Friday, April 20, 2007

ABC Leaders Meet to Discuss Structure and Continued Cooperation

With congregations leaving the denomination on a regular basis, the crushing forces of post-denominationalism closing in, dollars lagging dangerously low, and facing a host of significant if not entirely insuperable problems, the ABCUSA General Executive Council met for three days to do the pressing business of the churches.

What did they accomplish? How would I know? The participants pledged themselves to a new round of confidentiality. However, a few factoids did surface, some of which deserve mention.

The good news is that the participants did not fight, yell, or leave the room in a huff. But, that is also the bad news. Whether out of concern for struggling congregations back home, churches withdrawing from the “family” over theological and moral issues, or out of fatigue over being “beat up on” in past GEC meetings, conservatives were evidently well behaved and relatively non-confrontational. However, in the absence of open division, did anything of substance get accomplished? "Yes" according to the majority in the room; "No" according to some who were also present. It all depends on who you talk to about the meeting.

Repeatedly during the facilitated process (ABC meetings are a bonanza for consultants who are given a new lease on full employment whenever these Baptists assemble together), participants applied magic markers to the ubiquitous newsprint stations around the room. In answer to the question: “What issues must we reach closure on?” “How will we fund this?” kept popping up, only to be left behind as discussion moved on to more pressing matters.

What did get accomplished, nobody is willing to discuss for attribution or even as background. It does seem that the members found a way to weasel-word a statement so that all could affirm it without anyone committing to mean the same thing by it. What this suggests is that ever-hopeful conservatives went along with an agreement cobbled together in the interests of unity. It will allow them to say to their pastors and churches (almost with a straight face), that the GEC has “taken a stand” on some of the most divisive issues afflicting our fellowship.

But, even before the ink dries on the document, and certainly before the press release arrives in e-mails, some progressives are already parsing the lines in such as a way as to obviate the clear sense of them. His Barking Dog anxiously awaits the publication of the chief product of the meeting in hopes that my suspicions will not be fulfilled. However, if traditionalists and progressives all stand behind ANY statement on divisive issues, you can probably count on the devil to be in the details. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it to be implemented with a univocal understanding.

Another note of hope did rise from the ashes. You may have heard that PSW delegates voted by an overwhelming percentage (reaching the mid 80s) to withdraw from the ABC. Yet, one GEC participant rose to declare that most PSW churches have not decided to withdraw from the ABC! More than 200 of them are still part of the “family.” While that may be formally true, it certainly glosses over several shades of coloration. 1. Some congregations have not gotten around to voting at all yet. 2. Many pastors have decided, somewhat cynically to be sure, that there is no advantage to them in surrendering their non-contractual MMBB benefits. Why not just defund the parts of Valley Forge with which they have disagreements and remain de jure “members” of the denomination, collecting their benefits all the way? 3. Some of the largest (and richest) congregations in the Southwest do not intend to vote at all. They have decided to redirect mission money and ignore Valley Forge.

This brings us to the final impression. I no longer believe that there will be a major defection of regions following the lead of Pacific Southwest/Transformation Ministries. The ABC “family” has often been dubbed dysfunctional. One should not be too surprised, therefore, to observe that many of its leaders play the same roles as members of any dysfunctional family system. Some of the conservative critics appear to care more about being accepted by their peers in leadership than in making radical changes to the structure. A mix of commendable duty and loyalty, continued love and even making excuses despite abuse, and quixotic hope that a miracle may still occur motivate them to hang on, hoping against hope that a new agreement, structure, or covenant will be enough to make everything OK.

While regions such as West Virginia continue to hemorrhage churches on a regular basis, expect the more conservative regions to mimic the strategy of Dr. Paul Borden, Executive Minister, in Growing Healthy Churches (aka ABCW). Borden, who attends few meetings anymore, and did not attend the Tucson sessions, simply keeps his mouth shut about the ABC and focuses on congregational revitalization and health in his area of ministry. Under his influence or at least following his example, other EM’s seem to be moving away from direct engagement with “the system,” preferring to disengage from “battles” and to redirect their efforts internally.

In any case, Dr. Medley’s hope to conclude a proposed structural deal to be presented to the General Board in June slipped away in a maze of details, quibbles, and failures of trust. Expect whatever the “writing team” comes up with to require more meetings yet. Perhaps by the Pasadena Biennial in 2009, there will be a proposal ready to be adopted and implemented. My guess is for a leaner, smaller, and less democratic system. And, in the meantime, if the Mission Center property in Valley Forge sells for the expected $15-$20 million, it will offset the deficit, allowing many years for continued discussions of appropriate organizational structures.

Back when I attended business school, we were taught that mission, vision, and values drive the requirements and specifications for structure. Form follows function in a healthy organization, as the old saying goes. But, in the current environment, where key stakeholders cannot even agree on some of the simplest theological and moral affirmations, all that is left to talk about is the “org chart.” And, with ABC fortunes declining as predictably as the spilling of the milk from a tipped over glass, such entities must always meet the key criterion of being more cost effective and less expensive. Expect more mergers, layoffs, and downsizing to come.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A "Law and Order" Smirk at Evangelical Hypocrisy

Charismatic evangelical mega-church pastor campaigns against homosexuality. Disgruntled former lover/male prostitute threatens to out him as a hypocrite. Pastor denies being gay. Another former gay lover admits to 20 to 30 “encounters” with the pastor, who he claims indulged in drug use during their trysts.

Sound familiar? The Ted Haggard story written in summary fashion? No. Last night’s episode of the popular NBC drama, Law and Order trotted out this “straight from the headlines” (no pun intended) episode.

The drama, replete with the obligatory snickers and snide asides at evangelical Christianity was trying of one’s patience at best. My longsuffering wife even walked out of the room in an uncharacteristic fit of aggravation. In the Law and Order revision of the story, the pastor’s loyal wife killed her husband’s gay lover, not out of outraged morality or because of some Levitical Code about the proper end for people who commit certain behaviors. No, she did it for the old fashioned reason: self-interest. You see, she did not want to see the church she helped her husband build into an operation with $35 million gross annual receipts (not to mention the $50 million in licensing fees) suffer losses due to the public scandal.

And, in a typical Hollywood reductionism of Christian motivation, the wife ultimately pleads guilty to the crime, not out of a surplus of Godly sorrow, but in order to prevent the congregants from discovering that she had been a drug-addicted hooker prior to her marriage to the good reverend.

The Haggard tale does make for a juicy morsel of hypocrisy, even the venerable Dr. Dobson was taken in by the duplicity in the original story. And, you could hardly expect more from the mainstream media than a few moments of cheap schadenfreude. Detectives Ed Green and Nina Cassady, along with Lt. Van Buren, all got to take turns beating up on evangelicalism. It was like watching people taking swings at a piñata, but without a blindfold.

One irony of the program relates to the presence of another actor in the cast. Possible Republican candidate for President, Fred Thompson (aka District Attorney Arthur Branch), uttered his requisite number of dyspeptic observations with his usual folksy gravitas. But, at least in my viewing, the writers avoided putting Christianity bashing lines in Thompson’s mouth. Maybe it seemed out of character for the Bible-belt back-story of DA Branch.

So far, Hollywood writers prove remarkably tone deaf with issues of faith. Even when they portray a larger than life hypocrite, caught humming his own false tune, they get the words right, but not the melody. Haggard may be an easy target. But, certainly evangelical Christianity with all of its faults represents a more complex reality than last night’s
Law and Order.

Before the MSM recites the words of 1 Peter 4:17 (“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God”) too gleefully, they better take note of how it ends: “. . . and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

Monday, April 09, 2007

Cartoonist with the "Hart" of an Apologist Passes Away Between Good Friday and Resurrection Morning

This weekend signaled the death of cartoonist Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strip, B.C. Over the years, Mr. Hart has been a courageous and persistent witness to his faith, particularly standing up for Christ at Christmas, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday.

So bold was Hart in his cartoon "messages" that many newspapers (e.g. the Los Angeles Times) often refused to print some of his more "Christian themed" strips. While Mr. Hart was a Presbyterian lay person, he always evidenced a gentle and gracious spirit toward people of different faiths while standing unapologetically for the truth of the Gospel.

For him, interfaith respect could be had without dispensing with Gospel proclamation or indulging in syncretistic pluralism. The "B.C." for this Resurrection Sunday ended in typical Hart fashion with the following verses from the New Testament: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." "Assuredly I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise." "It is finished" AND "Truly this man was the son of God."

Godspeed Mr. Hart! God bless you for your ministry among us.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

How Many Atheists Does it Take to Pray for a Passing Grade?

“How Religious are America’s Professors?” So began the sidebar discussion in the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 2007). Reporting on a study conducted by professors from Harvard University and George Mason University, BAR highlighted the survey of a random sample of instructors in community colleges, four year institutions, non-elite doctoral granting schools, and elite, doctoral awarding universities.

23.4% of the professors surveyed classify themselves as agnostic or atheist. This contrasts with only 11% of the American population so self-identifying. The percentage drops from nearly 60% believing in God and teaching in four year (B.A./B.S.) colleges to about a third of those in the elite schools.

Actual agnosticism/atheism rises from less than 15% in the community college environment to a plurality of those working in the elite institutions. Evidently, those with perfect SAT scores are more likely to learn from an atheist than from a believer.

And, what percentage of the professors (including those who believe in God) accept the Bible as the literal word of God? Only 6.1% of the respondents agreed with the statement indicating an identification of the Bible as the word of God.

His Barking Dog will be teasing out the implications of these results in a future blog. For now, however, I am reminded of Paul’s response to the self-satisfied Corinthians and their professions of superior knowledge. “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ, ἡ δὲ ἀγάπη οἰκοδομεῖ

Sunday, April 01, 2007

ABC Gears Up for Restructure Proposal: GEC Meeting in Tucson to Consider Work of Writing Team

Last year the General Executive Council (GEC) of the ABC tasked a “Writing Team” with the responsibility to draft a restructure proposal for the reorganization of the denomination in order to face challenges in this decade and beyond. Financial constraints in the various regional judicatories, dissent over certain hot-button social issues such as homosexual unions and ordination, and a general downward trend in the United Mission receipts added urgency to that mission.

While those asked to participate in the group evidenced attempts at reflecting diversity, insiders report that the leading voices in the effort have been those of General Secretary Medley, Executive Director of National Ministries Wright-Riggins, and Associate General Secretary for Regional affairs Jeff Woods.

Denomination watchers will do well to observe carefully the Tucson meeting of the GEC in order to gather an idea how the national body intends to deal with the problem of declining funds at the national level, continuing dissent over the leadership’s handling of issues of human sexuality, and the challenge of too many judicatories operating on shoestrings to be either efficient or effective in conducting their ministries.

This morning a member of the national leadership sent me the following note:

I have heard that they are thinking about assessing all the institutions related to the ABC an amount to support the OGS . . . You know that the first priority after we all hold hands and sing that stupid song that I refuse to mention, is going to be how can we make you pay for the new organization that you all agreed upon? It is going to be fun to watch the attempted manipulation of the GEC. Some will be near orgasmic with excitement while the members with a brain will be braiding a rope in the back of the room. I'll bring the rope, someone grab a chair.

Another national leader on the inside projects that the new structure “being proposed by Roy, Jeff & Aidsand” will swiftly be followed by a re-examination of the Budget Covenant. This observer suggested that “if they get their way they will find a way to force the Regions to finance it.”

The range of ideological diversity in the denomination may ultimately prove too much for a loose federation of semi-autonomous congregations. A few weeks ago the Association for Welcoming and Affirming Baptists helped sponsor a seminar held at Andover Newton Theological School. The event was also endorsed by The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, The Samuel Stillman Association, the American Baptist Churches of Rochester-Genesee, the Roger Williams Fellowship, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the FBC of Framingham (MA), and the FBC of Greenfield (MA). According to AWAB, the latter congregation is experiencing a violent reaction of a significant minority of the church following calling a gay man as pastor.

Billed as “Revive us Again!” it attempted to satisfy the following ambitious agenda: “This is a gathering of progressive Baptists from around the country, ready to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are gathering to say that we are Christian, we are Baptist, and we believe our Baptist Principles are foundational to our understanding and sharing of the Gospel. We are gathering to say that we can be both progressive and evangelical.”

The speakers invited certainly lived up to their billing as “progressives.” They included pastors, professors, and ABC denominational leaders who hail from the left end of the spectrum. For example:

Rev. Cynthia Maybeck, Pastor, Trinity Church, Northborough, MA. The Pacific Southwest withdrew from the ABC as a result of a process that began with objections to Rev. Maybeck being named a senator at the ABC Ministers Council. Her 17 yr relationship with her partner, Elaine (now her spouse), caused ripples in the Southwest that kept reverberating.

Dr. Bill Herzog, Academic Dean, Andover Newton Theological School. One of my former youth pastors when I was a kid, Bill is the brilliant (Harvard, ABSW, Claremont) Dean at ANTS. Famous for his “Busted Boda Bags” address to the progressive Roger Williams Fellowship at the 2005 Denver Biennial, he roundly castigated evangelicals in the ABC, calling them Pharisees and worse. But, hey, this is the same guy who argues that the hero of the parable of the talents is the guy who buried the money. He was a “whistleblower” striking out for justice against the unjust landowner.

Rev. Dr. Gregory Mobley, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Andover Newton Theological School. Again, another brilliant Harvard grad, Mobley has a richly deserved reputation for scholarly excellence and has received numerous awards. His recent 2005 volume, The Birth of Satan, however might excite some disagreement among those of us on the right.

In it he and his co-author suggest that “the early Hebrews struggled with the puzzle of a God who is the source of both good and evil. As Israel continued to evolve toward a clearer monotheism, it was considered prudent to cast off the negative characteristics of the one true God - which the authors call 'repellant aspects of YHWH' - and embody them in a personality who would become the biblical 'Satan.' Beginning with Genesis, the authors trace the development of 'the devil' until he appears fully formed in the New Testament, where his role is 'to serve as the cosmic scapegoat, saving God from blame for evil.' . . . Ultimately, they reject the concept of personal Satan, but acknowledge its usefulness in dealing with the idea of evil” (Publisher’s Weekly).

Even Dr. John Shelby Spong, yes THE Bishop Spong of the Episcopal Church, wrote a blurb praising the book.

Even better, since the book is written at a popular level, it will be of great aid in disabusing young people of their foolish commitment to “traditional beliefs” and offer them a “challenging alternative.”

Rev. Alan Newton, Executive Minister, ABC of Rochester-Genesee. Rev. Newton is a man of great convictions and advocacy on matters of soul liberty and Baptist freedom. Perhaps the most articulate defender of AWAB in the GEC, he hosted the “Rochester Summit” a couple of years ago that led to the “Rochester Declaration.” Eventually more than 1,200 signatories joined the cause.

Given the bewildering diversity of views on core issues, it remains to be seen whether the national leadership will tackle the issues proactively and effectively at their annual GEC retreat. Will they look soberly at the problems and propose remedial steps or will they simply re-engineer the structure to take into account an ever shrinking organization? Downsizing to eliminate inefficiencies and to promote streamlining would be commendable; trying to cobble together work-arounds in order to “get by” with shrinking resources will only facilitate a slide towards non-existence.

His Barking Dog writes as an outsider to the ABC since the withdrawal of Transformation Ministries (formerly ABCPSW) last fall. Nevertheless, with many friends in the ABC, my interests follow the decisions being made by leadership to deal with pressing problems, some of which led to my own region’s withdrawal from the ABC “family.”

The GEC meets on Wednesday, April 11, though Saturday, April 14.