Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Presbyterian Handbook

I am sorry that there was no post Friday, October 6th. I spent the day getting one of my brothers to and from the hospital for outpatient surgery. The surgery went well and he is doing fine!

There are times when I do not want to think of theology or church politics. You can’t watch a baseball playoff game at the office. So, what is a person to do? I HAVE THE ANSWER! You need to get a copy of The Presbyterian Handbook, published by Geneva Press in 2006. That’s right… a book about the Presbyterian Church!

This gem of a book has serious stuff about the Presbyterian Church. It also covers wonderful subjects such as “The Five Grossest Bible Stories,” “The Five Weirdest Laws of the Old Testament,” “How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake,” “What to Bring to a Church Potluck (by region),” “How to Stay Alert in Church,” “How to Sing a Hymn,” and “How to Sing a Praise Song.” Does your church have Acolytes? Here is the book’s suggestion for acolytes:

“Some people may perceive tennis shoes with light-up soles on acolytes and other worship assistants to be disruptive. If possible, coordinate the color of the shoe lights with the season of the church year to avoid undue flak.” (Page 33)

There are those who don’t like what you or I have to say about the PCUSA, worship music, or whether the Oakland Raiders are the worst team in the NFL. They may want to burn us at the stake. The book has two main suggestions if this situation exists:

“If you find yourself in a situation where being burned at the stake poses an imminent threat, try wearing flame-retardant material. If there is no hope of escape, request dry wood and plenty of dry kindling. Green wood burns slower, smokier, and at lower temperatures, causing a more painful death.” (Page 64)

The Presbyterian Handbook is a must read for every Presbyterian!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Who Has Lost Members?

Yesterday I commented on the eleven issues/questions that the gathering of the GAC, synod and presbytery executives would be talking about. Today I would like to take a closer look at just one of the items: “The congregational dilemma — what is job one? (‘The denomination has not lost members; local congregations have lost members.’)” [Note: the parenthetical comment was a part of the original document]

This is the “smoking gun” of the disconnect between denominational HQ and congregations. It is garbage like this that makes it difficult to stay in this denomination.

Have local congregations lost members? You had better believe it! There are lots of reasons for this membership loss. We are an aging denomination—people die. That accounts for some of our losses. We are an aging denomination—people leave with their children to attend a church with more to offer for children’s and youth ministries. That accounts for some of our losses. People stop going to church—period. That accounts for some of our losses. People go to other churches due to poor theology of the local Presbyterian pastor (I know of a church that lost quite a few members for this reason—they left for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church). That accounts for some of our losses. People stop going to church because sexually active GLBT persons are being ordained. That accounts for some of our losses. People stop going to church because we do not open the doors to the ordination of sexually active GLBT persons. That accounts to some of our losses. People leave the church because their local church only sings traditional hymns. That accounts for some of our losses. People leave the church because their church now sings a few contemporary songs in worship. That accounts for some of our losses. Some people stop attending church because Sunday is the only day they can sleep in. That accounts for some of our losses. People are leaving rural communities for the jobs in urban areas. This accounts for some of the membership losses. Do you get the picture? There are lots of reasons why our congregations are experiencing membership losses.

One other reason that people leave our local congregations is the PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH. What happens at the national level affects the local congregation. Polls show that the vast majority of local Presbyterians do not want the ordination of sexually active GLBT persons, and yet, it keeps getting shoved down the church’s throat. The 2004 vote to withdraw investments from certain companies doing business with Israel angered VAST numbers of local Presbyterians. The Horizon’s study angered Bible-believing Presbyterians. The 9/11 book angered Presbyterians. Louisville is silent. “Protestor Rick” could cause a person to leave a local church. As a high ranking PCUSA official he must put aside his person ideas for the greater good of the PCUSA. There are many in our churches who do not like the fact that he would knowingly do something that would anger scores of Presbyterians. To put it simply, part of the membership loss is due to the Presbyterian Church.

Oh, by the way—since the members of Evergreen Presbyterian Church appear to not belong to the Presbyterian Church I might be suggesting to our session that we not send in our GA per capita. Since “they” do not believe that the local church members are members of the “denomination” they do not deserve even one penny that comes in to the local church!

Now that I bring up the $$$ issue the national folks will say that the denomination has indeed lost members. They don’t want to take the blame for our local losses but they surely want to take a part of the tithes and offerings that come in to our local churches!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Not Ready to Die

According to the News (September 26), the “gathering” was going to look at eleven issues/questions during their two day meeting. Those issues/questions are:

1. The search for a common vision;

2. The question of purpose;

3. The care of relationship and connections;

4. The question of leadership — who leads, why and how — issues of polity, governance and power;

5. The congregational dilemma — from membership focus to missional focus;

6. The congregational dilemma — what is job one? (“The denomination has not lost members; local congregations have lost members.”);

7. Do we have a fundraising problem, a stewardship problem, or a spiritual problem?

8. Who’s talking … who’s listening…? — communication, interpretation and new technologies;

9. Beyond compartmentalization into cooperation and coordination;

10. Developing an immune system for the PC(USA) and in each presbytery (“In the best sense the many advocacy groups and their publications raise questions that need to be addressed, but in the worst case they spread dis-ease, disinformation, distrust and a negativity that is hard to overcome.”);

11. Can we discipline ourselves to focus on what is most important?

This blog has been asking if it is possible for the PCUSA to be redeveloped. I have specifically us the term “redevelop.” I wanted to use a term that the folks at “higher headquarters” are familiar with. They know all about the redevelopment process. They know that redevelopment is IMPOSSIBLE without a total transformation of how a church operates.

The questions that were going to be discussed at the “meeting” begin in the right place—vision and purpose. I have found next to nothing on the internet that reports how those discussions went. Typical! This leadership group could have been THE GROUP that started the redevelopment process for the PCUSA. Either the “cone-of-silence” (from Get Smart) is very effective or the opportunity has been missed.

Change WILL NOT happen when people who are vested in the current system are the ones leading the change. These are good folks. However, their church lives are on the line—as well as the source of income for many of them. They can put the wheels of change in motion but that is all. The common vision and purpose have to come from our congregations and presbyteries. The vision and purpose HAVE to be firmly grounded in scripture and in Jesus Christ.

Here is my suggested process (I realize that it will never happen).

  1. Four or five regional gatherings happen in six months to envision the future of the PCUSA (all at the same time).
    1. The only people who can attend are lay persons from congregations who have never served on a GA committee, task force or been employed by a presbytery, synod or GA.
    2. The gatherings will be led by people outside of the PCUSA who are gifted in leadership, church transformation, spiritual discernment and prayer.
    3. Each church will send representatives based on average worship attendance (1 person for each 200 persons in worship).
    4. There will be no food served at the meetings (except to those with health needs) so that it will be a time for prayer and fasting.
    5. They will seek God’s leading concerning vision and purpose.
  2. The findings of the regional gatherings will be made available to every congregation in the PCUSA. If each of the groups, working separately, comes up with the same vision and purpose it will be evident to the entire denomination.
  3. Failure to come up with a common vision and purpose would automatically set the wheels in motion for gracious separation. The denomination would divide into as many new groups as there are visions and purposes.

Look back at the list of eleven issues/questions that the “gathering” was to look at. Items three through eleven are about rearranging the seats on the Titanic if there is not agreement on the first two.

Now you see why redevelopment of a church or denomination is so difficult. I do not hold out much long-term hope for the PCUSA. Those in leadership are not willing to pay the ultimate price for the survival of the PCUSA. Additionally, those in the pews are probably not willing to pay the price either. It is easier to just keep doing the things we have always done.

Last weekend there was a telelvision program on a powerful hurricane that hit the Florida Keys on September 2, 1955. This was before the days of hurricane hunting planes and satellite imagery. The local residents saw their barometers begin to fall quite quickly. They knew that a powerful storm was on the way. They put their personal emergency plans in motion. There were camps in that section of the Keys for military veterans who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. They had no knowledge of how to predict approaching storms. The leader of those camps refused to make the “evacuation order” until he received reports from outlying weather stations. When those reports came in it was too late to evacuate the veterans. Oh, they tried. The order was passed “up the line” to Miami. The person who needed to act on that order was playing golf. It took four hours for him to order a train to go to the Keys for the evacuation. The train made it as the 200 mph winds and tidal swell were at their worst. The tracks were under water. Portions of the train were tipped over. Hundreds of veterans lost their lives because the leadership of the camps failed to act in time.

I fear this same fate for the PCUSA. The time for our leaders to act is NOW.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Redevelopment and Death

“The ways of being a denomination that have served us so well for so many years, in which I was raised and trained and done my ministry for the past 30 years, are passing away, some so slowly that we barely recognize it, some very fast,” Gray said.

“We have come to a time when any person with a computer can access a universe of resources, programs and relationships. And churches are not looking to the national office for these things much any more.”

Gray said she had heard a “scary question” floating around: “Why do we need a denomination?”

-Joan Gray

It is only in facing death that organizational change happens (if even then) with a church or denomination.

Each year the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) closes a few churches; many other churches remain open—sort of. How many people does it take to “qualify” as a church in the PCUSA? Ten people in worship? Fifteen people in worship? More PCUSA churches would close if there was a realistic minimum requirement of people in worship on a Sunday. Why do these churches close? There is no simple answer! Most of them have faced the possibility of death (closing the church) for many years. They were either unable or unwilling to bring about change—even while they were facing death.

Churches only redevelop when they face the real possibility of death and decide that living requires a total change in how they go about being the church. It typically requires new pastoral leadership, new elders, new blood, new vision, and new direction. The cost is high. That is why so many churches slowly fade into oblivion.

The first step in redeveloping the PCUSA is to face the real possibility of death. Is this something that our denominational leadership can actually do? Does Kirkpatrick believe that the PCUSA is facing death? Does the new moderator of the General Assembly Council believe that the PCUSA is facing death? Does our moderator believe that the PCUSA is facing death? Do the GAC members believe that the PCUSA is facing death? Does the staff at “higher headquarters” believe that the PCUSA is facing death? Do the members of the PCUSA believe that the PCUS is facing death? If all of these folks do not believe that the PCUSA is truly facing death then there will be no redevelopment of this denomination!

There is a faint glimmer of hope for the PCUSA if there truly was a question of the future of denominations being raised at “the meeting.” Moderator Gray said that some denominations are passing away quickly and others quite slowly. Where would she place the PCUSA? The mere asking of “the question” at such a gathering shows that there is a small amount of hope.

But wait… don’t get too excited! Marian McClure, Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division made a comment that threw cold water on the spark of hope that came from our moderator. McClure recalled a time this past summer when the GAC executive committee was faced with this same question. “I suggested that it might be the wrong question,” McClure recalled. “Not why do we need a denomination, but, ‘Why do hurting and lost people everywhere need Christians to be well organized?’” (from News, September 28 edition) Another cup of cold water was thrown on the spark of hope by GAC Executive Director Linda Valentine. The previous day she said, “The crucial things as we move forward into the unknown are things like transparency. Accountability. Listening. And listening. And listening. And acting out of faith rather than fear.” If she truly believes that this list of things will bring about the redevelopment of the PCUSA then there is NO HOPE! “Transparency” would be nice. There should be no closed meetings in the PCUSA except when dealing with personnel issues. Closed meetings breed distrust. “Accountability” would be a good thing. When GA staffers do something that embarrasses the PCUSA they should be reprimanded or fired. “Listening” is always a good thing. Faith is important. But, faith in what? Faith in the PCUSA? There are at least two different faith streams in our denomination. We can’t even agree on the essentials of the faith so how can we have “faith”? Transparency, accountability, listening and a divided faith WILL NOT save the PCUSA!

Redevelopment requires a total change. Redevelopment is costly—it costs us everything. Redevelopment is like salvation in that we must die to ourselves and the old way of living and being. A few churches have been willing to pay this price and have experienced a rebirth. Many churches have not been willing to pay the price and are slowly (or not so slowly) dieing. Have any denomination ever faced a bleak future and successfully redeveloped? I am not aware of even one. Isn’t that tragic? Will the PCUSA be the first? The only hope is for the leadership and the PCUSA membership face the reality of the death of the PCUSA. Anything short of this will result in the slow (or not so slow) death of the denomination of which we are a part.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Redevelopment of a Denomination

Is it possible for a denomination to be redeveloped? This is the ultimate question that “the big meeting” last week should have been talking about. The “big meeting” was a gathering of the General Assembly Council with synod and presbytery executives. The PCUSA has been in crisis mode for many years: membership losses, budget shortfalls, etc. Now we find out that our presbyteries are having financial difficulties (no kidding?!?). Amongst all of their discussions one should wonder if they were asking the most important question. Is it possible for a denomination to be redeveloped?

Several years ago I was very active on our presbytery’s redevelopment committee. Many churches in our presbytery had been experiencing membership decline or plateaued membership for many years. GA was pushing the idea of “redeveloping” congregations. We would have one or two from our committee go and meet with a session. Typically, we would go and observe a session for a couple of their meetings. Eventually we would give them some suggestions on how they might prayerfully consider moving in new directions. It was heart rending to be in those session meetings. The elders from the particular churches loved their local church and wanted their church grow and prosper. Yet, much of what they did was a hindrance to growth. They refused to do anything different. They liked everything about their church except the lack of people. So… it was the same-old-same-old thing.

At the General Assembly level it was recognized that the only way a church could redevelop was to have a total change in what they did as a church—the church needed a change in its DNA. Few churches are willing to go through such a significant transformation.

Now, back to the original question: “Is it possible for a denomination to be redeveloped?” The national leadership of the PCUSA needs to look at congregational redevelopment and apply the same principles to the denomination. The denomination cannot keep doing things the same old way and hope that we will turn around. That is insanity! Our national leadership is like the members of the sessions I met. I am convinced that our national leadership truly loves the denomination and that they want the denomination to grow and thrive. Yet, I do not believe that they love it enough to “pay the price” for redevelopment. How can I make such a bold statement? I have yet to see resignations from national leadership. I have yet to see significant change in how they lead the church. Talk is cheap—actions are costly and painful.

Tomorrow I will look more closely at the possibility of denominational redevelopment.