Mid Councils Reform: Failure to Launch

In a not entirely surprising—though no less disappointing—series of events, the Mid Councils Commission report was gutted and mostly rejected at the General Assembly. Though I still hold out some hope that the issues we raised will generate discussion and perhaps even innovation in our church, I must say that I’m feeling pretty discouraged at this point. I just don’t think the church is ready for the kind of changes we recommended. I suppose that after the major changes of Amendment 10-A and nFOG that happened over the past two years, an institution as big and as change averse as the PC(USA) needs time before taking more risks.

For those not following developments in Pittsburgh, here is the short version of what happened. Our recommendations to eliminate synods as councils of the church has been referred to a task force that will work between now and GA221. This keeps the proposal alive, which would not have happened if the assembly approved the committee recommendation to create a task force that would simply reduce the number of synods. Our recommendation about provisional non-geographic presbyteries were flatly rejected—despite an effort to refer this idea to a task force to keep it alive. There will be a study guide created and distributed electronically, which gives me hope that this work might still help congregations and presbyteries think about the challenges and potentials of being church in our post-Christendom world. (For full coverage, check out this story from the Presbyterian News Service. You can watch the full plenary debate on this video, beginning at the 48:00 mark.)

What really discourages me about the fate of our report is that I don’t really feel that our diagnosis of the issues our church is facing nor our pleas for adaptive change were really engaged. I know this probably sounds like sour grapes from a sore loser. But in committee and on the plenary floor, what I heard most was what I feared the most: passionate pleas based on predetermined opinions about synods and non-geographic presbyteries. I don’t think I ever heard a commissioner talk about the post-Christendom realities we find ourselves in and how our recommendations might or might not address them. Instead, we were shredded by people from the few functional synods testifying about how much they love their synod and people (mostly progressive friends of mine) warning that non-geographic presbyteries would destroy the essence of Presbyterianism.

[I will also say that I can't help feeling that the deck was stacked against us. After 21 people worked two years to produce a 300 page report, we were only given 30 minutes to present to the committee. This was immediately followed by 15 minutes of the representative from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (who worked with us the whole time and was supposed to make sure that what we turned in was constitutionally sound) ripping our recommendations apart and saying they were filled with constitutional holes. The oppositional testimony time from the overture advocates and the open hearing far outweighed our own time. I also find it strange that our moderator, Tod Bolsinger, was not given time during plenary to make a presentation about our complex report (compare this to how much time was given to resource people at the beginning of the Middle East Peacemaking Committee's report.) In fact, Tod was only asked to speak in response to questions from the floor and was then chastised for advocating for the report. Our system, like most institutions, is clearly designed to protect itself.]

I figured non-geographic presbyteries would get pounced, but I was really shocked that our synod proposals were rejected, which most people assumed would be a slam dunk. Many within the church have been calling for the elimination of synods for years, and our research and listening demonstrates that there is widespread consensus that synods are not necessary. All I can figure is that the people who came out in force to defend their synods won the day, especially given what I perceive as a deep reluctance to change right now.

As something of a rebuttal to the arguments made against our synod recommendations, I want to reiterate that our plan would not have stopped the good work that some of our synods are doing. It would have just reconfigured how that work is organized and resourced. Our plan also provided for the judicial functions and racial/ethnic concerns that were raised.

Regarding non-geographic presbyteries, it seems that this proposal was essentially considered an attempt to appease conservatives and allow for reorganization based on theological affinity. No one bought our argument that these provisional presbyteries were simply one option we wanted to allow churches to try out during a wider season of experimentation and innovation in missional ecclesiology. I honestly don’t know if non-geographic presbyteries would have worked, and I still have some reservations myself. But all we wanted to do was give it a try. Given the safeguards we built into our proposal, I really don’t believe that cataclysmic harm would have resulted.

As expected, the “loss of diversity” argument against non-geographic presbyteries was loud and clear (especially from my friend Joann Lee). I’ve already written about this, so I’m not sure I have much more to say. I really don’t think our non-geographic presbyteries proposal is simply a strategy to avoid our differences, though I do think it is a strategy of polarity management that might transfer our problems with division and conflict somewhere else in order to free presbyteries to focus on their primary purpose of supporting the mission of local congregations.

With the resounding rejection of non-geographic presbyteries, I’d really like to hear some good ideas about how to get our church unstuck, because in two years of work on this commission we really didn’t hear much else—at least when it comes to structural changes. It may be that our biggest problem is poor leadership, because the few presbyteries that are in fact making innovative changes and moving forward are doing so because of visionary leadership (see our report for examples).

In the end, I’m disappointed and discouraged by the failure of our report to make much of a difference at this General Assembly. I’m hopeful that some seeds have been planted and that the ideas we’ve raised will gain some traction.

I certainly don’t regret the two years I devoted to this project. I learned a lot and I’m proud of our report. And I made some great new friendships—some across theological lines—that I will cherish for years to come.

Comments

  1. John, On behalf of fellow Presbyterians who long for a new Reformation in our denomination and in our local Presbytery of Chicago, thank you for your two years of creative labors with other faithful Presbyterians on your report & recommendations that were carved up in our GA process. Given the postings I’ve seen on FB this week, my hunch is there will be many post-mortem conversations after this GA regarding how our processes sometimes or often reward institutional protectionism rather than innovation. As Rev Mark Wendorf once said to me, Presbyterians make changes at the rate of 3-miles an hour while the N. American contexts of our ministry, esp. in urban areas, move at 100-miles an hour. At our pace of change we will continue to do ministry for forms of church and society that no longer exist. The late James McCord, former President of Princeton Seminary, in 1980-81 identified a growing nostalgia in American religion as if country-western music had become the soundtrack of our religious lives. After this GA, I am wondering if new emerging denominational leaders like yourself & others who served in your commission or who supported its proposals are ready to launch a movement for a new Reformation in PC(USA), a bold call for new leadership at both the local and national levels. We should all take our inspiration from the Arab Reawakening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, & Syria where masses of people boldly declared a legitimation crisis for old regimes that had isolated much of the Middle East from the politlcal-economic innovations occurring in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, & Latin America. We need our own Arab Reawakening in the PC(USA). Thank you for designing with others what the future of ministry and mission may look like if we de-legitmate the current structures and leaders of nostalgic Presbyterianism. RAC

  2. Martha Brown says:

    John — you and others did extraordinary work producing the report. Take heart that the work of “asking the impertinent questions” (stolen from Gary Trudeau) is an important work and vital to creating change even when it takes longer that we’d like. Keep asking those impertinent questions and raising the issues and pushing and pulling our church into something new. Take heart, continue the reformation work and remember that you have allies in many places throughout the church.

    Martha

  3. The one consistent dynamic I have experienced over the past 25 years is that commissions really dig in and, because of that new learning, recommend far-reaching changes that are then almost always rejected by the assembly that has not had the learning experience of the commission (think “Keeping Body & Soul Together”).

  4. I am also disappointed. I know this whole situation probably has something to do with the fact that those who work on an issue are far ahead of the general body. This happens to me here all the time–we spend so much time learning and thinking about an issue, others who haven’t spent that time (and often don’t want to) are the ones who have to accept the leadership…and in this case, the GA was not willing to trust the leadership elected and appointed to do important, creative, and innovative work. I wish we would have trusted and tried something, rather than simply doing the same thing we always do and expecting a different result. :-(

    • Sherrie Lavelle says:

      I am also disappointed and discouraged. The concern that non-geographic presbyteries would increase affiliation with like-minded people seems disingenuous. After all, DENOMINATIONS are formed by people with affinity and like-minds! How diligently are those against like-minded affiliation engaging with other Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Pentecostal neighbors (to name a few) if theological diversity is the real concern?
      Thank you to the commission for your courageous, well-thought-out, creative, risk-taking recommendations. It’s unfortunate that, in this case, GA is not ready to experiment with “new ways of being church” in order to achieve new results.

  5. Thank you, John, for all of your work. As a member of COGA and a 4th gen. Presbyterian Teaching Elder who also has dedicated my ministries to inviting the church to stretch and risk itself toward new vitality I appreciate all that you and the Commission did. And I do believe that all of your work has made a profound impact and sparked rich discussion. I know how frustrating it can feel when things don’t unfold in a way that feels like you’ve been heard/seen/understood. At the same time, the transitions the church is facing and the challenges that remain require a multi-layered response. And I hope you can draw hope and affirmation from the fact there are lots of us out here in the church who are working every day to practice being Jesus followers with more integrity. The multicultural movement is one place I’ve found some new kinds of vitality. My work on embodiment is also a place where I see a lot of hunger and restlessness in our denomination that we are figuring out how to live into. The work is intense and can be hard. God’s call is that way. So, all this is to say, keep the faith. I pray that you feel the support, appreciation, and love of your brothers and sisters in Christ on all sides of the issues we worked on together.
    Peace to you,
    Marcia Mount Shoop
    http://www.marciamountshoop.com

  6. David Kester says:

    I wonder if what is decided today about the redefinition of marriage will make this a more or less salient issue? We’ll see!

  7. I was certainly surprised by the resounding “no” your report got as well. I wonder if some other models for congregations working together in mission outside of geographic boundaries might now be shared. Our congregation is working with congregations in nearby presbyteries in creating new youth retreats and sharing elder training events. I guess I’m starting to wonder how necessary it is for churches to be covenanted in the same presbytery in order for them to be together in mission in the way that they want. Maybe this is where the “orders” that some folks have started to suggest may prove useful.

  8. Lpouis Weeks says:

    I too regret your recommendations were ignored forr the most part. As I wrote in the Outlook, all of them deserved approval. You did an admirable job in lookin forward to the future, while many Presbyterians sadly are still remembering the past and trying to regrasp it. Our “sustainable Presbyterian future” lies in the energy and agency of congregational leaders and those in middle councils who provide resources for them. Blessings on you and the other members of the commission. Gratefully, Louis Weeks

  9. Christine Vogel says:

    John: Thanks for your work on this. Don’t give up hope. I agree with Jeff Krehbiel’s reply: that most of us are not nearly as knowledgable as those who have worked on an issue for several years running. And at a time when our leadership is mixed at best, and committed to protecting the status quo at worst — AND when the Assembly is similarly polarized, the the thought of more changes — even if only experimental and time-limited — creates immediate resistance. We are caught in a time warp as a church and not nearly enough of us are ready to accept the realities of the post-Christendom world that is already upon us. Many of us — even “older” teaching elders like myself — are ready for the change to happen and more than willing to work with the younger/emerging leadership to move it forward. peace, Christine

  10. It would be good, as you say, if presbyteries believed that their primary purpose was supporting the mission of local congregations. Instead, our higher governing bodies have focused presbyteries on coming up with per capita contributions to support their agendas, even when that has had the effect of debilitating a large number of presbyteries.

  11. Anna Vest says:

    I am proud of the work you all have done & although I don’t know nearly as much about this stuff as you all do, I do now how much dedication & hard work has gone into the last 2 years by this committee. I applaud all of you for your commitment to our denomination. I know that although things didn’t go the way you had hoped, your message is out there & maybe, just maybe, over the next 2 years, your colleagues will slowly come around.

  12. John – Your reaction is not sour grapes. I saw very few signs here are GA that commissioners really “get it” about the structure and operation of the denomination. To keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is, well, insanity.

    Thanks again for your work and the work of the whole Commission

  13. John .. sorry to hear about the representative of ACC tearing up your recommendations. As one who would have liked to see the non-geo presbyteries in order to keep theologically conservative churches in the PC(USA) its sad to hear that all the staff people from Louisville wanted was to keep the status quo.

    Trouble is, that status quo will not be static for long …

  14. As one who followed your commission’s work closely, I was really surprised by the results as well. And as a very pragmatic person, not so surprised. So many people are struggling to adjust to the changes around them – not just in the church. We seem to default to a lack of trust in others’ expertise and motivations, especially as we move beyond the bounds of the people we know and serve with regularly (which means any mid-council, really).

    I wish more people had followed your work so that some of that confusion and fear might have been avoided. You all did an incredible job of communicating loudly, clearly, frequently and openly. Your time and service was not in vain, even if it may feel that way at the moment. God has a wonderful habit of redemption.

  15. Gregg Neel says:

    John, first thank you for all that you have done. It has been tremendous work and the conversation will not go away. This morning before I read your post I had decided that I was done with spending energy on denominational concerns. After reading what you and Steve Yamaguchi have written I actually am more hopeful that there can be some meaningful work done. I will have to write that when I agree with Robert Cathey I always get a bit nervous. If Ken Sawyer writes anything about this post then I may have to reconsider (Ha!) Know that you are appreciated and thanked.

  16. Hang in there! Adaptive change is hard, and takes time. I suspect that your commission has planted seeds that the Holy Spirit will encourage to grow. The worst thing to do at this point — and certainly what the status quo will nurture — is for you to stop doing this hard institutional work.

  17. M Silva says:

    I agree. Wasted time, wasted money, wasted efforts on a great proposal. If you lead a signature driven petition to re-overture an INTACT REPORT “as is”, count with me

  18. M Silva says:

    @Mary Hess….Truly this GA was right next to the road….#seriouslyjoking

  19. future pastor says:

    Thank you for your work and passion John. I echo what so many above said. I do believe that from the start the MCC was on the block. ‘Yinz’ accomplished so very much in the face of a nonstarting task. Thank you for pointing out the subtle sabotage of institutional attempts survival. Which, by the way, only guarantee more loss and division. This was the one area where both right and left could have and should have worked together for the common good. I was so sad that was we could not meet on this. Idols block our vision.

    I do think that the timing of the report made it a clear loss. Had your report been on Friday with the Biennial Review or others after the hot issues, we commissioners may have been able to see a way forward that was not R-L or W-L. By putting yours first it became a warning to all what might happen when the votes came–thereby ensuring defeat of MCC and also dividing the assembly on ME and SSM. Fear takes away our breath.

    As a moderate (the rightwing has been gone awhile), I had hoped for more conversation and transforming thinking in order to stay and work under an umbrella together. Instead I see that old processes have enough of a heartbeat to pound a long dead carcass of equine bureaucracy.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] proposed these non-geographic presbyteries and who has blogged extensively about it, such as in this post after the proposal was defeated. John also has a recent post about his doubts about [...]

  2. [...] the movers and shakers in the PC(USA) are giving up on changing the system. I’ve certainly grown discouraged about the capacity of our institution to reform itself in the way we claim is a core value of Presbyterianism. Does this mean that we are in fact moving [...]

  3. […] blog traffic was July 6, 2012 when I published two posts about my frustrations (you can read them here and here, and see all of my #GA220 posts here.) The Vice-Moderator debacle and the dismissal of the […]

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