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

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.


2013 Fall Polity Conference + Day Two.

            We walked along the river from the hotel to the Cobo Center early Tuesday morning.  The whole reason we are in Detroit is to preview the site for General Assembly next June.  We would be in the convention center all day.
            The Cobo Center is a gargantuan edifice, even by convention center standards.  They’re still working on it.  Apparently the center is not affected by the city bankruptcy.
            In fact, that was the first topic we heard about.  Tom Hay, from the OGA, reported that many Presbyterians are upset we are holding the Assembly in Detroit at all, what with the stories of roaming packs of dogs, out of control fires, long 911 response times, rampant crime, and so forth.  The population of Detroit has declined by, oh, a million people in recent years.  Parts of the city are deserted.  Traffic lights have been turned off in some areas.
            Tom assured us that the downtown area is safe.  It certainly looks so, and a walk we took in the evening revealed a city that seemed to be pretty lively and secure.  Both the Tigers and the Red Wings were playing.
            Detroit has a lot to teach us, he said, including the consequences of “belief in an unsustainable system.”  I’m not sure what he meant by that.  I took him to be referring to Capitalism.  He suggested that the place is a kind of reflection of our own denomination.  There is a lot of truth in this, as we were emulating General Motors and adopting corporate models of management through the 50’s and 60’s.  And now we have suffered catastrophic declines, like the American auto industry.
            Our sense of complacency, hubris, and entitlement meant we were completely blindsided and unprepared for the changes that started hammering against us in the 1960’s, and for decades we still imagined we would get different results from continuing the same basic approaches.  We thought we just weren’t getting the word out, that it was just a matter of deficient marketing, when in reality our product sucked.  By this I do not mean the gospel, of course, but many of our traditional ways of expressing and practicing our faith.  We were like big, clunky, inefficient, and unreliable 1970’s Buicks, when people were excited by Hondas and Toyotas.
            Detroit, though, is still a place of amazing innovation, Tom said.  The industry is finally turning itself around. 
            But the church?  We’ll see… but there are signs and even expressions of hope and mission beginning to emerge.  Tom said we are coming to Detroit to witness to God’s justice.  God has not yet said to us that we are done.
            A General Assembly costs some $2.7m.  The organizers are committed to cutting the budget where they can, but many costs are set, given that we retain this paradigm of meeting, like a corporation, in luxury hotels and massive convention centers.  So we’re still doing the Buick thing in this respect. 
            The Assembly will have some new practices.  I like the idea of celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at each worship service, and worshiping in the plenary hall.  The commissioners are seated in “pods” and the seating is angled so they may see each other better.  Committees will be fewer and larger.  (Each committee costs $80K.)
            Mary Anne Rhebergen, an EP from New Jersey, gave an impassioned talk invoking the prophet Jeremiah about how we need to pray for the welfare of the city of the people’s exile.  There will be opportunities to serve people in need while the General Assembly is in Detroit.  Hopefully the General Assembly will be a blessing to the city, not just a bunch of outsiders passing through.
            Later, former Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick advocated for the Confession of Belhar, which is coming before the Assembly.  This confession, which failed to garner the super-majority of presbytery concurrences in 2010 (a year with a lot of other controversial stuff going on), would be the first non-European/North American part of our Book of Confessions since the Nicean Creed.  And he noted how fitting it is that we are addressing it at this Assembly, in Detroit, a predominantly African-American city.  Originating out of the assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, meeting in Ottawa in 1982 (which I happened to attend), Belhar was written by the United Reformed Church of South Africa during the horrible depths of Apartheid.  It has since been adopted by many churches, beginning in Africa, and extending even to the Reformed Church in America. 
            Racism is still an issue in America and in our church.  Cliff maintained that adding Belhar to our confessional standards is critical to the integrity of our church as a confessional church.

            We heard reports from the various “special committees” working on things like Biennial Assembly Review, Mid-Councils (presbyteries and synods), Preparation for Ministry, and Racial-Ethnic Ministries.  And we heard from the Church Leadership Connection on recent wall-to-wall changes in the call system.
            Finally, Gradye took the podium again, this time to talk about per capita, the method the General Assembly and most presbyteries fund their operations.  We are down to 1.8m members, projected to hit 1.5m by 2015.  The ecclesiastical bureaucracy is downsizing to fit this reality.  They would like to cut per capita by 20% by 2016.  For all the controversy, he said that 90% of per capita is collected; most of the uncollected per capita is held by some larger churches.
            Per capita is apparently an even bigger crisis at the presbytery level, where churches’ refusal to pay this voluntary assessment sometimes goes viral.  Later, in a workshop, Gradye went into more detail.  The decline in giving to the church happens to be in inverse relationship to the increase in medical plan contributions over the same period.  So we are being bled dry by out of control medical costs.  Also, the recent recession hit the churches at their most vulnerable time; 500K jobs were lost by American churches.
            Gradye had no big answer, of course.  Much of our time in that crowded room was invested in sharing among all the participants.  We kicked around many different reasons for this crisis in per capita.  For instance, we observed that we live in a non-joining culture in which “membership” is an obsolete category.
            One person made a helpful analogy with a zoo, and how “clients” are differentiated from “donors.”  Some support the institutional mission; others enjoy it on a pay-as-you-go basis.  Maybe we need some version of the same mixture, it was suggested.
            One “elephant in the room” no one addressed was the fact that we are a middle-class church and the last 40 years of our decline has occurred simultaneously with the stagnation of the middle-class’ share of wealth (while the 1% grew fabulously wealthy on other people’s increased productivity).  One reason we see a crisis in church funding is that the middle-class has no money!
            In the middle ages, when there was an even wider gap between the rich and everyone else, the church had to be funded by sucking up to the nobility.  That’s how cathedrals and monasteries got built.  Is that what we are reduced to now?
            Near the end of our discussion, I began to wonder if we aren’t witnessing the imminent collapse of our whole system.  Maybe the whole thing needs to be rethought from the ground – that is, local churches – up. 
            Gradye finally observed that this has to be about relationships now, not duty.  The new model is belong/behave/believe, as opposed to the present model where we expect people to believe before we admit them to membership (and never address behavior at all).  I am reminded about how even Craig Barnes, the new President of Princeton Seminary, admits that church membership is a defunct category.  What people are seeking today is real community and meaningful work.
            This of course throws a monkeywrench into a lot of our system, which is based on that older understanding of membership.  We still evaluate churches on the basis of membership numbers and growth.  And we still attempt to fund our mission by assessing churches according to how many members they have.
            Add to this our chronic inability to speak coherently about “mission.”  And our depressed trust level.  And you see the problem and how intractable it is.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

2013 Fall Polity Conference + Day One.

            This year’s conference is in Detroit, a city under a dictatorship imposed by the Governor.  Why is it that when a city goes broke it is the banks, not the people who actually did the work, who get reimbursed?  As I write this a story comes on the news about retired city workers having their health care benefits slashed as part of the austerity that is supposed to save the city.  It is, of course, only the poor and the workers who get this dubious “salvation”.    
            None of this is at all apparent when one arrives here at the spectacular Renaissance Center, where stands the luxury hotel hosting this event.  For a denomination with such breathtaking money problems we still manage routinely to install ourselves into places Jesus wouldn’t be caught dead in, facilities where Herod or Pilate or Caesar would be more at home than the Lord.

            Anyway, we began with worship, and a sermon by Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly.  Gradye chose an odd selection of texts, starting with Isaiah 7, where the prophet encourages King Ahaz to stand firm while under attack by two other kings, Reza and Pekah.  “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’  But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’”
            (Gradye began by recounting the larger context of how the kingdom of David and Solomon got split into two.  I’m not sure why.  We all know the story.  Was he trying to advise is to listen to the wise elders as opposed to the hot-headed young men?  I hardly think we got where we are as a denomination because we listened too much to young people.)
            Gradye concentrated on Ahaz’ refusal to ask the Lord for a sign.  Ahaz was probably justifiably afraid of what the Lord might say.  But Isaiah wanted to share a hopeful and positive word from the Lord.  (Eventually, the prophet shares the sign from God anyway: it is the famous “Behold, a virgin will conceive” passage, predicting the defeat and disappearance of the two threatening powers.)
            Then he moved to Revelation 21, where John of Patmos recounts part of his vision: “Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’”  God says, “It is done.”  But Gradye wondered if our sign is precisely that it is not done.  That is, presumably, given the context of his remarks, the ministry of this denomination.  It is not done.
            This is what Isaiah had to say to Ahaz.  Judah is not done.  Someday it will be done, as John foresaw.  But we have to “live into” Isaiah’s vision as it is being fulfilled. 
            I get his point.  This is a time in our history when Presbyterians need to hear that we are not finished, irrelevant, washed-up, and over.  Instead of living in a fear of the future based the recent past, like Ahaz, let’s remember what God is building and see ourselves as part of that.

            After worship, Gradye gave a brief State of the Church message, reporting that 62 congregations have left our communion so far in 2013.  Frankly, I thought this would be much worse, given the hype.  Then he accentuated the positive: the Youth Triennium last summer was a triumph.  He is finding that people are hungry to be challenged to do more than attend meetings.  We have sold an amazing 240K copies of the new hymnal.  We are serving many people beyond ourselves.
            He asked, “What does it mean to be in covenantal relationship with each other?”  We have to think of our connectedness as “more symbiotic than transactional.”  In other words, we should cultivate relationships built on mutual support and nourishment, rather than the cold calculus of exchange.

            The keynote presentation was given by Corey Schlosser-Hall, the Executive in the North Puget Sound Presbytery.  Corey started by proclaiming this an exciting time to be in mid-Council ministry, and proposing that we shape the emotional climate to make this time fruitful.  He used the image of a “convergence zone” where two or more different streams are coming together.  It is like the meeting of two weather systems or the confluence of rivers.  We have to choose which flow to go with.  What kind of leadership will shape and guide our mid-Councils?
            We need to shape an ecosystem for aspiration.  In other words, we need to shape our life together according to where we want to go…
            …As opposed to where we have been, which is a major distraction for Presbyterians.  Rather than wallow in grief for what we once were, how about realizing that what we have now is worth choosing.  Corey quoted someone to the effect that “complaining is stupid; either act or forget.”  Reminds me of Yoda. 
            Corey favors cultivating the “big, pragmatic, moderate middle” of the church.  “We can be a beacon of hope if we could only get over ourselves.”
            He has a different experience of the middle than I do; my perception of the middle is a very depressed and recalcitrant place, where everyone is keeping their head down, cherishing memories of the good old days.  But maybe that’s unique to me.
            Corey wants us to intentionally choose a different stream than that of stress.  We should get together and throw a party to celebrate those who are taking risks for mission.  I think he’s right.  But more often we throw the book at such people.  I’m just saying.
            The theme of building mid-Councils into aspirational ecosystems was central to Corey’s remarks.  His talk was punctuated by the music of U2.  One song says “what you don’t have you don’t need it now.”  We should not be waiting for the answer to come form somewhere else.  Rather there is a posture, an attitude, an orientation – habits of mind and heart – that we would do well to develop and feed.  It is about facing the future.  Aspiration is imitation-worthy, he said, touching on a mimetic note.  We have to be a part of whatever God is calling us into.  Decline and negativity only create more decline and negativity.
            Corey asked about how often we are “playing offense,” meaning taking the good news to the world, as contrasted with sitting deep in our own territory and withstanding the world’s assault.
            After the break he got on even more of a roll.  Often the shoots of new growth don’t fit.  Innovation, by definition, doesn’t fit.  Listen to what is happening on the fringes. 
            Okay, we were in the broad middle, now we’re on the fringes.  I agree with him on the latter; our answers are going to come from unlikely places and people; that’s the gospel; that’s where positive change comes from in the New Testament.  Corey rhetorically asked if anything generative can come out of a committee – and he actually got a few people to say yes to this.  But most such initiatives do not grow out of our present structures, which are more designed to preserve and maintain (verbs pervading the Great Ends of the Church, btw). 
            Rather, exciting stuff emerges from individuals and unstructured gatherings and friendships.  Often they break in from the outside.  And we try to make it fit, which can kill them.
            Somehow we have to nurture a “mixed economy” of ministry.  Our present “congregational” model is only about 150 years old; different forms of the church have to be cultivated today.  He gave the example of the “Fresh Expressions” movement in the UK.  We can’t assume that the inherited forms are the only forms for he future.  We need more experimentation.  “How courageous does your presbytery encourage people to be?”
            A good question.  Having attended this meeting for 14 years, I can say that  a presentation like Corey’s would have been unthinkable not too long ago.  Presbyteries encouraged people and churches to be anything but courageous.  It was always more about fitting into the inherited box, defined by our polity, bureaucracy, and theology.  Fortunately, this has changed.  But how much has it changed back home?  Are there actually presbyteries that encourage courage?  Where courageous innovators don’t have to keep their heads down, stay under the radar, and keep out of the sight of the rules guys?  Maybe.
            What keeps us from aspiring?  Corey focused on shame, which I thought was interesting.  Is there something about us that just isn’t worthy?  What if we don’t get it “right”?  What if we fail?  Failure is shameful.
            Corey quoted a writer named Bernay Brown.  “The whole-hearted believe they are worthy of living that way.”  It is like the willingness of a person to say “I love you” first, not knowing the response or how it is going to turn out.  God is telling us, “I got this.”
            All in all, Corey is telling us a lot of what we have heard before about getting the church out of its Titanic mode.               

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Ministry of Members.

            I have heard some basic and common misconceptions about church membership.  They all have at least one thing in common: they are all self-serving strategies for avoiding the demands of actual discipleship
            First is the idea that “Jesus did it all for me, therefore I don’t have to do anything.”  It is true that our life in the faith is based on what Jesus did and taught, and that Jesus does reconcile us to God and manifest the resurrection.  But this truth, far from exempting us from any responsibility, positively demands a response from us.  Jesus is always instructing his disciples to keep his commandments.  He gives them a new way to live and empowers them to live that way in his new community of those whom he calls. 
            This is so ridiculously obvious that I shouldn’t even have to mention it.  Unfortunately, I have heard this argument made more than I care to remember from people claiming to be Christians.  And even people who know better than to make the argument, often act this way.  More sophisticated Christians might even piously claim that the idea that people have a responsibility to respond to Jesus by changing their behavior is “works righteousness,” which is supposed to be a really bad thing.  But that could only be true if we were trying to earn our salvation from God as a reward for our good behavior.  In reality, the disciple responds in trust, obedience, and thanksgiving to what Jesus has already done.
            The second misconception is that our religious life is somehow separate and isolated from every other part of our life, so that what we do and say in church has no relationship to how we act in our family, work, educational, economic, or political life.  This would be to import the secular principle of the separation of church and State into the life of the disciple, and hold to a kind of separation of our spirituality from our secular life.  In reality, the correct term for such a separation is hypocrisy, and it is one of the more destructive things non-Christians see when they look at us.  We say nice things in church, but the rest of the time we are pervaded by bigotry, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed, and self-centeredness.  The truth is that there is no such thing as the “secular” or worldly life distinct from our religious or spiritual commitments.  Everything we do, whether it is in the workplace, the classroom, the shopping mall, the voting booth, or on the Garden State Parkway, is an expression of our discipleship of Jesus Christ.
            Finally, the third misconception is that the church has hired professionals to be responsible for religion and spirituality on the people’s behalf, once again exempting members from many of the demands of discipleship.  It is the paid professional who does all the praying, Scripture study, visitation, meeting leadership, evangelism, and so forth.  They have the specialized training and the members pay her or him to do these things for them.  Once again, even if this view is not always articulated verbally, it is evident from the way people act.
            If we manage to divest ourselves of these three misconceptions, what we are left with is an opening to Jesus’ actual teachings about discipleship.  That is, that discipleship extends into and embraces one’s entire life.
            The Presbyterian Book of Order begins the Form of Government section with a chapter on the local congregation.  This in itself is significant.  It recognizes that the congregation is the primary place where God’s mission happens.  In other words, congregations do not exist to support the mission of the national denomination, as was thought during the dark days of the “corporate” church in the mid-twentieth century.
            Then the chapter continues, and includes a summary of what is expected from every member of a church.  Not just the pastor, or the elders and deacons, everyone.  It is found in G-1.0304.
      1.    Proclaiming the good news in word and deed. 
            This doesn’t necessarily mean actually preaching sermons; we proclaim the good news by exhibiting forgiveness, empathy, non-violence, patience, and love in our lives.  As St. Francis taught his brothers, “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.”  Our actions and behavior have to “preach.”  That is how the good news of God’s love for the world gets communicated.
      2.     Taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation. 
            Members are expected to show up according to their ability.  A few times a year doesn’t cut it.  Even if they attend worship every week, disciples are not spectators.  We are all participants.  Fortunately, many churches are moving away from the model where everything is done by one person up front, at most backed up by some musicians.  They are opening up even the planning of worship and mission to include the participants in the community.
      3.    Lifting up one another in prayer, mutual concern, and active support. 
            This is not just the job of the pastor, elders, and deacons; everyone is expected to pray for each other, and concerns in the wider world, regularly.  Presbyterians most certainly are not proficient at prayer these days.  Often it is reduced to giving God a to-do list.  But prayer has to be the center of our life together; and we have to explore its deeper dimensions: silence and listening for God.
      4.    Studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life. 
            Neither is this something relegated solely to the professionals.  Each member should be in daily contact with the Word of God by reading Scripture and other books, and in conversation with other disciples. 
      5.    Supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents. 
            That’s time, money, and (not “or”) talents.  As a symbolic statement we disciples should be giving at least as much of our money, time, and talent as we give to various kinds of entertainment.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Discipleship is not a hobby we do in our spare time.
      6.    Demonstrating a new quality of life in and through the church. 
            The gathering of disciples is intended to function as a training center (a Japanese word is dojo) for discipleship, where we encounter Jesus’ life and teachings, and explore ways of more effectively reflecting and expressing the good news in our lives.
      7.    Responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others. 
            Someone once said that Christian faith is other people, meaning that serving people in need is almost identical to discipleship.  Check out Jesus’ famous words on the subject in Matthew 25:31-46.
      8.    Living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life. 
            “Responsibly” means in response to the demands of Jesus in imitation of his life of healing, empowerment, blessing, peace, and goodness.
9.    Working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment.
            Discipleship is not just something we do as individuals, or even simply in community.  It also extends to witnessing to larger political and economic systems in the world.  Helping individuals is important; changing systems that oppress people on a large, even global, scale is also fundamental to discipleship.  This is particularly the case for disciples who are blessed to live in a democracy where the people have a voice in civil decisions.  Our voices and choices, right down to what we buy and how we manage our work and home lives, make a difference in how the world works.
      10. Participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.
            The Presbyterian church is not a monarchy or oligarchy; we do not assign power exclusively to one person or class of people, not even presbyters.  Every member’s voice is valued and required for the gathering to move faithfully forward.  God calls us through the community to serve in leadership.  This cannot be left to a small group of perennial volunteers.
      11. Reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful. 
            It is a continual task of discipleship to be improving and deepening our trust of the Lord Jesus.  We are never finished in this mortal existence.  We are often called to let go of old ways that may have become ineffective, and take on new modes of discipleship that better express the good news in a new and different time and place.