Resurrecting the Middle Judicatories

Last week I blogged Dick Hamm's essay written for The Columbia Partnership newsletter, entitled "The Death of the Middle Judicatory."  Since then I've spent part of Friday and most of Saturday at gathering of regional leadership.  Our region, which has a rather small number of churches, and which is spread out across the state of Michigan, finds itself in a difficult situation.  How do we provide effective leadership and support across this vast territory when the funds needed to sustain a traditional regional ministry are not present.   We are in a transitional moment, having called upon two of our own to serve as co-regional ministers for the interim, while we discern a way forward.  We know we need strong leadership for the region, but the question is -- what should this look like.  Before we call someone to this task, it's important that we understand not just the needs, but what the regional structures will look like.  Thus, we're looking at reducing board size (ours is an unwieldy number that includes reps from all congregations, as well as chairs of various commissions and constituency groups), a web site that will allow for better communication, and finding ways of effectively spreading around responsibility for various aspects of church life.  Too often in the region, as in many congregations, staff ends up doing all the work.  That's not healthy for regions or congregations, and its especially not healthy for staff.

As we know with the story of Jesus, even as there is death, so there is also resurrection.  In proclaiming the death of the middle judicatory, Dick Hamm was speaking of the old "hub and spoke" model, in which everything flowed through and was essentially accomplished by the regional minister or staff.  That worked well in the 50s and 60s when even small regions had sufficient staff.  That's no longer true.  So, if death has occurred, what does resurrection look like?

Dick Hamm suggests that in this new era, we define the middle judicatory in terms of a "matrix of relationships," rather than a "hub and spokes."  Thus, instead of everything going from regional office to congregation, a web of relationships is nurtured and developed, so that congregations assist congregations, pastors assist pastors, and community is encouraged. 

Dick names a number of interesting ways that this can happen.

One is the development of "Judicatory Spiritual Leaders."  Dick defines this group of individuals in this way:
They are trustworthy clergy and lay leaders who demonstrate spiritual and emotional maturity, and commitment to the whole church. These groups are created by the judicatory to engage in regular visitation of congregations and clergy.
We are just getting on board with this, commissioning Regional Elders at our last Regional Assembly.  These are men and women who have exactly the qualities that Dick has defined.  Some of them carry specific responsibilities -- such as relating to men's ministries or women's ministries -- as well as serving to represent the region with congregations assigned to their care. 

A second way that this matrix can be created and sustained is through Resource Teams.  Dick writes of these teams:

Every middle judicatory has some individuals who are gifted and/or experienced in certain areas—youth ministry, spiritual disciplines, stewardship campaigns, teaching, etc. These folks can be recruited and trained to serve as consultants or coaches with congregations on behalf of the judicatory. Of course, their local responsibilities must be honored in determining how much time they have for such work, but most folks who are good at particular things are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with other leaders and congregations.
These can be people working with youth, missions, technology and the church and more.  Too often regional committees function as many congregational ones -- they provide oversight to the staff.  This no longer works -- our teams need to function in a way that carries out ministry, lifting the burden off of staff, which is likely a rather small group of people (if that). 

He also speaks of Communities of Learning (affinity), which develop from within the interests of the community.

If there is one individual or congregation of the judicatory that is interested in a particular subject, there are most like several others. As judicatory leaders hear of such interests, they can help to draw together “learning communities” of similarly interested people. These learning communities may last for several months or several years, dependent upon the subject and the ongoing interest of participants. Because ownership is important, these groups are most effective when they develop their own leadership, rather than depending upon judicatory staff to lead them. Communities of learning will sometimes lead to the development of new resource teams.
He also talks about annual planning events and the creation of communication networks.  While many of these will be digital, he reminds us that we must remain aware of those individuals and congregations that are not up to speed on the digital highway.  But the digital highway is going to be key -- and it includes web sites, which must be easily updated and maintained by staff, blogs, and more. 

Now, you might be wondering:  what's left for staff to do?  Well besides no longer having to work 100 hours a week and having a life outside the office, they can be more effective in nurturing and equipping those who are engaged in ministry across the region (or whatever your middle judicatory is called).  Dick has a response to this question as well:
The staff—especially the ordained staff—continues to have a sacramental role, being present at sacred moments in the lives of congregations and individuals, though not necessarily to the exclusion of volunteer judicatory representatives. The staff still plays a connectional role, keeping an eye open for interests and needs and thus linking them up to resource teams, affinity groups and so forth. No one else has the bird’s eye view that staff develop. The staff must still serve in those roles that require one individual to do ministry on behalf of the whole, such as dealing with misconduct cases and other extremely confidential situations.

The staff, particularly the senior executive, are still among the only ones who have the authority (formal and informal) to deal with the most vexing and sensitive situations. Sometimes it takes the senior executive to be able to tell a group of trouble making members or a minister, “You! Out of the pool
This last responsibility is key.  Congregations and clergy need to know and respect the presence of someone who can hold them accountable.  There are too many clergy who abuse congregations, and congregations that abuse their pastors.  There are congregations that seek to go around the regional leadership in searching for pastors, and more often than not this ends badly.  There needs to be someone with the respect and authority from outside to come in help them work things out -- this is that crisis management/conflict resolution responsibility that is so important.

Middle Judicatories, as we discovered last week play an essential role in maintaining healthy congregations, but the old ways no longer work.  So, we must begin finding new ways of encouraging and developing health congregations.

By the way, Dick Hamm is the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and now a consultant for The Columbia Partnership. 


Brian said…
I believe the matrix model has been implemented for for years in the non-church world. I'd sure like to see this approach take hold for our regions.

I get excited when I read about the learning groups. That speaks to me. I think I could even be helpful in that regard.

A few years ago I was very fortunate to take a class on Disciple's polity that was taught by Dick Hamm. He impressed me very much. Indeed, I consider him a role model worthy of emulation.
Country Parson said…
I was taken with this post and copied it to send to our canon for congregational development. We Anglicans are wedded to a polity of bishops, and staff, heading geographic dioceses, and that will stay. But we keep trying to move things closer to congregations through "deaneries" made up of small groups of parishes. In a diocese such as ours that stretches over thousands of square miles with only 42 parishes, most of them small and many quite rural, it just doesn't make sense. The matrix approach outlined by Mr. Hamm would be a blessed improvement. Thanks.

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