The Local Church and the Denomination: Implications for Good Governance

Most congregations have some kind of association with an external body – typically a denominational entity.   Good governance for and as a leader within a local church also necessarily means the capacity to be effective on this front as well – how to invest in and leverage this association for a key outcome:  the flourishing of the local church. 

Some congregations are, of course, independent; and some function as de facto independent entities in that they invest little if any energy in that broader association.  In other cases the convictions around a “congregational” approach to governance mean that the external association is only one of “association” and not formal accountability.   In my world this would include Baptist, Brethren, Mennonite, Evangelical Free and Evangelical Missionary Church congregations.   And others have a very definite external authority and governance body – the denominational head office or the diocesan or district or synodical office:  Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Christian Reformed, Church of the Nazarene, Pentecostal Assemblies and Assemblies of God would be examples of faith communions that would grant varying degrees of authority to such an external body – and correspondingly to the bishop, the District Superintendent or to “synod.” 

A case can be made both theologically and practically for such an external association.  Paul comes back from the first missionary journey and makes his case to the Council of Jerusalem that led to the immortal words of James:   “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”  Paul was not an independent operator when he established congregations in Asia Minor.   He worked with an intentional accountability to an external entity and he acknowledged the very real authority of James.    For Paul this was a matter of theological conviction, no doubt; those new faith communities were accountable in both their doctrine and their spiritual practice.  But there was also the sheer pragmatics:   the far flung newer congregations needed the support and encouragement of the larger body of Christian communities.   I sometimes wonder what Paul would have done, though, if the Jerusalem Council had gone a different direction.   He felt very strongly that those new Gentile congregations that he had established very definitely did not need to follow Jewish requirements.   He must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Council affirmed his own convictions and agreed with his insistence that Gentiles do not need to become Jewish in order to be Christian.   But it merits the question:  what do we do when we differ on fundamental questions with the denominational body or entity of which we are a part – especially when it is on an issue as it was for Paul, that is fundamental to the mission and identity of the church. 

When we do differ, as no doubt we will along the way – perhaps for some of us more often than not –  we will be tempted to walk away . . . to go independent, to leave the denomination and if we have the capacity to do so, to take our church with us, so that we are no longer encumbered by the denomination.   But surely this should be a last resort; surely our default mode is to invest time and energy on the denominational level to shape a shared vision for what it means to be the church.   Pragmatically, we need this association.   We need the support, the wisdom, as well as the accountability.   I pastored an independent church for a season and resolved that going forward I would not do so again:  there was no back-stop, no external accountability to which I could appeal when there was a problem with the church council.   

But this is a learned capacity:  to know the systems and modes of engagement where one is genuinely accountable but also able to make a difference not only in one’s own congregation but also within the broader denominational identity and vision:  to exercise vote and voice, to be part of cultivating a shared vision for what it means to be the church.   That capacity surely includes the following:

  • To know and work within the confines of what level of authority does lie with the external entity which in some cases perhaps means limiting or shielding your own congregation from undue external influence but also the reverse . . . that we actively believe in association and accountability and invest energy in that relationship;
  • To know what it means to be patient and think “long arc” for the very simple reason that you cannot be effective in denominational politics if you do not have patience [speaking personally here – my denomination made two decisions in the 1990s with which I deeply differed, and in both cases the decisions were reversed 22 and 25 years later];
  • To know what it means to work with the very messy and challenging world of denominational politics where differences can be hugely distressing and where those differences can tear communities apart – with irresolvable differences that require the investment of time and energy from those who know how to build bridges and bring reconciliation and find windows of opportunity for principled compromise [it is very difficult to be a purist in these debates and you will not always get your own way . . . thus learning he grace of principled compromise];
  • To leverage the benefits of that external association – the mutual encouragement, the shared learning through denominational pastors conferences and ministerial resources and for pastors to continually signal internally that as a pastor or priest you are accountable to the diocese or the district and to recognize personally that this is both an essential element of your own personal accountability but that the lay leaders of the church also need to recognize how essential this accountability is to the flourishing of the local church . . . and on this score I would go further I were part of what I have described above as a “congregational” system of governance and actually only accept such an assignment if we could agree as pastors and lay leaders that we will be accountable for what it means to be the church to the external entity. 

There is no doubt that sometimes we feel that investment on the denominational level is not worth the time and energy; and at other times we may feel that the challenges of our own church situation are too time consuming for us to invest on this level.  And yet, learning what it means to work within the governance systems of a denomination can be rewarding and a means of service to others.  And along the way the association can be richly rewarding as a source of encouragement and wisdom.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.