Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Future of Denominations -- Including Mine

I am a Disciples of Christ Pastor.  I came to this place in ministry from a place very different from where I am today.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn't grow up Disciple.  I was born, baptized, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church.  I served as an acolyte, sang in the choir, and served as a lay reader.  Later, in High School, I had a crisis of faith, and joined with a Foursquare Church, staying there through college.  By the end of college, I was having struggles with the theological sensibilities of my chosen church home, and being that I was at a Disciples school, ended up imbibing the ethos of that church.  My history professor at Northwest Christian College (now University), Dennis Helsabeck, helped me with this transition.  Even after that, however, I spent time at a Covenant Church, some Baptist churches, and a Presbyterian church (some of that since being ordained as a Disciple).  I went to Fuller Seminary, which is not linked to any particular denomination.

But, I have found a home in the Disciples.  At the same time, even as I'm firmly planted within the Disciples ethos -- appreciating both its emphasis on freedom and its emphasis on unity -- I recognize that the church is much bigger than any one denomination.  Denominational traditions are like families.  Each has its own ethos and sensibilities.  We see it expressed in worship, in preaching, and in outreach efforts.  As Disciples we celebrate the Lord's Supper every Sunday and baptize upon profession of faith.  But again, the church is larger than the denomination.

As we think about the institutional part of the church -- and I'm not sure that the church can avoid this institutional aspect -- the question remains, what purpose do those entities beyond the local congregation serve?

 That question is addressed in an interview, which is found both in print and on video at the Duke Divinity School's Faith and Leadership website with Cynthia Hale.  Cynthia is pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church, a predominantly African American congregation in Georgia, which is among the largest of the Disciple churches.  She offered a prayer at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service (at which our mutual General Minister, Rev. Sharon Watkins, preached.  She speaks to the question of what "services" these entities provide local congregations, and notes that the General Church, what some might call the top level, is often distant from the local congregation.   Now, she pastors a mega-church, and as such it outsizes the reach of most regions.  Her congregation has more money and more staff -- I'm assuming -- than the region has.  So, what is the relationship?
She suggests that the local church is the foundation.  The other manifestations (a Disciple term to get around hierarchicalism) seem to be dying or shrinking.  The Michigan region, for instance, is struggling to call a Regional Minister.  Where are the funds going to come from?  Even as local churches struggle to pay their bills, they find it difficult to justify sending funds to the other parts of the church.  Interestingly, one of the areas she believes regions (especially) can assist local churches is in supporting and empowering pastors.  But, as a mega-church pastor, she wonders who will be her pastor, since she is already serving as a mentor to other pastors (an unofficial bishop) and her regional minister is stretched well beyond his limits (I could say the same about my own).

You will have to click here to view the video.  I hope you'll check out this discussion and then come back here and offer your thoughts about this important question.  What is the future of the denomination?


Rebecca Bowman Woods said...

I agree with what Cynthia Hale says here. Now, Disciples will tell you that there's no "heirarchy" and that the general and regional levels don't have 'power over' pastors and congregations, but that's simply not true. They don't have as much power as in, say, the United Methodist or Roman Catholic churches. But many of the decisions that impact pastors and congregations are made at these two levels. Two examples: standards for ordained ministry, and the Search and Call system. In theory, individuals and congregations have input into things like this. But in practice, the general and regional churches control much of it.

And so back to Hale's comments - if that's going to be the role for general and regional levels, then do congregations need someone in that role? If congregations are focused on local mission (which is the vision that is helping many of them revitalize) then they probably don't need the other levels as much. If, on the other hand, the general and regional manifestations find ways to serve and support pastors and congregations as they engage in local mission and ministry, then perhaps denominations can survive. I don't think they'll totally go away - certain ministries and entities will remain, and congregations will support those directly (disaster relief and global mission, for example).

Bill R-H said...

Cynthia articulates realities and visions that we in the NW Area of the Mid-America region wholeheartedly affirm. Serving congregational leaders is our reason for being and in serving them we extend their reach and ability to serve and support disciples in their congregations. We know of other middle judicatory cohorts that are moving in that direction.

Added to that, however, is our growing desire to reclaim the Disciples quest for helping the Body of Christ to incarnate the gift of unity that God has already given to the church, so, we think that our work in the middle judicatory is also to serve and support the work of the whole Body in local communities and we continue to prepare so as to become more effective at that over time.

Imagine if - rather than to perpetuate the myth that any denomination IS or symbolizes the whole Body of Christ - Disciples would become known as those who are amazingly effective at serving and supporting the Body-in-Mission in local communities? And what if middle and general judicatories became really great at helping Disciples congregations to own that calling and cooperate with that gift for the sake of advancing the work of Christ in the world?