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[PCUSANEWS] Balcony space

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Date Thu, 22 Feb 2007 10:00:57 -0500

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07103 February 22, 2007

Balcony space

Presbytery, synod execs encouraged to move from reactive space and to ask "adaptive" questions to solve problems

by Toya Richards Hill

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - No quick-fix, technical outline for the future of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) synods and presbyteries was arrived at during a recent two-day meeting here, but that was precisely as the meeting's facilitator intended.

Coming to these gatherings looking for a solution assumes there is a technical solution, but "deep change requires adaptive work," said the Rev. Gilbert Rendle. Instead, we need to sit together "and ask better questions."

"This is the fork in the road for us at the moment," he told the group of presbytery and synod executives gathered from every corner of the denomination. Do you take the conversation and approach it reactively, or do you take it and "begin to ask very proactive questions."

That was the tenor of "Communion and Conversation: Beginning a Dialogue on the Future of Middle Governing Bodies," which took place Feb. 14-16 in Albuquerque, NM. The event, convened by the General Assembly Council (GAC) Task Force on the Vision and Vitality Middle Governing Bodies, was billed as a gathering to explore key synod and presbytery issues such as future identity, mission, funding and staffing.

Many of the middle governing body executives, particularly ones facing immediate financial and/or organizational crisis, came to the gathering with expectations of developing hard core solutions to issues that have been talked about for years.

Instead, Rendle, a senior consultant with the Alban Institute - an ecumenical, interfaith organization that provides research, consulting services and educational seminars to churches and denominations - methodically and carefully steered the group through a slow process of reflection and examination.

"We're not after the perfect answer. We're trying to learn our way into this," he said.

Open microphone question-and-answer periods, lectures and small "conversation" groups were the backbone of the event as Rendle helped the group of action-oriented, problem-solving executives understand that no one-size-fits-all solution would address their diverse issues.

Middle governing body executives attending the meeting represented presbyteries with memberships ranging from 931 (Dakota) to 47,303 (Greater Atlanta), based on 2005 figures.

"All organizations structure themselves according to their needs, and they will behave differently because of the way they structure themselves," he said. "They, in fact, have different challenges."

"Pushing for uniformity in any of this is not helpful," he said. "It diminishes our ability to move ahead."

Rendle told the group that they, like many other mainline Protestant churches, were living out the ethos of a denomination that assumed all congregations and presbyteries were similar. Yet what happens in Mid-Atlantic states is different from what takes place in Texas or Montana, he said.

"The institutional change in this culture cannot come from the top," Rendle said. "The change that we are looking for has to bubble up from the bottom."

Rendle said individual bodies must ask and explore key questions, like: "Who are we?" "What has God called us to do?" "Who is our neighbor?"

Issues like whether synods and executive presbyters are needed can't be answered until you know what you are called to be working on, he said. You have to learn how to strategize depending on the situation you are in, Rendle added.

The author of Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders, Rendle emphasized that adaptive work takes learning, and learning is more apt to occur when people move to "balcony space," where a longer, broader view can be taken.

Knowledge comes when the leader moves out of reactive space and into "what's the big picture here," he said.

The message seemed to be hitting home with some, like the Rev. Steven Yamaguchi, executive presbyter of Los Ranchos Presbytery in Anaheim, CA.

"I'm going home very affirmed. We're starting to focus on the right questions * which is a great thing," he said.

"Perhaps it might be helpful if we did slow down," said the Rev. W. Judson Shaw, executive presbyter and stated clerk of New Harmony Presbytery, based in Florence, SC. "Be intentional about taking a breath, a Sabbath."

At the same time, however, others like the Rev. Wayne Yost, executive presbyter of Kiskiminetas Presbytery in Yatesboro, PA, remained anxious about the group not addressing specific middle governing body issues.

"We are living with pressing technical problems that need to be dealt with," he said. "The adaptive questions will take a lot longer to answer. We have not dealt with any of the technical questions that are facing us right now."

Rendle acknowledged that the process he was inviting the executives to undertake was a "radical" one and that it would take time.

"When you go back (home), those dollar figures are still going to be the same. I do understand that I'm inviting you into difficult work," he said.

Yet, "You get people to move ahead by communication," he said. Then you begin to "map out your own path through the wilderness."

"Do the technical problems go away? No," Rendle said. "And so we're always working this balance."

The Rev. Allison Seed, chair of the GAC and the vision and vitality task force, told the group that communication would continue, including through a bulletin board being set up on the Middle Governing Body Connect Web site and via "interactive conference calls."

"My hope is that we will build concretely" on what has been done here, she said.

She also noted upcoming workshops on the future of presbyteries and synods that have been added to PC(USA) Board of Pensions regional pension conferences, scheduled for April 25-26 in Los Angeles, May 2-3 in Arlington, TX and May 9-10 in Atlanta, GA.


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