Church, Community Organizing

Never Do For Someone What They Can Do For Themselves. Never Do For Someone What They’re Not Willing To Do For Themselves.

 

I heard both of these sentences uttered at this week’s NEXT Church national gathering in Atlanta. The first version one came from Bob Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, a book that has been referenced in at least fifteen of my conversations over the past month. The second was pronounced by Andrew Foster Connors, pastor at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and an IAF community organizer with BUILD.

“Not willing.” That changes everything, doesn’t it?

When you refuse to do something for me that I can do myself,  you must assess my ability and decide that it is sufficient to the task that you would otherwise perform on my behalf and that helping me actually hurts me and diminishes my dignity.

But when you refuse to do something for me that I’m not willing to do for myself, you’re assessing not my ability but my intentions. It’s clear I could do it. I just don’t want to. That also hurts me. But it hurts you too, because you resent me and we can never be friends.

 

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Church

Up Next: NEXT

Next week is the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta. I’ve been to all of these, and I’ve blogged them all as well. Click here for those posts.

I feel like I’m going into this one as a newbie, though. So much has changed in the year since the last gathering, not only for me personally (new call, new city), but also for the church and the culture at large. If the church isn’t talking about resurgent racism today, it may as well not be talking at all.

Will you be at NEXT? What are you anticipating?

As always, you can livestream the event. Check nextchurch.net for the link.

 

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Church

Remember That Time When Someone Interrupted Diana Butler-Bass?

I’ve written about Diana Butler-Bass on this blog a lot. So let me use this space to tell you about the time she was speaking at an event I helped organize and someone in the audience stood and shouted out in the middle of her presentation. Yeah, that happened.

“I’m sorry Diana!” she abruptly shouted from the balcony, and every muscle in my body tensed up. I knew something like this might happen here, on this second evening of our national conference, when, concurrently, Butler-Bass would be addressing a sanctuary of over 700 people and two presbyteries on the east coast would be casting potentially decisive votes to ratify 14-f, the amendment that will give PC(USA) clergy permission to perform same-gender marriages. We warned her beforehand that, should news of a decisive vote hit Twitter during her talk, there could be some disruption.

I knew it could happen, and still everything in me froze. It felt wrong and rude and like a derailing of something I’d worked on. I sighed a deep sigh as the interruption continued. “Amendment 14-F just passed. Everyone can marry!” Immediate applause. Almost as immediate standing ovation, an ovation that lasted well over a minute.

With each passing second of that ovation the tension I felt between decorum and consideration on the one hand and righteous celebration on the on the other hand relaxed and reclined into celebration. We firmly believe in creating space in the middle for people who don’t agree to feel heard and respected, and some feared that this celebration compromised that middle space. But I think the middle has moved on us, and trying to hold this space is like holding a hotel reservation long after the band has left town.

Diana was gracious. She welcomed the Presbyterians on behalf of the Episcopalian Church, which is years ahead of us in recognizing same-gender marriages. Then she incorporated the event into her presentation like it was planned all along.

I heard someone denounce the celebration as evidence that NEXT has made up its mind on this issue and is not truly neutral. But the NEXT church was always going to be about inclusion, inclusion as a practice and an ethos, though, and not simply an Issue. This gathering normalized inclusion in concrete ways; preachers told stories about transgender members and about their same-gender partners. And, of course, the entire assembly stood and cheered the achievement of marriage equality.

I don’t think that celebration compromises NEXT’s ability to be a space for people who disagree or who aren’t lauding 14-f’s passage. It seemed to me an authentic response that demonstrated the heart of the Church that will be NEXT.

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NEXT Church

What Can Non-Pastors Do with #nextchurch2015?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for example here,here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

Here’s my first question:

And now my second question:

Will this gathering equip non-pastors to lead in the church?

There will be significant leadership at this event from educators, non-profit executives, and entrepreneurs. NEXT has always lifted up the importance of Ruling Elder leadership, ever since the first gathering in Indianapolis, when the late Cynthia Bolbach–herself a Ruling Elder and General Assembly Moderator–pointed out the overwhelming majority of Teaching Elders (pastors) in attendance.

Are we getting closer?

George Srour is a Ruling Elder from Indianapolis who will describe the organization he’s built that is constructing school all over Africa.

Anita Ford is an elementary school principal who will help explain how her school partnered with a church to create a children’s music program. Charles Kerchner, an academic who specializes in public education, will also be part of that presentation. Charles is one of five Ruling Elders coming from the congregation I serve.

Bill Habicht is a pastor, but he calls himself a “common good and social media conspirator,” and he spends a lot of time working with non-pastors to form things like art collectives and coffee shops.

It certainly feels like a opportunity more attuned to the particular leadership gifts of those for whom ministry is not their job, so I’m eager to see what all the non-pastors will do with it. How many do you know who are coming?

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Four Questions For NEXT Church 2015, NEXT Church

Will #nextchurch2015 Move The Church Toward Racial Justice?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for example here, here, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

So, my first question:

The fouled up racial reality of the American context is more clearly in focus today than it has been for years, at least as measured by the mainstream media discourse. Michael Brown and Eric Garner are household names, and #blacklivesmatter is necessary to state now. How will the urgency of racial justice inform what happens next week?

A colleague shared this in an email yesterday:

I still have my same concerns about the church in general and about NEXT in particular. The events of the past six months, especially events around Ferguson, have even heightened my sense of concern for organizations that are predominantly led and and membered by privileged white people, including organizations like the PC(USA) and NEXT Church. I’ll be interested to see if your conference makes any movement this year compared to the last several years I’ve attended.

One way to measure movement toward racial justice in a gathering like this is by looking at who’s up front. NEXT has always work hard at diverse racial representation among its leadership, even if the PC(USA) is a mostly white palette from which to draw.

Among others, this year’s gathering will hear from Chineta Goodjoin, the Organizing Pastor of a new African-American church in Orange County, as well as Tiffany Jana, who heads a consulting firm with her husband Matt that helps organizations harness the power of diversity (watch her TED Talk below).

This year’s theme, “Beyond: Our Walls, Our Fears, Ourselves” lends itself well to addressing the church with urgency to explicitly address its witness to a world in which police officers openly send racist emails, fraternity brothers at a prominent university chant “hang ’em from a tree” with glee, and young black men are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police.

It’s on us to push things in the direction of justice and reconciliation. I expect next week’s gathering to offer concrete ways to do that.

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ECO, PC(USA)

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.

Sigh.

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.

Quit.

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.

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NEXT Church

NEXT, Galvanize, and Institutional Change

Reading this article about alternative tech education a day after John Vest lamented NEXT Church’s apparent unwillingness to “rethink theology and ecclesiology in the rapidly changing contexts of ministry in 21st century postmodern, post-Christendom North America” is making some synapses fire.

First, John’s objection: three years into its existence, NEXT seems no more willing to grab hold of the institutional levers of the PC(USA) than it did at its inception. Leaders in the organization continue to recite a “we don’t know” mantra when asked hard questions about what they want to build. What it is contributing–and this is undeniably valuable–is “a platform for innovative and creative leaders to share ideas and best practices” (just hours after John’s post went up, NEXT’s blog published a post by D.C. pastor Jeff Kreibehl celebrating that very thing).

My first thought was to wonder why such a platform can’t be considered a tool for the rethinking John is eager to see. I wonder how else that “hard work” gets done? Position papers? Overtures to GA?

Now come to the Time article about start-up tech schools. Here’s the money quote from Jim Deters, who started Galvanize in Denver:

“In most cases, people are wasting their money on traditional education. The future of employment is small businesses that will be forced to figure things out for themselves.”

This sounds a lot like the “they-didn’t-teach-me-this-in-seminary” you hear from pastors of all stripes. Deters threw a ton of his own capital into a new school–one that teaches techies how to figure things out for themselves (my “traditional” theology professors would have said they were doing the same thing: “thinking theologically” they called it).

Let me land this plane. The platform that NEXT is constructing has lots and lots of space for men and women in theological training; the national gatherings have scholarshipped seminary students every year, and seminary presidents are prominent participants and speakers at these gatherings. John’s desire to see a more assertive direction from NEXT mixed with Roya Wolverson’s description of these new schools makes me wonder if NEXT couldn’t galvanize this kind of thing for Presbyterians.

What if:

  • NEXT grew its partnerships with Presbyterian seminaries to develop courses that help students practice the kind of relational and innovative “figuring it out” today’s context requires?
  • NEXT cultivated communities of students on seminary campuses to lead within the organization?
  • NEXT held one of its regional or national gatherings on a seminary campus?
  • NEXT inserted itself into the emergence of new seminaries, like the one sprouting in my neck of the woods, to offer courses and seminars and other events?

These are just a few ideas sprouting in the slowly fading afterglow of NEXT 2013. Of all the things NEXT is offering to today’s church, an infusion of practical and entrepreneurial learning into Presbyterian education may be the most valuable.

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NEXT Church

NEXT 2013: Invitation and Creation

Photo credit: Chad Andrew Herring

In my last post I briefly reviewed two thematic threads that ran through the NEXT Church gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this week, namely worship and failure.  Since then, Maryann McKibben Dana has very helpfully posted a blog roundup of the event.

This post will share two other prominent ideas at the gathering: invitation and creation.

Invitation

The great strength of NEXT gatherings is that they invite participants to experience the things they’re talking about. There’s lots of talk about new practices for worship–as we worship–, and we’re invited to practice new things (like improv) before anyone says a thing about the importance of invitation.

Which they do. Patrick Daymond gave a great talk about one-to-one conversations in the church as a vehicle not only for building relationships but also for inviting God’s people to take specific actions. He decried a culture of mass email invitations and insisted that people must re-learn the art of the face-to-face personal invitation.

Capture

I was coming out of my seat during Patrick’s talk, because my church is pushing all our chips to the center of the table on this. It’s part of a “listening campaign” made up of one-on-one meetings between church members. The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its philosophy of relational community organizing is the backdrop for all of this. IAF language has been part of NEXT from the beginning.

Creation

Dr. Paul Roberts (see tweet above) gave the first talk of the event and enjoined the church to fulfill its vocation of creation. This wasn’t a simple repetition of  the harmless plea for “creativity,” though. It was a plea to create: to make stuff, try new things, even if those things don’t seem particularly “creative.” He drew upon the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) to say that refusing to create draws God’s judgment. 

Given this, we created. Again led by the inqonquerable Theresa Cho, we made stoles for ourselves. Armed with Sharpies and a cloud of words, we penned our callings and then shared them with a stranger who placed it on us with the benediction, “Your calling is to . . . ” I posted mine to Twitter:

Capture

 

This calling to create is a gift from the first Creator. I, for one, am happy to be chasing down this calling with this company of folk. Thanks to Jessica Tate and all the event organizers for seriously inspiring, useful, transformative stuff. See you in Minneapolis!

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NEXT Church

NEXT 2013: Worship and Failure

2013-03-05 14.30.18The NEXT Church gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week. After a 2011 inaugural gathering in Indianapolis and a Dallas follow up in 2012, many people were eager to see in Charlotte what a more organized (and much bigger) NEXT Church would feel like.

I’ve been to all of these gatherings now. I wrote about the first one here and here and here. Posts about Dallas can be read here and here. It should be obvious that I’m a fan of this movement and its emphasis on sharing life-giving practices to move the PC(USA) into the future. NEXT is built to create, not complain. I love that.

Here’s what NEXT 2013 suggested in next:

  • Worship
  • Failure
  • Invitation
  • Creation

Worship

Ashley Goff from the Church of The Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., described liturgy as “Improv,” a force for creating spontaneity, unscripted moments, and newness. We watched video clips from her church where worshipers were led on a walking meditation around the Lord’s Table and then constructed, en masse, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.

Casey Wait Fitzgerald became Mary, Jesus’ mother, as she showed the gathering what Biblical storytelling can do to a worship service.

And the gathering worshiped. NEXT gatherings are worship services. In fact, a person who could only come to the structured worship times at a NEXT gathering would get as clear a glimpse into what’s “next” as a person who attended every workshop. The incomparable Theresa Cho and a team of musicians, preachers, and liturgists curated four distinct liturgical events that embodied the most enduring formations of Presbyterian worship heritage as well as the most exciting emerging practices.

[A caveat: one of the preachers actually raised some hackles. Good, good, good, I say. My hackles were raised, and I was made to think, listen, protest, and then catch my breath. That’s what worship should make you do.]

Failure

NEXT wants to speak to the undeniable failure of Presbyterianism to thrive as an institution since, say, the 1960’s. “Why don’t Presbyterians build hospitals anymore?” was the question that practically gavelled the 2011 event to order.

But for all of its clear-eyed analysis of the demographics and statistics and . . . sins that have hobbled the denomination, the organizers of NEXT are offering something useful and constructive to the church: encouragement to fail. What’s more, NEXT wants to show in these gatherings what failure can do to re-birth the church.

“If you’re not failing, then you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, then you’re not progressing in the work,” said Frank Yamata, President of McCormick Theological Seminary, on a panel exploring Shared Leadership.

The Administrative Commission has come to embody failure as much as anything in the contemporary church, and yet Bill Golderer and Aisha Brooks Lytle told the compelling story of how they have embraced and empowered an AC to do amazing work through Broad Street Ministries. Aisha took it a step further, recommending that pastors–for the sake of growth and accountability–ought to consider forming their own personal AC’s.

I’m on board. I wonder if Aisha would be on mine.

The next NEXT post will share the Invitation and Creation insights I gleaned from the gathering.

 

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