Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thoughts on Reorganization

It has been a long time—perhaps too long—since I completed my promise to write more analytically about the work of the General Executive Council (GEC) on reorganization issues for ABCUSA. Part of the delay was intentional. I did not want to undermine the work of the GEC “writing team,” or to preempt the report to the General Board, or to sabotage ongoing, unofficial conversations. Since the GEC “report” to the General Board is out, some may wonder, in retrospect, if my reticence was warranted.

Others may presume that I am part of a conspiracy of secrecy regarding GEC conversations. But confidentiality is necessary for GEC members to continue to speak freely among themselves and to explore (and discard) options in the midst of that conversation. There is a time for full reporting (including dissenting opinions) but that time frame rarely satisfies voyeuristic impulses or those attracted to conspiracy theories.

But another reason for my delay was not intentional (at least consciously). It is difficult to put a smiley face on the fact that we failed to deliver. The original intent in our charge was to prepare the General Board to make proposals at the 2007 Biennial. Our failure pushes such proposals to the 2009 Biennial. Yes, we did accomplish some good things; some necessary things; things that should have been done a year ago. But we did not rise to face the growing crisis before us. Even a professional facilitator, straight from negotiations between Greeks and Turks on Cyprus could not move us to a satisfactory conclusion. The churches that comprise this denomination deserve better and the General Board has a right to be disappointed in our performance. As a presumed leader in this denomination, I find it very dissatisfying and another cause for my growing depression. For that reason Susan’s optimism, while maddening (at least to me), is an important corrective to anything I write.

To be fair to GEC, I worked on the last reorganization attempt. It was a less contentious time. It was a group assembled in typical American Baptist fashion to include a spread of ages, genders, ethnicities, and ABC interests. That group ran into the very same brick walls and stumbled over the same speed bumps that GEC has discovered. While the group did conclude with a proposal, it was so innocuous (because that was the only way to work around the brick walls and speed bumps) that it was essentially discarded as irrelevant.

GEC is even less representative of ABCUSA than the General Board in a multitude of ways. In this it illustrates the universal problem of adequate representation when a diverse group is forced into a smaller and smaller body. More than that, it is not designed to be proportionately representative. A Region with 600 churches that contribute over $1 million to American Baptist mission and ministry has only one voice—the same as for a Region with 30 churches that contribute less than $100,000 to American Baptist mission and ministry.

The problem with the reorganization process will not be solved by increasing the number and/or composition at the table. We (meaning this entire denomination) have very real differences with regard to organizational theory, philosophy of ministry, interpretation of Baptist principles, and expectations for a denomination. Those differences will be reflected on any study group that is not self-selected.

Crisis makes this reorganization attempt different. Whether we plan or not the financial crisis will result in a different organization for ABCUSA. We will, of a certainty, be smaller and have fewer resources. Unfortunately, this denomination does not have a good track record with crises. During our last reorganization attempt, I can remember the challenge that “if we do not do something deliberate, intentional, and thoughtful we are going to end up with two program boards (National Ministries and International Ministries).” Educational Ministries collapsed not by courageous design or malicious intent, but because ABC leaders (including myself) could not tame the conflicting interests or the refusal to see reality. EM collapsed by default.

So I have mixed feelings. Crisis may move us, but I also know what this feels like.

The immediate crisis is financial. It is real. It is profound. It is widespread. Lloyd Hamblin reported this to the General Board in graphic terms six months ago. Nearly two years before that, it was predicted by outside consultant Larry Johnston. Six years before that it was predicted for denominations in general by Loren Mead. Since Hamblin’s report finances have only gotten worse.

As I remember Hamblin’s report, there were three reasons for plummeting financial support of ABCUSA. In no particular order (partly because I honestly cannot assign clear priority to any single reason and cannot exclude any of them) these are: (1) poor financial health in our churches, (2) changes in philanthropic patterns (generational, cultural, and intentional), and (3) discord/alienation/distance within the denomination, primarily but not exclusively over the issue of homosexuality. The alienation was reflected in the much maligned (and subsequently discarded) GEC survey done earlier in 2006. Hamblin’s analysis parallels what I have observed in my own Region. It is disheartening (angering to some) that there are those among us who think this financial decline is a figment or something manufactured by a few regional executives to serve their own personal (often unknown but presumed malicious) agendas.

It is clear as day to me that any restructuring proposal must respond to the new financial reality (read “significantly reduced operating, program and staff costs for the General Board”) and at the same time address the underlying causes of our changed financial picture, i.e. the division over homosexuality.

The GEC was correct in identifying “criteria” for any new structure must include: (a) “increase the potential for fundraising through United Mission and other sources,” (b) “implement substantial cost reductions for General Board operations,” (c) “resolve the division over homosexuality or at least move the denomination forward on this issue,” and (d) “provide for commitment to clear accountability, holding each other responsible for maintaining covenants.” While there were eight organizational criteria identified by GEC, please note that two are directly linked to financial necessity and two are similarly linked to alienation/dissension within the denomination. There were other criteria that I do not disagree with, but these four are the critical ones in our restructuring work. I will not speak for others on GEC, but will say here and now that I cannot support any proposal that does not adequately address our financial reality or the division over homosexuality. I say that fully aware that the “solution” may ultimately be one which reduces or even precludes my further participation in ABCUSA.

If there were an easy, Christ-honoring solution to the cause of our discontent then surely some church, somewhere would have found it by now. Perhaps that is why we really don’t want to deal with it, or think that we have done enough already. Couple this with our predilection to avoid or deny bad news (especially financial) and it is no surprise that we spent much of our time working in areas related to the remaining four criteria, which, in my opinion, are much less critical. However, even there we do not have consensus.

Our present structure is one designed for impasse, inaction and frustration. The program boards (International Ministries and National Ministries) are tied to the General Board in a Gordian knot that neither can unilaterally cut. The General Board is specifically charged to “give general oversight and direction for the life and mission of the denomination,” and to “set policy in the areas of program functions, planning, coordination and evaluation.” The General Secretary (as the chief employee of the General Board) is “responsible for implementing all General Board policy decisions and for coordinating the implementation of American Baptist Policy Statements and Resolutions.” But there is no authority by which the General Board (or the General Secretary) may in fact implement those functions, goals, policies, etc., with regard to the program boards.

There is widespread misunderstanding of both the intent and the reality of our present organization. The misunderstanding crosses all divisions that you may want to imagine. (This is the topic for an extended discussion that I will explore in another blog entry.)

You could say that our present structure is the result of a series of compromises trying to balance autonomy and interdependence. The 20th Century began with the heirs of the Triennial Convention struggling with the organizational implications of these two poles in Baptist life. It ended the same way. I find two contemporaneous articles from those organizational struggles especially insightful.

“Where Do We Go From Here” by William Lipphard in The Chronicle 15:147 (1952) and “American Baptist Polity: What’s Happening and Why” by Robert Handy in Baptist History and Heritage 51:12 (1979).

At the same time, I don’t want to appear entirely negative about our organizational efforts. I believe there were at least two inspired moves in the SCOR/SCODS process. The first was to define the membership of the Home Mission Society and the Foreign Mission Society as the General Board, which consisted of elected representatives from churches. The General Board, functioning as the respective society, elected directors to those boards (defined as “program boards”) from their own membership. Many have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that prior to that the societies consisted of individual members (not churches or their elected representatives) and their boards were self-perpetuating. They were accountable to no one. Many have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that the General Board was never intended to serve churches with any kind of programming. The intent of the General Board was to hold the program boards accountable to churches.

The second inspired move was to define the “glue” that holds us together as covenants. The Covenant of Relationships consists of a series of agreements between the “covenant partners” that comprise ABCUSA. The identity of those covenant partners is limited to the independent corporations of the General Board of ABCUSA, the national program boards, and the regional boards.

One part (a very large part) of our struggle right now has to do with whether or not we really want to be together in covenant and what that means. Our organizational documents promise things that the organization cannot deliver. This is complicated by the fact that we have large numbers with denominational expectations that we were never intended or organized to deliver.

While I have supported reorganization for at least the last 10 years, I do not believe that there is an organizational solution to our current discontent. I have supported the single board concept. I believe an overarching, representative board should have the authority to set denominational goals, assign resources, and assure that those goals are accomplished. I think such a board can have limited and very clearly defined authority, but it must have the authority to accomplish its task or it serves no purpose. It is poor stewardship of time, talent, and treasure to invest in the operation of such a board that cannot do anything.

While a single board is both my heart’s desire and my best organizational perspective, it seems very doubtful that we will go that way. It seems more likely to me that we will find ways to get farther apart and have even less mutual responsibility—so we can stop irritating one another. There is potent energy from both the Left and the Right driving this. The price we will pay is that we will be able to do even less together and our common identity will be even more diluted. I also predict that this “solution” will prove unsatisfying. At some point (certainly after I am gone) there will be another effort to “unify” us. I hope it works. If not, we will dissipate and spin apart into complete irrelevance.

The good news is that God’s Kingdom, while we have been invited to participate in it, does not depend on us.

As with all my posts here, these are my personal opinions and interpretations.