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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Transformative Power of Collaboration
September 18, 2014

In introducing Presbyterianism to new members or to external inquirers, many of us have used the “Three C’s” formula – Presbyterianism is Confessional, Constitutional, and Connectional. These three C’s answer, in turn, three questions: (1) How do we articulate what we believe? (2) How do we order our life together? (3) How do we engage Christ’s mission?

While those three categories are still appropriate descriptors for Presbyterianism, I would like to offer a new “Three C’s” statement that gets closer to the heart of our identity: Presbyterians are a Collaborative Covenant Community committed to carrying out the mission of Jesus Christ. While the earlier “Three C’s” statement is accurately descriptive of our church, the second discloses what we aspire to be as a church, so it is more prescriptive. It is a good prescription for life at the congregational level, but it is especially salient for us at the inter-congregational level. It can offer us a compelling framework for the life of the presbytery. In today’s post I cover the first of these three C’s – Collaboration.

If the church is a Body comprising diverse members working together to accomplish the purposes of its Head (see especially I Corinthians 12 and Colossians 1), its members live up to their calling by collaborating together rather than competing with each other. A presbytery is far more than a collection of stand-alone franchises that more or less faithfully represent the denominational “brand” in their various neighborhoods, like Starbucks or Rotary or LA Fitness. Rather, it is worshiping communities and their leaders working collaboratively to understand and engage the mission of Jesus Christ most fruitfully in their particular context.

In his new book The Innovators, which traces out the beginnings of the Digital Revolution, the Aspen Institute’s Walter Isaacson (who has penned acclaimed biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, and Steve Jobs) traces out how the major breakthroughs of the digital age have come through collaboration rather than through discoveries of individual innovators. Collaboration has proven critical for opening up pathways for realizing the vast possibilities in a highly connectional world. Beginning with the emergence of the modern computer, inventors and artists working together have created far more technological transformation than have the efforts of isolated innovators.

In the earlier industrial world, individual inventors led the way – think Fulton, Bell, Edison, etc. Similarly, in the church world earlier generations were led by star theologians and church leaders to whom wide swaths of the church looked for inspiration and direction – Karl Barth, Billy Graham, Eugene Carson Blake, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa, to name just a few. But with the rapidly changing landscape of our world, embedded as it is in thick social, economic, and technological webs, it is becoming clear that collaboratives of congregations and church leaders form the matrix in which Christ’s mission most fully thrives and flourishes.

Over the past forty years, individual super-congregations (mega-churches) seem to have been on the leading edge of church development in North America. Yet their missional impact may turn out to be more occasional and local than broadly and enduringly transformative. Far more potential lies in the power of networks of churches (such as presbyteries) to discern and carry out collaboratively Christ’s mission in the world.

It is tempting in our digital age to imagine that such collaboration can be fully effective when done virtually – but Isaacson observes otherwise. Greatest digital innovations have come from people gathered in the flesh; as he puts it, “Googleplex beats Google Hangouts.” He points to the highly-publicized insistence in 2013 of new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer that Yahoo employees quit telecommuting from home, since her research suggested that face to face contact was far more likely to produce high performance and innovation.

Some have proposed that congregations and church leaders can work together effectively in mission through distance collaboration using electronic communications. Isaacson’s research indicates otherwise, even in the digital age. Christian theology has long held that it is in tangibly sharing the broken bread and poured cup that we are united to Christ and thereby to one another, made into one body to carry forward the mission of our Lord.

Until fairly recently, presbyteries were understood primarily as regulative groupings, where the behavior and mission of constituents were directed and monitored by central offices. Over the past twenty years many presbyteries have “flipped” their self-understanding such that presbytery staff provides resources, rather than regulation, to the various congregations and ministers in their care. In Pittsburgh we have moved on further to a next step, where presbytery staffers are no longer primarily central resources to our various mission outposts, but generators of collaborative networks between congregations and between church leaders. We are all about gathering our constituents, spending face time together in various configurations, so our congregations and their leaders can encourage and equip one another to extend the mission of Jesus Christ more fruitfully than they could ever do separately. Our imagination and motivation for transformative Gospel ministry are far stronger when we work collaboratively than when we work separately.

Your co-laborer,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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