Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to thrive when your church/denomination is dying and everything you start is sabotaged

In most cases, the church is wasting precious time and capital attempting to redevelop dying institutions. This applies at every level, from the redevelopment work in local congregations, all the way up to denominations attempting to re-define themselves.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
If an institution is in decline, it's in decline. It's going to die, and no amount of study and work on "future directions" or "LIFTing" the church is going to do a shred of good. In fact, trying to reverse things is a failure of good pastoral care. It's like walking into hospice and slapping the patient on the face, shouting, "Hey, get up, there's still life in you! Let's make plans for the future!"
As much as I love my denomination, the ELCA, I honestly feel we witnessed something like this at our churchwide assembly in August. The organization put on a face of unity, rubber-stamped some pretty fascinating documents (in particular, one repudiating the doctrine of discovery), but then continued on afterwards with business as usual, with a public letter from the presiding bishop of the denomination that essentially eviscerated the repudiation document.

I'm not at all surprised at this. The ELCA event was a simulacrum, a copy of a copy of a copy of what we think we are. It was Oz with the curtain down. And as likable as Oz may be, once he's exposed, you know the jig is up and a new story is on the horizon.

The same kinds of things that happen at the denominational level also happen at the congregational level. When anxiety over death presents itself, the institution hunkers down, dims the lights, and says, "We need to take care of ourselves now."

But what do you do if you're moving to the margins of a dying institution?

This is essentially the question I've been asking myself these days. I'm a pastor in this denomination, the ELCA, and I don't really plan to leave, but I have been moving to the margins. I've moved to the margins geographically (I pastor in Arkansas). I've moved to the margins theologically (I'm more theologically conservative that the liberals but far more socially and politically leftist than the liberals, and definitely post-confessional in many of my core convictions). And I've moved to the margins of the denomination itself, aligning much more with reform movements like #decolonizeLutheranism and ELM and Reconciling Works.

As just one example, I actually went to our synod assembly this past spring, but mostly to staff a Reconciling Works table. I felt really awkward at the assembly itself, even marginal. I like the people there... I don't know how or why I belong to the institution.

In my local congregation, we've gone through some similar shifts that make me wonder who we are... now. Certainly we're still an ELCA congregation, and many would identify us as that. We have Lutheran in our name. And we're not dying, though an exodus from our congregation a couple of years ago made us worry over our long-term health.

But after going through such a massive split, and staying (most pastors don't stay... in fact, I'm still hoping to connect with some pastors who have stayed through and after a massive split in their congregation), we are a different organization than we used to be. In fact, on many levels we're thriving in ways we never have before. 

A lot of the resources you can find on church redevelopment (and they are legion) tend to apply to congregations that have been on a sustained downward trend that leaders want to reverse. But that's not us. We're on a slightly different course, one I'm trying to articulate in this post.

Is redevelopment worth it?

It's no surprise there's a huge market for church revitalization resources. There are far more existing churches and dying churches than there are new and growing churches, so of course the market for revitalization resources is massive.

It's also no surprise that the majority of church growth is happening in newer churches. And equally no surprise that new churches frequently fail. So you can find plenty of books and resources and conferences on church planting.

But what fascinates me lately is neither redevelopment (which I think is wasted energy), nor new starts (which are hard), but the shape of the transition that needs to take place to move from one system to another. And I can't do better at describing the shape of that transition than this quick video, so take six minutes and watch it.


If a ship is hurtling through space, it takes immense energy to reverse it's trajectory. If it's huge, and there's limited fuel, it's a lost cause. 

It takes less energy to jump ship and slow down, so if there's an escape pod available (or a spaceskin suit) and you're low on fuel, the best option is to abandon ship, get all the escape pods together, put some energy into constructing a new ship, and then head off in a new direction. 

Thing is, that's no easy thing. 

It takes quite a bit of skill to move around in outer space, assemble resources for an alternative trip, and then launch in a new direction. No wonder lots of new churches and ventures fail. It's tricky.

However, if you are one of those who finds yourself at the margins (and wow do I ever!), then thinking through how to assemble your team of other marginals and strike out in a new direction is totally worth it, even if the attempts fail multiple times.
Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or the center of most groups, institutions, and cultures. (Richard Rohr

I've failed in Arkansas more than once. When I first moved here, I tried to facilitate our congregation going multi-site in order to develop a campus ministry or new faith community. It didn't work out.

Which isn't the same as saying it wasn't worth doing. It totally was. The time we invested, the work we did, the lives that were changed, all of that was worth it. We just didn't "launch" the new.

Then this past year, I found myself on the margins again (more culturally than congregationally), this time around refugee resettlement. So we started again, this time with a group of like-minded individuals. I didn't try to get my whole congregation to sponsor refugee resettlement. Instead, we built a non-profit.

Over time, we discovered hundreds of people passionate for resettlement in our state, with volunteer leaders willing to form a self-directed work-team that did everything necessary to successfully apply to become a new refugee resettlement site, and as of this writing the organization, Canopy NWA, is poised to launch this fall with the staff and funding it needs to resettle refugees in Northwest Arkansas.

All of us involved in the ministry didn't try to get our whole current institutions to get on board.... instead, we found ourselves at the margins, and got together and started building a new ship headed in a different direction.

It hasn't always been easy. I find myself having to conduct two different kinds of pastoral ministry in the meantime. Sometimes the work we're doing with Canopy causes anxiety among the existing systems--in the congregation, in the community, in the state. This is where the pioneer/hospice concept carries so much value. There's ministry to do in both contexts. Among the group launching the new, the work is figuring out how to get the ship space-worthy so it can launch. That's the pioneering work, and as a pioneer, it's the stuff I most lean into.

But I also have to know how to be a pastor in the other context. I need to put on the hospice hat. In hospice, there's pain, grief, anxiety, fear. The words of hope, the way of being present, is different. I've been learning I need to listen, sit down for longer one-on-ones, just be present. I know how to put on the hospice hat when I walk into an actual hospice facility. The reframing is important, and helps me know how to be present in multiple contexts.

So I would tell all redevelopers, and really all pastors, if they were willing to listen: If your organization is in decline (and almost all our churches are, statistically), then spend 50% of your time as pastor of the existing institution. Wear that hat, and wear it well. But then do the hard work of pioneering. Start something new, together with others, exercising the practical truth that is found at the margins.

This needs to happen at the denominational level also. Currently, the ELCA at its national level is a sick system, intractably caught up in its own mode, and really unlikely to recover. It needs hospice. The problem is, it keeps meeting every three years thinking it can rise from the ashes and enact change from the top and center. It keeps telling us, "We are church together," when in fact it has little if no effective method for hearing from the margins and launching something new.

What the ELCA needs, even though institutionally it will fight it tooth and nail and implement many kinds of sabotage (not the least of which will be stonewalling, what I have started calling the Boozman strategy) to undermine it, is a movement of pioneers from the margins, who will gather, and then move, and will, if successful, eventually organize structurally in such a way that it becomes not a simulacrum of the current ELCA, but the next thing that moves on while the ELCA dies.

I have no doubt, based on the functioning of our current denominational headquarters, that things will go out in a spectacular fashion, with the leadership continuing to put on a show of listening to the margins while regularly buffering itself against any actual change. And increasingly I'm just fine with that.

But what I do want to do, and am inviting in this post, is to find ways to "live on the edge of the inside" (in Richard Rohr's words), and discover who else is out there with me.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The real presence of the gods

Some books are more present than others. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press prints books, with an emphasis on the print. Belknap has printed Robert Orsi's new book, History and Presence, in such a way that there is so much "there" there.



For example, the endsheets are colored and ridged, offering a tactile experience as soon as the boards of the book are opened. Even prior to handling the book block, which is squared and carries a heft, the book draws you towards its attentive intentionality and presence.

The book block itself is printed on a high grade, almost bond grade paper, so the text prints crystal clear and almost levitates off the page. I don't know the name of the font, but it's lovely. I do know the name of the book designer--Graciela Gallup--and if she reads this review, I want to thank her.

Now, to be honest, when I bought the book, I thought Orsi had written a theological treatise on "real presence," and I was looking forward to reading that book.

But what Orsi offers is something more than a book about the theology of real presence. He wants us to encounter real presence as it functions in religious community. So instead of multiple chapters on the theology of Christ's presence in the Eucharist (which would be a book about more books, a simulacrum of real presence), Orsi invites us into an ethnographic study of real presence, with a particular focus on Marian devotion in the Catholic tradition.

There are a couple of reasons for Orsi to go in this direction. First, and most important, scholars of all types have been shifting towards ethnography in their intellectual inquiry, and they do so because they seek to pay attention to life from the ground up, from the lived world. This is not an anti-intellectual or anti-book stance. Far from it. Orsi has written a book after all, and his endnotes are long. He mentions other books all the time.

But to get at real presence, you have to attend to where presence happens. Scholars, the hierarchy, etc. have frequently felt compelled, in order to maintain certain doctrinal positions or ecclesial structures, to protect against religion from the ground up. As Orsi writes, "The precincts of presence needed to be guarded against the faithful who were endlessly resourceful in breaching them" (29).

Real presence of Christ is typically a destabilizing force, even a source of resistance, against authority and ecclesiastical power.

Often this fear of real presence is related to a concomitant fear of those who carry around such notions of real presence. So Orsi also observes, "Fear of fecund Catholic bodies circulates in the public debate over migrants coming into the United States from the Catholic south" (31).

Essentially, Orsi charting the religious history of what didn't happen. Theologians, scholars of the West have for centuries argued that increasingly, because of the Enlightenment, the gods were going to recede and be more absent. Yet on the ground, in popular piety and devotion, nothing quite like that has happened at all.

So Orsi conducts his inquiry on two fronts. He is a rigorous scholar, and engages the literature. He's also an indefatigable ethnographer, and has conducted interviews over about a twenty hear period as preparation to write this book. Along the way, he's collected material history as well, examples of real presence in popular piety and devotion, and pictures of comic books, collector cards, and more, pepper the book (including one entire graphic book depicting the life of Saint Maria Goretti)
.

I love his concluding paragraph, which I take as inspiration for continuing to discover how complex the inter-relation of the sacred and the secular is on contemporary life.

"The future that Hume envisioned for the human race has not happened yet. The gods were not turned back at the borders of the modern. The unseeing of the gods was an achievement; the challenge is to see them again. If the presence of the gods in the old Catholic sense is an absolute limit that contemporary scholars of religion and history refuse to cross, then they will miss the empirical reality of religion in contemporary affairs and they will fail to understand much of human life" (252).


Friday, September 09, 2016

The New Moral Minority

Forgetting the "Protest" in "Protest-ant"

Lately I've been wondering how Protestants forgot the "protest" in Protestant. At least in the majority culture, among the group that likes to call itself the moral majority (or now, the Christian Coalition), very little true dissent is happening.

The goal instead seems to be enforcement of religious assumptions much more beholden to this world than the kingdom of God. Which is to say, the majority Christian tradition seems to have sold itself out to capitalism, pledged its allegiance to nationalism, and fallen in love with nativism in place of loving the neighbor. Along the way, it has re-defined Christianity as a religion with a heavy focus on ethics (in particular sexual ethics) all while claiming the focus is on "liberty" (which means, as far as I can tell, the right to bear arms).

In biblical terms, this kind of Christianity has aligned itself with the Pharisees and Sadducees, all the while implementing a rhetorical strategy that assumes it is aligned with Jesus and God against a sinful world.

Perhaps that is the greatest irony--the moral majority, the Christendom Christians, have by and large convinced themselves they're in the martyr position, standing ground as the minority voice against a corrupt and sinful world.

In such a moment, in the meantime, there are other Christian voices crying out in the wilderness, articulating a true minority morality that is doubly embattled. Not only does it have to fight an uphill campaign against the manipulations of the powerful, the corruptions of capital, and and the ethics of empire... it also has to do so over against the court chaplain of empire, the evangelical bloc.

And it does so all the while tempted to become the very majority it is critiquing, because heck, isn't it always attractive to have the power?

That, in a nutshell, is what it feels like to be a progressive Christian in North America. You literally cannot fathom how it is that millions of people, who ostensibly follow the same Lord you do, have gotten from point A (Jesus) to point B (xenophobia).

Is this a straw man?

So, at this point, if you're a progressive Christian, you're reading this and thinking, "Yes, preach it! Mmmmhhmmmm!"

But if you're somewhere more in the middle, or if you are in fact a conservative Christian or evangelical of the type with whom I typically disagree, you're thinking to yourself a few things, including: he's set up a straw man to knock down, he doesn't understand us and our concerns, and anyway, he's wrong, because Lutherans love their country and Christians know what the Bible says about sex.

So let me try this, at least. Will you go with me at least this far, that Christianity as lived by Jesus and presented in Scripture is focused in particular on love of the most vulnerable: the sick, the dying, the lame, the child, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the foreigner, the lonely, the lost?

Because if there's anything I, as a Christian, believe, it's that. Jesus hangs out with sinners and tax collectors and riff raff and the poor... like the prophets did before him.

Here's where we start to part ways, I think, and why this conversation between majority and minority Christians is so awkward, because the next point that comes up is salvation. I get portrayed as a social justice Christian who lacks concern for the eternal salvation of sinners. I don't have a concern for a lost, or I'm misleading the lost, these are the most frequent ways conservative Christians criticize me (when they don't just ignore me or call me names).

Concern for the Lost

But I am concerned for the lost, it's just that my eschatological sensitivity focuses much less on the idea that the lost are anticipating eternal damnation for all eternity, and it is more focused on living as an outpost of the kingdom of God now, being a foretaste of God's coming kingdom, which means Christians are called to work for a world where people taste salvation now in the present, and gain hope for it in their future life with God.

I think where our interests overlap (and there are precious few points where they do, especially when we're talking politics and social change) are around interests of protecting life. The Christian coalition focuses in like a laser on pro-life topics, because they seek to protect some of the world's most vulnerable--the unborn.

Progressive Christians tend to say, essentially, okay good, but let's make sure we are pro-life in the wider sense, which would include things like opposition to the death penalty, reduction in the militarization of the world, campaigns against police brutality, #blacklivesmatter, or most recently, solidarity with Native Americans protecting sacred burial grounds and opposing trans-national pipelines that enrich many while damaging the lands of the poor.

A pastor just up the road from me, former head of the SBC and prominent religious leader, said at his recent meeting with Donald Trump, "This election is about the dignity of human life from the womb to the tomb."

Yes, yes it is. But how we understand that dignity, and how broadly we construe it, is precisely the rub.

Perhaps the precise kind of Christianity I've come to believe in will always be presented with this challenge--that it lacks power and never gains majority status because it joins the minority and lives in solidarity with it.

Perhaps this Christianity will always be changing, growing, adapting, because it intentionally listens to voices either outside the faith, even voices damaged by sinful actions of the faithful, in order to learn how to be better Christians.

Maybe that's the big difference between us, the root of our division. The moral majority, the Christian coalition, seems to take the stance that sin is outside them, and the call to repentance is a call for a sinful world to turn from its sinful ways and live the gospel in conformity with the Christian majority. Such a Christianity demands not solidarity, but conformity. It welcomes everyone, but only inasmuch as, ultimately, they assimilate.

The moral minority, by comparison, calls the world to repentance inasmuch as it has conformed itself to sinful systems. So it joins the world in solidarity against such systems, taking the risk at times of so giving itself away to the minority that it appears as the minority it associates with.

This is risky assimilation the other way around, and it is precisely the kind of thing I believe real Christians are called to practice, modeled by Jesus himself in his self-emptying. He became so human he was human. Though also God, the human part was not an act. It was the real deal. And he was human to such a degree that he could be perceived as all the things the religious leaders hated about the non-religious. They party too much, live life in family configurations that do not conform to the gold standard of traditional morality, play fast and loose with property, live life so close to God that God comes across as vulnerable, weak, foolish, crazy, in love.

The new moral minority is always going to have to figure out how to confess its faith over against the majority religion, get mocked and ridiculed and scorned, stand on the margins, march in the breach.

It will always be at risk of envying the powerful, seeking to be the majority, and mimetically practicing that which is opposes.

It is not at all easy to be the moral minority. That's part of the reason we know it's the way of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Participate in National Call-in Day for refugees today!

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I #StandForWelcome and support refugees with @LIRSorg. It's National Call-in Day and here's how you can join us.
   
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CALL TODAY TO SUPPORT REFUGEES

Dear Clint,

As the photo of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy who survived a recent bombing in Aleppo, reminds us: refugees endure harsh circumstances on a daily basis requiring the world's compassion, support, and protection. 
This month, the United Nations General Assembly and President Obama will each host a summit to address the global refugee and migration crises. On September 19, the UN will be hosting a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants. The next day, President Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on Refugeesto encourage global leaders to make significant new commitments towards increasing financial support, resettlement, education, and employment opportunities for refugees.

As people of faith, we are called to love our neighbors and to welcome the refugee, the foreigner, and the stranger. Jesus himself was a refugee, and taught us that when we welcome a stranger, we welcome him. Please join us as we stand with the "least of these" and advocate for more compassionate, hospitable, and just policies for refugees and migrants.

There are two ways that you can take action:
Thank you, as always, for taking action to welcome and offer protection for refugees. We pray that our leaders will act urgently to uphold our country’s long and generous tradition of welcoming men and women seeking a safer, better future for themselves and their families. Our country and our communities are stronger when we Stand for Welcome.

In peace,

Joanne Kelsey

Acting Director for Advocacy
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service