Large and Wealthy Congregations:
Dynamics in the Relationships with Their Judicatories
Loren B. Mead
Reading some of the research from Adair Lummis and her colleagues at Hartford and from the correspondence that research has spawned, I ran across mention of the issue of large and wealthy congregations. I would like to make a distinction between large and wealthy congregations, and then reflect on some dynamics I have experienced in dealing with both in relationship to their judicatories and to other congregations. Once again, I make no claim that this is the result of rigorous and disciplined research. It is the result of some quite rigorous observation, but also of getting my hands burned and having people laugh me out of town. Some of these observations will resonate with your experience and perhaps help you understand some of your burnt fingers or embarrassed retreats. I have been told that Saul Alinski once said: "You cannot teach anybody anything they do not already know." If what I say here is helpful to you, it is probably because my experience speaks to yours and perhaps helps you sort out dynamics you have already bumped into. I claim no credit for these observations -- they are the result of my having been privileged to work with many of you in having had a special observer/consultant role outside the hurly-burly in which you have had to be involved.
I. LARGE CONGREGATIONS
Although I continue to hear this phrase used about congregations, I do not find it a helpful description. In my experience, large and wealthy are two very distinct types of congregation. Large sometimes means wealthy but often does not; wealthy sometimes means large but often does not. When you use them together, large and wealthy, often what is happening is that the church’s latent prejudice against the big and the rich is sneaking into the conversation.
Large in church talk means many members, but it is a highly relative concept. In the Catholic Church a large congregation may have 15,000 members; in a Unitarian-Universalist congregation it may mean 300 members. I discovered in recent work that a large congregation in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa may be 10,000 members, and a small congregation in the Anglican Church in Australia may be ephemeral -- it has no members; it is a dormant grapevine. If a clergy person or bishop plans to show up, and then the grapevine becomes active, phones ring, messages are passed, and members come out of the woodwork to form a temporary congregation of from 5 to a dozen. Numbers is very real-dimension, but it is not easy to define clearly. 1
Large is often assumed to mean wealthy because the numbers of members generally mean a larger flow of income, a higher budget. In my experience larger budget does not always mean wealth, but obligation. The running costs of a large member congregation are such that even with sky-high budgets, there is often a serious shortage of money for discretionary use. Those costs that go up faster than inflation (salaries, building repairs, utilities, etc.) end up putting such congregations in a difficult position every year -- needing to increase income by significant percentages each year just to stay where they are. These large congregations often have volatile membership numbers, too. Look at the large congregations of 3 decades ago -- how many of them now struggle to survive, keeping up buildings that were built for 2 or 3 times the members who now attend? Some large congregations are hot house flowers, generated by demographic forces that may well reverse themselves in ways the congregation has no control over. Others I have observed are more like what I call supernovas -- congregations that simply explode from rather small to enormous -- sometimes within a few years. Some of them at a later time experience the opposite dynamic and become black holes. A disquieting fact I learned a few years ago in studying financial trends in the churches,2 is that almost no congregations regularly set aside funds for capital improvements or repairs on a regular basis. A congregation trying to serve a large member constituency feels it necessary to expand facilities to do so. In expanding facilities, it takes on large unfunded liabilities of future upkeep and repair, and does so in spite of the history of the rise and fall of membership for reasons unrelated to the quality of its religious program.
I may be being over-cautious. I am just saying that large congregations have large issues they need to put into their computers. They generate more income, but they also face larger than ordinary growing pains and risks. Not enough of them see that other side of growth, and they are not likely to appreciate having that called to their attention. There can be tensions with the judicatory on this.
Large congregations often have large, highly professional staffs. They can have the ability to mount very imaginative programs of education, of youth ministry, of music. Often the staff they can hire has more expertise than the judicatory staff. More often than I care to admit all sorts of jealousy pops up between judicatory and large congregation staff. The more usual response is that the staff of the large congregation simply has nothing to do with the judicatory staff or judicatory program. Nor does the judicatory staff have access to the large congregation. It is not unusual for a large congregation never to use the resources of a judicatory, and even to imply that the judicatory program is mickey mouse, and the judicatory staff amateurs. It is not hard for bad feelings to fester. It is also easy for the large congregation and the judicatory to get a sense of separation. Such separation can be as dangerous for the congregation as for the judicatory.
Large congregations have much more in common with other large congregations, even large congregations of other denominations, than with the smaller congregations within their judicatory. Splits occur in which the smaller congregations organize politically around their issues (say better clergy minimum stipends) not realizing the impact upon other congregations (who, pray tell, puts up the money for the budget out of which the higher stipends come?). The political split can poison elections, and often make it impossible for representatives from the larger congregations to be elected to offices.3 Resentments accumulate on all sides in this.
II. WEALTHY CONGREGATIONS
Just as large is ambiguous as a descriptor of congregations, so is wealthy. (I have a hunch that both words -- large and wealthy -- are part of our pejorative language -- things we emotionally feel are bad. I have already pointed out how large can and often does mean a hefty flow of income, but that even that flow can occur where the ice is thin. With wealthy we step into another arena. But I need to make another point first. Technically almost every congregation has wealth that it does not recognize -- the financial investment in its property and buildings. Just as a householder threatened with loss of job and high living costs may not find comfort in the house he/she owns, it really does represent resources that qualify as wealth. So, too, with congregations. Almost every congregation, I remind them, already HAS an endowment -- the church and perhaps the education building and parsonage, all of which were built by previous generations and passed along to them. In day to day living, however, those do not FEEL like wealth (partly because those building not only represent wealth, but the unfunded obligation to keep them in repair).4
In this discussion of wealthy congregations, then, I want to be non-technical and talk about the congregations who have substantial resources over and above what it takes to meet the budget. In many cases that means invested income: such as houses, farms, or other real properties that have been given to the church, as well as reserve funds of any sort trusts, or endowments. I rarely find a congregation that is comfortable in talking about this. I rarely find congregation members who know whether or not their congregation has such resources.
All too often I find congregations acting as if they were either ashamed of having such resources or afraid of being found out. This is a matter that involved deep emotions and feelings, and is not simply an intellectual issue. The congregations will often dissemble, hide, or even downright lie about these resources. People in the congregation will do the same to others in the congregation. 5
The congregation with such wealth needs badly to get help in clarifying what that wealth means, but it is often not able to communicate with its judicatory -- the wealth gets in the way. The congregations all too often feel protective and secretive about the funds. Some judicatories trigger long-festering feuds by the pressures they put on congregations around sharing that feels obvious to the judicatory but confiscatory and greedy to the congregation. A discreet dance about all this occurs every time there is a capital funds drive in the judicatory. Little straight talk occurs. Usually people name what is going on in pretty high-falutin language -- seeking consensus on our stewardship; implementing the mission imperative; building partnerships for service. What I see in action are other words: anger, envy, jealousy, self-protection, downright blackmail. There are many congregations that have significantly more wealth than the judicatory. In one or two cases I know of, the congregation may have more resources than the denomination.
Let me now talk about some of the dynamics in congregations - large, wealthy or both - as they related to their judicatories.
III. DYNAMIC AREAS
Size and wealth do matter in the power dynamics of a judicatory. Our rhetoric tries to fuzz this up the way the pigs did in Orwell’s Animal Farm. All the animals on the farm are equal, but the pigs are more equal than all the other animals. The rhetoric and value system say that all the congregations are treated the same, are valued equally. But size and wealth do make a difference. The fact that it is not talked about -- is not permitted to be talked about in ecclesiastically politically correct conversation -- makes the difference confusing and sometimes hurtful. I want to talk about what is usually not talked about.
First, there is financial power. In many judicatories a few wealthy/large congregations carry the bulk of the budget of the judicatory. When one such congregation withholds funds for even one year, it hurts the judicatory. The point is clear to congregations, and this is the source of the blackmail game -- congregations trying to influence programs or priorities of the judicatory by threat of reducing giving. The ugly other side of the conversation is made by the budget-making part of the judicatory rubbing the noses of the opposition in policies unpopular with the large/wealthy congregation, daring them to be bad sports and withhold support. When the level of judicatory conversation gets this low, one has reached an unpleasant state of judicatory health. In Speed Leas’s categories of conflict this is about a level three. 6
Second, there is the way moral position and values are influenced by local cultures. Larger, and many wealthier congregations tend to be in well-to-do urban or suburban settings -- smaller and poorer congregations are often in other settings -- urban blue-collar or poor, rural, etc. They are exposed to different worlds of experience, reflect values of different constituencies or even cultures.
Over the years many areas have felt this difference in debates about use of alcohol, about music or forms of entertainment, about union/management issues, even about things such as divorce and remarriage. In recent decades the issue of homosexuality may illustrate how church politics and congregation size interact. The more urban/suburban, large congregations often are in communities in which homosexuality is an acknowledged reality the community experiences and recognizes (although it may not be universally accepted). In smaller, more rural communities, that experience is much less a part people recognize as the fabric of their life. In a judicatory vote on such an issue, one may run into coalitions of small congregations unified against cultural values about which the larger congregations may feel very differently. Tension over the issue itself is multiplied by the fact that the larger congregations feel powerless -- even though they feel they foot the bill disproportionately. 7
It is a serious matter for those who foot the bill to feel that they have no chance to affect decisions they are forced to accept. Congregations and judicatories need to keep a weather eye out to see that storms are not brewing because larger and wealthier congregations feel they are not being heard. It is my impression that many pastors and lay leaders of large, influential, and wealthy congregations all too frequently feel discriminated against in election to judicatory roles. This becomes serious when they become distanced and lose their sense of responsibility for the judicatory.
In the long run, the engagement of the large and wealthy congregations in the life of the judicatory and the denomination is crucial to the health of all. Our way of doing business is tending to isolate them from such engagement at the same time that the system is more and more dependent upon their financial support. That is not healthy. Neither is it a simplistic demand for those congregations to call the tune the way that they sometimes have in the past.
B. Exercising Power in Judicatory and Between Congregations
I am not talking in this section about how denominational polity defines us -- whether we are autonomous and independent or structured and connectional. I am not talking about what our book of order defines as our structural/legal relationships, but about how we feel about our structures and the others in them. Do we have some power over our lives, or do we always have to get others to validate us or show us our place? I would put it another way. Do we, as a congregation, have a sense of ourselves as valuable? Do we have that sense that what we stand for is worthwhile, right? Or is our value only ascribed to us by our system? Do we understand that we have a right to be that is built in or do we require the affirmation of external authority? This is not a black-and-white situation. I am trying to talk about things that do not quite fit most organizational systems -- the emotional side of life. In some sense EVERY organizational system depends upon some way of conferring legitimacy -- a method for ordaining, or licensing, or authorizing, or recognizing as authentic. Those are all good things -- different, of course, depending upon denomination.
But what about the inner sense of being worthwhile, having some power to be, a kind of self-confidence but secure in one’s being). Healthy relations to judicatories and other congregations also depend on whether or not a congregation has that kind of confidence. Size and wealth have an effect upon that sense of self-worth, and set up dynamics with judicatories and congregations that are smaller and less well to do.
Point One: Structural Dependence
My friend Jack Harris uses the phrase structural dependence to name the way many in the church systems find themselves under the control or at the beck and call of others.8 Pastors -- defined as independent parts of a system, valued for their innovative work, encouraged to be creative -- are yet in a job system that rewards obedience, not rocking boats, and pulling one’s weight (as the system defines it). Many of the structures of one’s life and work are set to reward doing what others define, coloring within the lines. Signals are sent through placement structures to be innovative, but not too innovative. To be creative but not far out. Other parts of the system (pension systems, continuing education benefits, etc.) are administered, often, to reward being a good soldier.
These systems are intended for good, and they deliver on that intention in many ways. But they also can set up an emotional climate that encourages a pastor (or congregation or other leader) to play it safe. Leave risk-taking for others. In short, some of the strengths of the system can de-power those in it. It can infantilize clergy, making them cede power over their life and decisions to the system. After all, the system is supposed to work for their benefit. And you trust it, do you not?
The point is that structural dependence can lead some to become tame clergy. Can lead to a safe church. Can lead to very boring life! Let me reiterate -- I do not think that is the intention of those who build the systems, and I know plenty of people and congregations who are not tamed by the system, but feel supported to more challenging ministries. It is not the system, but how the system is internalized.
Point two: Dependency and Counter-Dependency
These two concepts are polar opposites in the behavior they trigger, but they have deep kinship under the skin. Everybody knows dependent behavior. Anxious, waiting for approval, unwilling to take risks. Often a bit whiny. Always wanting to be seen as the good child, the one who plays by the rules, the one who does what he/she is supposed to do. Sometimes the teacher’s pet, or bishop’s pet in some denominations.
Behavior is centered on fulfilling somebody else’s expectations. It keeps you out of trouble, but it is not often very satisfying. Small and poor congregations often get trapped into this because the judicatory has what looks like power over them (regardless of denomination). They can end up with poor me attitude toward life and ministry.
Counter-dependence is the other end of the same stick. A counter-dependent congregation is always marching to a different drummer. If all the congregations are expected to do A, they come out publicly for B. If the ethos is for a conservative theology, they come out for death of God or something worse. They are just as predictable as the dependent congregations. The dependent ones NEVER stray off the reservation. The counter-dependent ones NEVER visit the reservation. It is easier for a large or wealthy congregation to live this way -- I mean they are harder to coerce to behave. And there are rewards for acting this way -- the clergy can say they are prophetic and the congregation can see itself as cutting edge.
But they are the opposite ends of the same stick. Neither one has a sense of self-confidence in what they are. They define themselves by the expectation of others -- in one case they are subservient to those expectations; in the other, they are rebellious against those expectations. Neither is very free. They are defined by others, not themselves. Small, poor congregations are tempted to behave dependently, as what they deserve, being poor and small. Large and wealthy congregations are tempted to counter-dependence, a.k.a. throwing their weight around.
Point three: Self-differentiation.
A healthier place to get to is what Family Systems thinkers call self-differentiation. Many congregations and many church leaders have come to value this as a more constructive way to relate to other congregations and to judicatory or denominational structures.9
A self-differentiated leader (clergy or not) has come to a balance sense of self that is able to buy in to what is going on, or on the other hand, to be comfortable opposing what others want, even if he/she is alone in that opposition. Such a person does not have to win every battle, and can live with actions or directions others want to take that are different from what he/she would choose. Such people can live in an out-voted minority without becoming morose or angry. People on the other side are not the enemy, they are people I think are wrong, but they are my people. And they do not have to make everybody finally come to agree with them.
A self-differentiated congregation is likely to raise questions about what is going on and is likely to be on the opposite side of issues, but such congregations are also likely to be in the loyal opposition, uninterested in punishing people who are in different places. People from such congregations can provide excellent leadership in judicatory structures or boards.
Power and size do affect how congregations relate to each other and to the judicatory. Many things that are not politically correct to talk about make the exercise of power by congregations and between congregations, and between congregations and their judicatories confusing and misleading. I make no claim that I understand all these dynamics. I hope I have, in these few pages, named some of the things we do not name but have to live with. I hope I have given permission to church leaders and judicatory staffs to talk about what is really going on, getting away from the oughts and supposed to -- to the is level of life in the church. From prescription to description. I think that, eventually, will help us be better partners in mission.
Some things I do know, however.
1) Issues of size and wealth do affect how congregations relate to their judicatories.
2) Size and wealth are different issues, although there is some overlap. Size is easier to talk about than wealth.
3) How people characteristically use power is a hidden dynamic, and is a no-no conversation in the church.
4) Judicatory and denominations are responsible for administrative systems that produce structural dependence, especially with clergy and with smaller congregations. I think they are supposed to set up those systems, but they need to work to make them clear and fair and open to minimize the negative emotional impact.
5) Judicatories will find dependent congregations and clergy the easiest to deal with, the most demanding of time and energy, but providing the least developmental opportunity.
6) Counter-dependent congregations will keep throwing sand in the gears at every opportunity, but probably will not move much until they no longer need to be fighting judicatories, the denomination, or others.
7) Self-differentiated congregations will not settle for the party line, but they will need to have their questions dealt with (counter-dependent ones will have questions but will generate new questions if the old ones are dealt with). When self-differentiated congregations say where they are at, you can count on it. They can join efforts they are not fully in agreement with.
8) Helping congregations learn to say yes and mean it, and to say no and mean it is one of the best ways of helping them grow to a better stage of interaction.
9) Judicatory communication with congregations needs to take into account how they differ in size, wealth, power and dependency.
1. I do want to note the very helpful work that Arlin Rothauge did in the Episcopal Church, identifying four "types" of church size family, pastoral, program, and corporate (which category he now calls "resource"). Those four types have become common wisdom among those of use who work in congregations because they ring true although nobody has been able to figure out precisely what that means or how they work. The work of Alice Mann and Roy Oswald at the Alban Institute has made available a lot of wisdom based on Rothauge’s categories. (return to text)
2. I shared some of what I learned in Financial Meltdown in the Mainline, published by Alban in l998. (return to text)
3. An interesting historical parallel occurred early in the nineteen century in England. At that time the preponderant economic and population power was n the new industrial cities, but the predominant voice in government as represented by Parliament was for very small, rural enclaves, some of which were called rotten boroughs. The battles about the corn laws led to a massive reorganization of representation so that those in the large cities could have a say in taxation and policy more in keeping with demographic and economic realities. In the long run, it is not wise to have decision-making ignore demographic and economic realities in church life, either. (return to text)
4. Years ago, when I served for a year in a parish of the Church of England near London, I was fascinated to learn that every diocese had a committee responsible for making sure the houses of the clergy were in good condition. That committee was called the committee on delapidations. (return to text)
5. One healthy trend in three denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) associations of such congregations have been formed, giving a forum for talking straight and learning to be responsible about this dimension of some congregations’ lives. (return to text)
6. Speed Leas describes five different levels of conflict, from difference to disagreement to contest to fight-flight to intractable. He suggests that at level 3 serious attention, sometimes professional attention, needs to be given to avoid spiraling into even worse situations. (return to text)
7. See note 3. (return to text)
8. John C. Harris, author of Stress, Power and Ministry, published by Alban in 1977, but still, for my money, the one book most sensitive to the issues of the ordained pastor. (return to text)
9. Derived from the thinking of Murray Bowen, this way of acting and thinking has been Described by Ed Friedman in Generation to Generation, and by Peter Steinke in his two books, How Your Church Really Works and Healthy Congregations. Peter also has a videotape that illustrates some of these ideas - Healthy Congregations. (return to text)