Oh my goodness, my time as General Presbyter of this Presbytery is getting fleetingly precious! Following the June 12th Presbytery meeting, I will attend the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis June 16-23, where Fran and I will be accompanying our Commissioners, Youth Advisory Delegate and Theological Student Advisory Delegate. Follow my blog posts during the Assembly. With a report to the Leadership Team, that will conclude my service, followed by some vacation.
As I pondered what I should address in this blog post I pulled William Bridges book, "Transitions, Making Sense of Life's Changes" off my bookshelf. I announced my retirement from this middle council leadership role of General Presbyter in my last blog post. It seems an odd timing as four of our six Presbytery staff members are retiring this summer. Leslie, our Office Administrator/Communication Coordinator, and Wayne, our Treasurer announced earlier that they are retiring. Eileen, our Resource Center Director/Education Consultant will retire along with me. This leaves just Fran, our Stated Clerk, and Audrey, our brand new bookkeeper. That's a lot of institutional memory! And we are nearing the end of a season of strategic discernment, and poised for some significant organizational structure changes. Yikes, what chaos!! The point of this post is don't panic. You will be fine. Although it might not be fun.
Navigating transitions in a sea of change is where you are! It's where are congregations are. It's where our Synod is and our six PC(USA) Corporations, which are major agenda items at the upcoming General Assembly in St. Louis. It's where the business community is. General Motors recently announced that their fleet will be nearly all electric powered in just a few years. Ford just announced that they will soon end the sale of all cars in North America except for the Mustang and Focus and sell primarily SUVs and trucks. Good-bye Taurus a best seller a years ago. And government and political scene!!! Oh my goodness... There seems to be chaos everywhere. Our culture needs to up a sign, "Please excuse our mess, we're under construction!"
Bridges' book is divided in three sections: Endings, the Neutral Zone, the New Beginnings. About endings he writes, "Every transition begins with one (i.e. ending). Too often we misunderstand them, confuse them with finality--that's it, all over, finished! Yet how we recognize endings is the key to how we can begin anew" (from the book cover). I think for the Presbytery, we experienced an ending of an era when we set aside the associate presbyter position in 2014. The years since then have been for us a kind of Neutral Zone, which Bridges describes as "the second hurdle of transitions; a seemingly unproductive time-out when we feel disconnected from people and things in the past and emotionally unconnected to the present. Yet the Neutral Zone is really a time of reorientation. How can we make the most of it?" (book cover). "The process of transformation is essentially a death and rebirth process rather than one of mechanical modification. While our own culture knows all about mechanics, it has a great deal to learn from the past about death and rebirth. As Mircea Eliade has written, 'for the archaic and traditional cultures, the symbolic return to chaos is indispensable to any new Creation.' Chaos is not a mess, but rather it is the primal state of pure energy to which the person," and I would add the organization, "returns for every true new beginning. It is only from the perspective of the old form that chaos looks fearful--from any other perspective, it looks like life itself as yet unshaped by purpose and identification" (pp.119-120).
Of New Beginnings, Bridges writes, "We come to beginnings only at the end. It is when the endings and the time of fallow neutrality are finished that we can launch ourselves out anew, changed and renewed by the destruction of the old life-phase and the journey through the nowhere.
"This simple truth goes against the grain of our mechanistic culture. We live in a context where things start with a switch or a key. If things don't start properly, there are procedures to follow in order to discover what is wrong. For something is surely wrong--mechanisms are made to start when we want them to" (p. 134).
"The transition process involves an inner realignment and a renewal of energy, both of which depend on immersion in the chaos of the neutral zone. It is as though the form that we call 'my life' had to return occasionally to pure energy in order to take a new shape and gain new momentum. This is why in archaic cultures the myths of the creation of the world are recited over a sick person. As the scholar Mircea Eliade has written: 'By making the patient symbolically...contemporary with the Creation, s/he lived again in the initial plenitude of being. One does not repair a worn-out organism, it must be re-made; the patient needs to be born again; s/he needs, as it were, to recover the whole energy and potency that a being has at the moment of its birth'" (p.136). This sounds familiar, what Jesus told Nicodemus. "I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again or from above" (John 3:3).
"Genuine beginnings depend upon a kind of inner realignment rather than on external shifts, for when we are aligned with deep longings, we become powerfully motivated" (p. 138).
For the past year and half I have understood my role as a transitional leader, leading you through a season of strategic discernment to identify our core values, our primary mission, and vision of what God is calling us to be together as a Presbytery. I am truly excited for you. There is energy mounting. Our 2018-2020 ministry plan is not perfect, nor will the next one be. But you are ready to act, to move. This plan has identified 40 plus objectives and tactics toward addressing four key goals aligned with the Presbytery's mission and vision. Now it is time for a new staff team to lead you into new ways of functioning for this new time.
I am proud to have accompanied you through this ending of an era and wilderness journey/neutral zone learning to the threshold of this new beginning. Our experience is not so different than the Israelites' 40 years wilderness journey. I encourage you to revisit the wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers. Their slavery gladly came to an end. But then they had to do "the inner realignment work" Bridges describes. For them it meant a whole new identity. No longer slaves, it took time to forge their identity as the twelve tribes of Israel. They did so by remembering their heritage, God's promise to Abraham and Sarah. Likewise, we are no longer dominant mainline leaders supported by the community. Informed by our faith, we are blessed children of God, called to join the risen Christ in giving witness to God's reign of blessing for all. This is who we are, and what we are called do. We grieve that our culture no longer sends people to us as it once did. We pine for former times when ministry was easier. And there's been plenty of murmuring and complaining that we're not doing something right. But the era of grieving and whining is over. We are not who we used to be. And that's ok. We are stronger today, more focused, more intentional, and maybe even more faithful. We're learning to witness to our faith and to leave our comfort zones to engage our neighbors. A millennial pastor who has a few years of experience now, wrote recently in an article I can no longer find (sigh), that the church as we are now is the church he and his peers know and love and have been called to serve. They never experienced the former glory, and do not share our grief. They are excited about the church, its ministry, the future. Those of us who have been around for awhile need to stop whining and let the church move forward in joyful service.
As effective as Moses was, he did not lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promise. Another, Joshua did. I don't claim to be a Moses, but like him, I will not be leading you into this ministry plan. That is for another to lead. You are more than ready to move. Unlike Moses, I'm not going anywhere, but will quietly be joining you in living into the new thing that God is doing. I will be praying for you and holding you in my love and affection.