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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The "Connectional" Church, I.


This is the first of two posts on the meaning of "connectional" in the life of the church.

The Collapse of Vertical Connectionalism.

            Connectionalism is a word that we Presbyterians use to describe how we are all, well, connected.  I have heard it all my life.  I think at some point church leaders were trying to discourage the scourge of “creeping congregationalism” by extolling the manifold benefits of being in such a well-organized denomination. 
            Unfortunately, that connectedness has nearly always been understood in an exclusively vertical way.  That is, we are connected up and down: members to churches to presbyteries to synods to the General Assembly.  It was yet another expression of the now defunct but strangely persistent corporate model of the church.  Local churches were kind of like retail outlets of a national brand.  The actual “selling” mostly went on locally; much of the mission giving traveled upward, the authority, coordination, regulation, leadership, and identity was transmitted downward.  The tone of mission was set at the top, where the resources are published, to flow down to the other mission agencies.  The corporate flow-chart would have had the little congregations at the bottom, with lines going up to the presbytery indicating to whom they “report;” but no lines connecting them to each other.
            In this model very little attention was given to any kind of horizontal connectedness.  Maybe this tendency goes back to where we had individual Christians, sitting in linear pews and all facing the professional Leader/priest “up” front rather than each other.  This vertical connectionalism always weakened any horizontal connections between people or churches.  I remember what a trauma it was in some congregations even to introduce something as benign as passing the peace.  Acknowledging, even (gasp!) physically touching another person – andy horizontal connectionality – was too dangerous.  It was much safer for Presbyterians to be connected vertically through that one guy up front, with whom everyone individually shook hands on the way out, than to be related directly to each other.
            Indeed, building on this neurotic fear of connecting horizontally, congregations became like retail franchises, thinking of themselves in competition with each other.  For congregations even to talk directly to each other, let alone share practices, leadership, and assistance, was a rarity.  If one church had a problem with a neighboring church, the complaint would go up to the presbytery, functioning as the corporate district manager, not directly to the neighboring church.  (We still act this way.  As a Stated Clerk I occasionally receive calls from people complaining about their Pastor or the sessionof their church.  My first question is always, “Did you talk to them about it?”  And the answer most of the time is “No”.)
            After a while, I grew tired of listening to talk of how great our “connectionalism” was, when all it meant was sending money up the corporate ladder, or arguing over the content of the Book of Order, or disputes over the various pointless pronunciamentos of the General Assembly on social and political issues.  Meanwhile, the idea that I should understand connectionalism as having a direct relationship with the Presbyterian congregation in the next town remained incomprehensible.  We would see some of those people at the presbytery meeting, or on presbytery committees.  But in real life they were our adversaries in a dog-fight over market-share.
            Small churches might occasionally get together, pool their scant resources, and share some programs out of necessity.  But to suggest that large churches might help smaller churches did not make any more sense than that a big, Walmart should help one of the struggling downtown mom-and-pop stores.  (I worked for Barnes and Noble in the 1980’s when they were systematically ordering the closure of small stores, even profitable ones like mine, because of a new strategy, directed from the top, to have only big-box stores.)  Better to write off and close the smaller, or drive them out of business, so the successful one could pick up even more customers.  Something about economies of scale.
              In the church there was this veneer of mutual support and encouragement, over a reality of “sheep-stealing” and larger, successful, multi-programmatic churches picking off the dissatisfied or disgruntled members of smaller or troubled ones.  Frankly, in many communities it was easier, safer, and more fruitful to make connections with churches of other denominations, than with fellow Presbyterians.
            What we end up with is an ecclesiastical arrangement that mirrors the gross inequalities in the larger economy.  The resources are locked up in a few large, wealthy churches, while everyone else is struggling, cutting back, going to part-time ministry, yoking, merging, etc., and sometimes eventually closing.  When it is suggested that some horizontal sharing happen, the retort is to ask why the obviously “successful” churches should waste their money by dumping it into “failed” churches.  They suggest we close the unsuccessful, unprofitable churches and give their members to the successful ones?  Makes perfect business sense.
            This arrangement is breaking down now, thank God.  The vertical understanding of connectionalism doesn’t really hold so well anymore, as indicated by the difficulty presbyteries have collecting the per capita assessment, and by the reduction in giving by churches to undesignated General Mission.  But if the verticality is eroding, it has yet to be replaced by a creative horizontal understanding of the church.  This means that we are losing connections with each other altogether.  Connectionalism is collapsing into a destructive reflection of the independent-individualism pervasive in our culture.  In others words, it’s increasingly every congregation for itself.  Nothing could be further from the gospel than this.

The second post will explore what a horizonal connectionality will look like in the church. 

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