About a month ago the Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Heath Rada, issued a “Call to the Church” to rethink what the PC(USA) should look like and in doing so build trust within the church. This started the wheels in motion for a discussion in the denomination about what the identity of the PC(USA) is now and what it should be. Specifically he said in his remarks:
It became apparent [within a small task force on mission funding] that we all believed a painful situation existed [in the PC(USA)] and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored. It was felt that our denomination needed to explore these matters in depth and that I should announce a CALL TO THE CHURCH to help in addressing them.
The statement goes on to list five areas of importance, from the church’s changing place in the wider culture to the theological institutions to the urgent need for action. And with that the statement outlines five steps to take but at multiple points emphasizing the need to involve all levels of the church.
In a follow-up article in the Presbyterian Outlook he updates us on the response he has gotten and what next steps might be. While some are a bit further off – specifically part of the preparation for the 222nd General Assembly – other steps were being implemented quickly. This past week we saw the first of those and that is a survey opened up by Research Services to gather input from the full breadth of the PC(USA). You are encouraged to “Join the Conversation” and you have until November 13 to respond on that survey.
Another step is the announcement of two Twitter chats with the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia (@LarissaLKA). The first chat begins this afternoon at 6 PM EDT (3 PM PDT) and will use the hashtag #pcusaidentity. The second chat is on Thursday November 12 at 9 PM EST (7 PM MST).
In reading that follow-up article a few things jump out at me. One is that the responses include “groups…wanting to be part of the conversation.” So must a group come forward to be included? Another is that Office of the General Assembly and Research Services will be the ones surveying the church and figuring out how to initiate discussions. It struck me that groups and offices in the national church seem to be headlining what looks like an institutional response. This is no surprise since at one point in the initial Call Moderator Rada wrote:
Again let me state the obvious. Someone has to take a lead. I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will (in accordance with God’s will) concerning who and what we need to be as a denomination.
An interesting article three weeks ago takes a very different approach…
The Presbyterian Outlook published an op-ed piece by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens titled “An Open Letter to Moderator Heath Rada: What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?”
As Presbyterians you have to love the idea, but more on that in a moment.
Their idea is an open call and competition where people form teams of six individuals and come up with their ideas about what the PC(USA) should look like or be doing. As they say:
Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!
The idea is that a set of “rules and tools” would be issued by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and any group of six members of the PC(USA) would have a few months to assemble a team and present a plan, solution, strategy, what ever was being asked for.
A number of theological and polity positives jump out at me here. As the authors emphasize, we are a priesthood of all believers. Why should we let the brains at OGA and PMAB have all the fun with this. The Reformed community should be the specialists at crowd sourcing as we believe decision making and the corresponding mission are to be done at the lowest applicable level and our structure is supposed to allow the most people and those with particular gifts for the situation to be involved.
It is arguable whether groups of six are theologically supported here – seven is a more spiritual number or we could just think of two groups of six making twelve. But in our church history it was the group of the “Six Johns“, led by John Knox, that over four days wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560. Not exactly a hackathon since they were the only group working on it but still a model of a group of six that worked quickly to produce a product that changed history.
Now looking at this proposal I do cringe a little bit to see that the process is directed by the agencies at the top. They are the existing coordinating bodies after all and in a position to be able to do this so there is a solid rational for this. But let’s think a bit outside the box here.
What if we thought about this a bit more as a crowd sourced or grassroots project and tried to find another point to run this from. What if the responsibility were devolved to someplace in the church that is actively doing something like this, such as the 1001 New Worshiping Communities group? Or maybe an existing recognized affiliated body like the NEXT Church group or the Presbyterian Outlook board. Or maybe something completely different like a joint steering group made up of members of the Covenant Network and the Fellowship Community? Or a really radical thought: Just go for it!
The idea would be for groups that wanted to get involved to brainstorm changes and then send it to the next General Assembly from the bottom up. Get your group together and then take the idea to your two or three nearest presbyteries for endorsement as ascending overtures so they will be considered as business in Portland. If this hackathon concept is taken seriously maybe one of the commissioner committees at GA could have the responsibility for reviewing these and helping the Assembly to think in new ways. And remember, the deadline for proposed Book of Order changes is February 19, 2016, and for overtures with financial implications it is April 19, 2016.
So there you have my riff on the hackathon idea. I don’t think this is too far off from the ideas Landon Whitsitt discussed in his book Open Source Church. And remember, the hackathon – or whatever you want to call it – concept has two purposes: One is discussed above as a model for drawing more fully from the wisdom and knowledge of the whole group. The other is to involve more people in seriously visioning and thinking about the problem and empowering them to do something about it so they have ownership of situation. This is not answer a survey or participate in a guided discussion sort of thing. The idea is to empower any interested member to dive into the details, inner working and think about the problem at the deepest levels. Where it may go we don’t know so this certainly could be a “stay tuned” moment for the PC(USA).