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Who’s Job Is This?

By January 30, 2015 4 Comments

The paradox struck me hard one Sunday morning. A flock of little kids assembled in front of church to exchange blessings with the congregation before going to their worship centers. They represented a score of families, so several dozen parents. Later, after the sermon, the elders gathered in the same space to distribute the elements for Communion. One of them was under 50. I, who happened to be chair of consistory that year, was not that one. The elders are all good people and true. Still, the demographic disparity between the two groups struck me, and has stuck with me since. What does it spell for the future of this church? Shouldn’t we lessen that disparity, bridge it? And how?

So a colleague and I decided to start a Sunday evening discussion group, aimed at younger (than 50!) folks to discuss lay leadership in the church, particularly in the context of Reformed polity. Providing pastoral care immediately popped up on the list of important topics to be covered; organizational overview/supervision was another. But that image of age disparity came up promptly too. What was the twenty-years-down-the-road future of this church going to be, when the parents of all those little kids will be in their 50s and 60s—and the cohort currently populating consistory will be pushing, or past, 80, if still around at all? At my particular church this is an especially poignant, and pressing, question because this cohort has been dominant in lay leadership for at least thirty years. How do we color them—me—out of the picture and fill in the space with other faces? How do we do this, and more immediately to the point, who does this? Who’s in charge of strategic vision in a congregation in the Reformed-Presbyterian tradition?

I’m not a big, or even a little, consumer of business guru or organizational management literature. Nonetheless, having to co-lead this group sent me perusing the relevant shelves at my local public library. I soon came upon a title that seemed just right—Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future (Public Affairs, 2014). I’m not here to laud the co-authors, Steven Krupp and Paul J. H. Schoemaker, nor to recount the ‘six disciplines’ they prescribe for said strategic leaders. I always find this genre of literature a bit bemusing: basic principle illustrated with multiple vignettes retailing success and failure stories. Repeat. You must need to be a leader in your own enterprise or corporation to grasp the lesson being taught by mentally applying it to your own situation. Then too, the pages are full of market idiom: profits, customers, competitors, market share. Naturally enough, given the book’s intended audience. But a bit jarring when it’s a church you’re thinking about. Maybe if I can find the equivalent book about not-for-profits….

Even then a big piece would be missing in the church context, at least in a Reformed-Presbyterian church context. The focus in Winning the Long Game is decidedly upon the bold, decisive leader—the CEO, the single visionary, the guy (sometimes the woman) who turns out to be the commanding dreamer who also sees to the doing, the implementation, of the dream. Now in a Roman Catholic or Anglican context, maybe also in Orthodox bodies, this could be the bishop. Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, is making gestures in this direction month by month. But in a Reformed or Presbyterian church, who is this supposed to be? Is our senior pastor called to be a CEO? Not by the job description she signed on to. Is our lay administrator then a COO? Well, kinda, but in the reality of things, he’s occupied with a lot of tasks that the advice lit puts under middle management. Is it the Executive Director or Stated Clerk or General Secretary at the denominational home office? Probably not in an age when bonds between congregation and denomination are more attenuated than ever. So who is it? Shall we punt and, invoking the theological distinctive of John Calvin, say it’s the Holy Spirit? Well, sure it is, but the Third Person always works via human agency. And who would that be again?

I don’t have the answer here, maybe not even the beginning of an answer. Maybe the clergy out there are smirking or exasperated at my naïveté, having heard all this churned over at workshops and synodical meetings and consultant fests ad infinitum. In that case, I’ll gladly accept such wisdom as you wish to share. I’m simply struck by the salience, the urgency, of the question. Strategic vision: whose job is it? I don’t mean strategic planning, forecasting initiatives for the next five years. As referenced above, I’m thinking ten and twenty years down the road. What will our church be? What might we wish it to be? How, by the best lights and motives available to us, do we get from here to there?

Three motifs will go with me from Winning the Long Game. None of the six disciplines prescribed and fulsomely illustrated. I’m sure they’re useful and probably even right, but I’m not ready to absorb them yet. Rather, three items from the book’s opening pages. An invocation of hockey great Wayne Gretsky, the essence of whose genius was to skate to where the puck is going—intuiting, that is, where it is going to be before anyone has decided to send it anywhere. Second and thirdly, we have to envision our churches from “the future back” and from “the outside in.” Just so. Sense the vectors of change, and re-imagine the ensuing environment out there somewhere down the road.

But who has the time and skill, resources and encouragement, to do this? Senior pastors and church administrators are thick in the weeds of the day to day and week to week, and if they weren’t, they’d hear about it. Consistory or session consists of laypeople with (often demanding and draining) day jobs who gather one evening a month to hash through long, detailed agendas that typically deplete the energy in the room by 9:30. Now, another hour for brainstorming? Yes, there’s the (bi-) annual retreat but that’s too episodic.

Starting to move toward where we want to be twenty years from now seems to me to be a non-negotiable task for rather under-prepared people. Maybe that’s the new version of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. And, in that tradition, maybe we will see that, somehow, the saints turn out to be equipped for the job. But meanwhile, if you have some helpful hints to send along….

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Cheryl Brandsen says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Jim. I’ve had similar worries, especially on Sundays when the demographic disparities are so front and center. Although it isn’t a silver bullet, one of the things that gives me hope is the work of Calvin College’s Congregational and Ministry Studies department that Claudia Beversluis, then provost, had the vision to implement. That program description, along with its curriculum, works toward responding to many of the challenges you articulate.

  • Victoria Karssen says:

    American RC, Orange City IA, elects a new committee each year to put forward names for a double slate for Consistory nominations. One set has received the most nominations from the congregation, a 2nd set is put forward by the committee (elected via a formula, i.e., 2 current consistory, 2 non-consistory, etc.). Not perfect, but an attempt to be able to ‘correct’ demographics each year.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Who’s in charge of strategic vision in a Reformed Church? Leo Koffeman, in his book on polity which I’m reviewing for Perspectives, says that one key job of the pastor is always to remind the congregation of its mission beyond itself.
    The Consistory is a Reformed invention. Just as Calvin sought to solve the dialectic of Lutheran “by grace alone” with Anabaptist “sanctification” by means of “the sovereignty of God,” so he resolved the dialectic of the Lutheran “parish” ecclesiology with the Anabaptist “congregational” ecclesiology by inventing the Consistory, making the parish behave (enough) like a congregation. From the beginning, and for better or worse, the Consistory never behaved strategically, but, almost by intention, conservatively. If any group was strategic, it was the company of pastors.
    It is a problem in Reformed polity. Who leads? Reformed polity says that the Word of God leads. Isn’t the answer that the pastor is charged frequently, “from time to time,” to address the “state of the congregation,” not so much issuing a program as declaring the state of it, so that the consistory, including the pastor, can begin scripturally to strategize about it?

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