Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stuck in the Middle With You

I returned from General Assembly a few weeks ago. During my first week back, I was busy recovering, not just from the week itself, but from a lovely upper respiratory/sinus infection that progressed rapidly on my way back home. The blogosphere, twitterverse, and internet in general were full of responses to what happened - and what didn't happen - at General Assembly. I continued to ponder my own response.

Though I am very involved in the denomination, it was actually my first experience at General Assembly, and I think it was far different from GAs of the past. I've been processing it ever since. Much could be said, and much has been said already, about the future of the denomination (or denominations in general). I'll refrain from doing so, at least here or now.

Instead, I was struck by a comment from a colleague about our past. He said that in the grand scheme of things, Presbyterians have historically been slow to respond with prophetic voice. So here we are in the middle, and though I don't want to characterize those on my left or right as clowns or jokers, here I am, stuck in the middle with you (the PC (USA)).

Don't get me wrong - I'm not in the middle, and I'm not neutral on many questions, and yet, I find myself constantly struggling to discern what to say. As a pastor, I have developed a general rule of thumb for what I say from the pulpit and what I post publicly: will those members of the congregation who decidedly disagree with where I stand on any given question still feel as comfortable coming to me for pastoral care after I say, write, or post the statement in question? Will my ministry be less effective than it otherwise could be, now or in the future?

It's not just people in the church that make me pause before I post, say on Facebook. I am friends with a number of extended family members with whom I disagree on some major issues. I don't really want to engage in the debate; I'd rather just be family and love them. If questions or issues are raised, I want to discuss those face to face, rather than online, but truth be told, I really don't want to address them at all. Not with family, especially.

And yet, I'm also convicted by those who are hurt by what I don't say. I'm convicted with questions of what I am called to say, and how I might be called to speak a prophetic word. I don't know what the answer is, and I don't feel in any better of a position than my denomination. Here we are - stuck in the middle. May we all continue to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we struggle to be the individuals and the Body of Christ that God created us to be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

An Update from the 21st Century Church Report

I am just getting back to the hotel after spending all afternoon and evening with Committee 16 as they considered the report of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. Overall, things went well from our standpoint. No single motion was struck down, though most were amended, usually in small ways, but in some cases, rather significantly. Now the amended motions will go to the floor of General Assembly for recommendation.

The one recommendation that was significantly amended was one to create a task force to study bi-vocational ministry on many fronts and to report back with recommendations to the next GA in 2 years. The amendment took out the task force language and instead charged the GAMC staff to study bi-vocational ministry, but without any specific deadlines or expectations. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the GAMC staff are already overextended in their work, and as Director of Theology, Worship, and Education Chip Hardwick said, passing this recommendation would necessarily mean not doing something that was already being done, which could involve difficult choices with unintended consequences. Second, the GAMC already has the power to work on this, but we are calling for a more comprehensive approach. Third, asking a bunch of well paid, full time employees to study the myriad of issues surround bi-vocational ministry just doesn't make sense. This conversation must include individuals currently working or those with extensive experience in bi-vocational ministry. Fourth, the GAMC is one of just six agencies of the PC (USA), and by restricting the work to the GAMC, there is a risk of foregoing intentional cross-agency collaboration, particularly with the Board of Pensions, which would be an important conversation partner. Fifth, without giving specific expectations or a timeline to report progress, the amended recommendation has no teeth. It is difficult to imagine how significant work will be accomplished in this critical area with the recommendation as amended. I hope that when this recommendation comes to the floor of GA, there will be some opportunity to restore the task force and salvage that important motion.

When Carol and I spoke to the recommendations at the start of the discussion, I devoted fully half of my time speaking to this particular recommendation, knowing that since it carried budgetary implications it would face a tougher battle. The text of what I said is at the end of this post. Overall, I am very grateful to the Commissioners and Advisory Delegates for their careful consideration of the paper and recommendations, and for their willingness to take the time to struggle with some of these issues rather than taking an easier route.

"We recommend creating a task force to study and make recommendations regarding bi-vocational ministry. You can see the specific charge in recommendation two.
Bi-vocational ministry will be a crucial form of ministry in the 21st century. A number of converging factors point to this necessity and opportunity. Over half of our congregations have fewer than 100 members, and over half of those congregations have fifty members or less. With the rising costs of living and the expense of participation in the Board of Pensions plan, fewer churches are financially able to support a full time minister. Even when they are able to meet minimum compensation standards set by Presbyteries, those are often not entirely sufficient for the minister nor sustainable for the congregation. As we heard yesterday, presbytery leaders estimate that roughly 600 congregations currently being served by a full time minister will likely have to go down to part-time or supply leadership after the current pastor moves or retires.
Those are the facts. They are stark. Churches who have had full time pastors but can no longer afford one often see going down to part time ministry as a failure. Teaching elders like myself worry about our current and future prospects for employment, and the idea of bi-vocational ministry, quite frankly, scares most of us. We have heard many discouraged Seminary students and other young people who feel called to ministry – the very ones we most need to nurture and support – voice frustration about being told by institutional leaders (who themselves have enjoyed careers of full-time employment) that there is no room for them at the table, that they are welcome to go out and engage in the kind of innovative and creative ministry that we so greatly need, as long as they don’t expect to be paid or have health care or other benefits. Though bi-vocational ministry is the norm for some denominations, for the PC(USA), it may as well be Antarctica – we know that some people live there, but we’d prefer not to go there ourselves.
On the other hand, there is growing excitement for the possibilities it presents. We have talked to many individuals who are open to and even excited about bi-vocational ministry, but hesitant or unable to explore it without the safety net of benefits, at a minimum. Those who feel called to bi-vocational ministry have met resistance from many COMs and CPMs, even when the intentions are good. Though there is a category of “Tentmaking” in the Church Leadership Connection, a recent search revealed just 19 congregations nationally in the system. I could probably name 19 congregations in my presbytery alone who would be interested in hiring a minister part-time. Other positions listed in the CLC might be part-time positions, but there is no way to search for those specifically. Seminaries also must be part of the equation in providing education and nurture.
We affirm and celebrate what the Office of Vocation is currently doing, but we feel strongly that more is needed. The issues, challenges, and opportunities are so multi-faceted that we need a systematic approach to addressing and preparing for this growing area of ministry. Such a task force must include individuals currently engaged in bi-vocational ministry. We recognize that their time for service to the church is more limited because of their ministry in multiple places, but we feel certain that the passion and excitement for the task would make it a priority. In addition, if this committee forwards this recommendation to the floor of GA, we recommend adding a provision for at least one member of this task force to be a representative from the Board of Pensions.
We recognize that this recommendation carries significant budgetary implications, but we feel that it is vitally important. It also fits right into the church-wide goal of 1001 new worshiping communities, most of which will be started and led by bi-vocational ministers. Given the economic realities and shifting understandings of the nature of ministry in the 21st century, this is a critical area of focus for 21st century ministry. We need a comprehensive way forward if we are to honor and nurture it, rather than simply seeing it as a new reality with which we must deal."

21st Century Church

The following is my portion of a presentation made (with Carol Howard Merritt) during the Riverside Conversations at General Assembly on Saturday, June 30th. We will be meeting with the committee that has been charged to review our report and recommendations this afternoon.

"Thank you for coming to engage with the committee to study the nature of the church in the 21st Century! We plan on leaving time at the end for questions and conversation, but we first wanted to share with you more about the work of our committee over the past year and a half.

As we began to meet and worship together, we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the second chapter of Acts. The disciples’ world had been forever changed by Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, and they found themselves gathered in a room, waiting for what would happen next. As they waited, they prayed, and prayed, and waited. Suddenly, with the sound of a violent wind, the Holy Spirit rushed into the room and came upon those gathered together. These followers of Jesus became the Body of Christ.

The story could have ended there, with the followers of Jesus worshiping among themselves, but it didn’t. Instead, the Holy Spirit sent this group of women and men into the streets of Jerusalem, where a diverse crowd was gathered for the Pentecost holiday. They began speaking in the languages of those gathered,  and empowered by the Holy Spirit, these followers of Jesus witnessed to everyone, sharing the good news that they had come to know through Jesus Christ.

On that day alone, we read that three thousand were added to their number. They became brothers and sisters in Christ with a great diversity of people. Together, they devoted themselves to teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, sharing resources, and prayer together. And God continued to add to their numbers, day by day.

But what if they hadn’t left the room? What if they stayed in their small group, in the enclosed room, not venturing beyond those comfortable walls? Sure, they probably would have grown a little bit. They may have been welcoming, accepting visitors and new members – as long as they didn’t try to change anything, and especially if they looked like and talked like those already in the room. After a while, they would begin to fight over dwindling resources, fretting over the future. What if they hadn’t left the room?

As we prayed about the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 21st Century, we asked ourselves, “Will we, as Presbyterians in the 21st Century, leave our rooms? Will we venture from our comfortable sanctuaries? Will we go out into the streets, learning different languages, embracing diversity, planting new congregations, and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ?”

As we gathered, we prayed, and prayed and continue to wait for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our midst."

Carol then shared some of our findings regarding changing cultural and church contexts, current roadblocks in moving forward, and examples of exciting worshipping communities around the country, including a few here in Pittsburgh. 
I continued... 
"In addressing the changing contexts and our challenges in this century, our committee has come up with a number of recommendations. You can read all of our recommendations on pc-biz, but we want to highlight a few areas of focus.

A number of our recommendations respond directly to the need to form and support a diversity of new worshipping communities. There are immigrant congregations coming into this country from Presbyterian denominations who want to be part of the Presbyterian church but face a myriad of obstacles. We need to address and work to remove those obstacles. We need to adequately resource the development of new churches and new worshipping committees, in money and other material resources, but also by working with our Seminaries and presbyteries to help prepare ministers to plant new churches and to minister in changing contexts.

Even as we are supporting and nurturing new ministries, we recognize that churches are not called to exist in perpetuity. As many congregations dwindle to the point of simply maintaining buildings, we call on leaders in the church to assist those congregations and communities in discerning their call in this time and place. Some churches will be revitalized in new ways; others may discern a call to close. As churches close, we call presbyteries to use the assets to support new church and mission development.

We recognize that there are still many inequalities in our society and in the church, and we call the PC(USA) to a role as social witness. We also recognize that we must continue to work to identify and support leaders in churches, in councils, and in our Seminaries from underrepresented populations, and a number of our recommendations address those needs. We call on the church to repent of our continued complicity in prejudice and find a need for specific training for all leaders in the church around issues of privilege, diversity, and cross-cultural proficiency. We also look at the current communication strategies of the denomination. While we have made great strides in translating documents and resources into languages other than English, including Spanish, Korean, and Portuguese, our overall accessibility to those who speak a language other than English remains quite low. We have concrete recommendations to address that.

As we look at changing needs in church leadership and ministry, we recognize that bivocational ministry will be a critical component of church leadership in the coming decades. This is often scary or threatening for many of us teaching elders, but this will be not just a practical need, but a missional need for the church. We are calling for the creation of a special task force to look at bivocational ministry from a holistic standpoint, and from each level of the church, so that we can better know how to foster and support this emerging ministry front in our denomination.

Bivocational ministry is tied into issues of just compensation. Also related are already-noted concerns of inequalities within our society and in churches, particularly as women and underrepresented populations are concerned. We offer a number of recommendations to study and better understand the extent of these concerns, and to address them through policies guided by a theological understanding of stewardship and compensation.

One of the charges given our committee by the previous General Assembly was the creation of resources that could be used in churches and councils. Given the timeline and scope of our work, we were not able to do this, and so we suggest empowering a group, including some members of our current committee, to continue that work to create and disseminate resources in the church.

That is an overview of our work as a committee. We have appreciated the opportunity to study these important questions, and the conversations that we have had with so many church members, elders, and leaders throughout the denomination. We look forward to continuing that conversation."