Now I may well be missing something, but at least on the surface it appears that the proverbial right hand does not know (or chooses to ignore) what the left hand is doing … if it is doing anything. Note: We have a long range planning committee which, after more than a decade has yet to produce a plan. We have the motion coming forth from the last Assembly by Clyde Ervine which the LMA is apparently responding to. We have the report from Gordon Haynes which, it appears, is being shelved or at least no response is being solicited. Now we have the Budget Committee jumping in. It would be really nice if we could get our collective act together and actually follow through on one well-thought-out initiative. Have we no leadership?
I am not at all sure this response will be welcomed, but I took the invitation seriously. You are most certainly getting more than you or the committee expected. Grace and peace.
Unification and Vision
Over a period of some 60 years, the various Presbyterian bodies in Canada came together in four groupings. In 1875 these four joined to become The Presbyterian Church in Canada, next to the Anglican Church, arguably the major protestant Christian denomination in Canada. Understandably, the church saw a bright future for itself. It was large and it was influential
Disruption and Determination
Within 50 years there was no Presbyterian Church, at least officially. After a prolonged and heated debate, Presbyterians effectively joined with Congregationalists and Methodists to form the United Church on Canada, 1/3, however, held out and fought over a period of a decade to retain the name, The Presbyterian Church in Canada. The events of 1925, however, had taken their toll with congregations split, buildings lost, and ministers leaving. In the wake there was determination that no such split would happen again.
A Trauma Response
What the church experienced was institutional trauma. First reacting with “fight,” it now shifted to “freeze.” The wagons would be circled, the lines drawn, and focus would be on preserving what remained of the past a Presbyterian denomination of Scots/Irish in Canada.
Some Evidences of Trauma
As this trauma is unacknowledged, not to mention unaddressed, the church has become immobilized. The Book of Forms, originally seen as a “useful guide” becomes “the law and practice of the church.” The law now established becomes the glue that will hold the church together, arguably more so than its theology or any commitment to mission. Clerks at all levels, but especially those of General Assembly, move from being the keeper of records to become the 20th century equivalent of the scribes of old, which preachers rail against, interpreting the law for the church, assuring that the church rigidly adheres to its traditions. The cardinal sin is “pursuing a divisive course.” The image of the burning bush becomes a constant reminder of the devastation and a determination that it will not happen again. We will survive. We will not be consumed.” Over time Moderators of the General Assembly are elevated in their role and accorded recognition beyond their role of simply moderating Assembly for a week. While new churches are planted, they are for Presbyterians, which in large measure means those of Scottish and Irish descent and new immigrants. Missionaries are sent down to the docks to greet new immigrants and to convince them to join the Presbyterian rather than the United Church. Well into the late 1980s, decisions on where to establish new churches were being made not on the basis of where protestant congregations were needed, much less where there was opportunity for Christian witness, but where there was a sufficient number of census Presbyterians to support a new church. Focused on preservation, the church is slow to recognize and respond to a changing society by renewing its ministry. The renewal of worship, including a steady stream of contemporary music began in the 1970s but was still new to The Presbyterian Church some 20 years later. Some dozen models of new church development have been around for more than two decades as well, but are still being talked about, not implemented, within The PCC. The church at all levels became an institution to be managed and so managers, rather than innovators and creative thinkers, staff General Assembly agencies and colleges. (This, incidentally is not intended to be critical of anyone. One does what they are hired/called to do. General Assembly is largely spent listening to reports of activities that make little if any discernible impact on the church. Despite several studies, reports, strategic planning initiatives and the like, nothing of real consequence has resulted. Gordon Haynes has documented this well. The church is encumbered at all levels with law and order. Doing things right has been substituted for doing the right things. Witness the barrage of changes to the Book of Forms that make no substantial positive difference to the church. Similarly the vast majority of reports coming from General Assembly agencies show considerable work, but little progress in moving the church forward either by action or recommendation. Following up on this, the endless recommendations to be considered and mailings to be read and programs to be initiated and the like, bog down congregations and presbyteries with maintenance issues, leaving little time for addressing renewal and growth issues, which are pressing. Despite having a “Long Range Planning Committee,” after more than a decade we have yet to see a long-range plan. General Assembly itself provides the illusion of progress with nothing actually changing. While I applaud Clyde Irvine`s motion, it is sure to come to naught as suggested by the history of such motions, the fact that we have not recognized that we are a traumatized church and that trauma needs to be named and healed, and any significant and lasting renewal of the church is going to take decades and a focused and concerted effort which, sadly, we are likely not capable of. There are a sufficient number of traditionalists, middle and late adopters, and individuals threatened with loss of position and/or influence to resist any substantial change. Added to this is the “word on the street” that there is a movement afoot to actually derail doing anything of real significance in response. Similarly, while Gordon Haynes report was apparently “commissioned” (and I understand that there is an untold story behind this, including a rewriting so as to soften some of the words) no response to it was requested and it is likely to be sidelined.
When Pickering presbytery was formed out of East Toronto, it was formed with a new vision and Harry Waite was the first moderator. Presbytery meetings were spiritual, they were exciting; they were not to be missed. It all lasted until Harry stepped down, after which they reverted to the “tried and true” ways of doing things. The Emmaus Project had some possibilities but, sadly, it took a traditional route of bringing in the high profile speakers, working with a select few Presbyteries, and then dropping the ball as we always do. Does anyone know what lasting impact it has had? Was there any evaluation? If there was, I have not been able to find it. These are all evidences of trauma response.
As a personal note, when doing new church development the greatest resistance to what we were doing came from those who were serving or had served on national staff or in our colleges. Why? Because we began, albeit with the consent of presbytery, as a self initiated and faith mission, not under the (then) Board of World Missional Life and because a different way of being Presbyterian was adopted, with a flat structure, creative worship, and a strong focus on outreach. We simply do not, as a denomination, know how to think differently, act differently. We talk much, do little. Is there reason to be optimistic? Sadly, no.
First, it is highly unlikely that we will admit to being institutionally traumatized and, by virtue of that, individually traumatized as well. Second, by temperament most of us are not innovators and creative thinkers. At best we are early adapters, most of us are middle adaptors and inclined to manage. Third, not only will it take a recognition of our trauma, it will require a radical change in culture that, even if we are up to it, which is highly unlikely, will take two generations to affect.
“What are the programs and projects that bind us together and fulfil not just what is required but what truly makes us Presbyterian in Canada today?” With all dues respects, it is a bad question on two accounts. First, I personally do not see anything that we presently say stands out in a positive way that spells uniqueness. Certainly there is nothing inspiring. Second, if that which binds us together is a program, we are even more lost than I believe we are. The church is not about programs. Programs are institutional and the church is first and foremost not an institution but an organism. What must characterize the church, whatever outward for it might take, is a shared personal relationship to God through his son and an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives individually and collectively. Now I realize that this sounds very fundamentalist or Pentecostal. It is not. I am simply saying that we need to start at the beginning. We have a number of congregations that are in survival mode. A number of congregations are experiencing unhealthy levels of conflict. Presbyteries are frequently less than collegial, displaying little of being a community of faith, apart from the mandated devotions. On the national level there s bullying, a level of mistrust, and, at least one instance of blackmail. We are failing as a church on the most basic level.
I take no pleasure in saying this, but believe it must be said. If we are unwilling to face what really ails us, then any budgeting process or set of programs will continue to fail us as every other program has failed in the past. It is long past time that we get our collective heads out of the sand.
What might we do if we are serious?
I will ask this question twice and respond to it twice, the second being more radical than most, even those most committed to being “reformed and reforming” could tolerate. I would suggest that if there is anything that should characterize The PCC, given its rootedness in the Reformation and assuming that we take Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! seriously, I would suggest that we commit ourselves to a radical renewal of our little part of the vineyard so that we are producing fruit.
So here are a few thoughts on moving in that direction.
1. General Assembly agencies need to get their act together. Whatever the priority or priorities might be,
a) everyone needs to be on board
b) it must be the priority and,
c) it must be pursued until such time as the agreed upon goal has been achieved. It cannot have an arbitrary end date. This has been the failing in the past: no commitment, no coordination.
2. There is going to need to be an assessment of current staff to discern whether they are capable of playing the key role that will be required. Experience is the best indicator. Those who have demonstrated that they are managers and traditionalists and appealers to the Book of Forms will only stand in the way of any true progress.
3. We’re going to have to unburden presbyteries and congregations with the endless mailings, overtures, remits and the like that suck up time and energy and produce nothing of value.
4. We’re going to have to set presbyteries and congregations free to do what needs to be done without getting tied up in red tape. The Book of Forms is for a mono-cultural church in a stable society. It worked up until the 1950s or so. It is now a burden more than a blessing.
5. The singular vision is to create strong vibrant congregations. This will reflect some realities and mean several things.
a) There will need to be an assessment of each congregation and a plan/strategy developed for each one. Not all are the same, not all have the same potential.
b) Some congregations should be allowed to drop out. No sense working with the unwilling.
c) An identification of an investment in key congregations and strategic locations that can be invested in. There are a number of criteria that might be used. This is recognition that some locations should be considered critical for the mission of the church as a whole. Presently we simply close and sell off property without any vision.
d) We will need to equip Presbyteries to more effectively identify emerging (unhealthy) conflict and to respond pastorally in a timely manner.
e) We will need to establish new congregations using a variety of models with no vision that all, or even any, will eventually own a building and become facility bound. Seeing new ministries develop will, in itself, create excitement.
f) We will need to resource congregations on opportunities for outreach, evangelism, and the nurturing of faith. Pastoral care needs to move back to encouraging people in an active faith. This means a variety of ways and means.
g) We need to assist Presbyteries in moving to being a support system for congregations. This would mean a radical rethinking of how we do Presbytery.
What might we do if we are serious? (Part II)
The following are, admittedly, radical. They may, however, serve as one jumping off point for discussion.
With Respect to Ministry
1. Drop the practice of ordination. Recover the gifts Apostle, prophet, evangelists (including missionaries), and pastors/teachers. Induct individuals to these specific ministries according to their identified and demonstrated gifts.
2. Drop educational requirements for the above inducted positions. What is needed is not educated people but competent and effective people. Hence, make suitability for and induction into ministry dependent upon competency alone. This means no class work is required, but rigorous examination in both knowledge and skills would be.
3. Get rid of Education and Reception and place responsibility in the hands of presbyteries.
4. Separate the colleges from the (secular) institutions of which they are a part. There will be a great deal more freedom if the relationship is severed, and we dump tenured positions. The colleges need a reworking as they are largely conserving and tend to be staffed by academics who have lost touch with the church. They and the model they follow are the product of generations past no longer serving as well as they might in the 21st century.
5. Take preparation for ministry away from academics and put it in hand of a cadre of seasoned, experienced, and competent practitioners. Doctorates indicate knowledge, not competence or experience.
6. Expand the ways in which individuals can acquire the necessary knowledge, experience, and skills required for ministry.
Reform our Theology
I am thinking here specifically about baptism and communion which are largely restricted to clergy. This practice cannot be scripturally supported and reflect a failure of the reformers to address the matter. Freeing it from tradition would give it a new meaning and broaden the use. We also need to rethink the whole liturgy which is big on theology but little on meaning that makes sense to 21st century people.
Get back into practice
The reformed tradition is big on the head stuff. Good theology is at the core. We are not always that good on translating it into everyday life. We may be critical of the scribes and Pharisees, but they understood that the really big question was how one lived. We need a theology that is practical and can be cast into a compelling vision that will set the Presbyterian Church apart and swerve as a magnet.
Respect to General Assembly Agencies
Get rid of PWS&D. There is nothing particularly unique or Presbyterian about what we do. We’re in a fraternal relationship with the CRC, let’s funnel our monies there or to World Vision or another relief and development agency. A small re-write of promo materials, easily done, means we can still look Presbyterian and put a considerable more money in the field.
Fish or get out of the boat. We have a Long Range Planning Committee that has been around for more than a decade with no long range plan yet produced. Time to dissolve it and get people who actually want to develop a plan and have the time and energy to commit to it.
Build on The Vine. Long before there was The Vine I suggested that what we needed was a resource person who would not run around doing workshops but rather point to resources already available, of which there are an abundance. The Vine was a good start. Where to go? A number of companies provide “executive book summaries” so why not the same from The Vine? There are good books, good resources, but no time for ministers and others to even become familiar with, let alone read, them all. Recruit a few individuals with reasonable skills and have them condense books, articles, etc. and make them available. They get the book for free, write the paper, it’s made available on line and little cost is involved. The Paredo principle does work for written material!
Online database. There are also a number of creative approaches to all aspects of ministry going on within The PCC and elsewhere. Set up and online database, indexed, where such can be shared. Basic information, not long articles. Anyone can contribute. A simple form would make it readily accessible and easily and efficiently accessed.
Support Continuing Education … with a caveat. My suggestion to M&CV was that educational grants should be limited to ConEd that would benefit more than the individual and the local congregation and that a clearly articulated goal should be in view. I would further suggest that such grants be given for further education/training in an area, not for initial education or training.
Get away from committees. Develop a database of individuals with particular skills and interests who would like to collaborate online. This would help eliminate people who like saying they are on a committee but don’t want to work or have nothing to contribute. Work with the serious folk. Be positively critical, evaluate and then start, stop, or adjust. Rarely do we ask whether what we are doing and how we are doing it is meeting any real need or achieving our objective. We don’t ask because we may well be putting our jobs or positions in jeopardy. General Assembly is a colossal waste of time as rarely does anything come forth than makes a substantial difference. The same can be said for Presbytery meetings. Both, of course, reflect the work of staff and committee which often accomplish little of significance when carefully considered.
Make available a brief on the various models and approaches and then actively encourage new church development. If we have identified individuals with gifts and a passion for new church development, we’re half-way there. Invest cautiously but support generously.
Ditto congregational redevelopment. The church at all levels needs to identify strategic locations and strategic congregations and invest in them. Investment does not necessarily mean money. It may mean resourcing to revitalize and renew. There are an abundance of ways to go about this.
Learn more about ministers “without charge.” A quick survey reveals that there are as many ministers listed as being “without charge” as there are congregations without ministers. Who are they? What are they doing? Why are they not serving a congregation? What are their gifts, skills, passions? Are they open to using their gifts, skills, passions in some form of ministry if only volunteer or part-time.
Clear the agenda. This was alluded to above. We need to work at clearing the agenda of our Presbyteries to enable them to focus on what needs to be done. Presbyteries are burdened with all manner of material coming from Assembly, national offices, etc. demanding attention. As a consequence there is little time for addressing matters of new church development, congregational renewal, conflict within our churches, etc. This needs to change. Sponsor think tanks. By sponsor I do not mean picking up the entire tab. This might be done regionally. Set aside 3-4 days for individuals to come together to brainstorm areas such as approaches to worship, evangelism, pastoral care, etc. Make it a 50/50 split, participants pick up 50% of the tab, results are made available online.
Get serious about Transitional Ministry. If we are going to have transitional (interim) ministers and encourage congregations to avail themselves of the same, then we need to assure that those transitional ministers are trained and competent. I would also suggest that each transitional minister have identified their particular strengths as all are not created equal and all are not competent in every area. Would suggest that each such approved transitional minister have a bio that introduces them to Presbyteries so considering.
Get Mission back into Mission. Few, if any, of our missionaries are actually doing mission in terms of communicating the gospel to those who have yet to have the opportunity to hear it and respond to it in their own language and their own cultural context. This despite the fact that there are still some 7,000 unreached people groups representing nearly 3 billion individuals.
Develop a National Strategy for Congregational Renewal and New Church Planting. The problem we face is nationwide which strongly suggests that we need to address it as a national issue. This should not be a staff responsibility save, perhaps, to facilitate. Those developing should have a passion and experience in one or both areas. This entails identifying strategic opportunities for both church planting and for the renewal of existing strategic congregations. We are selling off buildings and property and closing churches with no plan, not strategy, no vision for growth or renewal. This cannot continue. It must be a priority on all levels.
Identify retired minister with particular skill and experience sets who can be used as facilitators and consultants on an honorarium basis. This is a means of staffing the church with experienced and gifted individuals at a fraction of the cost of hiring a full-time staff person. Indeed, for the cost of one staff consultant, one could expect to have 6-8 such individuals functioning as a team and resourcing the church.
Place every minister and every executive on the same stipend and benefits. Larger churches typically come with higher stipends. In reality, the greater challenge in ministry is with new church development, transitional congregations and remote ministries. Having the same stipend means there is no incentive to move simply to get more money … which is, sadly, but understandably, a reality in clergy mobility. Adjustments would be made geographically for higher costs of living, and more extensive travel that might be required as in multiple point charges. I say this as someone who has been in an executive position, senior pastor with multiple staff, new church development, and rural ministry. It is not unheard of.
Give Permission. I am not at all sure who does this, but we need to give permission for individuals and groups of people to try and to fail and to learn from failure as well as learn from success. To do this we will (off the top of my head) need (as mentioned above) to dump unhelpful qualifications for ministry. We will need to determine what the absolute minimum criteria are for being of the Reformed faith in-so-far-as The PCC is concerns. We will need to determine what the absolute minimum criteria for being considered Presbyterian in polity are in-so-far-as The PCC is concerned. Then we need to set people free to go out and make disciples and plant congregations.
Provide Models. It is not good enough to talk about new ways of doing ministry. It would be helpful, if not needful, to provide models for consideration with the understanding that nothing is rigid. The ends justify the means. We need to worry less about how it is done than that it is done.
Be Wary of Programs. At the moment, I have in mind NCD. My critique is not that it is not helpful, but rather that it presumes what the church is and, more specifically, what a church should be. It thus has the potential of actually being damaging. It, along with Callahan’s work which we actively encourage individuals and congregations to embrace, is almost exclusively founded on an institutional model of the church.
Beyond the PCC
To be honest, I am not convinced that God cares about the PCC any more than he cares about any other denomination. I expect what he cares about are people and The Church, not how it is organized, by what name it is called. The journey is ultimately the journey of one church and it may well be that that journey will see some die in the wilderness.
While the major denominations that were the Christian church in the 1950’s have declined and declined significantly, there has been an emergence and growth of both newer denominations as well as a growth in the number of independent, loosely affiliated churches, and those apart of fellowships rather than denominations. Why? First, they did not come with the same baggage to hold them back. To reiterate, Presbyterians never really had to do evangelism as we relied on immigrants. So we forgot how … if we ever knew. We simply invited those who were inclined to be Presbyterian. Second, we have our trauma response to 1925 with one of the most significant aspects being “Don’t change.” Independent, unaffiliated, and loosely affiliated congregations do not have this baggage, do not have life-support systems, must be entrepreneurial, and will survive only if they succeed in reaching people. Most can have a pastor with minimal academic training. Given this, there is an almost infinitely greater freedom to adapt the message to the culture. Anecdotally I have attended congregations where there is a preponderance of individuals is their 20s and 30s and I am aware of congregations where these 20s and 30s listen eagerly to 45 minutes sermons. And, yes, we do have Presbyterian congregations that are growing. We also have some that have found it difficult to grow within the context of the culture of the PCC. Some have or will leave for that reason.