Guest commentary by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens
Small teams of six (made up of regular Presbyterians from all across the country) engaging their best wisdom and imagination to create design options for how we might live together as a faithful denomination in a period of depleting resources and growing needs.
Let’s call it: A denominational hackathon.
Mr. Moderator, we are indeed facing a kairos moment. We have a confluence of circumstances that could present a profound opportunity to choose our change. Tony De La Rosa, the newly-appointed interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, will begin serving in that role Dec. 1. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has announced he will not run for another term, and will complete his service by General Assembly next year. The PC(USA) is facing an urgent need to make difficult fiscal choices in light of an impending lack of reserves required to continue apace at our current funding levels. These are the presenting issues that create a sense of urgency. Underneath them is a deeper need to reimagine how we will be Church together in this post-Christendom era.
We hear rumblings of distrust, dissatisfaction and disengagement. The distance between those who serve the gospel in our pews and those who serve the gospel at 100 Witherspoon, the denomination’s national offices, seems widening. The baton to pass of yesterday’s wisdom is broken. We face an abundance of adaptive challenges, where solutions are elusive. We are in a natural in-between time – a natural time to ponder deep change; a time of call for deep discernment.
Our reflex action at this point would be to form a task force, to define a special committee to review the situation and report back. It’s in our Presbyterian DNA. And it’s a muscle we have flexed innumerable times. We redesign, realign and rename like nobody’s business. But . . .
What if . . . we tried something wholly different this time?
What if . . . we followed the wisdom of our particular Reformed theology and acted on the notion of the Priesthood of all Believers?
What if . . . we trusted that God has given the whole Body of Christ the gifts it needs to serve the Gospel?
What if . . . we deliberately tapped all our people who took ordination vows to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?
Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!
Hackathons have proven their value to a wide variety of groups for problems large and small. They are used for design and problem-solving on large scales by tech companies to birth new modes of transportation and new ways of communicating (Uber and Twitter were born in hackathons). The Pentagon has used civilian hack challenges to solve problems with self-driving cars, create humanoid robots, re-assemble shredded paper into the original document, locate red weather balloons using social networking tools, and create the spy drones of the future. Fortune 500 companies have used them to redesign internal structuring, revamp supply chains, and develop new product lines. City and State governments use hackathons to problem solve issues from infrastructure to natural disaster response. Non-profits use them to coordinate programs across entity boundaries and rid large issues of duplicate services. We even have churches using hackathons now to discern the best and highest uses of their buildings and depleting resources.
Across the board, apart from the intended results of hackathon challenges, all these entities agree that the huge unintended consequences of using the hackathon approach to problem solving and innovation is the dramatic increase in engagement and trust. Ordinary citizens, rank and file employees, and, perhaps, everyday members and leaders of the PC(USA) – all coming away with their gifts solicited and honored. A high tech version of “it takes a village.” What could fit our Reformed values better than that?
So, What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?
First of all, it goes without saying that the decision-making and authority resides in the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. The board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) should carry on with the soliciting of values and priorities as you have suggested, Mr. Moderator. They could use what they learn and what they already know are the givens (the must- haves) and create what are often called `Rules and Tools’ for the hackathon teams to use. Then, issue the challenge, and watch the Spirit at work.
Ok, here’s what it could look like:
- Issue the hackathon challenge for designs of how we will be Church together as the PC(USA), structurally and operationally. The Bookl of Order is a given in this exercise, but is amendable.
- Have the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and COGA provide the ‘Rules and Tools,’ including things such as an employment tree of all the current Presbyterian Mission Agency departments/divisions (by job title, no names), as well as a listing of all committees, task forces, and grant review teams. They would provide broad-stroke budget numbers for each entity/division, as well as a concise summary budget of the income side. Also, those “Givens and Must-Haves” mentioned before that they may know, but of which others may be unaware. (Hint: BIG byproduct here—transparency yields trust!)
- Invite teams of six to register as hackathon participants. Any member in good standing of a congregation or presbytery is eligible. Maybe charge a nominal team registration fee, maybe not. Maybe issue a finalist’s prize, maybe not. (Yes, you can name your team, pick colors and make T-shirts if you want!)
- Launch the 2-3 month period for the hack teams to create their designs and build their case.
- Maybe have a ‘pivot’ review (common to design hackathons) whereby a To Be Determined Review Team would read the cases and offer critiques. Then have a one-month period for teams to pivot and tweak their designs.
- Have a social media blast of the ideas (thru Facebook). Perhaps time this stage with a special venue at General Assembly in Portland, where folks can wander and learn of the submissions – much like a ‘poster presentation’ at a science or medical forum. Open source all the way. Dialogue ensues.
- The To Be Determined Review Team comes up with 1-3 top finalists. These are announced via social media. Dialogue ensues, perhaps even a straw poll. Transparency! Engagement!
- Submit proposal(s) from the finalist(s) to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board for its prayerful consideration and discernment.
- Have a spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, etc. attached to the social media blasts and hackathon period, holding the process in prayer. (The Presbyterian version of Pope Francis’ constant “Pray for me!” solicitation.)
- More outstanding ideas that the rest of you will come up with should be added here. Open-sourcing!
What’s the upside?
- New ideas from new people.
- A chance to rebuild trust and shorten the distance between our membership and our leadership.
- Transparency and open-sourcing that could yield deeper engagement.
- A democratized solicitation of voices and emergence of new gifts of the Spirit among us.
What’s the downside?
- It’s new, and maybe scary. Not really ‘indecent’, but clearly ‘disorderly.’
- (That’s the key to what is called in Adaptive Change lingo “Creative Disruption” – an essential stage for deep adaptive change!)
Yes, there are a million questions . . . and we’ve already thought of a dozen or so, that can be addressed, but for now, let’s just test the waters out there and see if the idea flies. And, hey, if you are reading this on social media, please weigh in with your thoughts on it – the good the bad and the ugly. And if you happen to be reading this on Facebook and it sounds good to you, click your LIKE button (Yep – yet another product of an open hackathon!).
This idea is being floated by:
PneuMatrix: Jim Kitchens and Deborah Wright, principals
Please, if you are interested, also feel free to enter the discussion on our PneuMatrix Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PneuMatrix?fref=tsAfter 13 years as a pastor and as Development Director at SFTS, Deborah Wright built a career as a Corporate Chaplain, and consultant in Adaptive Change Management. Jim Kitchens, who has served churches in California and Tennessee, is a regional mentor for the Company of New Pastors and the author of The Postmodern Parish.