Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Center for Progressive Renewal: a GLBT future for the UCC?

A few months ago I went to the Center for Progressive Renewal in Atlanta to be trained as a potential consultant to UCC congregations identified as having the potential to “turn around;” troubled or struggling churches that with a bit of guidance and direction might be able to flourish and grow again. I did not feel any particular sense of calling to become a consultant to congregations, but my dear friend Tony Robinson, himself a very successful church consultant, urged me to at least bring an open mind.

I was glad I went, first because I was able to renew friendships with some folks I had not seen in many years (Bill McKinney, retiring president of the Pacific School of Religion; Steve Sterner, who was about to retire from UCC Local Church Ministries; Ron Buford, who brought the “Still Speaking” Initiative into being; and, of course, Tony) and meet some wonderful folks who were new to me. But frankly, I had no real sense of what the Center for Progressive Renewal was all about. I had spent some time on their very slick website, and was mightily impressed by the ways in which they were using technology, but could not quite get a handle on their identity or mission.

The short version is that in an era where very few UCC Conferences can sustain a position in church development and renewal on their own staffs, the CPR is seeking to become a quasi-independent organization (they do not yet have their own 501c3 status but that is a part of their plan) that will take on this role, primarily for UCC churches but also for those belonging to other “progressive” judicatories. (I have confessed in a previous post that I struggle with the word “progressive,” so will not belabor it again here).

Their co-executive directors, Cameron Trimble and Mike Piazza, are bright and energetic. Cameron is startlingly young to be so accomplished (old guy perspective here), and recently migrated from the United Methodist Church to the UCC. Mike is the founding pastor of the Cathedral of Hope, a primarily GLBT congregation in Dallas that moved from the Metropolitan Community Church to the UCC some years ago, the largest congregation ever to join the UCC. They are supported by a dedicated and talented staff of part-time folks, with a strong focus on technology. This is a good thing: given how tight church and judicatory budgets are these days, the more that can be done on-line the better. In many important respects, they represent the future of church renewal, leadership development, coaching, etc.

They are very blunt about how they triage their consulting opportunities. They do not want to invest their limited resources in ventures not likely to succeed, which describes the overwhelming majority of UCC congregations. They believe that the future of the United Church of Christ is largely southern and primarily GLBT, meaning churches made up mostly of gay and lesbian Christians and the straight folks who like to hang out with them.

I have no real problem with either emphasis. The South is where population growth has been happening for decades, and the UCC has done a pretty miserable job of establishing itself there. Moreover, the South remains less secularized than other regions. In my view, it is hardly an accident that the Cathedral of Hope grew like wildfire in Dallas, even though it is not regarded as a “gay-friendly” part of the country. Dallas is arguably the “churchiest” of all major cities in the U.S.; every restaurant that serves Sunday brunch offers a discount if you bring your church bulletin, and department store ads still feature “church dresses.” Like everyone else in Dallas, GLBT folks want to be in church on Sunday morning. And being in a less gay-friendly region can help to build community not just among GLBT folks, but also among those who support them. Being lesbian parents is unremarkable in Seattle or Minneapolis, but it remains a challenge in the South.

So yes, there is a legitimate mission to strengthen and support GLBT congregations in the South, and yes, there is potential for meaningful growth in doing so. But then my list of problems with this strategy begins.

First, I am not nearly ready to abandon the thousands of congregations who do not fit the CPR’s vision. I still hold the conviction that small, aging congregations in areas where the population is stagnant or declining have opportunities not only to survive but to flourish if they can identify real community needs, particularly the needs of an aging population, and address them. Yes, the overall picture is glum, but I find it hard to believe that God no longer has any use for us above the Mason Dixon line.

Secondly, the GLBT emphasis brings me to the same issue I have had all along with the Still Speaking campaign, namely whether “everyone is welcome here!” is an adequate vision on which to hang the faith identity of a congregation. As Stan Hauerwas once expressed it, “I have the suspicion that God Almighty finds our genitals a good deal less fascinating than we do.” Or as a pastor of a thriving congregation recently said to my friend Tony, “Folks only come to this church looking for two things—a genuine experience of God’s presence and a safe place to talk about that experience.”

There is precious little interest in theology among the CPR staff, nor is there much desire to talk about Jesus. I would in no way want the UCC to be anything less than fully inclusive of GLBT folks, and it makes sense to me in certain regions of the country to emphasis that inclusiveness strongly and publicly, but I cling to the conviction that the calling of the church is to make Christian disciples out of us, whether we self-identify as gay or straight. Too many of our churches think that getting folks in the door and congratulating them for being such wonderful people is enough. It isn’t.

Finally, I wonder about the math in this formula for church growth and renewal. If ten percent of Americans self-identify as GLBT, and the UCC manages to attract—let us be remarkably optimistic here—ten percent of them to its congregations, our potential growth will be coming from 1% of the population.

I will continue to follow the work of the CPR and pray for its mission. I have offered myself as a resource person on addressing the issues and opportunities raised by aging and dementia, an offer that was politely received and, likely, promptly forgotten. Clearly it is not the right fit for me, but I welcome what they bring to the table and do not want to underestimate the good that God can bring out of their sincere efforts.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A few kind words for the Established Church

I have promised to write more about the United Church of Christ on this blog, but have been distracted by our recent trip to England to visit Memory Cafes, which I encourage you to read about on our Aging Together blog. During that trip we spent three days with Rob Merchant, a gerontologist and theologian who serves as rector to seven small Anglican parishes in rural Gloucestershire. I had the privilege of preaching in two of these churches (the “new” one was constructed in the 16th century while the oldest dates to the 11th) to congregations ranging from seven to twelve.

While we in mainline Christianity make a lot of noises about the loss of our privileged position as the de facto “established church” in America, this was my first experience with a truly established church (it is, after all, called “the Church of England”) and what it means to serve as faithful pastor in such a setting. Here are a few thoughts and observations of some relevance to those of us living and serving in the twilight of mainline Protestant Christianity in America.

1. We should never underestimate the loyalty of members to their churches, or the deep emotional and spiritual investment of those with a multi-generational history in their congregations. In practical terms it makes no sense whatsoever to try to keep these seven rural churches going. Try to imagine the maintenance issues associated with a building that is eight centuries old. The dream of one congregation is to have a working toilet in the church building, but the engineering challenges make this impossible (in rural England, remember to pee before leaving for church). Somehow they find a way to do the repairs that simply must be done to the buildings, and to maintain the cemeteries that serve as history books for the entire village. The practical thing would be to close four or five of the churches and merge them into two or three viable congregations, and one day it may come to this. But the deep center of identity and meaning these churches provide to their members suggests that they will put that day off as long as possible.

2. Rob’s predecessor served those churches for 30 years, and provided the people of the villages with the same consistent message: you are a member of the parish by virtue of living within it; you do not need to attend worship to be a good Christian (although showing up on Easter, Christmas Eve and Boxing Day is good form); and the church will always be here for you. Rob is more or less stuck with the first point, is gently trying to correct the second, and is deeply committed to the third. While the seven churches combined rarely draw a total of 100 persons to Sunday worship, he serves as caring pastor to a flock of about 3,000 souls.

3. Not all of those souls are Anglican souls. We accompanied him on a visit to an older couple, the husband an acclaimed artist with dementia (you can read their story on the Aging Together blog). She is a Roman Catholic, but the closest Catholic parish is in the city of Gloucester, quite some distance from the village of Hartpury. She clearly regards Rob as her pastor, and gratefully shares in the Eucharist with her “vaguely Christian” spouse. If I had in any way associated the Established Church with a certain degree of arrogance, what I witnessed was precisely the opposite – humble and faithful service to all in need.

4. In American Protestantism, whether Evangelical or Mainline, busyness itself is counted a virtue and a wide range of groups and programs is considered essential to a vital church. It is assumed that a church that is not growing in numbers and planning its next expansion project is somehow failing the test of faithfulness. Worship must be a major production where no detail is overlooked. As I participated in my first Anglican Evensong, trying to find my place in various service books that were older than I am (everyone else present was apparently born already knowing the practices and traditions), I had reason to question these assumptions. When the time came for my meditation, I abandoned my carefully-prepared notes and simply reflected aloud on our texts, deeply aware of how connected we were to God and one another through this simple and ancient act of worship.

Economic realities may ultimately lead to the demise of some of these congregations, but they have persisted faithfully with far fewer resources than many of our small Mainline congregations that are labeled “declining” or “dying.” Their doors, by the way, are never locked; that would be unthinkable. They are the settings where young couples marry and the dead are remembered and grieved. They are the entire village’s anchor in the transcendent realm, the embodiment of their highest aspirations and ideals. They are where the God revealed in Jesus Christ is encountered in worship. And that is enough, it is more than enough.