This is a guest post by my friend Jeff Foels, reflections on a Presbyterian Church USA Six Agency Leadership Initiative Consultation held last week in Baltimore. I had hoped to attend myself, but was unable to after the event was rescheduled due to Sandy. I’m thrilled, then, to host Jeff’s helpful reflections below.
Last week, a small group of Presbyterians from across the denomination gathered in Baltimore for the Six Agency Leadership Initiative Consultation (SALIC). A similar event was held two years ago, and the original hope was to hold this one last October, a gathering scotched by SuperHurricane Sandy and its after-effects. Not all attendees were able to make this rescheduled weekend, and I was a pleased beneficiary of those absences when I was invited in December.
The “six agencies” in question are collectively what we think of when we talk about “Louisville” or something happening “at the denominational level.” Board of Pensions, Office of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Though they’re all mostly housed at 100 Witherspoon (The Foundation’s across the river in Indiana, BOP is in Philadelphia) they are separate entities with distinct leadership, funding, goals, and oversight boards. Bringing them together in one room isn’t all that common, yet it sounds a little more exciting than it was.
We were invited with a set of stated purposes (“Listen and learn from you as church leaders; Connect you with other church leaders to spark innovation and support; Connect you with national agency leaders, creating catalytic relationships for agency mission.), and given a question in advance (“Assuming that resources were not an issue, what is something that you would love to try in your neighborhood/church/presbytery?”). Sharing that question with ministry friends generated some excitement, and calls for me to hold those same agencies to the standards of our call to be the Body of Christ in the world.
What it wasn’t:
- A feedback session for any/all of the six agencies. Each agency was introduced very briefly, and each was at a different lunch table if you wanted some conversation and to hear what they were doing. There was no systematic run-through of ‘here’s what we we’re doing/how do you perceive us and our mission’. It was especially not a great forum to express concerns about the proposed BOP changes. BOP wasn’t represented by highest-level staff, and it seemed like the representatives they did have weren’t directly involved with the health plan side of things. The BOP lunch table was full, and was full of young pastors sharing their concerns. Neal Locke was great at organizing that conversation and some sidebars with the BOP folks, and he’d be one to contact if you’re interested. Each of these agencies does have a board, so there are periodic meetings where all of that kind of feedback and policy-making are on the table to be discussed by a group of concerned ruling & teaching elders.
- A brainstorming session. Despite the “what would you do?” question in advance, there really wasn’t a whole lot of blue-sky dreaming and sharing of visions for the church. We had an hour of it our second evening (for which Shawna Bowman and I did the visual note-taking pictured above), and a follow-up conversation the next day. That conversation was also at varying levels of specificity, with both overarching emphases and specific programs discussed. More on that in a minute.
- A total cross-section of the church. The crowd was diverse, but skewed toward serving younger, non-Establishment, urban contexts. Very few ruling elders, and among those few were myself and another almost-teaching elder, cleared to circulate. In other words, it was sort of the opposite of who you’d see at similarly sized gatherings for COGA, PMA Board, etc.
- Perhaps reflecting who was there, it was also not a gathering where a lot of the conversations of the broader church were reflected. Gracious Separation was mentioned once, non-geo presbyteries was mentioned briefly (and maybe during one of my meal conversations at that), and I never explicitly heard the dreaded D-word (“Decline”). Maybe a declinist mentality is just in the water for us all now, but I for one was thrilled this wasn’t another hand-wringing over the [perceived] loss of [perceived] cultural hegemony, privilege, and power.
What it was:
- A well-led conversation space. A heavy early emphasis on sharing our spiritual autobiographies worked to create a space that was flexible, comfortable, and familiar from opening worship onward. Ample time was devoted to the interstitial conversations that usually happen in spite of the stated agenda, and the World Cafe conversation model was implemented well in generating diverse conversations around issues relating to leadership and issues relating to F-1.0404, the church’s call to renewed openness.
- A place where listening happened. Between invited participants, of course, but especially between the Six-Agency folks and the rest of us. My dinner the first night featured a couple BOP and Foundation guys listening to Shawna and Adam talk about the challenges of their respective Theology Pub programs – managing relationships with bar owners and loud birthday parties and attendees who could care less about church but who cared a lot about conversations about faith. There’s probably not a program or policy that emerges from that, but that listening was pretty awesome. For me, for Shawna and Adam, and for these guys who get another glimpse of how church is looking, and what the leaders of that church are doing. This kind of gathering needs to happen, and probably needs to happen more, with denominational folks using their convening power to intentionally bring together all different slices of the church into agenda-less gatherings, just as all of us out in the church end up in agenda-less gatherings in Presbytery meeting narthexes and post-committee meeting parking lots and hotel bars during conferences.
What I heard:
Over many conversations – in our World Cafe sessions, in our brainstorming sessions, in our worship, over meals, at the bar – I heard a couple of common themes.
- Failure is a spiritual discipline; change is messy, openness is messy, life is messy. For a guy in a tall-steeple setting with a strong “excellence” mentality, boy was that relieving to hear. And the more that pervades a churchwide ethos that feels shy about taking chances, the better.
- There’s a big desire for better sharing spaces. First, for gatherings like this one and what I’d mentioned above. I had a couple conversations about the “flipped” meetings that a southwestern Presbytery is experimenting with, where business happens in the narthex and the ‘meeting’ happens in intentional conversation and fellowship in the sanctuary. Second, for better ways of sharing our stories. Presbyterian TED talks, a podcast that gathers stories, an app that shares a photo a day of good stuff going on in the church, a CalvinsList (like craigslist) that connects churches with stuff they need, a place to share liturgies and curricula, and in addition to all of these, a place to find out about all the initiatives that have already started to address all those needs.
- In my role as a visual note-taker, I drew a satellite model, of a content provider beaming their tv show up to the satellite to beam down to all the houses and cars and computers that tune into that. That’s how things have been done historically. I also drew a network model, of individual computers and tablets and phones as content providers all linked into one another. We’re used to creating our own content, and have been for years. There’s a role for GA to be a content provider, but also to encourage the sharing of that content between and among presbyteries and congregations, rather than a hierarchical beaming-down from one level to another.
- A big interest in building up people and not building up buildings. Again, a contrast to a decades-old paradigm of ‘build it/they will come,’ or ‘we need an addition with a gym for our youth,’ or even ‘this is our gift for generations to come.’ Interesting to hear folks see investment in people – leadership development, seminary education, ruling elders - framed in some of those same terms, as gifts passed onto future generations.
- A lot of conversations will get shared back with the six agencies. There’s a call for input into the communications future of PMA especially – they’re hiring a director and a social media specialist, and open to input into what those job descriptions emphasize.
- A lot of conversations get shared around with folks. I’ve already had nice long debriefings with clergy colleagues at House of Hope, and Dawn and Nanette have already shared out there thoughts as well. And importantly for me, I’ve been energized and inspired. The connectional church doesn’t just happen – it takes work, and work from people like me. It’s time to renew connections with folks I’ve been inspired by online, it’s time to call the Presbytery colleagues I’ve been meaning to call, it’s time to wonder anew at what’s good, what’s new, time to look for the new things already being done.
Many thanks to Adam for sharing his blog space for this post. I’ll hang out in the comments and am (newly re-)available on Twitter @jfoels. I’m in ministry at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.