Note: Amongst the number of hats that I am wearing these days, one of them is as Moderator of a Commission that is consulting with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and seeking to develop models and bring recommendations to the next General Assembly regarding the way our Middle Governing Bodies (i.e. Presbyteries and Synods) could be organized to address the challenges of a changing world. This blog post begins what will be a recurring series on the things that we are learning through this Commission work.
The principles of our Presbyterian Polity trust in the fundamental work of the Spirit of Christ expressed when presbyters are gathered together in governing bodies. But how are those governing bodies best organized to be responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship? Are our historical structures the best platforms for carrying our mission into the future? Where can the General Assembly carefully discern the wider scope of middle governing body form, function, and mission? From the Rationale for the Charge to the Middle Governing Body Commission
It’s been said that in order to truly understand and bring genuine adaptive change, leaders must be committed to both “listening on the dance floor” and “looking from the balcony.” For the better part of the past four months, the Middle Governing Body Commission has been out on the dance floor with our ears to the ground listening for the voice of the Spirit amidst the whirl and swirl of PCUSA life. And we are certainly not finished.
If anything, we realize that our listening is just beginning. And even though we are only a short bit into the dance, we wanted to stop the music for a bit and invite you all to take a breather on the balcony with us to see what we are beginning to see. Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer some of our nascent, emerging, tentative, speculative, cautious, written-in-pencil, “rough-draft” observations (is that enough disclaimers? :) ). These are some of the patterns, concepts and ideas that are already becoming apparent, at least to us, and we think are worthy of consideration and critique by the larger church. Consider it a moment of looking out over the church from an “Observation Deck” and my attempt to point out something so that we can ask you if you are seeing the same thing that we are.
Observation #1: For Presbyterians, the Process IS the Product.
Well, if not “the” product, “a” (hugely significant) product. We Presbyterians are process people. As much as we want to get to a good result, we want to get there in a good way that is consistent with our convictions. We want to honor our history, consider our covenants and take seriously the challenges of a changing world before we start making changes. But especially, we want every voice to be heard. We believe that every perspective must be presented. Our charge for the MGB Commission even requires us to do so and we have accepted that charge most cheerfully.
This point was only emphasized by the serendipity (irony?, divine synchronicity? ) that at the very time that Commissioners were making their way through the snow storms that covered our country, there was a whirlwind of conversation around the recent letter that came from a group of large church pastors. The perception that any group of pastors would initiate a conversation without collaborating across the church or within their own presbyteries has led to significant criticism and widespread rejection of their ideas even before the proverbial “ink on the page” is dry. Their process has clearly hampered their product. At the same time, the response letter from our Louisville leaders was widely praised because they not only acknowledged the issues raised by the pastors, but also called on the whole church to join (not reject!) the conversation.
For me, as the Moderator of the #MGBComm (as we are known in the Twitter world), charged with bringing to the next General Assembly “models” for organizing governing bodies that are “responsive both to the Spirit of Christ and the changing opportunities for discipleship,” the most important first observation is that healthy change begins with listening. (This is a good discipline for me, because, well frankly, I am a much better talker than listener most of the time.) When I listen well on the dance floor, I begin to see things from the balcony that I would otherwise miss.
I was invited to the Large Church Pastors gathering in Phoenix to make a presentation on the MGB Commission. For 8 minutes or so, I talked about the necessary collaboration that is required for a ‘new model’ to come before our Commission (beginning with working within our respective presbyteries and synods and being consistent with our current Constitution). For the rest of the 23 hours and 52 minutes of the gathering, I mostly just listened. And while the Commission really didn't spend much time on it (we are only charged with responding to overtures that come from MGBs and go through the Stated Clerks office), I did reflect with them a little bit on some lessons I am learning about the importance of process
Frankly, in Phoenix, I heard a desire for a much better ‘process’--a more open, humble and collaborative process--than was communicated in the letter. There were repeated exhortations for a wider conversation across the whole spectrum of the church. The four “points” of their letter were never communicated as “steps to schism” but as “streams of strategies”. (And those four streams represented a huge diversity of opinion even within the narrow social strata in the room.) While not all, certainly the largest group of pastors wanted to work for good changes within the current denomination.
I share this because the product of the meeting (the letter) in my opinion, was not consistent with the process I observed. And the responses to the letter have become part of what I believe is both a healthy response of critique and engagement and also a sad reflection of our history of pain and anger that can keep us locked in patterns of reactivity instead of more thoughtful response. (Once again, I want to hold up the example of our Moderator, Stated Clerk and GAMC Executive Director as a model that I personally hope to follow.)
Our Process is (at least a good part) of our Product. We need to hear even more voices. If we are going to part of bringing change to our church it is going to have to be the change that comes from the WHOLE church.
I have already registered for the NEXT church gathering to hear from another group that is looking for ways to address the challenges of a changing world. Our Commission is fanning out across the country to have face-to-face consultations with over two dozen groups. We are asking the Committee on Representation to help us schedule consultation calls with every constituency that we might otherwise overlook. Our Commission has a strategy for consulting with every synod, every Presbytery, every Session, indeed, every Presbyterian. We will have consultations and conference calls, surveys and online discussion groups. We will be at the Big Tent and Board of Pension gatherings. We will meet with EPs and Synod Execs and the OGA and the GAMC. We have a team looking for models that are already bearing fruit and offering us a glimpse into a hopeful future. We are even talking to other denominations that are facing the same challenges.
We have a website that has all of the minutes, presentations and reading material that we are using. We have a Facebook Discussion Group, We are “tweeting” our way through this process (@mgbcomm, #mgbcomm) and invite anyone and everyone to chime in, feed-back, suggest, probe, question, and critique… and work within your presbyteries and synods to come up with models for greater missional effectiveness in a changing world (so that we can all learn from them!)
And in case any of you still feel as if you aren’t sure how to get your voice heard, here is my personal contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org.(You can also “friend” me on Facebook or “Follow” me on Twitter @todbol)
The value of any product that we bring to the next General Assembly is absolutely dependent on a much larger, listening, process.
That’s our first observation. (With more to come.) What’s yours?