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

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Crisis in Food and Faith.

Christianity has always been related to food.  Not just the pot-luck dinners that cause members of every denomination to claim a unique attraction to, and production of, good food.  (I don’t know how many times I have heard it claimed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and so on, that it is a particular characteristic of their brand of Christianity that they “love to eat”.)  But it goes right back to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples when he made a symbolic meal the central act of this new faith.  Eating and drinking is the way he explicitly gives us to remember him. 
Last Sunday’s New York Times has an article about changes in the food industry.  The sentence that got my attention was: “42 percent of millennial consumers, aged 20-37, don’t trust large food companies.”  Woah.  Is it just a coincidence that this is the same demographic that doesn’t trust the church, and is leaving organized religion in such droves that we have had to invent new terms to describe them: the “spiritual-but-not-religious”, the “nones”?  I don’t think so.  I don’t know if the in-house publications of the food industry also feature article after article dedicated to how to attract, retain, recover millennials, as is the case in denominational journals.  But it would not surprise me.
The issue in the food industry is that they have been content to sell us cheap, counter-nutritional crap for decades, loaded up with unpronounceable preservatives, massive quantities of sugar (and not even real sugar but high-fructose corn syrup), salt, fat, and chemical substitutes for them.  People, especially younger people, not wanting to die of malnutrition and obesity at the same time, have been shifting away from processed foods and towards local, organic, simple, fresh, and natural foods.  It has gotten so bad that McDonalds is in serious trouble and the center of supermarkets, where the processed/packaged foods are stacked, is referred to in the industry as “the morgue.”
It is a term that could well be applied to many churches I know.  A handful of old people scattered throughout a cavernous sanctuary while an organ groans out old hymns and a middle-aged man talks might attract a similar description.  
The food industry is stripping gears trying to adjust to this alarming trend in which people will only buy food that is actually nutritious.  “For legacy food companies to have any hope of survival they will have to make bold changes in their core product offerings.  Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings.  General Mills needs to do more than just drop the artificial ingredients from Trix.  It needs to drop the sugar substantially, move to 100 percent whole grains, and increase ingredient diversity by moving to other grains besides corn.” “These changes would require a complete overhaul of their supply chains, major organizational restructuring and billions of dollars of investment….”
Now, I am not one to say the church needs to adopt the strategies and practices of business.  Far from it.  At the same time, is it just me, or do these critiques sound eerily familiar?  What would it mean for the church to “cut the sugar,” “process less,” “go local and organic,” use more whole foods,” “develop fresh offerings,” “drop the artificial ingredients,” “increase diversity,” “overhaul the supply chain,” and “restructure institutionally”?
To me, the response in the church would be to get back to the basics of the spiritual life and what people need to be nourished and healed in their souls.  Stop doing what we think will be popular (“cut the sugar”), encourage people to be responsible for their own soul-making by exposing them to deep and original sources (“process less”), focus on small group dynamics rather than mega-entertainments (“go local and organic”), allow more creativity (“drop the artificial ingredients”), draw from a wider variety of sources — from different streams of Christianity to other forms of wisdom (“increase diversity”), speak to contemporary issues and questions (“develop fresh offerings”), realize that denominations are a historical anomaly that has run its course (“overhaul the supply chain”), and start training people to guide others in their own faith-formation (“restructure institutionally”).
What the food industry is going through now, the church has been weathering for two generations, without a whole lot of success.  The church must recover the simple gathering of people seeking to follow Jesus.  The watchword for the church should always be this authenticity.   Not because it is a marketing necessity.  But because of who we are as disciples.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Talk Is Cheap.

In Woody Allen’s classic movie, Sleeper, Allen wakes up several centuries in the future, meets Diane Keaton, and the two of them are called upon to save the world.  In the course of this situation the two of them are mistaken for surgeons and given the job of cloning the recently deceased evil dictator back to life.  As they are in the OR, observed by many real physicians, they have no idea what to do.  Someone suggests that they “check the cell structure” of the tissue to be used for the cloning (the dictator’s nose).  Allen and Keaton proceed to do a dance while repeatedly chanting “check the cell structure!” as the end of which Allen snaps his fingers and declares, “The cell structure is checked!”  Of course, they didn’t really check anything, they simply did a dance about it and enthusiastically affirmed that it was done.
I remember this scene often these days in the church.  Too many of our leaders are caught in a “deer-in-the-headlights” mode, as they try to interpret and implement many different strategies for reviving and transforming the institution. 
Too often they do a mindless tap-dance while chanting the words, even getting the rest of the presbytery to sing and dance along, and at the end of it pronouncing that the presbytery is now officially “missional,” “adaptive,” “relational,” or whatever…  when actually nothing has changed.  In fact it may be worse.  That is, we are actually less missional, adaptive, or relational than we were before we started parading around, chanting the rhetoric, doing the exercises, playing with the rocks, ribbons, water, candles, pieces of cloth or paper, and watching the film clips.
“Checking the cell structure” is an actual thing that a medical professional is trained to do.  Terms like missional, adaptive, and relational appear more vague and subject to interpretation and negotiation.  Indeed, sometimes it seems that they are not really intended to be anything beyond merely rhetorical.  As if it is just about how we talk, but has no bearing on what we actually do or how we organize ourselves.  We change the label as if that by itself is enough and will eventually change the way we relate to each other.  
Maybe we get this understanding from decades of focusing on reforming our theological language, imagining that once we are talking with appropriate inclusivity we will automatically start acting more justly.  Maybe it goes back to that primal Protestant liability in which “believing” can be more important than, and have no bearing on, actually doing anything.  
But words have to be embodied.  I have zero patience with people who claim to follow Jesus, and yet also advocate guns, war, economic injustice, torture, racism, and a whole lot of other things that Jesus explicitly rejected.  To me, they reduce discipleship to a merely rhetorical category.  We give ourselves the label “Christian,” but it doesn’t occur to us that this has any behavioral content? 
I have a problem when we start loudly proclaiming how “missional!” we are now, while we continue to support the same corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical institutional structures and procedures we have had for decades.  We say: “The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church” (F-1).  And yet we remain essentially the same institution we were before we made this claim.  Our actions reveal that what we really believe is that our “shape and substance” should continue to determine what we do.  Only now were calling it by the glitzy new term, “missional.”
I have a problem when we drag over from the business world a term like “adaptive change,” and then cynically use it to justify whatever changes the leadership wants, even if they have nothing to do with the way managerial guru, Ronald Heifetz, actually defines it.  So where Heifetz says it is adaptive to include people in a broader conversation about how to organize, a leader might impose a closed, secretive, and exclusive process to ram self-serving changes through, and then call it being “adaptive.” 
I have a problem when we rationalize changes by saying we’re becoming more “relational,” when actually we are acting in a way that is more directive, centralized, controlling, leader-driven, and even paranoid.         
If we’re going to use these words — missional, adaptive, relational — perhaps we might benefit from realizing that the words are supposed to describe actual ways of acting and functioning together.  Just changing the word is a cynical and desperate dance.  These are powerful terms that mean we have to relate to each other differently, act differently, and be organized differently.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why the Church Doesn't Change.

Unfortunately, the PCUSA has largely fallen away from its own identity.  Over the four or five centuries of Modernity, the church gradually buried the decentralized, relational, flat, locally oriented, distributed model we find in the deepest strata of the Book of Order, and erected over it a hierarchical, bureaucratic, corporate, top-down, regulatory superstructure.  Rejecting the medieval/feudal pattern, the reforming churches adopted the institutional patterns developed by the ascending middle-classes, many of which expressed the privilege and power of owners.  Their politics had power accrue with certain leaders on the basis of money, expertise, education, connections, and economic class.  So while the Presbyterian rhetoric was all about democracy and freedom, in practice authority remained concentrated with a very few.   
In the church, we probably reached the nadir of this corporate structure in the 1970’s. That’s when it started to disintegrate.  We have been gradually trying to find and do something different ever since, for two reasons.  First, we can’t afford the expensive corporate superstructure we once had.  People don’t see the value of supporting and trusting bureaucracy when there are plenty of more direct good things they can do with their money.  Plus, as a middle-class institution, the church has been adversely affected by the drain of wealth from the middle-class in this same period.    
Secondly, the politics of Modernity effectively privileged white, male, and older people.  As this demographic became an ever smaller and less influential segment of the American population, the institutions that they developed and wielded became ever more isolated and irrelevant to everyone else.  More importantly, these ways of operating are not easily intelligible to non-Anglos and young people generally, who seek spiritual nourishment and expression in very different environments.  In other words, fewer and fewer people these days find it spiritually helpful to sit quietly in straight lines while a middle-aged white man lectures them.   
Most of the changes we have been able to squeeze out at monumental effort have been little more than window dressing anyway.  After decades of striving to be more diverse and inclusive, we have barely even nudged the needle in terms of our demographic makeup.  We’re been trying to bring in youth for half a century to no avail.  The fundamental corporate mentality pervading the church has not really changed.  The downsizing we were forced into over the past few decades is considered more evidence of our “decline.”  In addition, we are largely opting for a cheaper version of the same corporate model we could once support more lavishly.  Staffs may be smaller, but they still exist doing the same things.      
The new Form of Government was supposed to make us more “flexible” and “missional.”    It was supposed to encourage us to be more oriented towards congregational ministry.  Is this happening?  Are resources now flowing to churches for the sake of mission?  Are we realizing a more horizontal connectionism, as distinct from the top-down connectionism we were used to?    
In reality, especially as measured in the flow of funding, not much is changing.  We still sink a lot of money into compensating executives, for instance.  It doesn’t get any more corporate than that.  (Although now we give many of them various euphemistic titles.)  
Some think our problem is that we invest too much energy in “governance.”  Therefore, they would take power away from the churches gathered in presbyteries.  They would reduce the number and length of presbytery meetings, and inject into them various kinds of programatic entertainment and spiritual-lite playtime, much of which has little theological depth.  With presbyteries increasingly neutralized as discerning and decision-making bodies, it falls to the executives and their hand-picked supporters to run things.  They call this being “adaptive” (though anyone who has actually read the work of Ronald Heifetz would seriously question this).  In reality it is just the old corporate model on crack.
Part of this is rooted in a misconception that our problems will be solved by better  “leadership.”  Entrusting decision-making to a specially empowered “upper” class is itself a stubborn vestige of the corporate mentality, rooted in the economics of slavery and colonialism.  Modernity had this bias towards elevating individual personalities which we could even call the myth of the leader.  (Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza and Gerhard Lohfink offer cogent critiques of this approach.)  It reached its demonic and disastrous climax in the Fuehrerprinzip in Nazi Germany.
As I pointed out in my previous post, we Presbyterians have an innate, constitutional, healthy, and biblically-based suspicion of all human leadership.  We assert in the opening of our Book of Order that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  Our movement was initiated as a rebellion against bishops and kings; our polity makes no explicit provision for special leaders at all, choosing instead to locate and diffuse power in gathered groups.
The question facing the church now is whether we will continue attempting to ride the current historical whirlwind in the Modernistic, corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical vehicle that got us into this death-spiral, or whether we will junk that and embrace the decentralized, flat, open-source, distributed, and egalitarian organizational model that is currently emerging in post-Modern society… and, oddly enough, from our own biblical and Reformed tradition as well. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Anarchy in the PCUSA.

British King George III is said to have described the American War of Independence as a “Presbyterian rebellion.”  American Presbyterians often chuckle with pride about this.  Sometimes it seems like we almost take credit for the whole American project… while carefully not rebelling against hardly anything ever since.  As if we did our part in setting this thing up in the beginning and now our work here is done.  In so doing we get fixated on a sanitized version of our history… but it does not occur to us that there is still anything revolutionary left to do.
But at the heart of our movement there remains a truly radical, revolutionary, and insurgent set of principles and practices.  Noam Chomsky defines anarchism as always questioning and resisting the accumulation of power, and ensuring that the burden of proof in any decision always falls with the party wielding the most power.  Anarchy, then, is not social chaos; it is about diffusing power.  
This insight also describes the heart of Presbyterian polity, distilled to its essence.  Briefly put, if our polity is any indication, we Presbyterians inherently mistrust and reject entrenched power and privilege.  Presbyterianism is about the diffusion of power away from particular individuals and classes, and into gathered groups.  Power is distributed; the organizational structure is relatively flat, with widening circles of increasing inclusivity; and authority is spread around among presbyters essentially equal in power.  Councils are leaderless… save for their stated allegiance to the One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Except when talking about worship, one searches the Book of Order in vain for anyone but Jesus named as a “leader.”  By Chomsky’s definition, Presbyterians are anarchists. 
This is as it must be for anyone who bases their life on the Bible.  The Bible begins with a band of slaves escaping from one empire and concludes with the resurrection of a preacher and healer lynched by another empire for blasphemy and sedition.  The Bible hates and militates against the accumulation of power among an elite few.  The Reformers’ insights about polity reflect this inherent biblical sensitivity. 
The third chapter of the Book of Order bears this out.  Here we find two common themes: first, the church is a community and functions communally.  While provision is made for individual “officers,” who have particular functions within the gathering, leadership isn’t one of those functions (F-3.0103).  The “officers” are called presbyters, or elders (F-3.0202), and their roles are further clarified to include the discernment and assessment of the group’s fidelity to the Word (ruling elders) and to equip the people for mission (teaching elders).  These officers have no power as individuals, but only as gathered into councils (F-3.0208).  
Secondly, the church rejects altogether what the world calls power, that is, coercive force (F-3.0101b, F-3.0107, F-3.0108).  A profound suspicion of power pervades the whole chapter.  Indeed, these principles, like the Scriptures, are written from the perspective of people who had experienced the business-end of this kind of power and wanted no part of it.
Local gatherings are independent of each other (F-3.0102, F-3.0106) and function according to open-source principles like mutual forbearance (F-3.0105), with the rights of private judgment (F-3.0101) held in balance with the mission of the group (F-3.0102), all under the Word of God (F-3.0101, F-3.0103).  
At the same time, these groups consider themselves to be parts of a single collective entity (F-3.0201).  There are councils beyond and including the local, of increasing inclusivity, with the more inclusive, or larger, overseeing the smaller (F-3.0208), in balance with the independence noted in the previous section.  The practice of majority rule (F-3.0205) prevents power from accruing to a privileged, elite minority. 
Discipline is how we encourage and challenge each other to fuller and better discipleship of the Lord Jesus (F-3.0204, D-1.0101).  It has nothing to do with power-over others, still less violence of any kind.  The most severe resort is removal from the gathering. 
So, if we were asked to describe the character of Presbyterian ecclesiology based only on this chapter of the Book of Order, we might imagine it to be a network of semi-independent small groups gathering to encounter and be formed by the Word of God (F-1.02, F-3.0204).  While they assign some individuals to particular roles, the groups recognize no leader except Jesus Christ.  Local groups recognize the authority of more inclusive, larger groups, of which they are constituent parts.
We see here an organization that is anything but the kind of top-down, centralized, leader-driven system pervasive in an imperialist or corporate model.  The Book of Order does not describe a pyramid.  It reflects something more like the “tribal confederation” we see in early Israel.  This system keeps power as diffuse and localized as possible, while at the same time maintaining a common identity, story, and purpose in the center.
Most importantly, the center is Jesus Christ.  And he is not found at the top and then distributed downward.  He is not even in the middle and emanating outward.  Rather, he emerges everywhere, in each disciple, each presbyter, and each local gathering, with the more inclusive gatherings having a more full and comprehensive vision of him.
Thus, seen in its larger social context, the Presbyterian Church is supposed to function as an alternative polity that witnesses to a set of values, goals, stories, and behaviors radically different from those of the prevailing culture.  We gather in explicit opposition to hierarchies, command-and-control structures, corporate organizational charts, and all power-over, domination-based polities.  Indeed, we’re not even “democratic” because the party whose will we are most concerned to reflect is not that of the people but Jesus Christ.
As such this makes us truly and essentially anarchists.  I mean we’re talking about basing our life together on someone who proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the economic redistribution of the biblical jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), and whose mother identifies him before he is born as one who would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).  Can it get more anarchistic than that?  Jesus’ life is about reversal and uprising (anastasis, “resurrection”).
Obviously we have forgotten about all this.  People generally do not think of Presbyterian congregations as cells of anarchists, witnessing to and plotting the overthrow of empires.  But this sense still lurks there deep in our DNA, in words many of us know well, but maybe haven’t really thought about for a long time.  Maybe it’s time to get that part of our identity back.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Polity Is Mission.

In his wonderful book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter describes the way Irish monks brought the gospel to Ireland, and then much of Western Europe.  They did it by forming small communities in or near local villages, and demonstrating a life together of peace, justice, and equality in Christ.  The heart of evangelism was their example of loving community life.  From these local bases of authentic witness, missionaries would plant the gospel in the lives of the common people.  

Their strategy was rooted in the approach of Jesus.  When sending his disciples out he instructs them to live with the people, staying in one place in a village, and exemplifying the new community, the Kingdom of God, that is the heart of his proclamation.  Indeed, he personally embodies this message in his own life.  

The Christian life is first lived in community.
And the word we use to talk about the guidelines and wisdom we share 
concerning how to live well together in community
is polity. 

Church polity gets a bad rap.  Too often we think of it as a collection of repressive rules of judicial governance, a way to stifle change and enforce conformity, an arcane tool for insiders to manipulate, or a bureaucratic roadblock to effective mission.  That is an aberration we have allowed to fester among us, largely as a by-product of the church’s capitulation to worldly power.  Hopefully, those days are over.  

Authentic polity looks at how disciples best come together 
to discern and follow the will of the Lord Jesus.  
It has to do with the nuts-and-bolts, on-the-ground, 
day-to-day dynamics of community-creation, maintenance, and inclusion.  
Polity concerns communication, honesty, 
the balancing of different interests and concerns, 
and the discovery of our unity in mission.
Any community that can provide living, embodied, examples 
of how to work well together for the common good, 
has immense value for people.  
In short, simply being together as the beloved community 
is the foundation of the church’s mission, 
and polity is the way we do that.  

Ours is a culture seeing a comprehensive breakdown in community values, processes, and institutions.  While the obvious examples include the nauseating dysfunction of the U.S. Congress, the mercenary corruption at the core of business corporations, and the ruthless exercise in cynicism to which our judicial system has been reduced, this crisis extends all the way down to neighborhoods and families.  Groups from bowling leagues to the Masons to the Boy Scouts are in trouble, along with churches, of course.  Increasingly, people are finding many organized social groups to be irrelevant.

Yet we humans are inherently social beings and gathering together for mutual exchanges of experiences and decision-making concerning the common good is necessary for a healthy community.  As this breaks down we fall into silos of disconnected and even antagonistic interests, gated communities, and a hyper-individualism that denies our connection to each other.  Communities degenerate into hierarchies, the final demonic form of which is when a vast gulf opens between the few at the top — the owners, the privileged, the powerful, the wealthy — and the rest of us — subordinates, workers, debtors, slaves.     

We Presbyterians have always been known for our concern for good order when meeting together.  It is in our very name, which describes a way of gathering.  “Presbyterian”, of course, means that our church is organized around elders/presbyters, gathered in councils.

Emerging in the 16th century as a counter to a corrupt and tyrannical system that invested power in human leaders —monarchs and bishops —

Presbyterian polity, done well, gives us an 
way of decision-making.  
Our polity is based on the recognition that we have no leader but Jesus Christ, 
and we gather primarily to discern and follow his will together in the Spirit.
The people of God have always been best guided by God’s Spirit by means of elders gathered in councils.  

Unfortunately, the church has been continually tempted to abandon or ignore the principles of our polity, and slide towards elevating some “leaders” above everyone else.  To do this we habitually and reflexively import structures from the secular society and impose them on the church.  We allow the church to be given, as the Declaration of Barmen warns, “special leaders vested with ruling powers” (Book of Confessions, 8.20-8.21) with titles and job descriptions appropriated from business, government, or even the military. 

Presbyterian polity recognizes no leader except the one Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  And he himself gives us the example of servant leadership to the point of sacrificing his life for his friends.  Therefore, in our gatherings we have nothing more grandiose than a Moderator and a Clerk, whose main functions involve ensuring the openness, inclusion, order and fairness, and accurately recording what we do together.  There is in the Presbyterian system no office higher than that of elder, which means that when elders gather in councils all have equal voice.

When we fall into the pit where we start imitating secular models by elevating chosen leaders and paying them handsomely, we fall out of our Presbyterian way and away from the Head of the Church.  We place a strata of bureaucracy between the people and God.  And we generate a black hole that sucks up our resources, reducing our ability to do ministry.  Thus it is when we are dumping money into excessive salaries for leaders that we are really doing administration at the expense of our mission.

I submit this as a counter to the current language coming from some leaders who defame polity itself as being inherently “regulatory” and somehow constrictive to the creativity and relevance of the church’s work.  We are told that we have to move away from a concern for polity — which they reduce to “governance” — and towards mission, as if the two were mutually exclusive.  As if polity were repressive and inward-looking, and mission is when we reach out and engage the world.  

In reality, the way we gather to discern the will of Christ, 
reflect on our progress in discipleship, 
and advise each other concerning how better and more effectively 
to witness to God’s saving presence in the world, 
is integral to our mission.  
It is in fact the indispensable inward dimension of our mission.
We cannot with any integrity reach out and engage the world with Christ’s love 
if we do not embody Christ’s love in the way we gather together.

We cannot reach a good goal by a bad process.  The process is itself the goal.  Thus we cannot become more inclusive, open, welcoming, diverse, and empowering, by adopting processes that are exclusive, closed, and allow power to accrue to a few highly paid leaders.  It doesn’t matter what those leaders say; if in fact they are managing decision-making by manipulation, secrecy, playing favorites, excluding key people from conversations, and generally protecting their own lucrative positions, they are part of the problem.

One of the organizations in our society that actually does work is A.A.  In addition to modeling decentralized, leaderless processes based on a common need, they have a motto that we Presbyterians would do well to embrace: “It works if you work it.”  Presbyterian polity works if we work it as well.  And working it, that is, recovering the practices of openness, fairness, equality, honesty, and mutuality in our gatherings, recognizing that only Jesus Christ is our Head, and our main reason for gathering at all is to discern his will in this time and place, is part of our mission.  It is part of what we display and offer to the world as an alternative to the power-driven, cut-throat, rat-race we are otherwise presented with.

In short, we cannot move authentically outward in mission 
if our inward life is out of balance and even contradictory to our message.  

In the churches I serve we regularly sing as a response the last verse of a hymn many of us know.  It ends with the words, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  The first place we show that love is in the way we treat each other especially in our gathering together for discernment and decision-making.  If we can witness to a model that is open, fair, welcoming, and responsive, we will be revealing something to the world that it sees almost nowhere else: a gathering that works well for healing, liberation, justice, and spiritual growth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Conflicts of Interest.

Good decision-making cultivates creative passions while mitigating self-centered, destructive interests.  This means focusing primarily on Jesus Christ, and organizing mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.

The term “conflict of interest” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution of the PCUSA.  Robert’s Rules basically says that a member of a body should disqualify her/himself from voting when they stand materially to gain or lose from a decision.  I repeat: it’s about voting and material gain.  Conflicts of interest are also mentioned in the PCUSA “Standards for Ethical Conduct.”  Each member pledges to: “Avoid conflicts of interest that might compromise my witness and relationships within the community of faith.”  So what has priority is the integrity of our witness and our relationships.
The obvious problem with conflicts of interest is that people will use their position of power, influence, or authority for personal, usually financial or sexual, benefit.  That is a horrendously bad thing.  I get that.  It is manipulative and coercive; it destroys communities, relationships, and people.  Real conflicts of interest like this can be lethal, especially if they are hidden.   

Presbyterians have always taken sin seriously.  We acknowledge that every human action is tainted by self-interest and the limited perspective of our mortal, temporal existence.  Therefore, we have always emphasized the personal disclosure, naming, and recognition of our own biases and self-will, against the standard of the Word of God.
This understanding of sin relates remarkably well to the post-Modern insight that everyone is inherently conditioned by the circumstances of their own historicity.  There is no such thing as objectivity.  No one is neutral about anything; each of us comes with our own baggage, background, assumptions, prejudices, biases, and desires.  No one stands effectively apart from or above any system in which they are involved.
  In other words, broadly construed, our whole existence is pervaded by conflicts of interest.  They cannot be eliminated or avoided.  Everyone has them, all the time.  Therefore, the responsible and creative way to deal with conflicts of interest is through open, honest, courageous, and critical conversations among people who are essentially equals recognizing their own biases.  

At the same time, having an interest in something is not always a conflict or bad.  Indeed, it is necessary for life and creativity!  Organizations need the enthusiasm, commitment, expertise, and passion that comes from people having an interest in the organization’s mission.  It is a grave mistake, then, to imagine that we are avoiding conflicts of interest when we allow to be excluded, even from a discussion, let alone a decision, people closest to, and therefore having the most direct knowledge, commitment, and insight into, the matter at hand.  In some circles it appears that simply having any interest in something disqualifies one from being part of decision about it!  As if being interested and committed to something automatically becomes some kind of disastrous conflict.  
For instance, I have seen pastors and members of churches excluded from conversations in presbytery entities about the mission and future of those very churches!  This happens all the time!  When I was a Stated Clerk, hearing of presbytery leadership’s plans for this or that church, I learned that I had to ask, “Has anyone actually talked to people in the church?”  I have seen Personnel Committees evaluate pastors without interviewing them.  I have seen staff positions redesigned without any consultation with the people serving in those positions.  And so on.  And the rationale is invariably: conflict of interest.  
What sense does it make to decide that the people actually involved in a ministry are “too biased” to make good judgments about it?  Of course they’re biased!  We hope and pray that our churches are full of people biased towards effective and faithful mission!  The biased people are precisely the ones we want to hear from!  
It is an important role of a council to distinguish between interested, involved, engaged creativity rooted in a deep spiritual calling which benefits the whole mission, and destructive conflicts of interest which benefit mainly the individual.  

The attempt to avoid conflicts of interest leads us to believe that they can be avoided and that there are people who have avoided, or are even immune to conflicts of interest, and who are therefore uniquely able to identify and call out the conflicts of interest of others. 
The assumption of such objectivity is itself yet another manifestation of the imperialist, colonialist, hierarchical, slavery-based economic framework undergirding our whole civilization.  The carriers of privilege lay claim to objectivity by virtue of their “higher” place on the empire-defined ladder of education, wealth, power, and success (not to mention race and gender).  They claim to have a wider and more inclusive viewpoint, and therefore perceive better than anyone what is best for all.  Under this way of thinking, the subordinate people (that is, the ones who actually do the work) are derided as hopelessly mired in conflicts of interest; while the leader class knows best and is all but immune to conflicts of interest.  
This assumption about privilege automatically seems to get extended to all leaders in our culture.  It’s like anyone given authority becomes an honorary white-male-owner, and is accorded the same authority and deference. 

Our Presbyterian system was designed from the beginning to mitigate against this kind of self-righteous blather, corruption, and power-centralization.  Presbyterianism diffuses power into councils of presbyters which have no hierarchy of power-wielding “executives,” or “leaders,” only “moderators” and “clerks” who oversee and manage processes to ensure full inclusion and openness.  Presbyters/elders are to be chosen for their demonstrated wisdom and their conformity to the one leader and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  In other words, they are required to prove how thoroughly biased they are… towards the mission of God!   They are to be supremely interested in the Spirit’s work!  The whole reason we gather in councils is so we may discern the will of God together, recognizing and calling each other and ourselves out on our myriad prejudices.
The strategy then for good decision-making is to manage the various and sometimes conflicting interests of people in the gathering in such a way that the creative passions and faithful interests are cultivated, and the self-centered and destructive interests are mitigated.  This means organizing our mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.  It means listening to each other honestly and carefully.  It means focusing primarily on the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in Scripture.  And it means actively critiquing our own biases and where we might gain personally.  In the end, the best route is where we are obedient to the Word, while finding what is in the best interests of the whole gathering and its mission, and rejecting what is merely in the interest of particular individuals within the gathering.
More specifically, councils need to categorically identify and define in writing what does and does not constitute an unhealthy conflict of interest, and what actions should be taken to mitigate them.  This would prevent unscrupulous leaders from inventing conflicts of interest as a means of excluding others merely to maintain their own power, privilege, and salary.  Councils should also adopt policies to ensure that the people with the most invested energy are explicitly included in decision-making processes.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blessed Are the Meek.

I have recently heard some comments about the necessity to have a “meek heart” in the spiritual life, and it reminded me of Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  This has always been kind of problematic for us, mainly because meekness is not considered a positive thing in our culture.  We think it means cowardly and pathetic; a proverbial “doormat.”  Frankly, meek people make us sick.  

That’s why I usually use “gentle” instead.  The Greek word (praeis) means something more like humble, easy-going, patient, unflappable, accepting, and equable.  I suggest that the word has to do with approaching and receiving the world with an open-hearted wonder at the way things are and a willingness to leave them that way.  It is to live non-violently, without imposing our agenda of using, changing, knowing, or taking.  It is close to what Eckhart has in mind with the German term, Gelassenheit, which means letting things be.    

This is really important.  Once we get past the negative connotations of “meek,” we must embrace towards all of creation an attitude of wonder, love, and non-interference.  We could also call it gratitude.  Paul talks somewhere about being thankful in all circumstances.  I suspect it is this kind of acceptance and appreciation that Jesus means when he says “blessed are the meek.”  He’s not saying blessed are the doormats; rather, he means blessed are those who accept others as they are, and who even identify with, respect, cherish, celebrate, and give thanks for others in all their difference.  Without judging or much less condemning; without trying to define, change, use, or otherwise objectify another.

A long time ago I was in a philosophy class and the professor made a very simple observation: In order to dissect something we have to kill it.  Then what we know is this dead thing; but the cost is that we do not know the living thing.  In order to know a living thing we have to live with it, letting it be itself, listening to it, and letting it touch us.  In other words, real knowledge is non-violence, openness, wonder, and gratitude.  

Truth is not known objectively but relationally.  

When the Lord talks about the “meek,” I think he means those who enter into mutual, reciprocal, even and equal relationships with others.  He means people who living together in community without domination or manipulation, without some imposed purpose or arbitrary order.  

This is clearly the way Jesus himself acted.  He saw, loved, and accepted people as they were.  He ministered to human needs without judgment.  He received and welcomed all, from the rejects and outcasts, to his own enemies and critics.  He did not attempt to convert, change, use, or even cater to anyone.  

The irony here is that this kind of acceptance and welcome and gratitude are actually far more powerful and effective means of transformation than are coercion, threats, or violence.  Just coming into meaningful contact with Jesus changed people; he drew out people’s best selves.  The many stories of healing bear witness to this.  In the same way, I wonder if our own attitudes of openness and receptivity, welcome and thanksgiving can serve to bring about changes in others.  These would not be according to our self-serving agendas, of course; but helping people become more of their true selves in God’s sight.

Our culture, which is based on the violent and manipulative way of knowing by domination and dissection, has filled with world with technically useful but actually dead things and people.  We all know what it is like to be used, manipulated, abused, taken-apart, and treated like an object or a number.  We are busy turning the whole planet into a wasted, depleted, degraded rock, and exhausting human labor, all so a few powerful people can be more comfortable, for a time.

Maybe we would have a better understanding of how life really works if we were to stop grabbing and extracting what we want, and began leaving things as God made them and saying thank you.  That was Jesus’ whole lifestyle.

Now, violence is just a part of our existence.  Just cutting, cooking, chewing, and digesting a piece of broccoli involves a certain amount of violence.  It is practically unavoidable.  But we can live with circumspection and gratitude all the time, even giving thanks and asking forgiveness for the violence in which we must participate simply to live.  And doing no more than absolutely necessary.

What Jesus teaches here is that when we are born into God’s creation we emerge into an infinite network of relationships.  And when everyone is respected, welcomed, listened to, loved, and served, we all benefit.  That is a brief description of the Kingdom of God.  Those who live this way, Jesus promises, inherit the earth.

Friday, July 24, 2015


A few years ago I discovered the 19th century Japanese Christian teacher Uchimura Kanzo.  Uchimura had a vision of an indigenous Japanese Christianity.  He wanted to separate the faith from its Western/European packaging and make it relevant to his own context.  He was way ahead of his time on this; even today a non-Western incarnation of Christianity is inconceivable to many.
He founded a movement called Mukyokai, which literally means “no church.”  In this mode of Christianity believers meet together in simple zendo-like settings to study Scripture and cultivate the life of discipleship without sacraments or clergy.  The movement has always had a strong social justice focus.  There are about 65,000 Mukyokai Christians today, mainly in Japan and Korea.
Uchimura’s movement fascinates me for several reasons.  I am always on the lookout for exits off the deteriorating highway of conventional, Western Christianity.  In some ways Uchimura’s movement reminds me of what the early church might have been like.  They too were incarnating the good news in terms of received cultural forms.  Plus I am drawn to models of Christian community that are simple gatherings around the Word, shorn of many of the trappings of “religion” and institutionalization.  
I recently had a conversation with a friend fluent in Japanese.  He informed me of an even more literal translation of “mu kyokai.”  “Mu” means “no.”  But he suggested that “kyokai,” which is the word used for “church,” more broadly refers to boundary, enclosure, corral, or fenced-in area.  Thus the term mukyokai could also mean living without borders, separation, distinctions, and differences.  I find that to be a good way to talk about the emerging church as we make our way through the 21st century.   
Mukyokai expresses the same openness and equality, the same breaking down of barriers and hierarchies, the same willingness to see differences and social distinctions dissolved, as Paul’s remarkable affirmation in Galatians 3:28.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  It is a verse that has been largely opaque to the church for 2000 years, but which now emerges as perhaps the core of Paul’s insight into what Jesus is all about.

I suspect that the church of the future will have a strong element of openness and a dissolution of differences and boundaries separating the “in” people from the excluded or marginalized.  At least in that sense, Mukyokai may describe what is emerging.  I also wonder if, in our time when there is widespread frustration, disillusionment, and rejection of many of the characteristics of institutional religion, Uchimura’s movement doesn’t give us an example and model to learn from.  Maybe he was actually doing several decades ahead of time what Bonhoeffer famously and cryptically imagined as the “religionless Christianity” of a world come of age.    

Monday, June 15, 2015

Staff Infection.

Many presbyteries and churches have chosen to structure themselves along military/corporate lines, with things like a “Head of Staff,” and “Personnel Committee.”  Neither of these categories appears in the Book of Order and they are as foreign to our polity as they are to Scripture.  
Now, I have known many good and responsible Heads of Staff and Personnel Committee members.  I was a Head of Staff myself in several churches I served as Interim Pastor.  It is possible to take on such a role and perform it with openness, sensitivity, humility, and faithfulness.  Working with a good Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee is a joy.
But structurally, these positions are stacked against that.  They are a vestige of the extreme inequality of the imperialist/colonialist/slavery regime which spawned the predatory economic order which now dominates the world.  Relationships based on this order continue to manifest through most of our culture.  We see it in a class/caste system which inherently lodges power with a privileged few, and puts other people into the subordinate position of supplicants, subjects, employees, etc.  
In this system, the subordinate people tend always to be under suspicion.  They are thought to need constant supervision and direction (even though they do most of the work).  They are considered hopelessly biased and self-interested, while the appointed leaders are supposedly objective, generous, and wise.  And of course we compensate the leaders way better than the subordinates.  Often absurdly so.
Power corrupts.  And when we develop systems with inherent inequalities and imbalances of power, people tend to abuse that power.  This happens with parents all the time.  Or with low-grade bureaucrats who seem to revel in lording what little power they have over others.  And of course anyone being groomed as a “leader” has to think of themselves as better, above, and more gifted than others.  I am reminded of Lord of the Flies.  Even people who are normally subordinates, give them a little power and they can start morphing into Stalin.  
The Presbyterian system is particularly prone to this sort of thing, with power given to elders meeting in councils.  And that’s without adding foreign, potentially noxious categories like Head of Staff and Personnel Committee to the mix, with all the baggage they bring from secular existence.  That sort of turbo-boosts our liabilities into something that can do real damage.  At least with elders we can remind them of Jesus and talk about servant leadership.  Heads of Staff have only Pontius Pilate or a string of miserable kings of Israel and Judah for Scriptural role models.  And the idea of a Personnel Committee wasn’t concocted for centuries after that.
I have seen beloved, dedicated, faithful, and chronically overfunctioning members of  presbytery and church staffs suddenly and viciously turned on by a Head of Staff and/or Personnel Committee.  Not for any misconduct or poor performance, but simply because the Head of Staff and Personnel Committee have decided to “move in a different direction.”  Often this happens without any consultation with anyone else in the system, mind you, least of all with the subordinates themselves.  God forbid!  That would be a conflict of interest!  (Subordinates always have conflicts of interest.  Heads of Staff almost never do, it seems.)  Personnel Committees generally work in secret, which is the whole point of their existence in the first place — though they like to call it “maintaining confidentiality” or “boundary keeping”.  Whatever it is called, it is a self-serving hoarding of information which is necessary to maintain the group’s privilege, and protect the larger leader class from having to face its own corruption. 
I have seen Personnel Committees attempt to fire associate pastors without even consulting session, let alone the congregation and presbytery!  I have seen highly paid Heads of Staff protect their large salaries during financial crises by reducing salaries and benefits, or even eliminating the positions, of subordinate employees.  
But if a subordinate complains about bad treatment the system will frequently immediately identify them as the problem!  It’s a form of domestic violence, really.  If the victim points out abuse, especially of themselves, the system wants to comfort the abuser for the indignity of having to endure such an accusation.  It’s like when the courts side with the cop instead the unarmed person he murdered.  Because the abuser is part of the dominant group, they are golden and assumed to be acting responsibly.
Finally, there is a symbiotic, to put it nicely, relationship between Heads of Staff and Personnel Committees.  I think Heads of Staff learn in Head-of-Staff-School the imperative of packing Personnel Committees with their friends and supporters.  No conflict-of-interest there, eh?  Influencing the appointment of the committee that is supposed to oversee their work?    
In any case, our system only works with trust and love.  If we are not vigilant, these two institutions mitigate against those virtues. There is only One Head of the Church.  The rest of us are all equals.  Power in the church is decentralized and distributed, the structure is flat, the conversation is open-source, the mode is humility and listening, the values are inclusion and fairness.  Even for Presbyterians.  Some of us may be more literate in this or that area, from setting up folding tables to understanding the Hebrew Bible.  Some may be further along on the journey than others.  But in God’s sight no one is subordinate, and no one gets to dominate.  There are in fact no authentic leaders in the church, only disciples.  And when advancing to deacon or elder, it should mean an increase in the humility of the disciple.  We are after all servants of the Servant of God, Jesus Christ.
I urge churches and presbyteries to be aware of these potential problems, and, if it remains desirable to have these things, institute structures that mitigate against the tendency towards abuse.  For instance, build collegiality and partnership into the staff model, mandating principles of fundamental fairness like notice and inclusion.  Avoid obscenely large differences in compensation between superiors and subordinates.  Replace military and business language with biblical and ecclesiastical terms.  Adopt rules of inclusivity for, and diminish the influence of staff people in the selection of any committee to oversee their work.  Make the workings of the Personnel Committee more transparent and accountable to the session; define their work more in terms of coordination, feedback, communication, and support.