It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived home from Minneapolis. Since then I have been in lots of conversations, lurked on Facebook discussions and answered emails about the impressions of the Fellowship Gathering. I’ll spare you a “conference review”, there are plenty out there that seem to capture the proceedings from various angles.
But one perspective that I haven’t heard revolves around the question I kept asking in the back of the ballroom. You see, I was seated in the back room with the bureaucrats (which is what they called themselves as they teased me about where I was placed.) I am not a member of the Fellowship, though I pastor a church with a lot of pro-Fellowship leaning and tend to run in the same theological circles as the leaders. I was asked to lead a seminar on Adaptive Change because of consulting work that I do, but I assume that because I am the Moderator of a General Assembly Middle Governing Body Commission I was seated in the backroom with the GA staffers, the Synod Execs and the GP/EPs of Presbyteries. I have gotten to know a number of these folks this past year through this work and I have experienced—just as it was repeatedly reported at the Fellowship Gathering—that the national staff out of Louisville are very fine, very competent, deeply committed and genuinely eager to serve whatever God is doing in this church in this most turbulent time. The same is true of the vast majority of the Synod and Presbytery Execs. (Oh, I have heard some horror stories of heavy handed regulatory types wielding the Book of Order and threatening “original jurisdiction” at the drop of a hat, but mostly they seem to be the ghosts of Presbyteries past that continue to haunt us.)
As we broke into discussion groups to talk about the Fellowship and the various “tiers”, I expected the backroom of bureaucrats to be seething in defensiveness and roiling in anger over the possibilities of a rabble-rousing ground-up group of church leaders suggesting that they had better ideas for running a denomination.
But there wasn’t. (At least not that I could tell.)
Indeed, I experienced exactly the opposite: Deep, appreciative inquiry: Lots of interested and grateful conversation. An honest wrestling with issues about both what divides us (Yep, the ordination issues are huge) and what unites us (EVERYBODY embraces the missional conversation of “Tier 1”.) There was serious and thoughtful consideration of ideas both widely agreed upon and those that seemed like sad foregone conclusions (without question, a lot of churches really are preparing to leave regardless of what the “Seven Dwarfs”, The Covenant Network, Gradye Parsons or any Commission does.) And while a number of Synod Execs and Presbytery officials winced at the generalized criticisms leveled at Presbyteries, most agreed that this kind of conversation is exactly what they hoped to have “back home.” They too are looking for new models of being in covenant community together. They too are aware of the decline of the churches and the dwindling resources. They have taken on calls to enter the fray and many of them are passionate about finding a way in the wilderness. (You could almost see the EPs pining for this kind of creative, enthusiastic engagement at a Presbytery meeting. There was a kind of wistful longing in the backroom: It’s so great that so many are gathered to talk about the future of the church, why did it have to come to the threat of schism to bring us together?)
But perhaps the most interesting thing to me was the discussion around the question that I kept asking over and over again: “Is there anything in the New Reformed Body that we wouldn’t want in our OLD reformed body?” Most heartily agreed: This is--with some caveats on some important things that we need to talk through--exactly what we want the “old” PCUSA to be.
Now, to be clear the Fellowship is NOT synonymous with the “New Reformed Body,” But when John Crosby said, “The purpose of the Fellowship is to unite like-minded churches connected for common ministry and mission” most agreed that--with some genuine urgency to clarify and even qualify the definition of “like-mind”--this would be a good working definition of a PRESBYTERY. (Not a complete definition, but a pretty functional one.)
So, as the moderator of a Commission charged with discerning if “our historical structures the best platforms for carrying our mission into the future” I sensed—even in the” backroom of bureaucrats”—that there is an emerging awareness that a conversation about organization around covenants, relationships, mission and yes, even some degree of like-mindedness could actually stimulate and inspire more mission and creativity that the structural assumptions of our past.
So, please take this post as my attempt to continue the conversation that was happening in the backroom with the bureaucrats. As I prepare to Moderate the next Middle Governing Body Commission meeting in October, I’d ask the broader church help me with my thinking about this. Some questions I have been asking?
- What does “like-minded” mean? Jim Singleton has clearly and repeatedly said that the Fellowship is not interested in “same-minded” subscriptionism. But, how “alike” do our minds have to be to “connect for common ministry and mission”? Could there be different “layers” of like-mindedness within a greater unity? (My next post…)
What does our ecclesiology (not our politics) demand of us? What does the missional challenge of a post-Christendom, open-sourced, flat world require of us in terms of shared values, convictions and thinking? If we are organized from the “ground up” through our RELATIONSHIPS and for MISSION what structure would we use? If the Presbytery is the “corporate Bishop” that points to the unity of the church, could there be room for missional and theological covenants within an even greater, broader unity. (The conversation about the “orders” of the Roman Catholic church sparked lots of interest as a way of thinking about all of this.)
- What does “likeminded” do? Or in other words, what does the word “common” mean in Crosby’s definition? Can we have a denomination that is broad enough to include people who have different convictions leading to different expressions of ministry and mission furthering the reign of God in on different fronts? Wouldn’t an “incarnational missional model” for a congregation look really different in urban San Francisco or rural Kansas than in the southern California beach town full of retired Marines that I serve in San Clemente? And why not allow those who have a “common” call to an expression of mission make “covenants” to be a community of mutual accountability, support and leadership development? Wouldn’t at least this degree of “like-mindedness” allow for less conflict and greater missional engagement?
- And perhaps most pointedly, why is the historical organizing principle of our denomination geography? Why is the organizing principle of the ROMAN EMPIRE considered to be God’s sovereign decree for establishing communities? (Yes, we have a document on principles of church order that says this.) We don’t tell members that they have to go to their neighborhood congregation. We don’t tell candidates that they must serve in the church that they grew up in (indeed we tell them most of the time that they cannot.) Instead we affirm that calling and fit are part of the wise discernment processes of both members and ministers, because when there is not a clear sense of discerned calling and a good “fit” conflict arises and mission is thwarted. If we assume that in order for the church to minimize conflicts and be able to focus on their mission, pastors should be a good theological fit and share similar missional convictions and values with their congregants, why not assume the same for churches, pastors and ruling elders in Presbyteries?
So, after spending a good deal of time at our tables and in lots of other discussions on this topic, I’d like to bring this topic out of the back room of bureaucrats and open it up to the wider church. Help me probe with all seriousness in a wide- open, transparent, all-the-cards-on-the-table, “beginners’ mind” sort of way:
Why NOT organize “covenant communities of missional congregations” (Darrell Guder’s fine definition of a Presbytery) around COVENANT-making, missional-calling and relationships rather than geographical locale? What would we lose? What could be the unintended negative consequences? What could be the “adjacent possibilities” for both mission and unity that we might discover in experimenting with giving permission to allow some to reorganize this way?
Next Post: Layers of Like-Mindedness: Unity and Mission as Competing Values.