Church in the Middle

Adventures of a mid council leader striving to network, enable, and encourage

Amaury Tanon-SantosTrade in your church consultant for an archaeologist
Amid changes, congregations and their mid councils should be digging to discover, not uproot.

 by Amaury Tañón-Santos

It’s been little more than a year since I was called to serve the church in mid-council ministry. And it’s been quite the experience, not in short measure because I’m serving as what many consider to be a dying breed—synod staff.

For those of you who don’t know, congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are organized into 171 presbyteries (district governing bodies) and 16 synods (regional governing bodies). And these mid councils are undergoing a great deal of change.

Many dismay that synods continue to exist at all in the PC(USA). And I’ll be the first one to acknowledge that for those who doing direct ministry—elders, deacons, and many non-ordained leaders—any awareness of mid-council life is typically relegated to presbyteries, with little or no interactions with synods. And this makes perfect sense. Church leaders are scrambling in many cases just to keep the doors open. They are under the influence of a deep anxiety brought by the quick-paced change of US culture, the pervasive lie of (financial) scarcity, and the perception that our faith community is losing members. And when you’re afraid, you tend not to stick your head out and work with others, especially in remote denominational offices.

For far too long, the response to this anxiety has generally been to “expert-up” on any and all issues. So-called experts have plagued many of our councils in not-so-cheap consulting experiences. These consultants rail against the inefficacies of the “current” structure, neatly contrasting it with their expertly devised solution to all the missional, financial, and structural qualms of a council. The narrative almost always calls for “outside-the-box” thinking and employs language of reorganizing and newness. Implementation of the expertly advised model goes into high gear, only to discover that—more often than not—the proposed model may not have considered important contextual realities, or at worst was a canned proposal dressed in contextual nuancing.

That “new model” often calls on leaders to unearth and discard the ways a community has—perhaps imperfectly—engaged for many years. This uprooting is done in order to replace the “old way” with the expert model. There is violence, however, in digging to uproot a structure of (ecclesial) engagement. The roots—the history, the culture, and the biblical understanding—that nourished that old model are torn up in the process.

There is a time, as Jeremiah’s own vocation makes clear, to uproot and to plant. But we should be careful to see that God is the one doing the uprooting, not our pet theories or, worse, egos.

A year and a quarter into my ministry as a mid-council staff person, I’m convinced that the calling of presbyteries and synods is not to dig and uproot, but to carefully reveal. We are called to be archaeologists.

Now, I’m no archeologist. But I am a historian by training, so I do know a few things about the noble craft of unearthing artifacts, structures, and living remains in order to discover experiences of peoples, places, and their environment. Archaeologists dig not to displace, but to discover. They are led by curiosity to figure out who is (or was) a part of a community and why.

The church needs from its leaders a high-level commitment to curiosity. Mid-council leaders are uniquely positioned to facilitate spaces where the stories of hope, innovation, struggle, and faith can be shared. By working together, we can uncover the names and faces of the story of the church and reveal the value of why these persons—now not anonymous—are committed to the gospel and the community it calls forth.

When I was invited to join the ministry of the Synod of the Northeast I was commissioned to be the gatherer, listener, networker, and storyteller of the synod. And the resource I received to do that was . . . a toothbrush. At first, it seemed like a joke, and not a very funny one at that. “I am called to dig out people and stories throughout this synod with a TOOTHBRUSH!” I thought. But what I have discovered in my time as staff leader in a synod community, and in the parish, is that the toothbrush is not to dig, but to gently and intentionally brush out the dirt of struggle and difficulty in order to uncover the experiences of people and places that testify to the love of God.

I am called to be an archaeologist. I invite my fellow mid-council leaders to leave behind the temptation to use a digger, and instead to pick up a toothbrush. Heed the call to become gospel archaeologists. And I encourage the church to require of its leaders genuine and curious intentionality to gather the faithful and uncover those real stories of people with names and faces that are transforming witnesses.

Amaury Tañón-Santos is the synod networker for the Synod of the Northeast. His ministry is to connect and network people, congregations, and presbyteries with common passions in ministry—commonalities they wouldn’t otherwise know about due to the regional and demographic diversity of the synod. A teaching elder and member of Elizabeth Presbytery, Amaury is also the parish associate of Nuevas Fronteras Presbyterian Church, a congregation that serves the Latino/a community of the greater Plainfield, New Jersey, area.