January Newsletter

As most of you know, this past fall the Cabinet empaneled Bob Buchanan and John St. Croix to review and update our by-laws. This was deemed necessary in part because our by-laws recently had undergone a significant revision (they were adopted at the Annual Meeting in June of 2015). The thought was that it was time to check for errors and to tighten things up a bit.

The biggest change in the by-laws, as you know, involved downsizing not only the number of boards and committees in the church but the number of individuals serving on them. The rationale, in part, was that our former by-laws assumed a much larger congregation. Having fewer “slots” to fill made sense.

But on a macro level, this change reflects a larger shift in focus. The idea, first presented at the Massachusetts Conference’s Annual Meeting in 2006 (I think), is part of a nationwide development within mainline Protestantism to move away from an older and now antiquated “board culture” and toward a new “ministry culture.”

Tony Robinson, a U.C.C. writer and pastor, offers helpful insight into this seismic shift in his landmark book, Transforming Congregational Culture.

In the past mainline Protestant churches, such as ours, assumed all Americans were Christians. The church’s main task, therefore, was to provide resources for ministry that others would perform beyond our borders.

“The main function of church members was not to be engaged in mission or ministry themselves; they were to maintain the parish.” One way to do this, he adds, was to serve on the “growing structure of church boards and committees.”

“People were asked to be engaged in the management of ministry and of the church rather than in ministry or mission themselves.”

But because we now live in a new, increasingly secular, post-Christian society, the focus of ministry has become by necessity more local. Church members are no longer called simply to manage ministry, or to be “consumers” of that ministry, but to be actively engaged in ministry themselves. No longer is our task, in other words, merely to “run the church.”

Our by-law changes last year are premised on this shift in priority. The idea is that everyone is called to do ministry, which may or may not involve serving on a board or committee. In fact, one can be just as active, if not more so, than someone on a board or committee!

By downsizing our organizational structure, we recognize that boards and committees have become less important. Additionally, the boards and committees now are transmogrified into “permission-giving” bodies that encourage people within the congregation to discern/identify their spiritual gifts and to use them for ministry and mission, sometimes in dramatically new ways.

This involves a radical shift in thinking for those accustomed to the now-outdated “board culture.” Such a board culture seeks to control and execute all ministries, often discouraging those who might otherwise get involved. It is here that new ideas go to die.

The new “ministry culture,” on the other hand, seeks to encourage and empower others to pursue new ideas for ministry. For you never know, as Robinson points out, through whom God will speak!

Without this change of thinking, a downsized board and committee structure can actually exacerbate the problem, concentrating authority and decision-making into the hands of an even smaller group of people while producing, at worst, an entrenched and insulated form of ministry.

Some even may be tempted to conclude that since certain individuals serving on boards and committees do most of the work, their opinions necessarily carry greater weight. This, of course, runs counter to the Christian idea that those in leadership positions are called to be “servant-leaders,” called to serve the congregational membership to which they are accountable!

In one particular church years ago, I frequently would hear people talk possessively about “our church.” It’s a natural human tendency. The greater truth, of course, is that Christ is properly the head of the church. Ergo, it is Christ’s church, not ours. Every single church member, including its leadership, is called to serve Christ alone (and by extension others), which requires discernment into what Christ would have us do, not what I personally would wish to do.

At the December Cabinet meeting, John St. Croix announced that he and Bob plan to present their recommendations at the January meeting regarding any changes to the by-laws, this after having solicited input from the five boards.

At this same meeting, I proposed that, starting as early as January, we hold at least one if not more informational meetings to discuss these recommendations as well as those of the various boards.

Perhaps most importantly, however, these meeting(s) will also give you and everyone else in the congregation an opportunity to discuss and discern together what changes, if any, might help facilitate First Church’s organizational structure into becoming a more effective and faithful witness to this new kind of “ministry culture.”

As per our by-laws, of course, any and all changes require a vote at a duly-called congregational meeting.

Grace and peace,

Thomas C. Leinbach, Pastor