Friday, May 14, 2010

Congregational Governance

Missouri has probably more congregations still using the voters system of congregational governance that other Lutherans -- by this I mean voters without a council or board of directors.  My home congregation still uses a voters systems with trustees and elders as the only committees and nearly all decisions major or minor are made by the assembled all male voters.  I am sure they are in a minority but that is the system they still keep.

On the other hand I know of congregations using modified board of directors structures with but one congregational wide meeting annually.  The business is mostly electing and adopting a budget or spending plan.  The rest of the business of the congregation is handled either by church staff or these board of directors (generally acting in terms of larger principles, goals, or policies and not in specific business items).
Somewhere in the middle are the myriad of forms of governance with voters who meet for certain questions or functions and a church council that is made up of directors or chairpeople (what a weird word) who represent specific areas of responsibility (evangelism, education, stewardship, property, music, youth, etc.).

There are even some congregations (some tending to the charismatic end of things and some involved with things like TCN) where the congregations attempt an apostolic style group of twelve elders appointed as a spiritual counsel with Pastors who function like the head elder and the CEO of the business of the congregation.  Some will probably comment on this but I am sure the numbers of congregations using this are small.

For all the cyber ink spilled in this area, most people in the pew are not all that interested in governance.  This is attested to by the nearly universal problem in finding people to accept nomination to office and the complaints by many of how few folks actually show up at the voters meetings. I was once asked if I would attend voters meetings if I were not the Pastor and I had to beg off speculative answers (translate that, NO).

That said, a few observations might be in order.  Voters meetings, like constitutions, become important only when there is conflict or a big issue facing folks.  Building, buying, calling, or a hymnal issue is surely able to bring out a decent crowd.  And this is how it should be -- when facing big issues we all chip in and work through to the answer (with the hope that all of us share the goal of the best of the Church and its ministry and not some other agenda).

Speaking of agenda, the problem with voters meetings is the agenda.  Some meetings drone on repeating things that were previously published in the newsletter, announced in the bulletin, and read out loud in oral reports.  Why do we drone on endlessly repeating what has already been said?  It is no wonder people judge these meetings as unimportant or redundant.  The other problem is the lack of an agenda.  When there is no agenda, the agenda is either complaint or display or oratorical rhetoric or, my favorite, in the church I grew up in or used to belong to or across town they. . . .   In a time when people see their lives are busy and their time as one of their most precious commodities, let us at least do them the favor of an agenda and moving the meeting along to its announced purpose and then adjourn.

The last point is also about the agenda -- the agenda of some who come to meetings for but one purpose:  to demonstrate their, ah, well, as Pastor Weedon put it so well, their gift of negativity.  I have sat through meetings that were simply forums for these nattering nabobs of negativity (cool line penned by William Safire for VP Spiro T. Agnew).  These folks have a complaint and have voiced it and had it answered over and over again but they did not like the answer and so they raise the ante by making it public.  Or these are folks who have complaints flowing from different areas of their lives but since there is no voters meeting at work or at school or in the neighborhood or in the community, they hijack the church's forum to voice their discontent on just about everything.  At these meetings we generally hope for few folks in attendance so that the negativity does not become the seed of a weed that takes over God's pasture in this place.  Just the opposite is the case.  It is at these meetings we need people who will vocalize their confidence in their Pastor and parish leaders, who will evangelically defend and support them, and who will counter the stream of negativity with the dam of kindness, hopefulness, and goodness.  When people with the, ah, gift of negativity, encounter such an outpouring of kindness and support, it provides a more profound and effective way of isolating this negativity instead of engaging it on its own terms and with the same style.

All in all it might we may lament the lower attendance at meetings than in the past, but, as one member who does NOT attend put it... I do not attend because I believe that the people elected are capable and faithful, I have plenty of information provided to me on what was decided and why, I believe that you are a good Pastor, and I trust in the wisdom and decisions of you all for my church.  He was trying to turn his non-attendance into a vote of confidence in the way things are going... and, though some might not see it this way, he was correct in his thinking.  He did have confidence in his Pastor and elected leaders and this was the reason he did not attend.

So I am not as excited by low attendance at voters meetings as I am those within the congregation who are regularly absent from the Lord's Table, distant from the Bible study and teaching opportunities provided by the parish, and not involved in the work of the kingdom that goes forth in this place and from this place.  This is the area where I think we need to focus our attention in my parish and in most parishes across the Synod...


SKPeterson said...

As a layman, I would observe that much of the actual business of the congregation takes place on Sundays, after services and Sunday school, around fellowship and a cup or two of coffee. Here is where problems are voiced, discussed, solutions debated and issues defused. This is another aspect of regular attendance to services - it has been a further observation that often the most negative speakers at meetings are either those that do not attend regularly and/or keep to themselves after worship and do not engage their fellow parishioners. I cannot help but make the connection between the attitude and the attendance.

Carl Vehse said...

This discussion of the problems resulting in low attendence at voters assembly meetings is good. It is surprising to me that the committee chairmen, who are business and professional people and who would never permit wasted meeting in their own businees or company, don't seem to mind when voters assembly meetings are run with disarray.

Another point about agendas is the case when congregational voters see the presented agenda as simply getting a "rubber stamp" approval of whatever the council or committee proposes with as little discussion (and questioning) prior to the vote (or even prior to the meeting) as possible.

When voters meetings are called with little explanation of what is to be decided, or when questions are answered with euphemisms or tapdancing replies, this eventually results in voter meeting attendance consisting of the council/committee members and their spouses.

Anonymous said...

>> often the most negative speakers at meetings are either those that do not attend regularly

Oh yeah, my congregation has a few C/E/VA members... (seen Christmas, Easter, and Voters Assembly)

Our VA follows the service, one fellow actually skips the service and attends the meeting only!