Hey, PC(USA): I have an idea.

Hey, PC(USA): I have an idea.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the PC(USA) job market recently (surprise!). It’s pretty bleak out there, and the situation gets really personal for me: I have a ton – a ton – of incredibly talented friends who are (1) recent seminary grads, but (2) still looking for a call years after graduation. We’re talking about vibrant, talented, energetic, brilliant people who keep getting close, but the numbers are stacked against them. In many cases, they’re struggling and frustrated, unsure of what to do.

Eventually, I got fed up with just sitting around complaining. So I’ve started shopping an idea around with some people. I’ve heard feedback from dozens of seminarians, small-church pastors, tall-steeple pastors, and church administrators. There seems to be some energy around this concept, and people are excited about the potential.

At first I thought about keeping the idea close to my chest and trying to work it out privately…But then I thought, naw — ideas are always more powerful and helpful when they are shared.

So here is what I’ve got. Feel free to leave comments and idea below – let’s think this through together!

First, a few things you all probably already know:

From what I understand, the PC(USA) has too many pastors — anyone can look at the CLC right now and see that. The line right now is “We could shut down all of our seminaries for five years and still have too many pastors.” Old pastors aren’t retiring, often staying in their positions longer due to the downed economy. Younger, mid-career pastors are either doing well or “stuck” in their 1st/2nd call without much mobility, meaning they aren’t necessarily eager (or able) to try to go form a ton of new churches. More pressingly, we have a ton of seminary grads vying for a very small number of jobs/positions, many whom are also saddled with student debt. They’re taking part-time gigs at churches or Starbucks to tide them over, sometimes without health insurance or benefits. Presbyteries could, hypothetically, give them money to start church planting, but they’re either out of money or using it to help keep some struggling churches alive (e.g., many of the 50% of PCUSA churches that are under 100 members). They probably see the seminary grads as a “bad bet” in terms of church-planting — they think they need someone “more experience,” and they’re worried about the risk.

Meanwhile, our denomination (like so many others) is bemoaning the “death” of the mainline. Tragically, our church is literally dying as its eldest members pass away, because there is no one to replace them — no one is joining our churches.

It is, in short, a crisis situation for the church.

Some already-proposed answers to this:

1) One theory that’s been kicked around for a while is basically importing the old church-planting model. Just get big churches to start other churches. Give a lot of power to individual leaders and let them roll. Old-school, but clearly effective.

This, however, does little to resolve the issue of having too many pastors — it’s too slow. It can work in certain places, but, in many ways, it’s a slow – or even false – start.

2) The GAMC is hard at work on its “1001 New Worshiping Communities” idea, but how that actually works is somewhat unclear.

3) There is also For Such A Time As This, which, while awesome, only serves a very small number of churches.

4) There is also Judd Hendrix’s Ecclesia Project in Lousiville (it’s awesome), but it’s limited to only about 6 people at the moment. Which is great for those 6 people, but not so great for the other hundreds of seminary grads.

Or, we could try something else:

(Note: I worked in politics for two years — mostly as a staffer on the Obama campaign — before going to seminary, so I might occasionally put things in ‘political’ terms. Forgive me. :) )

So we’ve got all these seminary grads with MDivs working part-time jobs at churches and at Starbucks. Most of them, more than anything, just want a church community of their own — they want to create something. Instead, they are scrapping by: they’re often trying to work two jobs, sometimes without health insurance.

But what if we gave these seminary grads what they wanted…for cheap?

What if you gave these kids either (a) health insurance (b) anywhere from $5,000 (realistically) to $15,000 (idealistically) or (c) both to work 10-20 hours a week (depending on the pay) to start a “worship community.” Note: these would not necessarily HAVE to be ordained positions, at least not at the start. They wouldn’t necessarily officiate the sacraments (although they could), and “membership” would be more loose of a category. They’d meet in whatever they could find, from coffee shops to church basements to living rooms (which would drive down costs). They could be running groups that also pray, or a jam session that doubles as a worship hour; think things that go beyond traditional conceptions of “church” as something that needs a power bill and a robed choir. They could even be encouraged to move to a low-income/high-need area to try a church, a la Teach for America (or, as a friend up here put it, “Preach for America.” Get it?).

The commitment would be relatively low at the outset, with low-risk for the presbytery and seminary grad if it “failed.” But if it grew into something, it could take on a full-bodied status in a presbytery really quickly, or even just fold into a larger church. Worst case scenario: we’re right back where we started, but we’ve tried something. More likely: if only 10% of these kinds of projects worked, that is significantly more than would have occurred otherwise.

The result is, ideally, a win-win: The seminary grads get extra pay/healthcare to live on, and they get to actually create something. The Presbytery does have to trust some recent seminary grads, but they’re really getting a low-risk situation with little paperwork that only has the potential for growth. The denomination, ideally, gets more churches/church bodies. God gets new, spirit-led communities.

And for the practically minded: they get it relatively cheaply.

It could start with a pilot program of 5-15 seminary grads from across the country already working part-time jobs. We could try to get the money from denomination/presbyteries, or we could just vie for a grant from something like the Lily Foundation. We could also grab funding elsewhere; wherever we can, really. Key point: Folks would need to be trained in some organizing tactics and community/church development strategies a la Marshall Ganz and others (because almost NONE of our seminaries currently teach this), but also some new things. This could be done in several ways (a week or weekend might work), and there would be a national “chief organizer” who could check in on participants a form of accountability. It’d be a year-long project, with writing/journaling happening all the while. Ideally, there would also be a local mentor and/or presbytery involvement.

I’ve spoken to dozens of seminary students about this, and they are very, very excited about the prospect (especially the health insurance part). It doesn’t seem like a lot of help, but they’re eager for ANY help. That might be a sign in and of itself.

In political terms: instead of holding our money for a “sure” bet or propping up dying bets, the denomination (assuming the money comes from them) spreads the money around with a bunch of small, low risk bets, with the potential for a huge net gain.

It also starts taking responsibility for the literally hundreds of seminary students the denomination encouraged to go to seminary, take out loans, and eventually be shoved into a dying job market with almost NO training in how to create their own jobs.

In real terms: the church starts trusting God, their seminaries and their seminary grads to start spreading the Gospel however they can, just as they were trained to…and like Jesus asked us to.

I know there are some nuances here in terms of how to make it work polity-wise. But myself and many others are of the persuasion that the church needs to start taking some risks, and this is just a small way of doing that. Frankly, we’re not sure we really have any other choice.

So…Whatcha think? Let me know!

A Church Online?

Props to AWC for the image. We're cool, right?

Props to AWC for the image. We're cool, right?

So I got involved in this Presbyterian church online thing.

You can also read about it here, and even here.

Weird, right?

Let me be clear up front: I’m not 100% sold on this thing myself, mostly because we’re not 100% sure what “it” IS yet. This is a project, and should be understood as such — it hasn’t fully developed yet. Heck, it doesn’t even have a name yet.  Right now, we have more questions than answers.

But do I think it’s worthwhile to explore it? Heck. Yes.

Speaking of questions, I know what you want to ask: Why even do this? Why do everything online? What about the sacraments? Isn’t this inherently classist? How can a tweet or status update or instant message possibly ever hope to replace a handshake, a look, or a hug? How is that community? Also, why did you stop blogging last year? (Hint: I’m ignoring your last question)

Okay, now that you’re done ranting (in your head), hear me out: it’s different than you think. Let me try to answer some of those questions as they appeared…

Why even do this?

This is an excellent question with LOTS of answers.

Short answer: Bruce roped me into it. Blame him.

Longer, truer answer: To be honest, I think the “why” varies per person. For some, an online church is just a supplement for a “Sunday” church. For others, being disabled or shut-in or socially outcast (e.g., shunned by others due to race, gender, sexuality, politics, etc.) means an online church might be the most practical and “real” kind of community they can entertain being a regular “member” of. Still others cite mainline protestantism’s obsessions with buildings, thinking the virtual world to be a far less complicated (not to mention cheaper) vehicle through which to form a community. Some just think the whole thing is “cool.”

As for me, I think it’s all of the above…and that it’s about time.

Why do everything online?

See above and below. Also, notice that we’re “a church that meets online” as opposed to “an online church.” The difference is key: people will probably still meet face-to-face, it just won’t look like the kind of Sunday-to-Sunday building-based community most of us are used to. Moreover, to those that can’t meet in person, geography will no longer be a barrier to Christian community.

What about the sacraments?

See above. This is a concern of mine as well.  File this under “work in progress.”

Isn’t this inherently classist?

This is the question that bothers me to most. Obviously, people who own a computer/have a savvy understanding of social/new media probably belong to a specific socio-economic status (i.e., richer) than those that don’t (i.e., poorer). Just as building a church in Beverly Hills means catering mostly to a specific (wealthy) group, so too does an online community largely gear itself to those who can afford technology.

That said, I would point out that the class divide is less than we think. Anywhere from 70-80% of the planet currently owns a cell phone, and while many people don’t own computers, many more have access to them. (e.g, libraries, shelters, etc.) Moreover, despite appearances, the homeless are actually some of the most avid users of social media. In fact, I’ve had several friends who work in homeless ministries tell me that couldn’t run their programs without social media — it’s the only way they can reach certain people.

All this is to say: yes, technology can sometimes fence people out — this is a serious concern. However, geography can be just as much as exclusionary of a force (again, think of churches in well-to-do communities, miles away from poverty, etc.), and, again, the divide between the digitally connected and the digitally unconnected is far smaller/more complicated than you might think.

How can a tweet or status update or instant message possibly ever hope to replace a handshake, a look, or a hug? How is this community?

Simple answer: it doesn’t replace those things, but that misses the point.

Longer answer: Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. Keep in mind: this isn’t a story about some teenager or social-media maven. This is a story about a smart, college-and-seminary-educated pastor-to-be who just so happens to use Facebook — just like everybody else.  She doesn’t even blog.

See, my friend was in a tricky spot. She was headed to a committee meeting (as Presbyterians do) she knew was going to be heated and contentious, but there was nothing she could do about it. She had resigned herself to answering whatever questions people asked her, but she would answer them honestly — meaning she was going to say things she knew the committee didn’t want to hear. She was walking into the lion’s den, and she couldn’t see a way out.

My friend, in short, was scared.

Desperate for support, she did what so many people of my generation do: she updated her Facebook status, asking for prayers.

To Write Love on Her Arms

The responses poured in. Person after person “liked” and “commented” on my friend’s status, lauding her with prayers of adoration, love, and celebration. They thanked her for who she was, urging her to remember how many people she had standing behind her.

My friend stared at the computer screen in tears, overcome with gratitude. Their digital support helped, and — despite the “distant” and “fleeting” trappings of social media — she could feel their love.

Suddenly, my friend had an idea. Just hours before her meeting, she took out a pen, rolled up her sleeves, and started writing. One by one, she covered her arms and forearms with the posts from her Facebook wall, taking care to write the names of the authors.

Words of praise. Words of encouragement. Words of community.

She wrote them all.

When it came time for meeting, she rolled down her sleeves, took a deep breath, and marched into the conference room more confident than she had ever been in her life. She still speaks of how strong, shielded, and protected she felt in that moment, her arms emblazened with the support of her brothers and sisters in Christ from half a world away, burning with the warmth of community.

In spite of all the supposed “limitations” of technology, the Body of Christ was with her.

See, this is the thing about “online” stuff. We talk a lot about how digital things “separate” us, how they “distance” us from one another — and yes, sometimes this is true. But the tools of this new millennium have also proven themselves capable of doing just the opposite; Anyone who watched thousands upon thousands of people flood into the streets of the Arab world to fight for freedom knows the power of social/new media to bring people together. Anyone who’s gotten that unexpected tweet or friendly blog comment of support from a total stranger knows what it’s like to see community happen online. Technology is a powerful force, yes, but it’s often a force for creating community, not destroying it.

See we can decry the idea of online community all day long, but the reality is this: community happens whether we want it to or not, and it’s already happening online.

Go ahead, visit our Facebook page. You’ll find people praying for each other and supporting each other and caring for each other in a way that, well…feels a lot like church

And we haven’t even started yet.

Look, I know this is very, very new. There are a lot of things to work out, and we’re desperately trying to get a bead on it ourselves. But rest assured: no matter what happens, the Body of Christ is still bound together, and the Holy Spirit is still flowing. Yes, I know this is uncharted territory, but that certainly never stopped Paul. If Matthew 28 tells us anything, it’s that the resurrection blows past every hill, every canyon, and every mile of fiber optic cable.

Ours is a God that knows no physical, mental, or spiritual boundaries, much less digital ones.

Our God is big enough for this.

Finally, feel free to also check out posts by my co-leaders:

Mihee Kim-Kort: A Church Online | Beta What’s the Point?

Bruce Reyes-Chow: 10 Reflections and 1 Invitation After the First Week of the New Church Plant

Stephen Salyards: Where Two or Three Are Gathered

Derrick Weston: A Church Online?

(props to Adam Walk Cleveland for the top image. We’re cool, right bro?)

A Couple Quick Updates and Signs of Things to Come…

Hello, blogfans!  Long time no see!

A couple of Jesus-y/Presbyterian-y (specifically PC[USA]) things:

1) This past summer I pulled together a rather large post analyzing the PC(USA)’s 2008 vote on whether or not to ordain LGBT folks as clergy.  I also offered a few crystal-ball predictions as to how things might look during the PC(USA)’s 2010-2011 vote on a similar overture – Amendment 10A.  A LOT has happened since then (lots of voting, etc), so I’m preparing a couple of posts (or maybe just one big mega-post) that discuss (1) the current voting tally/analysis/situation for Amendment 10A and (2) how this process may have played a role in the recent events that startled many in the PC(USA) – that is, the actions of “The Fellowship” and the supposed “response” that was the Next Conference.

In light of this, I want to welcome anyone who wishes to offer me information ahead of these posts; feel free to share any articles, videos or tweets that you found helpful in clarifying these subjects, or you can even just leave your opinion/informed speculation on things in the comments box below!

2) Keeping with this “let’s update things!” trend, I also wanted to update the slideshow that I posted last year about Social Media and Christian Community.  I delivered the presentation again two weeks ago at the Episcopal Village Conference Northeast, and wanted to share the new and improved version with any interested parties (all two none of you).  Admittedly, it’s not very effective without the words that accompanied it (I typically use presentations as visual aids as opposed to self-contained presentations), but I figured I’d drop it here just in case. Also, SlideShare doesn’t preserve the transparency of my slides, so they look significantly less pretty than they did on my computer…just saying. (sorry, perfectionism is a cruel beast…)

That’s all for now, but again: please comment if you have anything to share.  And keep an eye out – I’ll be back here soon!

I got sick. Then I got bored.

I’m sick today, so I decided that I would spend the time between medically-induced naps to create something overly-produced in photoshop.

The picture below is the creation of my cough-medicine induced stupor.  I have no idea 1) why I chose this quote, 2) why the paper is texturized or 3) why there are coffee stains on said paper, but look: I made ribbons!  And there are cool fonts!

the first time I posted this, I misspelled "quotes." Meds are ridiculous.