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 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.
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