Conversations with the candidates

So, we had a gathering last week to meet the Moderator Candidates (the Moderator in the Presbyterian Church is a national officer. S/he moderates the General Assembly). There are four candidates, and two showed: Bill Teng and Bruce Reyes Chow. The other two had some significant personal things they had to deal with. Which is too bad. I was really looking forward to meeting Carl Mazza.

I’m writing an article about the event for the Outlook, so I’ve been pondering on it a lot. Here’s the interesting thing… as you, dear reader, may know, my beloved denomination’s been trying to sort out whether to ordain gays and lesbians or not. It’s been difficult. A very painful process on all sides. Right now, people are trying hard to keep the unity of the church, find some middle way. But nothing seems to be working well.

During the conversation with the candidates, I notice that the two different candidates contrasted greatly.

Bill Teng was recently the President of Presbyterians for Renewal, an organization that does a lot of things, but they are generally conservative. They believe in the ordination of women, but they also uphold gender complimentarianism (here’s a PDF download on it). And they have organized efforts against the ordination of gays and lesbians. Bill stepped down from president to run for moderator.

I’ve known Bill since I was a teenager. I was a janitor in the church where he was a pastor. He had just left the Christian Missionary Alliance Church to become Presbyterian. What was interesting was each time we talked about gay and lesbian ordination, he talked about purity, unity, or putting more energy in missions. Even though he was the head of PFR, even though he’s a national speaker, and he’s been actively fighting in this cause, he was very careful about his words.

I didn’t know Bruce Reyes-Chow. He’s a friend of many of my friends. I read his blog, and I watched how his candidacy sprung up from a Facebook group (there’s a first for the Presbyterians!). And I’ve supported his run from the beginning.

What was interesting is that Bruce said that he gets very few questions regarding gay and lesbian ordination, and he’s the one who usually brings it up in the forums. (Imagine that. It’s probably the most crucial issue in our denomination right now, and no one wants to talk about it.) Bruce explained that he’s a supporter of gay and lesbian ordination, that he’s excruciatingly fair, and a strong listener of all sides. And he said that the denomination needs to find ways for churches to gracefully leave. I have to say, it felt good to hear.

The contrast reminded me of a discussion I had right before Tribal Church came out. In the book, I talk about how an overwhelming majority of younger generations support same sex relationships. Another seasoned author told me, “You can’t say that. You’ll alienate half of your readership. You need to avoid those issues or you’ll never sell any books.” His point was that if I’m doing advocacy work, then being honest about these things is fine. If I’m interested in the larger goal of reaching out to a new generation, then I needed to stay away from things that would divide. Furthermore, I was constantly advised, “Evangelicals buy a lot of books. Don’t say anything to make them mad.”

I tried to explain that my goal was not to mirror what Christian readers think, but to give an accurate account of what a new generation believes.

I left our meeting wondering if that’s a pitfall of Christian publishing, and perhaps Christian leadership. I wondered if people are so concerned with the audience that they’re unable to tell the truth.

These are problems that all good communicators have. How much do you tailor your message to your audience? Practically speaking, are there issues that are just better to avoid? Should a person ignore them in order to gain trust or power?

And I also wonder, is this a cultural shift? Is a new generation more open with what they’re thinking and what they’re doing (and I mean “generation” here in a cultural sense rather than an age bracket)? I mean, evangelical authors, like David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, are wrestling with the perception of homophobia in churches as well, so I don’t think it’s a conservative/progressive thing. Are we less calculating? Are we too naïve? Will this be to our detriment or to our advantage? What do you think?

The photo’s from Beale

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10 thoughts on “Conversations with the candidates

  1. I think you have hit right on a generational shift that is kicking us in the butt right now. When it gets right down to it, it is almost list different languages are being spoken. Tough stuff.

    As far as what words to use, I struggle as a candidate to balance trying to use words that speak to folks who are part of some kind of movement, but in the context of the moderator race, have no actual vote at GA. I have to try and be true to who I am without alienating those who so dearly are trying to serve the church at GA. My hope to to translate enough that folks are willing to trust having a deeper conversation over the next few years.

    We shall see.

    Thanks for your posts and good words for the church!

  2. Hmm. I like your question, “Are we too naive.” Because, I think we are to an extent. And that’s good. Forgive me, but I think of young Obama supporters who are outraged by false attacks against him–and will be by those to come.

    Are we naive not to anticipate their vitriolic nature? Probably. But I think it’s also a healthy place to be. To desire dialog rather than division. To believe healthy conversation can occur by those with whom we disagree politically. There’s something inherently optimistic about Christianity that younger folk who haven’t been beaten down by years of dissention just get instinctually.

    A Wee Blether

  3. Adam,

    Yeah, I think the cultural shifts are very clear in the Obama campaign. Oh and I forgot to thank you for the article! It was great. Have you seen this? I got it from my friend Matt’s blog (and I’m wondering if he would want me to link him or not… he’s not a church guy):

  4. I had a conversation yesterday in which I stated that I say what I think and if people find it offensive then that’s their problem. I don’t set out to offend, but I do set out to proclaim the gospel and we are told its an offense. Perhaps its generational, perhaps its personality (but I lean toward generational) but I am more interested in engaging with people who are open, honest and straightforward with what they think (even if we disagree) rather than trying to engage people who mask their true feelings or beliefs.

  5. Just in the last few weeks there has been a lot of public discussion about “prophetic” preaching. I think it’s reminding a lot of people that the preacher shouldn’t always be saying what you already believe. It should be a challenge and sometimes be hard to hear.

    The conservative side of the current debate would probably lay claim to the “prophetic” preaching role by condemning rampant loosening of core values and acceptance of sin, but I think the “liberal” side of the debate should feel comfortable claiming some of that “prophetic” cred as well for their preaching Christ’s hard message of love, kindness, forgiveness, understanding, and justice.

    Taking it out of the book because you might offend seems like the wrong way forward. Go out and tell the truth and be offensive. You won’t be answering to them at the end of your life.

  6. I keep feeling like I need to blog about Jeremiah Wright, but I have such mixed feelings about it all. And they change from day to day.

    He’s certainly a prophet. And prophetic characters in the Bible were doing so many outrageous things… that was their divine calling. And it still is.

    Prophets can’t be mainstreamed.

  7. Some of my most deeply held core values are honesty, openness, and being genuine in all communications. I would much rather have someone upset with me for what I’ve said than deal with the stress (very real for someone like me with high blood pressure) of holding it in.

    My boss and many others that I’ve known for long periods of time describe me as “a nice guy, a hard worker, but he can be a noodge once in a while”. I accept that as accurate.

    I recently ran into trouble at church as a result. I had a very bad experience involving work for my local congregation (work that was a poor match for my abilities). You can read what I wrote about it here:
    http://msmith.typepad.com/mark_time/2008/04/capital-campaig.html

    After writing that I got called by my pastor for a meeting with him on a Saturday morning (right before a Youth Sunday rehearsal). It was ostensibly called out of concern about me, but towards the end he asked: “Is there anybody that you run your blog posts by before you post them?” Clearly he felt that I’d crossed a line.

    The posts on the next few days are an answer.

    I’ll be open and honest here – I’m not sure that I can be a part of a community that requires me to wear a muzzle. I’m me – take it or leave it – it’s not going to change substantially at this point.

  8. Mark,

    Ugh. That must have been painful. I’m sorry you had to go through that. You’re right. There are particular people who have a knack for fundraising, and it’s pure torture if you don’t.

    I don’t think you wrote anything out of line. At least at our church, that would be a perfectly appropriate. You had a bad experience. You wrote about it. You didn’t rant, or whine.

    It’s probably scary for the pastor, to suddenly know that things can be published and read by the congregation, and everyone else. And he might have had to do some cleaning up with the the person you called…. But you were put in a difficult position. You felt frustrated.

    There may be a larger problem in the fundraising process. Clearly something’s broken that’s bigger than your blog post. It’s pretty common for church leaders to put focus and energy into a presenting issue rather than the real one. Especially if the church’s paying a lot of money for professional fundraising advice.

    Again… it sounds like a rotten night. So sorry.

  9. Mark,

    After sleeping on it, I do hope you’re able to work through this with your pastor and community, especially since you work with youth. Even if they don’t know anything about it, if you can figure out a way to communicate your disappointment and your deeper hurt about feeling muzzled, and you’re able to reconcile, that would be a good model for their spiritual development. I don’t mean to lay a What about the Children? guilt trip on you. But, as a leader, you know how these crises can become opportunities.

    You know, churches are difficult communities, but you obviously mean a lot to this one, and they mean a lot to you.

    Anyways, I hope you’re able to find your way through.

  10. Thanks for your words – both replies.

    I’m still there, still co-chairing the task force on hospitality (ie. they haven’t fired me), still working with the youth. I have commitments there (youth included) that have an end date of January 2009. So far the situation hasn’t crossed the line where I’d feel I need to break my commitments. I expect that I’ll be in a continuous re-evaluation process until then.

    I have communicated my feeling of muzzledness. I think you got it right in the first post – the pastor is worried about the damage-control that is required when someone expresses a contentious issue within the congregation “publicly”. He said as much. We’re still talking and working together but there’s an obstacle there that isn’t going away.

    The youth aren’t hearing about the issue (unless they read my blog, but based on the web stats I don’t think that’s happening). Nor is it right to bring it to them – this is an interpersonal problem between some adults and they aren’t equipped with the maturity yet to handle a situation that doesn’t directly involve them. I have asked their prayers for reconciliation in general during prayer requests at youth group.

    I also had a “God is messing with me” moment. I was the person who suggested the Prodigal Son as the reading for Youth Sunday after the youth wanted the themes of materialism, reconciliation and transformation (based on their mission trip to the Katrina area last summer). This was done 3-4 weeks before my incident, and the sermons were delivered 3 days after the incident. I managed to help build the service that contained the message that I needed to hear – 3 weeks before I could possibly know I’d need it. Freaky.

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