This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Creeping Congregationalism.

            Some may remember when this term, “creeping congregationalism,” was a common epithet in Presbyterian circles.  It was usually said with some disdain, like it was an infectious disease, something to be eradicated as thoroughly as possible.  We would roll our eyes over the persistent ignorance of church members who didn’t understand the subtleties and benefits of Presbyterian connectionalism.
            Creeping congregationalism was what we called it when Presbyterians appeared to think and act like Congregationalists, rather than like good Presbyterians.  When members of a congregation think they get to fire their pastor, or that they have the right to sell church property on their own, or that the congregation can vote to overrule a session decision, or many other issues, we could identify creeping congregationalism.  We thought we were defending the unique “middle-way” of Presbyterianism by separating ourselves from, on the one hand, the democratic, congregational impulse prevalent in American culture, and on the other hand, the hierarchical structures by which some denominations, like the Roman Catholic church, are composed. 
            It is no coincidence that Presbyterians did not have a similar name for a creeping hierarchicalism.  Not that we aren’t historically allergic to bishops.  But as the church did actually become more bureaucratic, hierarchical, centralized, and corporate, many of us were encouraged to view creeping congregationalism as the bigger problem. 
            I am frankly beginning to wonder about this.  Especially at the local level, I am starting to ask forbidden questions.  Like: What is so bad about a local congregation having more flexibility and autonomy over its own mission?  Now, no one knows better than I that many congregations are utterly clueless about their situation and future.  There are some spectacular and wonderful congregations out there.  But at the same time, many congregations have no more thoughtful agenda than the vague wish that it be 1956 again.  They generally keep using the same failed programs, continually expecting different results.  They seem to expect ministers to have the power to change reality.  And their main concerns are the building, their friendly social contacts in the church, and keeping everything as it was as much as possible.  I know this.
            But presbyteries are not exactly bursting at the seams with creativity, imagination, and effectiveness either.  If anything presbyteries tend to be even more mired in “the lessons of the past.”  They still suffer from the Presbyterian pathology of imposing on everyone general rules based on a few experienced disasters or feared worst-case-scenarios.  They are often suspicious of change, innovation, and anything different.  Their theological diversity can easily militate in favor of undefined, lowest-common-denominator theologies.  And they can be full of entrenched interests, personality squabbles, and gripped by a palpable inertia.  There are some notable exceptions, but as guardians of standards, rules, and procedures, presbyteries can be very effective extinguishers of the Spirit, especially when the Spirit breaks out in smaller or unconventional congregations.
            We do find congregations that are willing and able to explore change and move in new directions in discipleship.   Even if it means letting clueless congregations continue to be clueless, we have to loosen up our system so the churches that actually want to follow Jesus can do so.
            The current connectional system has failed.  We now see a movement to being more congregation-centric in many presbyteries.  Twenty years ago it was assumed the churches were supposed to support the work of the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly.  Now it is just the opposite.  The point of presbytery is to encourage and resource the mission of local congregations.  Many presbyteries at least pay lip-service to this ideal, even if their thinking and structures are still reflective of the earlier model. 
            Supporting the mission of local congregations is going to have to mean affirming and strengthening the ability of congregations to make their own decisions.  It will have to mean trusting them.  This points to a polity that gives more power to congregations and sessions.  “Creeping congregationalism” is no longer a preventable disease; it is the wave of the future.
            As the post-modern mix resolves into the recognizable characteristics of Emergence, we will see in the church more decentralized, local, distributed, flat, and networked structures, replacing the neat corporate pyramids of Modernity.  Congregations are going to be more independent.  The thing that will characterize Presbyterian communities will not be the presbytery so much as the session, and its representational framework.  Connectionalism will be less vertical, that is, less of a ladder between lower and higher governing bodies, and more horizontal.  The important connections in ecclesial life will be between congregations.
            In fact, the effect of vertical connectionalism is often to pit local congregations against each other for “market-share” and scarce resources.  It encourages denominational “silos,” where we pretend we still have a monopoly on religion in our communities as in the old Christendom model.  In spite of their rampant waste and reduced commitment, larger churches thrive at the expense of smaller ones.  Yet smaller churches consistently demonstrate higher levels of commitment per member.  I know of one presbytery that keeps its per capita assessment low by closing small churches and selling their property.  This sort of thing is toxic. 
            Horizontal connectionalism will see churches working intentionally and enthusiastically together, sharing and exchanging resources and expertise, cutting out the regional “middle-man” and its constrictive, regulatory, competitive, centralized, subsidize-the-wealthy regime.  Larger churches will sponsor and learn from smaller churches.  Different kinds of churches will influence and shape each other in broadening ministries.             
            This increase in congregational responsibility and authority is not identified with either “right” or “left.”  For one thing, chapter 8 (the property clause) is doomed.  The rationale for having “all property held in trust for the denomination” is quickly losing intelligibility.  Why should congregations not be able to affiliate with other congregations that share a common missional vision?   Why should the presbytery, which has done nothing to maintain or improve the property, have a say in its final use?  Chapter 8 represents an obsolete, hierarchical mentality that believed Presbyterian identity was established vertically by strong relationships with regional and national institutions.
            National ordination standards are also endangered.  Congregations are increasingly led by the Spirit to develop and empower the leadership they need to accomplish their own mission.  We already see some standards fraying at the edges with immigrant and non-majority populations.  The kind of license we give to these congregations has to be extended to all congregations.  Standards that actually hinder and obstruct mission will have to go.  We cannot refuse to reach out to this or that group because it offends some people bearing the name “Presbyterian” who may be far, far away.
            Congregations and session will also mess up, often dramatically, if given more responsibility.  But it’s not like this doesn’t happen under the present system.  And it’s not just a matter of weak COM backbones either.  I have seen COM’s received and imparted wisdom fail as well as succeed.  My point is that if giving congregations and sessions more freedom enables a few churches to soar in mission, even if others continue to swirl down the drain to oblivion, it will be worth it.  The worst thing we can do is limp along with the present system.
            There will remain a role for regional networks of churches.  Managing conflict, providing a larger perspective, vetting and training leaders, providing a clearing-house for larger missional endeavors, etc.  But the real action will be, as it really always has been whether we acknowledge it or not, in the congregations.                


Carl said...

Good, thoughtful piece, Paul. Thanks.

nFOG surely represents at least the possibility of more creeping things, don't you think?

BTW, the reason we don't hear more about "creeping hierarchalism" is that those people don't creep. They process, with crosses, incense and such.


Beloved Spear said...

Good thoughts. My mentor in ministry has made that case several times. What matters is where the rubber meets the road, and that reality occurs in the local church.

Within our polity, as I tend to conceptualize it, the entire purpose of those "above" is to empower and enable those "below."

It's a bit like that often unrealized ideal within the Catholic system of church governance, in which the Pope is supposed to conceptualize himself as the "servus servorum dei," or the "servants of the servants of God." The reason our polity...or any polity...exists is to further the ability of particular congregations and their constituent membership to praise God and serve the Kingdom.

When we forget this, things get all messy.