Highland Park Has Reached A Settlement Over Its Property

After voting last year to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) in Dallas sued Grace Presbytery over ownership of its property. A trial date was set for next month.

But this week HPPC’s session approved a $7.8 million settlement with Grace to end the dispute. Pastor Bryan Dunagan–mere months into his call–explained the decision to the congregation in a video:

HPPC is one of the largest churches to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, the 18 month-old denomination formed in response to the former’s allowance of ordination for openly gay men and women. We wrote about their departure here.

NEXT Retrospect: Indianapolis

next-churchThe fourth NEXT Church national gathering is next week in Minneapolis. I’ve been to each of these gatherings so far, and I’ve come away each time with lots to think about and experiment with. This week we’ll look back at the first three NEXT gatherings and suggest things I’m looking forward to at this year’s gathering.

[Also, as I’ve said before, I love Chad Andrew Herring, and he’s one of the event’s organizers]

The inaugural gathering was held at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis in 2011. Its timing coincided with the publication of a white paper by a group of pastors that later came to be called The Fellowship of Presbyterians and that, within a year, had launched an alternative Presbyterian denomination. Many assumed that NEXT was a reaction to those developments. It wasn’t, but it may as well have been.

I wrote three posts related to the 2011 gathering. A basic summary, a testy defense, and throwdown with Landon (there was also this comparison of NEXT with The Fellowship) There was a great deal of hand-wringing at the lack of racial, gender, and officer diversity on display, and some participants criticized NEXT’s ambitions as too “like-minded.” I wrote in response:

…I don’t think any association of individuals who are trying to change an institution can get very far with an unlimited plurality of opinion. It just won’t work. I’m no slave to the mantra of efficiency, but conversations like NEXT and the Fellowship PC(USA) are after some kind of concrete change. That requires a modicum of like-mindedness.

The concern for diversity has been front and center at the three subsequent NEXT gatherings, and I expect nothing less in Minneapolis. The diversity of participants in this movement is one of its great strengths, even as it remains a constant need.

The 2011 event broadcast NEXT’s intended direction in Tom Are’s opening remarks, when he asked, “Why don’t Presbyterians build hospitals anymore?” Speakers then shared insights gleaned from community organizing and entrepreneurship to suggest that institution building need not simply be a chapter in the denomination’s past. This trajectory has characterized NEXT from day one: movement toward the building of structures, processes, and relationships that are constructive. From alternative ordination tracks to administrative commissions, NEXT has largely been about sharing ways of building infrastructure for a church fit for the 21st century.

I’m eager to see how the fourth gathering takes this trajectory forward. The workshop schedule features conversations about leadership, which is where you’ll find me.

Were you in Indianapolis in 2011? What do you remember about it?

Are you going next week? What are you anticipating?


“I Don’t Know How To Lead People”

Last week a friend said to me, “I don’t know how to lead people.” He’s a pastor– been one for 10 years.

Last month an Elder scribbled a note during a meeting of our Christian Education and Leadership Commission and slid it to me: “We’re not training any leaders!”

Yesterday I read this on the blog of ECO, the new Presbyterian denomination full of disgruntled former PC(USA) churches and leaders: “Churches rise and fall with their visions, and the vision usually hangs on the passion of the leadership teams.”

The question of leadership won’t leave me alone. On good days I almost relish the un-heirarchical structure of elected Ruling and Teaching Elders and the checks Presbyterian polity places on the lone leader’s freedom. But on bad days I despair that I’m not really leading and that mainline Protestantism as a whole is decaying from the inside out for a lack of leadership.

I know what I reject. I reject the ideal of the leader who casts a vision for her church, who produces with a select team a vision statement in which the bullet points all begin with the same letter, who pronounces a slogan and then single-mindedly rallies the faithful to follow it. To me, “Vision Casting” just feels . . . yucky.

There are other ideas about leadership out there that tickle me. Peter Block’s thing about leaders crafting and curating space for transformative conversations is compelling.  Missional Leadership trusts that “The future of the people of God is among the people of God,” and that feels right. The Adaptive Leadership school’s focus on technical vs. adaptive challenges and the need for leaders to know the difference is hard to argue with. Edwin Friedman’s insistence on self-differentiation as a primary leadership trait rings very, very true. And, of course, the community organizer style of leadership promoted by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is concrete and full of powerful potential.

But what is this? A buffet?

I hear my friend’s confession about not knowing how to lead people, and I wonder if our training hasn’t in some sense failed us. On the whole, I don’t see a lot of enthusiastic leadership development in the mainline. Evangelicalism seems much more clear about what its leaders are supposed to do: cast a vision for ministry and rally followers. Frankly, evangelicalism also seems more effective at producing leaders who do that very thing. But that feels to me like a very bland version of leadership. I don’t like it. I want something else.

Is there a style of leadership for the NEXT iteration of mainline protestantism? Or are mainline leaders left to pick from the Amazon “Leadership” section? Is the IAF the best thing going for training leaders in mainline churches?

What’s the model of leadership for the mainline for, say, the next two decades?



ECO and the Mainline Tradition (continued)

Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown offer a definition of the Mainline Tradition in their book, “Religion And Politics In The United States” :

“Stressing Jesus’ role as prophet of social justice, the Mainline Tradition sanctifies altruism and regards selfishness as the cardinal sin. In this tradition, which extends membership to all and understands religious duty in terms of sharing abundance, the Bible is treated as a book with deep truths that have to be discerned amidst myth and archaic stories. “

So my question to those who identity with the” Mainline”: does this sound like what you’re into?

View on Path

ECO And The Mainline Tradition

In the introduction to Elesha J. Coffman’s The Christian Century And The Rise of The Protestant Mainline the author proposes that “the mainline”–that cluster of protestant denominations that includes Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ–be understood as a tradition in the Alisdair MacIntyre sense of that word.

According to MacIntryre’s signature work After Virtue, a tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” Coffman extemporizes on that definition for the mainline:

“the mainline has an extended history–it originated somewhere and developed over time. It was, and is, embodied by individuals whose social locations predisposed them to see some things and miss others. And it is definitely an argument–a normative argument about the mission of the church, the nature of humanity, the ordering of society, and the measuring of life. A study of the mainline as a tradition reveals the ways in which personal and organizational history, social location, and the interplay of ideas created not just a network of linked institutions but also the presumption that they were central and powerful. More practically, the focus on argument also helps explain why the mainline has experiences so much conflict, despite its aspirations of building consensus.

Coffman’s book chronicles how a magazine, The Christian Century, profoundly shaped the mainline tradition for the first half of the 2oth century. The book ends at the dawn of the evangelical movement in America, embodied most completely by Billy Graham, a figure, Coffman explains, whose ideas and methods the Century fought vehemently.

Is it helpful for digesting the flight of congregations from the PC(USA) to ECO to view it as a conflict of traditions? Not a conflict of a tradition; not a conflict within a tradition. But a conflict between two different traditions.

Mainline Christianity and evangelical Christianity are two different traditions within American Christianity. Their histories overlap but feature strikingly divergent heroes. They pay homage to separate institutions, from Princeton to Fuller. Their postures toward American culture are almost irreconcilable.

Forgive these broad strokes, but while the mainline tradition celebrates an institutionally unified expression of the church, a graduate level-educated class of clergy who employ modern scholarship in their preaching, and constant engagement with the world’s political struggles, the evangelical tradition prizes the congregation reaching the lost of the world, led by preaching that is less lecture than revival, and an engagement with the political realm that is heavily conservative.

Which points up two problems churches leaving for ECO hope to solve: leadership recruitment and congregational flexibility (I’ve also written about this here).

Take John Ortberg’s address to the congregation of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church informing it of an upcoming vote to switch denominational affiliation. After laying out that congregation’s ambitious desires to reach out to the Bay Area and launch new church sites over the next five years, Ortberg explained,

“To do that we believe we gotta be in a denominational setting that will help us attract great young Christ-following leaders. We gotta have a governance structure that will allow us to launch and create new sites. We believe it will be really helpful to have clear possession of this campus . . . to not have a shadow hanging over our heads about trust clauses or property ownership or a common understanding of the gospel.”

What Ortberg and fellow evangelicals in the PC(USA) have been fighting these past several years is the evangelical tradition’s battle against the core assumptions of the mainline tradition. Because the mainline tradition doesn’t serve their sense of call to ministry well anymore. And given a conflict between the unity of the institutional church and the flexibility of a congregation to call the leaders it wants to [trained in decidedly non-mainline seminaries]  and to do with its property what it wants to, the evangelical tradition cares less about the former than the latter.

For those of us who identify with the mainline tradition, then, what is the inheritance we most value for the future mission of the church? Is it still the unified institutional church? Is it still standards of education for clergy? Or is it something else, something that has emerged on its own since the era of American mainline hegemony ended?

As Though We Are Being Saved

A summary of last night’s presbytery meeting:

The money’s nearly gone.

The Executive is gone.

Two churches are gone and three more are trying to get gone.

Two pastors are gone, one to a disciplinary action and the other to resignation forced by illness.

Gone, baby, gone.

The gathering diminished throughout the evening, an apparent microcosm of our life as a presbytery. Indeed, of Presbyterianism itself.


Those churches leaving for greener pastures may be kidding themselves, but it’s really easy on nights like this to understand the impulse.

Jump ship.


Screw this.

The best thing that’s ever happened at a NEXT Church gathering was Stacy Johnson’s address in Dallas (embedded below–and made into a clever NEXT promo video here). “There are two ways of living that we know of as Christians,” Johnson said, drawing on 1 Corinthians 1:18. “We can live as those who are perishing or as those who are being saved.”

As those who are perishing . . .

Signs of our perishing are everywhere, perhaps no more evident than at a presbytery meeting like last night’s. Those signs are intrusive and disruptive. They provoke an anxious response, perhaps even a hopeless one.

Yet the message of the gospel is that what looks like perishing can be God’s salvation in disguise. The challenge we face, Johnson said in Dallas, is not first and foremost a cultural or demographic or organizational challenge. As versed as church leaders have become in the language of “adaptive challenges,” the real challenge is the gospel. The real adaptive change we face comes from the good news of life and salvation emerging from death.

So we live as though we are being saved. We invest heavily in a partnership with Presbyterians in Peru. We build networks for collaborative youth ministry. We validate a church’s work with refugees and share it’s costs. All while every outward sign condemns those efforts as futile.

And we gather. Our being saved is evident in our gathering, though these days not as evident as our perishing. Clearly not.

This is how it’s supposed to be, though. Following Jesus is not a strategy for vitality and success. Look at the cross. The hope we have is that our salvation will never be as present as when all signs are pointing to perishing.

This Hurts (A Reader Responds)

A good friend and colleague replied to yesterday’s post about the many churches leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA). Not wanting to focus attention on himself, he replied in a private email message, but he’s given me permission to share his response here. I’m sharing it because it brought me comfort and encouragement, and I hope it will you as well.

As a brother in Christ I feel impelled to affirm you in your call to be a minister of the Gospel. Your search for truth is a proclamation of the Good News. Hear this: Who is in a position to condemn? Nelson Bell? Highland Park? ECO? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Your search for truth, an earnest search, is not a capitulation to culture (whatever that means), but a testament to what the best Pastors have done for centuries: proclaim the Good News to the people God has given to you as your flock (emphasis mine).

Obviously the decisions that are going on in the PC (USA) right now are more complicated than that, and your own journey contains a lot more nuance, but I believe that people like you need to hear that others, outside your community, denomination, even country, are praying for you and view you as a witness to a God greater than schism. I have much more that I could say about the current controversy but I won’t because I want to affirm you basic insight – that the journey to life leads through death and is not just something we can blithely invoke without also recognizing that we experience the pain, despair, and hurt of death. While I feel your hurt, know that you are on the path to life.

Go in peace.

This Hurts

Another domino has fallen in the chain of churches marching out of the PC(USA) and into ECO, the new denomination formed by disaffected Presbyterians nearly two years ago. And this domino is big (actually, all of these dominoes tend big–and suburban). Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas voted to leave on Sunday. On Monday I spent some time reading the church’s statements about it, reading news stories, and even watching videos on the church’s Facebook page.

The past 12-18 months have been a circus of emotions for me as the most influential evangelical churches in this denomination have pronounced its impending death and saddled their wagons to ECO. Anger. The claims they’re making are often exaggerated (this pastor tells church members that they’ll have to fire staff if they don’t leave). Other times they’re just false and devoid of context (this pastor says that his “Reformed Theology” nearly prevented a presbytery from ordaining him). I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half angry about what’s happening.

But also hurt, and this is more to the point. I’m second guessing my own commitments, doubting what has felt like growth and discernment. And that’s painful. Necessary, perhaps, but painful. Because what felt like a growing experience of the richness of Scripture, a more adequate understanding of the complexity of human desire and affection, and a more faithful faith in the character of God–those things are now condemned by colleagues as “drift.”

If these men and women are right, then what felt to me like growth in faith and understanding is actually bankrupt accommodation to the spirit of the age. I would have done better to not seek out relationships with people I disagree with but fortified myself against them with like-minded bonds of accountability. I shouldn’t have prayed to understand the truth but for strength to persist in my present understanding. And reading Scripture as the inspired product of particular cultures with particular values was a waste of energy that would have been better spent memorizing verses to buttress theological debates.

The good news of the gospel is that God brings life out of death. That is my profound hope. But the death still hurts.

What Counts in The ECO? In The NEXT Church?

James Miller wrote on the ECO blog today that the new denomination cares about what it measures:

You’ll hear a couple of phrases floating around ECO circles. One is that you care about what you measure. If we are paying attention to something enough to document how it’s going, we probably care pretty deeply about where it ends up.

Jim describes the faith candle and baptismal pool in his church’s worship space for illustration. Every time they hear a story in worship of someone coming to faith, coming “to follow Jesus for the first time,” they light the candle. They baptize people by immersion in the pool. The candle and the pool are “tangible representations” of what matters to Jim’s church.

Jim’s church is counting conversions and initiations. Those things matter a great deal to ECO, a denomination populated by churches who could no longer stomach life in a denomination–the PC (USA)–piling up membership losses year after year. Several people I spoke with when ECO was forming shared that church growth was the thing they cared about most. Conversion and baptism are two indicators of growth, so they’re tracking them enthusiastically.

I wonder what those of us in the NEXT Church conversation are measuring. I don’t hear a lot of talk in NEXT circles about conversion, and I think that’s because NEXT folks talk about church as a community first and as a gathering of converted individuals second. We care less about people deciding to follow Jesus for the first time than we do about people experiencing belonging in Christian community, whether or not they ever profess Christian faith.  Many of us are quite comfortable including people in church who are vocally ambivalent about Christian doctrine, and moving them to convert isn’t high on our list of priorities.

Obviously, deciding to follow Jesus and experiencing belong in Christian community aren’t opposing alternatives. We want one to lead to the other (who cares which comes first?) But if we’re not inclined to count conversions, and if we’re passionate about welcoming people into an inclusive community where they experience God, what are the things we need to be measuring?

The Fellowship Theology Draft

Yesterday I posted my response to the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ Polity Draft. This post will briefly summarize and respond to the companion Theology Draft released at the same time on the groups’ website.

The Theology Draft does three things: it addresses the question of a theological standard (namely, confessional statements) for the New Reformed Body, articulates some Essential Tenets, and then asks some critical questions about the theological practices that will shape the group’s life together. I don’t consider myself a participant in the Fellowship, but I’m taking them at their word that they want public input.

I’m most interested in the Essential Tenets. The current Book of Confessions of the PC (USA) is the proposed answer to the question about standards and statements, which is sure to please many and rankle others. The third section of the Theology Draft sketches out the “theological friendships” that the Fellowship hopes will become a normative part of the life of pastors and elders in their new denomination. But, to me, the Essential Tenets are what deserve the closest attention.

And not really the tenets themselves. I have plenty to say about them, but I think the most significant fact is that they’re offered at all and that they’re given such weight  in the Polity Draft. The Fellowship clearly expects adherence to these tenets to create a kind of theological cohesion that they are disappointed does not presently exist in the PC (USA). I have serious doubts about that expectation, both in its intent and likelihood.

As to their intent, the authors of the Theological Draft write in its foreward:

a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them. our theological ideas and inclinations as a church are far too diffuse to unite us. we reject the proposition that theology divides. instead, we affirm the proposition that truth tends toward unity, yet we are the first generation of presbyterian officers who do not have in the same ordination question the words truth and unity. identifying essentials necessarily and rightly focuses our theological conversation and our life together.

That “a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them” is a questionable assertion. The move to name essentials within the Reformed theological heritage strikes me less as an imperative driven by wisdom as one driven by efficiency. An agreed upon list of essentials is a useful rubric for determining membership in a body and for establishing the boundaries of its teaching. But I don’t think it follows that wisdom dictates such a move.

Wisdom compels people toward what is good, right, true, just, and honorable–not necessarily what is essential. There’s a lot in the Book of Confessions that is good, right, and true, and our life as confessional Christians ought largely to be taken up with mining that gold for Christian formation and mission. But the essentialist project wants instead to select a few confessional gems and convert them into plastic rulers for measuring fidelity to the covenant of church membership and ordination. To do so cheapens them.

Here, then, is my greatest objection to the Theology Draft: it’s inelegant. It’s a rude instrument for assessing (or even coercing) the “rightness” of faith. It’s full of the language of Reformed theological tradition (see the wordle below) and sentences like, “In his essence, God is infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible, and ineffable.” But it reads like an ordination exam. It reads like something written by someone who’s hand shakes as they write because their disapproving teacher is lurking behind them and peering over their shoulder.

This is how Essential Tenets must read, like traffic citations. And that’s why I don’t like them and don’t want them. But to those in the Fellowship who seek in them a ground of covenantal unity and who will press them into the service of concentrating a self-selected group of Christians into a theological corps bound together by its agreement in faith’s fundamentals essentials, may you find what you seek.

The Fellowship Theology Draft as a wordle

The entire Book of Confessions as a wordle