Presbyterianism as a Relational Network?

Image by Andy Lamb

Image by Andy Lamb

I keep finding myself involved in projects aimed at re-imaging what it means to be Presbyterian in our rapidly changing world. I served on the first Mid Councils Commission of the 219th General Assembly, charged with studying and making recommendations to update our system of presbyteries and synods. I then served on a task force of the Presbytery of Chicago charged with coming up with a plan for the future of our presbytery, which included our vision and organizational structure. I now serve on the follow-up task force that is trying to develop a new connectional mission design for how the presbytery organizes and carries out its mission.

How in the world did a former Baptist end up so deep in Presbyterian waters?

Well, I keep seeking out or agreeing to participate in opportunities at Presbyterian reform because I really do value Presbyterianism as a way of living out our Christian faith in today’s world. It’s not perfect and sometimes it frustrates the hell out of me. I often find myself at odds with the very notion of institutional religion. But the Presbyterian way of mutual accountability and democratic governance is very compelling to me, not to mention what I think of as the Presbyterian ethos.

Having once again entered these waters of change and reform, it helps for me to “think out loud” on this blog. So bear with me today, and feel free to stop reading if Presbyterianism doesn’t excite you. (And congratulate yourself for having a more normal human response to this stuff than I do.)

When it comes to Presbyterianism, the question keeps coming back to how exactly we understand our connectionalism. Why are we better together than as individual congregations? If so many of our churches act as de facto congregationalists, why not go all the way?

This may be an oversimplification, but it seems to me that there are two basic ways that we are connectional: governance and mission.

Though we can sometimes get carried away with the governance piece and be hung up in rules, regulations, and procedures—all in the name of being “decent and in order”—it is nonetheless necessary. More than anything, I think this is why I continue to be a Presbyterian. Sure, sometimes ecclesial systems of governance are abused, just like any institutional power structure. But we need systems of mutual accountability. I don’t want churches and pastors meeting people in the most intimate moments of life without accountability. I think it is wise to have checks and balances for those preparing for and engaging in ministry. And we need to ensure that the voices of the powerless and the minorities are heard as we seek to bear witness to God’s kingdom.

I don’t think that governance is our primary problem. Rather, it is the way that we organize around mission that has become anachronistic. Some degree of bueracracy is to be expected when it comes to governance. But the fact that much of our mission work is organized this way is problematic.

It all came about through a process known as institutional isomorphism. As corporations grew to dominate the business world, these same organizational models influenced other institutions. Mainline Protestant denominations are modeled after the best business practices of the early and mid-20th century. But we live in a different world now. And we need more contemporary organizational models.

Emerging church leaders Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt have argued for essentially congregationalist ecclesiologies organized through relational networks. This is very attractive to me for a number of reasons but I keep coming back to the issue of governance, which I think is necessary. Yet most people—myself included—don’t find governance to be the most life-giving part of Christian faith. And the connectionalism we seek is not one primarily rooted in governance and regulation. Rather, we seek a more relational form of connectionalism.

It is in the area of mission that the insights of emerging church ecclesiology find a place in Presbyterianism. By and large, I think Presbyterian governance is (in theory) a good thing. (How it is practiced is another thing, which is why we are not just reformed but always reforming.) If institutional isomorphism holds true, Presbyterians today are being shaped by entirely different organizational models than the corporate models of the past. In particular, I think that Presbyterians are more energized by relational or social network models for organizing ourselves in common mission. This is why people are more interested and invested in affinity groups, advocacy groups, and mission networks than in presbytery or General Assembly business. This is why conferences energize us while presbytery assemblies suck the life out of us. This is why many of our most valued colleagues live across the country or across the globe.

So the question is, how can we rethink and reshape Presbyterianism in such a way that taps into the power of relational networks yet retains the unique aspects of Presbyterian governance and accountability?

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Comments

  1. Thanks, John, for your posts. I have been following your posts (and the posts of others) for several months. Recently retired, I am trying to focus more of my time in writing. You and others have inspired me in starting my own blog. Creating in my mind a public journal is a wonderful way to stay “connected” with others in our beloved church family. You and others have introduced me to new concepts for study and reflection, i.e. “institutional isomorphism”. I celebrate your enthusiasm for the emerging church struggling to be relevant living under the Presbyterian brand. Thanks. I look forward to hearing more from you.

  2. I just had a conversation like this with so e people across our synod yesterday. I hear lots of mentions of things like cohorts. I did a coaching cohort a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve wondered if that structure wouldn’t be a useful relational network for Presbyterians to employ both in and among presbyteries. Cohorts are good for specific areas of focus, say preaching or youth ministry. These are ministry functions. Do you think we might experiment more with cohorts for doing connectional ministry?

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