Tuesday, March 31, 2009

[from my Facebook Notes]

What Must Change

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 8:25am http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=59873428180&1&index=2

My title is a question, and a multi-directional one at that, and it's also a statement, but one i can't quite feel certain how i want to aim.

Since i started working with Gay Reese on the Bethany Project, and did some research that led to sitting down and reading the 1963 Blakemore "Panel of Scholars" report, all three volumes, i've been haunted by a bit of a ghost, one that many be appearing out of the corner of my eye more than is actually appearing in actuality. I still don't know.

For those lucky enough to have not picked up the task, self-appointed or class-assigned, to read these three thick, heavy tomes, this was meant to be the scholarly, academic, thoughtful, procedural basis for Restructure of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a process that picked up speed with the "Panel of Scholars'" publication and culminated in the Design proposed in 1967 and formally adopted in 1969, making official the denominational structures and self-understanding of the "Brotherhood" into regions and general offices and . . .

Well, there are a number of references in the "Panel of Scholars" (henceforth POS) to the fundamental element of "Congregation" in the life and activity of the denomination. The mentions become more and more rueful as you read through the various reports, as if the fact that "the congregation is the basic element that makes up the CC(DoC)" is an unfortunate but unavoidable historic reality that has to be dealt with, but surely there could have been a better way.

I should also note that i see Loren Lair's "The Christian Church and Its Future" (1971) as a kind of coda and summary to the POS, written by someone who, like Willard Wickizer, was not formally a member of the POS but strongly shaped the process that called them together and also influenced the final papers. In Lair's book, the stream that i trace through the POS come together in an ocean of certainty that our problem as a church is congregationalism, and the answers are to be found in leadership, guiding if not directing the placement of clergy, teaching elders about more effective management of congregational affairs, and proclaiming social justice on behalf of the church as a whole.

Item by item, the POS/Lair agenda makes a certain kind of administrative and efficiency-based common sense, but in sum, the proclamation is "what's wrong with the church is 'congregations' and what will fix/help/renew the church is academically-trained leadership." Elders as an expression of local leadership are caustically described (in courteous '50's type terms, but harshly), and largely given up on, not even discussed as possible targets for training and equipping themselves. The Renewal/Restructure plan is -- create new structures that make congregational elders largely irrelevant, then these uneducated bossy folk won't get in the way of ministerial leadership showing the way to the Kingdom.

And you know what? That mindset took, with a vengeance. Elders, a local source of spiritual leadership, tend to see themselves as peripheral to congregational life in most DoC congregations; there have been some initiatives to train elders as spiritual leaders that can themselves model and teach spiritual growth to their fellow members, with a "preaching and teaching elder" as the pastor sitting among them as a set-apart ordained or licensed person, but as a part of a spiritual leadership team, yet none of these attempts (Peter Morgan, Gary Straub) have really caught fire or seized the vision of key leaders regionally or generally.

The model that informs much of our common life is that the basic unit of the CC(DoC) really is and/or should be the individual believer, and the wider church itself best expressed by the region in some forms, the general offices in others. And i perceive, i believe, i fear that the entity that is called a "Congregation," that particular manifestation of church life, is still seen among us, particularly among clergy, as the Problem, not in any way a Solution. If we could get the message from the General or Regional offices more effectively to individual believers, everything would be different, everything could change -- but Congregation, and congregational life is what's in the way.

Nothing makes me go back to these dark imaginings as much as going to a clergy gathering. Yesterday, i saw quite a few smart, friendly, cheerful, even some spiritually robust fellow clergy, ordained and licensed (ok, only 3 licensed, but that's another discussion, and sadly another rant, related to this one, but not right now). And to be candid, i don't know what to extrapolate, exactly, from 40 pastors out of 191 churches claimed by the region. That 191 probably is more like 140 if you discount for leadership and communcations purposes the congregations that haven't given to DMF since 1986 (or earlier).

But even of the not quite 40 present (plus another 10 regional and general staffers for a high presence of 50 yesterday), you had three or four retired, not currently serving pastors, myself not serving a pulpit on an ongoing basis, taking us to 35 congregations, and 7 or 8 who are "intentional interims" (bless 'em all). Take out the 3 licensed pastors, and we had maybe 25 ordained, pulpit serving leaders present; whether out of 140 as i estimate or 191 as we officially state, that's a pretty thin robed & stoled line of "well-trained, well ordered preachers" to build the hopes of the institution upon.

And the heart of my darkness is that through the course of the day, i spoke to five pastors who simply despise their congregations. They might say that's not true if you asked them cold, first thing this morning, but any dispassionate hearer of their conversation would assert that this isn't venting or stress relief or a bad day, but that these folk truly can't stand the people they are called to serve, the congregation that called them, pays them whatever it is that they receive in compensation, and is their preaching audience each Sunday. The congregation won't listen, won't follow, and won't heed the pastor, and they (the congregation, mind you) are the problem. They won't buy a projector, they won't upgrade the office computer, they won't pay you proper mileage, they won't send people to General Assembly, they won't come to adult Bible study, they won't support this or that regional/general cause.

They are the problem. The congregation, that is.

I don't know what we can do to renew and transform congregational life until we change this essential, default mode of clergy and wider church life -- that congregations and congregational leadership is the problem that must be fixed, that they are the heart and source of what's wrong with the church, and that where their interests and intended activity leads is almost unfailingly misguided, and certainly misled. I'm not sure that the general or regional expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have much capacity to try, not as mere concession or abdication of leadership, but with hope and eager listening, to hear what 'congregation' is saying to the church.

It surely is not the case that i idealize elders or congregational life, potlucks and rummage sales and committee meetings (though it's good to remember they didn't start doing endless committee meetings until we pounded that model into them from 1947 to 1987, when suddenly we started saying "Bad, bad congregations, stop doing so much committee stuff!). I've been frustrated and indeed wounded by local petty tyrants in life-tenure congregational slots myself. But that doesn't mean that congregational expressions of Church are always that way, any more than the regions should be ignored because they ran a poor capital campaign once or put on a dumb program at some regional assembly.

Is 5 out of 25 an unfair sample, or the tip of an iceberg? My worries run to the latter, and based on what i'm now confounded to realize is 28 years of mucking about in the vineyard of area, regional, and denominational life, most often working alongside fellow well-trained, well educated clergy. I fear that the contempt and fundamental disdain i keep bumping into among pastors for congregations is the one thing that is going to have to change before anything else even can. I will continue to pray for individual clergy and the conversion of their hearts, but it's the institutional bias about the problematic-ness of congregations that worries me.

"Has anything good ever come out of a congregation?" That's a phrase that has some resonance for me, one whose irony may not be as obvious as i might like!

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