Susan Wise Bauer in her review John Stackhouse's new book Finally Feminist critiques the relevant use of the "slippery slope" argument by the church. As I read the review, it occurred to me that the "slippery slope" metaphor can be applied to all kinds of norms and structures in the church, and done so inappropriately.
The argument is simply that one decision necessarily leads to another and then to another. In this instance the inclusion of women to the ranks of ordained leadership in the church necessarily leads to the same for homosexuals. Bauer's review critiques this specific argument.
On a broader scale, though, I think we could possibly apply this method of critique to leadership norms and structures in the church.
Often when I meet Presbyterian pastors and elders I get two reactions to the description of my conversational planning methodology. First is that the church isn't a business, and second, the church isn't a democracy, that we are a REPRESENTATIVE democracy. Both are red herrings intended to end discussion, not illuminate the social functioning of the church.
There is a tacit assumption in the church that our structure of leadership is spiritual on the level of being handed down from on high like the Ten Commandments. Having observed many church Sessions over the years, I think it is more accurate to say that the Presbyterian Church system of governance is a human attempt to make sense of biblical norms in the organizational context of the Body of Christ.
It never occurred to me to think this way until I began to get criticism for engaging congregations in conversation as a part of a long range planning process. The typical argument is that we are not a democracy, and the Session are the biblical leaders of the church. Not really much of an argument, but rather assertions that are based on social norms currently operating in the life of the church.
So, is there a slippery slope when you ask the congregation what they think their church should be like in five years?
Are we descending into the chaos of individual preferences determining the future of the church? No. That is already happening. We have already become a culture of religious commodities. The historical structure and functioning of most church Session's have been unable to stop the spread of consumerist individualism. The fallacy that we've been operating on is that church leaders lead by policy and business acumen. The problem is a misunderstanding of leadership and why some businesses succeed and other don't.
Leaders don't lead by policy making, but by influence. Influence is a relational function not a governance one.
The governance role of the Session is integral to the effective functioning of the organization of the church. But the leadership role requires them to lead by influence and relationship, and when the Session goes to the congregation and asks "What do you think?" then it opens up the relationship to horizons previously closed. At that point the Session is inviting the congregation to a new level of participation and ownership of the mission and performance of the church.
The Session's responsibility as leadership influencers is to listen and to respond by saying, "We heard you, so here is what we are going to do."
What this requires from the Session is humility. The humility to recognize that God speaks through people ... "when two or more are gathered" ... and part of the Session's role is to listen and interpret what God is saying. Typically, we've only seen this as listening and interpreting Scripture, not the Holy Spirit speaking through the Body of Christ. Just so that I'm clear about what I saying here.
Each dimension is essential for creating the level of Impact needed for the church to fulfilling its calling as the Body of Christ in a particular place for a specific time.
The balance of the three works this way. The priority is on Relationships built around a common set of values with a shared vision of the future. Those values and that vision is derived from a conversation about Ideas that come from Scripture and the history and traditions of the church. It comes from a sense of call, which is a conceptualization of an idea about what God expects of the church. The Organizational Structure therefore exists primarily to serve the Relationships within the church focused on its mission or call to service.
What has tended to happen in the church is that Session focus almost entirely on Structure. If there is any theological reflection, it is by the pastor conducting a devotional at the beginning of a meeting. The Relationship between the Session and the congregation therefore exists primarily through an organizational reporting function that takes place a few times a year or through a report in a monthly newsletter.
What I have found is that the place to begin to change is simply start a conversation that enables members to talk to the Session in a manner that provides an easy way for the Session to respond. Once that has begun, many other things can be done to foster a deeper relational leadership function in the life of the church.