Thursday, June 21, 2012

Advice to the Nominees for President and Vice President of the House of Deputies: Getting Out of the Way and Changing Demographics

I’ve been thinking about this post and its contents pretty much constantly since I last posted Wish List for Next President of the House of Deputies on May 27th. I care very much that The Episcopal Church that I love and serve makes choices that open the cooperative and collaborative space for wider, deeper participation in its mission, ministry, and governance. 

In the past triennium, as a lay member of Executive Council, Provincial Council in Province VI, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Colorado, and the Executive Committee of the Front Range Region (Deanery), and as the ecumenical partner from Executive Council to the ELCA Church Council, I’ve had a broad and vertical experience of the church. I've observed, learned a few things, and reflected.

Arthur Fletcher, a history maker
So, I will presume to give some unsolicited advice to the declared and undeclared nominees for our two highest elected offices in the House of Deputies, because I think I have some things to say that need to be said and heard, and that I suspect others are thinking but haven’t yet articulated.

In speaking out, I’m honoring the memory of Arthur Fletcher, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner in the 1990’s and often referred to as the “Father of Affirmative Action,” whom I heard in a speech, and I paraphrase, “I’m 67 years old, and if I don’t speak my mind now, what am I waiting for?” I admit to adopting Fletcher’s reasoning for speaking out for a number of years now, and when I reach 67 in four more years, I hope still to be speaking out.

The election of both a President and a Vice President for the House of Deputies at the same General Convention is a big deal in and of itself. This convention is our trial balloon at doing in eight legislative days what we used to do in ten. It is an even bigger deal, because this election comes within the context of a reformation of Christian churches and this church’s leaders’ varied and often oppositional responses to how we organize ourselves to live into an unfamiliar future.

Let me say right away that I think the cooperative and collaborative capacities and abilities of our top leaders are what’s important. I care that our leaders are open to hearing the myriad voices that articulate visions for the church, are open to considering those visions and their possibilities, and will prayerfully discern in wide conversation and consultation with other leaders how to articulate a broad vision for the church. 

Conversation and consultation across all orders of the church are necessary and the right thing to do. Hiding behind allegiances to orders and houses, position descriptions, and protocol can't be good enough, when members want to be knowledgeable and participate with their hearts and souls. I believe that leaders are called to lift up a community space that affirms members' participation through communication, education, and invitation to the dance.

I trust the Holy Spirit to lead us in the right direction, even if we don’t quite see it at the moment. I want us to trust each other enough to believe that each of us cherishes our ecclesia, even though we might disagree, sometimes even vehemently, though, I hope, graciously, about how we are ecclesia together.

I’m also much less interested in the specific vision that a particular leader brings to the table, because I’m hoping that our leaders will celebrate the holy work they are being called to do more than they celebrate who is leading and facilitating the work, including themselves. I might add here that I also hope that our leaders will listen to a wide range of political and organizational viewpoints when they choose formal and informal councils of advice. 

Listening to people who agree with me is easy. It’s much harder, more intentional work to seek out and sincerely listen to people who disagree with me, and sometimes, it doesn’t feel good. I want leaders who are theologically grounded and can articulate the theology undergirding their thinking. And I also want leaders who haven't made up their minds about how things will be done, before they've taken office, before they've been introduced to the lay of the land from more than just the perspective they are accustomed to or favor. 

In the midst of much conversation and consternation about structure for mission and governance of The Episcopal Church, we must acknowledge some facts about the world in which we are the church. The future is unfamiliar not merely because it is calling the church to a new vision that is yet unknown. We’ve faced new visions before and mastered them. The future is unfamiliar, because it is calling the church to embrace a new identity, and many in the church don’t want to become someone that they don’t recognize in the mirror.

I recently attended an evening event featuring Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Morris Dees, founder and chief trial attorney. When Cohen talked about the SPLC’s lawsuits through the years, I was struck by how many times he cited “changing demographics” to explain the growing need for the SPLC’s educational and legal work due to increasing numbers of hate organizations.

The emergent church movement, the millennial generation, Post-Christianity – all of these can be summed up and explained as changing demographics. The collective “we” isn’t who we used to be, despite power politics to the contrary. It simply isn’t possible to silence or sequester the people and the ideas that infuse the changing demographics in order to stop the change from occurring.

Being called to embrace a new identity is particularly problematic for many in the church when we have not done a good enough job of grounding our members in our core baptismal identity. If we truly embraced our baptismal identity of all of us being Beloved Children of God and Members of the Body of Christ, it would be easy, natural, and logical to embrace a new churchwide identity that results from changing demographics. Our core baptismal identity levels every playing field, if we only just believe and follow Jesus. 

The old order would become the new order, because the new community is rising up from the margins of the United States of America where our church headquarters is located and rising up off our shores where our fastest growing congregations and dioceses are located. There are vitality, desire, and promise in the new community of ethnic and people of color cohorts. Those in the center of the sacred circle of God’s church, those who are in positions to lead change with access to people and resources, must actively, intentionally, engage and build the relationships that invite the changing demographics to change our ecclesia. 

We are being called to a new identity, not just a different structure. Will those we elect in this General Convention reflect that new identity?

No comments: