For a very long time we have presumed that service and governance are the same. It is easy to understand why. There was a need early in the life of the church to organize what had become chaotic and burdensome. Think of Acts 6-7 and the setting apart of deacons. Too much was put on the plates of too few and so another office was created. The formal structure of things (the three fold pattern of ministry) was the church's response to such disorder and overwhelming responsibility. The trouble is that the work of the Church and how we govern ourselves can sometimes be at odds with each other When there is no heart to serve, governance becomes a big problem. When governance is messed up, it impedes the heart to serve. Both of these can create conflict that works against the sense of community or fellowship of the people of God. We all know this.
The models we have used to organize the Church have tended to mirror the political and cultural realities around us. In America that means we organized ourselves democratically with holding office and the vote were the big deal. At least, that is how it was. Now voting and office holding are not so big but doing things is. In effect, we find ourselves recruiting people more for the formal structure of the organization of the congregation instead of recruiting them to do what needs to be done. In most parishes this means we are spending more time on the governance than on the doing of the work God has called us to do and finding it all, on the whole, less than satisfying. In fact, we complain bitterly about the task of finding people to run for office and then fulfill the typical pattern of office holding -- holding meetings where we plan and discuss things but often fail to do much.
Governance is not unimportant but it is not the primary thing the Church does. What the Church does, what God has given us to do, really sits on the fringe of or outside the realm of governance. When things do not work well, we tend to reorganize the formal structures (of denominations as well as congregations). But all of this effort can sometimes steal the thunder away from the things we are to be doing as the Church. Our most basic purpose is to gather around the Word and Sacraments through which God works in us and equips us to do His bidding in the world. Often this can feel like the periphery of the main work of dealing with property and facilities, running programs, and managing the business of the Church.
Part of the reason for this is that we live in a world in which the high value is placed on goods and services and, today, consumer satisfaction. We end up echoing the business strategies for success we hear in the world around us instead of heeding the voice of God and doing what God has called us to do -- both clergy and lay. The Church is not a business and the congregation, no matter how we organize, is not in business to do what businesses do and our success cannot be measured the way businesses do. We cannot purchase success nor can we organize for success. We are to be faithful. Of course, that faithfulness is not simply to the means of grace but also extends to the financial and property resources in our care but all of these are tools to support the main thing -- the Divine Service and the witness before the world of God and His rich gifts.
Every congregation has formal leaders who are elected to offices and serve terms. Every congregation has informal leaders who hold no office but whose voice is respected and whose lead is followed; these tend to be long term people within the parish. Every congregation has ad hoc leaders who work on projects or tasks without formal election or even appointment but who get things done. Every congregation has a very few folks who might be paid staff except what they do, they do without compensation -- treasurers, Sunday school superintendents, financial secretaries, etc... who go above and beyond and have for many years. The key lies in not trying to make one group into another but to establish a formal structure to accommodate the informal leaders while building in accountability all the way around and a sense of investment in who the congregation is and what that congregation does. The other key is to keep this from competing with or displacing the core identity and purpose of the Church gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.
The goal ought to be to have every class and level of leaders from the office holders elected to the few who have done the same job forever to train up others who know what is done and can assist or even take over. This does not happen over the short term but is a long term investment in encouraging and raising up leaders over and over again.
Another good thing to remember is that St. Paul did not mean every congregation must do everything when he said he had become all things to all people. This was not a process or governance challenge. So there are things every congregation must do and should do as well as they are able -- excellence is not something reserved for large parishes. Worship and pastoral care are two of the central things that are both the core of the identity and that for which we expend more effort, energy, and resources to do well. Sadly, too many congregations presume that worship can be done on the cheap and that the real focus ought to be on facilities or programs. Wrong. If what happens in the weekly gathering of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord is treated as no big deal or if no investment is made in this assembly, everything else will suffer -- no matter how wonderful the building or the programs! So maybe you cannot do everything you want to do. If you have no small children, why put all your energy into winning over the young family that is being courted by a dozen other congregations? If your people are graying, focus on that age group. They have friends and family who do not belong or attend. Besides, this group is often more open to the invitation than you thought. Maybe you cannot have a school or a sports program or a large choir. Don't beat your head against the wall in pursuit of something that does not fit with who you are. Don't think that turning the chancel into a stage and putting a band up front will pack in people either. As Lutherans you have something to offer which is a "market" without many competitors -- reverent worship, solid hymnody, Law/Gospel preaching, and faithful lifelong catechesis. That is who you are theologically and that is who you need to be in a practical sense to your neighborhood or community.
In the same way, governance can easily be kept light and fluid -- something to fit the size and scope of the parish and not a huge formal structure that requires as much time and energy to maintain as it accomplishes anything. Know who you are as a parish and look at who your leaders are and what kind of leaders they are and then put it together to work in a flexible and fluid way so that you spend your time doing what God has called the congregation to do and aiding the people God has called to do His bidding in the parish and in their homes and in their community. That is the best answer to finding the balance between ordering this appropriately and keeping the focus on the work of the Kingdom. Now if you can give me a quick and easy way to implement this, I want to know about it. That is what we are working on in my parish.
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