Guest commentary by David Williams
There comes a point in every big parliamentary gathering when things can go a little bit off the rails. You’re trying to call the question on an amendment to the amendment to the motion to receive a resolution for a first reading… and everyone suddenly realizes that no one quite remembers what’s going on. Or an overeager moderator with her eye on the clock has cut corners in a way that prematurely silences debate.
“Point of order!” comes the cry from the floor.
It’s time to slow down, because things are getting done wrong. Over the years, it has occasionally struck me that while such attention to process might warm the cockles of my Presbyterian heart, there’s another thing we need to shout out occasionally. If doing things decently and in order matters to us, every once in a while we need to call for a point of decency.
The recent “ethics scandal” with the 1001 Worshipping Communities is just such a moment. Here, we have four PC(USA) staffers accused of malfeasance as they strove towards the Herculean task of helping create what are now hundreds of new worshipping communities. Specifically, $100,000 was transferred to a nonprofit corporation created for the sole purpose of supporting the formation of new ministries.
We are told that this violated established processes, procedures and protocols, and so it triggered a committee-driven reaction. Lawyers were hired. Staff were placed on administrative leave with pay. And so far, the church has dropped almost $800,000 investigating the “misallocation” of $100,000 in church funds. None of which were used for personal gain. Every penny of that money was returned the moment a question was raised.
The end result (or at least the latest news) was the public announcement that the staff in question “no longer worked” for the PC(USA). This, as we’ve been told, was how at least one of those staffers learned that they’d been fired.
Now comes a defamation lawsuit. Others who’ve been accused – but given no access to processes shrouded in expedient secrecy – struggle with the impact on their reputations. The cost, to the church, will be more than 10 times the amount it would have been had staff just taken the hundred grand in large, unmarked bills and gone on a spree at Vegas.
To which we need to hear from the floor: point of decency!
In our scribal attention to liability concerns and reputational issues and internal policies, we have, to use the technical term, screwed this one up royally. Orderly? Sure. But order matters not at all to our Creator if it is indecent.
We have treated people indecently, in the way that grinding, disconnected bureaucracies can hurt and dehumanize. This grimly ironic storyline reads like something penned by Gogol or Vaclav Havel, had they written about reformed ecclesiology. In the process, we also appear to have sabotaged an initiative that was working with success to spread the Gospel.
Why? Why have we done this? Who is responsible? As tempting as it might be to point the finger at this person or that person, this is not about one person or a particular individual. It is systemic.
Because, I think, we together are anxious. Anxious about our future, anxious about how things seem to be slipping through our fingers.
And anxious systems, like anxious people, create the reality they most fear.
What were the primary concerns of the committees that responded to this issue? Corporate reputation, trust and liability. What has this process accomplished? It has damaged the reputation of our denomination, subverted the systemic trust necessary for institutional thriving, and created liability exposures orders of magnitude greater than the initial “risk.”
But more importantly, it has brought pain to good people, who’d done nothing other than try to be agile servants of Christ.
Which is, of course, the entire point of this thing we’re doing together.
For the sake of decency, and the grace that defines good order, it’s important that we not forget that.