I agree with Eileen Lindner’s workshop comment that the financial downturn “is a chance to retire some things that haven’t worked for us in a very long time.”1 I also applaud the attention given to multicultural ministry and evangelism.
Although criticism of General Assembly Mission Council’s (GAMC’s) elimination of justice ministries staff positions surfaced in the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) banquet, I support the public expression of such criticism. Public dialogue, even when painful, is better than hidden rage.
Laura Mendenhall’s address as she concluded her presidency at Columbia Theological Seminary, especially her reported comments on the urgency of change and on leadership, resonates deeply within me.
And, we dare not ignore Graham Baird’s sermon on the Pentecost story in Acts 2 and his challenges that we “come out of our upper rooms, “learn the languages of the people we’re ministering with,” and “not be ashamed of our messiness — the outside messiness of ministry, not the internal messiness of strife and disagreement.”2
From a distance, therefore, my assessment of the Big Tent event is positive, but not in all respects. It’s what I did not see there and what I don’t see in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that troubles me.
Here is one example of a troubling omission: I do not see church-wide conversation about leadership, especially the kind of leaders the PC(USA) will need in the future. I know there are many private and small group conversations about leadership. It’s time for these private and specific conversations to become public and church-wide. It’s time to move these conversations from the margins of church life to the center.
In addition to those with agreed upon characteristics of an authentic Christian faith, a genuine love for people, and demonstrated ability in specific disciplines, what kind of leaders will the PC(USA) need in the remainder of the 21st century? Do we need people with a healthy sense of self? Imaginative people? Courageous people? Those with enough stamina to weather the inevitable sabotage leaders face? How will we identify, call, and train such leaders? And, do we ourselves have the sense of self, imagination, courage, and stamina to begin and sustain such a church-wide conversation?
Laura Mendenhall’s call to bring seminary and church together to shape a shared future clearly points us in the right direction. Bringing these two together will surely open a church-wide conversation about leadership. I, for one, am looking for signs that such a conversation is emerging and acknowledge my own interest in it.
While the 2009 model of the Big Tent has folded, significant questions remain:
Are our congregations and is our denomination ready to move from this event into action?
Will we rise to the challenges of multicultural ministries, evangelism?
Do we feel the need for change urgently enough to make changes in our ministries, our worship, our relationships with neighbors, our entrenched habits, our very selves? Will we find the courage to “retire some things that haven’t worked for us for a very long time?”
Answers to these questions are months, even years, away. If we quietly slip back into our old, comfortable patterns, we can be reasonably certain that we did not catch the Big Tent spirit.
The criticism that surfaced in the PHEWA banquet raises its own set of questions. This incident is, I believe, clear evidence that there are multiple visions of mission and ministry in the PC(USA). Multiple visions are not necessarily bad. They may correlate with Baird’s “outside messiness of ministry.” But, when holders of a particular vision believe that their perspectives are being ignored, their voices may arise in unexpected places like banquets and feel like Baird’s “ internal messiness of strife and disagreement.” Which kind of messiness was the PHEWA incident? Outside, or internal? In the short run answering this question may depend on the ability of both the GAMC staff and the PHEWA leadership to stay in touch and to work with each other.
In the long run there are deeper questions: How big is our tent really? Is there room enough in our tent for multiple visions and dissenting voices, especially regarding mission and ministry? Or, do we have an ecclesiastical and missional space problem?
John L. Williams is a retired synod executive and lives in Overland Park, Kan.
1 Presbyterian Outlook, July 13, 2009, p. 7.
2 Ibid, p. 8