A few months ago I recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are Presbyterian project. It was fun, and I learned a lot in the process.
In the video I suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not “gravely ill,” as some have suggested.
Instead we are… well… take it away Barbie:
We’re not terminal. We’re just pregnant.
Apparently the video has hopped the Presbyterian fence and is wandering around other backyards, specifically Lutheran and Episcopal ones. It’s been fun to hear from friends and colleagues who’ve spotted it. I’m glad it resonates with others too… is there a baby boom happening in the mainline?
The video appears at the end of this post, but for those who prefer to read, here is essentially what I said:
Recently a group of pastors wrote a letter to the PCUSA, expressing concern about where we’re headed as a denomination. According to the letter, we are “deathly ill”.
The group has facts and figures to back up this–lots of numbers related to membership loss, the declining number of baptisms we do, and so forth.
Well look… the numbers are what they are.
I can’t argue with the statistics.
I only argue with the diagnosis.
We are not deathly ill. We’re…
That’s right folks.
On the nest!
Bun in the oven!
The symptoms are there, if you know what you’re looking for.
First, there’s the fatigue. I see a lot of tired people out there, trying to keep life going, keep ministries going, keep the sermons coming, the nursery staffed, the money flowing in, the furnace in good repair… often with fewer people–less energy–than before. It’s tiring!
I see some bad queasiness too: morning sickness, which folks will tell you doesn’t just come in the morning, but sometimes round the clock. There’s a sense that the world has changed right out from under our feet, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it. What is this “emergent” stuff? How do we deal with the internet and social media? What about this younger generation? How do we respond to the culture without being coopted by it? Not to mention our new Form of Government, the passage of amendment 10A, and on and on. It’s to be expected that we’d be feeling a little woozy, a little green, a little sick.
And there’s a lot of anxiety too… that question every prospective parent asks: Can we do this? Are we ready? Do we have what it takes to step into this new chapter of life?
So here’s a bit of motherly wisdom, a guide, if you will: “what to expect when your church is expecting.”
I offer these reflections knowing that the metaphor is complicated. Not everyone who’s pregnant wants to be pregnant. And there are many who struggle to become pregnant, or who grieve the loss of a child. So I just acknowledge that and tread as lightly as I can.
But here’s what pregnancy offers us that “deathly ill” doesn’t.
1. It’s deeply biblical. Scripture is full of images of pregnancy. The whole creation groans in labor pains, Paul writes in Romans 8, and he uses the image again in I Thess 5. Even Jesus couldn’t resist using the metaphor: “When a woman is in labour, she has pain. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy.”
(That’s not true, by the way.)
The Bible is also full of women that society had written off as barren, women who thought their time had passed. And similarly, some say this whole PCUSA thing doesn’t have much life left in it. And that may even be true on some level. Maybe we are in our declining years. But guess what? Sarah and Elizabeth were in their declining years too, and yet God used both of them to grow new life and give birth to a whole new world.
2. Another way pregnancy connects with our church right now: Pregnancy ain’t pretty. As much as we talk about women glowing, it is not a glamorous time. Your face breaks out. Your joints go slack. You get gas. You can’t sleep at night. You have to pee every 10 minutes. And let’s not even talk about the dreaded “cankles”:
It’s a bit of a freak show, to be honest.
And yeah, this period we’re in right now as a church? It ain’t pretty. We’re cranky and itching for a fight with one another. We used to be young and fresh, the belle of the ball. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were thriving. People were flocking to our doors. But we’re not there anymore.
Now we’re in tremendous upheaval as a denomination. It seems like almost everything is on the table–our practices, our polity, our way of worshiping, our music, our structure…
But what’s not on the table for us is whether God is working.
What’s not on the table is what kind of God we serve: a living God, an incarnate God.
God is capable of doing a new thing: it springs forth, now, in nine months, in nine years, over a lifetime.
New life is what it’s all about. It’s the business we’re in.
3. Your sense of time is all messed up in pregnancy. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, slow, lumbering time. The nine months pass slowly. You can’t move as fast as you did. I had sciatica that would act up whenever I was walking too quickly; I finally decided it was God saying, “Slow down! Don’t go through this time at a breakneck pace. Stop, look, listen and feel.”
Even mental processes seem to slow down. Nouns and verbs come more slowly: “Honey bring me that, that… what is that? That thing! Beside the doohickey?” And maybe we as a church need to move beyond words for a while. Maybe we need to just be silent for a while, stop making so many pronouncements about the church. Sure, Mary sang, but she also pondered in her heart. Maybe it’s OK to shut up and let God do what God’s gonna do.
The time goes slowly… but it’s also an incredibly busy time. There’s a lot to learn, and pregnancy is a great time to do research. Hospital or birth center? Epidural? C-section? Breast or bottle? Stroller or sling? Pacifiers or thumb-sucking, cloth diapers or disposable? Television: harmless, or idiot box that will keep your kid out of Stanford?
And we’re doing the same research in the church. Every week I hear about a new group that’s meeting, a new conference to attend, a new website to keep track of. And the books! Oh, the books! Each one promising to give you that just-right approach to ministry, promising to grow your church, keep session meetings joyful and productive, and so on and so forth.
And any parent will tell you, that research is all well and good. But then the child is born. And it all comes down to that child’s personality, that child’s gifts, what that child needs. The books, ultimately, don’t tell you what you need to know. Your child does. So we in the PCUSA need to learn flexibility. We need to learn to respond to this thing being birthed, whatever it might be, instead of some idealized notion of what it might be. Is it a bunch of new churches? Ministries beyond the traditional church? Who knows, but as any parent will tell you, our kids are not carbon copies of us. They are their own people and they deserve to be treated as such. What is being born in the PCUSA is going to look different everywhere. We’re not all going to win beautiful baby contests. We are not birthing many 1950s Presbyterian churches anymore. No more perfect Gerber babies.
5. The final and, I think, most important parallel is this: Pregnancy, labor and parenthood are all embodied experiences–blood, sweat, tears, vomit… and poop. Once that labor starts, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t do the work up in your head. You’ve got to participate in it with every bit of your being.
And that’s what this new phase of our Church is going to require too. It’s not enough to think about stuff. It’s not enough to talk about mission. It’s not enough to claim to value diversity. It’s not enough to give lip service to evangelism. We’re going to have to practice these things that we believe. To jump in, body and soul.
But I think the best thing pregnancy offers us as a metaphor is this: it’s hopeful. It’s a great big crazy leap into the unknown. It’s a vision for the future. It’s something you grow into. Nobody’s “ready.”
The question is, what are we going to do during this time of gestation?
Thanks for listening, and a special thanks to my friend and colleague Elizabeth Goodrich for the pregnancy metaphor.
We Are Presbyterian 2011 — A New “Diagnosis” for the Church from MaryAnn McKibben Dana on Vimeo.