Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Presbyterians, Change, and Eaarth

By the end of the day, some folks at the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville will get the word that their job no longer exists. The General Assembly Mission Council is determining how they will respond to a 13.2 million dollar decrease in revenue over the next two years. This marks the sixth time since 2002 that national staff has been cut. According to the Presbyterian Outlook:

National staff members losing their jobs – the staff was told in meeting this week that the number will be about 45 – will get the news from their supervisors that afternoon.

Linda Valentine, the council’s executive director, acknowledged to the council on May 13 that “these are painful, difficult times” and that both the lives and livelihoods of people who have served the church for years will be affected.
The national organization is being hit hardest. But regional levels are changing as well. Following the retirement of our youth and young adult director, Jim Kirkpatrick, our presbytery decided not to replace him. This decision followed the painful reality that projected income for our presbytery had dropped significantly.

That is why volunteers in the presbytery are picking up the pieces of Jim's job and why heretics like me are leading Presbyterian Student Fellowship at ETSU. I come cheap. As in free.

In the meantime, a task force has been selected. According to our moderator this task force will meet over the summer to

"determine which programs, ministries, and committee activities are most relevant and vital in fulfilling our vision and mission" as well as "to insure that we are adequately funding our most critical programs".
So who gets the prize for being "relevant", "vital", and "critical"? It isn't as though we have been wasting money. It is all relevant, vital, and critical.

We are in the midst of change everywhere. The Presbyterian woes are just one small symptom of what is happening all over the globe. The Presbyterian story is a metaphor for change. There is no one to blame over this. In fact, I think to try to do so causes us to miss opportunities for responding to change.

To put it bluntly, we have built a global economy and a global civilization with over six billion people by the exploitation of fossil fuels. That wasn't a bad idea. It wasn't an idea at all. It was the serendipitous creativity of cultural evolution. It has been a wild, magnificent ride. We are living at the pinnacle of the highest level of consciousness Earth has experienced in four billion years.

And now, production of fossil fuels is at or near (in some cases past) its peak.

So, creative humans, what should we do?

The foundations are shaking. Change is inevitable. This change will be huge. So what is our response? So far it appears that we are continuing to prop up old ways of doing business that are no longer working. The oil leak that the engineers cannot even figure out how to stop is the inevitable result of continuing to do things the old way. Cheap, easy to find oil is gone. Drilling for oil is risky, dangerous, and expensive. We can expect more and more disasters like what happened on the Horizon.

The alternative to off-shore drilling is very expensive gas at the pump or dangerous adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere to compete for the remaining global supply. In time, this will happen anyway. Another alternative is a collective global effort to power down and build local infrastructures. This is true for both ministry and civilization.

The whittling away of the national structure of the Presbyterian Church and even of the local presbyteries is the way of the future. Soon those who live will live locally. Local ministries, local food production, local energy sources, and limited travel will be our realities in the coming years. We should be transitioning now.

It isn't all bad. It isn't just shitty change. We might get to know our neighbors better. The air could be cleaner. The food could be healthier. Oh, and we should keep the internet. This is from Bill McKibben:

Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else. We need cultures that work for survival--which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits, to rein in our own excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren't made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. The Net is the one solvent we can still afford; jet travel can't be our salvation in an age of climate shock and dwindling oil, so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to substitute. It will need to be the window left ajar in our communities so new ideas can blow in and old prejudices can blow out. Before you had to choose between staying at home in the place you were born, with all its sensible strictures, and "going out in the world" to "make something of yourself." Our society--restless, mobile, wasteful, exciting, and on the brink--is the product of that dynamism. We can't afford to indulge those impulses anymore, but it doesn't mean we need to shut ourselves in. pp. 205-6
My heart goes out to all those at the national Presbyterian offices who will be losing their jobs today. My heart goes out to everyone everywhere who has lost his or her job. Change results in great suffering. We are all in this together.


  1. Hi John ...

    For the first time in my life, I do not have a good feeling about the outcome of this disaster in the Gulf. Up until now (even while walking up Capitol Hill while the Pentagon was burning in the background on 9/11) I have had an unshakable confidence in humanity's ability to figure out and fix the messes we have made.

    If this oil is not stopped and cleaned up, and gets into the Gulf stream and heads up the East Coast and then for England and the 7 seas -- which is more and more likely -- life as we have known it on this Planet is over.

    I'm not sure I'm ready for this.

  2. I don't want anyone to lose their job but I do feel that we have way too many employees on that level. Churches everywhere are cutting back, I feel especially bad for those entering seminary or who are looking for a first call. You better have a backup plan.

  3. @Sea It isn't as if we are learning. Kerry and Lieberman are promoting a "green" bill now that would open off shore drilling along the Atlantic. Eventually, they will stop this particular leak, but already it is likely larger than the one at Valdez.

    @RevDr. We have more clergy than positions for them while seminaries need more and more students to stay open. Not a good balance.

  4. I believe it is going to get far worse for the PCUSA quickly. There are a great many ways in which we have disconnected and become irrelevant to American postmodern culture. And we're not just talking about an ideological chasm, but also an organizational one.

    I suspect the day of the paid pastor is coming to an end. I suspect the day of organized fellowship as a primary event is coming to an end.

    If the PCUSA is to "continue," I suspect we will have to find new ways to exist outside of a denominational structure. What we end up with may look more like what we see with online forums and other social networking media: people coming together for a common purpose, not because of an externally validated membership, but because they can relate to each other on the inside and share a common quest.

  5. John, as a fairly recent immigrant to the PCUSA, this news concerns me. Then again, as a hot-footed emigré from the fiscally frank Fundie set, I'm reminded to relax. The Church, under any brand, is an organism, a hardy one that has outlasted every government on record. Its needs will be met, even when its wants run aground.

    Finances are often God's way of weeding, freeing us of bureaucratic overload and frivolous endeavors. I think you're right, based on what I've witnessed in the past. The current crisis will impact denominations by reigniting urgency to succeed locally, getting us as close as we're likely to go to the original "home church" model. Hierarchies will collapse, a good thing in my opinion, as it will refocus our attention to what's needs doing around us. (Pleasing the Big Boys seldom pleases God.) And in the end, congregations who are committed to their local communities will flourish.

    We must remember hard times raise hard questions that call for real answers. If we as the Church don't have them or know how to offer them to people, our problems are bigger than what's in the bank.

  6. Tim, If "Finances are often God's way of weeding, freeing us of bureaucratic overload and frivolous endeavors" why doesn't God get busy on the "fundies." In the state where I live they and their houses of worship are taking over. I was recently at a track meet at one of their high schools on the "campus" of their church (my kids call it 'Six Flags over Jesus'). This place rivels many small colleges. You must sign a pleadge to enter their senior high program that "Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior" and be baptised by immersion. If you happened to be christened as a baby this would require rebaptism. My point is, even in the economic downturn, churches like these are not only surviving, they are thriving. I know it rains equally on the just and the unjust but my conclusion is more along the lines of "God, where the h---- are you"

  7. Conservative churches are growing; we are busy shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. We get what we deserve.

  8. "Conservative" I suppose means different things to different people.

    If conservative means we should conserve the environment and Earth's resources, then count me in.

    But if conservative means:

    1) Gays are sinners
    2) Christianity is the only "true" religion
    3) Superstition is more trustworthy than science
    4) Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Pat Robertson tell the truth

    then no thanks. I don't care if the whole planet becomes "conservative." I am not interested.

    I don't think we are getting what we deserve or that "God" is cleaning house. I think this loss is painful and sad for those losing their jobs. They have done good work. They have livelihoods to support.

    I do think that like many things institutional religion is going through major change. The changes we are facing are much larger than church institutions.

    What concerns me is that if we are facing economic volatility, crises of food, and so forth, precisely at the time that we will need stable institutions, will these institutions be too weak and discouraged to respond?

    I think that the denominational leaders see this. Staff will not be able to do it for us, whether that "it" is curriculum, peace and justice advocacy, youth training, whatever. It will function more like a catalyst to help local ministries connect.

    I wonder if this trend will be the same for civilization. Centralized government, economics, energy, 3,000 mile Caesar salads, are a thing of the past. We will need to figure out how to be very, very local.

  9. "Conservative churches are growing; we are busy shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. We get what we deserve."

    And plenty are not. While plenty of liberal churches are growing, and some are not.

    Stushie's view, which I've seen him elucidate elsewhere that growth and butts-in-seats is a sign of right theology and/or God's favor is a remarkable viewpoint coming from someone who claims to be Presbyterian.

    Anyone who mistakes demographics for God's Will understands neither demographics nor God's Will.