PCA GA – Lynna Sutherland and Donna Westcott – Part 1
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Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I’m the Executive Director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God’s redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans. We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.

Ann Maree  Good morning, and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast, we are doing something a little bit different this morning. Over the summer, we’re trying to do some more educational resource type podcasts for you. Things that would be actually helpful foundationally thinking for the story, the stories that we listened to during storytelling seasons. But today, just coming off of a week of denominational meetings, the SBC had their Convention, the ARP had their Synode, and the PCA had their General Assembly. And today we’re going to talk with a couple of people who had been at our PCA General Assembly just to get the insights into what they experienced. But also some of the things they learned, some of the things that could be helpful for us as women in the PCA. And you may know these names, and if not, I want you to get to know them. And we’re gonna have lots of times where we’re talking about their links are going to be in our show notes, and there’s ways that you can connect. And we do pray that that’s something that you’ll do, you’ll take advantage of the resource that Lynna Sutherland and her mom, actually Donna Westcott have available for us as women. 

And so Lynna Sutherland is a homeschool mom and she has eight children, including two high school graduates now congratulations. And then six children that she still homeschools. Lynna is a member of a PCA church. She has been for more than four decades and she has a heart to help lay people understand PCA process and church government, and oh my gosh, does she do that well. We have called on her numerous times in texts, in questions, and just sitting and listening to her to be able to understand this better and it’s still hard but Lynna makes it very accessible. And then she runs this nonprofit called Advocacy From the Presbyterian Pew where she provides free educational resources for PCA lay people. And even though I’m saying that that the resources are free, the Advocacy From the Presbyterian Pew is a 501c3 nonprofit and for those of you that do benefit from her work on the website, please do consider making donations to keep that work going. Again, also with us is Donna Westcott and Donna is Lynna’s mom; not so closely related to Presbyterian Pew. I don’t think but she also has her own expertise. Donna has also been a member of the PCA for over 40 years. So from the beginning, really, both of you, and she helped plant a PCA church of which her husband was a founding elder. Donna is a licensed professional counselor, which we always appreciate having on the show. And she works in the state of Virginia. She works with marriages when there’s been infidelity as well as women who are dealing with or have gotten out of abusive marriages. Donna has experienced with abuse and the church has made her even more passionate about helping the abused and educating PCA leaders about abuse. I think we could all say that right. Thank you for speaking those words. Well, I spoke them for you. Anyway, to both of you. Thank you for being here. And welcome.

Lynna  Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Donna  My pleasure. 

Ann Maree  Yes, and our pleasure to so what we’re going to do here and not necessarily again, a story although this is a story of these two women’s experience at GA last week. We’re going to talk about something related to the DASA report that came out in the PCA in 2022 at General Assembly and let me just give you a little bit of background on that. In 2019, late 2019 the PCA formed an ad interim study committee on Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault and what we shortened to say DASA, to create a document – a report that our churches in the PCA could use to reference for responding to, shepherding best practices for domestic abuse, sexual assault and institutional abuse as well. That report was released, like I said, June 2022. And it was non binding. And what that means is it was just suggestions for our churches for how to implement those those changes or those updates or best practices in their own local context. I was on that committee, and what we heard frequently throughout the time that we were together over almost three years, little over three years, was that because it was non binding, the report wasn’t really going to change anything in the PCA. However, coming off the report, there could be some overtures made at General Assembly that would change different things in our Book of Church Order to accommodate abuse reports, best practices, etc. And so in 2023, several of those overtures were presented. Presbyteries, pastors have gotten together and written them. We’re not going to go through all of the overtures that were presented in 2023, or 24. But just those specific to women and abuse, and crises like that, that happened in the church. And so I’m now going to just be quiet, and I’m going to hand it over to Lynna, and I’m going to ask her what those overtures were. And then she’s going to briefly explain most of them and then perhaps get more details, some of them, right. Okay. So, go for it.

Lynna  Sure. So, one little piece of information that might help listeners to understand our, our kind of main governing document in the PCA is called the Book of Church Order, often referenced as the BCO. And there’s a special procedure that needs to happen to make changes or amendments to the BCO. The first thing that has to happen is an overture to make that amendment has to pass it General Assembly, and there’s more steps to that, but to keep it simple, basically needs to pass one General Assembly, then it has to be approved by two thirds of the presbyteries and then it has to be approved again at the following General Assembly. So we kind of have some overtures that are in, you know, new overtures that were new this year, that are now heading out into that process in the presbyteries. But then we also had an overture a couple of overtures, but one in specific related to our conversation here that was approved last year, was approved by two thirds of presbyteries and then showed up at this year’s General Assembly for its final approval. And that happens at the beginning of of the business meetings of General Assembly, they have a time where they vote on the things that have already passed the presbytery to give final approval. So that overture, which was finally approved this year, there were three of them, but the one that’s relevant to our conversation had to do with what we call cases without process. So you’ve probably heard about church trials. You know, there’s a prosecutor, there’s an accused person, they have a trial, they have witnesses, that process doesn’t happen when someone confesses. So if someone is accused of something, and they confess, they say, “yes, it’s really true, I did that” then a trial doesn’t need to happen, because, you know, the court doesn’t need to deliberate and decide whether they did it or not, they’re already admitting that they did it. But one of the snags that can happen is that a, a person who is accused of something and who decides to confess, could give a very minimal or watered down or even kind of deceptive confession, you know, just say, made bad choices, inappropriate conversations, something like that. And then the person who’s accused could give a confession that’s very limited or watered down or just uses kind of benign language or doesn’t address all of the issues that need to be brought up. And that that would end the process and the decision that the court would make on what censure, like what punishment that person would receive would be based just on their own written confession. So this amendment that’s just passed and will now be officially added to the Book of Church Order provides for those who are impacted by the sin. So for example, in a case of abuse, that would be the victims who have shared, that they were recipients of this abuse, would have an opportunity to review this confession and to make comments on it, which is really important, because what that means is that the accused doesn’t have the last word in in saying, you know, “this is my version of what it is I need to confess”, there’s no, there’s no official, you know, victims don’t have like a vote or anything like that, on the on the confession, they could give their input. And the court could decide to not consider that input or to not make any changes to the confession, but at least provides an opportunity for victims to have something to say about that confession. To be able to see it, to be able to comment on it, and, you know, hopefully, to have a say in the narrative that’s used to make a decision about the censure for that person. 

Ann Maree  Yeah, thank you for that. We’ve, I’ve been in cases – I’m sorry, I’m interrupting you. But I just wanted to say that this has been a big deal in cases where the Presbyterian Church of America is the accuser. And so the Presbyterian Church of America has been the one that determines whether or not the confession is complete. And so now we’re adding to it the accuser gets to have that say, as well, that’s a really important when I guess we would say sorry to interrupt you, Lynna.

Lynna  Yeah. So I’m, I’m interested to see, you know, I mean, I think this is kind of the crux of what I do. We have polity on paper, and then polity in practice, right? So you can look at the, you know, Book of Church Order and see what it’s supposed to look like. But then we have to wait and see what that actually looks like in practice. So I’m interested to see if there are situations where an accuser or excuse me, an accused person makes a confession, are the are the victims listened to how much input are they allowed to have, and giving feedback on that confession. So we’ll just have to wait for that to play out in real life to see what it really looks like. And as with everything, it will probably vary widely between churches and presbyteries, depending on how they handle that. Okay, so that wraps up the one that was carried over from last year that is now finally approved and will be included in our Book of Church Order

There are some other overtures that were new this year. And when I say new this year, the specific overture is new this year. Some of them are based on ideas that were brought up last year. In other words, there were overtures on these topics last year that failed. And so even though this topic was discussed last year, these particular overtures are at their first General Assembly. So the two biggest ones had to do with background checks, and then witness eligibility. So if you follow General Assembly at all last year, you’d know that there was an overture that was brought from South Texas presbytery, about background checks and requiring background checks to be done for for pastors by the presbyteries and that overture did not pass and there were some concerns that the overture would be hard to implement, or rather, the amendment that the overture proposed, the amendment would be hard to implement, because every presbytery has different geographical regions that fall under its care. So some presbyteries for example, I’m in the James River presbytery. All the churches in our presbytery are in Virginia. But, for example, then the Northern California presbytery actually has four different states, churches from four different states that are in that presbytery. So there was some concern if we make one blanket policy, there, there are different laws in different areas that have to do with who can do a background check, who can see the results of the background check, can you make a hiring decision based on that background check? Do you have to, you know, in some, in some localities, you’re required to actually extend an offer of employment to someone before you can run the background check. Right? So there’s just a lot of legal ins and outs. And the concern last year was that it would be hard to have one denominational policy that everybody could implement that wouldn’t lead to any, any snags for any region. We also do have two Canadian presbyteries, so very wide jurisdictional area. So after last year’s General Assembly, the elder from South Texas presbytery who authored that original overture actually work together with a number of other elders and pastors and other presbyteries to come up with something that would be workable and the solution that they arrived at was to pass an amendment to the BCO, that would simply require presbyteries and churches to have a background check policy, and then to carry it out. So they didn’t specify what the policy would be. They didn’t say you have to do this background check, or you have to have fingerprinting. Are you anything particular, it just was a requirement that each presbytery needed to have a background check policy, and that then they needed to follow through on their own policy. And the way that that would be checked would be each year, there’s a committee of the General Assembly that reviews the minutes of each presbytery to make sure that they’ve followed the procedure. So that committee that reviews presbytery records, would be able to review each presbyteries bylaws or constitution to verify that they had that policy, and then going forward, they could be held accountable to following their own policy. And again, this was not something that just one person or one presbytery proposed, it was a coordinated effort amongst several different folks who are we might say, from a range of parts of the PCA spectrum from, you know, the more conservative to the more progressive and I use those terms very relatively because the PCA as a whole is very conservative. But within the range of our differing views, there was broader support. And so that overture was brought to there are actually multiple different overtures. Three of them were nearly identical, because they were the product of men from different presbyteries, who’d worked together to develop the language and so multiple different presbyteries submitted virtually that same overture. And in the overtures committee, the overtures Committee is a committee that meets before the main meetings of the General Assembly. And it’s a smaller group of people, the main meeting of the General Assembly can have up to 2000 commissioners voting on things. So obviously, that’s too big of a group to do the fine work of amending and, you know, adapting the language and kind of refining everything. So the overtures committee is no more than one pastor and elder per presbytery. So it’s a much smaller group, and they can do some of that fine tuning work. So in the overtures committee, they debated and they went back and forth about different ways to refine the language. And eventually what came out of the overtures committee, was quite different than what went in. Essentially, what came out of the overtures committee on the main overture that they worked on, related to background checks was essentially just a statement from the 51st General Assembly, that background checks are encouraged. So depending on how closely you were following this issue or not, it might have been a little confusing. I actually read a report the other day that a man had written up for his church, describing what had happened, and he just mentioned, you know, overture 17, requiring background checks was approved. Well, that’s really not what happened. Because what came out of the overtures committee was not an amendment to the Book of Church Order. And it was not a requirement of any kind. It was basically just a general statement from the 51st General Assembly. We think background checks are good thing. So there are no requirements. It was there were no nothing that could be nobody could be held accountable or brought up on charges for that at all.

Ann Maree  So basically, similar to the DASA report, non binding. And just a suggestion.

Lynna  Right, I think if it accomplished anything, the only thing that it accomplished was, perhaps it provides some way for some pushback to those who would argue that background checks are a bad idea. You know, somebody if, for example, if a presbytery was debating about whether or not to adopt a background check policy, which presbytery still can do, there’s nothing preventing them from doing it. So if there was a debate in the presbytery about whether or not to adopt background checks, and someone were to say, well, they’re a bad idea, then perhaps someone could point to this official statement of the 51st General Assembly and say, well, our General Assembly says they’re encouraged but there’s nothing that could be done you know, you couldn’t you couldn’t bring anyone up on charges for not doing background checks or or say, “Well, you know, you you found yourself in this situation with with an abusive pastor and you could have no if you did a background check, but you didn’t.” So there’s nothing, there’s really nothing, in a sense, there was nothing that was passed that would change the requirements for background checks. And one of the things that I truly believe this was a genuine oversight, but it was very disappointing that when this issue came up for a vote, the moderator chose to take a voice vote as opposed to a counted vote. So we actually don’t know how close the vote was. The voice vote just means you know, all in favor say. “aye.” All opposed, say, “nay”. So the overture passed, the amended language of the overture just a general statement about background checks are encouraged that passed. Before that there was someone proposed an alternate like a substitute motion, which would have been instead of passing this new language, send the overture back to the committee, basically ask them to try again, ask them to come back with language of, you know, requiring background checks, so that vote about whether to send this overture back to the committee or not, it was the vote that was not recorded, it was a voice vote. And there was actually some concern in the meeting about that voice vote. Someone asked for when there’s a voice vote and there’s a question about, you know, maybe the moderator says the ayes have it, or it didn’t pass. And there’s some question maybe people on the floor, aren’t sure that’s an accurate call, or they feel like it was too close to call, they can call for division. And what that means is, we’re not sure you’re right about your sense of which group there was more of, and so we’d like a counted vote. So unfortunately, what happened was this vote was taken by voice. And then immediately, there was a presentation that was kind of waiting to happen, they needed to stop and do this other committee meeting, or excuse me, committee report. And so once the business returned to overtures, someone called for division, but the moderator ruled that the vote was already over, it was too late to do that. So then someone else stood up and requested to recommit the overture which basically, somebody who voted on the winning side of a vote can request that the overture be reconsidered. And the purpose for that was not necessarily that they would get a different outcome, but rather just so that the vote could be counted, as opposed to just a voice vote. And that would have required a two thirds majority to do and that did not pass. So we didn’t get account for the vote on overture, 17, there was an option, there’s always an option, when something passes the General Assembly for those who voted against it to record their ‘no’ vote. So what that means is, if the majority voted ‘yes’, and something passes, those who voted ‘no’ can go up to the clerk and just write down their name, asking to be added to a list of people who want it to be recorded in the minutes of General Assembly that they voted ‘no’ for that. So that’s, that’s one piece of information that we will have when the minutes of General Assembly come out in probably January or February. But other than that, we don’t have a count about that vote.

Ann Maree  Okay, good. Thank you. I hope everyone’s following along. And that was, again, this was introduced last year as an idea in 2023. And then rewritten and reintroduced as an overture in 2024. And so my question then is, that’s the end of it. Right?

Lynna  Yeah. And I guess that’s, you know, something that’s up to the opinion of individual Commissioners, pastors and elders as to whether it makes sense to raise this issue again. One thing that I think was interesting was last year this overture never made it out of the overtures committee, so it was actually never discussed on the floor of General Assembly. And, again, if you follow along, you might know that General Assembly is live streamed, but the overtures committee is not live streamed. So because General Assembly took place very close to where I live, I had the opportunity to watch the overtures committee this year. And it was really hoping that discussion of the background check amendment would come to the floor, because I wanted that conversation to be live streamed. I wanted people watching from home to have an opportunity to see the arguments for and against. Interestingly, there really were no speeches in opposition to background checks, except for the overtures committee chairman is responsible to represent the position of the committee so he represented that position. But as far as speeches from the floor, no one actually objected to background checks. There were three men who made speeches in favor of background checks in favor of required background checks. No one made speeches in opposition and yet the motion failed. So obviously, there was broad support for not passing a requirement, but no one voiced their particular reasons out loud in a speech.

Ann Maree  And so, okay, we don’t want to necessarily tell women who are listening to this podcast, okay, “This is what it means. Now you’re in trouble.” We want to, you know, just kind of leave you with that information. But I would suggest that one of the things that was really helpful to me recently is listening to the True Believer podcast did, what was it episode 11, called “Shady Characters”, which actually enlightened me to the danger of some shady characters, I guess, maybe sitting alongside you in a seminary class. And I knew that it was true in my own seminary experience. But I would commend to you all that that episode, just to get a bigger picture of the importance of background checks in our Christian institutions, it may not seem like it’s even a necessary thing. You know, you might even think, alongside the Assembly, you know, what possible good is going to do and we do admit also that it is not a catch all, it will not catch all criminals. But it’s a step, if you will, it’s a step and I would suggest in the right direction, but here we are. Lynna, thank you. Keep going.

Lynna  Yeah, I just wanted to add one more comment. One of the speeches in favor of requiring background checks, compared it to locking your front door when you leave the house. Could someone break into your home, even though you’ve locked the front door? Of course. It’s still the smart thing to do to lock your door when you leave the house. So just along the lines of what you said, No, we’re not under any impression that this is the silver bullet to weed out all bad actors from the PCA. It’s standard practice across pretty much all volunteer organizations, and especially organizations that work with children. And in our church, by law, nursery workers are required to be background checked because they work with children. And I would encourage the PCA to consider our Covenant Theology, and whether we should really consider pastors and elders to not be those who work with children. So I think that case could be made for background checks being a legal requirement. But that’s not something that necessarily has precedent in the civil realm. So that would be a separate conversation.

Ann Maree  Another interesting thought going forward, though, for our churches, is that just exactly what you’re saying when it is almost I think it’s a law in every state for background checks for nursery workers, and insurance companies are looking for that. And so to be insured as a church, nonprofit, by an insurance carrier, you have to have what’s required for at a minimum for the children in your church. Right. And so is there a question even going forward, are insurance company is going to start denying coverage, or dropping coverage, especially if there is a circumstance, a situation where the church did not do what was required by the law. Anyway, Donna, do you have anything to add here for this background check?

Donna  I do. I thought some excellent points were made in the speeches to support background checks. One was how many volunteer organizations already use background checks. There were in the overtures committee. There were concerns raised over how difficult it might be to implement background checks. What the legal ramifications might be for requiring background checks. What the difficulties might be for maintaining records of background checks. And yet we have all of these volunteer organizations who already do this, they implement background checks, and successfully apparently not troubled or, experiencing any ramifications from having implemented them. Also, no one addressed the idea of liability created by not requiring background checks. So if you don’t require background checks of your leadership, and then it comes to light that one of them has abused children, abused women, spiritually or sexually, is there going to be liability for not requiring a background check of that individual before employing them or using them in a volunteer capacity?

It’s basic level. It can act as a deterrent if someone wants to come into leadership in your church, for the purpose of accessing vulnerable people, and they see, oh, I’m going to have to undergo a background check. So it’s at least a signal that could be a deterrent.

And just, you know, is the idea that there could be legal ramifications for doing this? Are we saying, “Okay, we don’t want to get into trouble as an institution, as a denomination or as a presbytery or as a church. Are we saying we’re not willing to stick our necks out that far to protect the most vulnerable in our churches?”

Ann Maree  Good questions. I wish we knew the answers.

Lynna  Just want to add one more thing related to background checks. And that is, you know, as I mentioned before, there were concerns about whether presbyteries with multiple states under their jurisdiction would be able to enact background check policies, and that the Northern California presbytery was actually mentioned in overtures committee, a speaker who whom I don’t know, mentioned how difficult that would be for Northern California presbytery. And that was significant to me, I thought, yeah, I hadn’t really considered a presbytery that has multiple states under its jurisdiction, I thought perhaps the speaker was from that presbytery, and was expressing his you know, personal perspective that this would be very hard. But I later learned from a member of North California presbytery that they already have a background check policy. And yes, it was challenging to create, they did have to do some homework and figure out how to write it such that it could apply and would be consideration of the multiple states under their jurisdiction, but they already have this policy. And so on the one hand, it was very encouraging to hear that one of the presbyteries that would perhaps have the most challenges in doing this had stepped up to the plate and already done that work to put that background check policy in place. And it also, I think, suggested that it’s perhaps not as impossible of an obstacle for other presbyteries is, as we might have thought.

Ann Maree  Yeah, it’s doable. Yeah. So going.

Donna  Also, when we, you know, states require the background checks, for instance, for nursery workers. Did we hear any outcry from the church against doing background checks for nursery workers who are predominantly women? Was there any outcry that that was going to violate privacy? I did not hear that outcry. But we’re hearing it when it touches on men in leadership. 

Ann Maree  Yeah, another point to think about. Yes, for sure. All right. Let’s pick back up with overtures. I think you have another one to talk about Lynna?

Lynna  There’s one more that I wanted to talk about that specifically related to our discussion of DASA and addressing abuse in the church. And again, this is another overture that the specific overtures new this year, but the conversation about it is not and this was one that was discussed on the floor of General Assembly last year. And that is the topic of it’s been referred to as witness eligibility. So essentially, what this means is there is a section in the Book of Church Order in the chapter that discusses the policies, the procedures that should be followed in a church trial, there’s a section that discusses who is as a witness that can participate in a church trial, essentially. And there’s a particular phrase in our PCA Book of Church Order order that excludes those who do not believe in God or a future state of rewards and punishments. So the thing to note here is that this is not a distinction between Christians and non Christians, or church members and non church members. This really only excludes one specific group of people. And that would be non theists. In other words, those who do not believe in God, or a future state of rewards and punishments. It would not exclude, for example, a Muslim who does believe in a divine being and a future state of rewards and punishments. So it’s important that we understand we’re not talking Christian versus non Christian or church member versus not church member. We’re talking about theist versus non theist. Another thing that’s important to remember about this section of the Book of Church Order is two chapters later, there’s a section about the oaths that are taken when someone is going to be a witness at trial. So if a person comes before church court as a witness, they’re given an oath, very similar to what you might see if you’re watching ‘Law and Order’ and that, you know, the witness takes an oath on the stand. The primary oath, or the oath that’s currently written in our Book of Church Order, involves swearing before God. But there is a provision after that, that if anyone for reasons of conscience can’t swear in that way, they can be allowed to swear in any other way. And it’s not really specified what that other way would be, or what limitations there would be to that other way of, excuse me not swearing, it would be that they would be able to affirm. And I think the reason that provision was written would be for maybe groups who it would be a violation of their conscience to take an oath of any kind. So this would be a provision for them to essentially promise to tell the truth without violating their conscience by taking an oath. So those are two things to keep in mind, the current provision would allow anyone to testify as long as they are a theist of some sort. And there is an alternate provision for those who cannot take the oath that’s written in the BCO. So last year, an overture was proposed, to allow, basically to strike the line about excluding those who do not believe in God, or a future state of rewards and punishments. And there were a lot of arguments given in favor of that, such as you know, that if you, if there is someone who has testimony to give, information to share, it would be important for the court to be able to hear that information, even if that information was coming from someone who does not believe in God. And a reminder of the fact that, you know, as churches, part of our part of our role is one of evangelism, especially in situations like RUF where our RUF ministers are not primarily dealing only with church members in a church setting. Hopefully, our RUF ministers have lots of opportunities to interact with unbelievers, theists, non theist, all types of people. And any, any person who’s made in the image of God is worthy of care and honor and respect. And when we think about the role of church discipline, one of those specific roles is to be able to speak truth to a person who may be in a dangerous position given their behavior, their sin. So, you know, as a mom, when I think about my children and wanting to shepherd their hearts, wanting to understand, you know, if I begin to wonder if a child’s you know, especially a teenager and older child, if they’re not being honest with me, or if there’s something more going on than what I was aware of, I would want any source of information that I could reliably listen to that would help me to understand where they really where they said they were, what have they been up to something I wasn’t aware of, I would want to be able to get that information. And obviously, I’d have to use my own wisdom and discretion to determine is this person does this person have a particular bias that would cause them to twist the truth or do they have a personal motivation for staying out of trouble or forgetting my child? In trouble, there would be considerations. But I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily want to exclude an entire group of people that I wouldn’t get information from if I’m trying to shepherd a heart and understand what’s going on with somebody. So this overture did not passed last year. And it a new overture was proposed this year similar, but with some modifications. One thing in particular that was changed was, there was a more specific proposal given for an alternate affirmation. So the main oath that was included in the BCO is still there, plus, an additional section was added to say, if anyone for reasons of conscience can’t swear this oath. And, and with the understanding that, you know, if someone says they don’t believe in God, we actually shouldn’t be encouraging them to swear to God, we would be encouraging them basically to take a false oath. So there’s an additional provision for someone to affirm that they are promising to tell the truth without it needing to be an oath that they swear to God. So again, this provision, or excuse me, this overture met with some resistance in the overtures committee. There was some back and forth about it. Some of the main objections were that the court is a church court and it’s not a secular court. And so we should not be giving atheists a standing in our church court. One speaker in particular said that atheists are, by definition liars and so their testimony has no place in a church trial. So I think, perhaps some of the distinctions were essentially stemming from a difference in anthropology. How do we think about unbelievers? How do we think about those that are not part of our immediate church circles or even religious circles? And an understanding of what it is that’s happening in a church trial, and what the purpose of a church trial is. So the overture was not approved by the overtures committee. However, there was a strong enough body of support in the overtures committee, that a group of people got together and put together what’s called a minority report. So essentially, when it gets to the time in General Assembly, where commissioners are voting on overtures, what they’re really voting on is they’re voting on the recommendation that the overtures committee makes. So the chairman of the overtures committee stands up and represents the position of the overtures committee to the Assembly, and the Assembly votes on those recommendations. So a Minority Report is an opportunity for a group of people from the overtures committee to basically share an alternate view. And it has to you have a certain percentage of people. So of all the voting members, there has to be a certain number of those, you can’t just have one guy say, “Hey, I’m going to make a minority report.” There needs to be a significant mass of people. And it has to be a certain percentage of both ruling elders and teaching elders. So there are provisions to make sure this isn’t just one road person who doesn’t lay out the decision when there really needs to be a significant group of people who all together say, we feel like the opposing view here was strong enough that it ought to be heard on the floor of General Assembly as well. And so there was in fact, a minority report for this overture. And the speaker who was representing the minority had time to give his presentation on the floor of General Assembly, there’s a special process that’s followed when there’s a minority report. So the overtures chair gets 10 minutes. And then the representative of the Minority Report gets 15. And then back to a five minute last words from the chair of the overtures committee, and then there’s much more lengthy debate and discussion on the floor. There’s more time given for debate and discussion. The piece that gets a little bit tricky is tracking the votes on this because what happens is, the first vote is whether to basically replace the overtures committee recommendation with the Minority Report recommendation. So the overtures committee has proposed, we should vote on this overture, and the Minority Report is saying, we think we should vote yes on this. So the first thing that’s done is deciding whether that minority report should become the official recommendation, and then you would vote on that official recommendation. So again, it’s a little hard to track if you’re following the votes, but the vote on whether to adopt the Minority Report as the main position was very close, it was very close, it was 843 in favor to 880 opposed. So we’re looking at an assembly of, you know, 1700 people, and there was a difference of maybe 37 people on whether that minority report should be accepted. Now, once the Minority Report had been voted down, the next vote was on whether or not to accept the overtures committee original recommendation, and that passed by a larger margin. So there were 950 in favor of accepting the overture committee’s recommendation to deny this overture versus 750 opposed. So my sense of what has happened there is that there was a fairly close split about whether or not to accept the Minority Report, but once the Minority Report had been voted down, commissioners were more in favor of passing the overtures committee recommendation as opposed to not because if they voted ‘no’ on the overtures committee recommendation, essentially it would have been referred back to the overtures committee. If the overtures committee votes ‘no’ on something, and the assembly doesn’t approve their ‘no’ recommendation, it just gets kicked back to the overtures committee. And at end of business on Thursday, that’s a pretty late hour to be reexamining an overture. So that is potentially one that might, there might be more opportunity for revisiting next year, a new overture to be brought next year to consider it, since there did seem to be a closer margin of support. Unfortunately, we don’t know how close the margin was on the background check over here since we didn’t get a counted vote.

Ann Maree  Right I was I did write a note down for myself to bring back up that voice vote. Now. I don’t remember why I said it. But anyway, on this overture, as you’re speaking, and I know you and I’ve had these conversations before, but we’re, I want to make this like, more practical. And so the idea of having a non theist witness is going to be, I think, clearly evident, maybe not the most evident, but when we’re talking about the youth ministry. So your children are in the youth ministry, and they bring their unbelieving neighbors, who knows, you know, whether they’re just non Christian, or if they are just adamantly opposed to, you know, the idea of God, that’s highly potential, right. And let’s just say, I pray this would never happen, but it does that the child is abused. In the youth ministry, this happens a lot. And there they are not their own witness to that abuse in our ecclesiastical courts, which means nothing to the magistrate. I mean, they can go to the civil authorities with their evidences. But I just I wanted to bring up the significance of this, and how easily it could happen, that a voice would not be heard just in our youth ministries.

Lynna  There was actually an example given by a speaker on the overtures committee of two sisters who were abused by their youth pastor, and one continued in the faith, and the other left to the faith. And because there was a question about whether the young woman who left the faith could be considered a valid witness at trial, that also brought into question whether they could bring a charge against the youth minister, because the sister who was still in the faith was the only witness.

Ann Maree  Only one witness which requires two in the BCO. 

Lynna  Yes, and this was also an issue, you know, that was moved out of the theoretical realm and into the very tangible realm with the standing judicial commission report on the trial against Dan Herron. One of the issues that was being addressed was whether it was inappropriate for a pastor to sue his accusers. And so as the standing judicial commission deliberated that issue and reported on their deliberations, they brought into question whether these women who were being sued, were, in fact, Christians, whether they should be treated as Christian sisters or not, because they hadn’t attended church in a given amount of time. So, you know, it’s not at all uncommon for victims of church abuse, to have conflicts of faith and to doubt the goodness of God or even the existence of God and to leave the church for time. So this isn’t a theoretical situation where, you know, this is so unlikely to happen, why would there ever be an atheist who wanted to testify in a church trial. Rather, we’re looking at a situation of whether legitimate accusers could be counted as atheists and not allowed to testify because of their crisis of faith caused by – one of the phrases that I heard an elder used in the overtures committee was – ‘sheep eating shepherds.’ So, you know, if sheep eating shepherds drive, they’re only credible accusers out of the church who can bring accountability for their behavior? 

Ann Maree  Wow. Okay, um, I did want to just kind of clarify one thing, which might be obvious to everybody, but Lynna is so gracious when she’s speaking. Maybe I’m not so gracious, but she uses the word people, the people in the assembly. And just as a reminder, the people of the assembly are all our elders and ruling elders and teaching elders. This is an assembly of men that are voting on all of these overtures. And so I bring that up, because, as a woman, our votes, the last vote that we have in a church is for an elder. And so it kind of brings up the importance of who you’re voting for. Anyway, okay, so I think we’ve gotten through the main overtures now that were impacting us related to the DASA report, is that correct, Lynna?

Lynna  There is, there was one further one that really didn’t go anywhere, there wasn’t really much said about it. It’s relevant, I think, just because of, there are sometimes some views that are expressed on different overtures that wind up being in conflict with each other. So it’s irrelevant for that matter. But there was an overture proposed to add language, again, in that section of the Book of Church Order that talks about trials to simply state that a church court may make use of a third party organization. There really wasn’t opposition given to using a third party organization, the main opposition to that overture was just that there’s not much precedent for adding language, like ‘may’ to the Book of Church Order. Book of Church Order order generally, tells people what they must do what they shall do. So that overture was not passed. But it was interesting to hear discussion about, you know, in juxtaposition with for example, you know, should churches allow atheist testimony, some of the objections where, you know, atheists will lie, and what we’ll even be able to determine if they’re lying, and it could mess up the whole process versus discussion on this overture that we may allow third party organizations to assist in our investigations. Statements made about you know, elders are completely competent to handle this. We don’t necessarily need third party organizations to help us out. So our church elders competent to listen to any given witness and determine whether they’re telling the truth or not. If they are, why should we be afraid of atheists testifying? If they’re not? Shouldn’t we want third party investigations. And I will note, I have read a letter from a church leader to a victim specifically stating, you know, we can’t invite in a third party that would be abdicating our authority as elders. So, you know, although on the overtures committee, the general consensus was, this isn’t really necessary. People already can use third party organizations if they want to, there definitely are people or sections of people in the PCA who believe that it would be inappropriate. So I thought it would have been helpful to specify, you may use a third party that’s not antagonistic to our church polity and the way that we’re supposed to handle accusations in a church court.

Ann Maree  Absolutely. Yes. I thought, yeah, thank you for bringing that up, too. I say this in other contexts, and I’ll say it here, I, I took all of the training that a pastor takes to be ordained except for the ordination process, and I know what I was taught and what I lack. And so I need a third party investigation. I can’t depend on my own discernment and wisdom, especially in abuse cases because they are so complicated. And not all cases are… they’re unique of course, when Chris Moles says, “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one.” And so eyes on more, eyes on especially those with professional eyes on knowing what to look for is just so incredibly important. And I know that the DASA report, that was our main best practice recommendation, bring in a third party investigation. So yeah, thanks for bringing that one up, as well.

Donna  One thing that struck me listening to the discussions and the overtures committee as well as on the floor, as best I can recall, I did not hear anyone who was opposed to background checks or to expanding witness eligibility, express concern for victims of abuse. So people who are in favor of these overtures to bring in ways to strengthen the court and ways to help victims would give specific examples like the one Lynna mentioned about the two sisters who had been abused, and there were others. But those who were opposed, didn’t say, “okay, but I don’t think this is a good idea. But here’s a way we could better protect victims.” I didn’t hear any mention of that. What I did here was a real focus on church polity and theory. So even though a lot of church polity has wisdom and is based on, you know, centuries of Christian thought, and there’s a lot to admire, church polity is not inspired. And I really get the impression that the whole policy and systems and organization of the PCA is much more important to some of these men than real life, flesh and blood who have experienced abuse. I don’t know whether that’s because they don’t understand abuse. I think that can be a big part. But if that’s the case, then it’s incumbent upon them, to educate themselves and to understand abuse. This is not an exercise in theory about what church rules should be, this is not a construct that you can tweak the technicalities. This is real people who, once they are abused, their lives are changed from that moment on. And these issues are often treated just as a matter of theory that can be debated.

Ann Maree  Yeah, one of the things that’s been rolling through my mind over the weekend since the end of the assembly was, and maybe because we’re hyper focused on it, but I just didn’t hear a whole lot of discussion about shepherding. Our assembly is just it is what it is. It’s what they call it, it’s business. And thinking back to one of the victims that I interviewed for the DASA report, who picked up the Book of Church Order and showed it to me and she said this is not a pastoral document. And our entire assembly is just based on a just adjusting the words and talking about the words of a document that has nothing in it about shepherding. So to hear from you, Donna to as a licensed counselor who you know encounters this daily with people not necessarily in our denomination, but um, yeah, it’s important to keep that person in front of us, right.

Donna  Yes, absolutely.

Ann Maree  Well, on that note too since we’ve been talking all business, talk to me, both of you, either of you about first of all your experience there at General Assembly, as a woman, the atmosphere, how you encountered the pastors and elders if you did… just anything you want to talk about here. I’m speaking to you as women who participated in the business aspect of GA, not necessarily in the other activities that were available to women. So tell me what it was like.

Donna  In general, the atmosphere feels very genial. And there’s a lot of, well, of course, there’s a lot of kind of reunion with your seminary buddies or whatever. And even in the proceedings, there’s a little joking back and forth. So that’s in general, but then there’s a divide. And we were able to interact with a lot of men who got it, who understand the impact of abuse. And it was very encouraging to speak with them, and to hear them debating in the overtures committee and on the floor. That was very encouraging. And there are, I would say, it seemed to me that these were younger men, maybe 40, and younger. But at the same time, we’re very aware that there is a group of 40 and younger men, who are quite the opposite, who have a much more patriarchal view of women, are much less tolerant of women’s gifts. So there’s that balance. And just the fact that the votes went against what would be helpful to abuse victims. But then, I think there’s also Lynna’s story that will shed some light on, on what the experience of a woman at GA would be like.

Lynna  Yeah, I would agree with mom, you know, the atmosphere is very, very cordial. And we are a true southern denomination. Having a General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve had worse interactions on Twitter, there was nothing, there was nothing. Nobody was impolite or, you know, treated me as though I was suspicious, or they didn’t want me there. I really was extremely blessed and encouraged to get to meet a lot of men that I admire and respect. People that I’ve formerly only interacted with online, I was really blown away by the number of Commissioners who sought me out and came and shook my hand and said, “Thank you for everything that you’re doing. It’s so important”. I did not expect that I was expecting to connect with people, I was not expecting there to be so much positive encouragement. So that was really a blessing. No one, no one approached me and, you know, raised any concerns or anything like that. There were a couple of times where I was speaking with somebody who clearly didn’t expect me to have any information or understanding of what was happening. You know and kind of spoke in broad generalities, and then was a little caught off guard when I had actual information to offer. One commissioner said something about like, “Well, yes. But the Committee on Constitutional business found conflict with these overtures.” And I said, “well, there were conflicts with two of them. But with the other three, the CCB, found no conflict.” And I went on to share a few more thoughts about the overtures and the dynamic of the conversation changed a little bit at that point, again, not not rude or hostile, just clearly not the conversation that was anticipated from the outset. For the most part, it was really encouraging to get to have individual conversations, and to hear more than what might be said on the floor, to understand more of the background of the ways that people not just, you know, the way that they decided to vote finally, but people who are, for example, preparing the Minority Report, how they decided what to include in that speech, and what you know, the best way to address that was giving, giving particular attention to the specific audience that they were trying to reach and what would be the best way to do that. So it was encouraging to just get to see and experience more of what goes on more than I could have seen from the live stream. And, you know, I, I, too, had mixed feelings about now not just at the assembly itself, but you know, leading up to the assembly, there’s of course, there’s a lot of conversation about, where’s the brewery and who’s bringing cigars and who’s going to room with whom and, you know, and on the one hand, I think, well, of course, we want our pastors and elders to have support networks and to have, you know, friendships and of course, they’ve been to seminary with some of these guys, it’s a, it’s a good thing. That that there’s, you know that there are amicable relationships between, you know, even guys that are on quite different sides of issues sharing Airbnbs together. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And we spoke to one man who had previously been in the SBC. And he commented that there’s more congeniality outside of debates. So even though in the debates there can be tension and, and stern disagreement, those same guys can go have dinner together afterwards. So that’s a good thing. It’s good that there’s this amicable interaction, and that people don’t have each other’s sworn enemies and, you know, seek each other’s ultimate demise. But as a woman, and especially as a woman who has had conversations with lots of abuse survivors, it’s, you know, going into General Assembly, there’s a lot heavy on my heart. And I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not heavy on the hearts of these men, either. But it can be difficult when, you know, especially victims are kind of feeling like, there are things hanging in the balance, there are very important things that have very important implications for them specifically, and for survivors in general. And we’re waiting, you know, on these outcomes, and we’re praying about things. To, to kind of mesh that with the jovial, let’s all go out for beers and cigars kind of atmosphere. So, again, it is just a mixed feeling. I you know, I don’t wish that our that our pastors and elders wouldn’t have wouldn’t have friends or wouldn’t have amicable discussions with people who think differently than they do. It’s just hard to mesh those two distinct tones related to the business of General Assembly.

Ann Maree  I’m glad you said that I was one of the times in the midst of I think there were still debate going on about the background checks. I saw one of the guys who had been involved in writing at least one of at least one of the overtures mentioned, it was a bad day, let’s go get a beer. I’m thinking to myself, you’re having a bad day. And we’re looking at no background checks. Wait a minute. And so yes, it’s I think this is what’s lacking, perhaps, and that is perspectives at events like this, you know, we want to like you’re saying Lynna, affirm, coming from a teaching elder/ruling elder perspective, especially our teaching elders who we want to have those rich relationships, we want them to have good, not Yes, men around them that they have great conversations and you know, iron things out, work them out. And, and yet, at the same time, to hear the perspectives of those of us who spend the days in the trenches hearing the hurt of, well, these guys are just buddies, they’re never going to stand up for me kind of thing. You know, maybe maybe they will, but you get the sense that they won’t, because they have such a rich relationship. So it’s a catch 22, I think.

Lynna  Yeah, so this is, it’s kind of interesting. In general, at presbytery meetings, at General Assembly meetings, when someone is addressing the gathering, they will say fathers and brothers, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because all of the commissioners, all of the people who are officially members of the gathering that are being addressed, are men, because our polity, you know, provides for only qualified men to be pastors and elders. So it’s not it was not something that was developed to, you know, make women feel bad or communicate that they don’t care about women. It’s a traditional way of addressing an assembly that is truly all made up of men. However, as more women and other people have become interested in church polity and presbytery meetings and gatherings of the General Assembly. There are more and more women present in the room, not as commissioners as visitors. And so it really did, you because you’re so used to hearing over and over fathers and brothers fathers and brothers, fathers and brothers. It really does catch your attention when somebody says and sisters and visitors there’s you know, the common backlash is well, you know, properly speaking, they’re only supposed to be addressing the assembly which does only have men. So, you know, fathers and brothers really are the only ones who are the proper recipients of the message. And I think it’s one of those things where there’s absolutely no reason why sisters can’t be addressed and welcomed. And the desire to include sister says something, and the pushback against it says something also. I don’t, I don’t, by any means mean to suggest that any speaker who got up and said fathers and brothers is therefore, you know, patriarchal and wishes women’s demise or doesn’t, you know, doesn’t want women to be present at the assembly or anything, it was more just a matter of noting it, because it was so different than what we’d heard over and over and I… Doctor insists his comment was the first time I’d heard that, but when I said something about it on Twitter, a couple of people said that there were a couple of other instances where that had been said, and I just hadn’t noticed it. So it is definitely by far in the minority. But I do understand he wasn’t the only one who said that. 

Ann Maree  Yeah, that is appreciated. So and also biblical language, it says brothers and sisters all over the Scriptures. And you know, if it’s ever anything one sided, it says brothers, so yeah, it does. It does sound like nails on chalkboard at some point, because, you know, like, What about me? But yeah, there’s no ill intent behind it. It’s just… 

Lynna  Right. So I think, you know, a similar you mentioned earlier, or maybe mom did that, that the Book of Church Order is not inspired. Right? Yeah, that’s true. But the Book of Church Order is at least a document that’s been created by the church for the church, as opposed to Robert’s Rules of Order, which is not even a Christian document. It’s a useful document. We believe in, we believe in the doctrine of common grace, we believe that we can take advice from people who are not necessarily Christians or writing things as professing Christians. But it is interesting how often we see, this is commonly the case on Twitter, where I raised the question, what does scripture say about this? And what I get back are either this is what the Book of Church Order says, or this is how Robert’s Rule says that we have to do this, which are not irrelevant responses, right? I mean, if I’m asking why are we doing things this way, those things are relevant, but it seems sometimes hard to get beyond those and go back to the true source. There’s a lot of hesitancy to even question if you know what of Robert’s Rules of Order what of following Robert’s Rules on this point, is actually not the most godly way to proceed? Are we willing to question Robert’s Rules, as opposed to Scripture, you know, to measure all things, even the Book of Church Order and Robert’s Rules against our ultimate authority, which is scripture. So yeah, a similar conversation about, you know, the reason that men are the only ones addressed has nothing to do with Scripture. And 100% has to do with following the procedures and Robert’s Rules, which by all means, let’s do everything decently and in order, let’s have a plan rather than just, you know, willy nilly run out there saying things without any organization. But, you know, to push back with Robert’s Rules, when a sister in Christ is expressing something feels sometimes verging on idolatry, honestly.

Ann Maree  Yeah, I am attracted to Presbyterian Church government, because of that order. I’m a big order person. But yes, it is not our that is not our God, if you will. Neither is the Book of Church Order, although it is a document made specifically for the church as you brought up, which is a very good point to bring up too. We do a lot of nay-saying the BCO, but that is, we want to recognize that it is designed to help our churches. 

So this has been a really rich conversation that I want to continue and we are going to continue just to hear more from Lynna and her mom discuss some of these things further, the next time on the podcast, and we’ll pick up actually with something that Tim Keller said on the Mars Hill podcast and we’re just going to do a little bit of discussion around that but we’ll look forward to seeing you again next time on the Safe to Hope podcast.



Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our Executive Producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written and mixed by Ann Maree and edited by Ann Maree and Helen Weigt. Music is Waterfall and is licensed by Pixabay. We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe To Hope podcast series. 

Safe To Hope is one of the resources offered through the ministry of Help[H]er, a 501C3 that provides training and resources for those ministering in one-another care, and advocacy for women in crisis in Christian institutions. Your donations make it possible for Help[H]er to serve as they navigate crises. All donations are tax-deductible. If you’d be interested in partnering financially with the ministry, go to help her dot help and click the ‘Give’ link in the menu. If you’d like more information or would like to speak to someone about ministry goals, or advocacy needs, go to help her dot help. That’s helpher.help.


We value and respect conversations with all our guests. Opinions, viewpoints, and convictions may differ so we encourage our listeners to practice discernment. As well. guests do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Help[H]er. It is our hope that this podcast is a platform for hearing and learning rather than causing division or strife.

Please note, abuse situations have common patterns of behavior, responses, and environments. Any familiarity construed by the listener is of their own opinion and interpretation. Our podcast does not accuse individuals or organizations.

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