Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beyond Rebuilding 3

Reply to "Rebuilding - Or Building Up? An Alternative View of the Church and Its Future" by Cynthia Holder Rich.

This is the third in a series of responses to the five articles in Beyond Rebuilding, which were written in answer to my Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.

Prof. Rich approaches my argument through empirical research on assessment, which I appreciate. She considers E. Digby Baltzell's account of how an establishment assimilates talented outsiders as the just way to build up and renew the leadership of society, which is foundational to my analysis. (She puts a [sic] after "assimilation" for reasons not clear to me - if you read this Prof. Rich I would welcome a clarification). She cites the evangelization of Madagascar as an example of the bad things that can happen for a church that seeks to include only the powerful. I applaud and agree with all of these elements of Prof. Rich's argument.

I think she errs, though, in thinking that I am arguing that the leadership of the Presbyterian Church should include only the powerful. She writes "But being in power (or to use Weston's term, authority) ... raises issues when we try to follow Jesus." Power is not the same as authority.

The leadership of the Presbyterian Church has so little power to make anyone do anything that the idea is chucklesome. But we do recognize that some people have natural gifts for leadership because they understand what would build up the church and the world, they have the energy and dedication to turn that understanding into reality, and they teach with authority. That is why we follow them. That is why in a well-functioning organization, we draw them into positions with bigger responsibilities, broader scope, and larger numbers of people they are responsible for leading. In order to compensate for the demands of these bigger jobs, we pay them somewhat more, we give them what little power there is in a voluntary organization, and, most especially, we pay them with honor.

One of the ways that Presbyterian Church leaders do the work of building up the church is by drawing people to their congregations. That is a by-product of their authority. They have no power to make anyone come to church. A well-functioning denomination would honor and reward leaders capable of building up little congregations into big ones. And big congregations would be smart to call people who had shown a capacity to lead large, complex congregations. A well-functioning denomination would draw upon the skills of those who lead large congregations to be among the leaders of the even larger and more complex bodies of the church. The leaders of large congregations would not, of course, be the only leaders of the denomination, but they do form a natural body of the people most likely to have the relevant skills.

Prof. Rich cites studies of successful racial-ethnic congregations as producing leaders different from those found in the establishment of 50 years ago. My point, and Baltzell's, is that a smart denomination would include the leaders of the most successful of those congregations in the establishment of the entire denomination. It does the denomination no good, and it certainly does those successful leaders no good, to dismantle the establishment.

Prof. Rich rightly notes that authority is a snare to pride. She claims to "speak 'as one without authority.'" Yet she backs her claims with her experience as a seminary professor and her mastery of relevant research. That is a claim of authority. She has a vision for the church. Asking others to follow that vision is also a claim of authority. Authority is not an oppressive thing. Authority is a tool that any institution needs if it is going to do its job. And any large organization - a denomination of millions of people - needs an established body of authoritative leaders working together if it is going to do its job. A Presbyterian Establishment includes all the authoritative leaders who are good at doing the job of the Presbyterian Church.


Cherie said...

Is Prof. Rich considered to be in the mainstream of the Presbyterian church? I am not familiar with her?

Gruntled said...

Yes. She works at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, an institution of our sister denomination, the Reformed Church of America.

Anonymous said...

Hello Professor Weston, I responded to you on the "Beyond Rebuilding" discussion board put up by Barry Ensign-George --

Cynthia Holder Rich

Gruntled said...

Thank you for the connection. I have now read all the discussion boards on Facebook. With all of these bloggers writing about one another on different sites, there is much to keep up with.

David B said...

Prof. Weston,

It might interest you to know that at the Advisory Committee on Racial/Ethnic Concerns ice cream social before GA219 in Minneapolis Prof. Rich basically characterized your argument as: "we need to put more affluent white men in power."

This is an incredibly weak and highly uncharitable reading of your paper.

Gruntled said...

Sigh. I think this is a version of the military always being prepared to fight the last war.