Escaping from Lost Tribes

By: FireTag
April 28, 2012

Community of Christ is attempting to form a tradition — now that its World Conferences are held every three years instead of at six month intervals as is customary in LDS practice — of having its Prophet address the church in non-Conference years in something of a “state of the church” address.

Community of Christ President Stephen M. Veazey, assisted by his First Presidency counselor Becky L. Savage, delivered this year’s address by webcast from the church’s  Independence Temple on the evening of April 15th.

Like a State of the Union Address before the US Congress, the April 15th address was filled with references to specific plans and programs that drop below the radar of most people not involved  in the daily activities of running things in the actual institution. There are major themes, however, that set the direction of the institution, and — in the context of the church — show where the strategic direction from the First Presidency is going. There were three such strategic themes apparent to me in reading the transcript: 1) Implementation of the five mission objectives launched with much fanfare a year ago; 2) Implementation of a policy of accepting baptized members of other denominations into CofChrist membership without re-baptism; and, 3) Preparation for the national conferences scheduled in various countries in 2012 and 2013 to consider changing policies toward recognizing marital and other sacramental rights for non-heterosexual individuals.

I want to focus on the first of those themes in this post. I’ve already written on the second in some detail here. I’ve expressed my views on the third theme several times — most recently in the comment thread to Stephen Marsh’s post — and will undoubtedly do so again as the national conferences approach. However, the first theme intrigues me because it seems something of a retreat from what the church did last year rather than its mere implementation, and it confirms something about the relative importance of the CofChrist identity to the local members.

When I say “retreat”, I need to emphasize something about the “fanfare” that went into announcing the mission initiatives. The best way I know to do that is to quote from last year’s address to the church:

“What I want to emphasize today is that we now are going to do the mission of Jesus Christ with greater determination, alignment, wholeness, and effectiveness. And, here is how we are going to do it!

“From this point forward, we will focus all ministries, personnel, and resources of the worldwide church on the whole mission of Jesus Christ. We will do this through five mission initiatives.

“These five mission initiatives are not new programs that begin and end at certain times…They are unceasing emphases that ensure Community of Christ is being faithful now and in the future to the full mission of Jesus Christ.”

“…But that is not all! To ensure focus and accountability, we’ll align the entire World Church budget—all income sources and related expenses—with our five mission initiatives starting with the next fiscal year. What does this mean?

“The five mission initiatives now will define everything we do!

“All World Ministries Mission Tithes and every other World Church income source will be applied to the five mission initiatives. Each mission initiative will have a tithing income goal. We will grow mission by growing generosity.

“Contributors will be able to indicate through the offering envelopes, pre-authorized transfers (PAT), or electronic giving which mission initiatives they prefer to support. You can express your preference to support all of the mission initiatives. Or you can indicate which ones you especially feel called to support.”

“…Is your passion evangelism, pursuing peace on Earth, or helping congregations engage in mission? Is it abolishing poverty and ending suffering, or is it helping disciples of all ages deepen their discipleship?”

Now I don’t know how to interpret that as anything but decentralization of budgeting to allow the individual to hear the call of the Spirit without the intervention of the leading quorums in deciding how to balance the resources available to achieve the totality of mission. To be perfectly fair, President Veazey did say then that the world church would keep everyone informed regarding what the leadership felt was needed in each area. But apparently the people didn’t come up with “the right answer” when they heard their own callings, because President Veazey this year said the following:

“Today, I offer some observations as we go into the future:

“First, the five Mission Initiatives work best when they work together! They are not options to choose from. Each Mission Initiative enriches the others. They are like different parts of the Body of Christ. One part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you!”

“…Second, in some nations the initiative, “Invite People to Christ,” (evangelism) seems to be getting less effort. Perhaps a different way of looking at it would be helpful. This initiative is about the daily opportunities we have to invite people into loving community that generously shares the peace of Jesus Christ. It is not about talking them into anything.”

While he did not specify what he meant by “some nations”, the only example he named of the kind of evangelistic effort he sought was in Florida. Indeed, the only nations where the church shows both membership declines and also have the financial resources to significantly impact world church budgets are the established first world nations, primarily in North America.

So North American CofChrist members are not sufficiently hearing the call, in the eyes of the world church, to invite members into participation in the church. We can deduce this because that is the only metric — given that the other four mission initiatives  are getting planned support — by which he can claim to determine whether people are or not accepting Christ.

This is not the first time the people have heard something other than what the leadership wanted them to hear on the subject of growing the church. North American baptisms in the RLDS/CofChrist tradition peaked in the 1950′s, and there have been a series of theological, programmatic, and budgetary reorganizations in the past 60 years that have unsuccessfully sought to reverse that decline.

Consider just the budgetary category. In the 1950′s, the church’s practice was to fund local and world church programs as separately as possible. Congregations and districts (there were few stakes) had separate operating and building funds. Oblation (for care of the needy) and “surplus” (usually post-retirement gifts or bequests in wills) went to the world church when achieved. Tithing, defined as 10% of the increase (income less necessary living expenses, dated from birth) was sent to the world church whenever paid, and it was used to fund a fairly lean HQ staff and to support traveling missionaries who were almost invariably experienced Seventies, not young elders.

In the next generation, as the membership in North America aged and grew richer, and as the church expanded into new nations, a “lean” HQ seemed less and less adequate. Eventually, the church stopped defining a 10% target at all. Instead it adopted a language of “generosity” to govern financial giving. And when this language first appeared, no distinction was made between giving “mission tithes” to the world church, and giving to other organizations that pursued Christian objectives instead. The purpose, not the organization, was what defined tithe-giving, and the purposes acceptable as Christian had been made much more than the saving of souls. We moved, haltingly perhaps, toward being a “peace and justice” church.

But that budgetary openness didn’t last long, probably disappearing because the people found other organizations than the world church to be more effective in pursuing peace and justice. Mission tithes were redefined again exclusively as those contributions given to the organization — but the redefinition still didn’t meet HQ needs, and world church staff had to shrink. Indeed, qualitatively, the HQ staff had to decrease missionary staff and preserve or replace financial staff in order to prevent even more drastic declines in income to the world church.

The next shift in emphasis came in regard to the relative size of giving at the local and world church levels. Historically, CofChrist members tended to give about 2/3 of their contributions to local congregations, and only 1/3 of their contributions to the world church. So, the leadership stressed an “equal giving” meme: we should raise our giving to tithing (without reducing local contributions) until 50% of our giving went to the world church. The people were getting it “wrong” again. There was even the assertion sometimes that by concentrating on local needs, members were ignoring the needs of their foreign brothers and sisters.

Hence the mission initiatives, but still — even while paying attention to the peace and justice missions both domestically and abroad — the North American church does not find sufficient passion toward the one initiative that protects the survival of the institutional church. And so the “bungee cord” has stretched about as far as it can, and members have to be pulled back toward the institution for the sake of the institution even more than for the sake of the individual.

Latter-day Saints have their own parallel to the bungee cord, of course, which can be seen in discussions of the “big tent” Mormonism of people like Joanna Brooks or John Dehlin. Are people still attached to the church, however stretched the attachment, so they will eventually be pulled back, or are they destined to break away and crash? In many cases, it seems like those are the two options, and we easily frame our positions in those terms. But maybe there is a third option.

My wife, who has been listening to the audio version of a book by Caroline Myss called Defying Gravity, was talking about it at dinner recently and repeated one of Caroline’s observations that I found very profound. Tribes are very good at bringing people “below them” up to their level, but perversely, when a soul is ready to grow beyond where the tribe is, the tribal ties act to restrict growth.

Hawkgrrrl made similar points here. People tend to associate with “tribes” of no more than about 150 associates, and tend to strive for positions that leave them slightly above the mean in tribal esteem, where they can both be influential and be influenced. Presumably there is some evolutionary advantage in such group dynamics; perhaps this Lake-Wobegone-effect where “everyone is above average” does drive the entire group “upward”, whatever that might mean to the group. However, if people in the tribe start to spread too far from each other in esteem or in goals — if people start feeling that the tribe has become lost to them — the tribe will (and quite possibly should) split or reorganize.

If I may refer to the picture of the bungee jumper at the top of the post again, it is understandable if the focus of the leadership of a church is about keeping the cord tight enough to return the jumper to the safety of the bridge without anybody crashing below. But what if the member sincerely feels that the Spirit is calling him or her to get into the water and follow the river where the current is going? Then that calls for the faith to cast oneself off of the bridge.

But it equally requires the wisdom of leaders to know exactly how long to make the cord so that the jumper arrives at the river level at a safe speed — and then the faith of the leaders to cut the cord even if it means the loss of their own power and esteem.

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7 Responses to Escaping from Lost Tribes

  1. Stephen Marsh on April 28, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    the North American church does not find sufficient passion toward the one initiative that protects the survival of the institutional church — which means that the entire organization could fail for want of a core.

    Wish I had a solution or something to offer, other than an acknowledgment of your thoughts and pain.

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  2. FireTag on April 28, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Well, I suppose if you are sufficiently limber you dive off with a knife in your teeth and at the proper time cut the cord yourself. I can do that (metaphorically speaking only, of course :D ) But the process is painful for a great many people, even more so perhaps in the LDS than in the CofChrist.

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  3. Chino Blanco on April 28, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    “There was even the assertion sometimes that by concentrating on local needs, members were ignoring the needs of their foreign brothers and sisters.”

    I’m suddenly curious to hear if anyone here could recommend some reading on the social psychology behind proselyting as it relates to cashflow?

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  4. FireTag on April 28, 2012 at 10:18 PM

    Chino:

    I think that would be a fascinating topic of study. It has to be a positive cash flow long term, since there have been TV evangelists since I was a little kid. Oral Roberts is the first I remember, and there is now a full-fledged Oral Roberts University.

    Now, whether it SHOULD be much more than a zero net cash flow, as it was among Jesus’s followers when He was on earth, is another matter.

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  5. mark gibson on April 30, 2012 at 10:43 PM

    re: the RLDS peak of the 1950′s and its 60 years of decline in north america.

    It’s no coincidence that many of the break-off groups consider Israel A. Smith (d. 1958) to be the last “true” RLDS prophet.

    Some current members that disagree with the direction of the church choose to contribute solely on the local level. The last world church fund raising they participated in was the temple fund, when the church highlighted its heritage to hopefully encourage pledges from traditional members.

    Is the RTF, or historic sites preservation, still maintatinaed by personal contributions only? That’s what I used to donate to because I felt called to do so.

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  6. FireTag on April 30, 2012 at 11:48 PM

    Mark:

    I’ll try to find out the answer to your question for sure, but I think that most historical sites are supported independently of the church through a foundation. Kirtland may be in a different category; the church has made a substantial commitment to use that site as a place for special worship experiences.

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  7. FireTag on May 1, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Mark:

    The Restoration Trail Foundation is now known as the Community of Christ Historic Sites Foundation. It is considered an affiliated institution of the Community of Christ with its own separate Board of Directors heavy with historians and curators, not with representatives of the leading quorums.

    http://www.historicsitesfoundation.org/page.do?act=lo&page=About_Us

    It is a charitable foundation which accepts contributions separately from the church’s budgets. Two of its sites, Kirtland and Nauvoo, also receive direct support for visitor’s centers there from the church. (I’m not sure which mission initiative the funding comes under.) The former is used, in association with the temple, as a spiritual development center. The latter also functions as a retreat center for groups of 20-60 people on a rental basis.

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