Saturday, April 08, 2006

Early Reports from the ABC General Executive Council Annual Meeting: "We Are Broken, But We Are Going to Fix It"

Early reports emanating from the annual meeting of the General Executive Council (GEC) of the ABCUSA tell of presentations by two high level consultants, David A. Roozen (a sociologist and Director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research) and Tricia S. Jones (a Ph.D. in Communication who specializes in conflict process negotiation, mediation theory, and organizational conflict and dispute system design). Tricia Jones seemed to sum up the drift of the event with her words: “We are broken, but we are going to fix it” and “We will stop self-sabotaging and project hope.”

GEC members heard from Dr. Jones, the communications specialist, in areas of denominational conflict and dispute resolution. Using her technique of distinguishing issues that are “urgent” from those that are “not urgent,” she cross-referenced these with a process that requires “together” vs. those which might better employ “separate” efforts. In other words, some problems are better talked out in a group while others are more appropriate for non-plenary work towards solutions.

Jones' aim was to facilitate the group as they attempt to move toward the goal of the description of American Baptist Churches that . . .
* Are Healthy Missional Churches
* That Nurture Devoted Disciples of Jesus Christ
* Who Live their Lives
* In Mission and Ministry
* for the Healing of the World
* through the Love of God

Dr. Jones led the group in looking at those aspects of the ABCUSA that the group valued and identified as critical to retain and those elements which were viewed as obstructions to our common life. Brainstorming and break-out experiences were intended to prepare for the continuing discussion in the May Summit and the September meeting.

GEC members tell of Dr. Roozen’s presentation as raising several red flags regarding ABC institutional life. When looking at key indicators among Protestants such as responses to questions regarding “changed worship,” “high expression of denominational heritage,” “had a serious conflict in the last five years,” and “no problem finding lay leaders,” ABC numbers fall quite close to the norm among all Protestants, except for the heritage item. Whereas 61% of American Protestants identify with a “high expression of denominational heritage,” that number falls to a perilously low 38% among American Baptists.

Roozen spoke of the level of stress and unsettledness varying considerably among Protestants. Those retaining stronger identities report “annoying but manageable” levels of discomfort. Those, however, suffering from weaker identities see the conflict as “perplexing and paralyzing.” In and of itself, this would be a worrisome sign. Coupled with his prediction that future trends portend a continuing fault line for issues of gender and sexuality compounds the problem for American Baptists.

Dr. Roozen’s presentation was a masterpiece of modern sociological analysis. His “bottom line” involved several points for consideration by ABC leaders. While mission is important, planners need to build an explicit recognition of localistic and personal subjective predispositions into all major initiatives. Clergy are central to tying history, identity, and ministry together. Second only to the importance of pastors are the structures of the regional judicatory. National staff should see the regions as their primary “client.” Further, according to Roozen, the national staff need to enhance their personal relationships with regional and local people. In place of adversarial decision making, the denomination should adopt more “spiritual” and soft “discernment approaches.” Finally, Roozen recommended giving priority to clergy training, support and supervision and hiring “story-tellers” to help connect ABC history and identity with real live experiences of our constituency.

In other words this expert told our national leadership that people like what they like and smart leaders will give everyone a little "something." Pastors are the gate keepers for denominational identity and they should be given better training, support, and supervision by the denomination if the ABC wants their assistance in promoting the denomination. The regions are the 800 lb. gorillas in the room and must be treated like the primary client of the national staff. The Valley Forge folk should put on their best “Dale Carnegie” face and do more relating to regional and local “folks.” Rather than voting on everything employing a win-lose political model, we should use more “fuzzy” spiritual discernment approaches. And, we need to find some Garrison Keillor types to hire who can make us laugh and make us cry, and make us yearn for our ABC family (e.g., Bob Roberts has often filled this role superbly).

So, what do we make of this high level utilization of expert presentation and facilitation? I, for one, thought that this is what we paid Valley Forge staff to be doing all along. But, as tensions rise within the organization in various regions (e.g., PSW), these are some of the seminal issues which must be addressed by any organization professing: “We are broken, but we are going to fix it” and “We will stop self-sabotaging and project hope.”

[His Barking Dog admits to a "wonkish" addiction to organizational behavior topics like this one. Just like the old Lay's potato chip ad, "bet you can't eat just one." However, my wonk taste does not imply that I know anything. Passion for organizational conversation bears no relationship to the PSW position or policy makers.]


roy said...

well duh...

I'm interested in the notion that ABC folk have a low level of identification with a denominational heritage. In part, this is a function of our polity that allows churches to call whoever they want as pastors (and regions as execs), regardless of their understanding of or commitment to an American Baptist identity.

Sam Chetti speaks of the need for a meta-story to bind us together (and has hope that there is one). I think this issue of identity is that meta-story and our leaders from pastors through denominational execs have not done a good job telling the story.

Dennis E. McFadden said...


When Dale came to PSW, he was about as sold on the "family" as anyone I have ever seen. Granted he hailed from the right. But, with a rich resume of facilitating "common ground" experiences and service on the Commission on Denominational Unity, Dale would have seemed to have been the ideal "true believer" in all things ABC. It was only with the GEC meeting last year in San Antonio that he experienced his Alamo moment. Frankly, I still don't uderstand it. I do not comprehend either how he had such preternatural patience NOR why one meeting in San Antonio caused him to change course.


roy said...


FWIW, I wasn't refering to Dale in my comment about execs. There are others with little background in ABC or little commitment to it.


SmallSoul said...

The problem with your view here, Bro. Roy, is that, as denominational leaders are fond of pointing out this is not The American Baptist Church, rather these are American Baptist churches. In addition to that, because of the denomination's ecumenical affinity, inclusive yearning and ecclectic affiliations (a HUGE number of congregations dually or trilatterally aligned with UCC, NBC, PNBC, et al., can there properly be an "American Baptist identity."