Recently, a group gathered to discuss Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s book, Unexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity (Eerdmans, 2011). Joining in the conversation were Wes, former General Secretary for the Reformed Church in America and World Council of Churches staff; Adam Phillips, Director of Faith Mobilization for the One Campaign, Washington, DC; and Richard “Dick” Hamm, Executive Director, Christian Churches Together in the USA, and former General Minister, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Parts of the conversation will be featured throughout this week on ecclesio. We began the conversation talking about the relationship of a vibrant inner spiritual life with the energy and resources needed to conduct a public life of faith, and the things that make for change in organizations and churches.
Cynthia Holder Rich (CHR): Thank you very much. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to talk. My first question on the book, Unexpected Destinations (UD), is pretty general. What is your perspective on the book, and what struck you as you read it? And Wes, perhaps you could share your perspective now that the book has been out for some months.
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (WGM): The way I think about it – when I was about to start writing this Karin and I went out to dinner with some close friends and one of them said, “Tell me why you’re doing this.” And I thought for a moment and I said, “If sharing my journey would help anyone else take the next step in their own journey, that would be what I would most desire.” And I think sharing story has the power to do that. That’s also what I’ve experienced in responses.
In thinking about how to share my particular story, I think it’s really framed around three questions. The first is, How do we know God’s love?, or in this case, How do I know God’s love?
The second question is, How does God’s love transform the world? How do people feel connected or claimed by that love? It’s not for oneself; rather, how do you understand how this love operates in the transformation of the world?
And then the final question for me was, Well, how does this work to shape the church?. So, I think, at least in writing it, that’s what I had in mind. There’s a line in the introduction that is attributed to Kierkagaard – “Faith is walking as far as you can in the light and then taking one step more.” I think this book is about helping people to take that one more step.
Adam Phillips (AP): For me, UD was exactly the kind of book I needed in terms of my continued growth and living out my vocation. I’m 32 years old, I’m an ordained minister in the Covenant Church, having done church revitalization, helped plant a church, serving local congregationss in two cities and having a sense of call to ecumenical and interfaith and work with non-faith partners to fight extreme poverty. I am always struggling with my sense of identity and vocation. Early on in the book Gordon Cosby (who founded the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, in the 1940s) asks a question that keeps reappearing throughout the book – “You’re going to get opportunities. Will you be ready?” That question is really asking how is your inner life, in the midst of all these opportunities really resonated with me, and made the connection for me between the inner life and a life lived in the public square.
Richard “Dick” Hamm (DH): Wes and I are contemporaries and there are many parallels in the work we’ve done in the last 20 years. We’ve done that work in parallel and sometimes side by side, particularly in the ecumenical movement, and through our shared leadership of denominations. My denomination is a lot like Wes’, in the Reformed tradition, different in some ways but similar in a lot of ways. The thing that impressed me about the book so much was Wes’ transparency, the way he shared his own spiritual journey as he was being equipped by the Spirit to be a leader. He does it in a way that isn’t bragging or even primarily focused on himself. He shows through being transparent the way that the Spirit works in leaders, through showing how the Spirit worked in him. He took a lot of risks; there are a lot of places where he said things that were honest which gave me pause – and made me very proud of him for revealing his areas of need and his vulnerabilities. It makes me proud to call him a friend and a colleague. He exhibits a combination of terrific gifts for ministry with a drive to know himself and to be equipped emotionally, spiritually, intellectually to do the work God called him to do. To dovetail with Adam’s comments – his willingness to take that next step – the way you can have the courage to take that next step is to be open to the Spirit and then to be clear about what you hear from that conversation, and that’s an excellent prescription for leadership.
CHR: Thanks very much. Let’s turn to your discussion, Wes, of organizational and institutional change. On page 160 you speak of work with the World Council of Churches and how change occurs, and whether the development of studies and reports moves toward change. I serve at present on two committees at the General Assembly level of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we’re getting ready for our General Assembly this summer, and that will include and has included the production of reports. I’m being asked to read a lot of these, and edit, and comment; you question in your book whether reports move institutions toward change.
You talk about a transformational process that reaches deep into one’s being as important to change, and you say you are skeptical by how much words can produce. I’m wondering if you can talk about what does produce change. Most of us here in this conversation have some relationship to the Reformed tradition, and in the Reformed tradition we love words – we really love words! And we produce a lot of them on the printed page in reports. Does this produce anything? What impact do reports have and what are some other ways that might be more effective in working toward true transformation?
WGM: I’m really interested that you picked up on that. When I came to the WCC on staff, probably because I’m a good writer, I became the drafter for a lot of reports. A colleague gave me a gift of pens because I was doing so much writing and drafting of reports! I think if I would write that section from the book to which you refer now, I would say it even stronger. I am really dubious of the ability of the normal process of committees that we produce words that produce reports that get voted on to produce fundamental change – the kind of change that we need in denominations today. Words are important, and you could point to times when what’s said in a document stands out – usually, it’s a phrase, an idea, a concept that strikes people and gets picked up. The famous Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation that became a very important program of the WCC started as simply a phrase in a report. Words play a role because they help us articulate what we want to do, but the idea that producing reports and passing them will get us where we want to go, I just think is mistaken.
When I think of what are the things that have produced change in the RCA, I would name the work in Pastoral Networks, getting folks into small groups for mutual support, accountability, learning and challenge, and those groups begin to change the culture, and produce a change in how those pastors minister in their congregations and in their classes (regional bodies, like synods, presbyteries, conferences in other denominations). Now, there was a report on Church Revitalization that helped trigger that. But that report would have gone nowhere without a group of people who said, “We’re going to continue to meet, we’re going to continue to work on this, we’re going to continue to see that this gets implemented.” And often the ways that go beyond the normal bureaucratic decision-making are more effective.
Words that made the most difference in my 17 years were the Mission and Vision statement, a group of words that articulated something, and Our Call. But those weren’t reports really, but rather in both cases, attempts to articulate something, a yearning, really, that only gets embodied by getting enough people on board, and that only works though enough people thinking it through and seeing real change in behavior, that moves at a variety of levels – not just intellectually but also emotionally, and spiritually. And that’s the fundamental challenge, I think, we face. When it’s just words, and we assume that we can change things only through intellectual channels. Change doesn’t come without the emotional and spiritual and relational aspects being engaged.
AP: I’d love to speak to that. I remember underlining that whole paragraph and adding some thoughts of my own in the margins. In my ministry in the Covenant Church some of us younger, emerging leaders have really wrestled with the role of resolutions at Annual Meetings. What is the role of statements in terms of policy? I think they are very important but they don’t seem to get at, for us at least, that level of transformational change that Wes is writing about.
I remember in 2006 in our Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids, a couple of us thought, months before the meeting, what if we could make a resolution on immigration, on immigration reform? If you remember back then, it seemed at that point that it was within reach, and our church was not public about that and had not taken a public stance. So we were trying to push a public dialogue and urge the church to lead. We sweated many days and nights trying to come up with a resolution which was theologically sound and got at who we were as a Pietist, free church. We shared it with others and they helped us tweak it some more. We finally brought it to the meeting and there was enormous debate on the floor. What was good was that it forced national and regional leaders to come to the mic and say, “This issue of immigration is really affecting our churches.” The resolution passed.
It really was a moment which allowed the church to speak publicly – but the long, hard work of really ensuring compassion and justice for forging a space that is compassionate, where our brothers and sisters who are facing this issue still goes on. I know churches in Chicago, and Oakland, and Texas where people are really struggling with what this issue means. So the resolution was really just a way of pointing to what work was going on in the broader church – but it really didn’t bring about transformation. Climate change is another example, where some people might think there needs to be a resolution and the Annual Meeting may pass it, but there’s no real sustainable, grassroots transformation that happens as a result. Something needs to get at the heart of who we are as individuals and communities out of these resolutions to move toward action and practice.
DH: Wes and I had a similar journey on this. The one positive thing that comes about through reports is that they provide language that then can be used by pastors in congregations in preaching and teaching, and by laypeople in their teaching and witness. It’s good to have that language, those words that people can use to say what really needs to be said. But that’s about as far as it goes, because real change always requires risk, and an Assembly really risks nothing, except for the person responsible for church life at that level – the General Secretary or the Stated Clerk knows that there is risk, a lot of political risk within the body. Sometimes resolutions can tear at the fabric of community and make it difficult to deal with that issue for some time in the future because of the experience of alienation that results from the discussion of the issue. One of my pet peeves is people who go to denominational meetings and they are only too willing for the church to pay the price for their prophetic statements. Prophetic statements, to have any value, are spoken by prophets; and prophets are stoned and thrown into wells. There’s never going to be a time when that kind of witness is not going to require personal risk on the part of individuals. I see people go to Assemblies and vote on resolutions and maybe even go to the mic to argue for things, but then when they go home and meet people who have read in the paper or heard on the radio reports of what happened, which may be inaccurate, and they are questioned, “Why in the world could you have voted for that?” And people have been known to respond, “well, gee, I don’t know about that, I guess I was out in the hall when that was discussed.” There is sometimes no taking of personal responsibility for the issue. There is always going to be risk, and if there wasn’t risk, God would have sent a resolution rather than a Christ. It always takes personal sacrifice to work toward change.
If there ever was a time when politicians were affected by resolutions, it is no longer, because they know that the general meeting or assembly is not representative of the rank and file, the voters, the people in the pews. There’s research to back this up, and politicians know it’s true. They don’t pay attention, then, to resolutions but to the opinions of those who vote, the rank and file. The reports produced give us language that can be used, but that’s a first step, it’s only a first step.
Note: The conversation continues tomorrow with discussions of change and the role of culture in organizations.