The drama in Paola, Kansas is apparently over. Last week, just in time for Christmas, the PCUSA’s Heartland Presbytery defrocked the Rev. Kirk Johnston, the suspended pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Paola, according to the Layman Online:
Presbytery commissioners, at a called meeting Dec. 18, took three actions against the Rev. Kirk Johnston that were recommended by the presbytery’s committee on ministry:
- 1. They voted 131-35 to “concur with the administrative commission and committee on ministry that the Rev. A. Kirk Johnston has ‘after consultation and notice, persisted in a work disapproved’ by the presbytery and presume that he has renounced jurisdiction (G-6.0702), effective Nov. 18, 2007, directing the stated clerk to remove his name from the roll, and take such other actions of an administrative character as may be required by the Constitution.”
- 2. They voted 148-10 to “concur with the administrative commission and committee on ministry that the Rev. A. Kirk Johnston has ‘accepted membership of any character in another denomination’ (G-11.0416) since Nov. 18, 2007, directing the stated clerk to delete his name from the roll, and take such other actions of an administrative character as may be required by the Constitution.” Before the vote, commissioners agreed to add a second sentence to the recommendation: “The presbytery proceeds in this action with a sad heart, and offers its prayers for God’s grace and blessing in the future ministry of A. Kirk Johnston.”
- 3. They voted 108-39 to “determine that any further pastor or ministerial activities by A. Kirk Johnston (G-6.0200) in connection with ‘Lighthouse Presbyterian Church of Paola’ or any other worshipping community within the geographic bounds of Heartland Presbytery – including, but not limited to, preaching, leading worship, or the administration of the sacraments of baptism or the Lord’s Supper – is disapproved.”
After these votes, presbytery commissioners unanimously approved a motion from the Rev. Brian D. Ellison, moderator of the committee on ministry, to change the effective date of the first two action items from Nov. 18 to Dec. 18.
Pastor Kirk didn’t go without having his say, and while I don’t have a transcript of it, I think quoting the Layman’s account at length is worth it:
Johnston then had 15 minutes to make his case. “I’m not here to ask you to keep me a member of Heartland Presbytery,” he told commissioners. “I’m not here even to get in the way of lunch. I am here to ask you to hold your leadership accountable, to remove me rightly. Not by e-mails. Not with three days’ notice, thinking that’s enough. Not with no stated reasons in letters that don’t give reasons for administrative leave. Not by threats to withhold benefits and pay retroactively. I ask that matters happen as they should – in the light of day, according to the Book of Order, according to Heartland personnel policies, as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”
In the rebuttal portion of his statement, Johnston said the e-mail he received Nov. 14 placing him on administrative leave gave no explanation for the action. “This jumped the requirement of our Book of Order, chapter 14.0610 through 13, that a church’s session and a congregation concur when a pastor is put on leave or removed – even, you’ll notice in that language, when there’s an AC present,” he said. “This forces this whole thing to the presbytery. I didn’t ask Paola for severance. You are the body removing me.”
Johnston said he never became the pastor or even an employee of Lighthouse Church, and that he honored the terms of the administrative leave. “Why am I threatened retroactively?” he asked. “If you remove me today, as is your right, pay me till today. Allow my benefits to stand today. Why is no one from presbytery saying, ‘Kirk, you get 30 days’ benefits. Hey, I’m sure you’re pretty concerned about your family at Christmas, and I’m sure you’re pretty concerned about benefits. Here’s what your rights are.’ Never. Not once.”
If I’ve earned severance, pay it. If you don’t want to, don’t. There are rights – we’ll deal with them,” he said. “But I’ve not renounced jurisdiction. I’ve not indicated that I’d like to leave. I’ve not taken myself out of your discipline and authority. I come before you today acknowledging your authority.”
In the witness portion of his statement, Johnston said he was “here to avoid another pastor’s quietly slipping away in the night without witness.” He said he has not seen pastoral care extended to him by the presbytery’s leadership since the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission in 2004 upheld his remedial complaint against the presbytery over its per-capita policy and declared the policy unconstitutional.
“We are here because the session of the Paola church and I have asked some hard questions – and these questions remain,” Johnston said. “If I am to be strained from you today like a gnat, then so be it, but do it in the light. And I will not go without pointing out the camel that your local and national leadership have been asking you to swallow (Matthew 23:23).”
Johnston argued that the PCUSA has “renounced the once-clear message that Jesus is Lord, head of the Church, sole means of salvation and only name under heaven by which a man may be saved. When the purity of Christ is questioned, I find, like the reformers, it’s necessary to challenge the peace,” he said.
“In honor of Christ, I call the PCUSA back to her first love – a wholehearted obedience to Christ and dependence on God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” Johnston told presbytery commissioners. “I call you up to complete and unashamed reverence to Jesus as the unique and reliable and authoritative witness of God for matters of faith and practice. I call you out to a whole-bodied reverence for God’s Word so that, together, we pursue righteous and obedient living. I call you to unshackle the means of grace and let the full Word of Christ dwell in us richly. I call you to reject leadership that does not extend pastoral care.”
That reference to the 2004 decision is pivotal, I think. From what I’ve been able to learn, it seems that the Heartland leadership tried to impose something that the denomination wouldn’t allow them to impose, and like sore losers they took it out on Pastor Kirk and his congregation. That’s what happens when you stand up to bullies, and I applaud Rev. Johnston and his flock for their faithfulness and their courage. In the form of the new Lighthouse Presbyterian Church, they will be a tremendous asset to the EPC, which they will be formally received into on January 27. Welcome, friends!