Loren B. Mead
Foreword: Adair Lummis and her colleagues have done a lot of research on how the regional entity or middle judicatory of denominations "works", and invited a number of judicatory leaders into conversation about their experiences. She has asked me to join the conversation as one who can be a "senior consultant" in this process. Because I have worked with such judicatories for four decades in a variety of roles and have been a colleague of consultants similarly engaged, I have also accumulated a body of experience, often gathered in less structured ways. I find that my experience is precipitating into a framework for thinking that may be helpful to the researchers and to the executives. These essays are a step toward such a framework for thinking.
The relationship between a congregation and its regional body is almost always problematical, but specifically what the problem is likely to be is hard to predict. The conversation about that relationship I find to be emotionally charged, often; with an assumption that someone is all right and someone is all wrong. This is a real problem. The regional entity, if there is one, or the relationship between independent congregations ought, it seems to me, exist to strengthen the work of the churches and not to be an obstruction. The relationship, whether close or distant, ought to "grease" the wheels of ministry and mission, not throw "grit" into the gears. This paper is an attempt to tease apart the different dynamics I have discovered as influencing the nature of those relationships and provide a map for those, whatever their orientation to these issues, who want to remove some of the "grit" from their experience and get ideas about how to lubricate their gears.
I. The Basic Operating Principle: A Continuum not a Focus Point
A. The Mental Map
Discussion of what is the right approach to the connection between congregations and their systems assumes a set of normative values, which I simply have not observed in dealing with congregations.
In my experience, congregations, even congregations in the same denomination and in the same community, do not have identical relations with their regional offices or officers. I have found American Baptist regional ministers acting very much like Presbyterian executives with some congregations. I have found United Methodist bishops or district superintendents have disastrous experiences when they try to do what the Book of Order says they are supposed to be able to do with congregations. I have found Episcopal bishops stymied by "congregational" attitudes in some of their congregations, and treated by others as "the word from on high." Episcopal bishops wish they had the power United Methodist bishops have, and United Methodist bishops wish they had the power the Episcopalians think they have. I have seen United Church of Christ conference executives wheel and deal with congregations, powerfully influencing them in ways Presbyterian executives can only stand back and admire. The same is true from the other end -- Baptist congregations begging for help from their system; Episcopalian congregations who have nothing to do with their bishop; Presbyterian congregations who are grateful when their executive acts with the authority no sane Presbyterian would admit to be legal. In reality, congregations and executives are all over the map. It has been helpful to me to think of what we are talking about as a continuum from one extreme to another, with one's location on the map being influenced by many factors. The end-points of the continuum are clear, logically.
At one end are those congregations that are totally autonomous -- they have to answer to no one, relate to no one, but are totally free to set their agendas, relate to their faith in whatever way their own internal processes determine. I call this end point on the map AUTONOMOUS. I do not mean to overlay it with any values -- it is descriptive. At the other end of the continuum congregations are totally dependent upon a structure from outside themselves. This a structure that may be theological, political, or almost anything else, but that makes all critical choices of the life of the congregation based upon its being dependent upon a larger entity of faith. I will call this end point of the map STRUCTURED. Again I intend no value judgment, just the description that relationships at this end exist in a tight interconnected structure with the higher entities having the role of empowering those below it. The word "hierarchical" is used often, but that word has taken on many emotional overtones. The word "connectional" is used often, but that word does not adequately carry the authority of the structure that belongs at the extremes. I simply mean that the people at this end understand their system to be intimately interconnected, and that by consensus some of the parts of the system have authority over other parts.
To differentiate between these two, I propose a mental map -- a continuum, with degrees of connection from Autonomous to Structured. Voila:
Every congregation can be located on that continuum. Please remember -- this is a mental map, not a scientific indicator. It is to help us think about the issue and about relationships, it is not a "predictor" or an instrument of measurement.
B. Factors Influencing Location on the Continuum
It is not difficult to note the fact that congregations relate to their systems in different degrees of autonomy or dependence. It is difficult, however, for people in different congregations or levels of one denominational system to admit the validity of the position others take when it is different from their own.
A factor causing that difficulty is that a denomination often adopts normative language for what is considered the correct way to be "connectional" or "independent." Wars were fought over different ideas of polity, and feelings still run high, even though we may have forgotten why our great-grandparents were ready to fight about things that may feel inconsequential today. I know a Presbytery executive who admits that in certain issues of conflict in a parish she acts the way a Catholic bishop might have acted at the time of the reformation. She says, "If it works, everybody cheers." But if anybody ever says, "You are acting just like a bishop", she says, "I'm likely to lose my job." The ancient memory is strong. Some of our members are convinced that the 16th Century takes precedence over the 21st!
I see Episcopal bishops saying confidently "The smallest unit of the Church is the Diocese!" This sort of thing is most often said in a speech in which the bishop is trying to get the congregations to back his or her program ideas for the next year. That bishop rarely seems to notice the laity and the clergy rolling their eyes in disbelief. That bishop may have a point in the history of Episcopal polity, but the people rolling their eyes know a very different reality on the ground where they are!
I will try here not to use normative language but descriptive language. That is not to say that it is unimportant to have norms; it is only to say that when we act as if normative language really describes how people act, we can be seriously out of touch with what is going on.
Here are the eight key dynamics that influence where a congregation may be on the continuum from autonomy to dependence, from independent to connectional. My thesis is that each of these influencers affects where the congregation will be on the continuum.
Experience over time in that judicatory
The character of the executive
The character of the pastor
The orientation of leading laity of the congregation
The relationship to the denomination
The nature of the other congregations in the community
The flow of money and resources
In this series of essays I will be briefly "unpacking " those concepts so that they can become tools for your thinking.
I would welcome comments and questions from participants in this Regional Leaders Web Learning Community at any time.