State of the Presbytery, Monmouth (part 3)
Less than a year after Hurricane Ike changed the landscape of the Bolivar Peninsula along the Gulf Coast of Texas, I was sitting on a dune praying. Well, not really a dune … a rise in the beach with some new growth upon it. As I was meditating on what God was up to in my life and in the world, I smelled something aromatic. It was a familiar smell, but not something I was used to smelling at the beach. I looked at the dune grass growing around me, and found I was sitting in a patch of sage … the remnants, no doubt, of someone’s herb garden. There’s a natural resiliency in our world. God’s creative, life-giving Spirit, is constantly renewing, even after the devastation of a category 3 hurricane. Something new always springs up.
So, how do we build a presbytery that is resilient?
I am currently reading a book by Zolli and Healy, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. In it they talk about sensing, scaling, and swarming. I’ll talk about these ideas in and include some other words as well.
Sensing relates to having a way to find out what’s going on in the organization. An electrical grid has a feed-back loop. When something is not working in one place, the system knows, and it responds; it immediately re-routes to other paths, so that the impact is minimal.
The heart of the presbytery’s feedback loop is in our connectionism. I’m not talking about a top/down, or a center/hub, hierarchical system, but in a web of relationships. A spider senses the movement of any part of the web as it ripples throughout the silk-like connections. Many church organizations understand this system of relationships when it comes to rumor or gossip. So, I ask, how can we build on those relationships and make them the a healthy foundation of our organization, not adjunct to the organization?
My colleagues and I had a motto in the presbytery of New Covenant … “It’s all about Relationship.” The success of the presbytery, the ability to work effectively, the ability to weather storms, was a result of building trust-filled relationships. Healthy relationship is dependent on trust; it is not the shmoozing of business networks based on transactional understandings … you rub my back and I’ll rub yours … no, it’s a TRUST in God over trust in ourselves, our polity, our committees, or our “rules.” Trust involves transparency and integrity. We need to trust each other and respect each other and love each other enough to speak the truth in love.
Trust can only be built if we have a clearly articulated and shared mission of the church. Our community is built on those shared values, yet it is highly contextual and takes a great deal of integrity and strength to be who and what we are, to be honest and self-aware, and to live boldly together.
True community is not easy for 21st century Americans. I was part of a new emergent church plant in Texas that was, among other things, clearly attempting to build community. One evening I got a call from a friend asking me to go shopping the next day with some of the women of the church. I began explaining that I am not a shopper. No, I don’t like shopping. I figure that if I can’t buy it on Amazon.com or at the grocery store, I don’t need it. As I was explaining this on the phone, I was interrupted by a voice from the living room. I was, at the time, coaching another emergent church planter who was over-hearing the conversation. He shouted, very pointedly, “It’s not about shopping, it’s about community.” I wish I could report that I went shopping with the women that weekend. I didn’t. I was not able to put my own preferences aside for the sake of building community … and that’s the case for so many of us.
The Reverend Jin Kim, of the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, was talking with a handful of us over lunch in Houston a few years ago. We were talking about community when Jin confronted me with the reality that we (Americans) don’t know how to be community. I wonder if we even really WANT community. It takes work. It makes us vulnerable. Most importantly, it takes time … and we’re so busy already! What would a presbytery meeting look like that was based on COMMUNITY rather than a business model?
When there is community, web of relationships (built on trust), we can respond to needs quickly. We have great examples of this in Monmouth Presbytery in our response to Sandy. In Hurricane relief, we clearly operated out of a permission-giving default, rather than a permission-denying response. Walt was recruited to head up our Sandy Response Team; the team members were also recruited and began working before the presbytery could meet to give them the “authority” to do so. Work teams formed organically in Toms River and Mannasquan to attend to immediate needs. Rob Morrison “just did it” in getting congregations to give money to the reconstruction of the church in Belmar, and the presbytery affirmed that quick response by matching the contributions from our small church fund. Allentown didn’t ask permission before taking a special offering to pay per capita for Tuckerton. Gift cards were collected and distributed quickly, so they could go where the needs were. And how did we know what the needs were? Because we were connected, because we had relationships with each other, because of our community.
Another reason our response was effective was because we understood the best responses are based on the needs. This means that we were aware that the needs of the situation, the people, the organizations. The CONTEXT is important to our response. As a Confessional Church, we understand that context matters. The Gospel must always be translated into a time and place.
This is one of the reasons our new Form of Government (NFOG) was rewritten. It strives to be a permission giving document taking into account the specific needs and context of the congregation or presbytery. Not every model works the same way in every congregation, or presbytery. But in order to operate in a permission-giving environment, we need to be clear about our mission, vision, beliefs and values. Then we need to be able to take responsibility for our action (or inaction).
This is some of the hard work that is still facing our presbytery. I know what MY core values and beliefs are, but we need to know what OUR shared values are. Here is a list of some of my core values (not exhaustive):
- Faith in Jesus Christ
- The Church is foremost a witness to the Kingdom
- “Who” we are is more important than “What” we are … people over structure, pastoral care over polity, how we behave over decisions made
- Responding to Human Needs
- Transparency in Action
- Mission trumps Policy or Polity.
- Congregations are the heart of the Church
- Pastors are leaders of Congregations
- Always trust God in allowing things to “play out”
- Continued education/training of Pastors and Lay Leaders
- Technologically adept
- Willing to take risks
- Make a difference don’t merely sustain the status quo
- Let go of what’s no longer effective
In addition to being connected and flexible, we need to promote diversity in our midst in order to be resilient. I know we sometimes think we’re stronger when we are “of like mind.” But the truth is that a variety of gifts, perspectives, experiences, etc. can be helpful in a time of great stress. Remember the potato famine? One of the reasons that plight was so devastating to Irish farmers was because they had relied on only one kind of potato, one crop. Farmers need to have a variety of DNA in the field so that it can resist the many different kinds of stressors that they may be facing in any given year … drought, excessive rain, insects, disease, etc.
In the same way we need to hear fresh voices … race, age, social class, etc. … as we determine who we are and how we intend to face the future. We also need to find ways to get info from the people who are actually DOING the work and let them lead!
An example is our own Genesis Center. When we listened to the voice of Emily … a young woman who is technologically literate, who knows our core values, and who is already doing the work of resourcing congregations … the sky’s the limit. She has good ideas, big ideas, and relevant ideas.
Resiliency is not so much about recovery, but renewal. It’s not about weathering a storm and remaining the same. It’s not about hunkering down. It is about the life that comes after, a new way of being, a fresh approach to a faithful heritage. The good news of Christ is about resurrection, after all, not resuscitation. We are not going back to the way things were, but GROWING into the future God has in store for us.
In order for resurrection to occur, what has to happen? Death … yes. We have to give up things, let go of some of our most treasured ideas and habits. Trauma is one way this happens. Stuff happens. Often we only see only the cost it requires of us. It’s important to realize the possibilities that come when crises hit.
One of the things I noticed recently were the stories of our congregations — particularly those who responded to the needs of Sandy — of a new Spirit, a new energy, a shared and a well-defined mission. Banding together in times of need is a community building experience that is formative in our definition of who we are.
We didn’t light the fire … is not only about the stuff that happens to us, but the Spirit within us that keeps renewing and recharging us. The fire is not necessarily something to be “fought,” but might, in fact, be something to be “caught.” It’s not just a fire that traumatize us, but it’s also a fire that ignites us.
That’s where our strength is, where our trust is, and where our hope is …