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

Monday, October 1, 2012

Fall Polity Conference + Day One.

            Every year the Stated Clerks and Presbytery Executives (by whatever name) of the PCUSA gather with the national staff for a meeting in the fall at a fancy hotel.  Just like real business-people.  (So much for doing what Jesus would do, but I won’t indulge in my habitual screed against having church meetings in luxury hotels.)  In General Assembly years like this one the meeting happens in Louisville, the National Headquarters.
Synod Breakfast.

            The Interim Executive of the Synod of the Northeast, Harold Delhagen, invited everyone he could find from the synod to breakfast this morning.  Over a nice buffet (eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit, pastries, etc.) he talked about how the synod is in the process of reorganizing itself.  Again.  The latest proposal has three main elements: 1.  It is going to a “reduced function” plan, with fewer meetings and less attention to governance.  All current funding of programs gets stopped; passion and interest groups will come for new funding every year.  2.  Presbyteries will be encouraged to work across boundaries in partnerships.  This will be generated by the presbyteries themselves.  3.  Attention will be paid to how we function as presbyteries.  Are we at the optimum sizes and shapes?  He envisions a “convention” of presbyteries to discuss reconfiguration. 
            Harold is convinced we need a “Connectional Leader,” because the amorphous raising up of ministries will not work without a supporting structure.  Or something.  Questions were raised about the need for a synod at all.  And about whether it is wise to make ministry groups reapply for their funding annually.  Is this not destabilizing?  Will they not have to spend inordinate resources just putting together proposals all the time?  Why not have options for longer funding terms, like three years?  And what kind of leadership does all this require... or not?


            In the Bible, Jeremiah and Ezekiel warn against Judah making an alliance with Egypt.  The Kings, apparently trying to balance the power of the Babylonian invaders from the north, think that the answer is bringing in Egypt on their side from the south.  Practical politics.
            It didn’t work.  Babylon was too powerful.  Judah’s dalliance with Egypt only made Babylon more angry.  The prophets were right.  Again.
            “Egypt” is a loaded term in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is the nation from which the Israelite slaves escaped in Exodus.  The law was given at Sinai specifically for the purpose of preventing the new nation from becoming anything like Egypt.  Egypt represented oppression, injustice, exploitation, murder, and genocide.  Making an arrangement with Egypt would have offended the prophets because it was a return to the place of slavery. 
            Now, just as the kings were tempted to ally with Egypt, the church has habitually wanted to ally with the business world.  Make no mistake, under the present economic regime these profit-driven enterprises are not compatible with the teachings of Jesus.  They are about making money, often at the expense of workers and the planet.  They reflect a hierarchical, top-down, command-and-control, lust for gain, maximization of profits mentality that results in oppression and environmental degradation.  They are our “Egypt.”  Our infatuation with these systems and people has never done the church any good. Taking ideas and practices from the business world has been the habit of the church for a couple of generations now, and it has been instrumental in driving us into the death-spiral we now enjoy.
            As with Judah, this fascination with Egypt/business has sent us into a kind of exile.  Like them, we have to get comfortable with life in Babylon.  The most fruitful time in the whole history of the people of God was the decades they spent in Babylon.

Lynn Youngs + “Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Business World”

            So, with a first presentation with a title like that my guard was up.  Youngs’ talk did not start well, what with defining entrepreneurship in terms of willingness to undertake the risk of building a productive venture “seeking profit as a reward.”  He debunked a list of misconceptions about entrepreneurship.  What I got out of this is the emphasis on growing a team; it’s not a lone-wolf, control-freak, gambler mentality that works.  It’s more about cooperation and building value. 
            The institutional barriers to successful entrepreneurs include complacency, fear of failure, budgetary limitations, forgone conclusions, and concentrating on ideas without attention to execution.  Some of this I can relate to.  If we broaden the definition of an entrepreneur to include anyone trying to innovate, experiment, or undertake a new “outside-the-box” initiative, Young’s talk begins to make sense.
            He says we, the denomination, should support an entrepreneurial culture by: breaking “silos” and unleashing multi-disciplinary thinking, identifying and fostering talent by giving people who are getting things done the resources they need, creating a trusting environment that tolerates failure….  Youngs spent a lot of time talking about failure and its benefits.  Failure is the pathway to success… unless it happens too often, in which case it is simply incompetence.  (How to discern beneficial from chronic failures was not addressed.)  “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”  Finally, there has to be a continual assessment of progress.
            All this is very well.  But our denomination is characteristically strait-jacketed by a mania for “accountability” and other concerns, revealing an endemic lack of trust within the system, which keeps resources locked up and doesn’t tolerate failure at all.  Heck, we don’t even tolerate success, if it threatens some sacred cow!    
            Are we creating an environment? Youngs asks, or are we overly focused on outcomes?
            The most valuable aspect of Youngs’ talk was his characteristics of a successful entrepreneur: 1.  “Marry a June bride.”  This didn’t make any sense to me until it was unpacked as meaning finding someone with whom you can share the risk.  2.  “Think small.”  In other words, focus on the next step, don’t be distracted by the big picture.  3.  “Be a thief.”  Don’t be afraid to appropriate best practices, wherever you find them.  4.  “Take a vow of poverty.”  Invest fully in the project.  5.  “Become an orphan.”  Don’t let organizations hold you down.  6.  “Swallow your pride.”  Find a mentor.  And, 7.  “Be generous with the spoils of success.”  Share the gains with your team.
            These are somewhat helpful.  However, as one person at our table pointed out, the life of the church is supposed to be all about discipleship.  Following Jesus is the point.  The questions we were asked to reflect on at our tables had to do with defining success, parallels between the business world and the church, traits of church entrepreneurs, and what we can do to create an entrepreneurial environment.  Many tables appeared not to have advanced beyond the success question, and that is significant.  We are slow to understand what success means for us.  Success is not what our problem is.  Discipleship is.  I wonder if we trust Jesus enough to follow him.  And that’s the whole ballgame. 
            The parallels with the business world were summed up in Val Fowler’s comment that members of churches are not our “customers;” they are our “sales staff.”  When we treat them like the ones we are supposed to be serving, we are finished.  Our “customers” are out in the world.  (I don’t like this language at all.)
            I would hope that the main, if not the only, trait of the entrepreneur in the church is whether they are a disciple of Jesus.  As someone at my table summarized it, “It starts with submission.”  That is, trusting and obeying Jesus are everything.

Gradye Parsons.

            One theme here is the distinction between “do it yourself” and “do it together.”  Parsons pointed out that each of these has gifts… but we have a covenanted life in the church.  We are in this together.  We take the covenant and its promises seriously.  The church is a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.  The CORE of our life together includes Covenant, Ordered ministry, Resources, and Equipping the saints.  Ordered ministry is both accountable and available.  Christ give us all the resources we need for our ministry.  To equip the saints, we have to move beyond a sense of duty; people need to be energized about the church.

Jill Hudson.

            Jill Hudson talked about the Mid-council Commission II, authorized by the General Assembly last summer.  She reviewed the “Colors of Vitality” document, pointing out some principles that should guide councils as they restructure for the future.  One size does not fit all, and simply adopting someone else’s structure doesn’t work.  Councils have to take the time to determine their own focus – the guiding theme of their life together.  Also important are the other “building blocks:” examining context and size, culture and function, structure, leadership, and financial viability.  Support for congregations is essential. 

            The emphasis in both these talks was on community, connectionalism, and the support of the larger body for local ministries.  This is not a new theme, but something that has had to be hammered into leaders for years.  The idea that higher councils exist to support local churches is a reversal of how we acted for years.  Back then, under an unabashedly corporate model, it was understood that local churches were supposed to support the ministries of presbyteries, presbyteries that of synods, and everybody the work of the national denomination.  The necessary reversal of polarity, akin to trying to change the direction of a river’s flow, has taken decades.
            With all this attention now on local churches and our covenantal relationships, it remains to be seen whether this is not too little too late.  How many healthy congregations will we have left to receive our attention?

Linda Valentine.

            The Executive Director of the newly renamed Presbyterian Mission Agency gave basically a pep talk about several initiatives.  The most important of these, for this discussion, is the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program.  The answer to a lot of this inertia and decay at the congregational level is… new worshiping communities. 
            Notice that we do not refer to “new congregations.”  Many of these worshiping communities will be congregations. But not all.  What constitutes a worshiping community remains unclear.  However, this opens up the possibilities to include a lot of initiatives that might not look like standard congregations.  This is a good thing.  The future may very well be with worshiping communities that look and act in new – or actually very old – ways.  (Remember that the Christian church did not own property until like the 4th century.)
            Will we loosen up resources, and our rules and regulations, and our sense of turf, power, and “accountability” enough to let 1001 new worshiping communities happen?  We’ll see.  The last half-century is littered with failed denominational initiatives in evangelism and church growth and redevelopment.  I do have hope for this one, though.  We may have finally achieved a critical mass of people who get it.  Let’s hope so.

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