November 15, 2011

 “We’re Scrappers!” I proclaimed at a recent seminar on writing.

I looked up and saw the confused look on a woman’s face. “Are you talking about people who put together scrapbooks?”

“Um… no,” I said. After scanning the room, I noticed it was full of perplexed faces. So I began to explain.

I didn't say this exactly, but I was thinking of the woman who was denied a miracle by Jesus. Jesus called her a dog, but she didn't go away. Instead, she reminded Jesus that even the dogs get scraps.

I like that woman--the Scrapper's prototype.

A Scrapper is pragmatic. We are people who have learned to work outside of institutional structures in order to get stuff done. It doesn’t always mean that we’re anti-institutional. It just means that after facing years of rejected articles and diminishing job opportunities, we’ve learned to build our own unsteady platforms and live out our creative callings.

When we can’t get published, we start blogs. When we don’t get invited to speak for large audiences, we fire up a Twitter feed. When we’re not allowed to use amplification, we call on the people’s mic. When we we’re not invited on radio shows, we start podcasts. When we cannot find pastorates, we plant churches. When we get tired of the same people at conferences, we stake out our own venues. When the media does not cover our concerns, we find ways to get the word out. We are usually under the age of fifty (aka, Gen X and Millennials), but not exclusively.

We’re Scrappers. We’ve learned to survive this way. The question is… how will we thrive?

It’s hard to be a Scrapper sometimes, because we don’t usually make a lot of money for the work we do and (as I said earlier) we’ve often been rejected by the established structures. We didn’t cry or whine over that fact (at least not too much). Instead, we DIYed it. We worked really, really hard and created something else.

But then there’s the question…after we've constructed it, what do we do when the establishment comes back to us, looking to support us?

How does this happen? Often it’s in exciting and enterprising ways—like when denominational structures support new communities, or publishers look to web networks for fresh voices.

These should be beautiful, fruitful relationships. Right?

Well, many times they are. But sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes, we Scrappers have to swallow our pride in order to start working with the institution that turned us away. Often, Scrappers develop autonomy and a certain voice that we fear we'll lose if we move into partnership with an established organization. We worry that the institutions will steal our ideas and they'll have the money and power to pull them off—without us. (This is exciting when it happens the first few times. But after a while it can be annoying, especially if you’re a person without stable employment. Then you begin to feel co-opted.)

What’s an example of this concern? Think of the Occupy movement. They're worried over the fact that our current systems are increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. They want something different than the system that we have now. Some fear that if they begin to take money and support from particular PACs, then their message will be diluted and co-opted, they’ll become an arm of the Democratic Party, and therefore strengthen the current system, rather than challenging it.

There are purists in all of this--people who reject the establishment altogether. But I guess I’m too pragmatic for that. I’m a loyal radical. I'm creating innovative projects while working with and in institutions. I'm trying to learn from the wisdom and traditions of earlier generations, so I don't act like Christopher Columbus, thinking I "discovered" lands that have been inhabited for generations.

There are a lot of us out here.

And so, I’m wondering, how can we make this work? Established structures need Scrappers. Boomers may never retire, but they’re not immortal. If organizations don’t look past Boomers and welcome innovation, they may not be around for very much longer.

Many Scrappers need existing structures. Generation X is getting old. And we’re exhausted. We’ve been working hard, but many of us are just not sure how to ever get to the premium level of our freemium systems. Plus, we need to pay our underwater mortgages.

Not only that, many of us have a calling. We want our movements to have a lasting effect beyond our individual bluster, and we know that may not happen without some creative/substantial partnerships.

So tell me, what are your ideas in making this collaboration happen? Do you think it ought to happen?



you're right, we're getting old and tired!

I think I've been a scrapper longer than I realize, aspiring to start a 'zine before they made it on the 'net.  Later in life I was always finding myself disgruntled with pre-fashioned Christian education curricula designed for churches with loads of kids and discovering I'd rather write my own.  Not because I wanted to but because I was not finding what I wanted out there.  I'm tired of having to do that kind of thing, but learned so much more doing it myself.

I don't know if anyone wants the things I have scrapped together/cobbled together, but if someone wanted all that stuff then perhaps they could find it more fitting for their own context. Most of the churches are struggling to find what is a good fit, as they decrease in size and what used to work for us no longer works.  After having my work co-opted enough, I suppose the choice is whether to start putting a copyright on something, and whether to continue to reinvent myself in response to being coopted.  

I think it's kind of interesting to see what people think of my work and what part they think is valuable or not valuable, so letting them coopt it is kind of like another step in the creative process, I think.  Maybe I will feel differently once someone starts to coopt me!

Don't get rid of any of it!

Don't get rid of any of it! Really... all of the curricula can/will be of use. The church needs it! There are so many things you can do with it. One day, when you're not as tired, you'll know what you need to do.

What an affirmation

Your essay is so refreshing and affirming.  There might still be hope for some kind of church in the future, and even Christianity, if there are more ministers/lay persons like you in it.  Traditional, institutional church/religion is dying of so many things.  Materialism.  Greed.  Bluring the line between it and politics until now there is no line.  Indifference to people in need.  Crude self-righteousness.  Raging hypocrisy.  All of this and more is killing the church and making it completely irrelevant.  Give me the scrappers.  The innovators.  The risk takers.  People like you, Carol Howard Merrit, who see that if whatever this faith of ours is and whether it will survive depends on some very different thinking, believing, and ministering.

Signing In

I forgot to sign in when I made the comment above: "What an affirmation."  Thanks!  Great article!

a question...


I'm not trying to be snarky when I ask this. I'm really wanting to know. I sense my own marginalization, although for what I perceive for much different reasons than yours. But how is one who writes a blog sponsored by the historic flagship liberal mainline publication The Christian Century and has two books published by the Alban Institute a scrapper, exactly? I would submit than both the CC and Alban are very much within the wheelhouse of mainline Protestant power structures. 

Great question...


I'm glad you asked it.

To add to CC and Alban, I serve a 250-year-old traditional Presbyterian Church, in Foggy Bottom, DC and I make half of my income by speaking at denominational gatherings. I had a whole paragraph to that extent, but cut it because the post was too long and the info seemed extensively self-referential.

The point was not to whine that I'm personally marginalized by institutions. I've been rejected plenty of times (what writer/pastor hasn't?), but I know I've been very lucky. 

My hoped to convey that we often need to strike a balance, and I wanted to articulate some of the fears an concerns that we have have when we start putting our feet in both worlds. I--like many of my friends--have worked within traditional structures and outside of them. If you're not familiar with my work, I blog (although I'm hosted here now, I don't get paid for this or for the other site I maintained for 4 years). I co-host a podcast and open-space discussions

When you do a lot of work outside of the existing structures, it's easy to fall into that rebel attitude where you don't want to partner at all with institutions. You don't want to "sell out." I write a lot about this. I respect that path, but it's not the one I have chosen.

I also received an email that pointed out that I didn't acknowledge the fact that there are many scrappers within institutional structures. Most people who lead change are scrappers in one sense or another!

Some have chosen that inside/outside hybrid that makes us feel like hypocrites on both sides. But I believe what I'm writing. I think it's good for our denominations/institutions and good for the scrappers if we learn to trust one another a bit.