I just got home from a few days at the Festival of Homiletics, a yearly preaching conference organized by Luther Seminary that draws people from a variety of denominations. I was honored to preach for this gathering and to take part in a Q&A with one of my favorite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor.
But let me tell you about one of the other highlights!
On Wednesday during lunch, the folks at Westminster Presbyterian (one of the host churches) hosted a gathering for all the Presbyterians in attendance. As far as we know it’s the first time in the festival’s 22 year history that such a gathering has taken place! The event provided time for conversation and networking, but also for me to connect with about 100 members of the Presbyterian “tribe” and listen to what’s happening on the ground in our denomination.
When I was elected a commissioner to General Assembly from National Capital Presbytery, I knew one of the joys would be the chance to cast a vote for my friend John Wilkinson, who is standing for moderator. (We don’t call it “running,” for reasons not entirely clear to me. One of my readers will enlighten me.)
It never occurred to me that there would be more to the story!
I am proud and humbled to be John’s choice for vice moderator. You can read John’s embarrassingly kind announcement here.
What does this mean?
Each moderator candidate chooses a vice moderator candidate. Once the person is elected, his or her pick is typically confirmed. The moderator election will take place on June 14, the first day of General Assembly.
The moderator and vice moderator are two-year volunteer positions. The moderator presides at the General Assembly meeting (with the vice moderator filling in during less controversial debates). Following GA, mods and vice mods have additional responsibilities, but generally serve as ambassadors of sorts. They help interpret the decisions of the GA to the congregations and serve as a public face and presence.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know John through NEXT Church; in fact he was one of the original masterminds behind that movement! I preached at his church in Rochester and led a Sabbath event back in 2012, followed by a NEXT regional event the next day. Thus began a fun connection between our two congregations, which resulted in the youth choir from John’s church (Third Presbyterian) singing at Idylwood last summer on their choir tour. John even drove down from Rochester for the festivities, which surprised and delighted us all.
If you’re the praying type, I’d appreciate your prayers for John and for me, and for the other candidates for moderator, Heath Rada and Kelly Allen.
An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body… The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.
A supermajority (67%) was required for the congregation to leave the PCUSA. They fell just 36 votes short, with about 64.5% voting to leave. What this means is that despite a comfortable majority wanting to leave, they’re staying put.
Close votes are painful in the church. I know many people, from all over the theological spectrum, who are praying for First Pres, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with them on biblical interpretation. I don’t agree with First Presbyterian Church’s leadership on many issues. I agree with them that the PCUSA has changed, but I don’t agree that they (we) have strayed from the fundamentals. We are body of Christians who are “reformed, and always being reformed.”
But the congregation does good ministry too. And I feel for them wholeheartedly.
They will either find a way to move forward together, or they will split. And that hurts.
I’ll be returning to the PCUSA’s General Assembly this summer, this time as a commissioner (I’ve been an observer a few times). As I think about what we’ll be doing in Detroit, I think about the many church votes I’ve witnessed and taken part in. I remember a GA vote to overturn our denomination’s ordination standards prohibiting lesbian and gay clergy and officers. The vote was close. Very close. When the results flashed on the screen, there was a sharp intake of breath. There almost always is in close votes. (It’s right up there with the murmur that people make when someone shares a powerful story—not quite an Amen, I call it the Presbyterian Moo.)
Now, the gasp at a close vote can mean a lot of things—relief on the part the “winning side,” lament from those who lost so narrowly. But in the church, it’s also an expression of pain that we are not of one mind and heart on significant issues. The gasp is a realization that change, when it happens, is so hotly contested, yet so incremental. And yes, it’s a sympathetic cry of pain even from those whose point of view prevailed.
It’s hard for some people outside the church to understand that. The non-religious people I know, for whom the full humanity of LGBT persons is indisputable, sometimes find it puzzling that we’d be hurting for a congregation that wants to leave our denomination in part because of their apparent unwillingness to embrace that full humanity. “How are you not condoning bigotry?” they ask me.
First, I don’t find the label productive. It’s a non-starter.
Second, and more important: that sharp intake of breath is part of our witness. It’s not our only one: I expect that marriage equality will come to the PCUSA this summer, or perhaps two years from now, and rather than being a departure from our fundamentals, I personally see that as a faithful expression of them. And that action will be, I hope, a witness to the world.
But that sharp intake of breath matters too. In a world where we “like” Facebook statuses that we agree with, only ensuring that we see more of the same—in a world where cable news and blogs tell us exactly what we want to hear—in a world where narcissistic trolls have taken over internet comments such that meaningful back-and-forth debate is an endangered species—our unity in the Holy Spirit, in the bonds of peace, is a witness too.
Improv doesn’t come naturally to me. I know a number of accomplished improvisers, and read this blog for a while, but it’s a struggle for me personally. I am a first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout (to use my friend Meg’s phrase) and an off-the-charts J on the Myers-Briggs. I live by Evernote and Things. Even my leisure is relatively structured—I do Sabbath.
And yet try as I might, the universe does not conform to my meticulous management. The nerve!
But improv is also fun. It’s good to get messy. It’s important to risk, and to step into a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Improv is joyful and generative.
As my Facebook friends know, I’m a muffin-maker. It’s kinda my thing: Automatic portion control. Good for breakfast or a snack. “Maximum impact, minimum effort,” as my father-in-law says about his cooking.
But I’d never improvised on my muffins until the other day, when I improvised some low-fat banana-blueberry muffins with streusel topping. They were awesome.
I suspect a few of my readers are first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout J’s. Here are a few things I learned that might help all of us be more improvisational leaders/parents/individuals:
1. You don’t have to start from scratch. I wouldn’t know where to start to make up a muffin recipe. But I know how to take an underlying structure and build on it—to yes-and it. In this case, I adapted a recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook for my banana-berry beauties.
Maybe you’ve watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, or been to an improv show that starts with prompts from the audience. Then there’s TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, who don’t take audience suggestions. Instead they walk out on stage and stand in silence for several moments. Eventually and without fail, they pluck a story out of thin air and improvise a two-man one-act play.
My point is, you don’t have to be TJ and Dave.
2. In fact, starting with some constraints helps. I recently quoted Leonard Bernstein, who said to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. Creativity thrives on constraint: Pick a recipe, any recipe. What can I do with this recipe and the contents of my pantry?
My seven-year-old loves to make things with paper and tape. We’ve bought various glues and epoxies for her, and there’s all kinds of random glue-ables in bins in our blue room, from bottle caps to craft foam. But she always comes back to paper and tape.
2. It helps to have the skills.
I had to throw in some flour at the end of mixing because my batter was too gloppy. After so many batches of muffins, I know what proper batter looks like. (BTW, the Food Substitutions Bible is a useful tool for food improv.)
We did a lot of experimentation with liturgy in seminary, with varying results. I’m not saying those novice efforts weren’t fruitful—they were. But there’s something very freeing about being a decade into this ministry thing. You get to know the order of worship so deeply—not to mention a congregation—that you know what can be pushed and pulled, folded and spindled.
3. Risk from a place of abundance. This is a big one for me. I’ve been tempted to play around with my muffins, but have hesitated up to now, because what if they don’t turn out? When I say “risk from a place of abundance,” I don’t mean to trust that something good will come of your experimentation… though it probably will, just not what you expected. I mean that improv becomes easier in a context of abundant creativity.
If I’m only making muffins every month or so, I don’t want to mess with the tried-and-true recipes because if they fail, then there’s no muffins for a long time, and I have a sad, and my kids have to resort to boring old Corn Chex. But if I’m making muffins once or twice a week, why not play around? If something turns out to be inedible, something new will quickly come to take its place.
Last year at the NEXT Church national gathering, we heard a leader from the Ecclesia Project in Kentucky talk about starting new worshiping communities. The old model is to spend a few hundred thousand dollars trying to get a new church development started. But instead of spending $100,000 on one community, they give 20 grants of $5,000 each to small, diverse projects. The assumption is that many new initiatives fail, whether it’s a business or a church. So we should sow our seeds as widely as possible. Our denomination currently has the 1,001 Worshiping Communities initiative. But instead of 1,001, we were told at NEXT, we should be starting 10,000 worshiping communities!
That’s risk from a place of abundance. I like it.
Now the trick for me is to keep improvising low-fat muffins, so that I do not gain abundant weight.
I was with a group of folk from another congregation recently, introducing them to NEXT Church and talking about my involvement as co-chair. We got to talking about generational differences when it comes to membership in an institution, particularly a church. Millenials are way less wired toward joining a group in the sense of signing on the dotted line. In many cases they are committed to the organization and will support it through time and money, but they do not see the point of being a member.
I made an offhand comment about churches that have people re-commit to church membership every year. Rather than having someone join and be a member of a church “forever,” there is an annual discernment process. The church leadership re-introduces folks to what it means to be a member (and presumably, the expectations are high), and asks people to consider whether they are willing to devote the time and energy toward that endeavor. As always, non-members are welcome to worship and serve in the community, to receive pastoral care, etc.
There was some predictable backlash to this idea, some of which I can understand. There are times in a church’s life when things just aren’t that much fun. A beloved pastor leaves and the energy declines. There are conflicts and crises. Are we saying it’s OK for people to bail just because things get hard, or because the church is not suiting their needs?
And yes, our culture is one in which ties to institutions and communities are more tenuous than ever. So people are right to ask whether a yearly church membership drive feeds that lack of commitment. OR, does it simply acknowledge the world as it is, not as we want it to be? People can carp all they want about “kids today,” but how does that work as an evangelism strategy?
One comment really grabbed me: What, are people going to get married year by year now?I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to question that analogy. But now, a few days later… No. Just no.
Church membership is not like a marriage. It’s just not. Don’t believe me? Consider this: when a person relocates because of a job, there is often grief over leaving one’s church. But rarely does someone pass up that job because they have made a commitment to their worshiping community. But I know plenty of people who have done that because a move would be bad for their spouse or family.
We use the marriage analogy all the time in the church. Pastors seeking another call feel like they’re “cheating on their church,” like they’re “running around behind people’s backs.” I can relate to the sentiment—there is a zone of secrecy that must be present in these situations, and it can feel inauthentic and sneaky. Still, I find these kinds of metaphors very unhelpful. Pastors are not called to a church until death do they part. They are called for a season of the church’s life. And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is at least a minimal sense of re-upping each year, in the sense of negotiating and re-approving terms of call.
Why would we not at least consider giving church members the same freedom to reaffirm their commitment to a congregation that pastors themselves have? Why do we get to leave whenever we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing, but church members are on the hook for the rest of their lives?
The real crux of this membership stuff is not people’s lack of commitment. It’s that the church has done a poor job of teaching discernment and discipleship.
Discernment:sensing the presence and leading of God, which goes beyond what makes me happy in the moment.
And discipleship: commitment to following the Way of Jesus, even when it’s hard, even when it means being in a community with people who are sometimes a pain to deal with.
A church that does a good job of this doesn’t need to worry about a mass exodus of people if the interim’s a boring preacher.
And a church that does a poor job of this wants to keep warm bodies (or not-so-warm ones) on the rolls any way they can.