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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Report from GA: We Have a Moderator

NOTE: My posts from the General Assembly are mirrored on the New Jersey GA participants' Blog, "Walking, Running, Soaring in Hope."

It’s always a fascinating exercise to observe the election of a moderator at the General Assembly – particularly so in light of the national Presidential contest, whose relentless lack of civility has all the appeal of fingernails scratching across a blackboard.

We Presbyterians do so much better. Are there differences among us? Of course. But there’s a common value of unity that’s so much stronger. That gives me hope for the church.

I’ve watched a number of these question-and-answer sessions over the years, but I never tire of marveling how unpredictable the process is, and how it so often happens that front-runners emerge only after the Q&A has begun. Sometimes it’s one clear choice. Sometimes, as happened tonight, it’s two or three – which means several ballots. It’s all about thinking on one’s feet, being gracious, showing compassion, having theological integrity – and, most of all, displaying a love for the church that’s natural and in no way affected.

Symbolism is also important. Who the successful candidate is, demographically speaking, has an influence. If the person looks the way most commissioners would like the church of the future to look, that’s a significant – but by no means deciding – factor.

Even though there were several front-runners, we had four outstanding candidates. Any one of them could have done the job admirably. That’s usually the case. People just don’t get the endorsement of their presbyteries to try for this crazy job if they don’t have a lot going for them.

I always feel for the unsuccessful candidates. Some years back, one of them made up a bunch of campaign-style buttons that said “Member of the Almost-But-Not-Quite Moderators Club,” and handed them out at General Assemblies for a few years after that. They’re a distinguished bunch, and I always feel sad that we as a denomination don't find a way to tap more of them for other national leadership positions.

One of the popular parlor games at the General Assembly is to speculate on how each Assembly’s choice of moderator may or may not be a bellwether of which way the Assembly will go on the big issues before it. Neal is clearly in favor of making some space in the church for those who would like to perform weddings for same-gender couples (at least in the several states where this is legal). I wouldn't read too much into that. I’m not so sure this is the reason he got elected. It’s more about what he symbolizes: the younger, more multicultural church we Presbyterians wish we were.

They say if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, but my wish is that Neal’s moderatorial tenure will be more than just a symbolic expression of our desire to be well-positioned to serve the needs of 21st Century America – demographically speaking, the country we actually are and are becoming.

Here are the vote totals, in case anyone’s interested in the nitty-gritty...

Robert Austell - 26%
Randy Branson - 9%
Susan Krummel - 25%
Neal Presa - 38%

Austell - 27%
Branson - 4%
Krummel - 27%
Presa - 42%

Austell - 25%
Branson - 2%
Krummel - 26%
Presa - 47%

Austell - 22%
Branson - 2%
Krummel - 24%
Presa - 52%

Friday, June 22, 2012

Non-Geographic Presbyteries?

It's getting to be that time of year - well, every two years.  General Assembly will soon be upon us. One of the most riveting issues coming before the Assembly, for those who work with Presbyterian polity, is the report of the Mid-Councils Commission.

Now, I realize any non-Presbyterian reading these words - and, if truth be told, all but a small segment of Presbyterians - will gaze upon them and respond: "Say what?"

Yet, to those who regularly imbibe the rarified air of church governance discussions, the Mid-Councils Report is one of the most paradigm-shifting changes to come down the Presbyterian pike in decades - rivaled only by the 2010 Assembly's passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) and, before that, nothing (not, at least, since the reunion of northern and southern Presbyterians in 1983).

That's because the Mid-Councils Report recommends that synods be abolished.

Yea, gentle presbyter, abolished. That entire section of the Form of Government will simply be cut from the good book - no, not that Good Book, the other one - as brazenly as ol' Tom Jefferson took scissors in hand and excised Jesus' miracles from the New Testament.

OK, I'll admit I'm waxing hyperbolic here.  But seriously, the reduction in the number of councils (née governing bodies, née judicatories, née courts) is a rather big change.  If this proposal survives the Assembly intact, and if its constitutional amendments are subsequently approved by a majority of the presbyteries, the only remaining councils above the level of the congregation will be sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly.

Doing without synods is not a new idea. Our mother kirk, the Church of Scotland, has never had 'em.  Here on our side of the Pond, the idea's been kicked around for the past couple decades at least - but this is the first time it's coming to the General Assembly with the unanimous endorsement of one of the Assembly's own special working groups, complete with all the enabling amendments to - in the resolute words of galaxy-striding space Captain Jean-Luc Picard - "make it so."

Most seem to think the Assembly will indeed do its part to make it so (although, in typical parliamentary fashion, probably not without tacking on enough minor amendments to allow the commissioners to see their fingerprints upon it).

The Abolish Synods movement is all about the so-called shrinking planet, as "leaving on a jet plane" has become commonplace and burgeoning communications technology offers unprecedented opportunities for keeping in touch across the miles (et tu, Twitter).  The Scots never thought they needed synods because their entire country is no bigger than South Carolina.  Now that our trademark wide-open spaces are neither so wide nor so open, we're coming to realize synods are a luxury we can no longer afford.

While the abolition of synods has been commanding most of the denomination's attention of late, another of the proposed changes has barely shown up on the radar screen.  If the Mid-Councils Report passes the Assembly and the presbyteries, it creates an unprecedented opportunity to tinker with the structure and membership of presbyteries. The report proposes that, for a trial period extending until 2021, congregations be given the opportunity (with presbytery approval) to pull themselves out of their present presbytery and join another 10 or more congregations in forming a "provisional non-geographic presbytery for specific missional purposes" that's more to their liking.

A huge question - one that may or may not be asked explicitly at the Assembly, although it will be on the minds of nearly everyone - is whether the desire to flee theological diversity for a community of the like-minded constitutes a specific missional purpose.  Congregations inclined to follow the lead of the newly-formed Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (née Evangelical Covenant Order) will likely welcome this move, because it provides a mechanism for doing what they've long dreamed of doing: stepping away from those pesky liberals who are comfortable with the idea of gays and lesbians holding church office, and associating only with biblical literalists like themselves who believe the only place in the church for such reprobates is on their knees in tearful repentance.

There's a superficial appeal to this flexibility, to be sure.  Who doesn't want to be missional, after all?  (It's the denominational buzz-word du jour, even though there's little consensus on what it means.)  Yet, as Wilson Gunn points out, in a recent Presbyterian Outlook article, the "provisional non-geographic presbytery for missional purposes idea" has some hidden pitfalls:

"While 'Geography isn’t what it used to be,' geographic proximity is a value. When times are tough we need to sit beside each other in the flesh. Presence is incarnational. Geographic boundaries are not 'arbitrary.' Most were created to provide an intentional variety of congregations in each presbytery such that the small, resource-strapped congregations and the relatively robust, larger congregations share common resources within a presbytery. This self-selected non-geographic approach can quickly concentrate the larger congregations across several presbyteries, leaving the remaining smaller congregations, who rely significantly upon the encouragement and guidance of presbytery committees and staff, in a presbytery completely lacking the resources to be able to serve them. The rich are likely to get richer and the poor poorer in this design."

Pastors of larger congregations are disproportionately represented among the leadership of the ECO.  Whether intentional or unintentional, the "missional" similarities they claim as justification for their separation will in many cases have the consequence of robbing neighboring smaller congregations of the sort of support, encouragement and leadership-training resources they could otherwise obtain from their larger neighbor - not to mention the lost per capita and mission funding they would otherwise have contributed to their former presbytery, to the mutual benefit of all.

Furthermore, Gunn sees such significant progress being made already by traditional presbyteries in the direction of becoming more missional that he questions the need for such presbyterial vivisection:

"The proposed purpose of these non-geographic presbyteries is being accomplished without reconfiguring presbyteries. Presbyteries, as noted in the commission report, are already experimenting. Presbyteries are already on the way to flat, flexible and faithful. Connectionalism has already taken a different shape than the former regulatory, centralized control. Mission dollars go directly from congregations to the local and international mission field. Once upon a time, 90 percent of a congregation’s undesignated external mission giving routed up through the denomination. Now we see about 10 percent of that mission dollar, yet National Capital Presbytery has over 100 different international mission projects that are sponsored by our congregations. I see just as much missionary energy, it’s just decentralized now."

Does "non-geographic" truly translate into "missional"?  It's for the General Assembly to decide.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The 80/20 Rule

With over 20 years’ experience running annual stewardship campaigns in the local church, there’s one rule I’ve found to be reliably true – in every church I’ve known, of every size and description.  A wise and experienced pastor shared it with me years ago.  Knowing this rule goes a long way towards dispelling the anxiety ruling elders feel about money, as they wonder how it is that stewardship campaigns still fall short of the glory of God.

It’s called the 80/20 rule.  It goes like this:

In any church, 80 percent of the money is given by 20 percent of the people.

“What’s that?” you say.  “That doesn’t sound right.  Why, it’s downright unfair!  Everybody oughta pull their weight.  We’ve got to fix that.”

Good luck on that one.

Every once in a while, some well-meaning church member will stand up in a congregational or session meeting and say: “I know the solution to the church’s financial problems.  Let’s just divide our budget deficit by the number of members, and ask everyone to pay his or her fair share.”

Nice idea, but it ain’t gonna happen.  It violates the 80/20 rule.

We’ve tried just about every flavor of stewardship campaign over the years (except the every-member canvass, an artifact of the 1950s that scares most contemporary churchgoers to death).  After the dust settles and the pledge cards are safely gathered in, that golden percentage survives pretty much unscathed.  80/20 rules!

Sure, we’ve had some successes over the years.  Some years we’ve had significant increases in overall giving.  Yet, always those increases come more heavily from the 20% who are already giving generously than the 80% who aren’t.

“Well, that’s no mystery,” you may be thinking.  “Surely the 20% are the wealthier members of the church.  They’ve simply got more to give.”

Wrong. Any experienced pastor will tell you that generosity in giving doesn’t track very closely with how much money givers have in the bank, or the mutual fund, or wherever else the propertied classes are parking their simoleons these days.  Some of the most generous contributors – the people who reliably come through in the clutch, year after year – are the last people you’d expect to be giving at those levels.  They’re people who live modestly, but they’ve also learned the grace of giving sacrificially.

Conversely, the wealthiest people in the typical congregation – the fortunate few who could easily dip into their more-or-less liquid assets and write a check to accomplish some wonderful things for the Lord – are more likely to be numbered among the 80% than the 20%.  Go figure.

Yes, that’s it precisely.  Go figure.  Lots of wealthy people have gotten to be wealthy because they spend a whole lot of their waking hours doing just that: figuring.  They’re good at it.  They’ve learned how to use money to make money.  They’re justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished.

A financial-services company recently bought a series of TV commercials that portray people going about their everyday lives.  The good citizens of Commercialtown - an appealing, affluent suburb - all have a financial figure floating like a halo over their heads.  Each person's number is in the hundreds of thousands – in a few cases, even millions – of dollars.

“What’s your figure?” the voiceover asks.  How much money will you need in retirement, to maintain the sort of lifestyle you've come to enjoy?

I see what they’re getting at, but this sort of thing doesn’t do a whole lot for the cause of Christian stewardship.

For many 80-percenters, a whole lot of their personal self-esteem is wrapped up in that imaginary net-worth figure floating over their heads.  Asking them to put a small dent in that figure – even to advance the work of Christ – is sort of like handing sledgehammers to a roomful of diehard antique-car enthusiasts and suggesting they go out and start whaling away at the fenders of their classic Corvettes and Mustangs.  Not likely to happen.

The sad truth of it is: to wealthy 80-percenters, stewardship appears to be a losing game – no matter how big their net-worth figure has become.  That’s because there’s always someone trimming his hedges or washing her car outside the house next door, whose figure is sporting more zeroes than theirs.

Jesus may say “Consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin,” but lots of wealthy eighty-percenters devote oodles of time to making themselves more like “Solomon in all his glory.”  They know how to read the Wall Street Journal (from back to front, because that’s where the stock listings are found). They go online several times a week – some, even several times a day – to monitor how their investments are doing.  They’re forever figuring out new and creative ways to reduce their tax liability.  Heck, some well-heeled 80-percenters – most, in fact – actually hire people to help them do these things better!

Is it any wonder that, when it’s time for their church’s annual stewardship campaign, so many of them respond as though we were asking them to turn their fiscal canoe around and start paddling upstream?  (In point of fact, we are, but that’s neither here nor there.)  It all sounds so counter-cultural to them, so contradictory to their workaday (investaday?) values.  The Sermon on the Mount will do that for ya, every time.

The sad truth is, despite their impressive financial achievements, a great many wealthy 80-percenters are deeply fearful people.  Would that they could have more heart-to-heart conversations with a risk-taking 20-percenter!  Would that a neighbor in the pew (from whatever income level) could take them aside and witness to the peace and joy that comes of transforming a closed fist to an open hand!

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what flavor-of-the-year the Session has picked for the stewardship campaign strategy – as long as it contains three elements:

The first is prayer. That goes without saying.

The second is preaching on a stewardship theme, ideally for more than one Sunday.  (It also helps if the preacher is a 20-percenter.)

Third, and most important, the campaign has got to include some way for one or two of the church’s 20-percenters to witness publicly to how much fun it is to lick and seal an offering envelope with a sacrificial gift inside (or to click their mouse on the “Pay” button, as the case may be).

I say “most important” because what we’re really up to in running a stewardship campaign is not raising money for the church.  We’re about the business of conversion.  Not only are we trying to convert a few more 80-percenters into 20-percenters, we're also trying to convert fearful, hesitant disciples into risk-takers who practice their faith with boldness, in every area of life.

Considering that money is, far and away, the most persistent and insidious idolatry of our culture, conversion often has to start there.  But it won't end there.

It won’t happen to every one of the 80 percenters, not all at once.  No stewardship campaign strategy is that good.  But it doesn't have to be.  Just a few conversions a year will do it.  Relying on the gracious and often surprising interventions of the Holy Spirit, slow and steady wins the stewardship race.