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.

No comments: