Last night while my wife and daughter were up stairs watching American Idol, my son showed me a YouTube video that got us laughing so hard that we had tears in our eyes. When my wife heard us from upstairs, she muted the TV and called down to us, “Are you guys ok?” Still laughing we yelled up that we were. She responded, “I couldn’t tell if you were laughing or crying, so I thought I’d check.” Assured her that we were having a blast together, the women of the house went back to watching American Idol.
That pause in the show, that checking in on the action, and that paying attention to the energy “down stairs” is what this MGB Commission observation is all about.
After a whirlwind of consultations and conversations that have had our commission busy on the dance floor (if you call flying across the country, sitting in on conference calls and sending copious emails “dancing”) I want to go back to the balcony and check in with another MGB Commission Observation.
Before I do, let me quickly review and provide links to the Observations thus far:
- Observation #1: For Presbyterians, the Process IS the Product.
- Observation #2: Almost everybody agrees that something has to change.
- Observation #3: Missional is the “coin of the realm” but we don’t all agree on its “value.”
- Observation #4: We don’t have to develop any models, we only have to discover the models that are already out there.
- Observation #5: “The future is already here, but it is on the margins.”
- Observation #6:We are in need of more practical theology on the unity of the Church and the diversity of churches.
Now Observation #7: There is a lot of energy around five conversations: Missional Communities, MGB Programs, Geography, Synods and Small.
This observation is based on the concept that when you are seeking to bring large-scale adaptive change to a system one of the principles is to “follow the energy”. The energy in a conversation tells you where the “stuff” is. Sometimes the energy is anxiety that is unfocused in any constructive direction. At times, that energy can be little more than destructive ranting, or defensive resisting. Other times, energy is the exciting possibilities that are emerging (and in turn, the resistance to the new ideas, the fears and anxieties, the defenses and confusion.)
Just like my wife couldn’t tell if the sounds from the kitchen between my son and I were “good” or “bad” or a mix of both, we can’t quite tell what all the energy is leading to, but here is what we see. Like groups of dancers who are all migrating to different areas of the floor to join in an energetic dance during a song (think of whole wedding parties doing the “Thriller” dance), there are some places of energy in the conversation about the future of the church and the role of middle governing bodies at the moment:
1. Missional Communities? There is beginning to be lots of buzz about church planting or “birthing new missional communities”. The GAMC goal of starting 1001 new missional communities is creating an excited stir and that has immediately led to the question of what MGB structures are needed to support that goal. Just like the missional conversation, the “missional community birthing” conversation is at the moment messy and unwieldy, but it is going on across the theological spectrum and presbyteries and synods are immediately caught up in a bigger conversation about their role in this messy, unwieldy moment.
2. MGB Programs? Do our future structures need to be able to support Presbytery-wide or Synod-wide missions or programs, or is the ‘basic’ structure of the future only whatever is needed to support the mission of congregations? What do we do with our historic and deeply cherished missions, programs and, yes, funds that we no longer have the capacity or maybe even the desire to continue? The last restructuring of the Middle Governing Bodies was in large part to create “programmatic presbyteries.” Is this day over?
3. Geography? Is there some theological or missional reason for insisting on geographical boundaries for Presbyteries? Could we instead realign by “missional commitments” or even shared theological expression within our larger Reformed body, like say, the Presbyterian Church in Mexico or the City Classis of the RCA.
(Note: There is LOTS of energy around this one. So far almost every proposal that is trying to make its way to our commission is about gaining permission to reorganize presbyteries around shared missional or theological commitments instead of geographical bounds.)
4. Synods? This one is actually marked by a lack of energy until the topic is raised. When we ask people about their MIDDLE GOVERNING BODIES, they respond by telling us about their PRESBYTERIES. But when someone suggests in a focus group that maybe Synods should be eliminated, then the energy is raised in the room in appreciation of a grand history of faithful programs supported by Synods (see #1). It seems to me we both ignore and then fiercely defend Synods (and I am still scratching my head on what that means).
5. Could Small hold the answer? Pardon the pun, but Joe Small’s paper that advocated (among many other interesting ideas) the return to smaller presbyteries is getting a LOT of buzz out there. But how would we do it? Could they be sustainable? And what competing values get raised when we start trying to “think small” in a national church?
Please note that as a Commission, we are still firmly in our “consultation” and “listening” phase. We haven’t even received back all the data (and you too can fill out a survey!), but these themes seem to be generating the energy out on the wild dance floor that is the PCUSA. Perhaps we missed one that you see. I imagine that many of you may have an opinion (or twelve!) about a number of these. Please feel free to respond to this post with yours. Indeed, I’ll offer a personal question of my own:
What would it look like if we had a structure that encouraged each congregation to be in whatever configuration of Presbytery they discerned would nurture its unique and shared missional calling as a congregation, including birthing new missional communities and joining in partnership with other churches around shared commitments, programs or mission projects? What kinds of Presbyteries would we need? What kinds of Synod?