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?