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

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

GA220 + Day Three.

            I met a guy at breakfast from Tropical Florida Presbytery who says that 40% of their churches are leaving the denomination.  He was angry that the presbytery is letting them do this without any objection.  They are walking with $12m worth of property.  His feeling is that the presbytery should make the churches purchase their property.  Then that money could be used for mission.
            I said I didn’t want to see a presbytery start paying lawyers… but he did the math.  Legal fees probably wouldn’t top $2m, leaving the rest as a gain… if the presbytery won.
            That’s a big “if” these days.  Our presbytery dismissed a single church with its property last Tuesday.  It was all very amicable.  We saw no reason to fight over their property.  If a church thinks it can follow Jesus more effectively while affiliated with another denomination, I say let them.  We only require that they prove that this is the will of the large majority of the congregation.
            The idea that “the presbytery owns the property” of a local church is not accurate.  The wording in the Book of Order is about property being held “in trust for” the denomination.  Whatever that means, no presbytery interprets that as ownership in any meaningful way.  Presbyteries are not landlords.  They don’t do any upkeep, maintenance, repairs, or improvements on church properties.  If a church or manse needs a roof, or a furnace, or siding, it is the congregation that pays for that, not the presbytery.  The presbytery doesn’t mow the lawn or plow away the snow.  The “trust clause” is more about what happens to the property when a church closes.  It is sort of like the presbytery having a lien on the property.
            Forcing an unhappy church to buy its own property in order to release this lien borders on simple meanness.  If a church is divided, or has committed deliberate acts of nastiness, that’s a different situation.  But I don’t see the point of forcing a miserable, crabby, obstructionist, and harmful presence to stay in our midst.  If they want to go, I say let them go.

            Monday was Brian McLaren Day at the Assembly.  McLaren gave two major presentations.  I am very pleased with the Office of the General Assembly for giving him so much time.  It indicates that they have a clue about where the church is and needs to go.
            In the major address to the Assembly at breakfast, McLaren noted that, comparing us to the other denominations with which he has worked, the PC(USA) is farther along in the process of adaptive change than we usually realize.  I find this to be scary, since I don’t think we’re very far along at all.  That other denominations are even more paralyzed than we are doesn’t comfort me much.  However, McLaren backed this statement up with informed talk about our situation.
            Using Powerpoint, he first gave the analogy of forest fires in Yellowstone, and how they are necessary to clean out the dead wood and allow new growth to happen.  The result of a fire is new life and increased diversity.  Forest fires are about death and resurrection.  Indeed, many fires become excessively destructive because we suppress them for years.
            Then he pivoted to a different analogy: that of the US Postal Service.  In attempting to deal with the changes wrought by the increased use of electronic mail, he showed how the initial response was denial and confidence in the continuance of the old model.  Then, as the crisis deepened, they began downsizing.  But finally they had to start looking at the resources they had and try to do something new with them: expanding into new businesses and exploring new possibilities.
            A Baptist pastor named Amy Butler talks about the proverbial “box.”  The box is what restricts and shapes our thinking.  She suggests we find a new use for the box: packing for the journey into something new.
            McLaren mentioned two of the ways our thinking and behavior will have to change, and is changing, to meet new challenges.
            1.  Authority sharing.  Rather than hoarding authority, the new model is to gain more by giving it away.  If you don’t empower others people don’t see the power you have.  You gain authority by authorizing others.  The authority that matters most is moral: servanthood, sacrifice, suffering, and solidarity.  The question now is how can authority be spread out, not focused in one person or place.
            2.  Moving to a new identity.  Our identity is often built through hostility: what we’re against.  Or it is expressed in how we are structured: “Presbyterian,” “Episcopal,” “Congregational.”  Or it is based on what makes us superior or different.
            The emerging Protestant (“Pro-testifying”) identity will have to help us connect with everybody.  It will express what we love and value (affinity), how we network (harmony), and what makes us authentic (fidelity).
            3.  McLaren is finding similar visions emerging from different denominations.  The global economic shift is leaving unsustainable economic models behind.  Bureaucratic denominations and traditional congregations are both largely obsolete.  But such unsustainability often stimulates creativity.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as customers, he sees Christians becoming: disciples gathered to learn, apostles sent in mission, with the church acting as a seminary to train everyone in ministry, denominations as network facilitators, and seminaries as think-tanks.
            4.  We are entering a new phase of mission to a world in crisis.  The big issues are PLANET, POVERTY, & PEACE.  We are experiencing a world-wide system-fail from the usual institutions of government, business, and the military.  It’s not working.
            McLaren insists we’re already on the move, and that we need to listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5, when he urges us to encourage one another.
            In his later talk, in a much smaller space to a gathering of presbytery and synod leaders, McLaren started by talking about the much overused word: emerging.  It is based on a feeling that some of our new questions are better than our old answers.  Something isn’t working in the way we do church.  We have lost the 18-35 age group, and they’re not coming back.  Our current institutions, from evangelical, to mainline, to Roman Catholic, are unsustainable.  We have serious theological work to do.
            Anthropology: the “ghost in the machine” model doesn’t work anymore.
            Liturgy: if our liturgies were working people who attend them wouldn’t be so mean.
            Polity: are we about governance or mission?
            This crisis is comprehensive.  (The mainline decline is just 40 years ahead of everyone else.  Now they are following.)  The need for rethinking is drawing people across traditions.
            We are “emerging” out of what we were, but we don’t yet know what we are becoming.  This is leading to a “convergence” as like-minded people come together.  The four elements – liturgical/contemplative, charismatic, social-justice, and evangelical – are all necessary.  This leads to a “divergence” from standard American culture.  We question consumerism, economic growth, and militarism. 
            Diana Butler Bass believes we are already on the upswing of the pendulum swing.  People are now looking to be spiritual and religious, as long as religion is organized around the right purposes: spirituality and mission.
            Existing churches need to create new worshiping communities.  A new day only comes with new people who bring things in from the outside.  We need to create safe spaces for people to be innovators.  Institutions like the traditional presbytery are often the worst place for this.  Start instead with vibrant churches and emerging networks.  We need “polity free zones,” someone to provide cover.  There have to be people in power who are willing to use that power to protect those who are doing new things.  Innovation happens at the margins, not the center.  Excessive seriousness blocks creativity: PLAY!

            Between these two events I attended an open conversation on the Occupy Movement with about 35 other people, including some from Greece and Britain.  One of the attendees was a reporter from New York who said that the “fatal flaw” in the movement is the lack of a leader.  The media therefore perceived it as not serious.
            This leader thing is going to be an increasingly large issue in the coming years.  I reminded him that Tahrir Square had no leader.  Neither did the rest of the Arab Spring.  Revolutions in Syria and Lybia had no leader.  Maybe we’re at the point in human – and technological development – where leaders are superfluous.  Maybe they’re even a drag on the movement, detracting attention from the issues and focusing it on themselves.
            McLaren didn’t mention it explicitly, but I think he and others are perceiving a leaderless future for the church.  He is himself touted as the “leader” of the emergent church movement… but he has no power, no title, no office, and he commands no followers. 
            Contrast this with the church, which has people stepping up to grab the microphone of “leadership” all the time.  In particular big church Pastors seem to feel called to be boss.  If you question their opinions they look at you like you’re speaking Zulu or something.  I had a conversation with a big church Pastor yesterday and it was like talking to the TV.  Eventually I gave up because it was clear that he wasn’t listening and had no idea that anyone would be so insubordinate as to ask him to listen.
            It’s not so much that the leaders of tomorrow are going to rise up from the grass-roots.  It is that there will be no leaders at all.  As McLaren says, from now on “authority” will be located in those who authorize others.  The most powerful leaders will be those who give the most power away.  As with the Occupy Movement, they will be practically invisible.  We’ll only be able to perceive them because of the subtle ways their gravity changes the actions of others.
            Leadership is increasingly collaborative, open-source, flat, distributed, and spread out.  It is the disciples themselves who have the authority, especially when they gather in groups under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Our leaders will be the ones who are most generous, most humble, most empowering of others, most gentle, most poor in spirit and pure in heart.  In other words, those who reflect the approach of Jesus.
            The era of pompous suits protecting and trying to expand their turf is over.  Now come the days of the gathering in which every follower of Jesus shares together in leadership.

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