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.

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