Posts Tagged ‘church governance’

This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

It is basic to the gospel that we are saved by the grace of God. God welcomes us into covenant relationship even when we have nothing to bring. It also true that the condition in which we enter into a life of faith is not the place where we are meant to end up. The scriptures assume that the local church is the primary learning environment for growing into maturity in Christ.  As each person is equipped and exercises his or her gifts and vocation, the whole community of faith is built up and comes alive. The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” ( Ephesians 4: 11-13, NRSV)

We are meant to grow into Christ, into deeper expressions of God’s grace, into mature expressions of faith. The Holy Spirit’s work is life-transforming as it disrupts the status quo and pushes the church out of its comfort zones. The work in the world that Christ entrusts to his people is tough, demanding work. It challenges each person to stretch beyond what she or he is at the present time. It challenges each person to mature in faith.

As the saying goes, “God loves us just as we are. God loves us too much to leave us that way.” Living into the grace of God, being a disciple of Jesus, joining God’s mission of compassion and reconciliation in the world — none of this comes naturally. The currency of Christian community is love in the midst of human brokenness. Maturing in faith is deeply relational. It involves learning to love, forgiving and being forgiven, and struggling to continue loving after being hurt. It requires honesty and vulnerability.
On several occasions, in Paul’s letters to young churches, he laments that the community of faith has stalled in its spiritual growth:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ.  (Hebrews 5:12-6:3, The Message)

There are many reasons why people fail to mature in faith. The governing structure of the church can hinder the spiritual growth of disciples.

Maturity includes the capacity to make decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Unfortunately, the church is often structured in such a way that only a few people participate in ministry and mission decisions of a congregation. For instance, the most common governing structure for congregations in the United Church of Canada is hierarchical. Only a small percentage of the congregation is needed to run the church. When most of the authority in a congregation rests in a few people, and when the decision-making for the most important issues is done by the few on behalf of everyone else, most people in a congregation are thereby reduced to being ‘volunteers’ or onlookers. They do not sense much responsibility for the decisions made by others. “Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant” ( Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), chapter 8).  The baptized often feel little need to move more deeply into faith and hope.

In the long-term, this leaves many people of the congregation feeling inadequate in their faith. They do not feel confident in their ability to live the Christian life, either within the church structures or in their life in the world. They doubt their competence to share their faith with others. The hierarchical governance structures can mean they are not placed in situations where they get to face these feelings of inadequacy.

In addition, the decision-making process in many United Church of Canada congregations is extremely cumbersome. Permission-giving requires several layers of approval and long delays. The cumbersome decision-making processes aim at ensuring that the activities of the church are done successfully. Fearing failure and disorder, the system puts measures into place to protect itself against a loss of control. The congregation is not encouraged or permitted to risk bold ventures in faith. As a result, it becomes difficult for a congregation to remain flexible enough to respond to fresh leading from the Spirit. The system becomes tame and timid. Its decisions become passive and reactive rather than creative and innovative.

It is as people are pushed beyond what they are already capable of doing  that they are forced to learn to depend more deeply upon God’s grace. As they find themselves in situations where their own strength is not enough, they are driven to praying deeper prayers. A community that expects to experience and acknowledge failure also finds that it needs to cultivate the challenging Christian practices of being forgiven and forgiving and beginning again.

Sadly, when people who are looking for fullness of life and daring adventure don’t find it in the church, they go elsewhere. The church then not only misses out on the energy and new life that comes through those who are willing to take bold risks. The church also is deprived of those persons who would encourage the whole congregation to be more bold and courageous in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.


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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

Some structures encourage a culture of passivity. In most United Church of Canada congregations, the current model of church is structured in ways which give the message that the ‘real minister’ is the appointed or settled ordered ministry personnel. For example:
* Meetings of the congregation’s Board or Council cannot be held without the ordered minister present;

* Until recent changes allowing ‘sacraments elders’ and diaconal ministers to administer the sacraments, only ordained ministers could do so.
* According to the Manual, the Session is responsible for the conduct of worship in a congregation. However, many Session members are unaware that they have this responsibility and authority. In practice, it is often the ordered minister who makes the decisions about what will and will not take place. This may also be the case for other committees and functions in the congregation, especially where the ordered minister is the chair of the committee.
* Worship spaces are often set up to facilitate the leadership or performance of the few, especially of the presiding minister and preacher. Typically, one third of the space is reserved for the presider/minister, the choir and the music director. The lighting, sound system and acoustics primarily accommodate the needs of the few who lead worship from the front of the sanctuary.
* Congregations are required to provide money and time for continuing education for their ordered ministry personnel; training for ministry leadership and/or faith formation of all the people is often not included in congregational budgets. When churches cut their budgets, programming areas are often the first to be cut back.

* In most congregations, pastoral care is considered to be primarily the work of ministry staff, rather than the work of the whole Body of Christ for one another. Often people don’t consider that they have been visited by ‘the church’ unless an ordered minister has made the visit.

*Until the 2012 General Council, it was the ordered ministry personnel in a congregation who were considered responsible for keeping the ‘peace and good order’ of a congregation and could be sanctioned for disruptions.
These kinds of structures have cultivated a mindset that fuels dependency on ordered ministry personnel. They leave many congregations with over-functioning clergy and many under-functioning members.

The Holy Spirit calls and gifts all the baptized so that the Church can participate in God’s reconciling mission in the world. That mission is large and life-transforming: it heals and makes new; it sets people free and gives them hope and courage and strength; it challenges people to live at their best and to become more than they were before; it shapes communities where authentic life flourishes. As people participate actively in God’s mission, they experience the thrill of doing something significant with their lives.

When the structures of a congregation give real power and authority mostly to ordered ministry personnel, there are few opportunities and little encouragement for the rest of the baptized community to exercise their Spirit-given gifts and callings. Most of the people become passive consumers of the goods and services of the church rather than active participants in God’s mission. People who want to make a difference with their lives look elsewhere to offer their gifts and time and energy. The congregation loses the full expression of its ministry and mission.

On the other hand, when people feel that they have ownership of the work of the congregation, they are motivated to grow in faith and in the exercise of their gifts. Many new and renewing congregations are creating structures that give power and authority to as many people as possible. Some use spiritual gifts inventories to help people discern their gifts and vocations. The primary focus of the structures is on helping people live into their gifts and callings, not on keeping the organization going.

For example, Eagle Ridge United Church in Coquitlam, British Columbia states in its Philosophy of Ministry: “Leaders of healthy churches understand that one of their primary roles is to equip, support, motivate and mentor individuals to become all that God wants them to be . . . Ministry of all Christians is best performed when in line with a person’s life gifts, spiritual gifts, personality type, values and passions. The role of church leadership is to help its members identify their gifts and integrate them with ministries that match their gifts.”  Convinced that every member is called into and gifted for ministry, the congregation invites everyone to take an inventory, LifeKeys. Through an intensive set of exercises that discern a person’s “spirit-given gifts”, personality, values, and passions, LifeKeys helps people discern what the Spirit has called them to do in service to Christ’s mission. The process can be done in a workshop that takes a day and a half, or in an eight to twelve week seminar series. After taking LifeKeys and having its results interpreted, members are encouraged to join Life Groups, small groups of no more than twelve people who gather regularly around a common interest for spiritual growth and nurture.

Its structures include a Ministry Development Team whose purpose is “to facilitate every member of Eagle Ridge United Church to do ministry . . . [by] regularly providing opportunities for members to discover the direction of their ministry through LifeKeys and following up with each LifeKeys graduate to help them either find a ministry of which they can be a part, or assist them in creating a new ministry. This ministry also oversees and supports the LIFE Group ministry”. People are encouraged to join congregational teams based upon their spiritual gifts.
The whole congregation is also encouraged to develop six spiritual practices as a way of journeying deeper into discipleship. Regular opportunities for deepening spiritual practices are offered.

The congregation recognizes that not everyone will sign up for long-term groups. They will, however, sign up for several short-term group experiences over a long period of time. The pastor, Dave Anderson, draws on Kennon Callahan’s distinction between people who are ‘marathoners’ and those who are ‘sprinters’. Most people these days are sprinters, willing to make only short-term commitments. However, sprinters can be encouraged to become ‘serial sprinters’. They will make a number of short-term commitments over extended periods of time. The leadership of the congregation develops its opportunities for spiritual development with that in mind. They have also discovered that people have a hard time committing to weekly gatherings; they are more open to groups that meet every two weeks. The small group ministry is responsive to those realities.

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This is the second in a series of post in which I will be sharing some of the research I have been doing on lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. That work was made possible by a McGeachy scholarship grant from the United Church of Canada Foundation.

The impetus for the research stemmed from an awareness of a growing number of congregations that were relying on lay people to provide leadership on an ongoing basis. I was also becoming aware that there were a number of forces that were making our current model of church and ministry less and less viable. The models of church and ministry with which most congregations operate were created to serve Christendom churches. Christendom began in 313 CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan pronouncing Christianity as the favoured religion of the empire. That was the beginning of an alliance between Christianity and the political and social powers in the culture that continued in the West for over fifteen or sixteen centuries.

In Christendom, the majority of the people considered themselves Christian. They supported the church either through voluntary offerings or, in some times and places, through taxation. There was a coherence between the values and mores of the dominant classes in the culture and what were generally understood to be Christian values. In the Canadian version of Christendom, stores were closed on Sundays; the Lord’s Prayer was said in schools on a daily basis; churches were at the centre of social life (literally and figuratively); politicians consulted with church leaders before making major policy announcements; parents sent or took their children to Sunday School so that the children would learn good moral values and grow up to be good citizens.

In such a context, the normative model for a “successful” mainline church in Canada was a congregation that could afford to support a seminary-trained professional minister and the costs of maintaining a building. Centralized denominational structures had been developed to connect such congregations and provide accountability for them. Para-church organizations emerged that focused on mission outreach, evangelism, and youth ministry. Candidates for ministry had often been nurtured throughout their lives by extensive youth programming, e.g. Sunday Schools, CGIT, TUXIS, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, church camps.

Within our lifetimes, that alliance between Christianity and the culture has been disappearing. Christianity has been disestablished as the official and dominant religion in our culture. (Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has written extensively about the disestablishment of the churches and what this means for the way they function).  It has been pushed to the margins in power and influence and popular support. As Christianity settles more and more deeply into its minority status in North America, many congregations can no longer afford to pay for full-time, seminary-trained ministry personnel. People contemplating ordered ministry often cannot afford the cost of the formal seminary education that is required by many denominations. Personal circumstances may also make it difficult to leave their families for extended periods of time to get that education.

The current models of church and ministry are becoming less and less viable. At the same time, new forms of church and new ways of leadership are emerging across the country. Faith communities are finding new ways of being led. More accurately, the Holy Spirit is raising up new leaders for new forms of church. These leaders have often not been through the officially sanctioned pathways of education and credentialing. They do not plan to do so. That does not mean that these people are uninterested in being trained and equipped for their leadership. It signals that the institutional requirements no longer fit the realities of the post-Christendom context.

As has often been the case in the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit is on the move and the structures and systems are struggling to catch up. Sometime the system tries to manage the disconnect between the structures and the new realities by attempting to fix the existing structures. What is needed instead is to discern what new life the Spirit is creating and, therefore, what kinds of structures will most faithfully nurture and nourish that new life.

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I was recently reading another comment about the church being too pre-occupied with the maintenance of an institution, the balancing of budgets, the putting of people into our empty pews, the upkeep of buildings. I agree that the church does not exist for its own self-perpetuation; that the main business of the church is not keeping an organization going, and that our pre-occupation ought to be with God and God’s mission in the world. That said, however, I also know that it is not a simple either/or. Our churches, as they currently exist, have organizational structures that need tending and buildings that need maintaining and budgets that need to be met. We cannot simply ignore those realities for the sake of getting on with ‘mission’.

This is not merely a matter of practicalities. Christianity is an incarnational faith. We live out our discipleship in bodies who meet in concrete places. A few years ago, a nearby congregation’s building burned down. For two years, while they were deciding whether or not to rebuild, they did not have a physical presence in the community. Their minister commented to me that this was a real impediment to their mission in the community. People looking for assistance did not know how to contact them. A building (which requires maintenance, and therefore a budget to maintain it and governing structures to oversee the work that had to be done to maintain it) provided a visible sign to the community of the place where mission was happening.

To free ourselves from pre-occupation with maintenance issues may seem like a wonderful ideal; however, the way forward probably is more complex than that. It is a matter of balancing the concrete tasks of a congregation being physically present  in a neighbourhood with the desire to be engaged in the mission of the church. Streamlining the governance structure of a congregation can help ensure that most of the energy of a congregation is freed up for mission. We don’t really need 20 people sitting around a table to make all the decisions that need to be made.

The challenge I am noticing is that, in a congregation where there are too few people still able to keep the building and the governance structure going, it is difficult to move the congregation into mission. It isn’t simply a matter of getting rid of the building. It is a large, old structure. Maintaining it is costly and time-consuming. Tearing it down would be so costly that it would essentially end the presence of the church in that location. There would be no money left for rebuilding. In that case, the question is, “Is there still a mission in this place?” What would be lost if the church were to disappear?

Many congregations are facing that question. Many communities are going to find the answers — long after the church buildings are gone. Perhaps we should not be so ready to ‘call it quits’ for the institutional church. Denominational energy could be focussed on helping the congregations that do exist to thrive. Dr. Maurice Boyd used to say, “When people tell me that they don’t like organized religion, I reply, ‘You prefer disorganized religion?'” We may not like the energy that is spent on administration, governance, maintenance in our current structures. However, some structures are necessary. Let’s give some attention to making those structures life-giving and Spirit-bearing.



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One of the most helpful notions in Roxburgh and Romanuk’s book The Missional Leader is the assertion that we live in a time of discontinuous change. “Vision statements”, “Mission statements”, “goals and objectives” work only in times of continuous change, i.e. when a reasonable guess about the future can be deduced from the past. In times of discontinuous change, the way forward cannot be forecast based on what went before. The way forward must be sought through small experiments: discerning one step ahead; trying something and seeing how it works; figuring out the next step ahead.

Part of the difficulty that congregations face is that this process often needs to happen on multiple levels in the life of the congregation — governance, worship, spiritual formation, pastoral care, outreach, stewardship. It can feel overwhelming.
I have proposed to the Official Board in my congregation that we embark on a two-year experiment where we identify congregations that are doing well in each of these areas. For each area, we would invite teams from those congregations to Central for a day or weekend of learning from each other. A team from Central would consider what they heard from the other congregations with this question in mind: “What do we think might work at Central?” They would try out some of those ideas over a six-month period of time. After six months, each team from Central would re-evaluate where the church is at and what it might need to do next.
In the meantime, and as a way of helping people think through some of the issues related to each area, I have pulled together a list of some convictions I have developed over 28 years in ministry, much of that time with congregations in transition. My hope is that this will stimulate some discussion.

As a way of getting started, here’s what I have discovered about governance in the church:

1) God has provided all the resources needed to do the mission that God intends to do through Central United Church. Therefore, we need to stop the endless recruiting for positions/tasks/ committees/ projects that we have always done or think we should be doing. We need to stop trying to convince people to do something out of guilt or sense of duty. Instead, we need to find out who the people are whom the Spirit has placed among us and ask: What gifts/passion/ energies have they received?

2) Some people will have been gifted to take care of the structures so that the mission of others can be supported. The governance structures need to be organized in such a way that decision-making happens in streamlined ways (de-centralized, agile, able to respond quickly). Those people who have been gifted in governance need to be able to do their work without having to go through endless committees to do what they have been mandated to do. 

3) The focus of the structures needs to be on equipping the people of God to be God’s mission in the world. This entails being outwardly focused rather than on doing what needs to be done to maintain the institution. 

4) We need to develop permission-giving structures that support/nurture/train/hold accountable the people God has gifted.

5) We need to stop overworking the people in the maintenance of the congregation’s institutional life. One way to do that is to limit the number of involvements each person has. For example, if someone is already serving on two committees, they should not be assigned to any other tasks.

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