As I continue this series of posts concerning the polity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as laid out in The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I would like to come back to the role of the congregation in our understanding of the church. In the previous post I suggested that we might look a the social Trinity as a model for our understanding of the relationships among congregation, Region, and General Church. Using the idea of perichoresis or mutual indwelling, we would affirm that congregation, region, and general expression do not exist outside the relationship with the other. More on this in a later post.
Here I'd like to say something about the rights and responsibilities of congregations in this triune church. We hear a lot about the rights of congregations. Congregations have the right to call their own pastors (and fire them as well), own their property, and decide how to use their money. When the Disciples went through restructure great efforts were made to protect these rights.
That we talk a lot about rights shouldn't surprise us, since the Disciples were born in the context of the founding of the Republic. The Bill of Rights had just been affirmed. Americans have been very vocal from day one about protecting their rights. So, it's no surprise that this kind of language has been with us from the very beginning. With this in mind The Design defined these congregational rights:
11. Among the rights recognized and safeguarded to congregations are the rights to manage their affairs under the Lordship of Jesus Christ; to adopt or retain their names, corporate documents, and organization of ministry; to determine, in faithfulness to the gospel, their practices; to own, control, and encumber their property; to organize for carrying out the mission and witness of the church; to establish their budgets and financial policies; to call their ministers; and to participate through voting representatives in forming the corporate judgment of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is a great deal of independence or autonomy allowed in this description of congregational rights. But what about responsibilities? What responsibilities do congregations have to Regions and the General Church? Or to put a different way, how do Congregations express their covenantal relationship beyond the life of the Congregation?
12. Among the responsibilities by which congregations demonstrate their mutual concern for the mission and witness of the whole church are the responsibilities to proclaim the gospel and administer baptism and the Lord's Supper; to provide for the spiritual nurture of their members and families; to grow in understanding that the church is a universal fellowship, transcending all barriers within the human family; to engage in evangelism; to sustain their ministers in faithfulness and honor and, in matters pertaining to relationships with them, to seek counsel from the regional minister; to be faithful in Christian stewardship, striving to share proportionately in providing the resources for the total life, work, and witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); to choose voting representatives to the General and Regional Assemblies; to share with other ministries of the church in the establishment and nurture of new congregations; and to seek to realize the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ through cooperation with other congregations and with present and emerging ecumenical structures.
As you look at these items, you find that there are key practices such as proclaiming the gospel, administering baptism and the Lord's Supper and providing pastoral and spiritual care. They do this in relationship to the broader church.
More specifically congregations are encouraged to "seek counsel from the regional minister." I have made it my practice to be in regular conversation with the Regional Ministers I've served with. I've made sure to invite them to the church and fill the pulpit. I think it's wise to seek their counsel when making decisions. This is especially true as a congregation enters search and call. Whenever seeking a new pastor it is incumbent on the congregation to trust the Regional Minister to help guide them in the process.
A second item has to do with stewardship, with the encouragement to "share proportionately in providing the resources for the total life, work, and witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)." In other words, make the Disciples Mission Fund a primary recipient of a congregation's outreach dollars. For one thing the Regional Church and the General Church depend on those gifts to sustain their ministries, but there's another reason for giving through DMF and other Special Offerings. This is the way in which we demonstrate our covenant relationship, even as the stewardship of individual members of congregations demonstrate their commitment through their giving. But if you look closely at the Yearbook, you will find that large numbers of congregations, may of which are sizable give little or nothing to Disciples entities beyond the congregation. In my region, out of around forty plus churches, I think twelve gave money through DMF.
Then there's the involvement of congregations in Regional and General Church life, including participation in Regional and General Assemblies. After the recent General Assembly there were a number of complaints about cost and such, but I would ask whether these same persons/congregations participated in Regional Assemblies. In my Region, about the same number of churches that give money send representatives to the Regional Assembly.
The Design goes on to speak of other cooperative ventures congregations participate in as Disciples, from starting new churches to pursuing ecumenical ventures. The section on Rights and Responsibilities ends with a statement that all of this responsibility is voluntary. You don't have to do anything outside the congregation and claim to be Disciple -- based on shared heritage I suppose -- but I would ask are these congregations that fail in their responsibilities to engage with Regional and General Church being true to their covenant? Is there mutuality of relationship existing? Or, to go back to the top do we really have a unitarian ecclesiology?