Monday, June 18, 2012

Our Presbyterian Outlook

The Presbyterian Outlook is a magazine that serves up news and a forum for the Presbyterian Church (USA). I follow this occasionally for news of my ecclesia mater, especially as we approach the now biennial General Assembly. (It used to be annual, but then we couldn't afford it.) This is the representative body that decides such things as the ordination of gays. Next on the agenda will be gay marriage so the pages of The Outlook are hot and of course those of The Layman are hotter still. Should we allow non-geographical regional bodies so that those opposed to the ordination and marriage of gays can live in purity with their own kind? That is an issue this year.

The decline of the denomination is serious and so The Outlook sent a survey instrument to the 177 presbytery “executives.” (This is a title dating from the early ‘70's, when corporate management thinking ruled the church.) I sent this in response to The Outlook article:

The Outlook survey of EP's was a creative initiative. I remember telling an EP in the '70's that the rest of us needed his observations and analysis of what was happening because only he had the big picture from interactions with all the congregations. Even 54% of returns are better than nothing. I hope that you worked with Research Services, one of the great and unique assets of the PCUSA.

It seems that what many of us suspected is now more real: We will lose 7-11% of membership and congregations over gay rights issues. Let's get on with it. I remember in 1994 sitting in a meeting of denominational executives discussing leadership issues. These were experienced men and women from the Episcopal Church, the UCC, the UMC, the Disciples of Christ, the RCA, the ELCA, and the United Church of Canada. Lunchtime conversation was about how there ought to be a grand re-alignment to result in a progressive United Church of North America. I was very surprised to hear this from that group. Now more than ever it seems so obvious. Many have said that they have much more in common with like-minded persons from these other denominations than we do with some of our PCUSA brothers and sisters. 

We are burdened with our past. The issues that made us separate denominations are mostly just history. The great questions of the last 50 years have included the role of tradition in our lives, the degree of ambiguity we can accept, and the meaning of community in the digital age. How much diversity can we accept without losing whatever identity we begin with?  Some pastors and congregations are busy working this out. It means re-thinking who we are -- as seeking people rather than the ones with the answers who are all in agreement. As we speak more and more of “Spirit” we need to question our root belief in the supernatural. Our organizational structures and procedures are heavy burdens that distract us from these more basic questions.

None of us handles high levels of continual change well. Nor can we live without more change in response to the changes that are both around and in us. This contradiction may be resolved only by the God that a pastor friend suggests is or resides in our ability to experience transcendence and to come to new consciousness about the things that challenge us.

This last comment is in reference to last Sunday's sermon by John Shuck, my on-line pastor and friend. I think it is some of his most significant and profound writing. I will blog on this. He tells us how prayer might be of value when we are essentially talking to ourselves. “God” as our ability to bring the unconscious to consciousness.  Hmm. A touch of Jung there that seems timely. Perhaps our outlook is improving.

Friday, June 8, 2012

40 Years for the Record

This week marks 40 years since I was ordained to “Minister of Word and Sacrament” or “Teaching Elder” in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is a review where I have been and some things I did since seminary. In another posting I will declare my overall success and maybe even on what a young person might do with his or her life now.

I could have been ordained in the church to which I was going after semnary. I chose to be ordained in the church that mentored me through seminary: Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. The pastor, a model for ministry to me, Bill Taylor, some of my seminary professors, and lay people important to me and Carol laid hands on me. Two years later Bill left ministry telling the Chicago Tribune “The church of the ‘70's is a betrayal of the church of the ‘60's.” Yeah. [Somewhere I have photos I took of the Sears now Willis Tower in '71-'72.] The ordination ceremony was a significant ritual to mark the beginning of a career. I have now made it to retirement, but the denomination began its decline in 1965. A major problem was that ministry as a career was coming to an end, even as I began it.

The first congregation I served (Don’t you just love the churchiness of such locutions?) was Zion Presbyterian Church in Ellsworth, Minnesota. Membership was 330 in a town of 588. Now the town is 463 and the church is 291, but this is after a neighboring church of about 200 members was closed and essentially merged into Zion. It was here I learned that I am not a country boy. Not a sophisticated place; I didn't expect that. Not an especially gracious place. I remember asking for an offering for flood relief in South Dakota. “They shouldn’t build where it floods. They should have had insurance.” Small and small town churches are great for training new ministers. I learned how to speak evangelical here. There was a good priest and some great sisters in Ellsworth. Their Bishop pulled them and sidelined them for being too progressive (They were fans of John XXIII.)
Then I became Assistant Pastor (an obsolete title, hired by pastor, not by church as current Associates are) at Glen Avon in Duluth. This was a large church (1,400 members, now 545, a good picture of mainline church decline). I was attracted because I was more and more interested in teaching and church school program development (which I did citywide), and I was attracted by the more experienced “senior” pastor. I soon found that there was little to learn from him, but I was not loyal, so I had to move on.

Trenton NJ was alien to a midwesterner like me. Eight years that felt like exile in some ways. Here was a church that claimed 400 members, only I couldn’t find half of them, so church decline was my fault. My beloved predecessor had married everyone in the community and asked them to join the church in exchange. Lots of conflict, so I got a D.Min. to learn about the church as an organization. I was much involved in social issues in Trenton. My thesis project resulted in an area urban ministry/ community organizing effort that still exists as the “urban mission cabinet.” Our housing ministry project created home ownership for working poor, our soup kitchen converted some of my church members to help rather than fear the homeless, and our peacemaking task force helped persuade the denomination to establish one. I think I did good work here but my conflict management prof said I was a masochist.

I decided administration was more congenial to me than the parish. I raised money (at least $4 million) for good things in Chicago and participated in what was thought to be high level church politics. After eight years of that I moved on to headquarters in Louisville to lead professional development programs. Here as elsewhere I did not think or act politically enough to make things work better for myself (and therefore for others). I think I was mostly being used in that position by people who wanted other things for themselves, but it was lots of fun until a certain GA moderator wanted a newspaper for which there was no money. Close four different offices including mine – Voila! Newspaper failed as predicted.

Having worked with presbytery execs (equivalent to bishops, or at least a suffragan bishop as administrator to the body of teaching and ruling elders that are the presbytery, but don’t say it too loudly) I now became one. Lots of respect was given to my positional authority. I learned how to be wise on occasion, e.g., visiting a congregation in great conflict, I listened and then said “You will get through this,” which was followed by gasps of relief. Expending hours with churches that said they wanted to merge, I then discovered that they had gone through this futile exercise every seven years. Sort of a parable about how no one really wants to change anything in churches.

Frustrated by the glacial pace of change in the church, I jumped at an opportunity to work outside or on the fringes of the church. I went to work with Bob Funk, founder and director of the Jesus Seminar. Wow, what a lot of wonderful scholars from around the world, and people in and about Santa Rosa, a special place (northern California). I raised money but the finances were going down because of embezzlement that I didn’t know about until a year later. Couldn’t find a job for Carol and couldn’t afford to live under the great housing boom (2002) so I returned to Illinois.

I discovered the larger church didn’t want me anymore, but finally a “larger parish” of 4 small congregations, two of which were UCC, wanted me as a co-pastor. I arrived in the most conservative county in Wisconsin and learned that the churches were in absolute denial about their finances. The co-pastor and I led them through a year-long planning process which led to our both leaving. I stayed half-time for about a year with the more sensible of the congregations.

Carol and I each found interim ministry positions on Long Island. This was desirable because our older daughter lived north of Albany and this brought us closer at a time when we were anticipating a grandchild. Good folks who spoke openly and had fun together at the congregation in Baldwin; not so much at the more conservative church Carol led. I found an interim position in Albany, we moved north to the Adirondacks and to retirement.

Family trumps church.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

40 Years Later

I was ordained at Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church, Chicago, in early June, 1972.

The ritual was performed at the right hour
and in the right way
by the right people
in the right vestments
and in accord with all the traditions.
Many people were in attendance
dressed in their finest
singing the best familiar and stirring hymns of glory
and all of this led them to feel that they
were in the presence of the transcendent divine.
The candidate was charged to be present to those he served
and to remember that he was a part of a wondrous history,
a new leader of the institution for its greater future
but most of all for a better world for all.
He knelt and hands of friends and mentors and teachers
were laid upon his head and shoulders.

All of this receded into the past
and many then present are now dead
and the body then celebrated is now a shadow
and the candidate is absent there
but now
celebrates daily
the turning of the earth,
the immensity and indifference of the cosmos
and life and creativity and serendipity and love
and music and art and a community of freethinkers.
The former ritual sought imagined favor and blessing
and authority
that was always ours to claim and to make and
to enjoy not forever but while we live.

(Note that before the sermon was on the blog I always preached when possible from the table as I learned at Lincoln Park.)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lies, Spies, and Damned Conspiracies

I majored in history as an undergraduate and learned very little. No professor delved into the massive changes that took place in the 19th century and how they contributed to our own. Or the sources of the American colonies’ struggle for independence and the roots of today’s racial problems in the U.S. I hope and suspect that such teaching is more focused today, even in public universities.

Today, a bit more from Umberto Eco. In The Prague Cemetery he revives the ancient political rules of political intrigue described so well by Machiavelli, employed so well by the European powers of the 19th century, and brought to a finer point in our own time. The quotes are from Eco:

“Tyranny, you understand, has been achieved thanks to universal suffrage. The scoundrels carry out authoritarian coups by appealing to the ignorant mob! This is a warning to us about the democracy of tomorrow.” I am glad that my freshman rhetoric graduate assistant, who made us read a wonderful essay on the tyranny of majorities.

“The secret service in each country believes only what it has already heard elsewhere and would discount as unreliable any information that is entirely new.” Intelligence agencies are both the subject and object of conspiracy theories.

“Socialists who seek to reform the human race, but without a revolution, are therefore scorned by communists and conservatives alike.” I studied Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution in college, and now understand more clearly why he became so violent. He knew that if the Bosheviks didn’t eliminate their enemies, their enemies would eliminate them. I will blog later about the 1871 Paris Commune and its destruction, described by Eco so graphically that I nearly became ill. The issue here is about how to achieve needed change without violence.

“You don’t deal with spies by killing them but by passing them false information.” So many spy novels deal with this and the following: “No one working for the secret service must ever appear in a court of law. If this becomes likely, the agent will be the victim of an accident. His widow will have a proper pension.”

“What makes a police informer truly believable? Discovering a conspiracy. Therefore he (Simonini, the protaganist) had to organize a conspiracy so he could then uncover it.” This was the origin of the idea of the Jewish conspiracy. It is one thing for people to entertain falsehoods about each other and hate the other, but when nations adopt such hatred as policy by purchasing manufactured proof which they want to believe, we have “final solutions.”

An anarchist bomber says: “Why write a book and run the risk of prison when those who read books were already republicans by nature, and those who supported the dictator were illiterate peasants who’d been granted universal suffrage by the grace of God?”

To be believed, a conspiracy theory must not include all your suspicions: “You can never create danger that has a thousand different faces – danger has to have one face alone, otherwise people become distracted. If you want to expose the Jews, then talk about the Jews, not the Irish, the Neapolitan monarchy, Polish patriots and Russian nihilists. Too many irons in the fire. How can anyone be so chaotic?”

After a murder: “I realized that the most irritating aspect of a murder is hiding the body, and it must be for this reason that priests tell us not to kill, except of course in battle, where the bodies are left for the vultures.”

Eco wants us to know how language works and how words make our worlds.