Thursday, February 16, 2012
My Church Proves Grace Still Works
Notice 8/17/14: I am aware from following the Google Analytics data for this blog that there are people online searching for information regarding the self-confessed relapse of Dr. Skip Ryan. Since Dr. Ryan himself has published a personal letter to Redeemer Seminary, from which he has resigned, I'm providing a link to that letter here so you can hear this from him.
You probably haven't heard, but today is an historic day for Park Cities Presbyterian Church.
Park Cities is my church, part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and located in Dallas, Texas.
Granted, today's not an earth-shattering day. Presbyterianism as we know it will not be upended by this day. Some people may even scoff, and say it's all petty church politics.
But today, the first pastor Dallas' largest PCA church ever had has officially been welcomed back on staff. And no matter where you live, or what church you attend, this news should be a source of encouragement.
The announcement was made via a letter to Park Cities Presbyterian's 5,000 members and a posting on the church's website. Upon an invitation by our current senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Davis, and a unanimous vote of our elder board (called a "Session" by Presbyterians), the Rev. Dr. Skip Ryan is returning to our church's pastoral staff.
Dr. Ryan resigned from his post as senior pastor several years ago in the wake of a scandal involving his addiction to prescription painkillers. But I don't want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary on Dr. Ryan's troubles. This story isn't about those, but about his God, and His church that has supported him regardless of them.
Park Cities Presbyterian's story, however, is quite remarkable. It began when a group of 1,500 members from an older, larger, mainline Presbyterian congregation split to form a new church back in 1991. Within a span of roughly 14 years, church membership quadrupled, its budget ballooned to $14 million annually, two daughter churches were birthed, and a robust program of inner-city ministries began transforming the ghettos of west Dallas.
It stunned everyone when he resigned in disgrace after being caught lying about his dependence on prescription medications. Although several lapses in ethical standards took place, we've been told no crimes were committed. Since then, contributing factors which led to the addiction have been addressed on multiple levels, and a series of punishments and censures were imposed by our denomination upon Dr. Ryan, all of which he obediently served and by which he abided.
Eventually, he was successfully restored to full fellowship in the PCA, and re-vested with our denomination's permission for administering the sacraments. He'd even been installed as Chancellor at Dallas's new Redeemer Seminary, which had begun as an offshoot of Philadelphia's Westminster Seminary.
But remember: this story isn't about addiction, loss, or even penance and restoration.
It's about grace.
It was grace, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that prompted a group of Christ followers to rally around Dr. Ryan, help him take responsibility for his actions, encourage his family during this painful process, and bring him back into ministry. In many churches, I suspect, the fact that a senior pastor was caught in one of the major pitfalls of our time would be enough to start vicious gossip cycles spinning. Instead of giving him time to resign, people would have been demanding his head on a platter. His family could have been hounded out of town, and his name reduced to a laughingstock, or at least maligned enough so that he wouldn't be able to seek employment in a faith-based organization ever again.
Instead, Dr. Ryan and his family were embraced by our church, and they never even left our congregation. From the beginning, several elders privately guided Dr. Ryan and his family through the revelation, fallout, and recovery from his actions. It helped that Dr. Ryan was contrite enough to seek a resolution without being forced by our Session to do so. While he went away for detox, rehab, and therapy, his family - his wife, with her own ministry to women in the church and pastors' wives across our denomination; a son and daughter in college; and a severely handicapped younger daughter - were well cared for by many members of our congregation.
At a special weeknight service arranged for the newly-sober Dr. Ryan to address our congregation, in a forum intentionally labeled a "testimony" since he was not yet allowed to preach, he bluntly confessed and repented to a standing-room-only sanctuary. Yet I did not get any impression that those of us in attendance were looking for salacious details, or to feast on a bit of schadenfreude. No - I think the reason just about all of us listened to his testimony with bated breath was because we were waiting for him to announce when the Session would allow him back into our pulpit!
As it happened, Dr. Ryan himself said he would not be seeking reinstatement in any capacity at Park Cities Presbyterian. And indeed, despite this announcement today, Dr. Ryan's new position is not something for which he was looking. His successor, Rev. Davis, had the idea last year, and he, along with our Session, had been praying about it since then. Dr. Ryan will keep his full-time position at Redeemer Seminary, but will re-join the staff at our church as a part-time assistant pastor.
In a way, it may appear to be more a matter of semantics, since Dr. Ryan will continue to do what he's already been doing ever since being restored to full fellowship in our denomination: ministering to and counseling people recovering from and repenting of sins that bear strong stigmas in our society. In God's eyes, what Dr. Ryan did isn't any worse than the rest of the sins you and I commit on a daily basis; what's provocative about chemical dependency of any kind are the ramifications our society sees in such behavior. Ramifications that have their place, yes, since it was the very stigma that helped convince Dr. Ryan he needed professional help in dealing with this destructive behavior. But other ramifications that, for better or worse, have implications that our society may not be entirely justified in perpetuating.
For his part, ever since he was elected to replace Dr. Ryan, Rev. Davis has had to endure several years of grumbling among some members that he's not nearly the preacher Dr. Ryan is. And no, he's not. I suspect even Rev. Davis would readily admit to that. You might be surprised to learn that I have actively resisted the urge to compare the two men. Rev. Davis, raised in suburban Oklahoma, doesn't have the scholarly - some might say sophisticated - approach of the Harvard-educated, Connecticut-bred Dr. Ryan. But some people didn't resist dwelling on those differences, and with the welcoming of Dr. Ryan back onto Park Cities Presbyterian's staff, they might skeptically question whether this is an easy way for Rev. Davis to build some good will among disgruntled congregants. Or even flaunt the fact that Dr. Ryan is satisfied enough with Rev. Davis that he's willing to serve on staff under him.
Despite all the cynicism I sometimes - okay, oftentimes! - profess on various subjects, I can't be cynical about this news. Instead, it really, honestly, makes me happy to see the restoration process continue and flourish. True, in his position as senior pastor of a large, wealthy, influential church, Dr. Ryan benefited from being surrounded by many people just like him who wanted to help him even as he represented a cautionary tale for themselves. Most of us don't have that strong or extensive a support network to count on. Still, this is Dallas, Texas, after all - the buckle of the Bible Belt. Plenty of hypocrisy takes place in the religious palaces scattered across many affluent subdivisions in this part of the Lone Star State. Plenty of back-stabbing, satisfaction at others' misfortune (the definition of schadenfreude, by the way!), and jockeying for new positions as vacuums are created when a leader falls.
That's why today is an historic day at my church. And frankly, for evangelicalism in general.
Grace has been proven to work. Not grace that mortals themselves have managed to manufacture. But grace given by God and applied by people who believe in that grace.
Maybe the fact that such notable examples of grace are so rare is what's more disappointing than the fall Dr. Ryan experienced. But as today's news proves, grace does work.
Grace that is greater than all our sins!