Can Presbyterians Do Any Better?

Thanks to Tony Jones for re-posting a scathing critique of the recent United Methodist Church General Conference by Will Willimon. Check out Tony’s summary or Willimon’s entire post for all the gory details. The basic gist is that an incredible amount of money was spent for this denominational gathering in which necessary change was resisted at multiple levels. Evidently, it was a casebook example of what institutional preservation looks like at the denominational level.

Here is the key quote from Willimon:

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from the system desire.  Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

And here is the key quote from Jones:

All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.


I just hope that enough of you young UMC clergy have the temerity to stand up and walk out of that system. Trust me, what you’re putting up with is not worth the health insurance — you’re getting the raw end of that deal.

Though I may be as critical of denominations as Tony, I’m not quite with him on the point of giving it all up in favor of non-denominational congregationalism. I still have hope that Protestant denominations can be redeemed. But his point here is very important.

With the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) coming up in July, we have to wonder if Presbyterians will do any better than the United Methodists. As a member of the Mid Councils Commission, which has recommended some bold changes to our system, I wonder if our GA will be just as good at protecting the status quo as the Methodists were.

Throughout our work, the Mid Councils Commission often invoked the organizational theories of Ron Heifetz. In fact, our moderator Tod Bolsinger frequently referenced the exact same idea as Willimon: our system is set up perfectly to produce and protect the results we see now, and have seen for years.

But are we satisfied with this status quo? Are we satisfied with a shrinking church that is less and less relevant in our contemporary culture? Are we satisfied with mid councils gridlocked by lumbering bureaucracies? Are we satisfied with a denomination that is not effective at planting new faith communities? Are we satisfied with a monocultural church in an increasingly multicultural world? Are we satisfied with decades of conflict and division?

I hope we’re not. I hope we can muster the courage to make some significant changes to our system. What happens or does not happen in Pittsburgh this summer will say a lot about how satisfied or dissatisfied we truly are with what the PC(USA) is and what we have to offer our rapidly changing world.

If nothing bold happens, it will demonstrate that we are either unable or unwilling to keep up with the pace of this rapid change. I hope that’s not the case. I hope that Tony is wrong and that there is something more worthwhile in the PC(USA) than health insurance and a pension plan.

Comments

  1. Great post, John – I’ve linked to it and hopefully raised the same question here:
    http://www.robertaustell.com/2012/05/box-of-crayons.html

  2. You all should just bail on the conference and check out PNC Park for some baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a good example of a sinking ship that has been sustainable for a long time. They have an updated facility and actually get a quarter of their pews filled. The clergy are in the bottom rungs of the pay scale and many of them got there without the formality of seminary.

  3. Just checking: do you posit that a rejection of the MCC report is “rejection of necessary change” for the PCUSA. Is it possible not to agree with your work/trajectory and still promote institutional change for our body?

    I mean, a number of us are not quite sold on your commissions’ recommendations, John. (FTR: i am honestly discerning about it, neither sold nor ready to reject it).

    Does that mean we are trying to preserve the institution at the expense of the gospel?

    • No, I certainly think that it is possible to be in favor of institutional change and not support the MCC recommendations. I recognize that our proposals are one piece of the bigger picture of discernment. And, if GA ultimately rejects our suggestions, I hope that we have at least helped frame some of the pressing questions we must face if there is any future for the PC(USA).

      However, I will say that much of what I have heard in opposition to our report essentially amounts to fear of change and institutional inertia that will end up preserving the status quo.

      I’m not saying that your concerns fit this description. In fact, the exchanges I have had with you (and others) about like-mindedness and diversity are probably the strongest arguments against what we have proposed, and reflect the misgivings I had toward the beginning of our work—though I eventually came to the conclusion that these arguments are ultimately shortsighted and obscure the larger ecclesiological shift our proposals engage. (More on this later.)

      Regardless of what happens to our recommendations, I will stand by our diagnosis of the problems we are facing as a denomination. Our report is the result of a year and a half of listening, studying, discerning, and dreaming. Until I see a better set of proposals offered as solutions to the problems we have articulated, I’ll be disappointed if our church rejects the only option currently on the table. I just don’t believe that our proposals will amount to the end of the PC(USA), but I have no doubt that doing nothing will only hasten our demise.

  4. Thanks, John, for posing these questions. I don’t know if structural change at the presbytery, synod, and GA level is really going to bring about change where it is most needed–in congregations. It will be interesting to hear the discussion about that at GA. But, until we can help church members find a way to balance being clients/consumers of religion with being “workers in the vineyard” we will be slow to bring about the kind of change that will transform us.

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