Defrocked by the PCUSA: An interview with Joe Rightmyer

joe rightmyerSince the announcement on Jan. 7, 2015 that Grace Presbytery defrocked Joe Rightmyer as censure for his participation in the process that lead to Highland Park Presbyterian Church’s realignment to another Reformed denomination, many in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have been voicing their outrage at the denomination and their support for Rightmyer.

He is universally respected across a broad spectrum of people in the PCUSA. He is one of the most gracious, considerate, consistent, conciliatory people you could ever hope to meet. He worked tirelessly across the aisle for decades seeking to bring unity and renewal to the denomination where God called him to serve.

The thanks he received in the end? He was stripped of his ordination.

Here are excerpts from my conversation and subsequent email exchange with Joe Rightmyer on January 15th:

Q: Joe, your friends want to know how you’re doing. You are beloved by so many and they want to know that you’re okay. What would you like to say to say to them?

A: “I want my friends to know that I am fine.  In fact, I am honored to have served HPPC as its Interim Senior Pastor during those most challenging days, and I would gladly forfeit my ordination all over again for the sake of gaining a deeper relationship with Christ.  The intimacy I experienced with our Lord and the sense of God’s pleasure in my work are treasures beyond value.”

Q: If you had to summarize what happened with Highland Park, Grace Presbytery and Joe Rightmyer, how would you sum it up?

A: “Grace Presbytery demanded and received a large sum of money and a pound of flesh.  HPPC, on the other hand, received her freedom and preserved the control of the pulpit — which, in the end, was the church’s most sacred trust.”

Q: You were the interim pastor. Was the pastoral transition a significant part of Highland Park’s decision making process?

A: “The leadership of Grace Presbytery made it abundantly clear that any candidate for pastor would have to pledge loyalty to the denomination and subscribe to a ‘big-tent’ ideology; meaning that he or she would have to tolerate and perhaps even celebrate what God deems intolerable in the body of Christ.  With the church’s children and grandchildren at heart, the leadership of HPPC felt a clear responsibility for the ‘preservation of the truth’ and fidelity to the Scriptures in the preaching of Christ.  When seen in that light, the vote to disaffiliate from the PCUSA became a spiritual mandate and the cost was minimal compared to what was gained.”

Q: Joe, you and I have worked as colleagues seeking the renewal of the PCUSA for many years. Tell me how you see the landscape of the denomination to have shifted and where you are now in your thinking about the future of the PCUSA.

A: “God called me to preach the Word for the sake of His sheep in the PCUSA.  But after the denomination removed clear Biblical standards for ordained leaders and now is seeking to redefine marriage, God instructed me to lead this particular flock to safe pasture.  Many will interpret this action as ultimately addressing homosexuality, but it is ultimately about the Gospel.  Marriage between a man and a woman speaks of Christ and His church, bringing life into the world.  Distort that message and you proclaim a false gospel.”

Rightmyer concluded,“My heart goes out to those who want out of the PCUSA and cannot get out.  I also have the deepest respect for the many faithful servants whose place of service remains in the denomination.  Both will face increasing difficulty and demands for conformity with the status quo.  I pray the faithful will find consolation and encouragement in our Savior’s words of promise of great reward for those who endure to the end.”

An appeal?

Many people have asked, “Will Rightmyer appeal the presbytery PJC ruling?” He did not say during the interview — he still has time to decide — but I hope so. The precedent set by allowing this ruling to stand could be detrimental to pastors serving churches currently discerning their denominational future. It is also a negative precedent in terms of the narrow interpretation of the new Form of Government which was supposed to allow for greater flexibility and freedom. Instead, this PJC ruling essentially says that if it something is not expressly allowed in the FOG, then it’s forbidden. If that stands the PCUSA can look forward to an unimaginable number of overtures seeking to add litanies to many sections of the Book of Order as sessions, presbyteries and synods will need express language in the denomination’s constitution to function in new ways.

The Board of Directors of the Presbyterian Lay Committee condemns the defrocking of Joe Rightmyer by the Presbyterian Church (USA). While Presbyterians for Renewal and the Presbyterian Lay Committee have approached renewal efforts differently in the past, the organizations have a high level of mutual respect and the PLC has deep appreciation for Rightmyer’s collegiality over the years. The PLC board is unified in its assessment that the censure in this case in punitive and vindictive in nature; clearly contrary to the restorative purpose of discipline espoused in the denomination’s constitution. The ruling and action of this PJC is the latest example of how the denomination’s praxis diverges from the mutually agreed upon standards. The Presbyterian Lay Committee calls on the Synod of the Sun to overturn the ruling of Grace Presbytery’s PJC.



Carmen Fowler LaBerge