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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why Fellowships?

It has been the practice in many presbyteries to institute an interim period where a new worshiping community is listed as a “fellowship” for a period of time before being officially chartered as a full-fledged congregation.  The Book of Order does not require this, nor even mention the possibility.  Maybe it was, or even still is, the advice of some New Church Development handbook.  Or maybe presbyteries came up with it on their own.
On the surface it seems to make prudent sense.  Start a congregation off with the training wheels of presbytery oversight until they meet certain minimum standards and can take care of themselves.  Then bring them in when they are ready.
Unfortunately, if this provisional period stretches out too long, and the requirements for chartering are too unrealistic, groups can stay in fellowship status for a long time.  Decades, even.
 
Fellowships have several drawbacks.  First, it is under the watchful eye of the presbytery.  In theory this is supposed to be a good thing.  The fellowship would benefit from the wisdom of the larger body, and receive guidance and support.  In reality, though, it can also mean the the fellowship is subject to the various phobias, agendas, competencies/incompetencies, politics, personalities, and so forth, that swirl at the presbytery level.  If the fellowship is being funded by the presbytery, the toxicity of this oversight may be compounded.  Money changes everything, usually not for the better.  Funded fellowships may have to be constantly defending themselves, and be subject to arbitrary quantitative criteria for “sustainability,” or whatever.  It may mean that fellowship leadership have to add to their skill-set the schmoozing of presbyters, like forming a new church isn't difficult enough. 
 
Second, the participants in a fellowship are not technically considered members of a local church.  They are not counted in the statistics, they may not be ordained, and they are not represented at presbytery.  In other words, they are second- or third-class citizens with no power over their own future.  This leaves them subject to other’s power in ways that may undercut their own vision and diminish their missional effectiveness.
Many presbyteries have horror stories of malignant interference in the life of a fellowship under its care.  Fellowships have to navigate a mine-field of expectations on the part of  steering committee members, spending valuable time and energy placating the sentimentality, nostalgia, or fear of competition on the part of people selected to serve, or presbytery leaders.  Many of these folks may have no clue about what it takes to plant and grow a new church, but may desire mainly to bask in the glory of a success in an area in which Presbyterians have been chronically deficient.  (One presbytery assigned the planting of a new church to the same Administrative Commission that closed a former church.  This is like having a funeral director as your midwife.)  When a fellowship fails, it can discourage a presbytery from trying another one any time soon, which is just fine with many because then there is more money and energy to continue to drain into life support for continuing, and failing, congregations.
Plus, it is not uncommon for a new worshiping community to be made up of immigrants and members of various ethnic, generational, theological, or sexual communities that are not the traditional Presbyterian European majority.  Relegating these folks to extended status as participants in a second-class fellowship disenfranchises them, robbing the presbytery of their gifts, restricting their ministry, and putting the worshiping community itself at risk.  Hindering the development of new worshiping communities like this only calcifies the generational and ethnic homogeneity that is dooming us in an America that is becoming more diverse by the day. 
For there are some not-so-good, and probably unconscious, reasons why presbyteries establish the fellowship stage:  

1) They want to retain control, ensuring that the fellowship is not a threat to the status quo of the presbytery.  When money is involved this falls under the notorious “responsible stewardship” argument, whereby the presbytery supports only the most safe and conventional kinds of ministries.  

2)  There may be unacknowledged racism that assumes that people of minority groups need special care and “nurturing” before they can be trusted to establish a congregation that is recognizably one of “ours.”  

3)  Presbyteries, especially in the present context of general shrinkage, fear change, are suspicious of new people, don’t want the balance of power upset, and suspect that the new worshiping community will "become a burden on the presbytery" if chartered too quickly. 
People in fellowships must feel all this paranoia, suspicion, and caution.  I can’t imagine that it helps either the fellowship’s growth or its relationship with the presbytery.
What if we had a more fluid and flexible approach to planting churches and new worshiping communities?  What if we let groups form, dissolve, and reform more organically, chartering them as soon as they meet some low minimum membership number, like a single cell of 7 to 12 people willing to sign on to the responsibilities membership listed in G-1.0304?  This would give them representation at presbytery and a voice in their own ministry and future.  There would be no requirements for money, staffing, or property-ownership, and no demand to show a credible path and timeline to “sustainability”.
Look: changing existing congregations so they are more inclusive and diverse is very difficult.  The road ahead will feature more new worshiping communities.  We have to make it easier to form and support these groups, and incorporate them much quicker into presbyteries, where they can have influence to see that more new groups are planted.  It is part of the shift to a “belonging-to-believing” mindset, replacing the obsolete approach that required high standards of belief prior to being fully accepted.  
Ditching, or at least severely limiting, the “fellowship” stage is one way to move in this direction.
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