Lindner, Small challenge MGB commission to find new “patterns of mutuality”

BALTIMORE – What is the future in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of presbyteries and synods?

For ordinary church folk that question probably produces a range of responses — from glazed-over boredom and confusion (“what is a middle governing body, anyway?), to fear and even excitement. Many middle governing bodies are financially stressed and cutting back on programs and staff; some worry about what further downsizing might bring. Others are in a process of reinventing what they do and how they do it; some are energized by those possibilities.

And some wonder why it matters at all how a denomination stressed by declining membership and resources organizes its internal life.

The new General Assembly Commission on Middle Governing Bodies began considering these questions in its first face-to-face meeting, in Baltimore Nov. 4-6 — the start of a long process that will culminate in a report to the next General Assembly in 2012. The 21-member commission also has power to approve organizational changes for particular presbyteries and synods, with a majority vote from those entities. And it supervises the work of the Special Administrative Review Committee on Puerto Rico.

The commission’s opening round of discussions made it clear that some do not consider this to be an esoteric subject at all. For them, it involves central questions of how Presbyterians live out their faith.

What’s being considered is “how do we shape our life together in order to be more faithful?” said Joe Small, the PC(USA)’s director of Theology Worship and Education Ministries. The question is not how to become “more effective, more prominent, attract more members,” but “how to live out the gospel more faithfully,” Small said.

And “the problems you’re struggling with are not a uniquely Presbyterian narrative,” Eileen Lindner told the commission. Lindner, a Presbyterian pastor and social scientist, is editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. “The American Protestant church is in a wholesale struggle to understand what it means to be a denomination,” she said.

The threads of the commission’s conversation over these three days wove through much territory, including:

    * History. How did the present configuration of presbyteries and synods come about? What are the underlying theological principles of how the Presbyterian church historically has been structured?
    * Current realities. In a changing religious landscape, where do Presbyterians fit in? What can Presbyterians learn from what’s happening in other places?
    * Change. What’s already changing? What needs to change? What creative approaches are already in play? What are the essential functions of a presbytery or synod? Why do they exist?

Over the next year, commission members will be hunting for examples of presbyteries and synods that are being innovative, trying new forms of ministry, reconfiguring their work in ways that gives new focus and energy. Tod Bolsinger, a Presbyterian pastor from California who is chairperson of the commission, repeatedly spoke of the need for the commission to “ask the question of the wider church: What is God already doing?”

Bolsinger also spoke of the reality that some people may not want change either because of discomfort or because they value the work presbyteries and synods do now.

Already, Bolsinger said, he’s heard “the anxiety of people rising up and saying, `We’re doing really good stuff! Mean regulatory body meeting in Baltimore, don’t kill us!’ ”

Some may not think there’s a problem.

“It’s kind of hard to take somebody to a place they don’t want to be from a place where they don’t think they are,” said commission member James Harper, pastor of First Church in Douglasville, Ga.

The commission might also need to convey a sense of urgency — to communicate to the PC(USA) that things do need to change, and quickly, said Karen Dimon, pastor of Northminster Church in North Syracuse, N.Y. “We’ve been talking about this stuff for 20 years,” Dimon said. “We don’t have that much time left.”

In her presentation, Lindner sketched out some of what the research shows about religious life in the United States today. Many of the major Protestant faith groups — the Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptist, Pentecostal and Reformed bodies — are facing some degree of crisis in their middle judicatory bodies, she said.

All are experiencing losses of both money and members. For Presbyterian churches, some of the loss is due to what Lindner calls a “birth dearth,” as in, “they’re not in church because they’re dead,” rather than they don’t like the pastor or the style of music.

Linder also discussed other factors, including the rise of parachurch organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, World Vision, and Bread for the World, which energize local congregations and sometimes draw away funds that previously might have gone into denominational services.

And increasingly, alliances of affinity groups are emerging that share common interests or commitments, such as “green” congregations willing to share resources, ideas and expertise, connected sometimes more by a shared ecumenical or interfaith commitment with likeminded groups than to their own denominational structure.

All this leaves middle judicatories stressed, Lindner said. They are stressed from above, by diminishing denominational resources and authority, by the increasing visibility of parachurch groups and the sense that “there’s no money coming from the top” from within their own denomination, she said.

And the fact that “the local congregations believe they are a law unto themselves, and they pretty much are, is a stress factor for the guy who thinks he’s leading the parade.” For middle judicatories, there’s less money coming from the denominational offices – and often less from local congregations too.

Institutional memory can be another difficulty, Lindner said.

Longtime Presbyterians, “remember when they had six staff” members in the presbytery or synod. “They remember when they had a conference center and a camp.” For some, “that history and memory is a liability because they can’t get past thinking about it.”

Joe Small, in speaking to the commission, was equally blunt.

“Our system is broken,” Small said. “Everyone knows that. It has been broken for some time.”

For most of the 20th century, he said, mainline churches have patterned themselves after the business and regulatory models prominent in the culture. Over the past few decades, the Presbyterian church has become civically and culturally disestablished, Small said, but people continue to act as if that weren’t true, as if the church still functioned as a major voice of authority, providing advice on the church’s stance to political leaders, “who couldn’t care a whit” what the Presbyterian church says.

But Small also laid out the basics of Reformer John Calvin’s theological understanding of ordered ministry in the church. For example, one of the first things Calvin did was to “demolish the distinction between clergy and laity,” Small said. Clergy and laity – “those are two words that should never escape Presbyterian lips,” he said, because Calvin spoke of the idea that in baptism, all Christians are ordained to ministry.

Calvin destroyed the vertical relationship of ordered ministry, making it horizontal – but through the years denominations have made it hierarchical again, Small said.

“I think your task is to try to help the church recover forms of communion among us,” he told the commission. “Your task is not to take the broken system that we have and try to find the right glue or Scotch tape to hold it together,” but to imagine ways “we can live out together in patterns of mutuality.”

Small told the commission that “this is an historic moment in the life of the church. It’s a moment that won’t come again soon. The system is been broken and what you have been charged to do by the church by the church is to imagine” – not to fix what’s there now, but to imagine something better. “I hope you are going to be bold.”

Lindner too encouraged the commission to think big – even when it’s working “in a time of night when all the cows are grey. Nobody can quite see what they are doing. … There’s something humbling about that, in a nice way. God is sovereign. And if you have any doubt, take a look at what we are doing. You are going to add your voices and your reflections and your knowledge and your hunches and your sense of calling to a wider conversation.”

In that work, “don’t be afraid,” Lindner said. “Be afraid of doing nothing and hoping for the best.”

The commission next meets in Orlando Feb. 3-5.