It's that festive time of year again: when the wonders of ecclesial governance and church bureaucracy suck our souls and schedules dry.
[Immediate Caveat: I have been, am currently, and probably will be for the foreseeable future connected in varying degrees to said ecclesial governance and aforementioned church bureaucracy. I contract with denominational offices and sit on district boards. My livelihood and professional network (such as it is, seeing as how most of my official duties involve sidewalk chalk and/or singing camp songs in four part harmony...with gusto) come from the institutional structure and a (relatively: we're a pretty tiny sect) large CoB congregation. So take all this rabble rousing with a grain or twelve of salt, okay?]
Annual Conference, the denomination-wide, communal decision-making meeting and the "highest authority in all matters of procedure, polity, program and discipline" of the Church of the Brethren (Inc.), happens every summer. It's been described, alternately and depending on both the year and the describer, as either a grand old family reunion or a political staging arena resembling, in recent years, the cornucopia free-for-all at the beginning of the Hunger Games. Last year, amidst all the base motivating, coalition building, alliance forging, backdoor dealing and last-minute process subverting, a sister in leadership actually received a bona fide death threat, turned over to the local law enforcement for investigation. I am not making any of this up. Brethren in the News, y'all.
Last year was the great and sexless sex debate, where we spent months talking about how best not to talk about sex, and then days yelling at each other about how we were not talking about it in the wrong ways. It's the trend among churches these days to not talk about talking about sex which, I suppose, is almost as good as not talking about having sex, or not sexing about having a talk. All that happened was a reaffirmation of a somewhat ambiguous 30 year old statement, which was itself amended at the last moment with a statement so incongruous with the rest of the paper that it holds little water anyway. It was, essentially, a wash.
Except not everyone thought so. Some thought it was a clear mandate for THIS and others thought it was an obvious landslide for THAT. And, anyway, everybody thought, even if it wasn't so crystal clear, the way I think is the right way, so I'm just going to act as if it was. I'll yell and write and threaten and pull my funding if it doesn't go the way I think it should, and I'll keep at it 'til I get my way. Feet have been stomping and oh, oh my, there has been an ABUNDANCE of high-pitched wailing.
I get a lot of it. People have been hurt, deeply. People have real and painful grievances. We're wired to strike back. And of course, I sympathize with some more than others, because I am a person with real and painful grievances and wired to strike back. I've struck.
But what I don't get is this power play, this tug-o-war over what is so obviously a pitiful, sagging structure of an institution. Pull funding? Well, okay, that will surely hasten the inevitable implosion of a corporation operating at a deficit and slowly but surely eliminating its already skeleton-level staff to nothing. Do you know how long the CoB, Inc. has gone, laying off staff but refusing to cut any programs?
The image I left Elgin with last week was a gigantic upside down pyramid of denominational programs and activities balanced precariously on the stooped backs of a dozen or so staff. Pulling funding to make a point? Demanding radical change of an already woefully understaffed and overworked group? Your point will get lost - is already lost - in the deep, soulful grief they are already carrying as they witness the church they love and have served (some for decades) not simply lay down quietly and slip into a final sleep but get smashed and broken by angry children who aren't getting their way.
And it's not just the denominational staff, though I have witnessed their struggle most recently. It's volunteer leaders forced to arbitrate nasty disputes and appeals, pastors of angry or divided congregations, middle-roaders losing their church home, young people being taught that church is about politics and power. Is this really how things end? Does new birth really require such acrimonious, adolescent warfare?
Maybe so. Maybe explosion is necessary for whatever's next. I don't know. I've never witnessed the death of an institution before. There's a learning curve, I bet.
But that's really all it is: the death of an institution. God hasn't died, the Holy Spirit hasn't abandoned us, the Church is still around. It's just, I think, that those things have very little to do with all this nastiness. And the nastiness can be consuming, for a while. But it will end. We are hard-pressed, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not despairing. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed. We carry around death all the time, so that we might also know life.
Or so says Paul, who got a lot of things right, I guess.