The Breakdown of the RCA Discernment Process

There are reasons to think that the discernmant process in which the RCA has been engaged for two years has stopped working. More here:

The Breakdown of the RCA Discernment Process and Suggested Alternatives

The Call of God vs. the Voice of the People

It is a central tenant of the Bible and of Reformed theology that God’s elect are not self-guided in their living but rather that they are called, shaped and empowered by God—Creator, Savior and Holy Spirit. Both Old and New Testaments repeatedly insist that when the people of God ignore God’s guidance and “go it alone”, error is sure to follow. Thus, when God’s people seek to know what next steps they should take, it is incumbent upon them to use every means of grace to uncover and articulate what God is saying. The Church looks to study of Scripture, the assessment of its past history and present circumstances, individual and collective prayer in worship, the solace of the sacraments and the proclaimed Word as worthy means for coming to an individual and then a collective sense of God’s leading into the future.

In the Reformed tradition, this central work of the Church is normally channeled through a polity of governance composed of delegated assemblies of persons ordained to offices of minister, elder and deacon. Consistories and classes are given responsibility by the Book of Church Order to regularly “consider the nature and extent of [their] ministry in obedience to Holy Scripture and in response to the needs of the local community and the world.” Higher Synodical assemblies are not given this responsibility by the BCO, as if to imply that the considerations of the more local ministries, properly and regularly exercised, are sufficient. However, nothing forbids any segment of the Church or any believer from engaging in a special season of seeking God’s guidance. Indeed, this God-seeking is more fruitful and useful the more it is practiced by every believer.

It is critical to see the current RCA Discernment process in this framework: a specially-declared season of seeking God’s guidance in order that the General Synod might perceive how God is guiding the work of that particular assembly, its agencies and its programs. That season of seeking will close with an action of General Synod 2013, binding upon that assembly alone for a specific future term, which will frame its programs and the work of its agencies and staff.

General Synod has chosen, as a part of its Discernment process, to encourage lower assemblies to do their periodic ministry assessments concurrently, sharing their results at a Conversations event which it sponsored in Orlando. Output from that event was to be refined at GS 2012 through a series of special discussion groups. The GS 2012 discussion results are being further prioritized at regional Discovery gatherings for transmission to the General Synod Council which will shape a recommendation for consideration by GS 2013. The hope for this multi-level process was that a sense of God’s guidance at the lower assembly levels would be felt as a part of the final proposal put to GS 2013.

As designed, the RCA Discernment process has four main design flaws:

1. Too many points of transmission for information collected;

2. Failure to “refine” the information gathered;

3. Prohibitive cost of the process;

4. Confusion as to the actual purpose of the process.

This does not rule out the possibility of the GSC doing its own “spiritual due diligence” work as it shapes it recommendation for GS 2013. It simply means that the data being assembled in its data portal ought not to be taken as a composite local mandate. There seems to be a persistent confusion in the Discernment process that its output represents a “voice of the people” and hence a vision of the sort of initiatives that lower assemblies would support should they be authorized. One heard numerous voices of many accents insisting that attendance at Orlando was vital to “making our voice heard”. That is a sentiment of church politics and perhaps a reality of church politics, but discernment is concerned not with hearing our voices, but God’s.

Transmission Difficulties: Dropping the Ball
Red Auerbach, long-time coach of championship Boston Celtic teams, had a favorite saying: “A pass is not a pass unless it’s caught. If it’s not caught, you are just throwing the ball into the stands.” The object is to get the ball originally in your possession down the court, kept in your possession and into the goal in a timely manner. Given all the possibilities for interception, distraction or delay, achieving that objective is no easy matter. Everything has to go right.
In a multi-level, multi-sited process, the passing game is everything. Whether or not the lower-assembly perspectives are transmitted as far the final GSC proposal draft depends upon a number of factors:

• The extent to which consistories and classes completed their local ministry needs assessments;
• The extent to which local church and classis people were able to attend the Discussions event in Orlando;
• How effectively the results of the local assessments were communicated, via attendees or other means, at the Discussions event;
• How accurately the discussion group content at Conversations was summarized;
• The extent to which the discussion groups at GS 2012 were focused upon the Conversations output and further refined it;
• How accurately the discussion group content at GS 2012 was summarized; and,
• The clarity and completeness of the process at each regional Discovery event.

The RCA discernment process passes information along too many times to ensure accuracy of transmission. It becomes like the childhood game where a “secret message” is whispered into the ear of each child in succession around the circle. As the message makes its rounds, it is often misheard, misspoken or mangled. When the last child speaks the message out loud and compares it to the original, it is quite different.

The same holds true for adults. By using small facilitated groups, each discussing the same topics, rather than open plenary discussions, individual insights are subject to multiple times of transmission and thus to multiple exposures to misinterpretation. The verbalizations of participants in each group are caught on newsprint by the facilitator. Each volunteer facilitator must have the skill to reflect back to each speaker what she/he hears being said and check out whether what is on the newsprint accurately reflects the comments made. That’s the first throw and catch; hopefully a pass of information completed.
After the group sessions are over, the facilitators gather to process the comments captured on the newsprint pages which are posted on a wall for reading. Each insight is no longer the possession of the person who originated them. They have been passed on to their group facilitator who must do their best to pass the information along in turn. This is not an easy pass to complete. The words of the original comment may be there on paper, but the emotive import and contextual nuance is not, nor is it possible to verify that part of the communication directly. We must assume that each facilitator can recreate that portion of the comment for this new group of listeners. Some facilitators are more experienced at this art than others.

The task of the facilitators’ group is usually to meld all the comments on newsprint into a summary report given before the event’s closing. Written comments that appear to be similar are consolidated. Variations are accommodated through grouping under major headings which employ more general language. The assumption is that the “mind of the meeting” will be found amidst the most frequently-made comments; an assumption that may or may not hold true.

What emerges from this facilitators’ meeting is clearly the product of that group, the main themes they deduced from one another about what the gathering was saying. What they have caught, may or may not be the same ball that was thrown. As they report back to the gathering, there should be an opportunity for all participants to do an accuracy check, to make corrections or additions in some plenary fashion. But more often than not, the timeline does not allow such an opportunity for the assembly to take full ownership, to corporately “perfect the document.” Nevertheless, that report is what gets passed on to the subsequent gathering. The ball being passed may be round like the original basketball or oblong like a football. The process does not allow for us to discern which.

Rehashing versus Refining: Too Many Cooks
On an individual basis, discernment is hard but rewarding work. The personal changes that result can be carried into a person’s relationships and associations, including their church life. As a group exercise, however, discernment is very difficult to bring off successfully because it often gets confounded with the demands and aspirations of organizational business-as-usual.

The RCA discernment process is turning out to be an example of that confounding. Its end point is a governance decision taken by a delegated assembly; in this instance, one that will have long-term programmatic and financial implications. What is needed to make that decision a quality decision are: pertinent facts, a clear framing of the issues involved, and a solid sense of what the membership of the denomination will support with their time, energy, prayers and resources. None of that is being delivered so far by this discernment process.

The Discernment design calls for the many insights of the churches, classes and special gatherings to be “refined” down to no more than three imperatives to guide denominational planning and program. This winnowing down or consolidation of ministry needs is necessary from the General Synod perspective because there are time and resources limits to the amount of program that can be done at that level.

The discernment process design is a refinement pyramid. Think of refining iron into steel—ore mined in Minnesota, smelted to steel and rolled in Pennsylvania, forged into tools in Ohio—each step takes us closer to a usable final object. But miss or mess up a step and the final product can not delivered.

Connections between Discernment gatherings are quite informal and open when it comes to who participates; most anyone can join the discussion at three of the six stages. It is the content of each event’s final report that connects discernment events by setting the agenda for the following stage of discussion. If the refining pyramid is working, the final reports should show differences in language and conceptualization from the previous events. This reworking indicates that each event is adding its own spiritual discernment into the process.

To check this out, I set the two available final reports, from Orlando and GS 2012, side by side for comparison and observed the following:

• The record of discussion outcomes went back only to Orlando where a committee, using arboreal imagery, reported out the “branches” [themes] that grew out of the two days of Conversations. There were eight themes, with a total of 19 sub-themes bulleted below thematic headings, which were:

o Discipleship,
o Leadership,
o Multiracial Future,
o Embracing and Celebrating Diversity within Unity,
o Strengthening and starting churches,
o Interaction between Global and Local Mission,
o Children-Youth and Young Adults, and
o Structural Transformation.

• 5 of the 6 GS 2012 priorities used the same label, language and sub-points as 5 of the 8 Orlando themes: Mission, Leadership, Discipleship, Diversity and Youth.

• What dropped from the list of themes/priorities after GS 2012 were: Multiracial Future, Strengthening and starting churches and Structural Transformation.

The first was subsumed into the Diversity priority, the second re-emerged as a sub-priority under an added priority Church Health and the last disappeared entirely.

• The output from GS 2012 is more institutionally focused than the Orlando themes, especially when one examines the sub-themes. Terms coined in Orlando like “reconciliation and justice, “remaining culturally relevant”, “ministering with and among the community”, “outwardly focused, inwardly mindful”, “giving space for grassroots movements and nontraditional ministries” did not make it into the GS 2012 priorities or sub-priorities.

• What replaces these “lost” points and terminology are a series of generalities offered without definition: “Spiritual formation”, “Emphasize youth in all of this”, “Learn from Jesus. Sent by the Holy Spirit. Devoted to God”, “Compassionate cultural engagement”.

The refining process had stalled at GS 2012. The content communicated to it had not been reworked, but was simply repeated pretty much in the same form. The few shifts that did occur in the content moved away from an outward orientation of ministry for/with others and more definitively towards meeting the institutional needs of the denomination. We were moving away from the concerns of the folk I had spoken with in the initial phase of preparation and back into “church talk”.

What had been sent on to GS 2012 had been rehashed, not refined. It was as if the iron ore from Minnesota had shown up at the Ohio tool factory without being changed into steel in Pennsylvania. Something had caused the process to stop working despite the fact that several hundred GS delegates had spent considerable time at their task.

The descriptions of their small discussion groups given by our classis GS 2012 delegates showed that they were hijacked by the dominant issue of that Synod, namely the acceptance or not of homosexuality. That issue was so emotional and divisive that it disrupted the discernment activity by politicizing the atmosphere. This would account for the lack of further digestion of what Orlando had forwarded. It also harmonizes with the more internalized tone of the changes that did occur. In an atmosphere of attack, thinking went on the defensive.

I don’t know the logic of including GS 2012 as a “refining” element in the process design. General Synods are political animals; that is, they make policy decisions. They do use small discussion groups, but usually in the service of considering resolutions before the Synod. In short, the GS small groups tend to think politically and in the present. It is not too surprising that they were not apt vehicles for a discernment process. It is also not clear why you would loop into a preparatory process for a decision the very body that will eventually make that decision. It seems less than straightforward.

Simple is Beautiful: What Might Yet Be Done
If this Discernment process is not delivering to the GSC and to GS 2013 what it needs to make a quality decision about RCA futures, then this has been a very costly setback. Certainly it has been expensive in direct costs. Orlando in February is not an inexpensive commercial venue and while registrations may have offset part of that cost, there were a great many attendees whose stays and travel were subsidized. Staff costs to make arrangements, on-site staffing, contracted services and publicity costs for a special event all add up. The series of regional Discovery meetings also involve extensive staff and coordination costs, with no registration offset. These costs to the General Synod budget may be far less than the sums laid out by attendees: airfare, lost salaried time, use of vacation or study leave—all are costs attributable to participation in the process. The question must be raised whether there could have been a better process that would have delivered the required information. Let me suggest one.

If what the GSC and GS 2013 need are the wisdom/discernment gleanings from the local assemblies, the simplest means is to ask those assemblies directly. If Orlando and the GS 2012 discussions and the regional gatherings are eliminated, overall costs are lowered and the inherent transmission difficulties that have plagued the process to date are by-passed. It would be far cheaper and more effective to have experts from the Reformed colleges design and analyze a questionnaire for every consistory and classis to fill out after they have completed a local ministry needs survey [as they required to do periodically by the BCO.] If the local surveys simply followed the steps suggested as preparation for attendees of the Discovery events—demographics, conversations, prayer walks, scripture reflection—that would be a major step forward. By doing a local ministry needs survey together, we would obtain a panoramic snap-shot of the entire variety of places where the RCA is now planted. The comparative data across classes and regions would be rich and we could draw a map of next steps that could be taken cooperatively. The usual data collected in the ACR is excellent “face sheet” information to context the discernment material. If our churches and classes got into this joint survey habit every five or ten years, we would soon have a library of experience documented for future use.

This survey could be attached to the required Annual Consistorial Reports and incentives for timely completion [perhaps a 5% discount on assessments?] might be employed. Every assembly in the denomination would benefit from the information and perspectives shared. Program planning could be put on a reality basis; fitting methods to documented needs rather than to theories or guesswork or to entrenched habit. No special machinery would be required and few people would have to get on a plane. Information travels electronically and we have experience with on-line surveys. Because you don’t have to train participants in the methods of the process, they can concentrate their energies on outreach, observation and reflection. You get higher-quality information flowing into the decision-making arena.

Admittedly, the hour is late. It would take a year to put the above suggestion into place. But maybe that, in itself, is a message. Not much is lost in declaring a year of jubilee and denominational discernment from the bottom up. To press forward with the process we have now and to pretend that it is getting us where we must go will wind up costing the RCA far more. We can march in place while we go back and do things right.

Balancing Analysis and Enthusiasm

There is a methodological struggle going on within the ranks of the RCA. There is constant awareness and unresolved fear about the numerical decline of our churches and membership over the past half-century. Since we have all grown up through an era of expansive expectations, downward trends are disturbing and we seek explanations and solutions. How RCA folk go about their explaining and solving seems to follow two tendencies that are not in good balance at the moment.

As Reformed Church people, we have a strong intellectual tradition. We expect that our clergy will be highly educated, that our offices will be skilled and knowledgeable, and that our membership will engage in Scriptural study and prayerful reflection. So perhaps our first tendency is to analyze our disturbing situations, even to a fault.

But we are also a “…Church in America.” So we are also the inheritors of an enthusiastic tradition that is characteristic of American religion. Thus we have in our history periods of near-Pentecostal ferment, the Power of Positive Thinking and we can sing praise songs as well as adore God with the intricacies of Bach fugues. So a strong counter-tendency when disturbed is to equate analysis with worry and fall back into the arms of faith and trust in God.

The Master we follow is a blend of both tendencies. He encourages his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” at the same time he wants them out of the boat and walking on water. Whereas Christ balanced both seamlessly and in unity with God, we tend to swing from one polarity to another.
The Discernment process is an example of our polarity. If our anxiety would be satisfied by collection of information, then mass gatherings would seem superfluous. If we feel better knocking down our anxiety through mutual encouragement and faith support, then face-to-face assemblies are requirements. The Discernment process put emphasis on the latter route, while trying to incorporate some data collection. Some of us can pat our head and rub our tummy at the same time; some not. This process has not delivered on the analysis side and has been spotty on the enthusiastic side. One lesson might be that the two objectives, sharing discernment data and building enthusiasm for our future mission, need to be dealt with separately. A second might be to remember that when we gather together, it is equally possible that we will share our anxieties as well as our faith. The more open and respectfully deliberative our gatherings can be, the more opportunity there will be for the Spirit to accomplish its needed reconciliatory and strengthening work among us.

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