Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On Constitutions and By-Laws and Rules

The wise man once said that constitutions and by-laws are only important in conflict. Most congregations consult their constitutions and by-laws only when there is a question or a challenge. The rest of the time lip service is paid to these rules that define and govern us but as long as no one objects we do what we want. But when disagreements arise, then the almighty rule book becomes more important than anything else.

The constitution and by-laws of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has grown to some 200 pages following a major revision in 1998 which was put into effect in 2004. The only problem is that this was not a neat and clean process so there are overlapping rules, confused processes, unclear responsibilities, and conflicting provisions. All of this will, of course, be corrected when a top down restructuring of Synod takes place at the Convention in Houston this summer (did you wince? I did).

Individual congregational constitutions are also in play. In part this is the result of local rule books which must be consistent with the national rule books. In part this is because congregations are using all sorts of structures -- from Pastors running the show as virtual CEO's of the congregation (ala PLI and other groups) to the old fashioned voters assembly without such modern amenities as a council, boards or committees -- just elders and trustees.

Of course all of this would be made easier if common sense were less uncommon and there was more churchmanship in the church. Rule books are being made increasingly difficult because the common good, the common interest, is so hard to hold on to in an age of competing groups, self-interests, and insistence upon "my rights."

We have youth ministry, senior ministry, couples ministry, family ministry, singles ministry, campus ministry. . . well, you get the picture. I wonder if we have not fractured the church around these ministries to the point where there is too little held in common by all? We have traditional, blended, contemporary, and seeker services to cater to changing tastes and whims. We segregate Bible studies by age, marital status, family size, life point, etc... We have musicians down front, center stage, and treat the worship service as if it were America's got talent -- because everyone deserves a chance to show off in front of everyone else.

I do not mean to suggest that things have been much different ever -- they have not -- but what we have done of late is institutionalize these things and legitimize these divisions and identities to the point where rights become the predominant perspective -- and when we find ourselves talking exclusively of rights, we inevitably talk constitutions, by-laws, policies and procedures.

We have harvested forests of trees for the Congregational Treasurer's manuals, the Handbooks for this and that, the volumes of SOP (Standard Operating Procedures), and the rule books to explain the rule books. It has forced us to define our life together less from the stand point of grace and more from the perspective of me, my wants, my desires, my rights...

Don't get me wrong -- I am no antinomian. I think it is a good thing to have a constitution and by-laws. I would just prefer them to be brief and to the point -- leaving room for flexibility as well as adjustments for the future. Sort of the genius of the American constitution?! But I know that as soon as there is a disagreement, we will hear the cry to batten down the hatches and seal up all the loose ends. Except that you can never do that in life.

So I prefer to live in grace... and if that means charity instead of walking in lock step, then I vote for charity, with personal responsibility, and with the view that the individual is not of greater worth than the whole. It seems that one of by the consequences of following Paul's logic about the body parts who cannot reject each other or live apart from each other, is that the whole of the body is greater than each individual part. It goes against our American ideal of individuality and rights that protect even the minority of one but it is Biblical.

I wish that we could approach some of the conflicts and problems in the church more with view of what is good for the whole body and less with rules, articles, sub-articles, and by-laws. But that might require more of that uncommon virtue of common sense and more of that churchmanship that is in seemingly short supply in the church. We are not Methodists with our Book of Discipline (though I am told this book has lost some of its cache'). We are not Roman Catholics with canon law and canon lawyers. We are Lutherans and our Confessions were not meant to be rule books but evangelical calls to life together in which Word and Sacrament, Law and Gospel, speak to us, shape us, identity us, and guide what we do. Increasingly detached from them we rely more on rule books and constitutions and by-laws. That saddens me.

Well, there is my rambling for today... take it for what it is worth...

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