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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Staff Infection.

Many presbyteries and churches have chosen to structure themselves along military/corporate lines, with things like a “Head of Staff,” and “Personnel Committee.”  Neither of these categories appears in the Book of Order and they are as foreign to our polity as they are to Scripture.  
Now, I have known many good and responsible Heads of Staff and Personnel Committee members.  I was a Head of Staff myself in several churches I served as Interim Pastor.  It is possible to take on such a role and perform it with openness, sensitivity, humility, and faithfulness.  Working with a good Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee is a joy.
But structurally, these positions are stacked against that.  They are a vestige of the extreme inequality of the imperialist/colonialist/slavery regime which spawned the predatory economic order which now dominates the world.  Relationships based on this order continue to manifest through most of our culture.  We see it in a class/caste system which inherently lodges power with a privileged few, and puts other people into the subordinate position of supplicants, subjects, employees, etc.  
In this system, the subordinate people tend always to be under suspicion.  They are thought to need constant supervision and direction (even though they do most of the work).  They are considered hopelessly biased and self-interested, while the appointed leaders are supposedly objective, generous, and wise.  And of course we compensate the leaders way better than the subordinates.  Often absurdly so.
Power corrupts.  And when we develop systems with inherent inequalities and imbalances of power, people tend to abuse that power.  This happens with parents all the time.  Or with low-grade bureaucrats who seem to revel in lording what little power they have over others.  And of course anyone being groomed as a “leader” has to think of themselves as better, above, and more gifted than others.  I am reminded of Lord of the Flies.  Even people who are normally subordinates, give them a little power and they can start morphing into Stalin.  
The Presbyterian system is particularly prone to this sort of thing, with power given to elders meeting in councils.  And that’s without adding foreign, potentially noxious categories like Head of Staff and Personnel Committee to the mix, with all the baggage they bring from secular existence.  That sort of turbo-boosts our liabilities into something that can do real damage.  At least with elders we can remind them of Jesus and talk about servant leadership.  Heads of Staff have only Pontius Pilate or a string of miserable kings of Israel and Judah for Scriptural role models.  And the idea of a Personnel Committee wasn’t concocted for centuries after that.
I have seen beloved, dedicated, faithful, and chronically overfunctioning members of  presbytery and church staffs suddenly and viciously turned on by a Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee.  Not for any misconduct or poor performance, but simply because the Head of Staff and Personnel Committee have decided to “move in a different direction.”  Often this happens without any consultation with anyone else in the system, mind you, least of all with the subordinates themselves.  God forbid!  That would be a conflict of interest!  (Subordinates always have conflicts of interest.  Heads of Staff almost never do, it seems.)  Personnel Committees generally work in secret, which is the whole point of their existence in the first place — though they like to call it “maintaining confidentiality” or “boundary keeping”.  Whatever it is called, it is a self-serving hoarding of information which is necessary to maintain the group’s privilege, and protect the larger leader class from having to face its own corruption. 
I have seen Personnel Committees attempt to fire associate pastors without even consulting session, let alone the congregation and presbytery!  I have seen highly paid Heads of Staff protect their large salaries during financial crises by reducing salaries and benefits, or even eliminating the positions, of subordinate employees.  
But if a subordinate complains about bad treatment the system will frequently immediately identify them as the problem!  It’s a form of domestic violence, really.  If the victim points out abuse, especially of themselves, the system wants to comfort the abuser for the indignity of having to endure such an accusation.  It’s like when the courts side with the cop instead the unarmed person he murdered.  Because the abuser is part of the dominant group, they are golden and assumed to be acting responsibly.
Finally, there is a symbiotic, to put it nicely, relationship between Heads of Staff and Personnel Committees.  I think Heads of Staff learn in Head-of-Staff-School the imperative of packing Personnel Committees with their friends and supporters.  No conflict-of-interest there, eh?  Influencing the appointment of the committee that is supposed to oversee their work?    
In any case, our system only works with trust and love.  If we are not vigilant, these two institutions mitigate against those virtues. There is only One Head of the Church.  The rest of us are all equals.  Power in the church is decentralized and distributed, the structure is flat, the conversation is open-source, the mode is humility and listening, the values are inclusion and fairness.  Even for Presbyterians.  Some of us may be more literate in this or that area, from setting up folding tables to understanding the Hebrew Bible.  Some may be further along on the journey than others.  But in God’s sight no one is subordinate, and no one gets to dominate.  There are in fact no authentic leaders in the church, only disciples.  And when advancing to deacon or elder, it should mean an increase in the humility of the disciple.  We are after all servants of the Servant of God, Jesus Christ.
I urge churches and presbyteries to be aware of these potential problems, and, if it remains desirable to have these things, institute structures that mitigate against the tendency towards abuse.  For instance, build collegiality and partnership into the staff model, mandating principles of fundamental fairness like notice and inclusion.  Avoid obscenely large differences in compensation between superiors and subordinates.  Replace military and business language with biblical and ecclesiastical terms.  Adopt rules of inclusivity for, and diminish the influence of staff people in the selection of any committee to oversee their work.  Make the workings of the Personnel Committee more transparent and accountable to the session; define their work more in terms of coordination, feedback, communication, and support. 


Friday, April 24, 2015

Holy Humor Sunday.

Here are some resources I wrote for Holy Humor Sunday (4/12), the Sunday After Easter.   

Call to Worship

Groovy is the gang of goodness,
the posse of peace, 
the coterie of the copacetic,
the flock of faith,
the minyan of the merciful,
the horde of the happy,
the tribe of the true,
the nation, no
the universe! no
the multi-verse, 
or maybe the super-symmetry,
(depending on which school of physics you prefer),
of the Dad, the Dude, and the… Bird/flame/wind thing,
from now till… whenever….
(Sometimes I wonder about these contemporary liturgies.)

Filling the Baptismal Font

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus 
were baptized into his death? 

Death?  Seriously?  That wasn’t in the brochure.

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, 

Wouldn’t this go better if we didn’t talk about death so much?
I’m just saying.

So that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, 

“Raised from the dead”?  
What’s up with that?

Stop interrupting me.
So we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:3, 4
You’ll see.  Or not.
And it was in the brochure.

In any case, trust me on this:
remember your baptism, and be thankful!


God of laughter:
Are we not just hilarious?
With our blindness, our contradictions, our ironies?

Is our existence not just slapstick?

You created the world and us very good,

Yet we’re suspicious, asking, “What’s the catch?”

You place us in a magnificent, abundant, beautiful garden,

Which we proceed to take apart.

We painstakingly identify and extract the specks from the eyes of others,

While our own eyes are blocked by veritable logs.

We are meticulous about our religious duties,

But if you’re different we refuse to talk to you.

We mobilize to save a kitten in a tree,

Then we let whole species go extinct every day.

Are not our relationships like roller-coasters?

Is not the Parkway like watching bumper-cars?

We react in rage at our enemies’ atrocities,

But when our friends bomb children we shrug or make excuses.

We proudly take the Bible literally,

Except for the inconvenient or challenging parts.

We proclaim our freedom!

While we carefully do what everyone else does.

We present a brave, pious, competent, and joyful face to the world,

While inside we are broken, confused, and unspeakably sad.

We blindfold ourselves and spin ourselves in circles,

Then we are surprised and angry when we can’t see and fall over.

O Lord, how do you stop laughing at us?

O Lord, how do you stop crying for us?

Open our eyes and hearts, Lord,
that we may move from tragic and laughable ineptitude
to true joy in your Spirit.

You turn our mourning into dancing,
and our tears into exultation!

Blessed be your holy Name, O God!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Essential Tenets.

In conversations with Presbyterians considering departing from the PCUSA for another denomination, one thing that keeps coming up is the fact that (even though the category is somewhat unhelpfully mentioned in one of the Ordination Questions) the PCUSA has no written “essential tenets.”  These other denominations do choose to list on paper some “essential tenets.”  Conservatives appear to think that having such a defined list serves as a protection against error in doctrine, and that not having one opens the door to all kinds of eccentric and non-traditional, even non-christian, interpretations.
Historically, the Presbyterian church has always had this fault line between the Scotch-Irish stream that was more “subscriptionistic” in wanting the required beliefs of the church written down in some definite form, and the New England stream that advocated leaving more room for the Holy Spirit, and only requiring less definite and specific affirmations about doctrine.  We’ve already split a few times over this, always eventually figuring out a compromise and reuniting.
The problem with having written essential tenets and requiring subscription to them is that it requires a top-down centralized structure to be enforced, and it results in a legalistic approach to questions of faith.  In other words, instead of leaving decisions of doctrine and practice up to councils, beginning with local sessions, having to subscribe to prescribed essential tenets limits the freedom of local councils, and requires a strong national judiciary to work.
Also, just having people subscribe to essential tenets does not necessarily mean that they will take them seriously.
In declining to adopt written essential tenets and requiring subscription to them the church is not abandoning essential tenets altogether and leaving faith as a free-for-all, open and accepting of every possible interpretation.  It is rather recognizing that the essential tenets of the church have to be in the hearts of the members and councils of the church.  And we trust in the Holy Spirit to work in our gatherings to help us discern the truth and the way forward.
As Presbyterians we do believe the Holy Spirit is present when the church gathers around the Word in prayer.  When we come together for discernment and decision-making we listen to each other in light of Scripture and our own perspectives and experiences.  If a decision has to do with something like the ordination or the calling of a pastor, or the election of elders and deacons, then we are able to take into account what we know of people’s faith, piety, lifestyle, commitment to the church, and other views and behaviors, and assess the degree to which a their visible faith qualifies them for special kinds of service.  What works and may be acceptable or recommended for a church in rural Arkansas may not be the same as for a church in Brooklyn.  And we have more inclusive layers of church councils to serve as guides and to review decisions from a larger perspective and possibly correct any errors that may have been made.
The idea is that people are familiar with and guided by Scripture and our confessions, and are taking the views expressed therein with appropriately significant weight, when making the decision in the first place.  Even if a local council does manage somehow to call someone who is a Unitarian, or a believer in the Rapture, or who makes Sophia a member of a new Quadrinity, or who advocates the reestablishment of slavery, or whatever, that would be subject to review by higher councils.
Furthermore, it is possible for local sessions and presbyteries to adopt their own essential tenets, appropriate to their own missional situations.

So it is not that the PCUSA does not have any essential tenets or doctrinal standards.  Rather, realizing that committing such things to writing inherently creates inequities and places limits on the Holy Spirit’s work, we have them in unwritten form.  We therefore realize that the “one-size-fits-all,” authoritarian, legalistic approach is unwise and inappropriate for a diverse and inclusive denomination.