My Dad can fix anything with a butter knife. In Dad’s hands a simple kitchen instrument that just that morning had been instrumental in making PB & J sandwiches for school lunches, becomes, at once, a screwdriver, a paint scraper, a pry bar, a file, a lever and even a small hammer. It is really a wonder to behold. When I was growing up, if some small home repair was needed, more often than not he wouldn’t turn to the big tool chest in the garage, he would just summon me to go to the silverware drawer and bring him a butter knife.
After two years of reflecting on what is needed to help the church face an uncertain future and changing world, I have come to think that what we need--even more than new structures, organizations, fellowships and denominations--are the kinds of people who can renovate it with butter knives.
Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow for the Institute of the Future, describes what he calls a VUCA world, that is a world that is ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.” As Johnson puts it in the title of his best known book, “Leaders make the future.”
It was this spirit of imagination, play and innovation that infused the now-reconfigured Mid Council Commission. In one sense, our hope was to give the “makers of the future” a new set of tools, a new ‘shop’ to experiment in, and a new sense of permission. Our 300 page report was an attempt to recast every presbytery to fullfill Thomas Friedman’s charge: "We need 100,000 people in 100,000 garages trying 100,000 things-in the hope that five of them break through."
And it was turned down flat. Barely even read or considered, let alone debated or discussed. The central idea rejected; a portion sent back to a new commission to be made more palatable to the present realities. The shiny new tool box, the experimental work place and the bold call for creativity and permission silenced by an avalanche of “no” votes. You can almost see the lights in the garages click off, the new tools, still in their plastic wrap shelved, unopened, untried.
But in all honesty, it was expected. Or should have been. Johansen uses language that could have been the headline summary for the Pittsburgh Assembly, “You cannot listen for the future if you are deafened by the present or stuck in the past.”
But in this changing world, the leaders of the future will not be overwhelmed by either present or past, but will excitedly, “imagine alternative structures and love to play around with them to see what new things they can create.” They will be ‘tinkerers’ according to Johansen or, as Steven Johnson in his study of innovation has written, those who can “cobble together” the parts and pieces in front of them with the tools at hand for a new discovery. Like the Houston engineers in the film, Apollo 13 who had to make a new air filter with only some small parts or the orbiting astronauts would succumb to their own carbon dioxide, the leaders of the future will need to be creative, persistent, resilient and able to make the future out of the parts and pieces of what we’ve got.
It became crystal clear to many of us at the General Assembly that another “study”, “conversation,” “task force,” or even commission will not bring change to the church. The church will not change until we get a change in leadership. Either we need new leaders who are ready to make the future or the current leaders of every level of the church must find a courage and creativity that has so far eluded them.
The leadership we have today is indeed “perfectly designed for the results we are getting.” It is leadership that is well-schooled in managing divisive politics through zealously guarding the status quo and then wringing hands and blaming the system when nothing changes. “This is what it means to be Presbyterian,” one high ranking leader rationalized. In Apollo 13, the lead engineer, mindful that not only the mission but the lives of his colleagues are at stake, yells at an excuse-making subordinate, “I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.”
Over the summer I have talked to several emerging leaders who are not letting the failure of nerve of the stakeholders of the status quo stop them. They are not wringing their hands in futility. They are not throwing up their hands in frustration. They are not worrying so much about the initials on the door or whether another commission (or another denomination) can somehow save us from ourselves. They have thumbed through the Form of Government, taken notes on the best practices of their peers and partners, started conversations across theological lines and started looking past the arguments in the presbytery meetings to the opportunities in their neighborhoods and the needs in their cities.
They are not waiting around for another Assembly. If good things come from the earnest people who are in the broader conversations, they are all for it. But, there are people to reach and neighbors to love and good news to be proclaimed. There are new worshipping communities to build and old congregations that need to be renovated. They are going to keep thinking about what a congregation, a presbytery and a denomination CAN do, not what it was supposed to do. Even if they don’t have the tools they might have had, they are not going to let that stop them. They are too busy in the basement with their butter knives, making the future.
I’ll be tinkering with them.