The Death of Middle Judicatories and why that's not a good thing!

Since moving to Michigan I've become ever more deeply involved in the regional manifestation of my denomination.  I've long been active in local clergy and interfaith groups, leading and founding some of them.  But, by and large I've stayed out of the "bureaucracy," leaving that to others.  Part of this previous avoidance can be explained by my physical distance from the center of things.  I did, however, maintain a strong relationship with my regional minister, which proved helpful in difficult times.  But I can no longer avoid my responsibilities.  I may live no closer to the regional office than before, but in a smaller region, and as pastor of one of the regions stronger congregations (even though we're not that large) -- one which contributes an out-sized amount of funding and persons to the regional denominational life -- I now have responsibilities I previously avoided!  (I am now chair of the Ecumenism Commission -- a one person committee at this time -- and a member of Church Growth and Revitalization Commission.  Oh, and one half of the Transitional Regional Minister team is a member of my congregation.

I give you this information so as to set a context for introducing an important article entitled "The Death of the Middle Judicatory," by Dick Hamm.  Dick is the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a consultant with The Columbia Partnership.    Before becoming the GMP (how do you like that acronym) of the CC (DOC), Dick served as Regional Minister of the Tennessee Region.  Dick has been there and done that, and has learned a few things along the way about the role of the "middle judicatory" (an unfortunate term in my mind) for healthy congregations.  There was a day, not that long ago, maybe 25 years ago, when regions (the DOC term) had healthy budgets and healthy staffs.  I remember when I was ordained in 1985, the Christian Church in the Pacific Southwest had a regional minister and two full-time associates, plus support staff.  We had fully staffed committees and districts that met regularly.  That is no longer true there, and many regions, mine included struggle for survival.  Indeed, that's why many of them, mine included, are in a "transitional" mode.  We are looking at what can be done to save the regions, if they are meant to survive.  And that's the big question.  Many church folk, clergy and laity alike don't see the necessity (until they're in a crisis).  They don't see the relevancy (until they're at each other's throats).

That brings me to Dick's article.  He begins by pointing out the precipice that we're sitting on, and reminding us that healthy regions can be helpful to healthy congregations.  Unfortunately, staffs and resources have diminished so that regional staff spend much of their time putting out one fire after another (even in a small region).  There is little or no time for creative response or work, because you're spending 80 hours a week just bailing water.  And that's unfortunate, because like government, regions and denominations have important roles to play in the life of the local units.  Indeed, Dick provides a wonderful analogy:

Middle judicatories provide the connective tissue between congregations and their wider church family or denomination. Or, to use another biological image, middle judicatories are like the arteries and veins of denominations. When the flow in one of these vessels is partially blocked or cut-off, bad things happen both to the local and to the whole.
  The problem is that many middle judicatories are functioning as if this were still the 1950s or 1960s, using a hub and spokes model of relationship with congregations, with the Regional Minister/Bishop being the Hub.  Things are just too complex today, and there is much greater diversity than ever before, and so the old model is failing -- but are we ready to try a new model?  That is the question. 

Dick talks about three kinds of Middle Judicatories -- Heroes (the ones who devote 80 hours a week trying to make this thing work), Slaves (do whatever must be done), and Change Agents.  What we need are change agents, but too many judicatories (don't you hate that word/) are stuck in the other two modes of being (probably true of pastors as well).  

So, here is his definition of a change agent -- are we ready to embrace this kind of leadership?
The change agents are the ones who recognize that 1960 is gone and never coming back and who, in the midst of doing the necessary each day (though not everything that presents itself as urgent), are also working at bringing transformational change to the middle judicatory so that it can become an effective servant of the church once again. This is hard work, it takes time, and it demands some of the best leaders (just as the transformation of congregations demands some of the best leaders). As the old saying goes, when you are up to your hips in alligators, it is hard to remember that the original objective was to drain the swamp! To do so requires spiritual as well as emotional and professional discipline, it requires frequently getting up on the balcony to see the bigger picture.
We must pray that such leaders will come to the fore, not just to save the middle judicatory, but so that our congregations can live healthy, productive, missional lives!

To read the entire article, click here


Keith Watkins said…
Bob, I had already read Dick's essay, but appreciate your posting it, too. Twenty years ago, I wrote a rather long, never published essay on this general topic, although my approach was from a different perspective. I will look in my papers for this old piece of work and, if I find it, read it and Dick's paper side by side. Who knows what I will decide about the subject. In Oregon, our team (Doug Wirt and Cathy Myers-Wirt) do much that's good. I'm not sure where to place them on the scale that Dick lays out.

Thank you for your comments. I think that there are really good people out there, who understand that the world has changed. But there are a lot of others, who don't, or at least aren't ready to live into this new age.

From what I've heard about the Michigan search, which has been postponed as we rework the regional structure and solidfy finances, is that many prospective candidates wanted to come in and have full staffs, and operate like RM did a generation ago. That can't happen when about 12 churches are contributing to the pot -- and about 2 churches make up about half of that giving. I shall not mention which is the top giver!

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