This is the first of eight posts discussing Dr. William J. “Beau” Weston’s book Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church, published in 2003. Weston is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. (He also has a great blog called The Gruntled Center.) I have informed Beau that we will be discussing his book and he may check in from time to time as his busy schedule permits.
A few weeks ago, I reread Weston’s book Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House (1997), about the dynamics of the controversies at work in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in the 1920s. Leading from the Center clearly builds on Presbyterian Pluralism and applies lessons learned to our present context. The forward is written by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. He clearly sees a connection between Weston’s analysis and the issues faced by the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force formed just months before the book was published. The PUP Task Force’s recommendations seem to have drawn much from Weston’s analysis. Since the PUP Task Force report will be presented to the General Assembly in about six weeks I thought it might be interesting to have a discussion about the book.
The book has three parts. The first three chapters make up the first part and answer the question “How did we get here?” Chapters four and five make up the second part and answer the question “Where are we now?” The last two chapters answer the question “Where can we go?” I will begin with the introduction today and cover each of the next three chapters over the remainder of the week. Next week we will complete the last four chapters.
Weston gives us his basic thesis in the introduction. He believes that a “competitive constitutional church” is the most desirable way to address the controversies we face. He writes:
The short version is that the best way to contain the deep disagreements that are endemic in the church is to let the opposing extreme parties compete for the central majority. The best way to direct the competition is if all parties adhere to the church’s constitution, both the procedural parts and the substantive parts. (1)
Weston believes that if we were to place folks in the denomination on a continuum we would find find vocal and motivated advocates at the extremes. A commonly held view is that there is a battle by between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and orthodox, to win over wishy-washy moderates. The left tends to identify itself by its ecumenical connections and the right by its doctrinal purity. The left tends to advocate dialog and the right tends to advocate decisive political conflict.
Weston challenges the notion of left and right fighting for a wishy-washy middle. Instead, he sees loyalists (as opposed to wishy-washy moderates) occupying the middle ground. There are at least three parties in competition. Loyalists are motivated by an agenda to preserve and care for the institution. He writes that they tend to value peace, unity, and purity, in that order. (3) The left and right tend to force either/or decisions and the loyalist are deeply resistant to such dichotomies.
Weston points out that the PCUSA is a constitutional church and he gives a brief history of how that has emerged. He points out that in recent decades there has been a discernible slide toward congregationalism. So much so that few in our churches have any knowledge about denominational structures and the issues they face. Most congregations tend to be more homogeneous in their make-up and it is mystifying to many members why there should be so much division at higher levels. Yet as Weston rightly observes the denomination is not homogeneous and such unity from homogeneity should not be expected at the denominational level. The competitive constitutional church gives us a constructive way to function as a denomination with left and right competing for loyalist hearts and minds, all within an environment that is respectful of constitutional provisions.
I like Beau’s basic typology and it rings true to my experience in the church and other large organizations I have served in over the years. As with any typology, it over simplifies when we try to bring it to an analysis of specific individuals. Yet when we look at the organization in the aggregate I think it describes the dynamics quite well.
What did you think of the Introduction?