Presbytery Meeting – General Presbyter’s Report
|Audio Version of General Presbytery’s Report|
by The Rev. Dr. Janet DeVries
Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
I grew up in a family where money was rarely discussed. In an earlier part of my ministry, I worked with pastors on how their personal attitudes about money influenced the congregations they served. It was a remarkable education for me which I began by reconstructing my own attitudes about money in the church. Two stories, both from my childhood.
My first church was Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago — huge, gothic, formal. My mother wrote the check each week, put it in the offering plate as it was passed, and I watched what happened. Men in mourning coats received the offering. Their heels clicked down the marbled center aisle with gleaming brass offering plates in hand and the formality of the process made me come to believe that you could only touch money if you were (1) male and (2) dressed to the nines. After the offering was received and the doxology sung, the ushers clicked back down the center aisle and out the door. The service went on but the ushers never reappeared. I had no idea if the mourning coats disappeared, but somehow I got the message that managing the money was more important than being in the pew for the rest of worship. That was a pretty powerful message to me about what church was about.
The second experience was after we’d moved to Washington, DC. A much different congregation, and I was a little older, learning who elders were – that my dad was in meetings with elders and that they were leaders who were to set an example. Of course this was the time that I was being told that I needed to allocate some of my allowance to my church offering envelope so I was increasingly conscious of what everybody in the pew was doing with the offering plate. What I saw was that the offering plate would be passed and people who were my Sunday School teachers or elders never put anything in the plate. Nobody told me they might have written a check once a month. All I saw was that there was nothing going into the plate from people who were the designated leaders. I was aghast in all my 9-year-old assumptions. Further, I was absolutely sure that if there was nothing going into the offering plate that there was no way my dad was going to get paid and that we were going to be out on the street within a month sitting in front of the manse looking for a place to live. I was pretty scared, and through some miracle, I sat on those feelings and sometime in my 30s I told my parents those images from my childhood. Then they were aghast.
All those years later I reflected on several learnings. One was that what we model for children has messages we never imagine we are sending in church, in worship, in our behaviors in church. And quite possibly we send messages to each other or to visitors or new members. It also taught me that no matter where I am on any Sunday you will find me participating in the offering. It’s part of the liturgy for me, and it’s my deliberate way of saying that I don’t want some other child to think that it’s OK to not support the church financially. I learned too that the patterns generation to generation carry their own limitations. My parents’ depression-era experiences in their childhood not only caused them to be very conservative about their own financial resources but also to keep it private and to not talk to me about much more than my allowance (which of course never seemed like enough). And, last, it’s taught me to ask questions as I work with you and others about the assumptions we bring to our shared ministry about everything from money to mission. In other words, I might give to Habitat for Humanity, which I do, online, but it’s a stretch to think I want to give to any congregation online. Just call me a dinosaur.
It has also reminded me that I come from a particular generational perspective about stewardship and some other Presbyterian practices. I have to remind myself that I start with that history and that it’s frankly sometimes baggage and not good news. And if I forget it, there are a few of you I will not name who will remind me.
In an article about to be published, Gil Rendle talks about how we lead organizations through what he calls the “in-between time” when “better isn’t good enough.” With his personal permission, I’d like to share some of his insights with you and though he writes from the Methodist tradition, he manages to include us as well.
The denomination, meaning PC(USA,) cannot continue living off more money given by fewer and fewer people who are getting older and older. You sometimes tell me when some of your members die and their wills may provide some money to the church but it is not sustainable income.
We have dissolved about 15 congregations in Grace Presbytery in the five years I’ve been here. These congregations were closed at the initiation of congregations who could no longer sustain ministry financially or physically. It is projected in many presbyteries that we have not seen the last of congregations with rich history and witness now as vacant buildings.
We have fewer churches able to support full-time pastors with concomitant salaries and benefits.
We know it’s harder than it was even 10 years ago to grow churches, though we have a few congregations in Grace Presbytery which defy all odds.
Rendle’s point is that there are not ways to change these patterns, and often not to slow them down. He reminds us that while God is always doing a new thing, including in this moment, it is sometimes hard to perceive. He suggests that we need to come to terms with three challenges within ourselves:
1. How we understand change
2. The difference between improving and creating, when both are needed at the same time
3. The need to think and act in two different directions.
We have approached change as if we could “manage”it. In reality, change isn’t managed. He suggests that we lead in the midst of change rather than trying to manage it. When we think we are making progress, we are frequently simply running in place. We have learned to take satisfactions, for example, in those bequests left to the church when they are not really “new income.” Like my stories about money in the church of my childhood, he reminds us that we are planning for a future reality that may well not exist.
The majority of Gen Xers and Millenials (all those born after 1965 and 1980 respectively) are unaffiliated with religious institutions like our congregations rather than flocking to them. “Unaffiliateds” (as current literature calls them), contrast to people like you and me who can’t stay away from a Saturday presbytery meeting and who find comfort in institutional religious life in congregations and presbyteries. And again he reminds us that we are to have both realities in contemporary religious life. How do we make way for that in institutions that are just that – institutional with standing rules, standard meeting times, historic mission commitments and a sacred time for worship on Sunday morning? We get push back if we have Saturday presbytery meetings and this year we are having two Thursday meetings and have gotten pushback about that as well. How do the people who find comfort in the traditional and familiar do more than tolerate worship that is not dependent on pews and offering plates?
Rendle nails it for me when he describes the difference between “improving” and “creating.” He reminds me that I work with many of you trying to find ways to improve what we already have in place – whether it’s a congregation struggling to imagine a realistic future or a presbytery figuring out how to do more than move over in our pews for a younger pastor who’d rather wear blue jeans to presbytery meeting than a button-down collar shirt. He presses this by saying that because we don’t know how to open ourselves to create whatever is coming next in religious life, we instead work at improving what we already have. I am guilty as charged and though I work at the creation side, it feels much easier sometimes to improve the status quo and I confess I take more satisfaction in that than I wish.
Though there was some denominational angst about the substantive change to the Book of Order several years ago, the reality is that it has invited us to live more in response to change in the church rather than to look for rule after rule. Something as simple as providing the opportunity for an associate pastor to become the new pastor engaged quite a bit of denominational debate. The point of this change was not that the associate pastor was now entitled to become the pastor, but that she could instead be considered without breaking the rules. How do we breathe creative life into what we’ve always thought was the “rule book”?
Or as we think about denominational mission, how do we continue to involve young adults as YAVs (Young Adult Volunteers) who will stand in sharp and necessary contrast to the people I know who spent their entire lives moving from one mission field to another? What gifts do YAVs bring that would otherwise be lost to the institutional church?
In what ways can we facilitate what feels like risk-taking and still feel the meaningful history of tradition in our bones?
Rendle’s third challenge is how to lead in the tension of massive cultural shifts when we feel like we can make only modest changes where we are.
This made me think about the proverbial way we encourage congregations to undertake mission studies during a time of pastoral transition and in preparation for completing the paperwork to start getting names of potential pastors. For the most part, a committee sits in a room and thinks together about what the church used to be, what it is now and what they want the new pastor to promise so that it thrives for the next 50 years.
I started thinking about a church whose community was changing, which is almost any church I could name. I wondered what would happen if we tried several other ways of getting input about what’s next (not all of which will work in all congregations. Here’s my list:
1. Ask the youth group what they like best about the church and what they’d like to see in the church as they live out their membership
2. Move the committee meeting from the church board room to the local coffee shop and engage the people who come by about what they think about your church on the corner of 1st and Main.
3. Walk around the neighborhood of the church on Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon, or any other time to see what’s happening, what you can discover about who lives there, who walks by, who reads the signs, who might need the church or want to come in. Who’s your neighborhood? Singles? Young adults? Older adults who are living in the same place they’ve lived for 50 years? Rental units?
4. Imagine how you might take church outside the walls without treating people as the object of your mission but as the partners in your ministry.
5. Ask someone not a member of your church to go by to see if he or she can figure out which door to enter, what the church’s ministry is, and what members might do at church besides worship.
Are you hearing me? We tend to answer the questions before we’ve even framed them. We have trouble growing new things along with the familiar to discover that quite possibly the new has more appeal or attraction or excitement than what we’ve done for the last 15 or 50 years.
At our last meeting, we were invited to make suggestions to the presbytery, to each other, about what we should be doing in ministry and mission. Like a great Presbyterian group, you had many opinions and we hope we’ve caught those. The Council has decided to say back to you what they think you said – so that you can think again over the next 6 weeks if that’s what you really meant, or if that’s all you meant. Help us create the future for Grace Presbytery that is not simply correcting or improving what we’ve done in the last 5 years or even the last 25 years. Dream about what the creation of new ministry and mission would be and how we might do it. Encourage us all to think beyond the familiarity of what we know about how to establish new churches. Help us think about training people for ministry who may not be dependent on one church or a full-time ministry salary and whose ministry in a community in what we call secular can instead become sacred. Imagine what young adult ministry could be or how we build on the capacity of 600 senior highs to do energizers until I’d drop in a heap and still get up and pack food packages to be involved in hunger relief. Or if you brought food for NorthPark’s “reverse food truck” this morning, send Brent Barry an email to find out how that becomes not just the project of a single congregation but a way of thinking about our communities and their needs. Tell us what we need to explore and discover together how it can develop, which may be different from our conventional expectations of success.
One last confession to you about about stewardship. I have written the church and its institutions into 50% of my will. 50 percent. I want the church that nurtured me to still be around, maybe not in the same building or even with the same mission priorities I have, but with the same faith conviction that in the swirl of life’s events, there is nothing more important than our shared faith lived out with each other in witness to God we know in Jesus Christ.
Friends, if we want the church which has been important to us to have continuity of purpose even if not in the same form, we are the people to begin the conversation with each other. How will you take that first step?