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

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It's Not About the Hours.

     With the increase in part-time pastorates, churches seem to think more in term of a pastor’s hours.  This attitude is no doubt imported from the secular economy.  They start with the assumption that “full-time=40 hours per week.”  Then, if the kind of part-time they are talking about is “half,” they conclude that this means 20 hours per week.  Then they design a contract for the part-time pastor based on that amount of time.
     First of all, let’s start with fallacious assumption that full-time pastors work for 40 hours a week.  This has nothing to do with the way pastors actually work.  I am emphatically not claiming that pastors work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week.  I do not want to feed into the martyrdom/work-aholism of many pastors.  I am saying that the work a pastor does cannot be measured in time.  What we do was being done centuries before clocks were invented.  
     Ministry is not really a job like any other job.  We don’t punch time-clocks and we don’t count hours.  Serving as the pastor of a church is a way of life.  It is not something we do to make money, God knows.  It is something we are.
     I recently saw a job description for a part-time pastor that carefully laid out how many hours a week the pastor was supposed to devote to certain activities.  It was ridiculous and insulting.  
     First of all, a pastor’s work has a cyclical quality to it depending on the season.  Secondly, a pastor’s work is subject to changeable and impossible to predict circumstances.  Thirdly, the things we do don’t always take the same amount of time.  Finally, it is often impossible to distinguish between time “on” and time “off” when pastors are concerned.  (The job description also listed things the pastor was expected to do, but would not be getting paid for.  Like praying.)
     The PCUSA Form of Government describes the work of a teaching elder/pastor. 
     “Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4: 12)…. When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service.  When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation.  When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life” (G-2.0501).  
      Here it is again, reformatted, adding the implicit categorization according to the traditional “means of grace,” the Word, Sacraments, and prayer:

·      ---Teaching the Faith and Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry.
1. Word: Preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service.
2. Sacraments: Interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation.
3. Prayer: Support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life

     Each part of this definition is oriented towards the work of the people.  Pastors function as leaders, examples, teachers, servants, and advisors of other Christians.  A pastor is a disciple trained to train others in discipleship.
     The Book of Order makes no mention of how much time this is all supposed to take.  It makes no distinction between full-time and part-time ministry.
     Part-time pastoral contracts should be shaped around these three basic responsibilities, not hours.  Since it is not just about doing these things, but teaching, equipping, strengthening, lifting, and supporting the people in doing them.  In other words, the missing half of part-time ministry is not just jettisoned; it is taken up by the people, as trained and equipped by their pastor.  Which is what the people are supposed to be doing anyway, were these skills not allowed to atrophy by the corruption of full-time ministry.
     Then we need to take this part-time model and extend it to full-time ministry.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gaining Members or Making Disciples?

     We have this idea that a successful church is one that is gaining members, and that the more members a church has or gains the more successful it is.  That is certainly the way we talk and act. 
     The Psalmist on the other hand writes, “Turn my heart to your decrees and not to selfish gain” (Psalm 119:36).  In Jesus’ ministry one thing he avoids is any hint that he is seeking, let alone compromising his teaching in order to attract, more members, or even disciples for that matter.  Several times he deliberately makes his ministry more demanding, difficult, and unattractive for people.  He often seems frustrated by the following he does have.  In a famous portion of John 6, he seems content to be abandoned by almost everyone but his original 12.
     One of the justifications often given for the church seeking to gain members is the Great Commission in Matthew 28.  The risen Lord instructs his apostles to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity and teaching them to obey his commandments.  But his commandments nowhere value the accumulation in itself of increasing numbers of members.  I have already made the point in another post that disciples are not the same as members.  So what does it mean to “make disciples” and how is that different from “gaining new members”? 
     Jesus makes disciples by calling people and teaching them.  We know what he tells his disciples/apostles to do.  Basically, they are to do the same kinds of things Jesus himself does: healing, casting out demons, building communities, preaching, and teaching.  Disciples are to do those specific things, and teach others to do them.  In this way they are to represent, even in some sense be, Christ in the world.  In this way they become members, in the sense Paul uses the term, of his Body.
     Most churches, when seeking members, do not act, think, or talk as if they are calling people to anything resembling discipleship, according to Jesus’ descriptions of it.  Beyond requiring a verbal affirmation of Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior, congregations today do not teach or expect, let alone require, people to become disciples of Jesus in any real way.  They do not teach, expect, or require members to actually do much of anything.  Even showing up at Sunday worship is apparently too much to ask.  (Churches tend to have far more members than regular attendees.) 
     Indeed, were a congregation to enact such requirements I am fairly certain that a presbytery would strenuously object on the basis of a shallow, out-of-context reading of G-1.0302:No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith.”  This would mean that we understand the profession of faith to be empty, meaningless, and unassociated with any action or behavior.  This is not the way the new Testament understands faith.     
     In G-1.0304, however, we see a list of 11 specific things members of congregations are supposed to be doing.  The list is not optional or merely suggested.  It simply assumes that these are things every member of a church is about.  A lot of these are responsibilities congregations have divested themselves of and assigned to professional clergy.  This practice of hiring someone else to be a disciple instead of you is foreign to the New Testament, to say the least.  In reality these behaviors are expected of all disciples of Jesus Christ.
     My point is that presbyteries should not be evaluating churches on the basis of membership numbers or growth.  Rather, congregational vitality is measured by the character and quality of discipleship exhibited by the participants in a church’s mission, as exemplified in G-1.0304, not to mention the explicit commandments and instructions of the Lord to his own disciples in the gospels.
     In other words, a presbytery has no business dissolving a church because it does not have “enough” members or money, when these are not categories that the Scriptures or the Constitution care about in the least.  At the same time, where discipleship is happening, and where members are fulfilling the demands of the 11 categories, why would a presbytery not feed such a congregation with needed resources?  Indeed, should not a presbytery actively encourage churches to make disciples rather than just gain members?

Friday, November 15, 2013

Another Rant About the Church and Money.

            There is not a hint in the New Testament that disciples of Jesus are to be measured, evaluated, judged, or disposed of according to how much money they have, or don’t have.  This seems so obvious as to be ridiculous, of course.  Jesus says we can’t serve both God and money, we have to pick one or the other (Luke 16:13).  And Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10).     
            But some church groups behave as if they have chosen money over God.  Granted, few churches these days would be so crass as to admit to treating an individual decently or not according to the person’s wealth, consciously at least.  Yet I am pretty sure that were an affluent person and a poor person to show up as visitors on the same day, in many of our churches people would give preferential treatment to the former.  I am sad to say. 
            But this bias towards wealth – or more accurately, against poverty – is most definitely prevalent in the way denominations deal with their constituent churches.  We habitually care more about how much money a church has, than how well they are doing mission.  We will gladly let a church with money do just about whatever it wants: new steeple, pipe organ, stained glass, six-figure salary for the “Head of Staff,” etc., no matter how empty and ineffective may be its actual mission.  And we will just as willingly close a church doing effective, innovative, and faithful mission, for no other reason than that it ran out of money.
            In fact, a church can even lose money hand over proverbial fist, but if it is rich enough to absorb the loss and keep paying its expenses, the church will hear no criticism.  And, of course, conversely, a church can see an increase in giving to it is mission, and still draw the ire of presbytery if the increase is deemed insufficient.
            Furthermore, because of misuse of the infamous “trust clause,” a small church may be prevented from – or even punished for – doing creative mission by a presbytery with leadership chronically deficient in energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  The trust clause means that a significant portion of a small church’s resources – its property – is subject to presbytery’s whim.  Such property may not be sold or encumbered without approval of a presbytery.
             Churches, however, that have significant cash reserves, may do as they please, no matter how counter-missional a particular initiative may be.  Indeed, a church may even be positively hemorrhaging members, but if they have cash they need no presbytery approval to do anything not liable to invoke the Rules of Discipline.  But a small church that wants to support its mission by the liquidation of a manse, or the selling of an acre of real estate, is subject to the withering scrutiny of a presbytery whose leaders may be mired in the mindset of the 1950’s, or unwilling or unable to appreciate the style and/or content of the congregation’s mission.  (“Too evangelical.”  “Too liberal.”  “Too unusual”  Whatever.)  Indeed, some in the presbytery may even want the church to close, so that, when its property is sold off, the proceeds may be used by the presbytery to pay staff or even reduce the per capita apportionment.  (I’m not kidding.  There are apparently presbyteries that use the money gained from sold church property in this way, thus incentivizing the closure of churches.)
              The truth is, that a church that is doing the most effective mission is never the church that has the most money or is the most profitable.  This is because of what Jesus says.  Churches and people don’t get rich by serving God.  By definition, serving God means giving away what you have (Luke 14:33), not storing your wealth (Luke 12:16-21), and not ignoring the poverty in your midst (Luke 16:19-31), and so forth.  A church that makes a profit has effectively denied the Lord Jesus and chosen to serve money instead.  There is no complicated assessment that needs to be done to determine this; just count the cash.  Indeed, the most effective churches are far more likely to be those that habitually lose money because what resources they have are all going to mission.  Every dime sunk into an endowment or frittered away in paying for a building is robbed from Jesus.
            This is assuming that we are defining “effectiveness,” and “success” according to Jesus’ teaching that the mission of his disciples is witnessing to the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) by service to the needy (Matthew 25:31-46, etc.), peacemaking (Matthew 5:9), healing (Luke 7:22), and disciple-making (Matthew 28:19).  It’s a big assumption, I know.  Not all that many churches, let alone presbyteries, are able to wrap their minds around this concept, even though it is screamed at us from virtually every page of the gospels.
            I pray that the day comes soon when we evaluate churches by the quality and effectiveness of their mission, and find ways to get our resources to the places where mission is happening (or at least give them access to the resources they already have).  And I also look forward to the day when we stop evaluating churches by how much money they have.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, II.

This is the second of two posts on what it means to be "connectional" in the church.

The Rise of Horizontal Connectionality.

            The church now needs to cultivate a horizontal connectionality at every level.  Congregations are networks of disciples who support each other in living out their callings in the world.  Presbyteries are networks of congregations doing mutual support, encouragement, blessing, and sharing of resources.  And likewise up to the more inclusive councils of synod and General Assembly.  This would enable us to forge bonds of respect, appreciation, and love that are much stronger than in the vertical model, which was, frankly, more impersonal and coercive.  And it would hopefully militate against the corrosive inequalities that now grow between churches.  The function of a presbytery, then, would not be to do mission supported by its churches, but to support the mission being done by its churches.
            Now, after 32 years in the church I know as well as anyone that not all congregations even know what mission is, let alone have any interest in doing it.  This dearth of missional intelligence is widespread among churches regardless of size and wealth.  There are too many churches that haven’t had a missional thought in decades, and whose only wish is that someone come along and make it 1956 again.  They reduce everything to a matter of “getting more members.”  This imploded mentality is a product of vertical connectionalism.  In the first place membership itself is a vertical, corporate category; it defines us by our relationship to an institution, not each other.   But most importantly, mission always used to be a concern of those farther up the corporate ladder, and usually happening far, far away.  The recovery of the idea that local churches have a mission at all (beyond serving their own members and sending money to mission agencies) is relatively recent.
            Clearly, any shift to a horizontal approach must be accompanied by a serious, honest, and challenging discernment of what constitutes faithful, missional, effective, and courageous discipleship today.  Since the criteria for this will not be handed down vertically, it will have to be done by prayerful study and reflection on Scripture, openness to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and careful examination of the present context.  In fact, this Word and Spirit of God will emerge in the center of our life, replacing the former vertical interfaces, and becoming the unity we share.  This will take the rightful place at the center – individually, congregationally, and in more inclusive councils.
            The horizontal connections between churches must reflect a horizontality in the local congregation.  That means that integral and essential to moving into a horizontal connectional model is the building of relationships and the empowering of individual disciples in the congregations.  It means the “flattening” of local church structures so that the main focus is not on the professional up front, the Pastor, but on the people.  Just as presbyteries no longer do mission “for” the churches, so now no longer must ministers do mission “for” the congregation.  The primary task of the minister now is training people for mission, and aiding in their coordination and connection in carrying out their mission. 
            And this is the same job I see for presbyteries relative to congregations: training, coordinating, connecting.  (If we try to horizontalize presbyteries without doing the same at the congregational level, presbytery will fail to grow beyond the “clergy association” appearance it so easily falls into today.)
            In the book of Acts, it is clear that the model practice in the new communities of the Way is to pool resources from the constituents as they had been blessed by God, and distribute those resources wherever there is need (Acts 2:44; 4:32).  This model shows us a strong horizontal relationship which begins with the constituents’ directly relating to each other, and then extends to where the gathering acts as an integrated whole in a redistributionary way, receiving and giving according to a calculus of need and equality.
            In a horizontally connectional system, the network will identify, lift up, feed, and learn from those places where mission is happening.  Instead of being in competition with each other, congregations will support and resource each other.  Instead of applying and waiting for resources to be granted from above, congregations will be able to help each other directly, based on relationships and not mediated through a superior entity. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, I.

This is the first of two posts on the meaning of "connectional" in the life of the church.

The Collapse of Vertical Connectionalism.

            Connectionalism is a word that we Presbyterians use to describe how we are all, well, connected.  I have heard it all my life.  I think at some point church leaders were trying to discourage the scourge of “creeping congregationalism” by extolling the manifold benefits of being in such a well-organized denomination. 
            Unfortunately, that connectedness has nearly always been understood in an exclusively vertical way.  That is, we are connected up and down: members to churches to presbyteries to synods to the General Assembly.  It was yet another expression of the now defunct but strangely persistent corporate model of the church.  Local churches were kind of like retail outlets of a national brand.  The actual “selling” mostly went on locally; much of the mission giving traveled upward, the authority, coordination, regulation, leadership, and identity was transmitted downward.  The tone of mission was set at the top, where the resources are published, to flow down to the other mission agencies.  The corporate flow-chart would have had the little congregations at the bottom, with lines going up to the presbytery indicating to whom they “report;” but no lines connecting them to each other.
            In this model very little attention was given to any kind of horizontal connectedness.  Maybe this tendency goes back to where we had individual Christians, sitting in linear pews and all facing the professional Leader/priest “up” front rather than each other.  This vertical connectionalism always weakened any horizontal connections between people or churches.  I remember what a trauma it was in some congregations even to introduce something as benign as passing the peace.  Acknowledging, even (gasp!) physically touching another person – andy horizontal connectionality – was too dangerous.  It was much safer for Presbyterians to be connected vertically through that one guy up front, with whom everyone individually shook hands on the way out, than to be related directly to each other.
            Indeed, building on this neurotic fear of connecting horizontally, congregations became like retail franchises, thinking of themselves in competition with each other.  For congregations even to talk directly to each other, let alone share practices, leadership, and assistance, was a rarity.  If one church had a problem with a neighboring church, the complaint would go up to the presbytery, functioning as the corporate district manager, not directly to the neighboring church.  (We still act this way.  As a Stated Clerk I occasionally receive calls from people complaining about their Pastor or the sessionof their church.  My first question is always, “Did you talk to them about it?”  And the answer most of the time is “No”.)
            After a while, I grew tired of listening to talk of how great our “connectionalism” was, when all it meant was sending money up the corporate ladder, or arguing over the content of the Book of Order, or disputes over the various pointless pronunciamentos of the General Assembly on social and political issues.  Meanwhile, the idea that I should understand connectionalism as having a direct relationship with the Presbyterian congregation in the next town remained incomprehensible.  We would see some of those people at the presbytery meeting, or on presbytery committees.  But in real life they were our adversaries in a dog-fight over market-share.
            Small churches might occasionally get together, pool their scant resources, and share some programs out of necessity.  But to suggest that large churches might help smaller churches did not make any more sense than that a big, Walmart should help one of the struggling downtown mom-and-pop stores.  (I worked for Barnes and Noble in the 1980’s when they were systematically ordering the closure of small stores, even profitable ones like mine, because of a new strategy, directed from the top, to have only big-box stores.)  Better to write off and close the smaller, or drive them out of business, so the successful one could pick up even more customers.  Something about economies of scale.
              In the church there was this veneer of mutual support and encouragement, over a reality of “sheep-stealing” and larger, successful, multi-programmatic churches picking off the dissatisfied or disgruntled members of smaller or troubled ones.  Frankly, in many communities it was easier, safer, and more fruitful to make connections with churches of other denominations, than with fellow Presbyterians.
            What we end up with is an ecclesiastical arrangement that mirrors the gross inequalities in the larger economy.  The resources are locked up in a few large, wealthy churches, while everyone else is struggling, cutting back, going to part-time ministry, yoking, merging, etc., and sometimes eventually closing.  When it is suggested that some horizontal sharing happen, the retort is to ask why the obviously “successful” churches should waste their money by dumping it into “failed” churches.  They suggest we close the unsuccessful, unprofitable churches and give their members to the successful ones?  Makes perfect business sense.
            This arrangement is breaking down now, thank God.  The vertical understanding of connectionalism doesn’t really hold so well anymore, as indicated by the difficulty presbyteries have collecting the per capita assessment, and by the reduction in giving by churches to undesignated General Mission.  But if the verticality is eroding, it has yet to be replaced by a creative horizontal understanding of the church.  This means that we are losing connections with each other altogether.  Connectionalism is collapsing into a destructive reflection of the independent-individualism pervasive in our culture.  In others words, it’s increasingly every congregation for itself.  Nothing could be further from the gospel than this.

The second post will explore what a horizonal connectionality will look like in the church. 

Friday, November 8, 2013


                         Man, I did love this game.  I'd have played for food money.  
It was the game...  Shoot, I'd play for nothing!”
--Shoeless Joe Jackson, in Field of Dreams

            That statement perfectly expresses what it means to have a calling, a vocation.  Joseph Campbell famously told his students: “Follow your bliss.”  Do what you love.  Ministry is a vocation.  It is something that gives to those called to it such joy and fulfillment that ministers would often do it whether they got paid or not.  We do it for the love of the work and of the One who calls us to the work.
            In the misbegotten “corporate” era of the church – the 1950’s through the 1970’s – we realized that many ministers were working for love… and often being taken advantage of by unscrupulous congregations.  (Just as ballplayers were abused by team owners in Joe Jackson’s time.)  So we developed minimum salary standards, medical insurance, pensions, and so forth.  In fact, presbyteries began to see themselves in part as “unions” for ministers.  Some of this was good and necessary.
            The unfortunate word attached to this development was “professionalization.”  That word meant that a cancerous demon entered the church: “the love of money,” which in 1 Timothy 6:10 is identified as “the root of all evil.”  Increasingly we adopted the mentality that ministers, like middle-management bureaucrats, are measured by the amount of money they make.  We stopped assuming that ministers were working because of their love for God and people; and we started thinking that ministers as “professionals,” were motivated by money, just like other professionals.  Churches imagine that, like a corporation, they have to offer bigger salary packages “to attract the best talent,” because the best, professional, talent cares mostly if not exclusively about money.  This degenerates into the assumption that higher paid ministers serving in large, wealthy churches are “better” at their work than lower paid ministers serving in small, poorer churches.  We also talk about “career tracks” in which ministers start at the “bottom” in small churches and gradually work their way up to better, that is to say, more remunerative jobs in big churches. 
            In other words, we replaced our understanding of calling with a corporatized, money-oriented mentality.  It is so bad right now that many simply don’t believe God would call good ministers to small churches, I guess because God wouldn’t be dumb enough to call a good pastor to be poor.  Pastors, like everyone else, are assumed to be in it for the money.  Not because God called them, or because of the joy and love of serving God and God’s people.  When we come across someone who really does serve God out of love, who doesn’t care about the money, our suspicion is that they are either fools or working some angle we haven’t yet figured out.  We assume that ministers do what they do for the same reason that hedge fund managers to what they do: for the money.  And if they were as bright as hedge fund managers, they would be doing that.  It is an attitude that is fundamentally toxic to the gospel.  In fact, it shoves the gospel into the trash and replaces it with the “values” of Capitalism.  At least in this part of our life together, we have replaced the gospel with the root of all evil.  That can’t be good.
In all 2000 years of Christian history,
there has not been one single saint
who was in it for the money.

            We have to cut this cancerous mindset out of the church.  We have to take definitive steps to remove the love of money from having any influence at all in the decisions we make as a church. 
            We have to stop the delusion that God agrees with our mercenary equation of salary with quality.  Ministers whom God calls to serve in small, poor churches, are not less faithful or effective than those whom God calls to serve in large, rich churches.  In fact, in my experience it is usually the opposite.  Some of the best pastors I have ever known worked in small churches.  And some of the least effective pastors I have ever known managed to land sweet positions in large churches.  God emphatically does not follow our Capitalistic way of valuing ministers or measuring competence in ministry.  Neither should we.  I propose we develop a system whereby all churches pay into a fund according to their wealth, from which all ministers are paid equally or by seniority, no matter what the size or wealth of the church in which they serve.  This will have the beneficial effects of both terminating the absurd idea that better ministers receive bigger salaries, and at the same time hopefully weed out from the ministry anyone who may still be in it for the money.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Members or Disciples?

            In his remarkable book, The Emerging Church, Bruce Sanguin talks about the difference between being a member of a church, and being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The Presbyterian Church in particular has been talking about membership almost to the exclusion of discipleship.  There does seem to be a kind of assumption that members of churches are also disciples of Jesus.  And the New Testament does talk about membership, a little.  But Jesus calls disciples.  He does not attract or even invite people to be members of his movement.
            The new President of Princeton Seminary, Craig Barnes, has mentioned how obsolete our understanding of church membership is today.  He noted that membership is a residue of the corporate model of the church, a category developed mainly so we would have “a way to tax people”.  People today, especially younger people, are not interested in membership as we present it.  When a person who has been happily active in a church for weeks or months is asked to become a member, and they ask why, all we can offer is some lame reason like, “Then you can vote in the annual meeting,” or “Then you can be elected an elder.”  These are not things that many participants in our churches understand, let alone care about. 
            Neither do disciples. 
            While the New Testament talks about being “members” of Christ’s body, membership in the church today is more institutional than organic.  “Membership has its privileges,” is the way one credit card company used to talk about it.  There are plenty of organizations out there that understand themselves to be in the business of primarily serving their members.  Too many churches and their members have this idea as well, as if the church existed to serve, cater to, satisfy, and otherwise placate the members.  Sanguin relates the story of a minister friend who attempted to move his congregation to a discipleship paradigm.  When the members complained, Sanguin quips that they “didn’t want the church.  They wanted Club Christendom back.”  Club Christendom has members.  Jesus Christ calls disciples.
            Declining churches frantically scramble for ways to attract new members.  What they should be doing is following Jesus’ own Great Commandment and making disciples, teaching people to obey his commandments.
            Unfortunately, denominations generally don’t count disciples or reward churches for making disciples.  They count and value members.  They don’t care in the slightest whether a church is teaching people to obey Jesus’ commandments.  They care whether the church is gaining members and money.  Denominations today would enthusiastically trade a church of 20 disciples for a church that gains members.
            How is a disciple different from a member?  Sanguin lays it out:
            “Members pay their dues and want to know what they are getting for their money.  Disciples are making an offering of all their resources and what to know how their money is being used for Christ.  Members expect a regular visit from their minister – after all, they’re card-carrying members!  Disciples expect to visit the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  Members help ‘the minister’ out.  Disciples discern and deploy their own gifts for ministry.  Members focus on institutional maintenance.  Disciples focus on mission.  Members fill bureaucratic slots in the church system.  Disciples serve according to their Spirit-given gifts.  Members have an organizational affiliation.  They talk about how many years they have been members.  Disciples express their allegiance to Christ in a dynamic faith community and want to talk about the difference their community of faith is making in the world.”  (Sanguin references a book by Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, for this insight.)
            When we concentrate on gaining members, we put ourselves in the same category of institution as a Masonic lodge, a bowling league, a Cub Scout troop, or a Rotary Club.  In different ways, some groups like this are desperately trying to attract new members.  Our culture is moving against joining and membership.  The church is just one more institution trying to stanch membership loss.
            But what if churches actually started to do what they are called to do?  What if they invested their energy in making disciples instead of gaining and serving members?  What if we taught, lived, rewarded, supported, and became known for the quality of our discipleship?  What if we focused on what Jesus did and commands us to do?  Take Luke 4, where Jesus quotes Isaiah, saying that his mission is “to bring good news to the poor… proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”?   And look at Luke 7, where Jesus validates his own ministry by showing how “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”  What if this was our identity?  What if we did and were known for this kind of behavior and practice?  What if we were known for our prayer, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, healing, and blessing?
            So all the denominational hand-wringing about membership loss is beside the point.  The fewer people churches have who think of themselves as members of Club Christendom, the better it is for the mission of the church.  The point is not gaining members, but making disciples.  If we’re doing that, we are doing what the Lord Jesus commands.  Let’s ditch Club Christendom and turn to follow Jesus.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Part-time Ministry.

Part-Time Ministry.

            The designation of ministers as “teaching elders” is a feature of the new Form of Government that is somewhat controversial among Presbyterians.  Many, especially ministers, would prefer to return to the “Minister of Word and Sacrament” title; and they cite many good reasons for this.  However, in no mode of ministry is it more appropriate to call the minister a teaching elder than for those who work part-time.  For in a position where time is limited, ministry has to be boiled down to its essence, and a lot of this has to do with teaching.
            Full-time ministry tends to see many areas taken over by, or assigned to, the pastor as the congregation’s paid professional.  We have become so accustomed to the luxury of full-time ministry over the past few centuries, that large parts of the ministry of church members – the ruling elders, deacons, and laity – has largely atrophied.  People regularly expect the pastor to be the one, often the only one, who makes hospital visits, leads the people in prayer, provides educational programs for adults, teaches the Confirmation Class, or preaches.  Responsibilities that clearly fall to the ruling elders in the Book of Order, like ordering worship, stewardship, and evangelism, are routinely given over to the pastor.  The pastor will do these things theoretically on the people’s behalf; but at the same time the deacons and ruling elders have to be cultivating the skills, knowledge, or expertise to bear a lot these responsibilities themselves.
            I contend that teaching is the essence of ministry based on the example of the Lord Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament.  We often underestimate how much of their work consisted in training others in ministry.  Jesus sends his disciples out on two missions, and many of his teachings are given to the disciples for their spiritual and missional formation.  Even his own ministry of healing and teaching often has an exemplary purpose.  He is giving his followers behaviors to imitate.
            The new worshiping communities established by the apostles had no regular “pastors” as we understand them.  Neither were most Gentile gatherings  likely even to have a complete copy of the Bible (which would have been the Greek Old Testament).  What they appear to have had was a group of well-trained elders, and an assortment of different visiting preachers and evangelists.  Yet the theology they did get was so strong and attractive, and the communities they formed so loving and supportive, that the young sect grew explosively.  With hardly any of the resources we have come to depend on, I suspect the main way faith in Jesus Christ was taught to people in the earliest church was by example and imitation, first of Jesus, then of those who imitated him. 
            Teaching, therefore, must not be reduced to the model of one person disseminating information to students sitting in rows in a classroom, or even around a table.  While of course there is a place for this, teaching happens even more effectively by example or in conversation.  Having a class on prayer is fine; but people are more edified when they experience the pastor praying, and are given opportunities to pray, and lead others in prayer, themselves.  Holding a Bible study is good; but the people should be able to see how the pastor’s whole life is an encounter with the Word.  And they should be given access to high quality resources on Scripture and theology.  Doctrine should not be a matter of dry and technical memorization; doctrine has to be a reflection of, and on, our practice.  And the exemplary practitioner in the local congregation is the pastor.
            In part-time ministry, pastors have to decide how to invest their limited hours.  Some things – many things – have to be let go of as responsibilities assigned to the pastor.  If these are not just non-essential or missionally pointless activities, they will have to be picked up by members of the church.  The job of the pastor, then, becomes more than the doing of ministry; it broadens out into the teaching of others to do ministry as well.
            So part-time ministry doesn’t just require the pastor to have an approach very different from that of the full-time pastor we have become accustomed to, the members of the congregation also have to change their expectations, both of the pastor and of themselves.  Part-time ministry demands that the people reinvest themselves into the fullness of ministry.  It means that otherwise often trite slogan about how all-the-members-are-the-ministers, actually expresses a legitimate aspiration and even becomes true. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

2013 Fall Polity Conference + Day Three.

            Wednesday began with a talk from Linda Valentine, the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (formerly General Assembly Council).  She told a delightful story about perseverance using her family’s bike trip from Pittsburgh to Washington.  They mostly used old canal tow-paths and railroad right-of-ways, which made for a beautiful journey through the woods.
            I had to wonder, though.  These are obsolete modes of transportation far removed from what is now the beaten path.  Is our denomination another example of an outmoded institution now relegated to the hinterlands and backwaters, while the real action is on superhighways and in airports?  Is this just another indication of our being the old Buick?
            And what is the relationship of this image – the irrelevant and nearly forgotten institution nobody uses anymore – to Corey’s insight that change comes from the margins?  Maybe the transformation of these pathways from decrepit and abandoned places, to beautiful, natural, and tranquil, if considerably slower and simpler, ways of getting from place to place, is also something to pay attention to.
            I mean, we all know how the church’s frantic obsession with relevance and being current often detracts from and seriously undermines our mission.  Maybe the Kingdom of God is less evident in the latest hot, fast, kinetic, “contemporary” thing, and more available and present in counter-cultural expressions of spiritual depth, like TaizĂ© services, or spiritual practices like meditation, chanting, calligraphy, iconography, or journaling.  Maybe it’s better and more missionally effective to be the reclaimed old tow-path or railroad line, an alternative to our frenetic, roller-coaster/meat-grinder economy.  This is not to totally and permanently withdraw from that world, but at least to be grounded in life and presence while we make missional forays into the world.  Maybe the recovery of these lost places makes a statement that God and life always win in the end, and that though our projects eventually crumble, God’s love never fails.  Maybe there is community and spirituality that is deeper than an iPhone app.
            The second presenter was Vera White, the coordinator of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative that is one of the really bright spots in our denomination.  (Even Brian McLaren is impressed; he says it’s an indication that, of all the old denominations, Presbyterians are the ones that most get it.  I find that both encouraging and scary.)
            1001NWC includes 156 new groups doing a variety of new things in different ways.  Almost half of these serve mainly non-white people; 25% are aimed at young-adult populations.  Over a third are in vulnerable communities (trailer parks, inner city, etc.).  She showed a video highlighting three of these.  This the most important thing we are doing as a denomination, and it has the potential to energize even established churches.  It takes some courage for our leadership to invest resources in this direction because it necessarily means shifting energy away from existing congregations.  It is a recognition of something I have been saying for a long time, which is that “redevelopment” of old churches is nearly impossible, and that it takes a lot less energy and yields exponentially more benefits when we instead start new worshiping communities.
            That being said, and not to detract from this important effort in any way, it is somewhat disturbing that the three examples Vera gave were an Asian NWC, a white NWC, and an African-American NWC.  In other words, it looks like we’re still segregated.  I hope this is not the case and that our NWC’s will be characterized by multi-racial and multi-cultural values.
            Secondly, and perhaps I am hyper-sensitive to this, but Vera used two words about the eventual goal of NWC’s that alarmed me.  These words are “accountability” and “sustainability.”  These terms are often Presbyterian code for the old model of church we are trying to grow out of.  I worry that all these exciting NWC’s will eventually be reined in and have to account for themselves according to the same old criteria for “success” that have oppressed us for generations.  Will we remain enthusiastic about that trailer-park ministry in 10 years, when they still have “only” 30 people, no building, and can’t afford a full-time minister?  Or will we write them off as failures, even though they continue to do effective ministry?  Will we still support an out-of-the-box gathering of young adults in 5 years, when it becomes apparent that they don’t really operate according to the Book of Order or Robert’s Rules, they don’t have “membership” that can be reliably counted for per capita purposes, and they are, say, allowing non-ordained people to celebrate sacraments?  Will we continue to make glitzy videos about ministries when they are working with constituencies who are unlikely to produce new members or contribute money?
            We’ll see.  (It is discouraging that the highest level of support for NWC’s come from Walton Awards.  This is money from the Walton family that was generated in the systematic demolition of countless communities, the ruining of unnumbered good businesses, and the intentional impoverishment of millions of employees, by some of the richest people on the planet and their execrable and demonic enterprise: the Wal-Mart chain of retail stores.  See yesterday’s comment about the feudal practice of supporting mission by sucking up to the nobility.)
            And I do hope and pray that the blessed and good energy of 1001NWC will overflow to our existing churches – and that presbyteries will allow older churches to benefit from the freedom, flexibility, and support for innovation and creativity that NWC’s enjoy.  For, even though “redevlopment” is usually a waste of time, there is a tiny number of churches that actually did transform, sometimes at great cost, and these also need our attention and encouragement.

            The polity conference officially ended before lunch, which is also when the annual meeting of the Association of Stated Clerks commenced.  One of the things we discovered from a recent survey of clerks is that nearly half of us are retired from some other work, which means that nearly half are over 65.  (Now I can see why Gradye retold that story about King Reheboam’s advisors.  Do the clerks represent the wise elders, while the EP’s represent the hot-headed young men?  Is it because we have followed the latter that we are currently being split into different realms?  Just kidding.  Sort of.)
            The fact that clerks tend to be older does explain a lot.  Clerks have historically tended to be the brake on innovation and experimentation, and the guardians of rules, regulations, and “order.”  This is changing, thank God.  Since about 2009, these conferences have turned much more hopeful and forward looking than had been, at least in my experience.  Having to adjust to the new Form of Government (which many clerks opposed rather strenuously) and simply facing the dismal missional reality in many presbyteries, and forward-thinking leadership, has led clerks beyond being just the stewards of the rules, and making us more open to using our rules as tools for mission, even innovative mission.
            The main speaker was Greg Goodwiller, the sub-title of whose talk, “Robert’s Rules as a Tool for Faithful Discernment,” was, well, ominous.
            A little background: Presbyterians are historically apostles for Robert’s Rules of Order (RONR).  We have always prided ourselves in doing process well.  Recently, however, many – even some clerks – have found themselves frustrated by features of RONR.  It is perceived as adversarial, designed to produce winners and losers, and detrimental to community discernment.
            I have always thought this was unfair.  (One of my first churches was United Methodist.  I have first hand experience of denominational meetings that do not flow according to any intelligible order.)  RONR is also designed to ensure full participation, mitigate the influence of bullies, lower the level of destructive emotion, and really develop consensus, or at least a sense that everyone has been heard.   That’s when it’s used well.
            Often it is not used well.  And Greg was coming to the rescue to help us use RONR better.
            He began his talk by going all the way back to Genesis, and building the theological foundation for RONR and our use of it.  Along the way he stated some assumptions that I think are the root of the problem.  He said, as if it were obvious and unarguable, that “God’s will is undivided.”  While this may be argued theologically, it is really clear to me from the Scriptures that God’s will, at least as far as we humans can see, is often quite divided, a fact that Jesus recognizes when he contrasts his views with accepted readings of the Bible.  The ideological assertion that’s God’s will is undivided has at least given aid and comfort to imperialist polities that require God’s will, which is to say the will of the ruling class, to be taken by the people as undivided.  Part of the larger problem we are dealing with these days is the assumption that the church may only hold one opinion on issues, may only move in one direction, and must stifle all alternatives.
            (Dealing with the apparent dividedness of God’s will in Scripture, Walter Brueggemann has developed his understanding of “dialogical” biblical interpretation, which basically intentionally takes into account these different and often competing and contradictory readings, listening to what emerges from the tension.  The belief that Scripture is only allowed to say one thing is a residue of imperialist Christendom we are well rid of.)
            A related bias is embedded in our polity, which is that “a majority shall govern.”  Majority rule is an arbitrary and culturally conditioned practice.  There is little or no hint of it in the Bible.  Indeed, most of the time the faith is kept by tiny minorities sometimes referred to as “faithful remnant.”  If majority rule were in effect, the Israelites would still be in Egypt, and most other positive developments of God’s people would never have happened.   In the New Testament, decisions are often made, not by voting, but by lot!
            So combining these two ideas – that God’s will is undivided and that majorities rule – leads us to a potentially, and often actually, toxic blend whereby slim majorities get to impose their will on large minorities.  And two years later, the parties are reversed.
            But the primary and most frequently enacted image in our faith is that of breaking, distributing, and participating, in the Eucharist.  I see this as an indication that there is a manifold manifestation of the one Body of Christ.  We receive a piece of the same single loaf; and at the same time, we enact the Body in our own lives and situations in more than one way.  Except in very basic things, there is no need – in fact it is even detrimental – for there to be only one, single, unified, undifferentiated expression of the faith.
            Our polity usually recognizes this.  But in times of insecurity, or when a particular perspective becomes overly pervasive, we start doing this top-down, one-size-fits-all legislative thing, identifying minorities and squashing them.  It’s not a good thing no matter which side manages to grab this power.
            Anyway, the fact that we are now concerned with “discernment” is an indication that there is no dominant perspective anymore, from which we receive marching orders.  Now we have to focus on trying to hear the word of God.  And many don’t think RONR particularly helpful here.
            Hence Greg’s attempt to show that, no, really, RONR can be used as an effective tool for discernment.  Not just for identifying minorities and cutting them off.  He did manage to find several tools within RONR that may be used for discernment.  Some of them involved just getting out from under the rules, which is what many are doing anyway.  Greg’s point, I think, was that the rules allow a body to suspend them in an effort to “crystallize opinion.”  Basically, you temporarily ditch the rules and do something else that works better.  But then, Greg reminded us, the body has to get back under the rules to actually make a decision.
            The body may also use the rules themselves for discernment.  And Greg walked us through motions to “postpone indefinitely,” “reconsider,” “rescind or amend something previously adopted,” substitute motions, and, my favorite (probably because I still have no idea what he was talking about), “create a blank.”
            I remain convinced that the basic principles of RONR are sound and necessary.  Otherwise, meetings degenerate into the tyranny of the obnoxious extroverts with axes to grind.  This human tendency to allow the power of the powerful to increase, at the expense of the less powerful, is the Pharaoh-model that God rejects and replaces at Mt. Sinai.  Certainly we need to resort occasionally to other processes to build trust and community.  Especially in small groups, people need to communicate without the cumbersome apparatus of making motions and so forth. (Greg showed us that RONR actually includes more informal provisions for smaller bodies.)  And the question of RONR’s Eurocentric, rationalistic bias needs seriously to be addressed.  But when used intentionally, judiciously, and well, RONR usually works pretty well.  It’s mostly common sense flowing from the two main principles: everyone gets to be heard, and don’t waste time. 

            Which reminds me: I went to my room after dinner to get some work done, to discover that the government appeared to be cancelling self-destruct mode.  If the Congress were using RONR, it is less likely that any of this psychotic, nihilistic, foolishness would have happened.  But in the end, no system is fool proof.