From now until our next Middle Governing Body Commission meeting (in Seattle, May 31-June 2), I’ll be offering a weekly blog post on of reflections from the “Observation Deck”. It is our Commission’s invitation to join us “on the balcony” as we try to gain a clearer understanding of the movements of the Spirit that are taking shape in the life of the church in these changing times. My intention is not to give a final word, but a first word. To offer one perspective about what we are learning as we go and stimulate wide-spread reflection while we are in the process of conducting consultations, engaging in conversations, gathering survey data and just “listening in” on the discussions that are swirling through the blogosphere, twitter feeds, our various gatherings and amidst our friendships.
Observation #1 was: For Presbyterians, the Process IS the Product. The way we go about doing stuff is every bit as important as the stuff we do. And for us on the MGB Commission, that observation has shaped our actions. We are committed to being first a listening commission, before we even consider “models” to discuss or recommendations to offer the larger church.
While most of the responses to my first observation were appreciative, there is an undercurrent of restlessness also. Some are deeply concerned that both the Commission and even more importantly, the church as a whole are so committed to process that we won’t actual accomplish anything. As one of my pastor friends once said to me, “We Presbyterians are so good at talking about things, after a while we convince ourselves we have actually done something.” Amen.
Which leads to the Observation #2: Almost everybody agrees that something has to change.
Conferences are forming about what to do NEXT, Middle Governing Bodies are running out of money, we have closed 1000 churches since Reunion in 1983, and there is a “For Lease” sign for empty office space in front of the national office in Louisville. From the charge to the Commission passed by the GA that begs the question about our historical structures relevance in a changing cultural context, to the National Council of Churches’ Ph.D. researcher who offered the Commission reams of statistical data about widespread mainline church decline, to Executive Presbyters speaking from the “field”, to church officials who challenged us to “Think Big” and “Be Bold”, to the PCUSA’s own Research Team, to a group of pastors who have now famously declared the church “deathly ill”, there is a widespread agreement that the PCUSA cannot face the future with the assumptions and structures of (at least the recent) past. (More on that in a future Observation.)
Now to be clear, there is nothing near a consensus on either the causes of our current state or the solutions for our particular situation, but it seems to me that this much is pretty much worthy of a stipulation: The mainline church in America is in decline—and urgent, significant, even radical, changes are needed.
“The American Protestant church is in a wholesale struggle to understand what it means to be a denomination,” Dr. Eileen Lindner told the Commission in November. Joe Small the retiring Director of the PC (USA) Office of Theology, Worship and Education Ministies added, “Our system is broken. Everyone knows that. It has been broken for some time.”
What is now more clear is that the struggle cuts across theological lines, too. While it is arguable that during the last decades of the last century, that church decline in membership, worship attendance and financial support were more significant in more theologically liberal churches, it is now clear that even our largest and most conservative churches are themselves experiencing widespread decline, also (even the Baptists!) No matter where we stand on any issue, no matter what explanations or rationales we offer to make sense of it, no matter how much we may disagree, even vehemently with the interpretations of "how we got here", and no matter if we even think this is a concerning thing at all--this is a common reality we all share.
When I took on the role of being the Moderator of the Middle Governing Body Commission, I wanted to assure the church that the Commission (or at least the Moderator) understood the limits of its power. I publicly assured those who were listening that we were going to be a listening, experimenting and discerning Commission, and that we were looking for “safe, modest experiments” to consider and offer to the church. Since then I have been hearing mostly from those who are more afraid that we will be too safe, too modest, and could squander the opportunity to bring the change that is urgently needed.
Frankly, for us on the Commission, this urging has been good for us. Our biggest concern in this second observation is the first word: “Almost”. “Almost everybody agrees that something has to change.” Because we Presbyterians really prefer consensus (thousands of Roberts’ Rules of Order ‘majority rules’ votes notwithstanding!), we have a tendency to resist change until it’s almost a foregone conclusion and too little too late. Our lingering back-of-the-brain concern has been that we would just be another commission who offers the church recommendations that are abruptly rejected wholesale out of fear of the unknown.
But as we have begun to listen to the church, as we have learned about a number of Presbyteries and Synods that are already changing to become more vital for mission in their local context, as conversations begin to come to the table across traditional dividing lines, as leaders begin to cautiously gather to find common ground and develop greater trust so that we may seek the Spirit’s leading in the uncertainty of an unknown future, it seems that maybe we have reached a tipping point: We may not know what the future holds, but it’s high time we figure out how to go there.