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

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 Taizé 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.
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