Bruce Reyes-Chow on Institutional Fluidity and Church Leadership for the Future

The Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Pastor of Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco, will be leading worship and a pair of workshops here at LEAD 2011, March 5, at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, west of Chicago. In preparing a primer for the event, I spent a few minutes talking to Bruce about the subject of his morning workshop, “Institutional Fluidity and the Nature of Church Leadership for the Future.”

As past-moderator, you had the unique opportunity to visit a lot of congregations across the country. In terms of leadership needs and the need to be flexible or “fluid” as institutions, what did you observe?
I think pastors increasingly have to navigate the cultural waters of how people’s lives move and work and figure out how that best translates into how we run the Church. What about the cultural realities of how people do work, for instance, now need to be integrated into the life of the Church?

Where institutional fluidity comes in is the question of how you have enough structure to maintain healthy stability and sustainability while having the fluidity necessary to not be tied to the specific structures that we try to put in every place. That’s much harder because it means we have to be more contextually aware and be able to create structure out of the context we serve. That’s not what we’re generally taught in seminary.

It’s sort of this non-anxious ability to roll with it. We’re not wired for that as human beings or as Presbyterians, for that matter. How do you have a creative, fluid session structure and what does that look like? What’s worthy of anxiety and what isn’t? I think those are the questions we need to grapple with.

And so what has inspired you in terms of new models and responses to these questions?
I’m inspired by the congregation that I serve, in which the average age up until this year has been 26 years old. The rap for that generation is that they don’t commit, they don’t give, and all of these things.

But I think what we’re learning is that they don’t give or commit or join the things we want them to. Everybody kind of knows that, but when you serve or participate in a congregation like mine, you really live that in its entirety. That life stage isn’t “diluted” – and not in a negative sense – by other life stages, and so we’ve really been able to test out what it looks like for eight of the nine people on a session to be under 30 and who don’t want a church that’s fully pastor-driven. We’ve been able to find a way to secure a commitment to an institution and a structure from young professionals and people just out of college. I think we’ve seen that in the Young Adult Volunteer Program as well.

So there are other programs out there that are the “Church” but not happening in the churches we serve, such as Invisible Children, One Day’s Wages, and Not For Sale, which deals with human trafficking. They are faith-based and have tons of young people involved. They give me a lot of hope that there are plenty of ways to be church and to structure the church in today’s culture.

To what extent do you think those different structures and understandings of church can be imported into more “traditional” church settings of four walls and pews?

That’s where people have to understand that there is nuance to everything we do, and in the past I don’t think we’ve given ourselves much room for flexibility. I talk a lot about technology, for instance. Sure, it’s sexy and romantic to talk about doing everything online. In my congregation, we actually do about 75 percent of our session business online, but for most of our congregations that’s not going to be the answer. In other places where there is more of a mix, people can think about what makes sense in terms of the technology available, about meeting times and about structures in which they organize themselves. The goal is to honor the entire community in which one lives.

One of the things I’m always saying is that we can do just as little without committees as we do with them. Personally, I don’t think there is much we do by committee that is uniquely suited to that structure. If we release ourselves to do the things we feel passionate about doing, then I think it’s one of those form-follows-function kind of things: “OK, we know we really want to do this. What’s the best way to get there?” My congregation has tried a variety of approaches, and it has really come down to what works for the lives of our core leadership. So to answer your question, I think there are transferables, but it’s a matter of giving people permission to be creative within the larger structure we find ourselves in.

What about those congregations that have been under the same leadership for a long time – how do they gain a critical perspective on whether it’s time to change the way they conduct their business and how to go about it?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the logjams in most congregations, many pastors would say it’s the elders. But I still think it’s the pastors. Pastors have to acknowledge the very same tendencies that they accuse elders of having. So part of what I’m hoping to do is to say, “In times of anxiety, we tend to default to what we know, and that’s not always good. How do you see that not aligning with the way other people work and live?”

Can you teach someone to be teachable? I don’t know. But I think there are those people who are really looking for opportunities to be introspective and reflective anyway, and this is a way of giving them permission by saying, “OK, we’re in a time now where you’ve just got to do this stuff.”

We’re in a cultural reality now where even our traditional churches can’t sit around and just absorb things. They’ve got to dive in to this process, recognize mistakes, and learn from them. Otherwise, you’re three years down the road and frustrated that what you were worried about three years ago hasn’t changed or is worse, and it’s because you didn’t push anything. I feel like responsibility lies in large part with pastors. If they don’t lead that, then it’s really difficult to move forward.

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For more information on LEAD 2011 or to register, go here or contact Grayson Van Camp by email or by calling 773.947.6283.

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