Regime Change

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Use your imagination with me for a second: Imagine that in 2008 former Vice President Dick Cheney was elected as president of the United States, succeeding his former boss, George W. Bush.  Imagine that Mr. Cheney made a subsequent pledge to continue the policies, outlook, and style of the previous eight years of President George W. Bush.

Of course, nearly all political liberals are right now shuddering at the horror of such a thought.  “Who could tolerate–how could America even survive–another four years of Bush-Cheney?” they wonder.  The 43rd president’s opponents rejoice that the “failed” policies of the Bush administration have come to an end and that a regime change has brought about a new era of something different.

End of thought experiment.  You may all breathe again.

But use your imagination again with me: Imagine that a company begins to decline noticeably, losing customers, losing stock value, and eliminating massive numbers of their employees.  Imagine that the board of directors for this company meets in emergency session to discuss the present crisis.  But imagine, to the shock and surprise of the stockholders, that the board removes the current CEO and appoints his right-hand man to succeed him, guaranteeing a continuation of the former CEO’s policies.  Would that be a smart move?

Or imagine this: A church organization experiences a serious, decades-long decline, losing millions of adherents, closing thousands of local churches, and slashing budgets and employees.  The denomination reaches a crisis point, and people start to ask, “What should we do?”  But imagine, to the shock and surprise of the denomination’s members and leaders, that the denomination hires the retiring leader’s right-hand man, assuring everyone that he will continue the same policies, outlook, and style of the outgoing leader.  Would that be a smart move?

On that last example, I’m afraid that the hypothetical situation is very real.  For some reason, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) [PCUSA], continues to do just that.

On this, our 25th anniversary as a denomination, we are faced with a grim reality about the condition of our communion.  Research Services, the statistical arm of our General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), released data on our denomination’s brief 25 year history (several charts available as pdf).  And the news isn’t pretty.

Since the PCUSA formed in 1983, we have shed a whopping 1 million members, or roughly 31% of our membership upon reunion, or roughly the population of Montana.  And the greatest annual declines have come in the 2 most recent years (57,572 in 2007 and 69,381 in 2008).

The statistics are symptomatic of many things, including sharp demographic shifts, a lack of evangelism and church planting, and an outdated, passive strategy that permeates local churches and the denomination’s structures.  But, among those other things, I would suggest that the statistics point to failed leadership at all levels of our denomination and a leadership ethos that is choking off the life-giving sap we need to prosper as a confederation of congregations, ostensibly committed to exalting Jesus Christ, the vine to whom we must be attached in order to survive.

But as much as we need change and reform in our denomination, I constantly see the same old faces among PCUSA committees, panels, magazines, books, publications, and employees of the General Assembly (GA) and GAMC.  Gradye Parsons, who is a good man, is nevertheless the eccesiastical equivalent of Dick Cheney, continuing the failed policies, outlook, and style of previous stated clerks, most notably Cliff Kirkpatrick.  Speaking of the same old faces, why was Freda Gardner, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Nancy Pelosi (or Sarah Palin, if you like), keynoting at the Elder’s Conference this past summer?  Why is Vernon Broyles, the ecclesiastical equivalent of Harry Reid (or Newt Gingrich, if you like), still allowed to keep his finger in the pie in Louisville?

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been some very positive changes in the denomination’s leadership over the past few years. Electing Bruce Reyes-Chow as GA moderator was a positive step (although he still fits perfectly the dominant theological model of PCUSA leadership); Eric Hoey and Hunter Farrell have been great additions to the GA staff, and Joe Small continues to impress me.

But the leadership ethos of the PCUSA remains largely undisturbed: We have leaders who are homogenously, myopically, and zealously committed liberation theology, inclusiveness, progressive politics,  liberal social justice, and abetting sexual and theological revisionists at the expense of everything else that is part of the Christian gospel.  Everything the denomination does reflects these discredited commitments.

So there is a crisis in our denomination, and we desperately need change.  But for some reason we keep doing the same things that just aren’t working.  We keep hiring the same people with the same commitments and expect them to do things differently.  Is that not the very definition of insanity?

Perhaps it’s time for our own regime change.  Before it’s too late.

(For another, interesting discussion, please read Kelly Kannwischer’s article here.)

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