Wednesday, February 24, 2010

If I Were President - Radical Ethos

Disclaimer: I know I'm never going to be President of the United States, nor would I truly want to be. I also know much of what I'm going to say in this hypothetical musing is impractical and improbable to say the least. Get over it.

Since I'm so good at criticizing politicians it is fair if once in a while I make an attempt to say what I would do in their place. This is too big a subject to cover in one post, but I'm not starting a series here either. So no promises about regular posting on this topic. As I feel moved I will throw out posts to elaborate on different political topics and the approach I would take, hypothetically, if I were President. Feel free to call me crazy in the comment threads.

In this first post I want to talk about the "ethos" of my presidency.

As president I would not spend one second of one day thinking about re-election or anyone else's election. I would forbid my staff and anyone in my vicinity from conducting, following, analyzing or discussing polls. I would expect to be committing political suicide and would therefore waste no time wondering if I could do things to make others happier.

In keeping with this ethos I would not spend very much effort attempting to feign bi-partisanship, or partisanship for that matter. I would make my intentions very clear and then invite any who want to help to join paying no attention to their political affiliations, and dare any who oppose me to do their best. I would expect to fail on a number of my initiatives and therefore wouldn't promise much except absolute integrity.

There would be no half-measures. I would not wait for the opportune moment, or avoid politically sensitive matters, or accept bad compromises. In fact, I would intentionally over shoot hoping reality to come closer to my actual goals than if I were to approach them hesitantly. I would attempt to outrun, out-think, and out-flank my detractors by simply overwhelming them with so much to get in a tizzy about that they wouldn't know where to begin. I would ambush the country with ideas so radical that for 50 years we would elect hippies believing them to be conservative.

I would be relentless in attacking bad policies on moral grounds. I would not cede the conversation about morality to those obsessed with gay marriage, but would ceaselessly confront congress about poverty, warfare, and greed. I would readily accept criticism made on similar grounds of my own behavior. I would apologize publicly and frequently.

Essentially, I would strive to absolutely flabbergast everyone. In fact, that is the plan because I would use that shock and surprise to reorient expectations. I would make swift and liberal use of presidential powers such that my successors could work for decades to undo it all and not finish. I would consider it an experiment in politics divorced from cynical realism; an attempt to see whether it is possible to shake the rust off of our system of government and actually accomplish meaningful change.

You want examples? You'll have to wait for my next post.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Church Planting Proposal

For the past 25 years the PC(USA) has had a strategy for planting churches that involves careful demographic studies, long-term investment and gradual development. New Church Developments (NCD's) in our denomination take a long time to get going and cost a lot of money. Without doing a lot of analysis I'll just say that I don't think this strategy is working very well.

Parallel with this NCD situation we have a denomination that has been in pretty steep decline. A large percentage of our churches are small and shrinking. As such they cannot afford full-time ministers who come with a lot of debt out of seminary. Other churches are closing, or leaving the denomination. Furthermore, ministers are working longer into old-age before retiring. However, our 11 seminaries continue to pump out graduates every year. These combined factors have led to a situation where we have thousands of individuals wanting to do ministry with no place to do it. These unemployed potential ministers are often younger, unordained (because they can't get a call), and a lot more of them are women and minorities than their employed counterparts. They represent, in other words, the very demographics that our denomination is failing to reach.

Thus we have two related problems - a failing strategy for planting new churches, and a lack of pulpits for incoming ministers. Could we mitigate (if not outright solve) both with one stroke? I think we could. Here is my proposal:

Instead of NCD's being created by Presbyteries and Synods in a long, slow, expensive process, provide a plethora of small grants to individuals wanting to plant a church. Offer 2-years half-time salary to 300 ministers a year. Prioritize young ministers, women, minorities and others who have a harder time getting into the competitive first call slots. Make them come up with the proposal and go out on a limb with unconventional organizing plans. If in 2-years the NCD isn't viable, move on.

Many of these NCD's will fail, but so do NCD's developed the expensive and slow way. At least this way we will have tested the waters a bit, and employed a large group of our young talent to see if any gems emerge. As it stands we are wasting a huge pool of motivated, educated, potential ministers. The harvest is indeed enormous, but the workers don't have to be as few as they currently are.

I am convinced that we need a more spontaneous, bottom-up, strategy for developing ministries. Once upon a time, to get volunteers and participants you needed to have institutional structures in place. The way to open a church was to build it, hire a minister, and put a sign out front. Now though, all the institutional readiness and stability in the world won't get you members. In fact, who wants to be a "member" of anything? People want to show up where the action is. They want to join a movement; participate in a project; attend an event - not get their name on a roll. It's time for a Church 2.0 where everyone generates the content, and determines the form it takes. Successful church plants are going to be more like memes than clubs.

What if 90% of these NCD's fail? That's 30 new churches this year. And next year. And next year. Meanwhile those other 270 pastors are busy learning important lessons about what works and what doesn't. They will provide important feedback to the denomination as a whole about our church planting strategy. Feedback that is more valuable than what we currently get purely on the basis of quantity. And the whole time they will be employed in our denomination using their gifts for ministry instead of waiting tables, or doing data-entry.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Love That About Music

I can reject a theology that I read in a book, but if Johnny Cash sings it, I'll nod my head and tap my feet and sing along.

I think that Black theologians a few decades ago were right - songs are a different kind of theological discourse, but no less valuable, than that found in dense scholarly tomes. I think that music acts on different parts of the brain, parts we might share more deeply in common than written discursive language. It might be a way to bridge gaps which weigh heavily on me when I think of them - the preposterous difficulty there is in communicating with other religious people who disagree with me, especially in blogs and blog comment threads. Could I sing them a song about ordination rights for all children of God that they would not their head to? It would be something, maybe. A start.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Unfinishing Disease

I have always been an idea person. I have a million ideas jostling for my attention on any given day. I completely ignore the vast majority of them, never even imagining them into any kind of fruition. I know better than to get too invested.

Still, the tiny proportion of this miasma that I pluck out and put some effort into is a lot. Despite cultivating selectivity and striving hard for discipline these past ten years I find that most of the ideas I select and work for come to nothing. The difficulty I have is determining when failure is due to my own lack of follow-through, and when it is because the idea just wasn't ripe for plucking. Hitting walls is inevitable, but at what point is beating my head against a wall just self-abuse rather than admirable determination?

At this moment I have a host of programs in nascent or developmental stages at my Church. I know it is too many, but which ones do I drop? I have 3 different theological writing projects I'd like to be working on. I have an adult Bible Study curriculum I have half-written. I have 2 role-playing games I am collaborating on writing seriously, which I have stalled out on. I want to blog here more. I want to podcast with my fellow friars. I want to get a Lily grant to do something completely awesome and revolutionary for the future of the church.

The point is not to whine about my workload or compare it against anyone else's. What I want to know is how I get out of a position where it feels like everything is in a perpetual state of delayed progress.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Theologically Ghetto-Fabulous

I read about this on Shuck and Jive and it kind of blew my mind.

This is the argument of Presbyterians For Renewal as far as I can tell:

"Unless everyone agrees with us about everything, we cannot possibly live out our mission. We are hindered in proclaiming the Good News if anyone in the PC(USA) does not buy into our theology wholesale. Therefore, we must create a theological ghetto composed only of those who agree with us so that we can begin to move forward with our mission. Otherwise, we are totally impotent to act."

I've never heard of a mission that is so feeble. I wouldn't even require this of parishioners at my own church who I am working with, much less a whole denomination. It is historically unprecedented as far as I know in the Presbyterian Church that one part of the Body would be completely paralyzed unless every other part of the Body agree with it entirely.

What kind of Gospel is this that is so easily derailed? Except for occasional discussions in Presbytery or above, disagreements about the status of homosexuals have no necessary impact whatsoever on our shared ministry - unless one group throws a tantrum and refuses to move forward with anything until there is agreement in everything.

This overture sets a totally untenable precedent - that in order to do our work as believers, we have to create theological ghettos around dogmatic particulars cherry-picked from our tradition...which is not a dogmatic tradition at all! It is a confessional tradition!

This is a perfect example of how orthodoxy can paralyze orthopraxis. For some, we must all assent to the same set of truth-claims before we can start doing what is right. I mean, if we don't agree about homosexuality, how can we agree about how to treat the poor? It is either all or nothing for these people.

That is totally absurd! We have to agree about homosexuality before we can feed the hungry? Clothe the naked? Release the prisoners? Love our enemies? Bind up the brokenhearted? Mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice? What kind of foolishness is this?

It is like a Gospel made of paper-thin crystal that will shatter into a million pieces if it isn't handled with kid gloves. It has to be placed in a hermeneutically sealed vault (New Synod) and only handled by people with special training (those who agree with Presbyterians for Renewal on every conceivable theological issue).

It is not a Gospel that I recognize. They are going to 'embody God's trasformative grace' by being neither gracious nor transformed? This is a brittle Gospel indeed, and I hope no one is fooled into thinking it is the real deal.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Over on Experimental Theology, Dr. Richard Beck has a concise rendering of the difference between Christianity = agreeing that certain propositions are true and Christianity = following Jesus as the Way, Truth and Life. I almost always find conservative Christians to be proposing the former and almost always find progressive (and emerging/emergent) and Christians to be proposing the latter.

If you've ever read anything I've ever written, you can probably guess where I stand.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I am the Country's Screaming Frustration

Let me get this straight. A year ago, Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress in sweeping victories on a platform of change. Since then, nothing even remotely progressive has been accomplished except trying to spend us out of a massive recession. Nothing whatsoever - Gitmo still open, DODT still in full force, escalation in Afghanistan, increased spending on nukes and defense, etc. Then the President wins a Nobel Peace Prize, possibly the least deserved Prize in history, but still, a Peace Prize.

But then one Republican wins one election in Massachusettes, and not only is the Democratic majority completely undone, but a regressive surge begins as Dems fall over each other to hand everything over to Republicans once more.

I think it is possible to be a Democrat, and possible to have self-respect, but not possible, anymore, for both at once.

If you are actually a Progressive, come join us in the Green Party. We don't win many elections, but at least we vote with our conscience, and if we ever do win an election, it won't be of a spineless corpse-party that is ready for the scrap-heap of history.