No One Puts New Wine in Old Wineskins

Today is November 7, 2012, the day after the General election which, among other officials, elected the president of the United States.

During the campaign I noticed that both candidates promised change for the better if they were elected. I counted this claim, as the Apostle Paul said, as ‘dung.’

I am only a simple country pastor, but it has been my experience that no single leader is capable of effecting change. Ok, there is one, but the change he promised still requires significant participation by his followers, and his ‘election’ did change everything while at the same time changed nothing.

In terms of human institutions, be they governments or congregations or the local PTO, one preferred method for change is facilitated democratically by participation. It is not the leader themselves that creates change, it is the combined leadership of executives and governments, agencies and practitioners, who make change. In mainline Protestantism, Pastors earn influence, not power. In this environment change happens as participants adopt a distinct view of the church, and participate in it.

Particularly in the church, discussions about change are at once theological as much as political or systems theory. I reject the “the naïve belief that faith discourse is applied to human realities inside some antiseptic laboratory that is totally immune to the ideological tendencies and struggle[s] of the present day” but insist that the dynamics of organization and theology go together.

Religious leaders regularly strive to discern direction for movement toward ‘increased faithfulness’ for the organization. They express this idea, and are met with friction. What is true in the physical universe is true in the Spiritual realm, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The reason religious people anticipate change in faith practices is that we are people who believe in the Incarnation. We believe that the Christ is made manifest in the ‘Body of Christ,’ the church. We also believe that God continues to speak and act and offers a fresh word to every generation. Faith is not separate from practice. So while speaking of faith is never that threatening, suggesting that one embody faith in new ways is threatening.

Proposed change can be resisted in a variety of ways. The apparent impasse between the executive offices and the legislative branch can be characterized by a simple verbal exchange: “you must” is replied to with a resounding “we won’t.” Resistance is also evident in less obvious forms. Sometimes resistance is manifest by the raising of a variety of obstacles to progress toward some proposed action: “It costs too much” “We don’t need this” “that isn’t within your purview.”

One way to understand this phenomena is to see it as a clash of ideologies. The presidential election was frequently described as a choice between bigger or smaller government, and along with that an ideology that suggested that one was good and the other was bad (and both sides said this).

Another way to understand this phenomena is to see it as a difference in understanding the ‘model’ of government. This perspective is similar to the first in that there is the element of ‘role,’ but what is different is that the conflict arises because the perceived role of the institution is the source of the conflict, rather than the idea of the institution. The clash is between a very pedestrian understanding of what the church is and an active participation in what the church does.

Most ‘old-line’ denominations are undergoing such conflict right now. The economics of the institution no longer support many of the wide ranging activities from the past. Change is attempted, frequently by discerning what are the body’s core ministries and focusing on those. Then, in an effort to zero in on ministries, institutional infrastructure is reduced, resources shifted, and in the words of auto industry repositioning from the 1980’s…the organization is ‘right-sized.’ No small amount of opposition accompanies even the wisest of these efforts.

Scholars have tried to describe what is going on in this situation. Penny Edgell Becker conducted an ethnographic study of 23 congregations in Oak Park Illinois in the late 90’s. The data collection in that study identified the ‘core tasks’ of each congregation. The questions used to identify these tasks were not unlike “Appreciative Inquiry,” Stowell and West (1991) have been credited with the development of the “Appreciative Inquiry Method” (AIM). The goal of AIM is to build on strengths and facilitate change, rather than removing weaknesses. One of the reasons why AIM has been so popular with not for profits in particular is that it is hoped to reduce organizational anxiety by giving attention to widely held strengths rather than the more difficult task of ‘weeding out’ weaknesses (of which there is likely less consensus).

In my regional judicatory, this process is in full swing. When the question of the sale of some brick and mortar assets came up, with the goal of strengthening ministries, the leadership was met with a firestorm of resistance. One Ordained leader, now retired, said: “…good Christian stewardship requires that we honor the debt that we have to our predecessors, protect their legacy to us, and pass on the gifts that we received, intact, to future generations.” This comment was in reference to physical properties, not an idea or ideology, ecclesiology, or even ministry.

Taken to its illogical extreme what occurs is something like this: My father recently gave me an antique Edison cylinder player. It belonged to my great grandfather. This relic was important to him and I received it gladly. What to do with it? It is on display in our living room. I dust the ‘horn’ regularly. Cylinders are neatly stored in a box where they will not pick up moisture and get ruined. On rare and special occasions I take out one of the Susa marches and play it. I am trying to ‘pass on the gifts that we received, intact, to future generations’. When I bequest this item to one of my children, I suspect that it will get used less than I use it. They may keep it, stored away for safe keeping, but as time goes on and their children receive it the emotional value of it will be reduced to the point where it can be safely put out on the curb where it belongs.

It should not be surprising that participants in organizations with rich heritages often hear the line “We never did it that way before.” This comment is not sentimentalism, it reflects a deep association with place and process with purpose. Herein lies the disconnect. Structure (physical or organizational) does not equal purpose. I know of the saying, “form follows function.” And, this is true and needs to be affirmed but not in the way you might expect. I would say that to insist upon a particular form reliably predicts the outcome of function.

In the monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” Jim Collins leads the participants through the AIM. In this text he makes an observation about leadership. Collins notes:

The complex governance and diffuse power structures common in nonbusiness lead me to hypothesize that there are two types of leadership skill: executive and legislative. In executive leadership, the individual leader has enough concentrated power to simply make the right decisions. In legislative leadership, on the other hand, no individual leader – not even the nominal chief executive – has enough structural power to make the most important decisions by himself or herself.

This reality is present in government, civic organizations, and, of course, churches. This leads me back to my initial assessment of the presidential election. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that the president, alone, can rescue us from our collective selves.

Effective leaders in these organizations are about the work of cultural shift. Collins says ‘they are ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the movement, the mission, the work – not themselves – and they have the will to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.

The reason that the will is so important is that for these kinds of organizations the difference between leadership and the exercise of power. Will is important but we cannot will anyone into change. Stamina is essential, because cultural shifts in understanding the core purpose(s) of the church and its ministry do not happen within a short time frame. Transformation leaders work at gathering momentum toward achieving the desired outcomes of the church and as a consequence direct the form.

In two places in the gospels, a disciple requests leave so that they might go and bury their father. Jesus replies with what some scholars refer to as a ‘hard’ saying. Upon hearing the request, Jesus replies, “…Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This is called a hard saying because it seems harsh, if one realizes the burden of tradition and faith that insists that this disciple take his hand from the plow and return to his primary duty which is to be a son. What Jesus is asking this person to do is to re-think his primary role, which is not to be a son but to be a disciple.

As I read this story, I imagine myself, a few years ago, when my mother died. She and my father were in Florida at the time. My father called with the news and I jumped on the first plane out of town. What if someone had told me that it was more important that I remain home so that I might preach the gospel on the coming Sunday? My heart would have broken. My actions were motivated by feelings and my sense of responsibility. As it is most of the change we are talking about in churches involve emotional systems, not structural ones. This is why changing the direction of organizations is so difficult.

In Edwin Friedman’s text “A Failure of Nerve,” the author recognizes that in this kind of systemic, cultural, change as a change in emotional systems. Resistance is to be expected in these systems and Friedman insists that “It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.” In the language of Friedman, Jesus is not insisting on change here. He is offering it. He is providing a clear differentiation between kingdom values and cultural values. And, as we know, that is what got him into trouble.

Understanding a congregation this way means that leadership facilitates change via force of will, not will to change, but the will to continue to offer a different understanding of church than the prevailing model. The force of will that these leaders need is a commitment to central goals, or tasks (e.g. a vibrant and active youth ministry). The how of this achievement would be open to negotiation. Like my old Edison, it may be good for the current generation to dialogue with those who will follow them as to the efficacy of our legacy.

In my congregation I offered an idea for shifting Christian Education away from a didactic model (even through curriculum offered ‘activity’ within its structure) to a model called “Rotation.” When this model was developed it was developed to address several problems: 1) a basic lack of biblical literacy 2) a declining pool of teachers, and 3) a declining attendance. The shape of this model is radically different than age stratified, self-contained, classrooms. My goal was to increase interest in Christian Education while at the same time reinforcing several key biblical stories through a multiple-intelligence approach to teaching. In a sense, I was simply asking the CE department to consider ‘repackaging’ the materials we have received from our predecessors in the faith.
What happened is that the CE folks saw this as a mandate to implement this particular model. And as this model was so significantly different than the current approach, anxiety arose and multiple reasons were cited for ‘why’ this model could not be implemented, or why it could not be implemented in a relatively short time.

Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed.

Reflecting on this event I realize that some of the outcome could be predicted. In fact, the more I insisted on certain outcomes (multi-sensory approach to teaching a few core biblical stories, implementation of a high-school class, and change in Confirmation to instruction with mentors of CE and inclusion of these students in ‘regular’ education on Sunday morning) the more resistance I received. Despite AIM here which ranked “Youth and Children’s Ministry” as the top core value, changing the way we do things to revitalize this area of ministry is met with a million reasons why it won’t work. Ok, I exaggerate, it was a half-million reasons. The committee characterized my suggestion of the Rotation Model as a mandate. Suggestions, offered after a request for input, became ‘meddling.’ Apparently a few teachers even said that if we shift to the Rotation Model then they would resign as teachers.

The reason for this friction is not really resistance to change per se. It is that the model proposed does not bear the same emotional attachments as the previous version (and I do not mean to trivialize this fact). It is a disagreement about the model of church that is the loci of conflict. The substance of the conflict are emotional responses to the shifting landscape.

I believe that the future needs congregations to focus on the basic charge of the great commission: to make and support disciples of Jesus Christ. While not a particularly radical idea, it is, in practice may produce a radical shift for many in the predominant model of church, from say church as “Institution” to “Herald.” The problem is that when a leader suggests that another way may be more advantageous the implication is that the previous way was wrong. Nobody likes to be told (directly or indirectly) that they are wrong.

One frustration I have for this messy process of leadership is that emphasis on the purpose or role of the church (on the one hand) and the how this purpose is accomplished (on the other hand) is to miss the point. Segundo would say that a faith community which ignores the complex problem of its effective realization will end up serving different values; while an congregation that focuses on what is done (or not done) while ignoring its faith values forgets what it is serving and tends to get carried away by its presumed autonomy and will lose the efficacy it seeks. Leaders in the church must be concerned for both the what and how of ministry. We must keep an eye on our faith and be aware of the impracticality of doing so in the world.

I do not know if I have either the will or the stamina to see this through, but I have confidence in the one in whom I believe. I firmly believe that the object of that is worth introducing to new disciples. This work is essential so that the church may pass from one generation to the next, not as like a dusty old box of treasures ready for a museum. Instead, ‘…every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ What is old will be our faith, kept amidst every challenge, and what is new is how we live it in the here and now.