Tuesday, May 01, 2012
And the band played ... (Lessons for the Church)
When I was settled in Prince Rupert Presbytery in the North-West corner of BC I found myself in a context that was radically different from anything I had ever experienced before in my life ... yet, the collective approach and wisdom of many in leadership roles in that Presbytery offered a comforting place in the midst of a challenging milieu.
The Conference Officer serving out of Hazelton at the time was a character by the name of Gordon Pokorny ... There are those in the Church who will wince at the recollection of Gordon, while others will herald him as a prophet and a prince ... I think the truth lay somewhere in the middle, but I also think Gordon really didn't care one way or another what people thought about him. He was called to serve The Church and to support the ministry personnel within it ... his words could be harsh and sharp at times, but he also was incredibly caring and warm at times. He was an enigma, but a loyal servant of the Church ... and whether you loved him or hated him, you had to respect his words when they were uttered ...
One of Gordon's favourite phrases, particularly when we were bogging down in discussions about issues before us was "we really need to stop shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic here, and get on with dealing with the real issue ..." I remember him adding a variety of different observations, but the gist of them were: "the ship is sinking, we either have to man the pumps and plug the leak or get into the life boats and abandon ship ..."
Regardless, Gordon was right ... and along the way he taught me a few things about ministry that have stuck with me for the last couple of decades. He and I had many chats in my time on the west coast as I struggled to find my feet in ministry ... and his snippets of wisdom have educated and informed me since.
It was Gordon who pointed out what an incredibly political place the Church is. He noted that most of the leadership positions are people who have been groomed within the Church and who have never really been outside of it. They are what he dubbed "professional" church members who aspire to promotions to leadership position in the same way folks in the business world aspire to promotions that lead to the corner offices ... instead of new thoughts and new perspectives and new blood, we rely on the 'tried and true' or more aptly the "TIRED and true", and then we wonder why we wallow in mediocrity.
Gordon lamented the lack of passion in many leaders within the Church noting that often folks coming forward claiming to be called to Order of Ministry roles may well be called to a deeper commitment to their local congregation, or even to the broader church activities, but they may not be called to Ordained or Commissioned ministry (he said this most clearly about ex-spouses of ministers who after a nasty divorce enter ministry as what he defined as a means of proving to their former partner that they could do ministry BETTER ...).
Gordon also noted that the centralizing of our various bureaucratic offices may serve to facilitated the ingathering of the dispersed corners of the Church, but the vertical vaticans we create in urban centres lose complete touch with the fringes of the Church. He would note that what works for Toronto or Vancouver, or the issues facing the church in a downtown setting are not what a rural church in Northern BC or rural Saskatchewan are struggling with. Moreover, it was Gordon who opened my eyes to the peopling of those offices ... he asked "how many times do we see people campaigning for those positions and offices in Conference and GC offices, in the same way we see politicians campaigning for election? It's a popularity contest based on connections and family ties more than competency ..."
Crusty old Gordon, uttered an uncomfortable truth ... respect he pointed out, is earned not simply granted because of who your granddaddy was, or what office you occupy ... competence is revealed NOT by the title you bear, but by the life you live ... ability is NOT limited only to the connected and the popular ... over and over, Gordon in his curmudgeonly wisdom offered TWENTY years ago lessons that the Church continues to ignore at its peril ...
We stand in a place where we wonder why the Church is in decline and wring our hands over it ... yet we have done very little beyond changing the colour of the wall paper and changing the type of music we listen to ... what is needed in the United Church is an abandonment of the 'way things are'.
We MUST stop shuffling the deck chairs and the band needs to stop playing so we can actually address the issues before us ... most churches are struggling just to get by and keep the lights on ... yet, we're being told that if we try this new model we'll have crowds of people beating a path to our door ...
Hmmmm ... from my experience, Church growth is nurtured by the one on one relationships that happen EVERY DAY in small towns ... over a cup of tea or by visiting in a grocery store aisle, we extend the circle of welcome that allows people to reconnect with our Church Communities. With a smile, a kind word and a bit of time, we build our community one encounter at a time.
Church meals, special events, and personalized invitations that live the words "All Welcome" on the front doors of our buildings, are the ONLY way our Congregations will survive. AND, in my personal experience, when this growth begins to stir it poses a DIRECT threat to the powers that be, and the established order, and it must then be squashed.
The bureaucracy of the Church plays the political game and demands that the band plays on, lulling people into a false sense of security, while the growth is rooted out and destroyed ... the threat to the way things are is too strong, and must be stopped. Instead of being open to the Spirit and the potential it offers, the political nature of the Church insists that the way things are is good enough ...
"There's no problem ..." the voices will counsel.
They will point fingers of blame and ignore the listing deck and the cold icy water swirling around their ankles.
The Church is sinking fast ... and the first thing we NEED TO ABANDON is the political machinations that exclude many, and herald the few ... instead of shuffling the deck chairs we need to take the peril we're in seriously, and begin to address the crises before its too late ...
Step one - deal with the reality we're in, and decentralize the power of the Church ... next we need to let the Spirit inspired growth happen ...