I pay attention to which posts on this blog get the most traffic. Whenever I write about Chick fil a, for instance, I usually see a spike in traffic. The thing that drives the most people to the blog? Church polity: church systems and structure. You people are as nerdy as I am. I love it.
This fact does my heart good, since I have been again thinking about the gift of United Methodist polity lately as I work on my ordination paperwork and as we prepare for charge conference.
I wrote last month about the upside-down triangle model of local church leadership, both as it relates to sermons and as it relates to church administration. The key words and phrases of this model of leadership, I think, are "empowering" and "filtering," rather than "demanding" and "commanding."
The times and the culture require a new form of local church leadership, such that the decentralization of information is accounted for in our structure. We need guides and authorities, but we as pastors and church leaders must operate in a new environment of openness and empowerment by being authentic filters of the Gospel and of God's work in the world.
We must acknowledge the presence of a network society (mirroring the ways in which our information flow works in the internet age), and we must behave in ways that do justice to the new ways humans interact.
Only, this model of networked interacting is not new, and it is not novel. In fact, this model of networked interaction is probably best called "connectionalism," and it is the fundamental principle of United Methodist church structure. Just like computers are networked together, so are churches yoked together in districts and conferences. Just like there is regulation of the internet by agencies, governments, and interested groups, so are churches regulated by General Conference and administered by Bishops and district superintendents. Just as there are outside groups that support the work of the network (Wikipedia Foundation, for instance, or Mozilla), so are there boards and agencies whose job it is to resource and support local churches. The internet, for all is supposed chaos, is not a free-for-all. Nobody has ever died from a Google search gone bad.
I do not care to forever go down the road of metaphor, but you understand the point. The United Methodist Church, decentralized as it is and relational as it is, is the perfect model for church in the 21st century, for it models emerging patterns of the ways in which humans interact.
Now, the church is not perfect, and neither is its structure. There are pockets among the boards and agencies of the church which seem to confuse their mission of resourcing and equipping with doing the outsourced job of the local church. Here, let me just brag on the North Georgia Conference, the annual conference of which I am a provisional member. The conference (and its staff) does what it needs to do in order to keep the trains running, but rather than being the body that does ministry for the local church, North Georgia works to equip its churches to do the ministry to which God is calling them. In particular, the Connectional Ministries staff (under the leadership of Rev. Mike Selleck) works to resource churches, providing them guidance, visioning, support, and encouragement. Here's a perfect model of leadership from a source outside the local church. The action does not happen in the conference office, but rather the conference helps the action to happen in the church.
Outside groups and agencies are important, but the place where this connectionalism is especially profound--and where the church has the most opportunity for growth--is in the connection between churches themselves. There are things you do in your church that can benefit me in the church I serve. There are resources I have that would be helpful to you in your setting. Neither church, regardless of size, is more or less important, for it is the connection that matters. The conference, after all, is little more than a connection. When we relate to one another, we are in connection. To paraphrase John Donne, no church is an island.
There have been efforts in recent months and years to change the fundamental nature of United Methodist structure to fit into a schema that is seen as more manageable and "effective." Many who stand on the street corner and preach the imminent death of the church argue that we must move towards a traditional top-down, corporate approach if we are to face the challenges of the new century.
This approach makes no sense to me, theologically or practically, for the challenges of the new century and the practical implications of being the church in the networked age are issues which match perfectly with how the church has been structured all along.
The task, then, is to decide how to tweak structures to better fit this decentralized, networked connectionalism in order that the church look more like its first principles (which, of course, involves being the Body of Christ).