Way, way (way, way, way) back when I was a member of Carlisle Presbytery I was part of a pastor’s group in the presbytery called “The Cleric.” We would get together every month, hear a book review and a paper by members of the group and then have dinner together. We took turns with the book review and the paper. This was in the 1980s. We had a blast. There was some theological diversity and we were able to talk about our differences and still accept one another. Besides that if you wanted to be in the power group in the presbytery you went to the group. A lot of presbytery business was done over dinner.
One time when it was my turn to present the paper I used family systems analysis to talk about the PCUSA. Back then the political situation was different. Or maybe not. In any case I suggested that the PCUSA was a dysfunctional family and that the Presbyterian Layman was the designated problem within the family.
One of the curious things about the designated problem in a family system is that he or she tends act in ways that fulfills the designation. The designated problem will act out, seeking attention and thereby reassure the other family members that the designation is correct. But the problem with designating one member of the family as the problem is that the family then does not have to look at the fundamental problems in the family system, the real cause of the dysfunction.
Back then (and let’s face it they haven’t changed) it was easy to designate the Layman as the problem. While providing information that it is difficult to get elsewhere without hard work the Layman put a spin on the information that always suggested that the PCUSA was terrible and going down the tubes.
It is my observation today that the Layman is no longer the designated problem in the PCUSA. Or Layman is no longer the sole designated problem. We now point fingers in all directions accusing others of being “the problem” in the PCUSA. Who are the designated problems in the PCUSA today? The GA office and those who work there. The Washington office. The Stated Clerk. Those homosexuals. Feminists. People who say that there are others ways to salvation besides Jesus. The Layman (they haven’t lost their status), Evangelicals, those in the middle, etc. etc ad infinitum.
Curiously most of these groups also see themselves as powerless in the PCUSA. We have an ongoing problem with groups seeing themselves as THE victims in the PCUSA.
This does not mean that there are no victims in the PCUSA. There are. But so many groups are seen as the problem and see themselves as victims that it is terribly difficult to have conversation about anything. Some seem to think, (those on the right) if those on the left would just leave the denomination everything would be fine. That would mean that homosexuals, those who have, let’s call it a more “open” theology, Socialists, (or at least those the right thinks are socialists) Feminists . . . well the list is long. Others seem to think that if those on the right would go ahead and leave (as they regularly threaten to do) things would be great. Or course they have to leave their property.
I’m not entirely sure if having more than one designated problem is better or worse. Nevertheless family systems therapists regularly point to the way the people in the system communicate and the way the system works as the real problem, not the designated problem person (people).
I have seen family systems theory work to help a congregation get beyond their problems or get “unstuck.” But I don’t know how to do it for a whole denomination particularly when you can’t get all the people into one room to talk about it. Nevertheless I suggest that our problems are not primarily the ones that we bring to the fore. It isn’t that those issues are not important. It’s just that how we deal with the issues is more important if we are going to have a family that functions well together.
Although they did not use the specific language this was one of the messages from the PUP Task Force back in 2006. Presbyterians weren’t listening to each other. I’m not sure their other solutions were as helpful but their recommendation that those who disagreed should sit down and talk for a couple years in small groups was a good one. And Presbyterians still aren’t listening to each other. Winning is more important than being one if Christ. To be honest we can’t even define what it means to be one in Christ!
So as we go back into another GA season all the groups (many of whom see themselves as victims and others as the problem) we get ready again for the great battles. But no matter who wins the battles the denomination will lose unless we find a better way to be the PCUSA family.
Of course if everyone thought like me everything would be fine.