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

Friday, December 2, 2011

Death Eaters.

            Apparently, some presbyteries fund their administration/operations by using an endowment based on the liquidated assets of closed churches.  I find this despicable.  It is part of the larger pattern in our declining denomination: living off of dead people. 
            There is no way to avoid the perception that, in taking this approach, a presbytery is basically closing churches in order to reduce the per capita assessment, by which it supports the presbytery administration.  Bluntly put: it is to feed off dead churches.  Some presbyteries are actually able to keep their per capita very low because they close so many churches.  How lucky for them to have so much death around them!  It’s a buzzard’s paradise!
            There’s so much wrong with this practice that I don’t know where to begin.  First of all, I know for a fact that small churches are often already paranoid about the motives of their presbyteries.  They tend to feel that the presbytery is just waiting for them to fail and close so it can swoop in and gobble up their property.  I have had to reassure many small churches over the years that the presbytery has no designs on their property, that presbytery does not want to close any of its churches, and that selling property is something the presbytery does not need the hassle of bothering with.  How can I give churches this reassurance if is the explicit policy of a presbytery to use the income generated by closed churches to keep the per capita assessment on larger churches low?
            Secondly, it is another reason to keep the administrative costs of a presbytery inflated beyond what the presbytery really needs or wants to pay for.  If we valued it, we’d pay for it directly.  Since we don’t want to pay for it, we clearly don’t value it; but the powers-that-be come up with a scheme to pay for it anyway, using someone else’s money.  This is ass-backwards and wrong.
            Administration is the death of mission.  Yes, mission requires a certain minimal degree of administration to keep going.  But the trend in our society and in our institutional churches is that administration automatically gets bloated, and even assumes control over the mission, at which point it stops being Jesus’ mission and become the self-serving administration’s mission.  When administration is allowed to define mission, “mission” is almost always reduced to mere institutional self-preservation. 
            In the current environment, churches are going to be closed.  The assets of closed churches will go to presbyteries.  What should they do with that money? 
            I propose that all such legacies and any income generated from them be designated for the planting of new congregations, the redevelopment of present ones, and educating people for this work.   

The Future of Stated Clerks.

            Under the old Presbyterian Form of Government it was often the job of the presbytery Stated Clerk to interpret, uphold, and clarify its detailed rules.  In this role, the Stated Clerk had to be able to give balanced advice uncontrolled by whatever the agenda might have been of the presbytery or its entities, like the Executive Presbyter, or the Committee on Ministry, or the Presbytery Council.
            Now, however, the new Form of Government, emphasizes flexibility and permission giving.  This means that there is less daylight between what the Book will permit, and what a presbytery decides it wants to do.  In the new Book, more authority and responsibility is given to local councils (presbyteries and sessions) to organize themselves and undertake actions according to their sense of their own mission in their specific situation.  This means that the Book of Order has a more general and less immediate influence on our daily work, while we will be more directly governed by the details of the administrative manual of the local presbytery.  Thus we see that the role of anyone charged with mediating between the Book of Order and the presbytery is greatly diminished.
            As a Stated Clerk I see the need quickly to rethink and retool for this new way of operating.  For we clerks do have skills and expertise that presbyteries will require as they reorganize for mission in new ways.  But we have to see ourselves less as “canon lawyers” and more as functional and critical enablers of mission.
            For one thing, we carry the institutional memory of the body.  While it may no longer be expressed in terms of detailed legislation to be enforced, where we have been as an institution is still relevant to the decisions we are making today.  This is true even if our awareness of our past tells us more about what not to do and what didn’t work, or at least won’t work today.  Having this longitudinal scope is essential if a presbytery is going to avoid some mistakes of the past.  The Stated Clerk is the one person in the structure of a presbytery who has this awareness and access to this data.    
            Stated Clerks and session clerks, are, in a sense, storytellers.  We keep the story of the body.  We maintain the coding which constitutes the presbytery’s identity, it’s “dna,” if you will.  On one level, this story is written in the Minutes of the presbytery.  But on another level, presbyteries have what we might call an “oral tradition:” the collection of anecdotes, memories, habits, and even legends of the council.  Stated Clerks, especially those who have been around a while, are the ones most likely to have access to this awareness and insight.  We maintain and integrate both the written and oral history of the body, making it available to inform the body’s current witness.
            Stated Clerks also have extensive knowledge about organizational structures and relationships.  This means we give cogent and sometimes pointed advice about the promise and the consequences of particular arrangements and decisions.  Instead of saying, “The Book says you can’t do that,” now we can say, “That might work, but here are the pitfalls and liabilities of such a course of action; and here are some examples of where that sort of thing worked well and how they did it.”  Now we have to have the presence of mind and communication ability to say the presbytery should determine its actions, not just because of what the Book and its history of interpretation says, though that information is important to have.  We have more importantly to ask the questions concerning the degree to which a course of action is effective, efficient, fair, authentic, biblical, or faithful.
            In other words, the role of the Stated Clerk is quickly evolving into one that has more to do with assisting a presbytery in turning its vision into actual structures, procedures, and practices that work.  We are moving from being referees to being advocates for best practices.  In addition to interpreting the streamlined Book of Order, we will be more about interpreting, organizing, and structuring the mission of the presbytery.
            Over the past few decades presbyteries have evolved a staffing pattern that normally includes two professional leadership figures in our presbyteries: the Stated Clerk (usually part-time, but who may serve for many years) and the Executive (usually full-time, but who doesn’t always last that long in any one place).  Under the new Form of Government (and, unfortunately, prodded by diminishing finances) many presbyteries are combining these jobs.  But merely folding the responsibilities of the Stated Clerk into the job description of the Executive will not be successful.  This approach does not take the Stated Clerk role seriously.  Rather, it thinks of the clerk as a mainly secretarial, bureaucratic position.  Still worse, some Executives seem to think they are removing an obstacle to progress when they assume/eliminate the Stated Clerk’s job.
            Leaving aside the question as to whether many Executives have any clue about progress, Stated Clerks have in the recent past served as obstacles to initiatives that went against the old Form of Government.  We are still called to serve as obstacles to initiatives that violate the spirit of our polity or the Scriptures, or are just plain dumb.  But more important is the emerging positive role of the Stated Clerk.  He/she is the figure in the presbytery best equipped to oversee organizational development and transformation.
            In a more general sense, this role remains faithful to the Stated Clerk’s calling to interpret the Constitution.  It’s just that now the Constitution, at least the Form of Government section of it, is different.  The old Form of Government was often interpreted in a regulatory manner.  But now, to interpret this Form of Government faithfully will have to do with helping a presbytery discern and organize itself for mission.