My Presbyterian friends have been abuzz this past week about a controversy involving staff from the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program under the Evangelism and Church Growth ministry area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Staff mistakenly attempted to set up a nonprofit organization to help facilitate the startup of new worshiping communities. I’m not going to recount all the details. (You can read the Presbyterian Outlook story here and Executive Director Linda Valentine’s statement here.) But I would like to make a couple of observations. First, some context.
I became a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency board (then called the General Assembly Council) in 2004. I quickly came to see that the GAC had become a conflicted, bureaucratic, tangle with little focus. This despite the best efforts of some very dedicated people to bring transformation. We had a major shake-up in 2006. The senior staff all resigned, one quarter of staff were let go, and the board was reshaped and reduced in number.
The board hired Linda Valentine as the new executive director in July of 2006, and over the next several months she assembled a new team. The board, working closely with staff, crafted a comprehensive mission work plan to give direction to operations for the first time. It was my privilege to serve on the work team that devised that plan, as well as two succeeding plans during my eight year tenure on the board. The need to become an adaptive and transformative entity was a constant theme. This vision fed into the staff recruitment process. One of my favorite titles for a book dealing with change is titled, “Teaching the Elephant to Dance,” and that is an apt metaphor for my experience with the Presbyterian Mission Agency. I confess, I was deeply skeptical about the PMA being able to transform but Valentine and company, as well as a forward-looking board, made believers out of me. Change is possible.
The problem with teaching elephants to dance is that they are initially quite clumsy. Things get stomped on. And as the elephant learns basic moves and then explores more daring dance moves, more stuff gets stomped on. It is part of the process and, while not pretty, it should be embraced.
I don’t know any of the specifics of what happened here. I just know what the rest of the public knows. I do know some of the people involved. I have seen no evidence there was anything malicious or self-serving driving the decisions. It appears to me that the aim was to become more adaptive in growing new worshiping communities but institutional systems were faulty in the execution. The elephant stumbled big time! But there were checks and balances in place that quickly detected errors and reversed them before harm was done.
My point is not minimizing the mistakes staff made. They were big and I should hope they would not be repeated. But I cannot help but be encouraged that the mistakes were made in pursuit of becoming an adaptive and growing faith community! Do you get how special that is! If you had been in my shoes over the past decade, you would. So, by all means, let us learn from our mistakes but let us keep cheering for the dancing elephant.