a congregation and its session to conduct its rightful business without undue confusion, work, or delay,
…as a member in good standing at Midway PCA, I request the Northwest Georgia Presbytery to perfect and then propose to the next General Assembly the following draft amendment to rectify this inadvertent oversight and clarify this specific case within Section 20 of the BCO.
Proposed Amendment to Section 20 of the BCO (subject to refinement by Presbytery).
“Currently serving assistant pastors who have been duly called by a session and have provided satisfactory service to a congregation for a term of at least 1 year may be called as associate pastor by the congregation by means of a vote at a duly called congregational meeting; the name of the assistant pastor having been recommended and placed before the congregation in proper order and in advance by the session per the BCO.”
–Robert H. Whitaker
Presbytery minutes record the receipt, consideration, and passage of overture at the 43rd Stated Meeting of the Northwest Georgia Presbytery on August 15, 2020 at Grace Presbyterian Church PCA in Canton Georgia.
Overture from RE Robert Whitaker to NWGP. See Appendix L.
The Overture’s committee recommended an amendment to BCO 20 in view of the overture from RE Robert Whitaker …. “An existing assistant pastor, who has provided satisfactory service for one-year in this congregation, may be elected by the congregation as an associate pastor at the recommendation of the Session without the election of a pulpit committee.”
Having been accepted by the presbytery, this overture will now proceed for consideration at the PCA’s 48th General Assembly.
There are troubling questions surrounding this overture’s creation.
First, if Ruling Elder Robert Whitaker believed that the BCO was lacking in clarity around the need for a pulpit committee for the election of Associate Pastors, then why did he bring the original motion before the congregation without first pursuing this overture? Why did Ruling Elders passionately implore the congregation to take an action they apparently were not sure was constitutional?
Second, why did Ruling Elder Robert Whitaker vote to deny the two complaints against his Session that claimed that a pulpit committee was required for the election of Associate Pastors? If he was so unsure himself that he believed the BCO required modification in this regard, then why did he vote to deny the complaints?
Third, given that Ruling Elder Robert Whitaker was aware of the elevation to presbytery of at least one of the complaints (the complaint having been received as in-order at the opening of the meeting), how can this overture be understood as anything less than an attempt to circumvent the courts? Because of the complaints, the question is now with the courts to consider the very issue of a pulpit committee’s applicability to the very motion he brought before the Midway congregation in July 2020.
Certainly this overture appears to be an attempt to achieve retroactive relief at the General Assembly for his Session’s alleged unconstitutional behavior in the past – namely the lack of calling a pulpit committee for the election of pastors as BCO 20-2 mandates.
Could it be that Ruling Elder Robert Whitaker circularized the court?
Former PCA Stated Clerk Roy Taylor, in a document titled “Avoiding Procedural Errors in Judicial Cases,” defines this saying “Circularizing the court is seeking to influence the opinions and decisions of members of the court before the case is considered.” BCO 43-2 forbids the circularization of a court. If Ruling Elder Whitaker was aware that there was a complaint against his Session on this topic, and as a member of the court voted to deny that complaint, and then upon its elevation to the next higher court at presbytery, authored an overture lobbying for his viewpoint on the topic of the complaint against his court certainly would seem to fit this definition.
The overture appears to be more about issues in a single congregation as opposed to solving a widespread issue across the PCA. Given the judicial circumstances, one could argue that the Northwest Georgia Presbytery erred in accepting the overture until after the complaints made their way to a resolution in the courts. It is unclear what the General Assembly’s Overtures Committee and Committee on Constitutional Business will say about this overture when it reaches them prior to the 48th PCA General Assembly.