Monday, February 16, 2009

sometimes communal discernment sucks

You know in the abstract, "communal discernment" sounds so very peaceful. Like we're all sitting around humming "om" in the lotus position until we all get the same simultaneous epiphany. Hrmph.

I am, actually, very committed to the idea that dissensus is often more generative and creative and healthy than easy consensus. (Sheep achieve easy consensus. So do lemmings.) But voicing disagreements, hearing people out, and working out exactly what it is you don't agree with and why are painful and difficult tasks--especially when the issues at hand really matter.

I'm not good at this. I like to think a lot but I like to think by myself. My tendency in a group is to stay in listening mode--to absorb as much as possible, and take it home to ruminate upon until I've analyzed everything to my satisfaction. Then, at that point, I have lots of opinions to offer with very good reasons attached to them. Then, at that point, of course, I'm all by myself--the communal bit of the discernment gets a bit lost in my processing. Maybe this is just the natural tendency of the academic mind, but I suspect that a great deal of it also still centers around my reluctance to disagree publicly with people. (The blog has helped...but I remain a G.R.I.T.S. after all. Next time I wear my "this is what a feminist looks like" T-shirt, I'm going to feel like a fraud without one of those Cracker Barrel G.R.I.T.S. ball caps to counter-message it.)

We've spent a good amount of time lately discussing what our vision for CCfB's future is, or can be. Unsurprisingly there is dissensus. Theoretically I still maintain that this is a good thing, but concretely, it also sucks. It also sucks that I still feel like I'm trying to play catch-up on the details, and that I have to try to listen and learn and think while policing my 2-YO's really loud comments about her goldfish (the crackers, not the swimming kind). It also really sucks that I'm missing next Sunday's discussion, so I'm putting down some (belated) thoughts about the bits of the discussion I have been a part of. Because that's what a blog is for.
  1. For me--and possibly for others who have been around from the beginning, or for long enough to have seen how CCfB has evolved over the last few years--there was an unnoticed and even in retrospect undiscernible point at which it stopped feeling iffy, and I began taking for granted that CCfB was just going to be there. (If there's any measure of "success" for a church plant, I think this should be it.) Losing that feeling of stability and being thrown back into iffy-ness is difficult. Panic is the right word for my initial response to that; that describes my initial post fairly well.
  2. I heard more than one comment to the effect that Sunday is the highlight of the week for many people. It is for me. That seems to me to be a clear signal that whatever we do, part of our shaping vision needs to honor that. I also heard this being analyzed as social time, being able to be together with people you relate to who are going through similar struggles and who share somewhat similar beliefs. I don't disagree with that necessarily--but at the same time I'm aware that part of CCfB's vision has always been inclusivity and not homogeneity. We are in some ways a diverse community--and in some ways we are not. I would like to see us continue to reach out beyond the comfortable 'image of the same.'
  3. House churches. Of course, we started out as a "house church" since we did after all meet in Joe and Laura's house. By the time we moved from there into our second location at the YWCA, we were really outgrowing it. If we go back to a house church model it will mean multiple house churches--a major decentralizing move. I left the small group discussion right as the invitation to those who have house church experience to share it was issued, so I don't know how that discussion concluded. But my 2 cents: I don't think it's the way to go. Particularly because so many people have stated that Sundays are the highlight of their week--if being together is what does that, and that's important to us, it seems obvious that not being together blatantly disregards that. Beyond that...well, I suspect that most people probably assume doing house church is easier than doing, um, church church. In my experience, it's not. It's harder. Creating liturgy--making possible a genuine and collective worship--is hard work even if you're in the best of all possible spaces, (say, for example, Calvary Episcopal Church) with organ and talented choir and multiple staff on hand to handle the details. People work hard every week at CCfB to transform the very mundane space of elementary school cafeteria into a space where God's presence is clearly signified. This isn't busy work--it's part of worship, and it's sacramental work to set up the chairs and lay out the red carpet on which our 'altar' bears it sacraments of bread and, well, most of the time, grape juice. Working this transformation in a cafeteria is hard enough; working it in your living room is damn near impossible. I've lost count how many times I was frustrated in China by having my careful preparation of our "sacred space" in our living room completely ignored by people putting everything from songbooks to feet on the coffee table serving as our altar, right next to the elements. Loss of sacred space slides easily into loss of sacred time. House churches get sloppy and lax and no one cares; besides, there's no one in charge to do something about it even if they did. Which reminds me of my first year in China, right out of Harding, discovering the hard way that I actually had theological convictions and opinions (and no one gave a crap about them). I was just the hostess: my job was to clean my house every week and make the communion bread (without sugar!!!) and scour the city for decent grape juice (hard to find in 1998 Wuhan). The boys would take care of everything else--except they didn't. And I was furious that the going assumption was that someone could saunter in late, assign worship leadership roles on the spot ("wanna do communion today? um, okay") because there was no forethought put to what should have been sacred time. I tried to organize things--to no avail. When no one's in charge, nothing gets done ahead of time. This is not how things go down at CCfB currently--or ever. We honor our time together and use it well. But the amount of forethought and planning that goes into that time happens between Sundays, and maybe we take it for granted, or don't realize that it's getting done. Or maybe it's not viewed as being as important as social justice involvement in the community, or the relationships between individuals that we all treasure as part of what defines us. But I think that's wrong. Without deliberate, purposeful time spent communally in worship, the consequence will be losing the source of spiritual nurture that so many people have straightforwardly stated they rely on week to week. We must find some way to make this happen--and this will be difficult, because in this we have relied on Joe and Laura both almost exclusively. I don't think it's impossible; there are plenty of talented people in our midst--though I think we will experience a learning curve as we adjust, and figure out who needs to pick up what. But we really can't afford to remain ignorant about this need or let it go unaddressed. Finally...I think house churches tend to become insular, turned in on themselves, and CCfB has always tried to avoid the tempation that churches have to look inward only and to be a locally involved, active community. In a crisis that's what you do--look inward. But it's also not CCfB. If we are going to make it through this transformation without losing who we are, I think we've got to try very hard not to forget this defining aspect of our communal identity. [I would rather see CCfB make a move toward merging with another body than shrink back in on itself in a mimicry of the form if not the spirit of CofC sectarianism (Brent points out, there's an Epicopal church in the neighborhood...:) It occurs to me that perhaps some of us are pretty sour on organized, institutional religion at the moment, and house churches may therefore seem all the more attractive, existing on the opposite end of the spectrum. I get it. But the opposite of organized religion is...disorganized religion. Appealing? Not really.]
  4. Maybe there has been some detailed discussion about taking care of Joe and Laura while they transition, but if so, I've missed it. Maybe we're all still panicking too much about what the sudden precariousness of CCfB's future means for me to have begun thinking outside ourselves to consider what it means for the Hays family. Sure, there's a limit to what CCfB can do--if we could do what we wanted then they wouldn't be going anywhere. But even beyond showing some gratitude for the work they have done and continue to do, I think we all ought to be mindful of the fact that they're taking a hit for us--making a sacrifice themselves because they won't ask us to sacrifice ourselves in attempting the impossible. If that's not Christ-like then I haven't seen it yet. And we ought to honor that by doing everything possible--including simply reminding them how much we love them, but making sure that we do our part financially as well. Picking up the increasing percentage of Joe's salary that MCofC is dropping starting in March is the minimum IMO. Churches should take care of their people. CCfB has done this for various members as there has been need--including me!--and this is no different.

***update to #4: apparently this was agenda item #1 for the first major discussion of the transition team folks. Have I mentioned that I love my church? I really do.


Sometimes Roads Diverge said...

Jen, these are great insights. Thanks for putting so much thought into what you said.

I resonate with lots of what you said about house churches and leadership. I wonder how we balance the logistical "need" to be a formal/organized community with the sense of small group community many of us seem to enjoy.

Sunday is a highlight. This group of people is a highlight. I think we all appreciate how rare this community is. I'm not afraid of it changing, I just worry about the "how."


Anonymous said...

Hope you and everyone else there figures it all out. I could only imagine how difficult of a task that would be. I don't do well talking in groups either. Whenever I voice my opinion I always feel like I'm the odd man out. Praying for you and your church home. *hugs*