Taking the Free Market Faith conversation deeper, I have invited my sister, Gretchen Snoeyenbos, to guest post on Deep River. Being my sister, Gretchen has the gift of knowing, most of the time, what I'm trying to say even when I'm not saying it explicitly (for all those with siblings you know what a blessing and curse this can be). I'll be sharing my own follow-up post after this.
After reading Anna’s post and the comments that followed, I am convinced that we are conflating two sets of questions. On the one hand, we have the choice between a diocesan method of governance and a congregational one. It should be noted here that regardless of the choice made, the work of the church will primarily fall to the people of the church. Ask any of the over-involved Catholic churchwomen that I grew up with how much work and process is involved in running a diocesan parish and get ready for an earful. Moving away from a congregational model in terms of how we call pastors to long-standing congregations, who bears the responsibility for the budget, and most importantly whether the Church’s stance on theological issues will be decided by congregations for the denomination or by the denomination for congregations is simply moot. We are congregational, legally and culturally.
On the other hand, we have questions of how the vision and mission of the congregation will be decided and carried out. These are the most critical questions to ask and reach deeply into culture and theology. There are three basic questions:
- Who will address the mundane, daily aspects involved in being a worldly organization? Will there be a committee set up to decide every question of church policy – to meet to decide when to call the plumber? This is where you get economies of scale and have the option to “hire out” the work. I think we can all agree that these mundane matters are most ideally not foisted on the laity as they don’t serve the deeper mission of the church and, frankly, we all know how to call the plumber.
- How will we organize the missional work of the church? This is a slightly deeper question. Social justice work, fundraising activities, fellowship, etc., are activities that lend themselves to committee structure. It trains leaders and allows for deepening commitment to the Church. This is also the work that can most drag a congregation down. It always multiplies and seems to lead to committees for the sake of having committees and events that have come to exist only for the repetition. The solution is simple, but hard. Examine your committees and events. Ask yourself if each event clearly and directly serves the mission of the church. If yes, keep going. If not, stop doing it – even if you have done it for the last 140 years.
Moving deeper into this question causes us to ask if topic-based committees are the best way to do this. Many new church plants are experimenting with covenant groups that meet to undertake all the aspects of church mission together as an integrated body. This can encourage a more balanced approach to church life so that no one is forced to neglect worship, fellowship or service because the committee work for one has sucked up every available hour. But, above all, whatever model you choose will fail if it is not missional.
- This leads us directly to the question of setting the mission. And what I think is the most critical question implicit in Anna’s post. Will the direction of a congregation be determined by a committee, or by a pastor? I believe that the mission and vision of a church are to be set by the head minister. Our role as laity is to give our input to the minister as he develops the mission and to hold her accountable to that mission and serve the mission over the years of her ministry. Critical to this is the idea that a minister’s service will be long – on the order of decades – so that this process does not become a futile cycle of discernment every 5-10 years.
Under this model, the church is not called to merely continue to exist in a locality. The Church will not continue if people are not inspired and challenged by the vision. People will vote with their feet – as they already do.
Why does the mission need to be determined by a single person and not a committee? Because a single person is best able to poke their head up over the hedgerows and see where the road leads. Because a single person is more easily a prophetic voice able to call us back to right relation with God and each other. And, most fundamentally, because this is what parish ministers are called to do. This is their job – their divinely called and temporally compensated line of work. There are two ways to look at this and both lead to the same conclusion.
- Ministers are professionals who we hire to be CEOs of the church and report to the board (parish committee) or
- Ministers are divinely called to be prophetic shepherds leading us on the spiritual paths we are walking.
Regardless of what model you ascribe to, over-reliance on committees and polling will defeat the purpose of the job.
We in the liberal church have been poorly served by our ministers in this regard over the last however many decades. We have, in a fit of overdeveloped love of process asked them to hand over their role to us and they have. By handing this crucial aspect of their work over to the laity, ministers cut themselves off at the ankles and became mere employees working long hours attending irritating committee meetings and constantly called to account by multitudes of ever narrower interest groups. No wonder the best and the brightest do not go into the ministry in the liberal tradition. Leaders, and that is what ministers are, should lead. And we laity – whatever leadership skills we may possess – are not the leaders of our churches. We are followers. Those of us who lead most profoundly in the secular world may find the most rest in following.
How are we to guard against mere consumerism? Expect ever deepening commitment from the laity – but not to futile cycling of outdated and directionless committee work. Ask for ever deepening commitment to the mission of the Church and people will seek out this sustaining commitment.