Wednesday, October 05, 2011

why congregations need denominations

Years ago a friend who had served very effectively in a United Methodist Church moved to another city to join the staff of a non-denominational megachurch. He is gifted in youth ministry and music and became a worship leader in the new setting. When I was there for a meeting later I joined them for worship on a Wednesday night. Over time we remained friends, even as I had questions about the megachurch as the only model for ministry (at that time this seemed to be a given in clergy gatherings).

A few years later I learned that my friend was no longer on the staff. The senior (and founding) pastor had met with him in the office and shared very simply that the church's vision was leading them into a new direction. My friend had no recourse to make his own case or to interpret his own ministry.

More recently, I learned that another friend who has served for a number of years in a non-denominational community church would be leaving. It seems that this church had begun two different worship services to complement its traditional offering; over time, the worship leaders of these two services simply took their communities (which constituted several hundred people) and began new congregations, using the same names the services had been given in the former church in new locations. The church will now enter into an interim season, seeking to pick up the fragments of what is left over, and the pastor will, over time, seek a new call.

I share these two experiences alongside a comment I came across years ago: every church and every member of the clergy, over a span of time, needs to belong to a denomination. I serve as a district superintendent, and I am aware of the church's imperfections, and my own. I watch over 69 local churches and a few assorted institutions within our geographical boundaries, and we are at work on the development of a new church plant and the development of a missional church network. At any given time about 3-5 of these churches are in real crisis: they are in need of outside intervention, mediation, conflict resolution and spiritual guidance. A denomination, at its best, provides a framework for the protection of the clergy in a workplace and supervision of even the most powerful clergy leaders. In addition, a denomination works out the implications of a missional strategy in an area that is more nuanced than simply whatever the market can bear.

I share these experiences at a time when there is much rhetoric around moving energy, resources and attention to the local church. I love the local church. It is the basic context for the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. At the same time, the local church will, on occasion, be stronger as it accomplishes mission that is beyond its own capacity, and as it is accountable to a wisdom that is outside its own day to day movements. Here the analogy of Ronald Heifitz of the dance and the balcony is helpful. Faithful congregations and clergy are engaged in the dance, the daily and weekly movements that, added together, shape parish life: worship, spiritual formation, pastoral care, local and global outreach, evangelism. A balcony perspective, in times of health and in times of crisis, will help the local church to sustain this activity. The absence of such a balcony perspective, in particular circumstances, can lead to chaos and a constricting of the movement of energy. A denomination, at its best, provides that balcony perspective: a person in authority who can intervene in a season of conflict, or a compelling and needed mission that can lift the vision of a community beyond itself.

Yes, in many instances, and in the best of times, we can function without denominations. But we are not always at our best, taking into account our temptation to turn in upon ourselves (and the reformers defined sin in this way) and the complexity of creating and sustaining community. I am convinced that every church and every member of the clergy, over a span of time, needs to belong to a denomination.

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Blogger Dalton said...

Amen, amen, amen. There is work to be done at the congregational level, but not at the expense of the greater denomination. Otherwise we are just lone prophets in the wilderness. Let us reaffirm that the whole, with God's help, is greater than the sum of it's parts!

6:10 AM  
Blogger Travis Greene said...

In the first example, the problem is not about congregationalism per se but autocratic leadership. The second example, honestly, I fail to see as a necessarily bad thing. Dividing like a cell is not a bad form of replication. In either case, the church does not exist to give pastors jobs. We can be connected to other congregations and the wider body of Christ (and well we should) without being hierarchically related.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Dana said...

Certainly you're right about the necessity of Heifetz' "balcony perspective" and the pressing need to care for clergy in broken and breaking systems. And larger networks that draw local communities into the broader work of God in the world are also essential. Denominations - especially the UMC with its connectional nature - serve great good in connecting God's people and preserving particular theological traditions.

But denominational structures are not the only ways to work at and care for these concerns of the church, and the trouble comes when the pressures of maintaining a gargantuan institutional structure impede upon the pressing and immediate needs of local communities. "Every...member needs to belong to a denomination" sounds very much to me like a requirement that - intentionally or not - often stifles the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is moving, now, both within established denominational structures AND outside them.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

Ken, Right on target. I fear we are failing to see the value of denominational connections in the current discussions in The United Methodist Church and are moving toward an outmoded management model in the IOT proposal that does not strengthen, but, in fact, is blind to the value of the system that connects us in mission and ministry.

We have scope and scale when we are together and seek to transform the world. It's strategic and effective.

It's misunderstood, and it's assumed it's more costly when, in fact, it isn't. Much as U.S. citizens believe "foreign aid" is too expensive when it's only2% of the budget. About the same for the church and it's general agency costs.

5:16 AM  
Blogger Karlos said...

concerning new church plants and especially those who simply leave an established congregation with bruises left behind I think we should affirm that what God often allows is not always what God always approves. The individualism which has taken over our world is truly present in the church today and everyone claiming to be led by the Spirit simply follows our egos while refusing to submit to anyone. The spirit of the age is alive in the church

2:12 PM  
Blogger Gabe H said...

I am spending this year working at churches of various denominations and "non-denominations," in an effort to learn what purpose denominations are serving in the 21st century culture of free choice.

As that description indicates, I have been primarily approaching the question of denominations from the perspective of the churchgoer - not the clergy or the denominational hierarchy. Thank you for raising an important point about the purpose of denominations in providing some "checks and balances," so to speak.

I think we should still be concerned about denominations' willingness to divide and form new sects every time a divisive issue arises (a large reason I joined the UMC is because of its ability to foster constructive dialogue without splitting over disagreements). Yet, you make a good point that the existence of some sort of institution is often very helpful, as opposed to a completely independent local church.

7:37 AM  

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