Theological Reflections on Leadership in the Way of Jesus by Tim Hart-Andersen

Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation Board Dinner

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

Theological Reflections on Leadership in the Way of Jesus

I have served as the pastor of Westminster Church in Minneapolis for just over a decade. I am a lectionary preacher, which means after my first nine years I had preached through the three-year cycle three times, and as I faced my tenth year, the thought of starting over for another cycle did not seem to be a good thing to do – either for me or the congregation. I decided instead to set aside the lectionary for the year and preach on Jesus. All year. Every sermon. Every Sunday. Every time I entered the pulpit, for an entire preaching year. Nothing but Jesus.

I had no idea how the congregation would react; I wasn’t even sure if I could take that much Jesus! But something about it seemed right. Frankly, the historic Protestant churches need all the Jesus we can get. Too often we have too much theology, too much church, too much process, too much institution – and not enough Jesus.

So off we went into A Year with Jesus.  

It turned out to be a spiritually invigorating year for the church, and certainly for me as a preacher.  We met Jesus again, in the words of Marcus Borg, for the first time. It brought us into a deeper relationship with the one who is at the center of our faith. But the year was not without its challenges, as the Jesus we meet in the gospels clearly has some far-reaching ideas about what it means to follow him.

Here, for instance, is Jesus on leadership, from Mark’s gospel.

“Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”  (Mark 9:33-37)

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

The disciples either don’t understand or don’t want the kind of leadership Jesus proposes. Giving up their privilege and serving others is not the mandate they want from the one they follow.

Jesus tries again. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” he says, “And all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12)  And on it goes, throughout his ministry. Jesus is determined to get the point across: the greatest among them will be the least. The mighty will be brought down and the lowly lifted up.

Jesus calls for an inversion of things, and that is hard for those of us who are – or who once were – at the top of the heap.

The historic American Protestant denominations are in trouble, and have been for some time.  Numerous studies have quantified the situation, and, of course, we can see it with our own eyes. 

By any of several measures, since the mid 1960s the Presbyterian Church has been in decline: fewer mission personnel, lower financial support of national offices and programs, fewer children in our church schools, reduced campus ministries, loss of national staff positions, closed urban ministry agencies, diminished use of national publications and curriculum – and I’ve not even mentioned our local congregations! It is there, in the end, where the denomination rises or falls – not at GA or in our presbyteries, but in local churches. And things are not good there.

The Presbyterian Church peaked in membership in 1960, with 4.2 million communicants.  We stayed at roughly that same level for most of the decade.  In 1970, we had 4.1 million members.  Then the slide began.  We went from 2.5% of the U.S. population in 1960 to well below 1% today.  Our membership is half of what it was in 1960. Last year we lost over 60,000 members – I believe the worst loss in our history.

We are not alone in this predicament.  The other historic Protestant churches have suffered similarly. The mainline has been sidelined

Canadian theologian Doug Hall describes the phenomenon as the “disestablishment” of the historic American Church.  He argues that it is time for us to accept that reality and devise new ways to live in it. In fact, he sees it as a good and necessary thing – even a manifestation of the gospel, this shedding of the trappings of privilege.

We have always been a minority church, only today our influence and power have waned to such an extent that we now can no longer ignore our own marginalization. 

I remember once talking with Janie Spahr, our Presbyterian lesbian evangelist, after one of the national votes on ordination standards of the sort we will continue to have, no doubt, for years to come.  The position she and I support – a more inclusive ordination standard – was defeated that year.  The loss was worse than the previous vote.  I was lamenting to Janie that people like me – tall, straight, white male pastors of “successful” congregations – are not accustomed to losing, especially more than once.  I complained that I felt as if I were being marginalized and I did not like it one bit.

“Tim,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “Welcome to the margins – only we think of it as the horizon.” 

That is good advice for this beloved church of ours.  Welcome to the margins – now get over it, and try to conceive of this as the horizon, where God might be doing a new thing in our midst. 

“The greatest among you,” Jesus says, “will be your servant.”

Those words reflect a theological position that runs consistently through the life and ministry of Jesus. The words summarize the order of things from the perspective of Jesus. That order puts those lowest in society at the top of his concern. It predicts the downfall of the arrogant and powerful. It thrusts the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely into the center of his focus, and looks away from those who are fully satisfied and socially well-connected.

Someone asked Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shortly before he was killed while saying mass, to define the gospel. He said, simply, “To defend the poor as our Lord did.” (http://www.ncccusa.org/centennial/centennialmoment8.html)

The theology of Jesus starts with the assumption that God is most interested in the humble ones, those whom we typically deem to be of least importance. This view of God’s priorities appears through the entire gospel. We see it in Jesus’ teaching, in the parables, in the healings, in the miracles, and in the people he calls to follow him. Everything points in the direction of an inverted order.

Some of us will remember that forty-five years ago Minnesotan Bob Dylan sang about the inversion of things as they are:

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

The ways things always have been, does not motivate Jesus. He is interested in the way things might become. And he is willing to die for it.

Every religion has a fundamental narrative around which its followers congregate. For Jews it is the Exodus. For Muslims, the story of Muhammad. For Buddhists, the story of Siddhartha.

Our core narrative is God’s incarnation in Jesus. From that narrative – the story of a young, unwed couple living on the margins – all our theology flows.

We need more Jesus in the Presbyterian Church. But meeting Jesus again will shake things up. Maybe that’s happening among us in the great reversal we are experiencing as a denomination.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus turns things upside down. He calls for relinquishment when we want to acquire. He calls for finding security by trusting in God not our own power. He calls us to look to the least of these as the most important of all. He calls for forgiveness when we want revenge.

Remember the extraordinary response of the Amish in Ohio a few years ago after the murder of several of their children? They immediately forgave the killer and reached out to his widow. The rest of us watched in disbelief as that community refused to set aside the essential call of their faith. The greatest among you will be your servant, Jesus says.

Those who hunger now will later be filled. Those who weep now will later laugh. Those who mourn now will later rejoice. The first one now will later be last. For the times they are a-changin’.

I believe the future of the Presbyterian Church lies precisely in making  a risky commitment to the Jesus we encounter in Capernaum, the one who tells us to give up everything for the sake of another.

That’s hard work, but who ever said being the church would be easy?

The greatest among you will be your servant, Jesus says.

Ultimately, the order-inversion of Jesus will not be stopped by anything. Even death is overthrown, reversed in favor of life eternal.

The cross is the ultimate symbol of the order of things in the reign of God, and it stands empty because even the grave has lost its power.

That is good news – and it’s why we, you and I, are the church.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What will mission look like in the Next Church PC(USA)? A paper by Tim Hart-Andersen.

Reflections on mission in the PC (USA) today

Tim Hart-Andersen, Westminster, Minneapolis

NEXT Church Conversation

July 2, 2010

What we have historically called “mission” in the Presbyterian Church is changing. Where these changes will take us is of critical importance to the vitality of the NEXT Church, because mission is basic to what we do. Get mission wrong and we get church wrong. Drift away from mission and we drift away from church. Stop mission and we stop church.

Emil Brunner once observed, “The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no church.” If we do nothing else as a Christian community, we must at least do two things: love God and love neighbor – that is, worship God and serve God in the world. A community that ceases to do both of those, or does only one of them, will cease to be the church.

When someone asked Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to define the gospel, he said, simply, “To defend the poor as our Lord did.”  One of my colleagues has a t-shirt that puts it even more succinctly. It says: Ignore the poor, go to hell. Matthew 25. We cannot follow Jesus faithfully and ignore the mission imperative of the gospel. Like the prophets of old, Jesus is not interested in empty rituals or sacred liturgies disconnected from the world around us.

In recent years we have spent inordinate effort and resources in trying to renew worship in the church. We have engaged in worship wars. We have consulted experts in technology. We have silenced our pipe organs. We have given up our hymnals and our hymnody. We have tried other traditions. We have experimented with a wide-range of worship styles. We have acted as if worship were the only thing the church needed to be concerned about.  If we could only find the right formula for worship, our membership would rebound.

It is time for us to get as creative and focused about mission, time for us to find new ways of joining God’s work in the world, time for us to put holy energy into renewing the mission of the church. The old patterns of mission will not work in the 21st century. The old ways of mission are not the ways of the NEXT Church.

Some thoughts about mission in the NEXT Church:

1. In the NEXT Church we will not define mission as what we do when we give away money, but instead we will think of it as who we are.

2. In the NEXT Church we will not think of governing bodies as the lead mission agencies, but instead we will let mission spring up from the world around us.

3. In the NEXT Church we will not act unilaterally in mission, but instead we will work in new kinds of partnerships.

Now, more detail…

1. How have we traditionally measured the success of mission in the PC(USA)? Typically, by following the money. Fewer dollars flowing up and out of the system meant less mission is “getting done.” We even got into the habit of calling mission “benevolence,” as if mission were merely akin to funding good works. Generosity is a good thing. Munificence shows that we have gospel priorities – but the church is not a community foundation. We are not a grant-making non-profit organization. We are the Church, the body of Christ in the world. If we think of mission simply as funding other people’s projects than we have effectively disembodied the faith, and we might as well shut the church doors and go home. That is not church, that is agency work.

In the NEXT Church we will measure faithfulness in mission not by following the money, but by following the people. Mission happens, first and foremost, where our bodies are. We can no longer do mission from a distance.  Mission in the NEXT Church is about who we are, not what we do.

A few years ago our church took a group of about a dozen adults to spend a week with our congregational partner church in Matanzas, Cuba. On these partnership trips we do not go to “do” something or to solve a problem. We do not bring answers to their needs. We go simply to be with them, to worship and sing and pray and eat and dance and visit with them. Solidarity is the aim, not good works.

Each day on this particular trip – as we do on every trip – we spent 60-90 minutes in the morning in a time of Bible study and reflection. On our last day we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. After our time of silent meditation, one of the group members said to us, “Before we left for Cuba I actually thought about this parable and imagined myself and our church group as the Good Samaritan, stopping to help those who needed assistance. Having spent a week with our partners in Cuba, I now hear this story in a different way. We are the one by the side of the road needing help. Our church and those of us in it are spiritually wounded. We need healing. We need help. We need someone to stop and love us and teach us in ways that bring wholeness to us and in ways that deepen our faith. That has happened to us here in Cuba.”

The church must stop thinking of itself as God’s great problem-solvers, as if God needed us to fix things in the world. God does not need us; we need God. Our calling is to find where God is at work in the world and then send our people there to be the Church, which may mean not “doing” much of anything.

2. How have we traditionally engaged in mission in the PC (USA)? Typically, governing bodies have guided us. Our ecclesial system was designed to operate as a corporation, with local franchises taking their lead from headquarters. Our governing bodies became mission agencies. They did the mission; we in the local church supported it with money. They had the expertise, we had the funds. They had strategy; we had the Sunday offering.  Our governing bodies had the connections and knowledge and history, so we local types deferred to them in matters of mission. Over time, we became disengaged from mission.

Have you ever wondered why our best elders – those who are “on fire with their faith” – do not want to go to presbytery? Among the several reasons is that that governing body is trying to function as if were still the well-funded mission agency it once was, and as a result today is not getting anything done. It probably cannot conceive of doing business in any other way – and there is no longer any business to do, in the old way.

We may have to destroy the presbytery in order to save it.

In the NEXT Church, mission happens not when and where the governing body says it should (as it once did), but when and where the people of God discover that God is at work in the world. To do mission faithfully will mean increasingly to look to those out of power, those beyond the church, those who have historically been the object of our well-intended efforts – and follow their lead.

In a congregation I once served in the heart of a city we planned to have a Sunday morning adult education series on homelessness. We brought in experts in the field: social service agency executives, social workers, other urban pastors – and, in an experiment, we hired one of the several homeless men off the sidewalk in front of the church to come as a leader to each of the classes. We paid him the same honorarium we paid all the other leaders (only his was in cash, in an envelope, at the end of each session). The man rolled up his cart each Sunday morning, we put it in storage for the hour-long class, and then at the end of the session he would take his cart (all his worldly possessions) and go back to his place on the sidewalk. We learned a lot from him – but most of all, we learned of his humanity. No longer would we ever be able to look at a person on the street and dismiss them as anonymous. After the fourth class session, when we had begun to get to know one another, he asked if he might come to worship. He went that day, and then began to come regularly, even after the class ended. Eventually he got sober, found a sponsor who was an elder on the session, got a job and an apartment, joined the church, and today sings in the choir and is a deacon.

We saw Christ in one who had been nameless and faceless, one of the least of these. He taught us how to be church, how to engage in mission in Christ’s way.

3. How have we traditionally made decisions about mission in the PC (USA)? Typically, autonomous governing bodies – sessions, presbyteries, and GA – have assumed the role of decision-maker, independent of others. We have approached mission unilaterally, as if we were at the center. We are not at the center any longer. We are on the margins, and from the margins we must work together or perish.

In the NEXT Church mission is undertaken in partnership, not alone. The best and most transformational partnerships are cross-cultural and multi-ethnic. Little transformation happens to us if our partners are no different from us – those white Methodists down the street, those nice Episcopalians up the block, those friendly Lutherans around the corner. Those are not partnerships – they are extensions of ourselves.

Pentecost was not merely ecumenical; it was multi-cultural and multi-lingual. The Church was meant to engage the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

We have to get people out of the pews and into the streets. We have to fling open the doors of our buildings and take some risky steps toward those who are not like us, asking, “What is God up to here, and how can we be a part of it?” Doug Mitchell, one of Westminster’s associate pastors, and I met last week with a Muslim imam in north Minneapolis. We went to the masjid, the mosque, certainly not to convert him, and not even to try to get him to sign-up in some community project we had in mind. We met with him because he wanted us to hear how his mosque is responding to needs in their neighborhood, and then, to wonder together, with him, about how our shared witness for justice and hope could be strengthened by working together.

Nothing changes our people more profoundly than building a genuine relationship with the other – the one who does not speak English because he or she just arrived from a faraway place. Nothing gets a hold of us more dramatically than coming face-to-face with the one who is in prison, the one who cannot walk, the one who has no home, the one who is poor – in other words, those in whom Jesus said he would reside.

Westminster has four global congregational partnerships – one each in Cuba, Brazil, Palestine, and Cameroon. With each of the congregations we have established a mutual partnership. Leaders in each church develop a written, five-year covenant of our relationship, spelling out expectations and hopes for the partnership. The covenants name our desire, fundamentally, for Christian friendship, for solidarity with a community of believers in two very different contexts. The covenants explicitly state that the relationship is not about finances, or about one group meeting the need of the other.

Our visits – both in their context and when they come to stay with us – have transformed our people. We have now had well over 200 of our leaders experience a visit to one of our global partners. They come back with a new perspective on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Frankly, they are better Christians back home after living in community with the members of one of our global partner congregations. Their involvement in church and attendance at worship generally goes up, their giving increases, and their willingness to be open to new ways of doing and being church back home is greatly enhanced by a stay with a global partner. We do not undertake these visits casually; typically the before-travel prep is extensive, and on the trip we devote a chunk of time each day to study and reflect and pray together. Our people usually find themselves being much more engaged with their own faith, much more open about their own spirituality than they ever were back home.

I think of one retired businessman whom I invited to go to Cuba. He went somewhat reluctantly, especially because he did not see the purpose in the trip if we were not going to build something or do something for the Cubans. The experience transformed him in ways that surprised us all. He has now been on five trips to Cuba, is working hard to master Spanish, and is as excited as ever about his faith.

Jesus lives among us in those whom he describes as the least of these. The NEXT Church will build partnerships with them, will learn from them, will grow with them, will be led by them.

The church has lost its way because it has lost its mission. In the NEXT Church, mission will not simply be a line item in the budget, nor will it be something someone else does; it will be who we are, as followers of Jesus, and it will happen wherever we are, if we are attentive to God’s activity in the world, and it will change us – even as, by the grace of God, it might change the world.

Governing Bodies and The Future of the Connectional Church…

The Next Church: Governing Bodies / The Future of the Connectional Church [i]

John Wilkinson, Third Presbyterian Church , Rochester NY

Presented on July 2, 2010 (Meeting at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, prior to the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.))

I grew up in this country, by which I mean I grew up in Big Ten country, in Ohio. (Not Minnesota) Growing up, and well into my adulthood, the Big Ten meant what it said it meant, that is, ten schools comprising an academic and athletic conference, with the emphasis on “Ten.” There are now, oddly, eleven schools in the Big Ten, with the addition of Penn State several years back. And soon, in another seismic shift, the Big Ten will have not ten, not eleven, but twelve schools, with the addition of the University of Nebraska – Nebraska – in a year or so.

So if 10 really equals 12, then certainly by corollary, we can expect equal if not greater seismic shifts, more profound evolutions, in the ways churches do what they do, globally, in this country, in the Presbyterian world, in the world of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and in this momentary example, in the ways that governing bodies think about and live into a new sense of mission and vision and calling.

You might think that governing bodies – once called “courts” in the southern church, “judicatories” in the northern church, to be called “councils” if the Form of Government report passes – you might think that governing bodies could not hold a candle to mission, formation, vocation, in terms of enthusiasm and possibility. You might be wrong. I realize that this conversation about governing bodies, in light of ones about the mission of the church and vocation and formation and leadership, may not be for everyone. But it must be for some of us.

We are fully committed to the future of the Presbyterian form of church in the United States, undergirded by the extraordinary Reformed ecclesiology that we have received as a gift. Some typologies would use the label “traditionalist,” others “loyalist.”  Regardless of labels, I believe that the portion of the conversation about what’s “next” that centers on governing bodies – or stated differently – how our historic commitments to a connectional church will help us live into a faithful future – is crucial and vital and central.

Phyllis Tickle’s historical analysis in The Great Emergence is sweeping and perhaps a bit neat and tidy, but her grasp of current cultural and ecclesiological issues is compelling. She argues that we are at the tail end of a 500 year historical era, the Great Reformation, and at the beginning of a new area, the Great Emergence. The epochal change in Christianity that she identifies means that “(The) organized expression of Christianity which up until (now) has been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of (its) former self…” (From this change) two new creatures (emerge) where once there had been only one…(what happens is the) birthing of a brand-new expression of faith and praxis, but the church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one.” (Page 17)

We sense intuitively that that is happening. Included in that intuition is of course the reality of our numerical decline. Gradye Parsons reported this week the loss of 63,000 Presbyterians this past year, a decrease of 3%.

But it’s deeper than that.  Tickle concludes her work by saying that “we will need to readjust ourselves to accommodate the stresses of such massive changes in the church and culture…” (Page 162) That, in a sense, is why we are here. And it’s why I want to make the case for taking governing bodies – and particularly our presbyteries and our General Assembly – seriously.

Sessions are important – all this talk about leadership and vocation and mission will play itself out primarily in congregational settings, as localism is a distinctive mark of what’s next. Synods are another matter, but not today. But presbyteries are the lifeblood of who we are. And General Assembly, both in its gathered form in a biennial meeting and its corporate form, sometimes called “Louisville,” is the beast we hate to love, and love to hate. Those are worth talking about.

What’s next, what’s emerging, the church we can see from here, must be a connectional church. Not because it’s cool, or easy, or because we’ve always done it that way. But because it is biblical – the body of Christ and all that – and because when the trappings are stripped away and the fundamentals of our tradition remain, it’s a pretty good way to do things.

Collaborative partnerships are not just good ways to run institutions, but they can be faithful and effective and transformative. Left to our own purely local devices, we could not carry the tradition very well, or bear its hallmarks. Left to our own purely local devices, the new “ecosystem” needed to sustain all of this could never come into being, let alone be sustained.

But we must be clever and discerning and humble. And we must be clear. This is not about preserving an old model, propping up an institution that no longer meets needs. If congregations once existed to serve presbyteries, and presbyteries once existed to serve the GA, the reverse is now the case. That’s a reality – a demographic, financial, cultural, reality. No longer programming machines, no longer drivers of mission, and perhaps no longer particularly effective gate keepers.

And yet we are baptized and called into a body that is more than local. So now what? What’s next? If, in fact, some form of connected council is a good way, a faithful way, a Presbyterian way, to be church, without turning connectionalism itself into an idol, an end in itself, what will that look like and how can we provide leadership to help get us there?

Let me say a few words about presbyteries, then a little bit about the assembly.

The American Presbyterian experience began with presbyteries, small, local bodies whose primary roles included theological discourse, the exercise of discipline and the establishment of congregations. Only in recent generations, as we embraced larger and larger regions and rode the heady wave of growth, did presbyteries become programming agencies. No mas. The era of presbyteries as centers of activity is fast concluding. Some presbyteries know this, and are adapting. Others are holding on, in the face of dwindling members and dollars. In so doing, some are creeping deeper into dysfunction or blame, which is fully understandable.

I believe that the “next” conversation is not about fixing dysfunction or saving presbyteries per se. It is, rather, about envisioning the kind of presbytery needed for the next church and providing leadership for it. The tasks are not programmatic. Rather than managing to decline, presbyteries will need to support struggling congregations in new ways, as well as support currently viable ones so they don’t go down that slippery slope. Along with smart support for congregations of all sizes, they will need to support leaders of all types – full time, part time, CLP’s.

In his paper called “The Travail of the Presbytery,” Joe Small writes that “Ordination and mission have joined order and discipline as major responsibilities of modern presbyteries, but sustained theological work and mutual encouragement are no longer central…”

The Theological Task Force report, about which I am not unbiased, was really an expression of an old ecclesiology for a new day – a presbytery-centric polity that would make a difference in the quality and nature of our relationships.

What would it look like, I wonder, if presbyteries consciously shed the tasks of regulation and management and programming to recover the tasks of theology and mutual encouragement and visioning? What would it look like to ask the questions about what structures, what permissions, what collaborations are necessary to shape us?  What would it look like for presbyteries to plant, foster, renew, and encourage congregations that are pursuing “The Great Ends of the Church?” and to support, discipline, counsel, and pray for the leaders of these congregations?

As we’ve considered this, we’ve surmised that structures would be leaner, fewer committees, less staff. Different kinds of meetings. Some presbyteries are doing this already. Some aren’t. We’ve also learned that no one is connecting the dots in a bigger picture. This lack of comprehensive approach is a problem.

Which leads us to the General Assembly. Two pieces of legislation are in front of the commissioners here in the Twin Cities that speak to this – neither seem critical on the surface, but both address these core matters. The call for a Middle Governing Body Commission recognizes the shifts that are happening and seeks to be responsive in a nimble way. The “new” Form of Government, called, perhaps tellingly, “new FOG,” is about more than rearranging the deck chairs, more than another denominational restructuring to stave off decline.[ii]

I am reminded of the story of the Disciples of Christ, one of the few American-born denominational families. Birthed in the robust days of early 1800’s revivalism, the Disciples were anti-institutional, anti-clerical, anti- much of what we associate with denominations. And yet ordained leaders emerged, a seminary, denominational structure.

It’s what we do – we gather and organize, so the real question is how we do it faithfully, for such a time as this. “New occasions” do “teach new duties,” so we are called to discern what those occasions are and what our duties become.

For governing bodies, we ask questions about “re-traditioning,” to use Diana Butler Bass’s word, about “re-furbishing,” to use Phyllis Tickle’s. We ask what about our form of connectionalism still matters, and is worth renewing, and why, and to what end. In a new ecclesiology that values relationships, experiences, mission, we ask how a presbytery or even “Louisville” can help give that birth.

We are facing massively complex issues, and we cannot face them alone. How can a collaborative community help us address our numerical reality in non-defensive way? Or our ability to “read” and engage the culture?

As a child I learned a song: “my very educated mother just served us nine pizza-pies.” It was the song I was taught to memorize the names of the nine planets. Except that now there are eight. Goodbye Pluto. A new song is needed. But it will still include planets. And it will still need to be taught.

Because we believe that God is sovereign of the world and the church, with Christ as its head, we should not be surprised to be where we are. And we should not whine nor wring our hands.

The church reformed and always being reformed. That’s still worth believing. We are where we are and should not expect to be someplace else. How will we summon up the best of our gifts, the best of our traditions, including the ancient vision of church councils as a manifestation of the body of Christ, so that we can serve God faithfully and joyfully for such a time as this…whatever is next?

SOME QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION…

  • Presuming a renewed/ “next” ecclesiology matters, what is missing, what is needed, etc.?
  • How do we focus?
  • What can we do?
  • How do we move ahead?

[i] Thanks to my “next” colleagues and friends Shannon Johnson Kershner, Joe Clifford, Pen Perry, and Scott Black Johnston for some generative thinking and discussion that helped in the formation of this conversation piece.

[ii] Both proposals – Middle Governing Body Commission and new Form of Government – were approved by this General Assembly; the new Form of Government will now be before the presbyteries for a vote.

Getting the Conversation Started…

This is a Conversation[1]

Tom Are, Jr.

Village Presbyterian Church,

Prairie Village, KS

I am very grateful that you are here this morning.  I know that you are probably a bit uncertain as to what exactly we are about today.  In the event that uncertainty leaves you wondering if you missed an email somewhere along the way, let me assure you that you did not. It is my hope that we will discover together what it is we are about.  In an effort to lower the bar of expectations, let me say first of all this is a conversation.  Today, it is no more and no less. It is a conversation.  In an effort to keep your attention let me remind us that there have been conversations –for example

with a woman at the well about water, or

with a Pharisee at night about birth, or

in an upper room about bread or

in a church court about Gentiles. These have been conversations that have shaped the life of the church.  So I suggest today, in both humility and hope, I believe this is a conversation that matters.

Twice over the past nine months, 15 pastors from across the country met to begin this conversation.  It is, I think, part of a collection of conversations taking place across the church.  We are not alone in seeking discernment regarding where God is leading the church today.  Those of us who have begun talking with one another about the direction of the church want to broaden this conversation. That is why we have invited you to be here today.  The thing I can say most clearly is that we are here because we all love Jesus Christ and his church, and believe that the world needs the particular witness of the Presbyterian Church today as much as ever. There are, however, big questions as to what it means to offer our particular witness in our day, and questions as to how to do this most effectively and faithfully. But to this purpose of bearing witness to Jesus Christ as Presbyterians, we are eager to devote our passion, our theological creativity, and our leadership.

By everyone’s account, the church is not what it used to be.

To some this is liberation, indeed the working of God’s Spirit. After all, whom among us would want to put on our church sign, “Come on in; we are exactly what we used to be.”

To others the shifting assumptions of what it means to be the church is a cause for great concern.

Both reactions are justified.  A result, however, is that in this season of the church’s life, in which we minister, the particular witness of our church, is weak, if not on life support.

The following is presented for no greater purpose than to set a context for our conversation.

Where have all the leaders gone?

My personal reason for being here is I need your partnership in seeing a way forward.  I remember the days when Presbyterians in more vivid and vital fashion contributed to the repair of the world. We had leaders. They challenged us. They charted a strategy for mission. They motivated us. As a result, we built schools. We built hospitals.  We planted churches in Kansas and Kenya and Korea.  We sent doctors and teachers, farmers and theologians to serve in ways that made the church more Christian and the world more human.  We may not have been an exhibition of the kingdom of heaven for the world, but we did bear witness to it. I grew up in the hallways and heartways of congregations that committed themselves to these kinds of missions.  I graduated from a college dreamed into life by Presbyterians. I attended a Seminary born and sustained through the commitments of congregations in the East.  I have visited Presbyterian hospitals in Ghana and schools in Ecuador.   I have prayed in a Presbyterian sanctuary in Khartoum, Sudan whose multicultural congregation was constituted by a collision between the black world of Africa and the Arab world of the Middle East offering a Pentecost-like witness that a common confession in Jesus Christ can actually be stronger than culture. I grew up in a season when a disproportionate percentage of civic leaders, business leaders and politicians were Presbyterian. We had a particular witness to offer and we were effective. This was the church of my childhood. This was the kind of church that made me proud to be Presbyterian.

The Times have changed

The church has changed, but not enough. The culture has changed more.  The Presbyterian “ecosystem” in which I was raised is today the stuff of museum display. The contemporary church must learn to respond to the diverse “cultural” realities that are ethnic but perhaps more so generational.

A few marginally related observations about change:

  1. Now Presbyterians are known, as is the balance of our mainline family, as the denomination that argues over sexual orientation.  This fight remains important inside the church, as we have attached central convictions about scripture, Christology even sin and salvation to this argument, that it is impossible to see it as anything but central in the ecclesial conversation. But the culture sees this as old news. It is a stumbling block for us outside the church.
  2. Our neighborhoods have changed. In what Dr. Diana Eck of Harvard calls the “New Religious America” [2] the nation is much more religiously diverse.  You dare not assume that the folks you meet in the grocery store are churched. Even if they are, you would likely be disappointed if you assume they can tell you the Ten Commandments or know the story of the prodigal son. It is very possible that they are Muslim or Hindu or of Native American spirituality (and if so, they are likely to know well the basics of their faith). The religious world has come to us.
  3. The means of establishing community is in a shift as significant as the shift we experienced when population moved from rural to urban life. In the rural days, community was defined largely as family: that’s who “your people” were. The move to the cities meant that community became largely defined by friendship rather than blood.  Today we are experiencing an even more dramatic shift. We live in a time of “social networks” in which technology is not simply a means to communication; it is a means to create connection, even community. It is not only the fact, but the speed of such change that is significant. Consider this:  It took Radio 38 years to reach 50 million viewers. It took TV 13 years to reach 50 million viewers. Facebook, which began in a college dorm room, reached 100 million participants in nine months.[3] Or this: ABC began broadcasting in 1948 and from 1948 to 2008 broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. The total number of viewing hours logged by ABC over 60 years was surpassed by You Tube in the last six months of 2008.[4] Among websites visited You Tube is 3rd, following only Facebook (second) and Google. All of this has implications for community and therefore for being church.
  4. Calendars have changed.  Some polls reveal: ask a Presbyterian in their 60’s if they attend church regularly, a positive response means they attend 3.5 times a week. The same question and same positive response from someone in their 20’s means they attend church 10-12 times a year.
  5. How the church is viewed has changed. Michael Kinnaman’s UnChristian provides unsettling  polling data, revealing 38% of 16-29 year olds in this country are hostile to Christianity. To say it more clearly, they don’t reject Jesus, they don’t like us. From outside the church they see Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps and they think we are all like them. To be fair many have probably had encounters with churches that have supported their stereotype. They think we hate gays, we are judgmental, hypocritical and ignorant of the spiritual questions they are asking.[5] They see us as elevating belief while they elevate experience.
  6. Most significantly, in the midst of such revolutionary change, many of the leaders of Presbyterian congregations (pastors and elders) were born and raised in a Presbyterian ecosystem of a previous day. As I have stated above, it was in many ways a good day, a glorious day, a day when we were effective. Many are aware that this glorious day has died but they are at a loss of how to respond to the present situation. The old ecosystem still works well enough—as a shadow of its former self— for some and therefore, even if they knew how to change, too many lack the motivation to do so.

We speak of reformed and always reforming, but this has to be more than a theological claim.  Our reforming theology needs to bear fruit in reforming strategy, model and forms of being church.

A closer look at the PCUSA

Given these shifting cultural realities, it should not surprise us to remember that since 1965 the Presbyterian Church has lost 46% of our membership. From 1964 to 1965 was the last year the church showed a net gain in membership.  The six years of the greatest percentage declines since 1965 are 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008.[6] In 1983, the year of reunion, our church baptized almost 51,000 infants. In 2008 that number dropped by 48% to approximately 26,000 infant baptisms.

There is a relationship between growth and new congregations.  In Kansas City, where I serve, our largest mainline congregation (Methodist, over 7,000 worshippers each weekend) has begun three other “sites” in the past three years. During that same time, our Presbytery has dismissed three congregations and closed another, with several more on the way out. The last new church we began was a joint venture with the Lutherans initiated five years ago (which is doing well) and an immigrant congregation born in the basement of Village(also doing well). There are no plans to begin a new church in our growing city.

Facing all of this transition, I have been concerned and have wondered privately and sometimes wondered aloud with colleagues “why can’t we get leadership like we used to have?”

I was looking in the wrong place

I have waited for leadership from Louisville. Let me say clearly, this is not a meeting to beat up on Louisville or anyone else.  As a church we have exhausted ourselves by beating up this faction or that and we have beaten ourselves into irrelevance.  This is not a conversation to beat up on anyone; it is a conversation to seek and claim what our responsibilities as pastors are in this new day.

This is not my criticism, it is my confession. I waited for the old leadership to show up in Louisville.  Over this time, the folks I met in governing body leadership were often smart, compassionate, filled with a servant love for the church and were as committed to mission as I.  But there was no dying, something has happened. I have come to the conclusion that what has happened has not happened in Louisville. The “happening” is in our pews.

The happening in our “pews.”

The Presbyterian Church thrived in a day when the culture valued institutions. Our governing bodies (institutions) could network, strategize, and coordinate strategic plans for mission at home and around the world. As a result dollars and volunteers and prayers from congregations would flow upstream making of us a collection of congregations whose impact far exceeded our numbers.

But the culture no longer values institutions. Institutions as such do not command loyalty, trust and certainly not generosity.  But we are still trying to do mission institutionally.  Every governing body still talks about being a mission entity. Trying to live institutionally is increasingly challenging. [7] I would imagine that every one of you has attended the same mission committee meeting I have. It is the one when you make the case for sending money to Presbytery or GA. I give them my power-point and tell the story. All the while they are looking at me as if I had suggested we replace the chancel choir with Elvis impersonators.  Why? Institutions as institutions no longer carry respect or value in and of themselves.

It is helpful, I think, to know that Governing Bodies have not always been mission agencies in our denomination. For more than 100 years Presbyteries in this country devoted themselves to the business of governance, not mission. It was the calling to Christianize the American Frontier that gave birth to structured mission in Governing Bodies.  While the northern and the southern church approached this in different ways organizationally, it did reveal a certain Presbyterian Genius. In that day we paid attention to the need but also the strengths of the culture in which we lived. Based on both, we developed strategies that maximized our impact.

But the culture has changed.

At Village when we support a local mission project we do a “site visit” to the health clinic or soup kitchen or whatever.  The visiting teams always come back energized.  Two of the past three years we have done “site visits” to Louisville.  (I would suggest you do that as well. You will find staff who are eager to share with you what they are doing and there are good stories to take back to your churches.)

Among other insights you will hear that governing bodies exist to serve ministry/mission at the congregational level. In this culture governing bodies have little option. I think they are right in this assessment. However, think about the strategy this leaves us.

If the Congregations are the front line of mission, and I think they are, it raises the question, where does leadership in mission for the whole church come from?

The Presbyterian Church has 10,700+ congregations. If the congregations are leading the way in mission that means we have 10,700 leaders, which is to say we have no real leaders.  In every way we are scattered, fragmented, even divided.

Louisville cannot change that. This cultural shift reflects a change in the pew. My congregants and I am sure yours as well, do not need or want a governing body to determine mission priorities or possibilities for them. They want to make those decisions themselves. A wonderful result of this change is that the touch of mission is more grassroots than it has been in the history of our church.  We are no longer dependent on the missionary from the Congo to bring slides to show at a church night supper. We have our own stories to tell. Our members have weighed babies in the Dominican Republic or painted walls of a clinic in Mexico. This is a gain!

BUT, THERE IS A HUGE LOSS. The loss that I am pointing to is the loss of collaboration. With reduced collaboration we see reduced impact.  What is not reported in those mission trip videos played back home is that too often the same wall in Mexico has been painted by a congregation from NC and another in Pennsylvania and perhaps one from Kansas—– all in the same year.

We have recognized that mission is not simply about projects. Mission requires relationships. Yet, this new realization has planted itself in a new culture which means we have traded a kind of effectiveness for intimacy.  We would be stronger if we did not see this is a choice.  Why can we claim both?

If congregations are to provide the leadership for mission, then we must discover new ways for congregations to collaborate.

There is a second factor to consider regarding congregational leadership for mission. Every congregation makes a difference, but not every congregation shares the same responsibility to the whole.   In most contexts a critical mass is needed for the congregation to have an impact beyond itself.  Without claiming to define what that critical mass is (and it will certainly vary in differing contexts), we do know this about the PCUSA:

The PCUSA has 10,700+ congregations. Fully 50% of these congregations have 100 members or less, and 25% have 50 members or less.  For many of our congregations installed pastoral leadership is  difficult if not out of the question. Almost half of our “shops” do not have the resources to keep the doors open during the week. Bump the membership count to 200 members and you are speaking of 73% of the Presbyterian congregations.

There are 914 congregations(8.5%) with 500 members or more.

There are 96 congregations that have 1600 members or more (.8%) and another 96 at 1200 or more.

Ministry happens in all congregations and this analysis of who we are is not intended to suggest that larger churches are more important. It is rather to say that small is large in our church. A congregation of 201+ members in the PCUSA is a large congregation—-among largest quarter of congregations!

Congregations play different roles on our collective life, but we have found an engaging way to coalesce these various roles.  To say it again, we need to ask ourselves what our responsibility is in this new day.

Often, in the present Presbyterian culture larger congregations are needed to provide financial support for the work of governing bodies, while at the same time these congregations find themselves needing less of what the connectional church provides. Many of our Presbytery budgets secure the vast majority of their funding from a handful of congregations, while these funding congregations are somewhat distant from the implementation of mission. It is a rather disengaging model.

I suggest that one of the new critical roles that any congregation with the capacities to reach beyond itself must assume in this new day is to explore and engage a new model of connectionalism.

What would it look like for congregations to collaborate? Toward what purposes could we collaborate? Let us dream together. Could we be more intentional about who we send to Seminary? Could we be more complete in providing mentoring for graduates of seminary? Can we discover ways to increase the number of congregations planted and increase the chances that they thrive? Could we dream of ridding the world of inadequate access to clean water? Or insuring every woman in Afghanistan or every kid in Palestine or every village in Kenya or preschooler in downtown Detroit has a chance to go to school?

I am not seeking to be directive, but illustrative. I do believe if we collaborate our witness can have greater impact.

Because our need to collaboration is ultimately rooted in our call to live the gospel, we must remember that collaboration is more than doing tasks together. Our relationship with one another may be our most important offering.

Not only what we do, but also how we live together is a critical piece of collaboration.  Something ugly is happening around us and sometimes among us.  Righteousness has come unhinged from meekness. Convictions are voiced with a certainty that seems severed from humility. We look at our world, our political situation, as well as the testimony Presbyterians have offered much of the past 20 years and it makes you wonder, as a friend of mine once said, “it seems like someone opened the door and all the grown-ups left the room.”  We need to act like grown-ups.  That is a call to civility, but more than civility. It is a call to fidelity, but more than fidelity. We need to reclaim the role of being sense-makers[8] for a culture that is so skeptical it no longer trusts that sense can be made. We need to exhibit hope in a culture that is stricken by fear.  Paul tells us that everything we preach, everything we see, everything we know, our very existence as a church is rooted in God’s choice for resurrection.  As sense-makers, we need to claim a voice of hope in the storm of fear; and more than speaking, we need to demonstrate that hope in our treatment of one another.

So what now?

This is not a conference, for we do not have answers. This is a conversation. Scott Black Johnson said at the end of our first meeting, “I feel like this is asking what’s next for PCUSA.” Next has stuck in our minds. But understand clearly, next is a question not a proclamation.  As such it is a theological confession. “Next” is ultimately a declaration of faith that God is doing something, something new.  It reminds of the promise of the old prophet, “I am doing a new thing!” But there is an exhortation as well…”do you not perceive it?”  My confession today is that I do not see this new thing with clarity; but I claim enough trust in the Gospel to believe together it can be seen.

The 15 pastors who began this conversation found growing energy to collaborate and our conversation has drawn us to three general areas of the life of the church. We wish to spend time today by engaging your thoughts about three focal areas.

  1. We recognize that we need to join the conversation about what governing bodies need to provide our congregations (rather than what congregations need to provide the governing body)
  2. We want conversation about vocation:
    1. Confirmation
    2. Campus ministry
    3. Who goes to seminary
  3. We want further conversation about mission as both relational and effective.

I don’t know the way forward. Saying that this is a conversation rather than a shared task or an agenda that we must check off admits that we may discover significant frustration along the way. I am fully aware that you may have flown to Minneapolis to discover that as we ask ourselves if it is possible to discover new ways of collaborations we may discover the answers are negative. But if we can find a way together to say “yes,” it may be a singular moment of leadership and faithfulness that is needed from us in this season when leadership for this portion of Christ’s body rests with us.


[1] .             July 2, 2010 a group of pastors gathered in Minneapolis, MN to reflect together on ways to enrich the witness of the church. These remarks were offered by Rev. Tom Are, but resulted from a conversation that initiated with the following group of pastors:

Scott Black-Johnston (5th Ave, New York);                          Christian Chakoian (Lake Forrest, Il)

Lib McGregor Simmons (Davidson, NC)                              Andrew Foster Connors (Brown Memorial, Baltimore)

Pen Peery (1st, Shreveport),                                                  Agnes Norfleet (Shandon, Columbia, SC)

Lewis Galloway (2nd Indianapolis)                                          Karen Sapio (Claremont)

Tim Hart-Andersen (Westminster, Minneapolis);            John Wilkinson (3rd, Rochester);

Carla Pratt-Keyes (Ginter Park, Richmond, VA);               Joe Clifford (1st Pres; Dallas);

Shannon Johnson Kershner (Black Mtn, NC)                    Fairfax Fair (Highland, Louisville, Ky)

[2] .             Diana Eck, The New Religious America

[3] .             Socialnomics.com

[4] .             Michael Wesch, an anthropologist from Kansas State University.  It should be recognized that the viewing impact is different. For a majority of ABC’s viewing years, it was mass viewership. The majority of You Tube videos are viewed by 100 people or less. However, we all know how some videos in a matter of hours and days can circle the world and become viewed by millions.

[5] .             Kinnaman, UnChristian

[6] .             Board of Pensions publication, Here is the Church…..; pcusa.org stats

[7] .             This is not to suggest that Governing bodies do not play an essential role in governing; this is simply to acknowledge the way mission is done is changing. There is an increased burden on congregations.

[8] .             I am also indebted to Ted Wardlaw for this metaphor.

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