Saturday, July 11, 2009

Calvin 500

Few people have impacted Christian theology as much as John Calvin. His Institutes have stood the test of time and continue to inform and correct the multitude of errors that Christianity's enemies and uninformed friends continue to adopt. His commentaries were a masterpiece of brevity and clarity and provided a model for later generations. For Calvin exegesis was exposition, all about explaining the authorial intent and applying it to God's people today.

During this year of 500th anniversary celebrations of his July 10, 1509 birth, I have already availed myself of two scholarly symposia on the impact of Calvin and plan to travel next month to Grand Rapids for a third one. In an era addicted to fads and flaky trends, Calvin stands up rather well. He was right more than he was wrong. Lacking the sheer brilliance of Luther, he applied his lawyerly and literary skills to explaining the five solas of the Reformation without the drama of Luther.

For Calvin, Christianity was not about us (how non 21st century!). Instead, he declared that God was the sovereign of the universe and that we are called to live life to the glory of God. His arguments for election and predestination, so troubling to our leveling democratic values, were clear and convincing. They remain unanswered in any satisfactory way by his critics.

The photograph was part of a surprise party staged by my staff at Atherton Baptist Homes. They know my fascination with Calvin and wanted to have some fun with the old man (me, not Calvin).

Monday, June 29, 2009

ABC Biennial: A Case of the Law of Unintended Consequences???

I was shocked to learn from my brother, a volunteer at the ABC biennial in Pasadena, that the denominational structure plan did not pass. With observers such as Dr. Dwight Stinnett, I would concur that the plan being proposed was probably the best satisficing balance of competing interests under the circumstances. As Stinnett opines in his blog: “Given who we are, our competing interests, and our incommensurate values, I still believe it was the best we could do at the time.”

But, while musing on the shock of an electoral defeat this dramatic, a thought came to me. The vote was close, very close to passing. And, the numbers of delegates were few, less than 700! What if the decision to hold the biennial in the heart of the old ABCPSW, in the middle of the worst recession in decades, without pruning the rolls of old ABC churches now more TM than ABCOSH, was responsible for tipping the balance against the proposal? [Nothing in this posting is intended as asserting that this did indeed happen. I was not there and do not know. However, it represents an interesting possibility to consider.]

Certainly there were plenty of people motivated to be suspicious of authority, who felt underinformed about the proposal, or who did not relate to the electronic means of learning more about the details from an internet site. "Old School" Baptists would object that the proposal was more than a little unbaptistic in its decoupling of agencies and regions. Add to this the progressives on the left who were sincerely offended that the proposal would freeze in time all past resolutions (e.g., the one they find most odious of all regarding homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching). The material prepared by the folks at AWAB's Central Baptist Church (Wayne) offered articulate reasons to oppose the plan.

However, an often neglected factor may have played a role as well. When PSW voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the ABC, Dr. Salico explained that he and Dr. Medley had agreed to give congregations 18 months to discern which affiliation they wanted to maintain. However, it was hardly a couple of months when that agreement was interpreted (abrogated? forgotten? modified?) as something very different. Congregations were told that unless they took an official vote to disaffiliate, they would continue to be counted as ABC churches in good standing.

Even in the old bastion of conservatism, ABCPSW, feelings regarding the ABC were sharply divided in most churches. Few pastors would necessarily want to be so controversial as to raise the issue in debate, lest dissent would sour into division. At this point, the website for ABCOSH lists MANY churches I personally know to be actively disinterested in all things ABC with pastors disinclined to continuing any relationship at all (other than one with BIM). However, many of these churches have not bothered (nor will they ever) to vote themselves “out” of the ABC. And, virtually all of them have members, many of them less informed about denominational politics, who still see themselves as American Baptists.

What if “old fashioned” Baptists who do not feel comfortable with getting their information over the internet from the ABC site, who never really understood what all the fuss was about with the ABC, who wanted to see old friends from around the country, prevailed upon their pastors to allow them to attend the biennial as delegates?

What if the recession reduced the attendance to 1,200? What if the numbers of registered delegates was closer to 600-700? What if some of these nominally ABC churches permitted their more diehard ABC types to go to Pasadena where, because their pastor had never mentioned it, the new structure was a completely new idea to them?

What if the discernment sessions did not adequately inform them about the seemingly radical deconstruction of the SCODS/SCOR structures that they did (finally after nearly four decades) understand? What if it sounded vaguely “unbaptistic” to them?

What if in a desire to be “positive,” nobody explained the financial drivers that made the reduction of the $400,000/yr. representative process price tag more of a decision of urgency and survival rather than merely a discretionary move?

Could enough delegates from basically non-ABC churches (i.e., TM congregations that had not formally withdrawn from the ABCUSA) have innocently mucked up the voting by registering the handful of negative votes necessary to result in a defeat? Could underinformed members of essentially non-ABC churches have shown up in enough numbers to have turned the tide on such an important issue?

Honestly, I do not know the answer. Someone smarter than I am (e.g., Dr. Jeff Woods) might be able to perform a statistical analysis of the numbers of delegates from southern California ABCOSH churches. Were there enough of them to result in the shortfall???

If so, it would be a tragic instance of the law of unintended consequences.

ABC Biennial - Whence and Whither

Being part of the ABC for more than a half century made this biennial a particularly painful one for me. Not being present at a "family reunion" in my backyard because you are no longer part of the family simply reinforces the fact of the separation. My organization, Atherton Baptist Homes, did provide free housing for numbers of BIM missionaries and even an executive minister out to save some money for his region.

For those who want to know what happened, I refer readers to the always excellent and reliable blog by Dwight Stinnett.

This morning he posted a very comprehensive piece, "Pasadena Biennial Results" ( Dwight has proven to be the best insider source for understanding the workings of the ABC. He is fair, balanced, exceptionally bright, and eschews "spin."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What is an "Executive Pastor" Anyway?

I have been absent from this forum for several months due to pressing work responsibilities and enjoying being part of a very active theological message board. One of my e-friends there hails from a Reformed church background. He asked a question about the title, “executive pastor.” Here is my reply . . .

BIG churches tend to have Executive Pastors acting as the COO of the organizational stuff. They handle managing the office staff, associate pastors, HR issues, deal with vendors and contractors, direct the custodial staff, take care of building management issues, sometimes act as staff liaison to the ruling board, and generally handle the operations function in the multi-million dollar corporation. This frees up the senior pastor to work on his sermons, write books, speak around the country, sit for radio interviews, and spend time in his vacation home far away from congregation members.

The phenomenon is almost universally prevalent in "seeker sensitive" congregations due to their deeply ingrained culture of being early adopters of the latest business and marketing models. It is relatively less common in Reformed circles due to the fact that requiring the memorization of Calvin's Institutes, thorough rote knowledge of the BCO and various Confessions and Catechisms, and requiring the identification and recitation of the dozens of acronyms for all of the micro-Presbyterian denominations . . . well, it tends to limit congregational size and the necessity for an Executive Pastor. That is why, among Reformed groups, they are most often found in PCA congregations, particularly those where the pastors have been Willowcreekified or Saddlebacked into a Purpose Driven posture.

Generally you can determine the statistical probability of a church having an Executive Pastor based on whether the senior pastor has more books by Francis Turretin or George Barna in his personal library. Turretin is a dead giveaway that this is NOT a place where you will find an Executive Pastor. The presence of copies of books by Kaspar Olevianus or Zacharius Ursinus (in the original) increases that probabilistic likelihood to a near certainty. Ten books published by Jossey-Bass would generally point to a strong correlation with having an Executive Pastor; more than that and this IS the office of the Executive Pastor.

One way to determine whether a church is likely to have an Executive Pastor is to engage the pastor in casual conversation. Ask him to explain the extra calvinisticum. If he responds by drawing intersecting circles representing the trinity and differentiating his view from Luther's communicatio idiomatum, you may safely conclude that he will not have an Executive Pastor. If, on the other hand, he draws three circles and begins to explain the crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of the following: 1. What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at), 2. What drives your economic engine, and 3. What you are deeply passionate about, happens to mention the name of Jim Collins, or the "hedgehog principle," then you may pretty certainly assume that he will have an Executive Pastor.

I'm just old enough to find the name change a little too au courant or fashionably chic. Here in CA, we have adopted the new nomenclature even for relatively small congregations which sounds (to my jaded old ears) about as silly as watching a 5 year old dressing up in daddy's suit and tie and carrying an atache case to look "big."


Executive Pastor used to be Associate Pastor used to be Assistant Pastor.

Associate Pastor for Family Life Ministries used to be Christian Education Pastor used to be Director of Christian Education.

Pastor of Worship Arts used to be Minister of Music used to be Music Director.

Associate Pastor for Student Ministries used to be Pastor to Youth used to be Youth Pastor used to be Youth Director.

Minister of Building Management used to be Senior Custodian used to be Janitor.