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."

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