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Affect Congregational Autonomy


Loren B. Mead

In the first essay I introduced eight key dynamics that influence where a congregation may be on the continuum from autonomy to dependence, from independent to connectional. In this essay I will summarize how each of these of these eight affects where the congregation will be on the Mental Map continuum line, presented earlier, ranging from (1) Autonomous to (10). Structured.


Congregations do bear within them the values and history of their denomination. Key theological ideas that shaped the denominations early life will be reflected in how those congregations understand what a congregation is, what the role of the pastor is, and how to value other denominational expressions of their special heritage.

When a bishop expresses views on how denominational polity is reflected in the congregation, that bishop rarely seems to notice the laity and the clergy rolling their eyes in disbelief. Yet, there is a pull between what the bishop was expressing and what the clergy and laity live out in their congregation. That pull have an influence on how congregations understand their connection to the denomination. It will not, as I have suggested, be as convincing to the congregations and clergy as it is to the bishop. That is another story! Because of this pull of history, congregations of a particular denomination will tend to clump together in one area of the continuum, but they will not be uniform. Within any denomination there can be a considerable range of acceptable positions. Baptists, for example, have a high stake in full autonomy of the individual's faith and of the life of the congregation. Yet no denomination has had more serious battles about the dependence of the congregation upon positions taken by the Baptist Conference And no denomination can match the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board for developing congregational uniformity in program material.

What this means is that on the Mental Map continuum line between (1) autonomous and (10) structured, you will expect the congregations of one denomination to be clustered within 3 to 5 the points, toward one end or the other, depending upon their history and polity. In but few cases will a denomination be in only one single point. I would expect, for example, the more congregational denominations to cluster between stages 2 and 6, the more connectional denominations to cluster between 4 and 8. Following that observation, the Presbyterians would cluster between 5 and 6, probably; but in fact I would not be surprised to see a few over in stage 2. You may even find one renegade flirting with stage 8 or 9.

Polity/Theology/Ecclesiology is an important influence on how a congregation fits on the continuum from autonomy to dependence, but it is not a sure guide. In my opinion, this remains important, but is increasingly marginal for congregations who have fewer members deeply ingrained in the heritage of the denomination. Other influences are likely to increase in importance in the future.


In the course of time, every congregation has business with its judicatory quite a few times. The executive is likely to visit from time to time, members of the congregation serve on judicatory task forces, there are celebratory events, the congregation may request resources of one kind or another, the two will negotiate financial matters. Over time, the congregation learns what to expect from the judicatory, and either build a sense of trust or of suspicion. If experience leads to trust, that trust will build up like a bank balance, making it possible to weather some less happy experiences. If the experience leads to suspicion, the congregation will more and more tend to pull back, defend its turf, and not be hospitable to judicatory leadership and resources.

A complicating factor, in my experience, is the fact that congregation's memories are long. Often they are reacting to a bishop or judicatory structure from a generation ago, not their contemporary experience. I have known bishop-types whose hearts were broken by what they interpreted as the people's defensiveness or lack of responsiveness to them. In fact, the people were simply acting out their distrust of a predecessor, perhaps even a predecessor once or twice removed. Just as a good set of experiences can build up credits for the executive, those credits can also be transferred to the executive's successor. The reverse is uncomfortably true also. Suspicion and distrust engendered by one leader or set of experiences can cloud relations for a long time.


The personality, the skill-set, the charisma of the executive or of the staff of the judicatory makes a difference in whether a congregation is pulled toward an autonomous or a structured relationship on our Mental Map. As indicated in # 2 above, this has to be understood in the light of the congregation's previous experience with other executives and staffs. When a congregation recognizes, on calling its headquarters, that the people on the other end of the phone know what they are doing and have something to offer, it builds bonds that matter. When the congregation sees productive, helpful ideas and information making itself into the hands of pastors and lay leaders, it is recognized for what it is. When a congregation is always invited to the judicatory only to deal with the judicatory's agenda, the frequency of attendance will drop off. When a congregation asks for help and is sent someone without skills the point is made (I mean, he is on the staff, and somebody has to keep him busy; or why were not they secure enough to tell me they cannot help and pass me the name of somebody who can!). People are forgiving and understanding, but a succession of such experiences makes a congregation ready to stop phoning.

A judicatory leader who identifies a critical community issue and speaks a word of genuine wisdom and leadership can become a spiritual leader for more denominations than his or her own, and can strengthen the roles of other judicatory executives.
A real shortcoming for all those in executive or staff roles in our denominations is their separation from those in judicatories of other denominations. Denominational walls remain high on most local scenes. Each operates as if executives in their judicatories are unique. In my experience about 90% of such talk is wrong. Strong judicatory training is needed in each denomination. What is available is spotty and leaves large gaps. The result has been hit or miss training for judicatory executives and bishops within their own denominational family. None of the denominations has the resource base to provide the depth and variety of kinds of training needed in these roles. What is needed is broad, deep training with colleagues from other denominations so that skills and insights can be wider and stronger. Denominations cannot do that by themselves.


The pastor (or pastoral team) in any congregation also is an influence on whether the congregation sees itself as autonomous or structured. Pastors within a denomination vary enormously in every way, and each also has individual baggage from their previous appointments. Pastors often receive and distribute communication from the judicatory -- and they make selections when they do.

Many pastors try to be loyal to the polity/theology/ecclesiology they learned at seminary, but of course that is modified by their experiences in previous pastorates, by their friends in other pastorates, by the groups they are drawn to in their denomination, and by their own sense of what is best for them and for their congregation. All those factors interact within the pastor.

Pastors whose gifts are not accepted by the denomination (or by its system of pastoral placement) can become very negative toward the denomination and influence their congregation to an independent stance. Some pastors have an axe to grind, needing recognition or power that makes them undercut the judicatory or denomination. I suspect that the individual pastor's feelings about autonomy or structured connections are as influential as any other one thing in whether the denomination or judicatory comes to see that congregation as team player, or recalcitrant and obstructionist.


This may not always be as important as the orientation of the pastor, but it comes a close second. At some times in the life of the congregation, this can be very influential. Very.

Every congregation has a handful (hopefully more) of lay people who are opinion-leaders in the community as well as the church. When those lay people have had good opportunities to know and participate in important work of the judicatory, they will move the climate of the congregation toward the judicatory. Note that I say important work, not busy work or powerless and endless task forces.
Judicatory executives need to be recruiting such leaders, listening to them and engaging with them. Efforts to that end will bring life to the relationship between congregation and judicatory, and will be an asset when there is a change of pastorate or some other congregational crisis.


Relationships between congregations and their denomination include much said above, but I want to point to a different dimension of it. Sometimes a congregation will have a relatively healthy relationship to its regional judicatory, yet have very adversarial feelings about the national or international dimension of their denomination. It may be that some national committee or council has passed a resolution that is quite contrary to the feelings of many local residents (a national anti-smoking action in a community full of tobacco farmers; a statement about gun control in a community whose highest recreational value is deer hunting; a statement about the death penalty in a community still traumatized by the rape and killing of a young girl; or almost anything else). Sometimes such things are accompanied by what I call a fire storm of anger and rage. These things happen, and they are honestly frightening to congregational leaders and pastors who are thrown on the defensive, often without any information.
Some years ago a wise friend who at the time was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane described his theory of what happened in this homely way:

"I think what probably happens is something like this. A bunch of old cronies have coffee every morning downtown. They kid each other, taking pot shots at one another, mostly in fun. And they love to get one up on one another. One day one of them who is a Lutheran layman who runs a filling station sees his friend, a Methodist who works in the feed store, and says, Hey Bill, what is this I hear about your church? Bill replies, "What? What do you mean?". The Lutheran responds: "Oh, I read in the state paper that you all are going to (____). He then says something outrageous he had heard or read that a Lutheran committee or commission had suggested. Bill is embarrassed. He has no idea what his friend read or whether he is making up a practical joke. He cannot connect what has been said to anything he knows anything about, but it DOES sound outrageous the way his friend said it. He gets defensive and angry at his church, assuming his friend is right."

My bishop friend says that after that the layman will storm over to his parish office and confront his pastor with What the Hell is the Church doing now!? The pastor has no clue of what has happened either. So -- it all escalates into fury, into motions put before the board, phone calls to the bishop. The scenario sounds what just might happen. Or it may be that an ecumenical agency related to the denomination has issued a statement that appears in the local paper and seems totally out of touch. In my time I have seen things like this begin, spread, and first thing you know there is a national fire storm. At the end most people have lost touch with what the original event really was. Hundreds of Presbyterians still fume when people bring up the name of Angela Williams. Lutherans and Methodist, particularly go bananas over that meeting in Minneapolis!

I am aware ware that people do have justifiable concerns about positions taken publicly by their churches and leaders. Here I am pointing to the cases we have all experienced in which the fury feeds on itself and soon is out of all proportion to whatever it was that started it. Usually these feelings and this fire storm focuses on something far off -- in national structures. Strong feelings like this will, however, have an influence on relationship to the nearby judicatory. This is particularly true where advocates of a position are organized and continue bombarding church members about issues long since forgotten by many. It is not anything most judicatories can do much about. Rejecting the unpopular position does not seem to help and often makes the judicatory look weak; efforts to explain the unpopular position never seem to catch up with the allegations.


Action in any one congregation in the community will affect congregations in the community. If one congregation in town is having a donnybrook about something, it is likely to affect others. Although in small towns, particularly, the congregations are very distinct from each other, we sometimes forget that people from different congregations work together, have coffee together, meet socially together. They play golf together and they go to the same high school football games. If a very strong passion develops in one congregation in town about something bad one denomination has said or done, it is very likely that other congregations will experience fall-out.
Because judicatory executives do not communicate with judicatory executives of other denominations they may miss the signals of hot spots of anger or of need for pastoral care. I once ran into a group of judicatory executives who wanted to talk about the problems they were having with conflict between pastors and church boards. When I asked them where the trouble was worst -- and four of the executives named the same small town. All of them had thought they simply had a problem pastor or a problem congregation. All of a sudden they saw that they really needed to be in touch with one another. The character of the community churches will be an influence upon whether or not a congregation located in that community draws closer to or is pushed farther from its judicatory.


Between congregations and the systems within which they exist there is a flow of money. People in churches do not talk about that very clearly, often because they would rather not get it very clear -- if it remains foggy, nobody has to take responsibility for it. How that money flows, and who makes decisions about it has a lot to say about how autonomous or how structured a congregation feels. Many small congregations (well over 50% of the congregations in the country have a membership of 120 or fewer) are financially unable to break even. In many denominations there are elaborate systems by which the congregations with more than enough finances participate in the financing of the others. In many of the denominations, the judicatory is the middle man-- the one to whom funding assistance is directed, the one who has to make decisions based on availability of funds, and who is invited to the role of lady bountiful. None of these roles is easy or clear. Each of them brings temptations to manipulation.

At the same time the judicatory has to manage a system of finance out of which the congregations generate the funding for the tasks of the judicatory. All kinds of subterfuges have developed -- sending all the money to the national and having it apportioned from there, asking apportionments from small congregations, then returning as much or more as a mission grant. Suffice it to say that if a congregation receives funding from the judicatory, it feels dependent and is less likely to miss the next judicatory meeting or raise uncomfortable questions for the judicatory. The congregations at the other, more affluent end, sometimes use their funds to control what happens in the judicatory. This whole area of ambiguity influences whether a congregation feels it is autonomous or structured, or if it is just a paid servant of the denomination.


Here, then, are eight dynamics that interact within all congregations I have experienced, and that influence whether they will understand themselves as being autonomous of one another or how deeply they will feel themselves in a tight structure.

I see every congregation as balanced somewhere on that continuum between totally independent of or totally absorbed into the other congregations and institutions of their denomination. Even those at the extremes (Independent Baptist on the end of independence; Roman Catholic at the end of integration into the larger church body) I believe these eight forces are operating on all those congregations. Those forces will significantly affect denominationalism in the future.

The question remains to be discussed in the next essay: if those eight dynamics influence where a particular congregation is in our mental map, at what points can people in the congregations, pastors, or judicatory people make an impact on the connection the congregation has with the judicatory. How and when can one change the connection?




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