Is Congregational Polity Killing the Liberal Church?

Successful missional churches make some fundamental assumptions about how they operate. Perhaps the biggest one is: mission is the reason the church exists. This controls everything from how worship is done to what leadership is and how decisions are made.

For example, before the 40 members of Fort McKinley United Methodist Church voted to be assimilated by the Ginghamsburg Church, a Q&A sheet was sent out by Fort McKinley Pastor Dave Hood to the members of Fort McKinley. It consisted of the 20 most common questions he was getting about what will happen if they voted yes to be received by Ginghamsburg.  Here are couple of interesting questions and responses.

Q: Will there be a Christmas decorating party and a Christmas pageant?

A: At Ginghamsburg there is a core value that “Christmas is NOT your birthday.’ For the last several years there has been an intentional focus on the Darfur mission (Ginghamsburg has sent over 5$ million to Darfur relief) during Christmas to focus people away from the attitudes of selfishness and consumerism and towards justice and mission…”

In response to how people will have a voice in their church after the merger, the answer was something that would turn not a few mainline church heads.

Q: How will I have a voice in what happens after the merger?
A: Members are encouraged to share their input, feedback, and wisdom with the pastoral staff and Leadership Board through a variety of forums. for example, each spring and fall, Senior Pastor Mike Slaughter meets with the “Kingdom Investors” of the church to deliver a “state of the union” address, cast a vision for the future and solicit feedback. However, decisions about ministry and mission are made by the leadership team as directed by the Holy Spirit. Decisions are not made by consensus, majority rule or committee vote.

My initial reaction to the Ginghamsburg answer was, “Ew, how undemocratic.”  The longer I reflected on it, however, the process described above provides as much or more input than some democratically run congregations I’ve experienced.  I’ve experienced congregations, congregational in polity, where the congregation as an assembly has the final say on important matters, but do not go through the listening, feedback, and wisdom forums. I’ve known congregations that do both,but certainly didn’t consider their decision making process a spiritual discernment practice.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts, dear readers, as I am sure I am not alone among Gen X (or younger) ministers who feel there is little place for visionary and missional ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association or other mainline churches. I see few if any examples where ministers are allowed to cast a vision. I see many examples where ministers are the scapegoat, the point of blame or the identified patient in a system, but few places in congregational polity settings where ministers are allowed to cast a bold vision and call the people to a mission of great service.  Is a form of polity, once so democratic and participatory in its inception as a reaction against episcopal hierarchy now preventing bold new ways of being religious community among liberal congregations because it locks out the spiritual process of discernment and the requirement that people buy into mission before being part of the discernment process? Is that a good thing?

Senior Pastor of the Ginghamsburg Church, Mike Slaughter, believes that the ordination process is another thing hurting the church and church growth.  I can’t say that I disagree.  Like most professional processes, it is about minimizing liability for the body responsible for credentialing, not about promoting creativity and innovation and  passion and energy for what works and what meets people’s needs.

Slaughter says “I’d rather have 40 people committed to missional church  than being spiritual hospice chaplains in a codependent congregation.”  How familiar does this sound, my mainline friends? Where are our most energized, creative, mission-oriented souls? Doing paper-work for their credentialing bodies or creating disciples and sending people on mission to heal a hurting world and fight social and economic injustice?

It’s hard to question Ginghamsburg’s results. They have 1,200 members and 5000 attendance on Sunday. Fort McKinley has 250 attendance on Sunday and 500 members. Ginghamsburg runs a huge 501c3 non profit and they’ve given $5 million to Darfur relief among other efforts.

Perhaps  congregational polity is getting in the way of our liberal theology in terms of changing the world?

8 thoughts on “Is Congregational Polity Killing the Liberal Church?

  1. I think any form of church governance can be practiced well or poorly. I’m not sure I think congregational polity is killing the liberal church, but I think the particular way congregational polity is practiced in many congregations might be. As frustrating as the shadow side of congregational polity can be, the shadow side of the polity structure practiced by the missional churches you mention also has points of dangrous weakness. It would be very easy for one bad minister to do great damage in a church in which the congregation has little or no say in the making of decisions. I don’t necessarily think this is more dangerous overall than congregations that enable a vocal minority to hold them hostage to mediocrity, but it’s a shadow side nonetheless…

    1. As frustrating as the shadow side of congregational polity can be, the shadow side of the polity structure practiced by the missional churches you mention also has points of dangerous weakness. It would be very easy for one bad minister to do great damage in a church in which the congregation has little or no say in the making of decisions.

      Your comment brings to mind Rev. Jim Jones and People’s Temple. Even a person who has done good in the world addressing racial and economic injustice can take a turn for the worse. The same minister who fought against racial segregation in the midwest also is responsible for the mass suicide in the jungle.

  2. Two things that I would like to speak to in this thoughtful post. First, your identifying the lack of discernment as a way that the liberal church remains shallow in its polity and praxis is RIGHT ON. Casting a vision requires discernment, something very few of our clergy or lay leaders have any idea how to do… or why. My ministry changed completely after I took Margaret Benefiel’s class on discernment at Andover-Newton.
    Second, I have a concern and a frustration with your definition of missional as being strictly about social justice and healing “the world.” That is not what missional church is. That is PART of what the missional church is, but if UUs continue to hold that definition out to the churches, they will remain in the false dualism of “spiritual” vs “political” that conflicts so many congregations now, and that keeps parishioners at arm’s length from their “prophetic” pastors (who aren’t so much prophetic as uninterested in, and unfit for the role of theologian-in-residence and chief teaching elder. Missional does not mean social justice. It means bringing a lived faith beyond the building, beyond Sunday, and into one’s life and relationships. I would like to see your generation start to talk about the missional church in a way that integrates our pastoral role in the parish. I have to yet to see it, and that conversation needs to be started.

    1. A big Amen to this PB. The service that is the hallmark of the missional church is DEEPLY rooted in the Gospel for the Christian missional Churches, and personally, I find my roots for mission there as well. The struggle for UU churches in the missional arena will be to find their spiritual foundation for going out to the world. See the posts of the Red Pill Brethren on tumblr and the posts of myself and David Owen O’Quill at The Spiritual Underground ( as I believe we are trying to steer the conversation toward a reclaiming of Universalism as a possible spiritual foundation for emerging mission. Alan Hirsch’s argument (and this will throw some UU’s into fits) is that Christology determines our missiology which informs our ecclesiology. We could go with Soteriology first and talk about what saves us. Rebecca Parker’s recent work may be a help here for some people. Missional church is reclaiming for everyone the role of active contemplative, but active is so often left out, even left out of the spiritual part. You need to actively engage discernment, for example.

  3. I don’t want to sound like what I call a “UU fundamentalist”, but as a religious liberal I would absolutely not consider attending if told that in this church, “Decisions are not made by consensus, majority rule or committee vote.”

    Do you really think the democratic process interferes with church mission? Because if you do, please think carefully about how you will choose your mission without a vote. Do you truly believe that committees hold back the visionaries? Because if you do, please tell me how to separate the crack pots from the true visionaries. Do you really think that consensus building is killing the liberal church? Because if you do, just imagine what doing away with congregational polity will do to it.

    You are right to point out that a shallow democratic process leads to shallow spirituality. But the answer is not to ground democracy on the beach of a “leadership team”. Insofar as we are saved, we are saved together–that is what makes us a spiritual community. And that is why in the end, to shortcut the democratic process is to short circuit our spirituality. And that is why even if your vision and your mission are downright swimming in spirituality, without consensus they will eventually dry on the barren sands of the mundane.

    Am I old-fashioned because I don’t believe congregational polity has outlived it’s usefulness? Am I closed-minded because I don’t want to turn my church over to the “visionaries”. Well maybe so, but I’m willing to consider almost anything. In fact, I am willing to change a lot of the things we do–from what we do on Christmas to how we ordain our ministers. But congregational polity is part of the “that without which, not” of liberal religion. Without it, you may have a lot members–and I hope you will accomplish a lot of good. But insofar as you diminish the voice of any of those members, you diminish the liberality of your perspective… and you diminish your claim to be a liberal religion.

    I can understand why the visionaries might sometimes be frustrated by the democratic process–education and consensus building–that is to say, leadership–is hard work. But democracy is part of the fabric of our spiritual connectedness. Consensus building weaves our spiritual community into one, and without it, that fabric will fray and disintegrate.

    1. I don’t think you sound like a fundamentalist. You raise important points. I don’t think that congregational polity alone is any better or worse than any other polity if it is divorced from mission. Polity can be made into an idol and i think that UU’s tend to make congregational polity an idol the same way the Catholic hisrarchy has made the episcopacy and teaching office of the church an idol. The purpose and mission of church become the sanctification of the process, the office, the congregation at the ecpense of what the church exists to do. A democratic process is no guarantee against crackpots. All it takes is one or two crackpots to manipulate a democratic congregational process into years or even decades of inertia.

      1. Is polity an idol for UUs? I don’t think so, but I surely will give you that crackpots can manipulate the democratic process. One of my biggest frustrations–not only as a religious liberal, but also as a political liberal, is that many people vote not only against the interests of the greater good, but even against their own interests! For god’s sake, why do so many poor people vote Republican!?

        I believe a large part of the answer is that Republicans are advocating for the interests of the monied, and the monied use their power to manipulate the democratic process. But I don’t believe the answer is to overthrow the democratic process and install who I believe to be a benevolent dictator. The answer is to decentralize power by instituting more democracy, not less, and then doing my best in the market place of ideas to educate people about how to use their vote more constructively.

        If your argument really boils down to the idea that polity should not be divorced from mission, I will agree with you–how true, how true! But if your complaint is really that your congregation just hasn’t caught up with your vision, I say you just haven’t caught up with their need for leadership. Insofar as we are saved, we are saved together. So don’t complain about polity. You have an important job to do–go back to work!

        I’m not saying to make polity an idol, but to keep it in perspective. I see the attraction of short circuiting the democratic process for the sake of mission. But in the long run, polity is not a hindrance to mission. The real hindrance is spiritual ignorance, and that will not be cured by doing away with polity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.