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

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. 
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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.

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