Friday, March 27, 2009

The Future of the Synod

My proposal for the future direction of the ministry and mission of the Synod is very simple. The Synod should be completely dismantled as a governing body. There is nothing shocking or surprising about this proposal. I have heard this very point repeatedly in conversation with many different people around the church. The complete dismantling of the Synod is often spoken of as an inevitable result of time and funding. We know this will happen someday. The Synod is going to disappear as a governing body; my concern is that this will happen by a very slow death which will devour vast amounts of money and hours of leadership time. I propose we become much more forward thinking and visionary in approaching this question. I propose we do not simply allow the force of inevitability to define our future.
I have heard all the emotional arguments which presume that the dismantling of the Synod will compromise and break our connectedness as a church. I humbly submit this is completely not true. The Synod is not a source of connectedness in the church today. The most effective source of institutional connectedness across the denomination today, and in my experience in the Presbytery of Carlisle, is provided by the General Assembly. The General Assembly provides a vital connecting link on the Office of the General Assembly side by providing our constitution in the Book of Order and Book of Confessions, and, of course, for providing the process for their amendment. Much more important to my heart and soul, I believe that the General Assembly Council, the other side of our General Assembly, provides the most important connecting link in our church through the World Mission office. It is here that we should be gathering and focusing our resources and leadership. In addition, I believe the Office of Theology and Worship and the Church Leadership Connection provide vital connecting links within our church. We do not need the Synod for any of these vital connecting links in the church today.

Very quickly, I propose to offer an overview of what we may lose and what we may gain if we boldly and courageously consider the complete dismantling of the Synod.

What we should lose: We should lose the administrative functioning of the Synod. There should not be any Synod meetings, no Synod commissioners, no official governing body action or administrative maintenance. Within our presbyteries we should not continue to hit our heads against the wall trying to recruit Synod commissioners. There should not be any Synod programs or vast Synod initiatives.

What we should gain: I propose that the position of Synod executive should be transformed into a “Consultant to the Presbyteries” position. This professional church consultant should work in two broad areas, with oversight provided by a very small Coordinating Council which may include one person from each of our presbyteries.

Leadership Development: The consultant to the Presbyteries should focus on developing the leadership of the presbyteries. This will include models of support and nurture parallel to what we now have in the Executive Presbyter Forum. The consultant will take responsibility for gathering leaders together. These leaders may be the Executives, the Associate Executives, the Clerks, the Moderators, the chairs of our COM and CPMs, large church pastors, small church pastors, lay pastors, new pastors, etc. There are many different constituencies of leaders which our Presbytery consultant could be responsible for connecting together and encouraging. The consultant’s responsibility would be to help create the bonds of prayer and patterns of mutual support, sharing, and learning for our presbytery leaders.

Mission Networks: The Presbytery consultant should initiate, support, and encourage multi-presbytery mission networks. This has been discussed in the current Synod structure, but this whole effort has, in my opinion, been completely stifled because of our concern to maintain a governing body. Thus, currently, the mission networks have been left to fend for themselves. Some of them like the Transformation Network and the Trinity Disaster Response Network, which Carlisle initiated, have thrived. I submit that the whole concept of mission networks fits the theological, technological and cultural context which we are learning to live into as a church. For example, our General Assembly’s World Mission office is supporting a system of international mission networks, where there is tremendous energy and deep spiritual commitment. I am the moderator of our nascent Honduras mission network. This model may be the future of Presbyterian World Mission. At our level, as a gathering of presbyteries, I humbly submit that we cannot have both. We cannot have a robust and energetic commitment to mission networks and a functioning governing body. As it is now, we are trying to both and we are doing neither very well.

In summary, I propose the complete dismantling of the Synod as a governing body. I propose the creation of a full-time consultant to the Presbyteries position with a focus on leadership development and mission networks. I propose that of our presbyteries redirect their Basic Mission Giving distributions from the Synod to the General Assembly. The new consultant to the presbyteries should have a salary and a support infrastructure derived solely from Per Capita contributions and current Synod financial reserves.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: Lamin Senneh

Lamin Senneh,
Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity
Oxford University Press, 2008

There is something truly remarkable happening in the world. I believe we must be constantly challenged and inspired to lift up our eyes and ponder what is happening in the Church (note the capital “C”) in our world today. It is easy and ordinary to be short-sighted. We may easily consider our own daily to-do list to be the full extent of our vision of the church on any given work day in ministry. There are, of course, sermons to write to satisfy the inevitable coming of another Sunday, and worship services to craft for special seasonal occasions, committee meetings to attend, and the relentless call of pastoral visits. We express ministry on a daily and a local level, and it becomes natural and easy for us to consider this the end of the story, and the fullness of our task.
But, once and again, a voice goes out and may enter our ear, which beckons our vision up and out. Lamin Senneh is such a voice. Do we realize what is happening in the Church around the world? Wow. Listen to this voice. Pay attention to this word. There is something truly remarkable happening in the Church. We are living through a great, global awakening of the Church. The fact is our little corner of Christ’s holy Church today, that is, the American Protestant churches and specifically our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are not participating in this great awakening. The implications of this fact deserve our deepest pondering and prayer. Being outside of this great global awakening will have momentous consequences for our style of church. I believe we need to start paying attention to voices like Professor Senneh.
This new book is the first in a series of books being published as the Oxford Studies in World Christianity. Lamin Sennneh, of Yale University, is the series editor.

“The extent to which the current awakening has occurred without the institutions and structures that defined Western Christendom, including the tradition of scholarship, learning, and cosmopolitanism, is an important feature of World Christianity and its largely hinterland following. In the current resurgence monasteries, theological schools, and hierarchical agency, for example, have played comparatively little role. . . .” (quoted from locations 58-63 of the Amazon Kindle edition.)

This is, of course, the fact with which we must reckon, even while we are too often captivated and captured by our local concerns: “With unflagging momentum, Christianity has become, or is fast becoming, the principal religion of the people of the world. Primal societies that once stood well outside the main orbit of the faith have become major centers of Christian impact, while Europe and North America, once considered the religion’s heartlands, are in noticeable recession.” (quoted from locations 80-83 of the Amazon Kindle edition.)

“These unprecedented developments cast a revealing light on the serial nature of Christian origins, expansion, and subsequent attrition. They fit into cycles of retreat and advance, of contraction and expansion, and of waning and awakening that have characterized the religion since its birth, though they are now revealed to us with particular force. The pattern of contrasting development is occurring simultaneously in various societies across the world. The religion is now in the twilight of its Western phase and at the beginning of its formative non-Western impact. Christianity has not ceased to be a Western religion, but its future as a world religion is now being formed and shaped at the hands and in the minds of its non-Western adherents. Rather than being a cause for unsettling gloom, for Christians this new situation is a reason for guarded hope.” (quoted from locations 88-92 of the Amazon Kindle edition.)

A guarded hope indeed! Amen!