This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Change and Leadership in the Church: Part Two - Metamorphosis.

Building on what I suggested in a previous post, about change in the church being apocalyptic, I now invoke the image of metamorphosis.  Metamorphosis is an apocalyptic change because it means that something is guided by its own essence and nature to become what it most deeply and truly is.  Its change is an ongoing revelation of its deepest identity.  The way it transforms expresses the future already embedded and encoded in its present state.  
The word metamorphosis is used in the gospels concerning the transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor.  During that event, Jesus’ essential nature is revealed to three of the disciples.  It is a foreshadowing or proleptic resurrection appearance.  But it is not so much about what Jesus will be, but what Jesus is and always has been, which will be fully revealed in his resurrection.    
Biologists use the term metamorphosis to talk about the change that happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly.  This is not a technical change in which the caterpillar tweaks itself into a more efficient little animal.  Neither is this an adaptive change in which the caterpillar is faced with a changing environment and adapts by learning to fly.  
No.  The caterpillar in entering the chrysalis is not “deciding” anything independently; it is expressing the identity encoded into its DNA.  It is becoming what God the Creator has given it to be.
My understanding of this process is that the caterpillar enters the chrysalis and then undergoes a systematic and comprehensive transformation.  It does not simply sprout wings.  Rather, the animal is completely deconstructed so that it may be reconstructed.  Were one to open a chrysalis, I am told that what would be found inside is dissociated mush, an organic goop that is reorganizing itself cell by cell.  Over time, what eventually emerges from the chrysalis is a butterfly, a new being, made out of the stuff of the old, but reorganized according to an internally embedded process and pattern.
For followers of Jesus, butterflies have always symbolized resurrection.  Resurrection and metamorphosis are closely related.  One could perhaps say that metamorphosis is the process; resurrection is the final product.
Change in the church is apocalyptic in the sense that it is revealed to the church in its own identity and calling.  Apocalyptic change, in the sense of metamorphosis, does not first look to the environment and seek ways to adapt to it.  Apocalyptic change looks within, at the very nature of the church itself, and undergoes a transformation by this encounter with its core essence.  It goes back to the DNA, the original blueprint, as it were, of what it is.  And in this engagement, reflection, practice, and implementation, it becomes what it is.
And by looking within, it also comes to the heart of what the world is, for God is not present only in the church.  God’s being and nature is encoded into the world that God speaks and breathes into being.  The whole universe is charged, shaped, engineered, and bears the indelible stamp, the voiceprint, of the One who makes it.  God is therefore somehow present in everything.  When the church goes deep into its own identity, it also finds the identity of the whole creation.
In other words, change in the church has to do with an interaction/encounter with the church’s One and only Leader, Jesus Christ, the Word and Wisdom by whom all things were made.  This happens when the community gathers around the Word in disciplines of discernment, sharing, creativity, and obedience.  To put it briefly and directly, the church lives and changes by gathering for worship, prayer and Scripture study, and reflecting on its experience of God’s saving Presence in the world.  That is how the metamorphosis/resurrection of the church takes place.  
In so gathering, the church looks and listens to its One Leader.  Each person in the gathering — that is, each member of the body — has memories, gifts, and skills to contribute.  While one may convene or moderate the conversation, none is the leader.  The new community has no other “father” (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 23:9), that is, no figure granted special authority over others.  Rather, all are disciples, finding their way together.  The gathering of disciples is one of equals.    
For the church is not independent of the world; it is leaven, having a transformative effect on the world.  But to have this effect the church has to be the church, that is, it has to be becoming, transforming, meta-morphing, into its true self as a living witness to what God intends and has for the whole creation.  The church is the vanguard, the leading, growing edge of what the whole creation is becoming.
The church is a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, not for itself alone, but as a living witness of transformation in and to a world shattered by sin that is itself becoming redeemed, renewed, released, restored, and remade.
So.  Technical change is useful and necessary in a day-to-day minor adjustment sort of way.  Adaptive change is useful in reshaping tools and tactics for doing mission in the world.  But neither is worth anything unless the church has first whole-heartedly committed itself to an ongoing process of apocalyptic change, by which it is constantly measuring itself according to the standards, values, teachings, example, and life of Jesus Christ, our only Head and Leader. 

+++++++

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Foothills Overtures.


The Presbytery of the Foothills in South Carolina has come up with a series of overtures to the General Assembly.  These are in response to what everyone agrees is a deep crisis in the denomination.  
Foothills Presbytery appears to believe that the root of this crisis is that the General Assembly takes controversial and unpopular (to some) stands on social, political, and economic issues.  This creates dissension and division in local presbyteries, and even causes some more conservative churches to seek to leave the denomination.  
As Presbyterians, we naturally assume that the best way to handle this crisis is through a modification of our procedures.  Therefore, Foothills Presbytery has presented a list of procedural changes that they think will solve this problem.
First, I think we need to ask whether it is true that the reason the PCUSA in trouble is because the GA takes controversial stands on public issues.  From within our churches and presbyteries, perhaps this seems to be the case.  It is what some insiders tend to grouse about.  
But I wonder two things.  First, do people outside our churches care, or even know, what the General Assembly says?  When they are seeking a congregation, do they look up the denomination’s social witness policies?  Certainly, some do.  But I am not sure I have ever met one.  Then there is the question of whether more people outside the church don’t often tend to agree with the stances the denomination takes.  
Secondly, I wonder if we would we have the same concern if the GA habitually supported war, capitalism, and conservative social values.  Maybe.
In any case, the Foothills initiatives are astonishingly disappointing and out of touch with reality.  Let’s look at them.

(If you want to read the actual document and proposed overtures from Foothills Presbytery, try this link:  

Overture #1 – The Great Ends.
The idea of having each General Assembly based on one of the Great Ends of the Church assumes that the Great Ends of the Church have something going for them in the first place.  As if having regular conversations and reflection on these Great Ends will somehow reconnect us with our truest and deepest identity, and provide a firm foundation for moving forward.  
In fact, the Great Ends are obsolete.  They assume a Christendom model, and they are almost all verbal and remarkably passive.  Look at the verbs: proclaim, maintain, shelter, nurture, preserve, promote, and exhibit.  While it is possible to assume or infer that these mean someone actually doing something, all of them can be referenced without meaningful, material, physical interaction with another human being.  All of them are remarkably inward in their focus.  The most direct words, shelter and nurture, have to do with what we do for ourselves. 
Where are more active and interactive verbs like serving, healing, sharing, receiving, hearing, witnessing, feeding, welcoming, holding, and so forth?  Where are Jesus’ own words in his: the Great Commission: go, baptize, teach, obey?  Where does Jesus ever say to “maintain” or “preserve” anything?  
The Great Ends assume a fortress mentality in which the church is this edifice on the street corner that has something to show and say… but a) never actually touches anyone, and b) never has any reason to listen to anyone else.  They assume the church is all about itself and what it has possession of, not about the world or Jesus Christ, or the Spirit who possesses it.  The good news is something the church owns, about which it will talk and even let people view.  But the strong implication is that people have to come to us.  These are not the “great ends” of a people who know themselves to have been sent into the world.
The rest of the initiatives of the Foothills Presbytery follow from this set of premises.

Overture #2 – Reaffirm Social Witness.
First, they reaffirm that social witness is a thing.  We are not like those other Christians who just want to stay spiritual and separate from the rest of the world.  I get that.  

Overture #3 – Reform ACSWP.
(That’s the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, to you non-wonks.)
I too tire of the pointless, self-indulgent, and self-important pronunciamentos that the General Assembly issues on social, political, and economic issues.  Usually these are addressed to the government or other leaders, as if they have any reason to concern themselves with our opinion about anything.  Half-a-century ago, some civic leaders may have been interested in the advice of the Presbyterian Church.  Those days are long, long gone.
To the extent that we still do this it is indeed nonsensical and ridiculous.  Nobody cares.   Except perhaps their authors and critics looking for something to complain about, nobody reads these documents, least of all the people we hope will be influenced by them.  And ACSWP?  I have found them to be paternalistic and overly concerned with political posturing.  And I agree with them on almost every issue!  (And I am still angry with them for gratuitously torpedoing the fossil fuel divestment initiative in Detroit.)  
Yet, most of the controversial and divisive decisions coming out of the GA are not these empty political statements.  Most, rather, have to do with decisions that have to be made about the mission and resources of the denomination.  
For instance, the controversial vote on divestment from companies working with the Israeli occupation of Palestine would not have been affected by this overture.  Divestment was not simply the expression of an opinion; it was about the GA’s money and how it should be managed.  The same goes for the long debate we had over ordination standards.  It was not simply expressing a position on Gays in the church; it had to do with whom we will or will not actually ordain as teaching and ruling elders.
So, fine, let’s stop making grandiose, ineffectual statements about this or that.  But we still have to decide how we are going to act as a gathering of disciples of the Lord Jesus in our lives together.  And that’s still going to make angry people who don’t like what is decided.

Overture #4 – Make EP’s advisory delegates
This is, well, idiotic.  It failed laughably (literally) at the last GA.  First of all, some presbyteries don’t even have EP’s, or are calling them by some other euphemism.  Secondly, EP is not a category in the Book of Order at all; it is under “staff”.  Why should paid staff have an advisory vote at GA?  Hello?  Why are the elected commissioners not sufficient to express an intimate experience of what is going on in local churches?  Why is this particular set of well-paid vested interests to be granted extra privilege and more power than they have already?  What great benefit has having Executives (a remarkably un-biblical title) given us over the last 50 years?        

Overture #5 – Supermajorities for BoO amendments.
Super-majorities always have the effect of empowering a minority and privileging the status quo.  They also ensure that any change has broad support.  All this assumes that the Constitution is basically perfect as it is.  If we had this in place a lot of things would not have happened, including the new Form of Government itself.  
A General Assembly can get around this restriction through the use of Authoritative Interpretations.  And, many issues that divide Presbyterians are not matters of Constitutional content.  Like the Israel-Palestine thing again. 
Furthermore, this overture fails to address the larger problem that tiny presbyteries have the same vote as large ones.  It gives undo power to small, rural presbyteries, and diminishes the power of larger, urban presbyteries.  (And we may act this year to enable even smaller presbyteries.)  Otherwise beneficial presbytery mergers are dis-incentivized because of this resulting further diminishment of their voice.  Maybe Foothills Presbytery doesn’t see this as a problem.  
We do need to change the way we vote on these amendments: perhaps it would work better to use the raw vote of all presbyters, rather than each presbytery having one vote.  

Overture #6 – Abstaining 
This one doesn’t even make logical sense.  Unless we decide only to count the presbyteries that voted, not all presbyteries, which is not what this overture proposes, we can’t decide not to count abstentions as negative votes.  Since the point is to get a majority, abstentions or failures to vote at all are not counted as yes votes, and the number of yes votes is all that matters.
A presbytery can already abstain by not voting at all.  


In any case, this set of overtures makes it harder for the church to do anything by empowering disgruntled minorities.  No it’s not the 1960’s anymore, as the document points out.  But this set of proposals indicates a mindset grounded in the 1950’s.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Change and Leadership in the Church - Part One: Apocalyptic.


            The Head of the Church is Jesus Christ.  He is our only leader, teacher, and king.  Recognizing this, the Presbyterian Book of Order does not name anyone else as a “leader”, and talks about leadership only in very limited ways.  First, it mentions leadership in terms of the practical organizing of music and worship.  Then our polity recognizes leadership as the work of gathered councils, not individuals.  Finally, and barely more than implicitly, leadership is mentioned as something related to pastors.  But it is not listed among a pastor’s main tasks.  The Book of Order also never mentions leadership among the responsibilities of any staff person.
            Jesus Christ is the only Leader of the church, and he is nothing if not a change agent.  His proclamation of the Kingdom of God is a direct assault on the status quo.  And his whole ministry is a demonstration of radical change, as he brings people from disease, disorder, and bondage, to healing, wholeness, and freedom.  He is crucified for his work in advocating and instituting change, from his embrace of women and others excluded from power, to his predictions of the demise of the ruling elite.     
            If Jesus were about “technical” change, he would have talked about tweaking the details of the institutional Judaism of his time.  He would have worked within the institutional boundaries, goals, and definitions of establishment religion.  This might have annoyed some entrenched interests, but it is doubtful that we would ever have heard of him.  And he would not have been enough of a threat to Rome for them to bother crucifying.      
            If Jesus were about “adaptive” change, he would be advocating ways to bring Judaism into a more efficient and effective alignment with the economic and political order of imperial Rome.  Adaptive change is usually about responding to a changing environment.  For a business this has to do with new technologies, changing attitudes, different political structures, evolving social mores and expectations, shifts in the market, different competition, and so on.
            In the church, we might speak about “adapting” to a “post-Christendom” context, where the church has to deal with having a significantly different place in society.  Now we have less money, lower prestige, and diminished status.  People today have more religious options, including the increasingly popular choice of having no religious affiliation at all.  Ecclesial life today is burdened by empty buildings, aging congregations, dwindling resources, and a society that often reacts to religion with indifference or hostility.  Adapting to this environment would mean downsizing, reallocating resources, streamlining structures and procedures, becoming more flexible, changing our messaging, learning new technologies, and so forth.          
            But Jesus isn’t about either of those kinds of change.  He proclaims the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God goes far beyond both technical and adaptive change.  It is even more comprehensive than a revolutionary change, which is at least a step beyond the kinds of change discussed so far.  Revolutionary change would have Jesus advocating the overthrow of Rome and the religious establishment.  He would want to replace that empire with new leaders. 
            The Kingdom of God requires an order of change that is beyond even a revolution.  It requires apocalyptic change.  Apocalypse is not about the destruction of creation, as some perversely imagine; it has to do with what is revealed at the heart and core of reality.  The Greek word for apocalypse means revelation. 
            Apocalyptic change is an awakening of human nature to the deepest truth of its own nature and destiny.  It turns everything upside down and demands a change of the entire system, beginning in the souls and bodies of people, and extending to include the nature and practice of leadership itself.  

So Jesus called them and said to them,
‘You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants over them.  
But it is not so among you;
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:42-45).

            Apocalyptic change doesn’t just reject the current ruling empire; it rejects the whole idea and practice of some people ruling over others at all.  It rejects coercive power itself, and replaces it with a regime of non-violence and peace.  Apocalyptic change doesn’t just temper and channel our ego-centricity in more creative, efficient, and mutually beneficial directions; it rejects the whole idea and practice of letting our ego-driven personality be the sole lens through which we view the world, and replaces it with a multifaceted view of the soul that sees and responds directly to reality.  Apocalyptic change gets rid of domination altogether.
            This is way beyond mere adaptation to a changing environment.  The Lord does not adapt to the society of his day.  Rather, he calls his gathered community to grow continually into its identity as the people of God.  In this respect, the kind of change the church requires is more like metamorphosis.  The church of Jesus Christ is called to adapt only and always to the good news of the Kingdom of God.  This kind of adaptation is apocalyptic; it is a response to an expression of the true nature, purpose, and destiny of the church, as revealed to it by God.