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

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Church Dies. Alone.

            The church in which I was baptized recently closed.  Like so many churches, things must have got tougher and tougher, attendance lower and lower, the budget tighter and tighter.  Eventually they couldn’t afford a pastor.  Then they just stopped having worship.
            I imagine some elder was unable to find a supply preacher one Sunday, so they cancelled.  And then nobody cared enough, or had enough energy, even to gather anymore.  There must have been a certain sense of “what’s the point?”
            The church apparently hadn’t worshiped for months before the presbytery found out about it, sent in an Administrative Commission, and finally, formally pulled the plug.  We have a procedure. 
            I had a strange sense of horror, when I heard this story.  Like learning of a person who was left to die alone in a nursing home, while family and friends didn’t care enough to even say good-bye.  Or worse, this would be like your mother had a heart attack and you let her lay unconscious and unattended on the living room floor until someone happened to hear about it and call the coroner. 
            Maybe, like the prophet Ezekiel saw in Jerusalem, the Spirit packed her bags and just departed the place.  Maybe the people didn’t think there was any point to showing up after that. 
            It was the church of my grandparents.  My grandfather was an elder there. He taught the adult class.  My grandfather was a strong but gentle influence in our family.  It was because of him that my dad, his son-in-law, heard the call, first to real faith, and then to ministry.  That’s why I, the first-born grandchild, was baptized there, in Wood-Ridge, and not in my parents’ church, in Bloomfield.
            Wood-Ridge is in New Jersey.  It overlooks Teterboro Airport, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan stand clearly visible.  There are like 20-million people within a 50 mile radius.  How do you have the good news of salvation and healing from the Creator of the universe, and yet not manage to find among those 20 million people a dozen or so to gather on a Sunday morning?
            I spoke to one of the church’s last pastors.  He told me that the church was positively allergic to change.  Maybe they were saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns as they did in 1955, when I was baptized there.  Maybe.  But, hey, I know churches that are still saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns from the freaking 5th century, and they still manage to stay alive.  Thrive, even.
            It’s not about relevance or up-to-date-ness.  I know churches with praise teams and projectors and sermons about how to get along with your boss… that are failing.  It’s not about that.  It’s not about “getting with the times.”  It’s about getting with Jesus Christ.
            It’s about authenticity.  And for people imagining themselves to be followers of Jesus, authenticity is about community.  Because Jesus is about community.  And in a community you don’t die, or live, alone.
            That’s why the Trinity remains the core of Christian faith: God is a community.  Jesus comes into the world… and what he comes into are actual families and communities.  And his whole purpose is gathering together, like a mother hen, like a good shepherd, a new community.  This community is in itself active resistance to an imperial polity that actively divides people against each other.  The Christian message is, “We are not alone.”  God-is-with-us.  Emanu-el.  
            In Christ the whole creation is revealed to be one community, one interactive, interpenetrating, interconnected, organic whole, permeated and infused by One Spirit.  We take care of each other, cultivating and cherishing each other and every element within creation.  Encouraging and building up one another in God’s shalom.
            Maybe if churches did that sort of thing, we wouldn’t be closing them.  Maybe the Spirit would hang around for that.
            Now I hear that the church building was purchased by a vibrant, diverse Assembly of God congregation.  Once upon a time that would have disturbed me.  I had this misguided brand-loyalty about being Presbyterian.  My bad.  Hey, it looks like the Spirit came back to the church in which I was baptized.  Welcome home, is what I say. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Adaptive Change in the Church.

            There is no “balcony”.
            Ronald Heifetz, in his seminal books on adaptive leadership, makes a crucial mistake at the very center of his system.  He assumes there is a place he calls a “balcony” from which an entire system may be viewed objectively by the leader.
            There is no such thing as objectivity.  The leader will, simply by virtue of being a human, have an agenda, background, prejudices, desires, needs, history, and so forth.  Depending on the leader’s personality and level of health, he/she will be determined by these factors to some degree.  And the unfortunate employees will have to suffer the consequences of the leader’s blindness, compounded by the self-righteousness that comes from imagining he/she has that superior, unique, and objective view from the balcony. 
            No one exists outside of systems.  I once discussed this with a teacher of these matters, who said the leader’s objectivity could be gained by having a cadre of advisors from outside the system.  However, that just becomes a new system, embedded in or connected to the larger system.  It is impossible for any person to be outside of a system.  Even if I were airdropped into a tribe in central New Guinea, I could still not observe that tribe objectively or without my own biases.  Even if I were a rigorous scientist deftly applying all the tools of science – peer reviews, control groups, and so on – that would only be applying a different set of biases and prejudices.
            Heifetz’ system, while it may help corporations relate to changes in their environment within the overarching system of Capitalism, is not immediately transferrable to the church because the church does not exist under the overarching system of Capitalism, but lives within the Kingdom of God, a reality diametrically opposed to everything Capitalism is about.  While a corporation may have to adapt to a new economic environment, what the church adapts to is not this environment so much as the Kingdom of God.  What we have to adapt to are the teachings of Jesus as we receive and live them in a particular time and place.  We don’t adapt his teachings, mind you; we find ourselves being adapted to the new reality Christ embodies.
            This whole difference between a church and a corporation is exemplified by the lack in the church of any kind of Leader Principle.  Heifetz assumes this.  Leadership is exclusively from the top, down.  Corporations, like the military and for the same reason, depend on this concept of top-down, centralized, command-and-control “leadership.”  It depends on this structure because it is inherently coercive; it has to force humans to do inhuman things as a matter of its main mission.  Ultimately, this can only be done by violence.  But usually various systems of threats and rewards suffice.  Often these rewards and threats are delivered, fittingly enough, by the Leader barking down from the balcony.      
            The church, however, is different.  The one and only Head of the Church is Jesus Christ, not any earthly leader.  (The Book of Order sees leadership as exercised in councils, not individuals.  It doesn’t even list “leader” among the tasks of a pastor.  The idea of an executive as leader is utterly foreign to it.)  Any church leader that is not directing us to Jesus Christ is not a legitimate authority in the church.  I do not mean tacking a Scripture reading or a prayer on to what the leader’s agenda is.  I mean that leadership in the church is always and exclusively focused on the Word of God.
            Real adaptive change in the church therefore is not a matter of reacting to the changed economic environment.  It is the process of continual growth into the mind of Christ and the practices of discipleship of the Messiah Jesus.  It is not becoming something different to face the new time, it is discovering and morphing into what the church truly is. 
            The image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is instructive.  Inside the chrysalis (I am told) the caterpillar does not simply undertake the technical adjustments that would reshape it into a butterfly, like sprouting wings.  Neither does it embark upon the adaptive changes suited to life inside the new environment, which is a chrysalis.  No.  The animal “knows” in its own being that the cocoon is a transitional stage, and that it needs to “do” nothing but become what it is created to be.  Inside the chrysalis it will be thoroughly deconstructed and disintegrated until it is a dissociated mush, and then it will reorganize itself according to the new form.  It is led from within by the coding in its own DNA.
            Our DNA as the gathered people of God is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the tradition and Scriptures that bear the unique and authoritative witness to him.  That is our deepest identity that we have to get in touch with.  It is by continual reflection on this Word that the Spirit reshapes the church.  That is how the whole people of God gets on the “balcony”.  By looking at the world through the lens of the Word of God, through whom the world was created, we get to see things from the perspective of the ultimate “balcony”.  Because there is no “balcony” except the one within and among us (Luke 17:21).
            It is not a viewpoint reserved for just the privileged few, the executives, the bishops, the theologians, even the pastors.  It is a perspective to which all who trust in the Messiah Jesus have access.  In the gathered community of disciples leadership comes from Jesus Christ who emerges within and among the people by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Against the 2015 Elizabeth Presbytery Proposed Budget.

            I intend to vote against the budget and Personnel Committee proposals coming to the Stated Meeting of Elizabeth Presbytery on December 9.  This budget goes against several basic principles of our faith and polity.  I hope that we turn from this approach and instead start asking ourselves deeper and more primary questions about the nature of discipleship, the mission of the church, and the role of a presbytery, and what our trust in the Lord Jesus leads us to do.   
            The proposed budget includes 4 major strategies for addressing a crisis framed purely in terms of money.  Each is breathtakingly short-sighted and guaranteed to make the situation worse.  With this budget we are continuing to careen from crisis to crisis with these thrown-together, ad hoc, last-minute, money-driven technical fixes.
            Here are the proposals for the 2015 presbytery budget and why I must oppose them, followed by some alternative proposals:      

1.  “We can save money by not paying our full per capita assessment to the synod and GA.”

            If we do this we are adopting the policy of some sessions to pay to the presbytery only what church members happen to contribute earmarked for per capita, something we have consistently advised against.  It is not individuals but sessions that are asked to remit the per capita assessment to the presbytery.  It is not sessions but presbyteries that are asked to remit the assessment to the higher councils. 
            If we start paying only what sessions remit, we are giving sessions an incentive to take the same approach.  If more sessions follow the presbytery’s example, the impact on the ability of this presbytery to serve its constituent churches could be severe.  It will also mean that the projected per capita income for 2015 is probably too high. 
            This self-serving and short-sighted action would also severely damage our covenantal relationships with our sister and brother Presbyterians in the synod and nationally.
            And the declaration of “a state of financial crisis” seems a bit overstated for a presbytery that has several hundred thousand dollars in the bank and still has an executive costing 6 figures.  By this reasoning who isn’t in a state of financial crisis?
            This proposal undermines the integrity of the per capita system.  It incentivizes churches to only pay to the presbytery what individuals donate for that purpose.
Alternative Proposals:
a.               We continue to pay our share of the per capita assessment for 2015, as billed by the             synod and General Assembly.
b.              We appoint a team to develop a fair way of funding presbytery operations based             on the value churches understand themselves to receive from gathering together in             mutual support, oversight, and encouragement.
c.              We petition the General Assembly to convene a working group to develop an             alternative to the obsolete and unworkable per capita system as soon as possible.

2.  “We can save money by using money given for mission to pay staff expenses.”

            In recent budgets, we have restarted the practice of drawing from the mission side of the budget to pay for the administrative and operations expenses of the presbytery.  
            We went through several years of hard work to build trust with the churches of the presbytery by separating these two, including two very difficult and unforgettable increases in the per capita assessment.  This is because we realized that the previous long-standing practice of this presbytery to use mission money to support staff is inherently unfair. 
            First, it pays for services received by the whole presbytery with money collected from only those churches that contribute to undesignated General Mission. 
            Secondly, when sessions and individuals give to “mission,” many assume this means their money goes directly to various service and evangelism initiatives.  We experienced some outrage from churches when they realized that money given for “mission” was actually being used to pay for presbytery staff.  The counter-argument, that “the staff facilitates mission,” begs the question: “Then what is per capita for?”  
            We have been moving to a model in which the presbytery’s mission is to support, encourage, and oversee the mission of its constituent churches.  Everything the presbytery does should be an aspect of this mission.  This means that time spent by a staff member administering a grant to a church is qualitatively no different from the time a staff member spends on presbytery efforts to cultivate good relationships between churches and pastors, or overseeing the training of new pastors to serve in churches, or resolving conflicts in churches, or trying to make sure the presbytery works coherently in serving churches.
            So if we have one mission, we might still collect money in two ways if that is deemed the most effective way to fund the two different aspects of the presbytery’s mission.  One should support the operations and administration, and the other should be devoted to actual service and evangelism efforts on the part of the churches, mainly through grants. 
               This budget undermines the integrity of the General Mission system.  It incentivizes sessions to designate all mission giving to specific projects so that none of it may be diverted by the presbytery to make up for a shortfall in per capita. 

Alternative Proposals:
a.              We move towards funding presbytery operations, administration, and staff solely with what is received from sessions in the per capita assessment or some other plan.  As far as possible, we reduce costs to match the income.
b.              We undertake a serious self-study in which we articulate the mission to which we are called by Jesus Christ, and what the actual role and function of the presbytery is in relation to its constituent churches, and that we then develop a mission design including a staffing pattern.

3.  “We can save money by cutting staff.”

            The Personnel recommendations included in this budget pretend to cut down on the presbytery’s unnecessary “regulatory” and “administrative” functions.  Since the essence of this plan is to fire one Administrative Assistant, and dump her full-time position into a new Stated Clerk position, boiling down 59 hours a week into 30, and change the other Administrative Assistant position to a half-time Communications Coordinator, the question has to be raised about exactly what will not get done.  (Based on history, it is safe to assume that almost everything these two people are doing will still be expected to be accomplished, only in less time and for less money.)
            The main motivation for the plan is financial.  In its implementation, this becomes a justice issue.  For none of the “savings” happen to come from the largest-by-far piece of the Personnel budget, the cost of having an executive, which is over $100,000.  In taking this approach, are we not echoing the attitude of a corporation that in a crisis manages to downsize its workers, while its executives remain untouched?
            But what is at least as disturbing here is the process.  This plan was sprung on the Cabinet with no notice.  It’s the biggest change in presbytery staffing in a decade.  Why did the Cabinet not have the material several days prior to the meeting?  Why was the staff never informed, let alone consulted, about the details of the plan?
            The staff kept the presbytery functioning during some very difficult years.  They and others did the work of an executive when it was required.  They put in long and sometimes unusual hours, and they often perform far beyond the limitations of their job descriptions. In the past, they have functioned under sometimes unhelpful leadership and little oversight.  They have had aspects of their compensation cut.  They have demonstrated strong and sacrificial commitment to the churches of the presbytery.  Did they not earn a place at the table where future staffing would be discussed? 
            The staff is not ignorant of the financial situation.  No one is making demands.  Indeed, the staff has been willing to share in whatever sacrifices may be necessary to sustain the presbytery’s mission.  Had they been invited to participate in its development as respected partners, this plan would be lot more fair, efficient, workable, and thrifty.  It would have generated far less anger and pain.  Instead, the Personnel Committee chose an adversarial approach, treating the staff, not as colleagues in ministry, but as expendable employees.

Alternative Proposals.
a.               We assign to a committee the responsibility to develop a provisional staffing plan for 2015, including the current members of the staff and the Stated Clerk in their deliberations, and following the principles that 1) we stay within the projected income from per capita as far as possible, and take the remainder from presbytery reserves, 2) any deficit be lower than $50,000, 3) we ask all staff members to sacrifice in some proportion to their current levels of compensation, 4) we begin now to develop a plan for 2016, when we expect per capita receipts to be significantly lower.
b.               We keep the nomination of a Stated Clerk with the Nominating Committee unless                                  that committee asks for that nomination to be done by another entity.  

4.  “We can save money by cutting mission grants.”

            So, the proposed plan is that, in addition to reneging on our per capita commitments, looting money from mission, slashing staff, and continuing to pay an executive six-figures, we’re also going to be cutting mission grants.  At this point we are attacking part of the whole reason a presbytery exists, which is to support the mission of its churches.  We’ve already shifted money from mission to staff; now we are cutting mission itself.   This is unwise.

Alternative Proposal:
We allocate all money received by the presbytery under General Mission in grants to churches.


            I believe we should explore the possibility and plausibility of budget plans that adhere to the following principles:

1.              We pay our per capita in full to synod and General Assembly, encouraging sessions                     to do the same for the presbytery.
2.              We take no money from mission giving to fund operations.
3.              Reductions are borne by all staff members (except contractors).

            A cursory and “ballpark” scan of the numbers reveals that the presbytery could keep to these principles and produce a deficit in the Personnel budget of considerably less than that generated by the Trustee budget, if these principles were applied to it.  If we worked with the whole staff and the Stated Clerk, limiting some staff hours, and reducing compensation levels to the presbytery mandated or recommended minima, it may be possible to have no deficit at all.  This, of course, would be in no way “punitive” or a result of poor performance; far from it.  It would put the presbytery in solidarity with its constituent churches, many of which are facing similar dilemmas.
            If we can at least begin to keep to these principles, we may be able to rebuild the trust and integrity necessary to move forward together as a presbytery.