Future of Urban Ministry: You Say Potato, I Say Potahto

I grew up watching the Electric Company. I loved the “Hey, you guys!” calling me to watch the show. I loved the Spiderman comic. I loved Morgan Freeman. What I especially remember is the two silhouettes whispering a part of a word and sounding out each syllable until it formed one word. Two people, two mouths, two sounds – one word.

Lately, I’ve been heavily involved in finding ways to support, discern, dream, and address the current needs in my local urban ministry context. My context, like others, involves a diversity of racial ethnic congregations, struggling congregations, innovative ministries, and those in some type of transition. In the midst of this, I notice two main conversations evolving. One seems to be from the perspective of an older generation that represent the old way of ministry or thought; are asset-rich (meaning they are sitting on an endowment or building/property); and are people-poor (meaning there is low attendance in worship and membership.) The other seems to be from the perspective of a younger generation that represent change and innovation; desire new ministry or church developments; tend to be asset-poor (meaning there isn’t an endowment or possession of physical property); and where they lack people, they are rich in energy and passion. This is an overgeneralization, but I often find this dichotomy play out in conversations. Except, unlike the Electric Company, two parties are not sounding out one word, but instead are speaking over each other. A good example of this is the comment thread in Carol Howard Merritt’s recent blog post, “Perspectives on the Young Clergy Crisis.”

I’ll be honest. I’m not interested in conversations about young and old clergy. I’m not interested in conversations that assume just because you are young you are this and because you are old you are that. What I am interested in are having conversations with people who have a passion to try stuff (new and old), who have resources and are willing to share, who have connections and are willing to risk making them, and who have enough ego to believe in what they are saying, but less of an ego to let go when it isn’t going their way. And lately, I have been having lots of those kinds of conversations on the church level and presbytery level, with young seminarians and 25 year clergy veterans, and with elders called to “teach” and elders called to “rule.” And what is energizing about these conversations is that it feels like we are sounding out one word; it sounds like we are asking the same questions; and it seems like we are aching for something that Christ is calling us to fulfill.

So, here are three ongoing conversations that I have had that in some way sound out the same word or somehow benefit and affect each other.

Church-Level

I have shared before how in June 2011, all 22 PCUSA churches in San Francisco gathered to collectively discuss the legacy that Christ calls us to live into. While that was the focus of the gathering, I have to admit that it wasn’t the original motivation or catalyst that sparked such a gathering to take place. As I shared in a previous blog, a group of pastors, including myself, originally gathered to discuss the plans on how to address the many “dying” or “declining” churches in our area. It was in that conversation that we realized we were asking the wrong question and shifted our focus from “dying” to “legacy.” “Dying” places a judgment value on the worth of a worshipping congregation, while “legacy” places a call and goal for all congregations to live into and strive for. “Dying” creates a divider between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” while “legacy” levels the playing field and creates space for us to discern how in our diversity we contribute to a collective legacy or calling. “Dying” feeds distrust among us, while “legacy” plants partnerships and support. Together we came up with this collective legacy.

From that initial gathering, a second group was formed with elders and clergy who attended that gathering to further think through the next steps. A few of the ideas that came out were to hold frequent gatherings for churches to build relationships and partner, using an Open Space model, as well as gathering to educate ourselves and develop a common vocabulary of ministry. For example, the word “missional” can mean different things to different people, so what is it going to mean to this particular community. For churches who are no longer looking at redevelopment and can not afford an ordained clergy, we are hoping this is an opportunity to be a laboratory or a training ground for seminarians interested in urban ministry or a call to this type of ministry. Congregations with pastors could provide guidance and mentorship, while seminarians would have a hands-on opportunity to do effective ministry and provide needed pastoral care to these congregations. For congregations who are discerning their immediate future of sustainability and possible closure, we are looking at providing resources of assessment and guidance in that process.

What is great about these gatherings is that it puts the focus on actual ministry versus labeling congregations according to viability. It also empowers congregations big and small to assess their ministry and how that plays out in a bigger context of living into a collective legacy. It calls on all congregations to work together, partner together, and support one another. And more importantly, it emphasizes the fact that WE are the Presbytery, not some higher entity, not an outside group, but each elder, clergy, and church are the Presbytery and it is up to us to do the work Christ calls us to do.

Presbytery-Level

This past year as Vice-Moderator, I have been involved with many conversations that have to do with redesigning the presbytery staff structure, realigning presbytery priorities with the mission and vision, and ways the presbytery as a whole can move toward healthier change which involves being less divisive and more relational. As I enter into the new year and prepare to be moderator, I am already beginning conversations on how we can use other models of decision-making such as consensus as well as different ways that we structure our presbytery meetings. I have talked with other moderators and Executive Presbyters whose presbyteries are using Open Space, which creates room for people to gather around interests, resources, and partnerships. And I am excited to continue participating on Council, where we are evaluating the way we work, defining the ministries we invest in, and address the challenges that our diversity brings. One of the things that has come out of Council is the creation of Presbytery Associates. Similar to Parish Associates, Presbytery Associates are clergy who are members-at-large who have the skills and passion to walk alongside congregations who need guidance in finance, building, investments, and other ministerial support. They will assist congregations by leading them through an assessment process to help them discern their future.

From redesigning the staff structure to implementing more consensus to providing Open Space to creating Presbytery Associates, we hope to move forward to fostering a healthy presbytery that will be a place for ministries to connect, have resources to support congregations and new ministries, and value diversity as an asset and not an obstacle.

PCUSA-Level

It is clear that there are a lot of conversations on the broader PCUSA level that in some way involve reassessing the way we do things now and discern what changes need to be made for the future. I am currently on the Committee to Review Biennial General Assemblies, where we are tasked to review everything that happens at General Assemblies: how often, how we do business, the purpose, etc. I have been in conversations with many on the Middle Governing Bodies Commission and Nature of the Church in the 21st Century Committee. 

Recently, I have been in conversations that involve the Presbyterian Foundation as well as some local folk who will help congregations assess their current context, dream for the future, as well as resource options on ways they can use their assets in ways that honor their current ministry as well as give birth to new ones. These are very preliminary conversations on both ends, but they give me much excitement for ways that older congregations and possibly new ventures can partner together.

All of these conversations are important and vital to the future of PCUSA. Not to sustain the old, but to always assess and discern ways that God is calling us to engage in the world. My hope is that out of all of these conversations – the young and old, the “dying” and revitalized, the bivocational and full-time, the elder and clergy, the old way and the new way – can benefit from each other, learn from each other, and inspire one another to be a catalyst for innovation. The problem is that these conversations take time, energy, heartache, passion, joy, and grace. And if I’m honest, I am entering 2012 already tired, drained, and busy, BUT I am refreshed and comforted knowing that I am not alone and have someone on the other side sounding out the syllables, making room for the spirit to blow, and carrying on the legacy whether it is church, presbytery, or PCUSA-wide.

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