It is easier to “run” a church when leadership is centralized and accountability to the congregation is minimized.
Pastors of my generation, those going into church ministry in the 70s and 80s, ran smack dab into the “church by committee” phenomenon. One church I know had only 25 in attendance and 26 committees. It was chaos of another kind. The emphasis today is central planning and top-down leadership structures. Hardly anything can “bubble up” from the people. It all floats downstream now.
I am learning to distrust this process.
In the tradition of which I am a part, Baptist, the emphasis is on the church as a spiritual democracy where the ultimate authority under Christ is exercised by the will of the congregation directed by the Bible and influence of the Holy Spirit. This is a hard model to trust. The threat of chaos and congregational politics seems ready at any moment to turn over the ship. It is much easier to make a case for an eldership vested with the power to rule and lead on the part of the congregation but without the democratic checks and balances.
On the surface, it seems much easier to make a case for this from the Bible. When you read the pastoral epistles, the amount of authority invested in the leadership seems rather immense and centralized. But I think that this is a “first reading” response. Look broader and peer deeper into the Bible and the case for congregationalism seems as valid, and I think more so.
But in addition to the biblical arguments, I have growing concerns that have as much to do with church cultures.
1. Congregationalism has more generational power. Leadership driven churches tend to be episodic based on charismatic personalities who demonstrate unusual abilities to lead and motivate. But when the leader goes (or leaders) the church finds that it is not capable of an adult-like self rule. They are infants when it comes to managing the church. Congregationally driven churches tend more to be able to pass the church from one generation to the next.
2. The abuse of power is increasingly becoming par and not the exception. A “sunlight” mode of operation keeps the church on the up and up, at least more so than the tendencies of the leadership driven model. I am constantly amazed by the number of things hidden from the church in most church cultures, including how much their staff really do make.
3. As socio-economic indicators move up in the culture in which we minister and educational levels increase there is more opportunity for inclusiveness in self-rule.
4. As churches develop oversight and leadership task groups to manage the ministry, more and more people are introduced to the facets of church life. Staff driven churches can be a waste of a lot of money and keep ministry from the people. As churches do a good job of training its groups and equipping them for ministry, more and more of the church is “owned” by the people.
5. All churches are in fact congregationally determined anyway. The people do get their way as every pastor finds out. They will vote by how much they give and how much they attend. And when they do, the leadership finds out that the church really does determine the outcomes. Of course, leadership driven churches are comfortable with people who want to have their say moving on, feeling confident that they can replace them with people who will not want to have their say. Sometimes they pull this off. Most of the time they do not. It is not easy to trade up, and most pastor find themselves on the short end of the trade when they try to pull it off.
6. Congregationalism makes us work at peace and harmony. Leadership driven churches take the short-cut, which is to cut short the opposition. But it leads to a lot of blood on the floor. The amount of blood on the floor in a lot of these churches is more akin to slaughter houses than houses of shalom. They might grow a bit, but the smell of blood lingers and the pastor finds himself awake in the middle of the night with so many broken relationships that that he has lost count.
7. Congregationally driven churches tend to handle pastoral transition better. The church as the people stays. Pastors come and go. This does not minimize the role of the pastor. It merely recognizes that the church is not its pastor.
These are some of the things I have been thinking about. I want to write more about this.
But there is one final consideration that makes me open to a more democratic version of church life. Me! I have found that I am not as wise as I thought I was, and that the people were more right than I thought they were. I should listen more and distrust less. There are many times when the church let me have my way. They shouldn’t have. They should have stood up to me and forced me to face where I was going and where things would end up. I look back now and see how kind they were being to me, how loving, how willing to put themselves last rather than first. They were simply more mature than I was and let me hang myself and then loosed the rope before I gasped my last breath.