This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Anarchy in the PCUSA.

British King George III is said to have described the American War of Independence as a “Presbyterian rebellion.”  American Presbyterians often chuckle with pride about this.  Sometimes it seems like we almost take credit for the whole American project… while carefully not rebelling against hardly anything ever since.  As if we did our part in setting this thing up in the beginning and now our work here is done.  In so doing we get fixated on a sanitized version of our history… but it does not occur to us that there is still anything revolutionary left to do.
But at the heart of our movement there remains a truly radical, revolutionary, and insurgent set of principles and practices.  Noam Chomsky defines anarchism as always questioning and resisting the accumulation of power, and ensuring that the burden of proof in any decision always falls with the party wielding the most power.  Anarchy, then, is not social chaos; it is about diffusing power.  
This insight also describes the heart of Presbyterian polity, distilled to its essence.  Briefly put, if our polity is any indication, we Presbyterians inherently mistrust and reject entrenched power and privilege.  Presbyterianism is about the diffusion of power away from particular individuals and classes, and into gathered groups.  Power is distributed; the organizational structure is relatively flat, with widening circles of increasing inclusivity; and authority is spread around among presbyters essentially equal in power.  Councils are leaderless… save for their stated allegiance to the One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Except when talking about worship, one searches the Book of Order in vain for anyone but Jesus named as a “leader.”  By Chomsky’s definition, Presbyterians are anarchists. 
This is as it must be for anyone who bases their life on the Bible.  The Bible begins with a band of slaves escaping from one empire and concludes with the resurrection of a preacher and healer lynched by another empire for blasphemy and sedition.  The Bible hates and militates against the accumulation of power among an elite few.  The Reformers’ insights about polity reflect this inherent biblical sensitivity. 
The third chapter of the Book of Order bears this out.  Here we find two common themes: first, the church is a community and functions communally.  While provision is made for individual “officers,” who have particular functions within the gathering, leadership isn’t one of those functions (F-3.0103).  The “officers” are called presbyters, or elders (F-3.0202), and their roles are further clarified to include the discernment and assessment of the group’s fidelity to the Word (ruling elders) and to equip the people for mission (teaching elders).  These officers have no power as individuals, but only as gathered into councils (F-3.0208).  
Secondly, the church rejects altogether what the world calls power, that is, coercive force (F-3.0101b, F-3.0107, F-3.0108).  A profound suspicion of power pervades the whole chapter.  Indeed, these principles, like the Scriptures, are written from the perspective of people who had experienced the business-end of this kind of power and wanted no part of it.
Local gatherings are independent of each other (F-3.0102, F-3.0106) and function according to open-source principles like mutual forbearance (F-3.0105), with the rights of private judgment (F-3.0101) held in balance with the mission of the group (F-3.0102), all under the Word of God (F-3.0101, F-3.0103).  
At the same time, these groups consider themselves to be parts of a single collective entity (F-3.0201).  There are councils beyond and including the local, of increasing inclusivity, with the more inclusive, or larger, overseeing the smaller (F-3.0208), in balance with the independence noted in the previous section.  The practice of majority rule (F-3.0205) prevents power from accruing to a privileged, elite minority. 
Discipline is how we encourage and challenge each other to fuller and better discipleship of the Lord Jesus (F-3.0204, D-1.0101).  It has nothing to do with power-over others, still less violence of any kind.  The most severe resort is removal from the gathering. 
So, if we were asked to describe the character of Presbyterian ecclesiology based only on this chapter of the Book of Order, we might imagine it to be a network of semi-independent small groups gathering to encounter and be formed by the Word of God (F-1.02, F-3.0204).  While they assign some individuals to particular roles, the groups recognize no leader except Jesus Christ.  Local groups recognize the authority of more inclusive, larger groups, of which they are constituent parts.
We see here an organization that is anything but the kind of top-down, centralized, leader-driven system pervasive in an imperialist or corporate model.  The Book of Order does not describe a pyramid.  It reflects something more like the “tribal confederation” we see in early Israel.  This system keeps power as diffuse and localized as possible, while at the same time maintaining a common identity, story, and purpose in the center.
Most importantly, the center is Jesus Christ.  And he is not found at the top and then distributed downward.  He is not even in the middle and emanating outward.  Rather, he emerges everywhere, in each disciple, each presbyter, and each local gathering, with the more inclusive gatherings having a more full and comprehensive vision of him.
Thus, seen in its larger social context, the Presbyterian Church is supposed to function as an alternative polity that witnesses to a set of values, goals, stories, and behaviors radically different from those of the prevailing culture.  We gather in explicit opposition to hierarchies, command-and-control structures, corporate organizational charts, and all power-over, domination-based polities.  Indeed, we’re not even “democratic” because the party whose will we are most concerned to reflect is not that of the people but Jesus Christ.
As such this makes us truly and essentially anarchists.  I mean we’re talking about basing our life together on someone who proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the economic redistribution of the biblical jubilee (Luke 4:18-19), and whose mother identifies him before he is born as one who would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).  Can it get more anarchistic than that?  Jesus’ life is about reversal and uprising (anastasis, “resurrection”).
Obviously we have forgotten about all this.  People generally do not think of Presbyterian congregations as cells of anarchists, witnessing to and plotting the overthrow of empires.  But this sense still lurks there deep in our DNA, in words many of us know well, but maybe haven’t really thought about for a long time.  Maybe it’s time to get that part of our identity back.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Polity Is Mission.

In his wonderful book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter describes the way Irish monks brought the gospel to Ireland, and then much of Western Europe.  They did it by forming small communities in or near local villages, and demonstrating a life together of peace, justice, and equality in Christ.  The heart of evangelism was their example of loving community life.  From these local bases of authentic witness, missionaries would plant the gospel in the lives of the common people.  

Their strategy was rooted in the approach of Jesus.  When sending his disciples out he instructs them to live with the people, staying in one place in a village, and exemplifying the new community, the Kingdom of God, that is the heart of his proclamation.  Indeed, he personally embodies this message in his own life.  

The Christian life is first lived in community.
And the word we use to talk about the guidelines and wisdom we share 
concerning how to live well together in community
is polity. 

Church polity gets a bad rap.  Too often we think of it as a collection of repressive rules of judicial governance, a way to stifle change and enforce conformity, an arcane tool for insiders to manipulate, or a bureaucratic roadblock to effective mission.  That is an aberration we have allowed to fester among us, largely as a by-product of the church’s capitulation to worldly power.  Hopefully, those days are over.  

Authentic polity looks at how disciples best come together 
to discern and follow the will of the Lord Jesus.  
It has to do with the nuts-and-bolts, on-the-ground, 
day-to-day dynamics of community-creation, maintenance, and inclusion.  
Polity concerns communication, honesty, 
the balancing of different interests and concerns, 
and the discovery of our unity in mission.
Any community that can provide living, embodied, examples 
of how to work well together for the common good, 
has immense value for people.  
In short, simply being together as the beloved community 
is the foundation of the church’s mission, 
and polity is the way we do that.  

Ours is a culture seeing a comprehensive breakdown in community values, processes, and institutions.  While the obvious examples include the nauseating dysfunction of the U.S. Congress, the mercenary corruption at the core of business corporations, and the ruthless exercise in cynicism to which our judicial system has been reduced, this crisis extends all the way down to neighborhoods and families.  Groups from bowling leagues to the Masons to the Boy Scouts are in trouble, along with churches, of course.  Increasingly, people are finding many organized social groups to be irrelevant.

Yet we humans are inherently social beings and gathering together for mutual exchanges of experiences and decision-making concerning the common good is necessary for a healthy community.  As this breaks down we fall into silos of disconnected and even antagonistic interests, gated communities, and a hyper-individualism that denies our connection to each other.  Communities degenerate into hierarchies, the final demonic form of which is when a vast gulf opens between the few at the top — the owners, the privileged, the powerful, the wealthy — and the rest of us — subordinates, workers, debtors, slaves.     

We Presbyterians have always been known for our concern for good order when meeting together.  It is in our very name, which describes a way of gathering.  “Presbyterian”, of course, means that our church is organized around elders/presbyters, gathered in councils.

Emerging in the 16th century as a counter to a corrupt and tyrannical system that invested power in human leaders —monarchs and bishops —

Presbyterian polity, done well, gives us an 
way of decision-making.  
Our polity is based on the recognition that we have no leader but Jesus Christ, 
and we gather primarily to discern and follow his will together in the Spirit.
The people of God have always been best guided by God’s Spirit by means of elders gathered in councils.  

Unfortunately, the church has been continually tempted to abandon or ignore the principles of our polity, and slide towards elevating some “leaders” above everyone else.  To do this we habitually and reflexively import structures from the secular society and impose them on the church.  We allow the church to be given, as the Declaration of Barmen warns, “special leaders vested with ruling powers” (Book of Confessions, 8.20-8.21) with titles and job descriptions appropriated from business, government, or even the military. 

Presbyterian polity recognizes no leader except the one Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  And he himself gives us the example of servant leadership to the point of sacrificing his life for his friends.  Therefore, in our gatherings we have nothing more grandiose than a Moderator and a Clerk, whose main functions involve ensuring the openness, inclusion, order and fairness, and accurately recording what we do together.  There is in the Presbyterian system no office higher than that of elder, which means that when elders gather in councils all have equal voice.

When we fall into the pit where we start imitating secular models by elevating chosen leaders and paying them handsomely, we fall out of our Presbyterian way and away from the Head of the Church.  We place a strata of bureaucracy between the people and God.  And we generate a black hole that sucks up our resources, reducing our ability to do ministry.  Thus it is when we are dumping money into excessive salaries for leaders that we are really doing administration at the expense of our mission.

I submit this as a counter to the current language coming from some leaders who defame polity itself as being inherently “regulatory” and somehow constrictive to the creativity and relevance of the church’s work.  We are told that we have to move away from a concern for polity — which they reduce to “governance” — and towards mission, as if the two were mutually exclusive.  As if polity were repressive and inward-looking, and mission is when we reach out and engage the world.  

In reality, the way we gather to discern the will of Christ, 
reflect on our progress in discipleship, 
and advise each other concerning how better and more effectively 
to witness to God’s saving presence in the world, 
is integral to our mission.  
It is in fact the indispensable inward dimension of our mission.
We cannot with any integrity reach out and engage the world with Christ’s love 
if we do not embody Christ’s love in the way we gather together.

We cannot reach a good goal by a bad process.  The process is itself the goal.  Thus we cannot become more inclusive, open, welcoming, diverse, and empowering, by adopting processes that are exclusive, closed, and allow power to accrue to a few highly paid leaders.  It doesn’t matter what those leaders say; if in fact they are managing decision-making by manipulation, secrecy, playing favorites, excluding key people from conversations, and generally protecting their own lucrative positions, they are part of the problem.

One of the organizations in our society that actually does work is A.A.  In addition to modeling decentralized, leaderless processes based on a common need, they have a motto that we Presbyterians would do well to embrace: “It works if you work it.”  Presbyterian polity works if we work it as well.  And working it, that is, recovering the practices of openness, fairness, equality, honesty, and mutuality in our gatherings, recognizing that only Jesus Christ is our Head, and our main reason for gathering at all is to discern his will in this time and place, is part of our mission.  It is part of what we display and offer to the world as an alternative to the power-driven, cut-throat, rat-race we are otherwise presented with.

In short, we cannot move authentically outward in mission 
if our inward life is out of balance and even contradictory to our message.  

In the churches I serve we regularly sing as a response the last verse of a hymn many of us know.  It ends with the words, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  The first place we show that love is in the way we treat each other especially in our gathering together for discernment and decision-making.  If we can witness to a model that is open, fair, welcoming, and responsive, we will be revealing something to the world that it sees almost nowhere else: a gathering that works well for healing, liberation, justice, and spiritual growth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Conflicts of Interest.

Good decision-making cultivates creative passions while mitigating self-centered, destructive interests.  This means focusing primarily on Jesus Christ, and organizing mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.

The term “conflict of interest” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution of the PCUSA.  Robert’s Rules basically says that a member of a body should disqualify her/himself from voting when they stand materially to gain or lose from a decision.  I repeat: it’s about voting and material gain.  Conflicts of interest are also mentioned in the PCUSA “Standards for Ethical Conduct.”  Each member pledges to: “Avoid conflicts of interest that might compromise my witness and relationships within the community of faith.”  So what has priority is the integrity of our witness and our relationships.
The obvious problem with conflicts of interest is that people will use their position of power, influence, or authority for personal, usually financial or sexual, benefit.  That is a horrendously bad thing.  I get that.  It is manipulative and coercive; it destroys communities, relationships, and people.  Real conflicts of interest like this can be lethal, especially if they are hidden.   

Presbyterians have always taken sin seriously.  We acknowledge that every human action is tainted by self-interest and the limited perspective of our mortal, temporal existence.  Therefore, we have always emphasized the personal disclosure, naming, and recognition of our own biases and self-will, against the standard of the Word of God.
This understanding of sin relates remarkably well to the post-Modern insight that everyone is inherently conditioned by the circumstances of their own historicity.  There is no such thing as objectivity.  No one is neutral about anything; each of us comes with our own baggage, background, assumptions, prejudices, biases, and desires.  No one stands effectively apart from or above any system in which they are involved.
  In other words, broadly construed, our whole existence is pervaded by conflicts of interest.  They cannot be eliminated or avoided.  Everyone has them, all the time.  Therefore, the responsible and creative way to deal with conflicts of interest is through open, honest, courageous, and critical conversations among people who are essentially equals recognizing their own biases.  

At the same time, having an interest in something is not always a conflict or bad.  Indeed, it is necessary for life and creativity!  Organizations need the enthusiasm, commitment, expertise, and passion that comes from people having an interest in the organization’s mission.  It is a grave mistake, then, to imagine that we are avoiding conflicts of interest when we allow to be excluded, even from a discussion, let alone a decision, people closest to, and therefore having the most direct knowledge, commitment, and insight into, the matter at hand.  In some circles it appears that simply having any interest in something disqualifies one from being part of decision about it!  As if being interested and committed to something automatically becomes some kind of disastrous conflict.  
For instance, I have seen pastors and members of churches excluded from conversations in presbytery entities about the mission and future of those very churches!  This happens all the time!  When I was a Stated Clerk, hearing of presbytery leadership’s plans for this or that church, I learned that I had to ask, “Has anyone actually talked to people in the church?”  I have seen Personnel Committees evaluate pastors without interviewing them.  I have seen staff positions redesigned without any consultation with the people serving in those positions.  And so on.  And the rationale is invariably: conflict of interest.  
What sense does it make to decide that the people actually involved in a ministry are “too biased” to make good judgments about it?  Of course they’re biased!  We hope and pray that our churches are full of people biased towards effective and faithful mission!  The biased people are precisely the ones we want to hear from!  
It is an important role of a council to distinguish between interested, involved, engaged creativity rooted in a deep spiritual calling which benefits the whole mission, and destructive conflicts of interest which benefit mainly the individual.  

The attempt to avoid conflicts of interest leads us to believe that they can be avoided and that there are people who have avoided, or are even immune to conflicts of interest, and who are therefore uniquely able to identify and call out the conflicts of interest of others. 
The assumption of such objectivity is itself yet another manifestation of the imperialist, colonialist, hierarchical, slavery-based economic framework undergirding our whole civilization.  The carriers of privilege lay claim to objectivity by virtue of their “higher” place on the empire-defined ladder of education, wealth, power, and success (not to mention race and gender).  They claim to have a wider and more inclusive viewpoint, and therefore perceive better than anyone what is best for all.  Under this way of thinking, the subordinate people (that is, the ones who actually do the work) are derided as hopelessly mired in conflicts of interest; while the leader class knows best and is all but immune to conflicts of interest.  
This assumption about privilege automatically seems to get extended to all leaders in our culture.  It’s like anyone given authority becomes an honorary white-male-owner, and is accorded the same authority and deference. 

Our Presbyterian system was designed from the beginning to mitigate against this kind of self-righteous blather, corruption, and power-centralization.  Presbyterianism diffuses power into councils of presbyters which have no hierarchy of power-wielding “executives,” or “leaders,” only “moderators” and “clerks” who oversee and manage processes to ensure full inclusion and openness.  Presbyters/elders are to be chosen for their demonstrated wisdom and their conformity to the one leader and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  In other words, they are required to prove how thoroughly biased they are… towards the mission of God!   They are to be supremely interested in the Spirit’s work!  The whole reason we gather in councils is so we may discern the will of God together, recognizing and calling each other and ourselves out on our myriad prejudices.
The strategy then for good decision-making is to manage the various and sometimes conflicting interests of people in the gathering in such a way that the creative passions and faithful interests are cultivated, and the self-centered and destructive interests are mitigated.  This means organizing our mission around open-source conversations specifically including interested, motivated, knowledgable, and involved people.  It means listening to each other honestly and carefully.  It means focusing primarily on the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in Scripture.  And it means actively critiquing our own biases and where we might gain personally.  In the end, the best route is where we are obedient to the Word, while finding what is in the best interests of the whole gathering and its mission, and rejecting what is merely in the interest of particular individuals within the gathering.
More specifically, councils need to categorically identify and define in writing what does and does not constitute an unhealthy conflict of interest, and what actions should be taken to mitigate them.  This would prevent unscrupulous leaders from inventing conflicts of interest as a means of excluding others merely to maintain their own power, privilege, and salary.  Councils should also adopt policies to ensure that the people with the most invested energy are explicitly included in decision-making processes.