The Lutheran Experience
In the Church there are two types of churchwide structure — congregational polity in which congregations maintain rights to manage their own affairs and property and hierarchical in which an umbrella leadership has rights to manage outpost ministries. Denominations tend to be one or the other but some find themselves on the fence. They started out as one or the other but have drifted in practice. Confusion has resulted in some cases. Major legal battles have resulted in others.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2×2’s roots) is a denomination formed in the 1980s by a merger of three Lutheran bodies. At the time of the merger, the polity was clear. Congregations owned and controlled their own property. Laity and clergy were equal partners in ministry. Synods existed to serve, not manage.
Leaders in predecessor bodies were called presidents. The new body decided to change the name to “bishop” for only one reason — to boost status in ecumenical dialog among denominations that were more familiar with “bishops.” Only the name was to change. Their role in the church was to remain the same — a servant leader.
It was not long before our “presidents” began to assume the authority of “bishops” in other denominations. Clergy and laity have come to accept the change. The further removed they become from the memory of true Lutheran polity, the less is questioned. The Lutheran church today finds itself in conflict. Governing documents become less recognized with each unchallenged infraction.
Leaders vs Managers
The resulting conflicts parallel similar challenges faced by the business world in the much discussed topic: Leaders vs Managers.
Congregations look to their denominational bodies for leadership but often what they get is attempts at management. Congregations are frustrated that people so distant from their situation are so ready to tell them how to do ministry in their own communities with their own resources. Pastors in the field are forced to balance allegiance to bishop with responsibility to parish.
In severe cases, denominations are forcing closure against the will of the congregation and laying total claim to the assets. This has intensified as the economy strains the resources of all.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review can shed some light on this shift from congregational polity to ecclesial hierarchy.
In the article, “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers,” Gary Hamel provides a description of hierarchical business leadership as inefficient, cumbersome and costly. This is true in the church, too.
- Hierarchies create expense.
A boss oversees supervisors who oversee managers who oversee foremen who oversee workers, creating layer after layer of expense. Management becomes the job of everyone but the lowest level workers! (ELCA constitutions are written the other way around!) Congregations cannot afford this structure. This does not automatically translate to inability to fulfill ministry, but this conclusion is often reached by hungry denominational bodies.
- Hierarchies lead to poor decision-making.
“The typical management hierachy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions.” Hamel explains that as the power of the hierarchy grows, the ability of the lower ranks to challenge their decisions wanes. When power becomes incontestable, expect royal screwups, he warns. You do not have to look far in either the business or religion section of the newspaper for evidence. This may be the root of some of the challenges the ELCA is facing today exemplified by a 10% exodus of its congregations and escalating court battles.
- Hierarchies are sluggish.
As a hierarchy becomes more complex, initiatives and responses become more difficult. (Remember the Middle Ages from which Protestantism emerged. It was the pinnacle of the era of church hierarchy!) Managers can spend more time protecting authority than reacting to ideas presented by the lower ranks. Add to that the power to kill ideas that might threaten their own and the result is status quo at best — decline, conflict or demise at worse.
- Hierarchies inhibit innovation.
When lower level workers have little voice they must work harder to implement even simple decisions. Volunteer church workers become less valuable as they become demoralized and lose incentive to improve either their own status or their congregational mission.
Our Ambassadors have encountered this quiet desperation of the faithful. They have high hopes for their congregations but cannot find a way to make it happen. They are fighting an uphill battle with leadership claiming powers to dictate. Dictating managers are finding themselves with fewer people to manage — but they expect the same salaries and benefits.
That’s something the church hasn’t grasped: Participation of the faithful is optional.
All of these issues were faced by Lutherans before. We hashed out the relationships we wanted to have 500 years ago. We revisited the issues 200-300 years ago as Lutherans began to populate the New World.
Apparently, the polity of our faith requires vigilance which is much more difficult in congregations that have dwindling parish education programs. Newcomers, unacquainted with our history, can easily accept attempts at adopting hierarchical leadership. In the resulting vacuum of tradition and knowledge, laity with firm roots in Lutheran tradition can be seen as trouble-makers. In reality they are protecting their traditions which have been tested over centuries and which are protected in their founding documents.
Lutherans must return to their heritage.