Monday, December 4, 2017

The Church's Strategic Plan Is Done. Next, We Take a Plunge. Join Us!

            What should be last (if I wrote this chronologically) is first here, because for now it is the next big step. Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) is looking for a few good people to serve on its launch team for a new worshipping community! And we’re looking for people who would love to work on our wonderful morning service. Here’s the back story.

Toronto's "Brian Barlow Quartet" jazz ensemble leading
worship at LPCC, 2017.
            My congregation has been discussing strategic planning since shortly after I arrived in 2012. At first these discussions were about, “maybe doing this someday.” Later, we pulled a lay committee together to begin the strategic planning conversation. Finally, in early 2016, the church’s council decided Strategic Planning was their responsibility. Monthly meetings were given over to the process. We were organized and led by a fine professional who does this sort of thing, Warren Coughlin, who also happens to be a member of our congregation.

            Along the way we did some interesting things! We had a Sunday service given over to talking about what we dreamed about and how we might accomplish those things. On another Sunday, we invited our members to visit other churches that they had heard about through the grapevine, instead of coming to our services. The next Sunday was given over to discussing what we experienced and how we felt about it. On another Sunday, the sermon was staged as a bit of a congregational revolt against the Strategic Plan. Members rose in the middle of the sermon to complain about the stuff that was going on in church. I, staff, and council members responded to the objections (that was fun!). And, naturally, we posted all the information that came in on the internet, discussed it at congregational meetings, and finally voted on whether or not to proceed with our strategic plan, just a few weeks ago.

            During the process, Warren pulled together what he heard from council members and the congregation, and made up a tentative list of our values, and the vision that animates us. We discussed one of these values, and people in the congregation who embodied them, each Sunday over the summer. We have not reduced these values and the vision to a snappy line or two—at least not yet. But we did compile this in written form for editing and sharpening later on. We also agreed that our final plan needed to both embrace those who worshipped with us now and it had to reach out to a younger demographic than our current demographic.

            Meanwhile I used this information to continually draft and redraft the evolving strategic plan. The plan commits us to being a voice for liberal (and post-liberal) Christianity. We believe our values, both lived and taught, will inspire our members personally. But they will also carry those values into the wider world. They will care about social justice, participate positively in the public square and industry, and be a healing community for each other and neighbours. 

            I could go on for quite a while about the plan’s details, but it boils down to three things. We’re going to enhance our morning worship service by doing even more of what our current members already love: great religious music for organ, piano and choir; a variety of other music from jazz to Broadway; strong preaching (I hope!); great community; and some drama, dance, and brass. It will have a strong “arts,” focus.

The Arts are already a key focus at LPCC.
            We’ll also begin a second worshipping community in our facilities. It will meet around food, secular (but spiritual) music, and small groups (we need to flesh this out), probably on Sunday later afternoons or evenings. Worship will be brief but lively. And finally, we’ll bless congregational initiatives (like our Art Show or Meditation Group) that people want to try with the church’s support and blessing.

            Along the way I also studied church planting literature intensively. Most of it was written from an Evangelical perspective. I mined these books for information about what sort of resources, plans, and personnel were required for a successful launch. The books covered other matters, too: timelines, practical advice about research and marketing, and so on. I also read books about the "Millennial" generation, and pored over demographic research about our neighbourhood and city. All this helped inform the launch plan and staffing goals we settled on.

            Early in the process, LPCC realized that a sizeable amount of money was available from our Presbytery to help fund a new initiative. To apply for the money, Presbytery wanted to evaluate our strategic plan, and wanted to see a business plan, a budget, and a timeline for the length of the funding. Presbytery could grant up to 100,000 dollars the first year. Each succeeding year, if certain conditions were met, the funding would continue, although it would be reduced by 10,000 dollars per year. 230,000 dollars would be made available in the first 30 months alone. Funding could continue after that (and a further reapplication), but only if concrete benchmarks for attendance and revenue are met. Presbytery wants the new launch to be viable for the long term. So does our congregation!

            At LPCC, one of the key matters that came up for discussion along the way was “how much should we contribute to this plan?” The perspective that framed the shape of our answer was this: If we do nothing, in ten or fifteen years, if present trends continued, the church will likely “age-out,” and have to close down. Upon closing the Presbytery would receive the bulk of the value of the church’s real estate assets—perhaps as much as twenty or more million dollars! Why not use some of those assets now, to change course and do a new thing? Sure, it is risky. LPCC might fail. But the worst possible outcome would be that we still close, but leave a million dollars or so less to Presbytery.

            In the end, the decision was to invest an amount of money about equal to Presbytery’s commitment over 30 months. That would limit our initial financial exposure to the amount of money we have in our endowment. Further investment will depend upon meeting our long-term financial and numbers benchmarks. If we are meeting those, we can continue investing along with Presbytery for up to ten years before the projects are self-sufficient. We also agreed that we would not ask current members to increase their giving to fund our initiative. We’d take out a line of credit, instead, if necessary.

            Using those numbers and the strategic plan itself as a guide, a business plan was written. It included thirty- and ten-year budgets, timelines, as well as all the other stuff you expect to find in a business plan. We’ll be investing in church consultants, in a community engagement person who will focus on getting the word out about both of our worshipping communities, advertising, and (given our current plans) a new minister. But we’re flexible, and will seriously consider course corrections that our consultants suggest.

            And that is where the launch committee comes in. We need half a dozen people who want to fully engage in this project. You don’t have to be a member of our congregation now, to get involved. You can be very young or not. You might be in seminary, or in a neighbouring church that wants to “look in” on what we’re doing, or you might be a community person who is intrigued. But we need people with a sense of adventure, people who are spiritually curious, and people who are committed to our congregation’s “big umbrella” approach to church.

            If this is up your alley, send me an email (johndsuk at mac dot com)! If you want to be the new minister to take on a project like this, send me an email! (American UCC ministers invited to inquire too!) And if you want to read earlier blogs on this topic, here is a list of earlier articles I’ve written.

2.     How Do You Grow a Liberal Church? (Dec, 2016)

Monday, November 13, 2017

White Privilege

            According to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary, “Privilege is an advantage that one person, or a group of people, has, usually because of their position or because they are rich.”

            Well, I'm privileged because I am rich. And yes, I know that talking about personal finances verges on breaking some social taboos. But I'll risk it to make a point.

            So, not unlike many of my friends, Irene and I have money. In fact, though we are not one-percenters, we are financially better off than upwards of 90 percent—maybe even close to 95 percent—of Canadians.

            Because we are comparatively rich, Irene and I were able to help our children complete graduate educations in law, medicine, and anthropology.

            Because we are rich, we might buy a 40-foot yacht when we retire, to live on for a few years while we cruise the southern seas.

            Because we are rich, we can—and do—give ten percent of our after-tax income to charity—half to church, and half to other charities.

            Because we are rich, we travel. Lately I’ve had the privilege of going to South Africa twice, to Grenada and Costa Rica, to Haida Gwaii, San Francisco and New York. The only reason I haven’t been to more places is that I don’t have time.

            Because we are rich, we can buy a new car whenever I need one, without worrying about how much it costs. Or a new furnace. Or new clothes. Or electronic toys.

            Mind you, I do not feel guilty about being rich. We have wealth partly on account of good luck, partly because we are careful and save, partly because we have great jobs, and partly because of our parents. Some people may have cheated to become rich, but not us. And so, by the way, we also don’t mind being taxed at a higher rate, or government policies meant to advantage people who have less than us. We have plenty of advantages, after all. It’s a privilege.

            But now, I want to say two more things. First, as is the case with wealth, I am also privileged, I have advantages, because I am white.

            I don’t worry that the police will card me when I walk or stop me when driving because I look suspicious. They never have, in fact.

            And if the police, or a social worker, or a boss, or teacher or a store loss prevention officer do scrutinize me, I do not expect to be arrested, or beaten, or shot, or put to the bottom of the list, or not be believed or failed; and when scrutinized, I won’t think I need to be extra polite, or play possum, or talk nice, or even put up with the scrutiny if I don’t like it. If I complain to the authorities, in fact, I know that they will treat me with deference and respect. It is a privilege I enjoy.

            When I grew up in my family, I did not hear stories of how my parents and grandparents were kidnapped by the government, told to lose their religion and language and culture, as well as often beaten or otherwise abused by their teachers—all the while being prevented upon graduation from getting good jobs or acquiring generational wealth. And I did not have to grow up in a family or community where many of my elders could not speak of these realities because they were traumatized and suffering from post-traumatic stress.

            When I grew up, I didn’t have to live in a community with unsafe water and no jobs and high rates of teen suicide. I grew up with all sorts of advantages. I was privileged.

            When I grew up, my parents never needed to warn me about how to deal with systemic racism. My own children, though, have to teach my black grandchildren how to be meek, mild, and unfailingly polite and submissive in the face of authority, just to survive. And I won’t even get into the complexities of being a black child in a white educational system.

            Because of white privilege no one thinks that I am likely unqualified for any job, or received my job because of minority quotas or affirmative action.

            White privilege is someone killing fifty people with a machine gun and being labeled a lone wolf rather than a terrorist. White privilege is believing that Las Vegas was America’s worst mass murder in the past hundred years, when in fact, many more blacks or First Nations people were murdered in other incidents. But who remembers that stuff, anyway?

            And of course, not remembering? That is white privilege.

            White privilege is a fact of life in North America. As with wealth honestly come by, we should not feel guilty, on that score, for being white.

            But second—both the privilege of wealth, and the privileges that go with being white together mean that many of my friends, fellow church members, and neighbours have the advantage of power. We can influence politicians and corporations and public opinion. When we speak or spend people will notice and even listen. Privilege comes with advantages, even advantages--such as power--that we never sought. What should we do with such power?

            Psalm 146, just one of many Old Testament passages that describe ancient Jewish ideals with respect to power, is as good a Biblical passage as any for seeking guidance on what we should do with our privilege and the power that comes with it. If the Israelite who wrote this Psalm had been transported to our day, he or she would have argued that God wanted justice for all the oppressed—for the poor, the racialized, the mentally ill, the veterans, the physically disabled.

            God wants food for the hungry (146:7) and education and opportunity and respect for them too.

            God wants us to set the prisoners free (146:7), especially the overrepresented First Nation and Black prisoners in Canada’s prison system.

            The ancient Israelites believed in a God who wants us privileged types to open the eyes of the blind who can’t see their privilege (146:8), and to put remedies on every corporate and political and church agenda.

            God wants us to do all in our power to lift up those who are bowed down, to make right what our parents and grandparents made wrong.

            Why? Because while being wealthy or white are not in and of themselves something we should feel guilty about, the privileges that go with being wealthy or white are not a right either. Privilege is an advantage, says the dictionary. It is, by definition, admitting that the playing field isn’t even.

            So if we have privilege, we need to understand that the best of our shared religious heritage suggests that what we need to do with it is execute justice for the oppressed and lift up those who are bowed down. Privilege, if we have it, is the cosmic salary we must spend to help make this world right.

Monday, October 30, 2017

If Not for Answering Prayers, What Is God Good for?

            God does not answer prayers—at least not in the way we pick up a ringing phone or stop our car to help a neighbor push hers out of a snowbank. That, at least, was my conclusion in the previous blogpost. So, if God doesn’t answer prayers, what is God good for?

            This, of course, is a very contemporary sort of question, the kind that health and wealth preachers love to wallow in. Modern people want a pragmatic, sensible God who is useful, who blesses us and America (and Canada, too, maybe). God provides salvation in the hereafter, gives the church a reason for being (and a means of providing some with jobs and sometimes even power), and God is useful for unleashing passions that can overcome almost any political obstacle or tribal enemy and even inspire terrorist acts.

            I don’t like this sort of useful God. But if not good for answering my prayers, what is God good for? Why bother?

            Reflecting on this—I, and other theologians, have begun to imagine that God might not exist at all, at least in the sense that God is a person, place or thing as usually understood. I am trying on the idea that (perhaps) God is (certainly) not a substance or essence, a strong arm or a genie who snaps his (almost always “his,”) fingers. This explains all unanswered prayer, at least. There is no person, place or thing to do the answering.

            Instead, maybe God is a Spirit in the Vocative Case, a “weak force,” a cosmic plea hidden in a three-letter puff of air (interpreted, amplified, and corrupted by scripture and its authors), praying to us. God might be an inspiration (or better yet, an expire/ation) rather than a sovereign being who sits on a throne somewhere—even if such sitting is understood to be metaphorical.

            A Spirit in the Vocative Case? What might such a God be (leaving aside for a moment that by “Spirit,” I do not mean some “thing” one could put under a microscope or find with a P.K.E Meter)?

            Well, maybe a Spirit in the vocative case might be something like the call of the wild.

            Almost forty years ago I taught Jack London’s famous novel The Call of the Wild to my grade nine English class. You probably remember the story. A brave, well-trained, and strong dog, Buck, is stolen from his California home. Buck is shipped to Alaska to be a gold rush sled dog. He has a rough time of it. Ugly owners use, abuse, and starve him before he is finally adopted by a good man. This man, in turn, is killed by local Yeehat indians. So, Buck leaves human society behind and becomes leader of a pack of wolves.

            There is both much to commend this book and to condemn it. The Yeehat episode is particularly unsavory and racist. Ultimately, Buck’s life turns out to be a short course in Darwinian evolution, where Buck has to overcome technology and clubs, stupidity and ugly leaders of the pack in order survive. When the book opens, Buck is a pet dog, albeit a big one; by the end he has survived all thrown his way by civilized humans to find his true self. He has answered the call of the wild.

            What is this call? London never stops to define it, though he describes it. Buck “loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called -- called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.”

            And again, “Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” 

            This call of the wild, a vocative spirit in its own right, is not a being or substance or essence. It is not the cry of anyone one thing or even of many things. The wild itself, where the call originates, is also ever elusive, some “thing,” (maybe) that cannot be contained. We drag along our canteens and thread and needle repair kits and camp stoves in search of it, but thinking we have arrived, the wild is defeated by paths through the woods, campsites neatly arranged, and fire pits that have been in use (perhaps) for millennia. The wild recedes forever in the presence of our axes and knives and maps and the scraps of garbage we never quite manage to pack out. The closer we get to the wild, the more we realize that we cannot have it, or hold it, or pocket it, ever. And yet it calls.

            And for all the (literary) power of its call (powerful for some, perhaps, but not powerful overall) the wild is weak. It retreats under the onslaught of human tinkering. We cannot preserve it because even the act of preserving is to civilize, theorize about, and nurture—all actions inimical to the wild.

            God is as weak as the wild, and calls to us as the call of the wild did to Buck. God has no army (unless you count Swiss guards or terrorists or misguided nationalist troops), no place to lay his head, no kingdom other than the one that might be planted in your heart. God is weak, and God’s call is for a hope, a dream, an imagining, a utopia, a shalom that God has no power to bring to pass. Unless, perhaps, someone, some tribe, some Horton hears the God’s vocative case for such things. Maybe. And of course, when they hear, they haven’t even begun to understand. And when they understand and build, the thing called for is lost. Still, God doesn’t so much answer prayers as waft over us as a prayer of his or her own (or something’s or no thing’s own. Wouldn’t want to nail God down at this point!).

            Or, as Caputo writes, “God does not exist; God is a spirit that calls, a spirit that can happen anywhere and haunts everything insistently. I have found it necessary to deny existence in order to make room for insistence.”