Friday, August 28, 2009

Dwight,

There you go, digging at the sore spots.

What I’m referring to is the polar opposites within non-profit leadership. On the one side we find the negative . . . the part that creeps in when you are depressed and can’t seem to meet fundraising goals. You begin to wonder if it isn’t all about money. You ask, “when did I ever decide to be a fundraiser anyway?” and “Am I starting to be friendlier to people with money than without?” and “Am I just trying to raise money for me?”

At the other end, the good side, the realization the board hired you for leadership. To my way of thinking denomination staff is supposed to give leadership, just as local church staff is supposed to give leadership.

The church is better when we realize our leadership roles. When we realize it’s not about getting people to pay for what we want to do. Instead it’s about helping cast a vision that can mobilize a congregation or constituency to serve and give for the greater good.

I have a problem with your contention that a church defines mission more than the denomination. If you mean that the local church’s definition is arrived at after all the various influences of leadership have taken place, maybe. How did I become who I am? It was going to church when I was in college and hearing Roger Fredrikson preach me right out of my comfort zone. But it went beyond the local church. It was going to an NM conference on Laity when I was still in a secular job. I heard William Stringfellow challenge me to see my ministry where I was. It was a call to a new way of thinking and a new responsibility. And a few years later, attending another conference and hearing William Sloan Coffin jar my thinking again. I began to see the world differently.

Denomination staff should be helpful AND pushy and challenging. But they must be challenged themselves to excellence in leadership, which includes a balance of listening and leading. And this is hard. We don’t spend nearly enough time listening to the full breadth of the family. Maybe we don’t even know how. When the denomination (or a local church) believes leadership’s vision is the only vision, or their understanding of the church is superior to that of the pew sitter, they begin to lose their punch.

No single part of the family should be the sole determiner of mission. If they are, the risk of limited vision is high. Look at the churches that have decided to go it alone. Pretty soon the good ones begin to connect with new or old networks that push and challenge them. Whether we work at the national level, at the region, or at the local, we need folks with different perspectives.

Denominational leaders must be individuals who love the people and the churches and humbly understand that each day must have listening time in it. And the same is true of local church pastors and leaders.

At some time we may want to talk about what makes churches, regions and national organizations search out the best leaders they can find and then proceed to slowly tear them apart.

We have, at times, tried denomination-wide listening. SEEK IT is one example. But we may have been so driven to complete a process (driven by ourselves and others) that we didn’t spend enough time living-in-the-learning. Perhaps we should return to looking at the material from that process. Or, find a way to continue it.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What happened to "missions" ???

Susan,

As usual, you open the door for me to say lots of things. I hope I can be more restrained!

First, let me say something in general about "being heard." This is a common plea -- even demand -- in current comunity life, whatever that community may be. While "not being heard" is a very real problem, the fundamental issue too often is found in the second part of the question you heard: "Is there a chance they will hear us AND CHANGE BACK?" "Will they change" is the real question. It is possible to hear clearly, to understand, and to refuse to change because one is operating with different values, concerns, or goals. Yes, we need to work to communicate clearly and to understand, but that does not guarantee agreement.

There are plenty of times in our denominational life together that I have not felt that I have been heard (often it is because I have not been clear). There have also been times when I did not feel I had permission to speak. But there have been other times when I worked very hard to be understood (and to understand); I believe I have been understood (and I understand); but to no avail.

Second, I share your difficulty in dealing confronting anger in others and dealing with my own. I have no problem with passion, but I am more likely than not just to disengage and walk away when my perception of the anger level rises. Unfortunately, the perspective of the other may be that it is only a spirited discussion. While I have strong feelings about the health care debate, there is no way I would stay in some of the meetings I have seen on tv, much less participate in the shouting match.

I think you were with us a few years ago when GEC did an exercise on "Wired for Conflict" during which we exposed our personality types and the ways we deal with conflict. It was interesting. I was especially intrigued by the way some of our colleagues identified themselves (I identified my self as a "compromiser" -- I also remember there were not many of us!). I especially remember some who identified themselves as "collaborators," and thought to myself "that is not the way I experience them." Unfortunately, we did not take the next step. There have been several meetings that the only reason I stayed was out of a sense of duty to the churches I serve and strive to represent.

Third, now back to the IM issue. I have had the same question you report. And my answer is "I do not believe IM is going to 'go back.' If you want to support IM through United Mission, World Mission Offering, and unrestricted gifts to IM you are free to do so. However, you are not going to be able to demand that everyone else do so."

I have made no one happy with that answer, but it is the truth. I don't like it, but I am moving on.

Fourth, the larger question of "mission." "Foreign missions" was one of the cornerstones of Baptist life as I grew up. I always thought it was a non-negotiable given. In the last year, I have begun to wonder.

I have had two group meetings with predominantly laypeople since Pasadena, trying to interpret and answer questions. In both settings we talked about denominational issues about fifteen minutes, then went on to over an hour discussion of the struggles and future of local congregations. The passion for "missions" (whether international or national) was not part of the discussion. The historic emphasis on "missions" is wavering because of the growing concerns of congregations for themselves. It is also wavering because the word "missions" has been robbed of clear meaning--even church people use "mission" when they mean nothing more than "purpose." We have known for years that "mission" has different meaning in different ethnic settings. We use "mission" to embrace and elicit financial support for any- and everything. We loosely throw around "missional" as if it were a trump card to make a position or program unassailable.

While IM and NM (and regions) have the ability to define their respective missions, I do not believe that translates into being able to define the meaning of "mission" for churches, let alone individuals. And the pragmatic problem is that we have little control over the value that churches place on our definition of "mission." Given our polity, it seems to me that the burden is on us hearing and responding to them -- not vice versa.

Who we are, what we do, and how we do it are equally important value questions. It seems the focus has become what I want to do and how I am going to get you to pay for it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dwight,

I have a friend with whom I have difficulty discussing politics. We really see things from opposite perspectives. One of my problems is that she seems so angry. I am uncomfortable in a shouting match or even really heated discussions. The other day, she calmly said to me that the reason she and others get so angry is they think their perspectives are not being heard. I thought about how we seem to take turns in this country. You get to be mad for a presidential term or two while I am relatively happy and then we switch the party in power and we trade places.

My friend’s description of being angry when she doesn’t feel like she is heard made me think of things that occur in our denominational family. The current anger and frustration we are getting surrounding what I see as a shift in values in our system of sending overseas missionaries, represents people feeling unheard. After a long discussion in one church, a person quietly said, “Is there a chance they will hear us and change back?” It seemed like a plaintive cry. How was I supposed to answer? Should I have said, “not a chance?” I surely didn’t think I could say that I was sure people would give it every consideration and make adjustments as possible for the good of everyone.

I agree with your point #9 in your previous entry. We must be willing to change. But, as you wrote, “At some point we must talk about these value differences and determine if we can find a constellation of values with enough gravity to hold us together.”

And your final observation, “Despite what some may think, our polity is bent toward populism, not hierarchy.”

You were surprised that churches in my area were only now speaking their frustration about MPTs (mission partnership teams). The reason is that these are smaller churches that were passed over earlier. We’ve been flying under the radar and only recently ran into letters from missionaries that the plug was about to be pulled on them.

It’s difficult for me to respond to your #7 because it is much too close to me. I understand what home missionaries are, the historical foundation on which they stand, and the nearly insurmountable level of public misunderstanding. I also know that NM at its best has focused on the mission . . . whether that is evangelism, or acting to get children out of poverty, or assisting refugees, rather than on the personality of the missionary. And, for that matter, IM, in the passed, focused on the mission. I grew up hearing about medical missions and agricultural missions and preaching missions more than I heard the names of missionaries.

I’d like to avoid this topic but it does connect to the problems of IM. If the focus is on the personality of the missionary more than the mission, I believe we are in trouble accomplishing the mission. On the other hand, if the focus is on the personality of the missionary more than the mission, it may be easier to raise money.

I’m afraid the focus on missionary personality is a move to the past. I remember years ago at Green Lake during a women’s conference, a group of overseas missionaries came to meet with the women. It was primarily a photo opportunity. The European American missionaries were dressed in the native costumes of the people they served. The women at the conference went crazy taking pictures. One family had a couple of very small children trying to walk on wooden sandals built up on about 3” risers (evidently common in the country they served). The children fell down about every two steps, aggravating their parents. I watched and prayed for the day when the nationals would come to share their story and the missionaries would be dressed in their own casual clothes playing a supportive, encouraging role. The focus would be on the mission.

Is there room for this dream?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Values and Our Future

Susan,

I confirm and affirm your observations and thoughts in Policy vs Practice. The only thing that surprises me is that churches around you are only now speaking their frustration about MPTs (or maybe I just missread what you were saying).

1. You are absolutely right that the "financial crisis" of International Ministries was, to a very large degree, created by their strategy in the late 1990's to radically increase missionary placement, using the double-digit income from endowment. Sundquist saw this as a temporary strategy, believing that churches would "step up to the plate" in financial support of this expanded missionary force. That did not happen and endowment income did not keep up with the financial commitments.

2. The "missionary partnership" funding strategy goes way back to this same era (I will refer to this as MPT, even though I know there are differnces between "network," and "team"). I am not sure which came first. But I do remember that the old World Mission Support Council (WMSC) approved "targeted giving" in 1999. This was a special funding category that MPT would be using. The special category was necessary because the strategy was in clear violation of the Common Budget Covenant. It was also approved as a temporary, two-year experiment. I voted against it; the Region I serve rejected it. Despite its experimental status, it was later codified in the new Common Budget Covenant without any evaluation of its success or impact.

3. It is hard to establish cause-and-effect, But there is a correlation between the appearance of the MPT strategy, the conflict over homosexuality, and the dramatic decline in United Mission giving across the denomination. Many believe that the support of missionaries was the lynchpin that held United Mission together. While UM is less important to IM and NM, it has been the dominant funding stream of regions and the General Board.

4. So far, the MPT strategy has not resulted in the dramatic increase in mission support that was anticipated in 1999. Many of us can clearly demonstrate the movement of dollars from United Mission and World Mission Offering to MPT categories. IM will argue that gifts from individuals and non-ABC sources has increased. In any case, the pattern of giving has shifted, but the net has been neglible.

5. The response to the MPT strategy in the Region I serve was overwhelmingly negative from the very beginning. Yes, there are a handful of churches (and individuals) what love it. Most do not. A few are very angry about it.

6. Until your post after the Biennial, I did not connect the frustration over MPTs with denominational reorganization. When you told me your experience, I remembered two Q&A sessions I had about reorganization leading up to Pasadena. It was evident that some in those two sessions (but not others I held) linked changes in IM funding with denominational reorganization. At the time, I thought it was just a peculiarity of those meetings. Now I wonder if the perception is more widespread.

7. Some analogous concerns were raised over National Ministries. In one meeting I held, I ran into the understanding that there was a stable of home missionaries on the payroll of NM, and people wondered what would happen to them if reorganization passed. It took me a long time to work through that. The strategy to brand denominational staff (both regional and national) as "missionaries" has not been bought by most of our constituents. They know what a "real missionary" is, and they are not likely to be persuaded differently. The realization that this was not the case was clearly a deep disappointment to many in the meeting.

8. Yes, there are "value" issues all through this. There are competing values. There are different values in different regions (small "r") of the country. Values are shifting as part of the dramatic cultural shift we have been experiencing as a nation. And there are generational differences.

9. Yes, we are changing. Yes, we must change. But it seems to me that at some point we must talk about these value differences and determine if we can find a constellation of values with enough gravity to hold us together. We need to talk about the question: "What do we want to become together?" Even more fundamental is the question: "What does Christ want us to become?"

10. We do not like such discussions. We prefer to ignore or avoid them. Without those discussions and a clear presentation that our constituents can claim and say "Yes! That IS who we are!"-- we will continue to fumble about.

11. This is what I was talking about (and probably did not say well) in my first Post-Pasadena post, when I said many (not all) delegates sensed we were becoming something different and reacted negatively.

One last observation in this too long post. Our polity and tradition make it fruitless for denominational leaders (regardless of how well-intended) to attempt to brand and define who "the denomination" is and expect churches and pastors to fall in line. Only our constituents can create and live out who we are as a denomination. Despite what some may think, our polity is bent toward populism, not hierarchy. Both have their weaknesses and shadow-side, but we need to know the general direction of the wind.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What next?

I have been away for a month. Hardly a day goes by that I do not sink into some kind of whirlpool about the denomination I love. But I have not taken much time to think about "what next." The point of analysis is not (at least for me) to engage in some kind of "blame-storming," but is an essential step in figuring out what to do. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

1. I really don't think we can do any better at this time and I don't have much more energy to invest in this. I agree with Dr. Medley that we can't spend all our time on reorganization. However, I think this common sentiment deserves a little more reflection. I can't name a single church that has stopped ministry because we were engaged in reorganization. While the work was a distraction to regional execs, I don't know any region where regional ministry was put on hold while we worked on reorganization. I am not intimately familiar with the workings of IM and NM, but I doubt that their ministries were hampered by reorganization work. If restructuring is important, then it must be someone's priority (and priority is not the same as "exclusive activity"). In my opinion, that begins with the General Board and the staff of the General Board.

2. Assuming this is the best we can do, it is clear that we must (1) make adjustments where we can based on what we have heard and (2) do a better job of making a persuasive case for the change. I hope there is some careful gathering of information and reflection on what happened. We don't have a good track record of listening to things we don't want to hear; and we tend to emphasize minority points, especially if they coincide with ours. I think we can do better.

3. I think the major adjustment that must be made is full transparency on the part of IM and NM. The future of these organization IS part of the discussion. Their proposed bylaws need to be "on the table" of the General Board awaiting approval immediately after the Biennial adopts new bylaws.

4. While broad-based information is necessary, the practical reality is that voting delegates at the biennial are the ones who count in making this decision. I don't believe there is any way to avoid intensive on-site information, Q&A, etc., designed specifically for the voting delegates. 600 people in one room watching a PowerPoint won't do it. There are ways to engage small groups to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak at the same time that expressivists do not dominate gatherings.

5. Start living differently. The question was asked during the business session (and has been asked in other places): What do you want to do that you can't do now with our present structure? What is keeping the General Board from behaving differently? What is keeping the boards of IM and NM from behaving differently? We don't need a bylaw change to have a Mission Summit (does anyone remember "Seek It"?). The issue is our willingness to to make those things happen (again, what happened to SeekIt?).

Response to Christian Century Report

Christian Century July 28, 2009 reported on the action at our Biennial. This was my response to them.

Friends

I suppose I should be pleased that the national gathering of so small a denomination as the American Baptist Churches USA captured the attention of Christian Century, but the title of your news article is wrong and some of the content is misleading.

While a solid majority of delegates supported the reorganization proposal, it fell short of the required 2/3rds. Loyal American Baptists--from Left, Right, and Middle--objected to the proposal for different reasons (some of which you accurately reported). However, to imply this event was one more Left-Right divide is a gross oversimplification. There were many more reasons for rejecting the proposal than ideology.

Further, the description of marginalized progressives as if it were their peculiar lot is an inaccurate description of this denomination. Significant numbers of loyal American Baptists feel marginalized and disempowered. While our work at diversity has made good progress, we have not succeeded so well in becoming a cohesive Body of Christ.

I believe that it is also worth remembering that "delegates" to the Biennial are self-selected; that the number comprised less than 1% of American Baptist; and they have no obligation to represent their church of origin.

Still, thank you for taking time to pay attention to a denomination that is generally on the right edge of mainline and on the left edge of evangelical.

Dwight Stinnett
Executive Minister
American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region

Friday, July 24, 2009

Policy vs Practice??

Dwight,
In my last entry on this blog, I mentioned a confusion some have had about the proposed ABC structure change on one hand, and the change in the method of funding missionaries being implemented by International Ministries on the other hand. Once again, this week, I had to clarify to several people that the two are not connected.

I am encountering frustration in some instances and rage in others about the change in missionary funding. Unfortunately when people get mad at one part of the family, it tends to affect the rest of the family. I’m spending a good deal of time trying to explain.

Why does it matter so much to people?

I wonder if it is a problem of a common understanding of what is a value and what isn’t. We have had an historic practice in the ABC that overseas missionaries don't have to spend time fund-raising. For some of us that is a "value." Because it is a "value," life gets tense when someone changes it without engaging us in the decision. For others it has simply been an operational matter that gets changed when needed. This is a question of a change in policy vs a change in practice. [If fully funded overseas missionaries is not a value, it is at least what makes us unique. –And we tend to have problems when people take away our uniqueness/identity.]

The problem has arisen because The Board of International Ministries has more missionaries in the field than it can support. A few years ago a strategy was implemented to put more missionaries on the field. The decision to move to this approach was part of a larger planning process conducted by IM. The planning process took several years, involved interviews with people from across the country and around the world. The process was motivated by a desire to continue to update the way we do mission AND because nationwide, United Mission giving was dropping. The whole idea of Mission Partnership Teams was introduced and we were told they didn’t have anything to do with fundraising. Yet, everyone knew they did.

A big fundraising push got the money for the first year to put more missionaries in the field. Some of us were asking how this could be sustained. Some strategies work, some don't, and some only work partially. There was certainly some significant energy generated by the emphasis -- but not enough money. Then . . . the stock market problems of last fall. In April, Reid Truelson, Executive Director of IM, told the General Executive Council (all region execs, and heads of other ABC organizations) that IM would continue to pay a portion of missionaries’ expenses. He said that income had not grown sufficiently to continue to support the missionaries without their (the missionaries) help in the fundraising efforts. He said they had hoped to make the transition much more gradually to missionary-help-with-fundraising. He said declining church giving, the economic crunch and increased costs had made them move the date to Sept. of this year. There is not enough money coming in to support the number of missionaries on the field.

The problem for many is that in some places this strategy is not raising new money but diverting funds from other purposes. And so, money is taken from the local church, the region, home mission, and ABC general ministry. It feels like we are engaged in a win-lose game instead of a win-win partnership.

Another "value" is that ABC historically has been committed to doing what Jesus told us to do and that getting the job done is more important that who does it. We have not been "personality" driven although we have certainly loved our missionaries. If we discover than in Borneo we can win more souls by supporting a locally driven effort, rather than placing or keeping American missionaries there, that's the way we've gone. The current emphasis seems to be strongly personality based. And it seems to be popular. Some churches are much more passionate about “their” missionaries than about the mission.

Another characteristic of ABC overseas mission work has been that missionaries had excellent training and supervision. The perception is that we do an excellent job of quality control. When missionaries need help, often their supervisors see it first and take action. I hope this is still true. I keep hearing stories to the contrary.

These are challenging days. Is there a way we can address the policy vs practice issue. Might that help us help our constituencies to understand changes? How do we constructively engage a discussion?

A pastor asked me this week if the denomination understood how frustrated churches are about this, would it change. Well, I don’t know how many are frustrated. Certainly the calls I’m getting indicate frustration. But I’m sure others are probably happy. I’ve heard that missionaries have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to raise funds.

How do we help the part of our family in great pain over what is happening?