The Church: A Pioneer in Holacracy
Life Under One Big Umbrella
As I read and thought more about Holacracy I started remembering how church used to be.
I was sitting on the board of a Lutheran social service agency during the 1980s. I was young then—late 20s, early 30s. I didn’t realize it then but I was on the cusp of the dismantling of much of church culture. I was part of it. I’ll blame it on my youth.
It was the age of consolidation. The board talked often of consolidating services, likening themselves to big box stores. It was the wave of the future, we were certain. Business was doing it. Government was doing it. School systems were doing it. Why not religious social service agencies? Everything would be under one big umbrella. Big is better.
The pursuit of big led to teaming with government for funding. This resulted in divorcing the social service mission from church mission, a sacrifice we were willing to make in our mission to serve more people—or to be big.
We may have lost something vital to mission—engagement with the people who provide passionate funding, who conceived the concept of social outreach with God’s love centric.
The move corresponded with the widespread establishment of development offices. Each social service agency, seminary, etc. created a development office that puts its cause before the churches and lots of other people as they seek support. This task becomes more difficult as the only access to congregations is through the hierarchical structure.
I’m not sure the Church has noticed yet, but this makes every agency of the Church a competitor with individual congregations for offerings. The big umbrella is like the mother sow. All the agencies compete for nourishment. That little guy on right—that’s the congregation, competing with all the professional development offices.
Engagement is a valuable mission tool, but opportunities for engagement have been lost in efforts to consolidate.
Consolidation sounds so organized and efficient. But does it work in church life?
Opening the Big Umbrella Shuts Out the Light
Here are some big changes within my lifetime in the Church.
The heart and soul of the church was the Sunday School. The Sunday School movement was independent of denomination. Sunday Schools typically had their own bank accounts, budgets and officers. Often the officers of the Sunday School were people who never were considered for church council membership. You could belong to the Sunday School without belonging to the Church.
The Sunday School was a cultural magnet. It embraced more than Sunday morning. It was also a social club. Within the Sunday School there could be several classes, each with its own leadership. I remember the Loyal Mizpah, the Mr. and Mrs. Class, the Helpers Class, etc. Each with its own identity. They met Sunday morning but also had their own social calendar.
But then, one by one, churches across the country thought about those separate bank accounts and those separate leadership structures. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to consolidate everything under one big church council umbrella? As a result, we recreated the hierarchy our ancestors had fled.
And so the band wagon rolled through the church doors and various church organizations climbed on.
- There was the Luther League. This was being enthusiastically dismantled in the 70s, replaced with some vague concept of youth ministry. Youth ministry never really took off. Luther League remains a fond memory for those older than I. Luther League channeled youth into church leadership roles.
- Women’s and men’s auxiliaries—each with its own governance and budget. They did a lot of mission work.
- Sports leagues which often ended up being the ecumenical arm of the church. That’s how Christians of various denominations in the same town came to know one another—in friendly competition.
- Special cause groups: Temperance groups, for example.
- There was even someone in charge of maintaining the Cradle Role!
Consolidation led to the loss of engagement. Church people crave intimacy. That may be why most churches will always be small. Big Box churches fill some needs but not all.
Today’s “small group” ministries concept attempts to revive some of what we lost, but is hard to close the big umbrella. We still have that sense of ownership and control that we were seeking back in the 70s and 80s. The current attempt to revive the Church with small group ministries is like learning to walk again. It’s awkward because we are now accustomed to the big umbrella and the control that goes with it. Small groups need autonomy.
Today there is a new word for the way Church became structured as it developed in the New World. Holacracy.
The core of holacracy is the creation of circles of engagement. Circles within circles.
As I recall, some of those church small groups called themselves circles. The members within those circles could remain within those circles or drift into more engagement with other circles. The circles provided multiple ways for people to engage—and typically engagement throughout the Church grew as a result.
People may have identified more with the circle than the congregation, but at least there was something in the circle that spoke to them and called them to action. Circles address specific needs. Circles give people a sense of ownership. We just have to hand them their own umbrella—let them be the bosses under their own umbrellas.
It might be a good idea for churches to talk with their oldest members who remember how this worked. They will enjoy the telling and the Church could benefit from the listening. Hurry. There aren’t many of us left!