Federal Governance And Its Discontents

This is sort of random, but I find it fascinating so please bear with me:

Whenever power is split between one central and several regional authorities, we are talking about a federal system of governance. The most obvious American example is the federal government (Washington, D.C.) versus the state governments.

In a federal system of governance there is a built-in tendency towards tension between the central authority and the regional authorities.

Each side is trying to do the best they can from their perpective, yet each side keeps making decisions that don’t make sense from the other side’s perspective. This results in a lack of confidence in the other side. Most regional authorities probably have a 85–95% confidence factor in the national leadership (which is reciprocated by the national authority). This distrust centers on two areas: competence and character.

  • incomplete trust in competence: I believe that you mean well, but that you lack the necessary attention to detail/big picture perspective/fundraising knack/writing ability/knowledge of the issues/etc.
  • incomplete trust in character: I don’t think that you’re evil, but I do think that you’re operating with a different set of values than I am. You define honesty differently than I do, or you have a personal as well as an organizational agenda, or you lack the courage to disappoint people, etc.

I’m not talking about a complete lack of confidence, mind you. I’m merely talking about a lack of complete confidence. A complete lack of confidence calls for drastic action. A lack of complete confidence calls for mid-course adjustments.

Some specific examples of a lack of complete confidence:

  • “Will this really happen or is it just a big todo about nothing?” (character)
  • “This is what they say here and now, what will the emails say in three months?” (character)
  • “This is what they want to do, but can they really pull it off?” (competence)
  • “Are they willing to actually enforce this policy or it really going to be the same-old same-old?” (competence and character)

The Assemblies of God tends to use a federal system of governance:

  • Springfield, MO versus District Officials
  • District Officials versus Sectional Presbyters
  • the national youth department versus the district youth departments
  • Chi Alpha (see my notes on a Chi Alpha leadership team meeting)

Since we have a federal system of governance we shouldn’t be surprised when the same tensions emerge in our movement that we see in other federal organizations. But we are surprised. Not only are we surprised, we tend to diagnose it as a spiritual problem such as disunity, a failure to submit to authority, an example of unethical leadership, or the politicization of a spiritual organization.

While a spiritual problem may be present and exacerbating the situation, it’s not the causal factor. The tendency towards tension is produced by the structure itself.

Is the federal system a bad system of governance? No. It just provides us with challenges that we need to overcome: other systems provide other challenges and there is no panacea.

So what should we do if we realize that a lack of confidence is hindering our effectiveness?

A few things occur to me:

  1. Remember that this is a natural problem, not an intrinsically spiritual one.
  2. Remember that this is not evidence of a failing organization or failing leadership. This will recur over time regardless of the organization’s health or the leadership’s competence (although the frequency and duration of the cycles of mistrust will tell you something significant about the organization and its leaders).
  3. Realize that you would probably agree with the other side if you had their responsibilities and resources. You’ve seen it a million times: someone who previously agreed with you changed positions and all of a sudden became unreasonable. You would do the same thing.
  4. Be reluctant to criticize where you are not willing to help. I say “be reluctant” rather than “refuse” because sometimes you’re asked for feedback–giving it honestly is a matter of integrity.
  5. Be frank about the tensions and their reasons. Forthrightness is the long-term key to health. Pretending that they aren’t there exacerbates the tension.
  6. Focus on the issues and not the personalities (and most assuredly not on the history).
  7. Pray.

Seven Things I Love About Chi Alpha Nationally

I was thinking in the shower about how wonderful Chi Alpha is.

Here are seven specific things I love about our movement:

  1. We have a great culture in Chi Alpha. Almost all the big buzzwords in leadership (mentoring, learning organization, authenticity, being missional, etc) have been core parts of our DNA for decades.
  2. Most of the best people I know are Chi Alpha leaders. Read that again if it’s confusing.
  3. Chi Alpha offers great training. Whether it’s in the area of leading a small group or support-raising, the training is top-notch and useful.
  4. Chi Alpha consistently offers life-transforming regional and national conferences (with some of the best worship to be found anywhere, I might add).
  5. Chi Alpha is part of the Assemblies of God, and the Assemblies of God rocks in ways I cannot even begin to describe here. Someday I’ll have to make another list of seven things about them.
  6. Chi Alpha is very entrepeneurial. I have almost complete autonomy within my sphere of responsibility (the campus I am assigned to). I can pretty much do whatever I want, and yet I know that if I need help or coaching it’s just a phone call away.
  7. Chi Alpha is very missional, both in what we do on campus and in what we seek to do beyond it. We teach our students to be effective for Christ in a non-Christian environement and we do it so well that they have become the recruits of choice for some of our sharpest missionaries around the globe. Which is why Assemblies of God World Missions sank over a million dollars into The World Missions Summit earlier this year–and which is why they got over 700 recruits in return.

Chi Alpha’s Advisory Leadership Team

I just spent 16 hours traveling in order to spend 18 hours in Springfield, MO.

First, an apology to all my Springfield friends, but I literally had zero free minutes the entire time that I was there (I am now at an age where I view sleep as non-optional). I’ll try to carve out a more flexible schedule on future trips.

Which leads me to the point of this post: I’m on Chi Alpha’s newly formed Advisory Leadership Team (ALT). I would have preferred to be in the CTRL or DEL group, but ALT is where they stuck me. 😉

This group is comprised of three local Chi Alpha leaders (presently me, Dick Herman and Mark Briley) along with the resident national Chi Alpha staff and meets every two months to advise the national director on strategic decisions and policy issues.

This is my own quirky and highly subjective take on things.

Things I Learned:

  • Scott Martin had to fight to keep the World Missions Summit from opening with a human video (and one involving swords, at that). We all owe him a tremendous debt.
  • The biggest Chi Alpha ministries are:
    • 600 students at San Diego State University with Sue Hegle.
    • 430 at Western Washington University with Brady Bobbink.
    • 275 at the University of Central Arkansas with Matt Carpenter.
    • ??? at University of Louisiana-Lafayette with Eric Treuil (his numbers aren’t on file, but I estimate his ministry probably fits here on the list).
    • 190 at Florida State University with Mario Solari.
    • 175 at the University of Minnesota-Duluth with Chuck Haavik.
    • 175 at Tennessee Tech University with Jonathan Scales.
    • 160 at Murray State with Mark Randoll.
    • 150 at Missouri State University with Noble Bowman.
  • Most Chi Alpha groups meet on Thursday or Tuesday at 7pm.
  • Only 19% of Chi Alpha students have an Assemblies of God background.
  • Chi Alpha at Yale University saw 40 students get saved last year. Big props to Andy Cunningham.

Things We Discussed There Which I Am Also Free To Discuss Here:

  • Filling out the annual Chi Alpha census needs to be part of the annual affiliation process. Not filling it out (and not affiliating) will be grounds for having your paycheck withheld, just as with our monthly financial reports. Also, this needs to be doable online.
  • We spent a lot of time talking about Chi Alpha’s decision-making process and organizational structure. There’s a lot of that I can’t comment on yet because our National Director is going to be talking to many people one on one to explain things to them. Here are things I think I can safely say:
    • Chi Alpha doesn’t exist in a vacuum: we’re embedded in the Assemblies of God and are absolutely governed by its constitution, bylaws, and policy manuals. The most important takeaway from that is that the National Director is pretty much the pope of Chi Alpha when it comes to national decisions (as opposed to district and local decisions).
    • In addition it is helpful to realize that there are four tiers (for lack of a better word) of leadership within Chi Alpha.
      • The National Director
      • National Staff
      • Translocal Influencers (Area Directors, CMIT Directors, DXARs, national Resource Personnel, etc). This is the most confusing, because most of the groups at this level are entangled (almost everyone who serves in one of these roles also serves in at least one other translocal capacity) and there’s not really a hierarcy among them (for example, CMIT directors are subordinate to DXARs in certain respects but not others and CMIT directors are more influential within Chi Alpha than DXARs). Realizing that they are all in roughly the same tier of leadership (which they express in very different domains) is helpful when trying to figure out how this beast called Chi Alpha actually works.
      • Local Staff
    • Functionally, each level has autonomy within their assigned level of responsibility (for example, no one can tell a local staffer what to preach on any given week). Micromanaging is the root of all kinds of evil.
    • We really need to define for each group exactly what decisions they are empowered to make without fear of their decisions being meddled with. We also need to clarify who reports to whom. This has to be in a public written document that everyone can look at.
    • The real challenge that we face is trust. My own take on it: many of the tier 3 leadership lack confidence in tiers 1 and 2. Some lack trust in the competence of the top tier leadership and others lack trust in the character of the top tier leadership (update: I do not mean that they lack trust completely; rather, I mean that they lack complete trust–a nontrivial difference). Most Tier 4 leaders seem unaware of this dynamic–they tend to hold the Tier 3, 2, and 1 leadership in a certain amount of awe and imagine that they’re all best friends. Many of them are good friends, and almost all like one another and are committed to working together effectively. But there’s still a breakdown in trust between the national leaders and the rest. (update: I wrote an article explaining that this is a tendency intrinsic to federal governance)
  • We need a national representative to serve our student-led groups. We’ve invited Dave Short to fill this position (contingent on his district’s approval).
  • The probable (but by no means certain) evolution of the ALT will inlcude all the Area Directors along with a non-DXAR non-CMIT Director rep from their region. Sort of like the General Presbytery of the Assemblies of God.

Anyway, I put all this online for two reasons:

  1. As a local campus representative I feel an obligation to let the people I’m representing know what’s going on. As long as it’s not confidential I’ll talk about it freely. If it is confidential I’ll tell you as much as I can.
  2. To ask for feedback. You can either comment on this post or email me directly. I’ll be sure to post the agenda for the next meeting once I get it so you can give me input on that heading into it.

Actual Details On The Giant Black Box Called Springfield

Rich Tatum posted a fascinating article on the recent Assemblies of God restructuring process. These are the kind of details I’d like to get from headquarters instead of the usual rah-rah stuff I get in the ministers’ letter or Enrichment Journal.

Overwhelming Generosity

Paula and I loved our first microwave. It had this awesome dial that did everything. You didn’t need to punch a number–you just turned the dial and magic happened.

One sad day our microwave died. Food stopped warming yet the microwave kept churning, leading us to surmise that radiation was seeping into our chromosomes.

So we got a replacement microwave from a friend. It was great, but the light didn’t work and the food didn’t rotate. And we often suspected that radiation was still seeping into our chromosomes (but only half of them owing to the lack of rotation).

And that’s just one reason we’re so grateful for last night: many of the Assemblies of God churches in the South Bay threw a Christmas party to celebrate AG US Missionaries. We and the Harlows were the recipients of outrageous generosity. Dana got books, stuffed animals, a play tea set, a stroller, some garb, and an enormous ladybug pillow (with matching sheets and cover).

And we got a fully functional microwave. No more radiation-steeped DNA, no more inexplicable tans, just hot tasty food on demand.

And the icing on the cake? Not too long ago an alumnus of our ministry gave me a PSP (a completely unexpected and much appreciated gift).

We are blessed beyond measure. Say what you will about the hierarchy of the Assemblies of God, the tremendous generosity of our laypeople is unmatched.

Pastor, Is Your Church Too Small?

He even looks a little like a pastor...Adam Long recently emailed this to me and some other friends and with his permission I post it here for the world to enjoy.

A disclaimer: I don’t know anything about Nelson Searcy. He’s probably a great guy who has very helpful insights. The commentary below isn’t about him or his ministry–it’s about his marketing. In fact, it’s about the way most ministry training is marketed. And it’s pretty funny.

I have a long running problem with the conflation of capitalist marketing and church life. Yes, yes, I believe in redeeming the culture. No, no, I’m not a Marxist. But I think that we may be heading down a dangerous road. And we need to think things through before diving in.

So here’s my problem. I think there’s too much similarity between marketing for “church growth” services and male enhancement products.

Please don’t dismiss this. I’m not trying to be unnecessarily provocative. I don’t completely buy Freud, but so much church growth material seems to tap a certain form of envy that strikes many males.

Just take a look at the following quotes from the attached piece, “WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING ABOUT A COACHING COMMUNITY WITH NELSON SEARCY.”

  • Assimilation has been huge!!!
  • I was slumping in my personal growth
  • This would have saved me several years of frustration
  • You don’t have to be alone, do it alone
  • Coaching Community gave me more confidence, competency
  • Do it! It is worth exponentially more than the fees!
  • Don’t miss this opportunity to grow yourself

I’ve heard people compare TBN to the Home Shopping Network. It’s so easy to make fun of others as long as their religious style differs from ours. But what happens when “our” groups sound like Enzyte comercials? Seriously? What do we do?

The uber-witty Anthony Scoma replied:

That is hilarious, but you missed the best line, My being challenged as a leader has raised “the bar” for leaders in our church.

Good News/Bad News

When I’m not out preaching, our family attends Pathway Church in Palo Alto. Pathway is an 8‑month old church plant. Good things are happening there–a Mormon lady converted last week, for instance.

But anyone who’s ever started a ministry from scratch knows that some days are just painful to be a part of. Things go wrong that you would never imagine could go wrong.

This was one such day.

  • Good News: guest shows up based entirely on our internet ads.
    Bad News: while chatting with the pastor before the service she is struck solidly in the neck by a frisbee and has to go home, take some medicine, and lie down.
  • Good News: I brought five students from Stanford to check out the church.
    Bad News: every single one of our regulars who wasn’t helping missed church today. Every. Single. One. During worship it was me and the students in the congregation.
  • Good News: the songs were really cool songs.
    Bad News: two of the microphones stopped working between the sound check and the start of service and somehow the keyboard became possessed by a demon. At least, that’s my best guess. It sure moaned as though possessed.
  • Good News: Scott’s sermon was thoughtful and well-presented.
    Bad News: the translation that was shown on the screen was different from the translation Scott was reading despite being purportedly the same (further investigation reveals there are two editions of the New Living Translation–our pew Bibles are the first and our computer Bible is the second–who knew?). The effect was disconcerting and distracted from an otherwise excellent message.

I’m not one to hyperspiritualize things, but I see a correlation between the success our church has been enjoying lately and all the “nobody’s fault” glitches that popped up today. The Bible teaches us that we have an enemy, and sometimes he leaves scat behind.

This is clearly going to be one of those services we spend a lot of time laughing about in a few years… especially the frisbee in the neck bit. How random is that?

Lay Leadership Summit

Every year our district sponsors an event called The Lay Leadership Summit. It’s a big conference designed to help church volunteers do their jobs better. There are about 50 learning tracks (each with four workshops) ranging from children’s ministry to using the internet effectively to using lighting and sound systems. We, of course, sponsor a college ministry track.

I mention all this by way of introduction to mention two people I interacted with this weekend: Dan Betzer and John Abela.

Dan Betzer is a legend in the Assemblies of God–he’s an incredible speaker, a missions fanatic, and an extremely successful pastor. He’s also a bit of a hero of mine (his wife, incidentally, blogs).

Anyway, I learned two things about him this weekend:
1) he once lost his ministerial credentials for seven years for flouting the hierarchy’s rules
2) he’s such an introvert that he keeps his office at 60 degrees so that people feel too chilly to hang around and chit-chat

For the record, he and I have never had a conversation. I gleaned one tidbit from his sermon and another from a friend of his.

The second person I met was John Abela. John is a former core member of the phpBB2 team and runs the most popular conglomeration of Assemblies of God websites in the world. I am told that his total bandwidth exceeds that of all the national Assembly of God websites in every nation combined.

That tickles me. Many of our leaders attempt to lead by limiting information and don’t seem to realize that’s no longer possible. John has effectively done an end run on a ton of stupid rules in the Assemblies of God and because he’s a layperson no one can stop him–he’s got no credentials for them to revoke. I love it.

He mentioned that he gets a phone call from some AG official or another about once a week asking him to stop doing what he’s doing. Even allowing for conversational hyperbole, that sounds about right. He’s making people nervous enough that we’ve even had resolutions at General Council prompted by one of his sites.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I think John’s a cool guy and that he’s making our movement better by using the web to help people. Kudos to him.