If you're not affiliated with the Assemblies of God, some of the next few posts might feel foreign to you. I just spent a week in Indianapolis, Indiana, for our denomination's biennial General Council meeting, and most of my posts from there were pretty harmless. Talked about the weather. Mentioned friends and more friends I ran into during the week. Nothing too deep. But I'm home now, so time to offer some opinions.
(As a disclaimer, part of the reason I didn't blog many opinions during the week is because I cover the business sessions each time for the Council Today newspaper. The paper's produced by our headquarters PR office, so most folks know we're not going around digging up dirt or focusing on the negative stuff. But I still do my best to distance my reporting work from my opinions as a license A/G minister, who has the right to comment from the floor but chooses not to because of my role each time.)
This year's GC revealed that many ministers in our fellowship are unhappy about a number of things. This isn't a new revelation, but a mix of new technology and a greater willingness to speak openly has brought it to the forefront. I don't think any of the disgruntled or disillusioned folks walked away totally happy from Indianapolis. In fact, I know many of them left even more upset and maybe even ready to leave the A/G.
There is a growing sentiment among some of our younger pastors (generally meant by 45 years or younger) that they aren't represented well by our older leaders. As a sweeping generationalization, I'd agree. Most older ministers I know (let's say 60 or older) aren't exactly in touch with younger leaders...in much the same way that many of our younger pastors aren't exactly in touch with the needs of older leaders or older folks in their churches (if there even ARE any older folks in their churches).
Many younger ministers are seeking new ways of doing ministry, new freedoms in associating with other churches and leaders, new strategies and methods and paradigms for ministering to an increasingly non-Christian, un-Christian, post-Christian society. Many older ministers feel increasingly disconnected from a culture that bears little resemblance to what they knew growing up, and too many of them associate the younger leaders with the culture as a whole. Too many of our younger leaders associate the older generation with the stale, predictable, organ-and-choir-robes ministries of the past.
Some younger ministers believe an effective way to increase their voice and impact is to increase the number of younger ministers in key leadership roles. They believe that a greater diversity on a national level -- age, gender and ethnic diversity -- will result in a fellowship that is more open to new ideas and new leaders and new strategies.
Several attempts were made at this year's General Council to address some of these issues. One of the oddest moments came Friday when we failed to approve a plan that would add an extra 10 percent membership to our General Presbytery (GP), a key policy-making body. These extra members would have been women and ministers under 40. But then we turned around and added 2 slots to our Executive Presbytery (EP), basically our CEO/Board of Directors group, one for a female minister and one for a minister under 40.
Why the contradiction? It's really all a matter of politics. Both changes required a two-thirds vote of the body. The GP vote came first. After vigorous (though predictable) debate, a voice vote was taken. Clearly, a majority of delegates approved. But did two-thirds approve? A pastor challenged the vote from the floor, we used our electronic voting devices (one of the coolest things from this year, worthy of a later post) and it turned out "only" 62.8 percent of us approved. So the measure failed.
Later in the day we debated the EP proposal. More of our national leaders spoke in support, and this time, the measure was approved. Weird, perhaps. But the critics have missed the point: Yes, the GP plan failed. Yes, more national leaders should have spoken up.
But come on, guys! Four years ago in Washington, D.C., the delegates rejected a plan to add THREE women to the GP. It wasn't even a close vote! And this year we ALMOST added 30 women and younger ministers. Progress can be slow sometimes, but progress is happening.
An even better example: Zollie Smith, president of the Black Fellowship of the A/G, has been an executive presbyter since 2002. He stepped into that role after the fellowship created a spot specifically for representing our various ethnic fellowships (we have a separate spot just for our Hispanic fellowships). This week, Smith was elected our executive director of U.S. Missions -- one of the top 6 executive positions.
Oh, and in the voting for our assistant superintendent, the second place finisher is 45 years old (Doug Clay), and the third place finisher is a woman (Beth Grant).
That isn't progress?
Yes, I realize it isn't fast enough for some. There are times I'd like things to radically change overnight. But the Assemblies of God is a 93-year-old group that has become more like a denomination than just a fellowship of likeminded ministers and churches.
Yes, the GC rejected a plan to create "relational districts" that churches could join regardless of where in the U.S. they were located. I think the idea is intriguing but the bottom line is, if you approve a measure like this, you're basically setting the death watch for many geographic districts. Maybe that's not a bad thing! But let's approach it differently. Besides, this was the first time the idea was floated nationally. Try it again in 2009, or 2011.
Sure, some of our churches "can't wait" that long because of all the rules that forbid pastors from joining other organizations or creating affiliation networks or ignoring sectional and district activities (oh wait...we don't have rules like that). But some of these churches are ready to bail on the A/G anyway because of years of frustration or discontent, or because of theological disagreements. That is unfortunate, because we need to be open at a national level to examine and re-examine our theology. That's a sign of strength not weakness. Regardless, a relational district concept might not even retain some churches or ministers that are ready to leave.
Our fellowship is at a crucial place in its history. We just elected a general superintendent who's 65 years old -- but he has a law degree, graduated from a liberal arts college, pastored in Costa Mesa, California, was a district official in Southern California, and was the best chapel speaker I ever heard in 4 years at Evangel College. I believe George O. Wood is the right man for where we are today. Maybe a Doug Clay or a Beth Grant will emerge in 4 or 6 years to take a national role (Clay got elected to the EP, so he's already part of the way there).
Patience, love and understanding. That's what older AND younger ministers in our fellowship need right now. When everyone's shouting at the same time, no one's listening and no one's truly communicating.