Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I was interviewed by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, today for his video podcast -- or modcast. We talked about my essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment. I thought our hour-long conversation was quite substantive, and brought out some concerns that I had (evidently) not addressed clearly enough in print.

The whole discussion can be seen here. I am told that more than 180 people connected live through ustream, and a further group were commenting (which we could not see) through twitter.

Reyes-Chow's main concern was that will still needed official structures to keep the church accountable for overcoming past sins. He did not think that our consciousness of the benefits of diverse voices was strong enough, nor that our leaders, himself included, could keep the church on the right track. This is a point on which reasonable people may reasonably differ. I am conscious of the way that mandates create a backlash, so they should be used sparingly. Likewise, it is dangerous, and ultimately becomes counterproductive, to use false or misplaced categories such as race or sex, whether for inclusion or exclusion.

The ideas in this essay have been growing for some years, in my mind and in conversation with others. If some of them prove helpful in renewing some useful authority in the church, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment will have done its job.


ellbee said...

One of the things I was curious about as I read your paper was whether these conclusions were based on specific models from your sociological studies or general synthesis/opinion.
I found myself agreeing in some areas and disagreeing in others, but without the academic background, my reactions are simply that.
I'd appreciate some additional information on how your expertise informed your writing and perhaps even some literature that might help others connect those same dots.

Gruntled said...

This essay is a general synthesis of what I learned about authority in organizations from Max Weber, A.O. Hirschmann, and E. Digby Baltzell, as applied to 20 years of studying the PC(USA).

bimshire68 said...


Just because mandates can cause a backlash does not mean they are not necessary or right. The mandate around slavery cause the southern church to "backlash" until 1983. That doesn't mean those mandates were unnecessary or wrong.

As a seminary professor working with women and minorities who still have problems being taken seriously by their presbyteries, I think that, in worrying about backlash, you underestimate the depth of the sins both of racism and of sexism.

Further, it is not clear that your premise is justified, given that the Roman Catholic Church in the US and Europe, which has never had women in ruling positions and has had very few non-whites, is also on the decline. Most RCC churches in Europe are museums. Something else is afoot here.

Gruntled said...

I am Beau; the Moderator is Bruce.

If there is any organization on earth that can reform itself by self-criticism and raising its own consciousness, it is the church. I teach in a college that is highly conscious of the benefits of diversity, and has been making improvements, without quotas and structural rules. This is better for everyone.

Christian Boyd said...

After reading The Paper, a few questions came to my mind as well as some resources to add to the conversation. How does someone belong to an organization or the Establishment? What are the structures and webbings that not only connect people but also create the essential neurology for groups to become community, and consequently environs of creativity and innovation? I think Peter Block’s "Community" and Joseph Myers’ "The Search to Belong" and "Organic Community" break new ground in theories of organic community development and how they function...something I am hearing within the paper we need, especially around the smaller sized presbyteries which I have been championing since my days as a stated clerk.
If the community is going to be transformative, Block contends, people need to pay attention to many things we normally take as incidental. Social fabric, or how people become woven together, is formed through the intentionality of people gathered and the conversation that is produced. From the social networking, accountability to build relatedness, structures for belonging and impetus to move forward in action are stimulated.
The key insights from the conversations which create a social fabric focus on gifts, associated life, the role of language and definitions, and willingness to envision and discus the future. As the social fabric is woven, and social capital is invested, the emerging community needs to be left to develop organically. This is accomplished through valuing “all the voices in the room,” usage of small groups, and accountability which grows out of the co-creation of the emerging community.
Myers bases his emerging theory on Edward T. Hall’s theory on the relationship between space and culture, and how it affects culture. Hall concludes that there are four spaces which develop personalities, culture, and communication: public, social, personal, and intimate. Myers takes this discovery and applies it to the ways in which people build healthy community, employ specific space to communicate belonging, and in the expanding definition also include those whom God invites us to participate in mission.
A healthy true community, no matter what space it occurs within, allows people to grow significant relationships in all four spaces, and permitting them to belong in those spaces at a level that they want or need. For instance, one could have one relationship through all four spaces, such as spouses. In addition, one could have many relationships spanning all four spaces. “Insisting that real, authentic, true community happens only when people get ‘close’ is a synthetic view of reality and may actually be harmful,” according to Myers. It is healthier to have a harmony of relationships across all four spaces of belonging.
Shaping an environment where people naturally connect and form community is more like an art, or like jazz, and cannot be manufactured or programmed, and is not reliant on institutionalization for survival or be revived through pragmatic “how-to” resources. Community and its social networks emerge out of human needs and desires, and nurtured in an invitation to live innovatively, filled with spontaneity, motion, emotion, and a living Spirit (Holy Spirit life, in other words).
As for a missional polity, something that would aid re-grounding the Presbyterian Establishment, I do think going back to a leaner Constitution would be more beneficial (for example I have the original Constitution and ones from the 20-50's on my shelf...all would be great and innovative for today). If we know what our mission is as the Church, then our forms and structures will reflect and support it, as well as help in creating environments for organic growth which will be diverse, yet united in Christ (as reflected in the Book of Acts).

Gruntled said...

Christian, I agree about the details of organic presbyteries, and about the need for a leaner constitution. I think the Establishment, as a national network, will never have the multidimensional intimacy of a presbytery. Rather, is it larger a network of networks, held together by weak ties, connecting people who are at the peak of varied institutions and power pyramids. The ties that they have outside the job -- from shared colleges, seminaries, retreat centers, as well as family connections -- lubricate the formal connections.

bimshire68 said...


I apologize for the name mix-up, but I'm going to push you on your response.

You wrote, "I teach in a college that is highly conscious of the benefits of diversity, and has been making improvements, without quotas and structural rules."

On what basis do you make that assertion? What constitutes "improvements" and from whose standpoint are they improvements?

Having attended some fine, majority white institutions in my day (Harvard for one, and my sister's a Swat grad), my experience is that they "think" they're making improvements, but they never really hear from the underrepresented (and often far less contented than anyone realizes) members of their community. I have seen that at white seminaries also, even at Union Seminary in NYC.

When folks are forced to go looking for other voices, to listen to other voices, and to be shaped by other voices.

Gruntled said...

Centre College has standards of education that it tries to lift all students up to. That is its primary job, and guides everything else. All students should find themselves changed by their Centre education, freed from some of the parochialism that we are all heir to. We, in concert with just about every other college I know, have found that it helps free all students from their parochialism if there are more students to talk to who have different backgrounds than their own. This is the educational value of diversity. This is equally true for the "under represented" and "over represented" groups.

Centre has made a strenuous effort to draw some students from different regions and backgrounds than the modal student. The Posse Foundation has been one important partner in that effort, and I was mentor to the first Centre Posse for that reason.

I am not sure, bimshire, where your last sentence was going. Can you clarify?

halifax said...

I recall reading your essay last year, and I enjoyed it and certainly approved of it (though it obviously wasn't quite Catholic enough).

Mr. Bimshire's claim that the Catholic Church 'has had very few non-whites' is laughable in its ignorance, and the notion that the Church is 'on the decline' is also profoundly risible. Of course, Mr. Bimshire might be merely manifesting his own Europhile parochialism in such statements.

His criticisms of your paper are standard lefty social gospel nonsense, and I would recommend that he proceed immediately to immanentizing the eschaton, neither passing ‘go’ nor collecting his $200.

Christian Boyd said...


I have watch the Modcast a second time. As a person whose doctoral studies are in the missional church conversation (Luther Seminary in St Paul, MN) and whose thesis is on the missional capacities of presbyteries to support missional leaders, I would be eager to see a conversation happen between what you propose in the paper and what Van Gelder proposes in "The Essence of the Church", "The Ministry of the Missional Church", Roxburgh in "The Missional Leader" and "The Sky is Falling", Hirsch's "The Forgotten Way", and Gueder's "Walking Worthily" (which can be downloaded from iTunes and is in Princeton's Bulletin Vol 28: #3 (2007). Honestly, if the paper was re-framed, its centrist stance may have a wider reach... especially if it addressed the forms and structures first and foremost from a theological basis.