On Taking A New Call And Moving To Chicago

Last Sunday I was elected by the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago to be their next Associate Pastor for Youth. I will begin there on February 1st. My last Sunday at my call of the past eight years, Claremont Presbyterian Church, will be January 17th.

There is so much to say about this, and a blog post is not the way to say most of it. Let me try to say a few things, though.

I entered the conversation with the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee of Fourth Church from a position of stability and security at Claremont. I was open to exploring the Fourth opportunity, but not because I was unhappy or unfulfilled in my current call. Fourth Presbyterian Church is a one-of-a-kind congregation that wants to be in ministry with diverse youth in experimental ways. I’m into that. Also, I’m drawn to the challenge to learn and grow in a context very different from the one that has shaped me these past eight years. My months of conversation with the APNC have only increased Fourth’s allure, and now that I have been called, I can’t wait to get to work with that congregation and its staff.

The Claremont Presbyterian Church has made me the envy of my colleagues with the degree of freedom, flexibility, and permission it has granted me in my work. For example, last July the congregation very helpfully voted to amend my terms of call and my job description to allow me to begin a quarter-time post as an Associate for Ministry Development with the Presbytery of San Gabriel. That move on Claremont’s part is a testament to its support of its pastors and its commitment to our connectional denomination. Clearly, two opportunities were presenting themselves to me at the same time, one immediate and one distant (I had yet to actually speak with the Fourth APNC). That the Claremont church so enthusiastically enabled me to seize the former was a great gift to me, one that I’m sorry to say I will not be able to fully honor.

For another example, the youth at Claremont have been a gift from God to my life. They have endured countless puns and honored my every request for openness to something new. They have allowed me to lead them and they have led me. They have taught me, challenged me, and even forgiven me. They have formed my faith; I am not the same person I was when I started, thanks to them.

For another another example, The Rev. Karen Sapio is a generous and wise pastor who has taught me and cheered me on. Whatever happens next in Claremont will be thoughtful, curious, and grounded, because that’s Karen.

We are living through a complex time as the Presbyterian Church (USA). While many of the structures that have defined our life together are eroding, opportunities for new, creative ministry are everywhere around us. I chose awhile ago to chase down those opportunities publicly by blogging about my (and my church’s) experiments in ministry, my growth, and my failures. I am eager to continue that work from my position at Fourth, whose APNC enthusiastically affirmed my blogging in our conversations about their vision for that church’s future.

It’s a dicey proposition for a church to have one of their pastors writing publicly about what goes on in the pews. Yet Claremont has cheered my blogging work. The church has even seen it as an extension of my call there. i hope I have honored that view of what I’ve been trying to do here (we’ve come a long way from the controversy created by this post about my phone interview with the Claremont APNC). Likewise, I hope to honor it at Fourth.

I will do my best to say all the important things in person over the next two months and to begin this next chapter on that same foot come February.

Coaches, Cohorts, and “Plural Leadership”: Three Things I’m Noticing About New Worshiping Communities

I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently talking with leaders of new worshiping communities, 1001 New Worshiping Communities denominational staff, and entrepreneurs building networks to recruit and support leaders for new worshiping communities. I’ve noticed a few things.

The most obvious thing I’ve noticed is that coaching is central to this movement. Everybody is either providing or receiving coaching, or both. Coaches work in person and online with people discerning and building new worshiping communities, and they focus on everything from evangelism to fundraising (“partner development”). If you’re considering starting a new worshiping community, get a coach.

Cohorts are also a big deal. Peer learning is the norm in the networks of new worshiping community leaders I’m spending time with. Learning from a coach is great; learning from other leaders, though, is better. Some of these cohorts gather locally. Some are playing with online cohorts that meet with Skype or Google Hangouts.

Also, it seems like plural leadership is valued more highly among people doing new worshiping community work today than executive leadership. We seem to have moved from an era of the lone visionary church planter whose core skill set is communication and persuasion into an experiment with leaders who thrive in partnership in collaboration and whose skill sets center more on invitation and coordination.

One more thing. “Bi-vocational” ministry may not save the day. That surprises me. I expected to hear a lot more emphasis on new worshiping community leaders supporting themselves with non-church employment as a new kind of leadership norm. But the people I’m hearing from, at least so far, are still pretty committed to full-time vocational ministry, so they are building communities that can support full-time staff. I’m encouraged by that.

What are you noticing?

What Impact Will Young Adults Have on #nextchurch2015?

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for examplehere,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:

Here’s my second question:

Now my third question: what will be the impact of young adults?

The Mainline Protestant landscape is largely absent people in their 20’s, a fact that has been analyzed by multiple studies. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not exempt from this reality, but it boasts a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program that each year commissions young adults to a year of service in a couple dozen sites in the U.S. and across the world. The PC(USA) is crawling with recent college graduates eager to impact the world, then. They’re just not in congregations.

NEXT Church national gatherings have featured young voices from the beginning, and I wonder if this one won’t do that to a greater extent than before. A Young Adult Volunteer is on the planning team and has already shaped much of what will happen. McCormick Theological Seminary’s innovative Center for Faith And Service will be on hand in the person of the incomparable Wayne Miesel, who has done more than anyone to shape the church’s thinking about ministry with young adults. One of the seven Ignite presentations will feature a trio of YAVs (see their pitch below).

Young adults–including those in seminary–will have lots of opportunity next week to connect, share, and even organize around their vision for the next embodiment of the Presbyterian Church.

There’s a YAV from my congregation coming next week at my insistence, so I’ve obviously got high hopes that NEXT Church 2015 will provide her and her peers with both an imaginative environment for discerning their place in the PC(USA) and a platform to constructively shape its future.

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.

Needs Help

specialofferings1_medium250The Presbyterian Church (USA) is taking a beating this week over the marketing materials it published for its campaign of special denominational offerings. Two images in particular have drawn widespread condemnation on social media and in statements by groups like the National Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the PC(USA).

The ads are being condemned as racist and insensitive to the struggles of addicts. They are being denounced as flashy and edgy attempts at relevance that achieve gross insensitivity instead.

More informed people than I can speak on the decision making that led to these ads, because I honestly don’t know any of the people involved and I don’t have any reason to doubt their integrity. But here’s what I’m tucking up under my own hat from this episode: as compelling as the justification may be for doing something unconventional and perhaps out of bounds–you’re trying to save lives; you’re trying to save souls–, if the product can’t pass the nose-crinkle test it isn’t worth doing.

We have a copy of this poster in our office. It came in the mail last week and has been sitting atop the office counter untouched for days. After spending the morning reading angry screeds on Facebook, I grabbed the above image and showed it to our church’s Office Manager, the sweetest conservative evangelical middle-aged white woman you’d ever want to meet who’s not even a member of our church.

specialofferings2_medium250“What do you think of that?” I asked her. She studied it for a moment and then–as if involuntarily–her nose crinkled up into an uncomfortable stance and she said, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” Confident there was more there, I pressed her: “Say more.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Not “offensive.” Not “insensitive.” Not “racist.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Nose-crinkle test: failed. Done. Scrap the campaign. Go in another direction.

Perhaps these images were shown to focus groups before they were published and distributed. I don’t know. But “It gives me a bad feeling” is precisely the kind of thing a focus group will tell you. And that’s more than enough to guarantee that whatever kind of motivation or inspiration or compassion you’re trying to elicit is going to be harpooned by the icky feeling people get first and that the damage to your mission isn’t worth it.

The denomination has issued a statement to the effect that the campaign will be redone. Unfortunately, the bad feelings it has already created won’t go away as easily as paper.

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?

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.