Abound in Hope — A Sermon Amid Our Divisions

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

As we begin to wind down this month’s theme, we share a sermon that NEXT Church co-chair MaryAnn McKibben Dana preached at National Capital Presbytery on Tuesday, June 24 following General Assembly.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
National Capital Presbytery
June 24, 2014
Romans 15:4-13

Abound in Hope

4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
10and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
11and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
12and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 


One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Audie Cornish, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their early 40s can get set in their ways.)

One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 6 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.

Tonight I want to keep that spirit alive, and I’ve enlisted some friends to help me. (Keep in mind that these readers may or may not endorse the words they say!)

“Here were some of the voices in the news this past week”:

Voice 1: “We are not here to fight and divide, but to continue to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to testify to the transforming power of his love that is available to everyone. We urge you in the strongest possible way to refrain from actions, attitudes, and language that would mar the image of Christ in your response to the Assembly’s actions.”

Voice 2: “You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions.  You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions. God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”

Voice 3: “We pray that the discussions that will take place around amending the Book of Order in the coming year can be vehicles for healthy conversation about what it means to be church together, even with deep disagreement.”

Voice 4: “Divestment is not the end, it’s the beginning of non-violent means to fight the oppression of our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Voice 5: “The decision will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on relations between mainstream Jewish groups PCUSA. We hold the leadership of the PCUSA accountable for squandering countless opportunities… to isolate and repudiate the radical, prejudiced voices in their denomination.”

(Thank you all for reading the words of others, and in some cases, giving voice to sentiments you don’t agree with!)

Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the Layman, the Covenant Network, former GA moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, and a spokesman for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

As for what they were all talking about: if you managed to miss the news about GA via CNN, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or heck, even the Springfield Shopper, you’re going to hear about it in our breakout groups with our GA commissioners in a few moments. Suffice to say that some people are elated, others are furious, some are elated about the one thing and furious about the other, some are proud of their denomination for speaking prophetically and at great risk, some are wondering why we even weigh in on half the stuff we weigh in on, some have been looking for any excuse to leave, some are trying their hardest to stay, some have been waiting for a decision for years, some wanted just two more years to study the matter.

In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations: Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.

Oh Paul, you ask hard things of us! One voice? The divestment vote passed by seven votes! Even the marriage decisions, as decisive as they were, left 30-40% of commissioners in opposition. Do you detect a lot of harmony in the voices we just heard? We are not a well-tuned barbershop quartet, glorifying God with our tight chords. At best we are one of those 12-tone pieces by Schoenberg or some other 20th century composer. If you’ve taken music theory and listen really hard with your head cocked just so, you can hear a unity and coherence to the notes. But 12-tone music is more appreciated than it is loved. It’s probably not going to be your choice of soundtrack for a dinner party or your first dance at the wedding reception. And it’s not likely to fill its listeners with all joy and peace in believing so that they will abound in hope. It’s more likely to leave people cringing with their hands over their ears.

You will hear from our commissioners in a moment about what happened at GA. What I hope they will convey, and what I wish to convey, is that the debate was vigorous, and intense, but also prayerful and respectful. That matters.

Personally, I call it a success that we made it through the marriage debate without hearing the words pedophilia or bestiality. And nobody in the Middle East debate got compared to Hitler. Now I realize that’s setting the bar pretty low. But it’s bar we haven’t always cleared in this presbytery or at General Assembly, so kudos to us!

But regardless of how we made the decisions we did, the decisions themselves have consequence. And we are not of one mind and one voice. And what makes our current situation more challenging, especially here in this presbytery when it comes to the Middle East, is that folks who are used to agreeing with one another don’t agree about divestment. It’s one thing to be colleagues in Christ when you see eye to eye on a whole laundry list of social issues. It’s much harder when those colleagues disagree on something that feels so fundamental. This is going to put our unity to the test. (And at this point our loyal conservative minority is thinking, “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”)

And still, despite all of this, I do have hope. Because thank God, our hope is in God, who is the one true author of the joy and peace that we so sorely need.

This is the last section of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It’s a sweeping epistle that has covered everything from the role of the law to the significance of Adam to the interplay between spirit and flesh. It’s no accident that after these weighty matters of the day he winds up where he does, in a place of unity, of welcoming one another, lifting up the steadfastness of the Christ we meet in scripture. But this is not quite his last word to the church. Later in this chapter Paul acknowledges that he has “written rather boldly,” or what the Message calls “bold and blunt criticism.” There is an edge to Paul’s words; they are not all sweetness and light. Deep issues are at stake. So Paul must feel like it’s possible to do both: To be bold and even blunt with one another, to say “here’s where I see God at work in our church,” but also to do the “one-anothering” that Jesus calls us to do.

But how do we live with that tension between the call for unity and the deep disagreements we have? Maybe we need an image to guide us. And the one that comes to mind is from an old Looney Tunes cartoon. (Stick with me.)

Those of you who’ve been to GA know is the exhibit hall, where you have booths for the different affinity groups. Whoever’s in charge of the placement of those booths has a godly sense of humor, because the groups that are diametrically opposed to one another often end up side by side. And it’s not unusual to see someone at one booth chatting amiably with someone the next booth over. And when I see that, I always think of Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog.

For those who don’t remember these characters, Ralph the Wolf looks like Wile E. Coyote and Sam is of course a Sheepdog. Ralph’s goal is to steal the sheep for his dinner, often with the help of various products from the Acme Corporation. And Sam’s job is to guard the sheep and keep Ralph from doing that, often with the help of his big doggie fists. Slapstick gold.

But what’s funny about the Ralph and Sam cartoons is that they’re not enemies. In fact, if you remember, they begin each morning by greeting each other: “Morning Ralph. Morning Sam.” They meet each other at the punch clock and they each punch their time card and go to work. And here they are, taking a lunch break together as friends before they go back to doing what it is they do.


Now, my point is not that one side is stealing sheep and the other is the benevolent guard! But maybe the kingdom of God is something like this. We have divisions. But we can decide whether we want to be a divided church. We will continue to address controversy, but it need not be cantankerous. The councils of our church will continue to hash out issues. We will line up at microphones, offering our best arguments and scriptural support for our position. We will be bold and sometimes blunt. And when it’s time to break bread together we will do so, as we did every single day of General Assembly, welcoming one another just as Christ welcomed us.

The things we decide matter. But do we believe that God holds our future or not? Do we believe that God works through our deliberations and beyond them, within us and without us, through us and in spite of us? Do we believe that God is not finished with us?

I do. I believe that God has got this.

And that belief is the  peace that Jesus promises, not as the world gives. That kind of peace can only be dreamed up by a wildly imaginative God… a God of joy, steadfastness and hope.


mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor, writer and co-chair of NEXT. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

It’s Not Your Fault

Editor’s note: The Revitalization Team of Community Church in San Juan Capistrano, CA has been working hard on the adaptive challenge before them to be the faithful church in today’s culture, guided by their Paracletos coaches. This team (of five “lay people” and the pastor) reflects on a piece of new insight and the importance of bringing the broader congregation along with them in this work

Some denominations are really good at guilt. We Presbyterians are not leading that pack, but we do dish it out at times. We tend to be thinkers who reflect on things – and, seeing trends, we tend to blame ourselves.

We wrestle with membership and attendance levels that are lower than we’d like.  We beat ourselves up about that. Yet we’ve learned from our consultants that we are relatively healthy at Community Presbyterian Church. We’ve learned we are not a small church when compared with other Presbyterian congregations.

That said, many authors and researchers have confirmed that the culture has changed.

“The sea change is external or contextual. There once was a world that was eager to be hospitable to Christian churches and supported “blue laws,” soccer-less Sundays, eating fish rather than meat on Friday, public prayer in schools and at nodal events, deferring to clergy by way of discounts, weekly religion sections in urban newspapers, and greeting others with “Merry Christmas.” Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute.

We forgot to look around us – it’s happening everywhere, to all denominations, even to evangelicals.

“Evangelical Christianity in America is losing its power—what happened to Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral shows why.” Orange County Register, “Where are the people? 2014. Jim Hinch

Still, we got centered on ourselves and we’ve missed opportunities. The culture has changed and we have not. God, however, has not changed – he’s not done with us yet. We need to address change relative to our culture.

“Change is difficult, and should not be embarked on impulsively; but change is necessary, and should not be opposed stubbornly. We must hold in tension those two truths. If we either initiate change without sensitivity to tradition, or oppose change for the mere sake of tradition, we will jeopardize the health of the organization in question.”  “Murky Waters”, by Travis Collins, Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US and as a consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches

While it’s not our fault, it is our opportunity – to think differently! Remember, we want to do Both/And – “Both” those things we do well, “And” find new things to address a changed culture.


An excerpt from Cryptomnesia

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Cryptomnesia: : How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.]

By Chris Chakoian

cryptomnesiaQuestion authority. The phrase may have emerged in the’60s, but it has only gained steam. People form their own opinions regardless of social norms. How does this impact the church? The standards, beliefs, and disciplines that mainline denominations long provided are no longer honored by the culture. And even many within the church freely question authority.

Sociologist Robert Bellah introduced “Sheilaism” to describe the individualistic American religious consumer. (“Sheila” defined her faith as “my own Sheilaism”: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”[i]) Well, Bellah wants us to know that do-it-yourself faith is no longer just for the unchurched:

I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. … 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” … “Sheilaism” implies that there could be 316 million different religions for every person living in America.[ii]

If that was true thirty years ago, how much more is it the case today.

Yet having some mutual accountability is essential for life together. As Thomas Friedman writes, human beings “need agreed-upon norms of behavior … ways of establishing authority and building communities, doing work, … and determining whom to trust.”[iii]

So where do we find authority and structure community when tradition, hierarchy, and discipline have been flattened? I doubt that it’s going to be in our current pattern – what Diana Butler Bass describes as church-as-corporation:

American churches were organized on the same principles and structures as were twentieth-century American corporations. Beginning around 1890, denominations built massive bureaucratic structures, … complete with corporate headquarters, program divisions, professional development and marketing departments, franchises (parish churches), training centers, and career tracks. … As a Presbyterian elder once sighed to me, “Our church is like GM, only we sell faith.”

People’s deepest need is not another corporate product. Our deepest need is to belong and grow in trustworthy and authentic community. To have a place where it is safe to be real, where we are known and loved both for our gifts and in spite of our flaws … where we are urged to be our better selves as we seek to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ. The ekklesia,the household of God, offers this.

The early church discovered three simple rules for the household of God:

  • Valuing each person’s gifts:  Instead of starting with the question “what job description needs to be filled?” what if we started with the question, “What gifts is the Spirit evidencing in our midst?”
  • Building up the household in love: Instead of seeing gifts as prizes to be ranked, what if we saw them as blessings to be shared for the well-being of the community, what they contribute to “the common good” (1 Cor 12:7)?
  • Aspiring to Christlikeness: Instead of “consuming” the church’s product to meet our needs, what if we sought to grow more and more like Jesus, growing in the likeness of Christ? (cf. Col 3:16; 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11, 14; 1 Cor 14:31; Rom 15:14).

The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority. There is shared authority through the abundant gifts of the Spirit given to all. There is mutual accountability in the household of Christ. And there’s a high calling that shapes everything we do: to grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. That’s more than enough for us to move ahead with “a future filled with hope” (Jer 29:11). That’s more than enough for us to reach out to the world in Christ’s name.

[i] Bellah.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Friedman, 238.

christineChakoian_fullsizeRev. CHRISTINE CHAKOIAN is Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Illinois. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Yale Divinity School, and McCormick Theological Seminary (DMin). Co-host for Abingdon Press’s Covenant Bible Study, she is an editor and writer for Feasting on the Word and the author of the forthcoming Abingdon Press book, Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church. Chris also serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Reflections on Being More than a Deliberative Body

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, Carol McDonald gave background that explains the thought behind the 90 minutes spent at General Assembly in a period of listening, conversation, and discernment.

plant hands

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?   (Isaiah 43:19a)

By Nicole Partin Abdnour

Commissioners of the 221st General Assembly were invited this morning to try a new thing as a part of our deliberative process. The Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews (Moderator of the 215th General Assembly) introduced a period of listening and discernment over two of the most controversial items before this body: the definition of marriage and the question of divestment. In her introductory remarks she invited us to take this opportunity to, “pause instead of rush, feel instead of think, and listen instead of talk” in order that “ideological enemies may become spiritual friends.”

As we were invited into this time of “listening with hearts and not just our ears” we were provided the following outline for our process which we’d follow for each topic: a 5 minute presentation by the committee moderator, 10 minutes for clarifying questions from the body, 25 minutes for small group conversation, and then 5 minutes for prayer. Our small group conversations were guided by two questions:

  1. What did you hear that might lead someone to support the committee’s recommendation(s)?
  2. What did you hear that might keep someone from supporting the committee’s recommendation?

My overall impression and personal experience of this time is that it was important work. Commissioners honored the time. The questions asked were clarifying and did not lean towards debate. The conversation, at least in my small group, was respectful and sincere. In having this time as a part of the docket we were living out what we say we value: a variety of voices all seeking to be faithful witnesses. While I didn’t necessarily learn anything new during this time, it is no small moment when friends and strangers alike are willing to open up and share with one another their convictions and their questions. To set aside debate and open up space for testimony allowed for people to see and hear others in a new way.

The time for clarifying questions while appreciated at the outset proved to be difficult as the moderators of the committees weren’t equipped to answer most of the questions asked and they were the ones available as a part of this process. Most questions needed to be answered by the resource staff persons who were present with the committees in their work. Thankfully those people will be present when the committees each present their work for action.

The benefit of this time is not yet fully realized, but I believe that having the opportunity this morning to participate in thoughtful and intentional dialogue will shape the debate that is to come. It was worthy of the assembly’s time and I believe it modeled a helpful process for us all to take back to our congregations as we seek to help them engage in difficult conversations. May we continue to honor one another and God in our conversations and debate.

staff_nicoleNicole Partin Abdnour is associate pastor at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, FL. She is a commissioner to the 221st General Assembly.

General Assembly: More Than Debate?


By Carol M. McDonald

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has begun in Detroit, MI.  Thousands of people are gathered here to worship, celebrate, converse, listen, discern, and debate.  And when the crowds disperse on Saturday, June 21, many of us will remember fondly reconnecting with old friends, acquiring new friends, amazing singing, and the power of gathering daily at the communion table.  But I daresay ALL of us will remember how the approximately 700 commissioners and advisory delegates debated the issues and discerned God’s will for our church for ‘such a time as this.’

It has been my profound privilege to moderate, since 2010, the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies.  From the beginning of our work together, our dream has been for ‘a different kind of Assembly.’  We have encouraged the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to structure the Assembly docket to include intentional times of conversation and prayer.  And we are particularly excited about the possibilities for a new kind of plenary session in 2014.

On Thursday morning, June 19, the plenary meeting of the Assembly will be a time for conversation and discernment, rather than a time for debate.  The Moderator of the Assembly, in partnership with the Stated Clerk, will select two critical/key/potentially contentious issues being brought to the plenary from two of the Assembly Standing Committees.  Each committee Moderator will make a 5 minute presentation to the Assembly – being clear about what it is the Assembly will be asked to vote on.  Following each presentation, groups of 8 will be invited to be in conversation: a.) What did you hear that might lead someone to support the committee’s recommendation(s)? b.) what did you hear that might keep someone from supporting the committee’s recommendation(s)?  Following the small group conversations, the Assembly Moderator will ascertain that what the Assembly will be asked to vote on is clear and will then lead the Assembly in prayer.

The hope of the Biennial Review Committee is that this non-parliamentary plenary with informal discussion of key issues will hopefully change the way critical and contentious issues are then debated and decided upon.(1)  It is our prayer that all commissioners and advisory delegates, during this time of conversation, will have both the opportunity to speak and the privilege of being heard.  You will want to be in the Plenary Hall – or glued to your computer screen for live-streaming – on Thursday morning, June 19.  Tune in to learn which issues will be discussed in a new and different way.

(1)Glen Alberto Guenther, member of CRBA, in Presbyterians Today, “Can General Assembly Offer More Than Debate?”


Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.07.56 AMCarol M. McDonald is the Executive of the Synod of Lincoln Trails and Moderator of the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies. She is on the advisory team of NEXT Church.


Confessions of a GA Junkie


Now that’s trust!

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Leslianne Braunstein

In 2001 I took San Francisco Seminary’s GA Polity course and received an in-depth introduction into the history and workings of this august body. I was hooked. I’ve been to every General Assembly since. I am a certified GA Junkie. I’ve got the pin to prove it.

After years of drifting among the committees, I now pick a committee and follow its proceedings through open hearings, advocacy statements  and deliberations – right through its report to the Assembly during plenary.

What I love about General Assembly is the Spirit working in and through the commissioners. This is most evident in committee deliberations.  I have followed the committee workings of both the Polity and Peacemaking committees during times of great contention. As the commissioners entered the room I could see on their faces they had already made up their minds on issues of great importance to the church. Over the course of three days as they listened to testimony and discussed the issues among themselves, as they prayed and genuinely sought God’s face in their deliberations, I could actually see those firm convictions yielding to the leading of the Spirit. It was an amazing experience to witness.

Committee deliberations have taken many turns in the last few years. The efforts to build consensus on issues of substantial contention seem to run into obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. With good leadership, though, committees that worked primarily as “a committee of the whole” seemed to be able to build a deeper trust among their members than committees strictly relying on Roberts Rules. Roberts Rules, while a useful tool, simply does not engender mutual confidence among committee members. Being able to look in the eye your brother or sister in Christ and express your deepest hopes and fears seems to be the only way consensus can be reached.

Of course, letting committee members actually talk to one another during deliberations is messy and requires great listening skills from leadership. It takes great wisdom to know how to corral the energy in the room and bring it to a place of peace and understanding. In the end, in order to make the report, though, there must be a return to Robert’s Rules so that motions can be made and seconded and voted upon. I believe, though, the deliberative process is better served by other means.

Four years ago I monitored the Peacemaking Committee that, once again, deliberated whether or not the PC(USA) should divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. At the first open deliberation it was clear who was going to vote which way. However, during the next three days, as the commissioners listened to testimonies and the advice of Gen. Assembly agencies, and as they discussed what they heard in small groups and as a committee of the whole, you could feel the air change. In the end, the committee – one I believed was split in half – came to an overwhelming consensus on the direction the church should take in these matters. Of the almost 50 commissioners, only four felt strongly enough to want to file a minority report. Even with that, the next day when the committee met, the leader of that group stood and tearfully acknowledged that while they had reservations about the outcome the committee was recommending, they would not file a minority report “for the good of the church.” It was, he said, the Spirit’s leading; the report should stand on its own. I saw no visible victory behaviors – no high-fives or thumbs-up.  What I heard were heartfelt acknowledgements of the difficulty of their decision and prayer. Lots of prayer.

I think this result was only possible because the leadership of this committee was committed to building trust. I suspect she did a lot of this during the closed sessions; and, when the atmosphere grew tense, she found ways to incorporate trust building opportunities into the discussions as they proceeded.

I have no idea how this would work in plenary. While individual committees work to build trust among their members, it is clear when the reports get to the floor of the Assembly, the trust does not extend to other committees. It is clear that we do not trust one another. While the Spirit may work in my life, we are not too sure about what She is doing in yours.

As I write this, I wonder if our predicament isn’t that we don’t trust one another; rather, we really question whether God is able to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

It’s a dilemma, for sure.

LB PhotoLeslianne Adkins Braunstein is an Interim Ministry Specialist in the PCUSA (National Capital Presbytery), a biblical storyteller and passionate GA Junkie. She was raised in New York City in what is the equivalent of the Southern Baptist Church. Leslianne joined Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1991 and she immediately fell in love with the connectional nature of the Presbyterian church (U.S.A.) – in all its beautiful organized messiness. Leslianne was a law office administrator before her call to ordained ministry which might explain her affinity to decent orderliness.

“table” photo credit: Joi via photopin cc

Wherefore Robert’s Rules of Order?

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 


By Michael D. Kirby

Roberts Rules are best you know, for the Bible tells us so.

Thankfully those are NOT the words to a Presbyterian verse of “Jesus Loves Me,” but sometimes one might wonder. As Presbyterians of every stripe prepare to gather in Detroit this week for the 221st General Assembly, many are having to pull out, or download, their latest version of Robert’s Rules of Order, the ancient, yet-oft-revised (11th Edition) bible of parliamentary procedure not just for the PC(USA), but also for thousands of other organizations, from the the Evangelical Lutheran Church to the local Eastern Star chapter to Toastmasters to many chambers of commerce.

The purpose of Robert’s Rules is very simple. It’s right there in the definition on the first page of most of the recent edition: “a set of rules for conduct at meetings, that allows everyone to be heard and to make decisions without confusion.” Many religious organizations adopt Roberts Rules because we heed the Biblical instruction that Paul gives to the early church at Corinth,“let all things be done decently, and in order.” 1 Corinthians 14:40. (Yes, it’s Biblical!)

For many, Roberts Rules, and indeed any rules of Parliamentary procedure, are seen as obstacles to the movement of the Spirit because they impose a seemingly burdensome structure on the actions of a body. The goal of the Rules is not burdensomeness, but exactly the opposite, to allow for work to be done efficiently yet fairly, and to help prevent business meetings with a multitude of opinions from devolving into chaos.

At their core, Robert’s Rules are designed to even the playing field in the work of organizations, large or small, by creating a set of ground rules for how business is to be conducted, namely by motion (a proposal is presented by a person or committee), perfection (the body makes changes that the majority believes will make the motion more effective/efficient), debate (proponents and opponents express their views and suggest a desired outcome) and vote.

The beauty of this system is that, ideally, anyone with voice who so desires can speak, (subject to restrictions on available time and relevance); any participant can bring motions, or seek to modify existing motions (subject to various agreed rules regarding timing, relevance and other procedural safeguards); any participant gets the same vote as any other (subject to rules about advisory voters). The system is designed, ideally, to prevent anyone from being silenced and to protect against the use of process to prevent fair consideration of the matters before the body.

Ironically, therein lies one of the great problems that many have had with Roberts Rules over the years. Ask anyone who has been a General Assembly commissioner or anyone who has been a parliamentarian in any organization and they will be able to recall a time when they felt someone was trying to use “loopholes” or their superior knowledge of the rules to subvert debate or prevent certain items from coming up for a vote on merits. In other words, the main problem that many people have with Robert’s Rules is we don’t trust people are using the rules fairly or that leaders are fairly interpreting and applying those rules.

The bad news is that Roberts can’t create trust where it doesn’t exist. The good news is that Roberts anticipates situations where trust is threadbare, and seeks through transparency, minimal structure and discretion given to moderators and parliamentarians, to craft a framework that can serve, like a walking cast on a broken foot, to allow the system to function, and through the work that is accomplished to provide space for trust to be renewed and to grow.

We must always remember that Roberts is a tool, and just a tool, not holy writ. Like any tool, knowledge as to its use is essential to effectiveness AND to group cohesion. Like a car, a power drill, or an axe, Roberts is a tool that can cause more than a little damage if misused or used without adequate knowledge or experience. Those conducting business need to know the basics of how it works, both to trust its use and understand what is happening or how to make something happen. The Roberts folks have made those basics available for you online. If you will be following the work of the Assembly or any committee in person or online, you will want to make a quick review of those basics.

In his book “Great Boards for Small Groups,” Andy Robinson suggests that in smaller groups, where trust is strong, the “consensus model” for decision-making is less stressful and more effective. The structure he proposes (1. Idea, 2. Discussion, 3. Modification, 4. Discernment if consensus is developing, and 5. Respond to dissenters with further discussion and modification until unanimity is achieved) is essentially a restatement of the steps used in Roberts, with discussion preceding “perfection.” The key difference is the headless character of the model, where there is no formal structure and no single decision-making moderator.

As we move forward as a connectional people, only we can decide if the groups we are a part of can live in the freedom of the consensus model. In the meantime, Roberts can be an effective tool to maintain order, foster trust and get difficult things done “decently and in order.”


299535_10150311824339581_958859489_nMichael D. Kirby is a teaching elder and serves as pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He will be attending the 221st General Assembly as an overture advocate from the Presbytery of Chicago.

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Why Church Boards Need to Die

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here. If you like what you read, subscribe to our blog (enter your email on the right sidebar) and receive an email when there is a new blog article. 

By Bill Habicht

visionI’m sure I just spoke devil words up in here.

Have the church board disappear?


My own church board members are probably scratching their heads by now.  “Does he really mean that?”  Well, yes and no.

Look.  The reality is that the iteration of church we know and love today is slowly fading away into oblivion.  We read the data.  We can see the churches closing left and right.

This past week from the PC(USA) regarding membership numbers

Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination… But the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year.

 Everybody put your hands in the air, say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!???  Fewer losses.  Awesome.

Now, I don’t want to spend all my time re-hashing what’s been discussed ad nauseam regarding the state of the church.  So, I’ll just use a picture to sum it up.

There.  Now that that’s out of the way, we don’t have to dwell on dismal numbers anymore.

I also don’t want to spend my time positing more theology or theories about where the church is or should be going.  I’ll leave that for the theologians out there.

I’m more of a pragmatist.  I’m interested in the actual steps, experimental steps if need be, that might help us move toward a new expression of Christianity as Jesus followers.

So over the next little while I want to explore actionable ideas (and I hope you chime in and add your own!) that might help us move in paradigmatically different ways.  It may be uncomfortable for some who are steeped in tradition, but discomfort isn’t always a bad thing, right?.  So here we go.

In my mind, it all begins with church boards.

Church Boards Need to Disappear!

And by disappear, I mean step to the side for a while and allow another group to take the lead (at least that’s what it will feel like).

What I’d like to propose is that the church adopt a bicameral system; not of Deacons and Elders, but of Present Church (the traditional board) and Future Church (a future-oriented board).  Both on equal footing, both equally valued, both receiving funding they oversee, but each with very different foci.  It isn’t earth shattering, but it might just provide enough space for something paradigmatically different to arise from the established church.

Whether we want to admit it or not, established church boards operate within a certain predefined framework; a framework that is structured to serve the needs and spiritual yearnings of those present.  Here’s what I know about church boards:

1.  Church boards generally serve in a management capacity.

Though visioning is also a part of their duties, church boards primarily manage and troubleshoot.  There’s simply too much on their plates to allow for creative, long-term, outside-the-box visioning.  They are often consumed with putting out the fires, hearing reports from committees, ensuring quality care of the congregation and deepening their relationship with God and one another.  It is largely a ministry of management and dealing with the issues of the hear and now.

2.  Church boards are largely comprised of Shepherds not Entrepreneurs.

Because church boards are largely consumed with management tasks and caring for the congregation, they’re often comprised of leaders who can resource and support the tasks at hand.  Makes sense to me.

They generally want their leaders, including pastors, to be Shepherds.  Let’s be honest here… they want leaders who can deepen the group, not innovate.  They want to be cared for and loved and nurtured, and they want to share that love and nurturing with the congregation.

All good things, mind you, but it doesn’t exactly create a space that invites bold ideas and challenges to the status quo.  (If you’re an entrepreneurial leader, this might explain why you often feel like the oddball at board meetings).

Pastor and blogger Carey Nieuwhof drove this home for me in Why We Need More Entrepreneurial Church Leaders, Not More Shepherds (a MUST READ post btw),

The church today is flooded with leaders who fit the Shepherd model, caring for people who are already assembled, managing what’s been built and helping to meet people’s needs. Conventional seminaries are mostly addicted to producing Shepherds.  But we have far too few leaders who have the spiritual gift of apostleship (entrepreneurship). I believe this helps explain the malaise in much of the Western church in which the vast majority of churches are plateaued or declining.

Church boards are really built for Shepherds, not Entrepreneurs. Yet Entrepreneurs are the key, missing component for the Future Church.  That might be taking things a little far, cause God will no doubt work in amazing ways.  But you get my point.

3.  Church boards are largely comprised of folks who like church as it is.

Which makes logical sense sense….if board members didn’t like the church as it is, then why in world would they be there in the first place?

This, of course, puts the church board in a difficult position when it comes to dreaming up new expressions of what it could be.  It’s difficult, even when you know it might be necessary, to let go of what you love and what’s familiar to risk for future generations.  That’s not a blame thing.  It’s just human nature.

Churches across the country run up against this every day.  “Yes, we know we need to change, but…”  More often than not, the “but” is the deal breaker.

4.  Church boards are homogeneous.

Every person on the board is officially a “church member,” at least in the PC(USA)… which kinda sours things for those who’ve been attending a church for 20 years but never officially joined for whatever reason.

Beyond the whole “you need to be a church member” thing, there’s often unwritten rules in place that undermine diversity.

Oh, she can’t be on the board.  She hasn’t served on a committee yet.


I like him.  It’s just that he’s new and doesn’t understand the culture and how things work around here.

OR my favorite

That type of person will be disruptive.

Even churches committed to diversity have unwritten rules like these that preclude new perspectives from entering the inner circle (and I’m not talking about worship times here folks).

These unwritten rules exist in every church and are almost always developed with the best of intentions, but they do have a shadow side.

5.  Church boards are stuck.

Church boards know this, right?  They know that something drastic needs to change, but they just don’t know where to go or how to do it.  Often it’s not for lack of will, but lack of knowledge.  Yup, that probably includes all of us.  No one really knows what the future church will look like.  All we know is that what we’re doing now ain’t gonna cut it.  So, church boards rub up against what they desire and what they’re equipped and have time to do.

Churches also like to operate with a pretty high level of certainty, which can’t be assured when talking about the future church.  So, the default is to hunker down in defense mode and get stuck, wishing for a magic solution that doesn’t involve risk or money.

Here’s the thing…

The problem isn’t that church boards are doing things wrong.

They serve a very important function, which is to care for the present community.  And they have excelled at this for generations (and will continue do so), which is no small feat if you think about it. (Check out this article for some great lessons on longevity that businesses can learn from the church).

The problem is that church boards aren’t really equipped or have time to envision a new expression of church for those not yet here… for all the reasons outlined above.

To move the church forward, we might need a different sort of group

We might need a group, a Future Church Board, comprised (at least in part) of

  1. Visionaries & Matrix Thinkers
  2. Entrepreneurs
  3. Outsiders
  4. Linkers and
  5. Champions

The foci of this board is not on managing and caring for the present church, but on exploring options for the future church and experimenting, experimenting, experimenting.  And, in all honesty, I think that a Future Church board would need to be on equal footing with a Present Church board.  Otherwise, the hunker down position will prevail when “those crazy ideas” start a comin’.

We’ll delve more into a possible composition, as well as foci, for a Future Church board in Part II of this series.  For now, I want to hear your thoughts.

What do you think?  What structural changes could you imagine that would truly break-open the church when it comes to the church board?

Bill Habicht is associate pastor of Davis Community Church in Davis, CA. He is a contributing blogger at Pedestrian People, where this post was first shared.

photo credit: DaveLawler via photopin cc