The Precarious Balance of Organized Religion

Each month we assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, we’re curating a conversation around governance and connection. 

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By Jessica Tate

see sawReligions transform people; you don’t walk on holy ground and stay the same.

Organizations conserve; institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity.

“Organized religion,” then, needs to balance both sides of this paradox—the transformational power of religion and the stabilizing power of organization.

So says Dan Hotchkiss in his book Governance and Ministry.

It’s a tricky balance.

The series of blog posts for the month of June will explore the balance of spiritual transformation and organizational stability as we look at questions of governance and connection in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We won’t be looking at issues to be debated. We’re not going to report on General Assembly. But, inspired by the major gathering of our denomination, we’ll post about the ways in which we are governed. How do we make decisions? How do we confront and move forward with difficult issues? How do we hold each other accountable? What’s the process through which we can make significant changes in our life together and in the world? How are we connected in meaningful ways? The intent of these posts isn’t to be exhaustive on the subject of governance and connection, nor prescriptive, but simply to raise the questions and invite reflection and conversation.

When the NEXT Church conversation began (and it did begin as a conversation—click here for Tom Are’s articulation about NEXT), it was organized around “three buckets” the conversation partners identified as significant in the life of the church today:

  • Mission
  • Christian Vocation
  • Connection/Governance

In the conversation since, NEXT has shared a lot of ideas around the buckets of mission and Christian vocation in gatherings, in blog posts, in further conversations, and the Church Leaders’ Roundtable. We’ve tackled the connection bucket by creating a new space for church leaders to gather, connect, share ideas, and spark one another’s imaginations. But we haven’t explored as fully the practices and structures of governance and connection in which we all operate.

In his book A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What’s Working and Why Louis Weeks writes that what was next for the church in the late 1800s was an institutionalized church—bringing bureaucracy, professionalism and complex economics to church life. He suggests there’s a new Presbyterian ecology emerging that he characterizes in the following ways:

  1. The new ecology is ecumenical at its core rather than its edges. (A majority of Presbyterians come from other portions of the Christian family, other religions, or “nones.”)
  2. The new ecology construes the Christian family inclusively. (Not just mom/dad/2.5 kids/dog/white picket fence.) [Though I’d argue that’s still the perceived norm and that the family is valued over people who are single. — Jessica]
  3. The new ecology draws on a whirl of work and worship together. (Not everything in one’s life or faith life is Presbyterian. People put together a patchwork life of faith from whatever skills, ideas, and resources are at hand.)
  4. The new ecology relies on digital technology and social media. (Our prior mode has been books, journals, and all sorts of print materials.)
  5. The direction for a Presbyterian congregation bubbles up from interests and passions of members and leaders. (We don’t receive denominational authority as the way we have to do it, but build networks of faith around shared interest and passion.)

There are probably more characteristics out there and even more characteristics emerging. Perhaps we can tease them out this month through the potpourri  of posts ranging from experiences and experiments at General Assembly, to new ways presbyteries and synods are finding to carry out their governance role and meaningfully connect leaders, to ways of governing and connecting that faith communities are engaging beyond Robert’s Rules of Order. We’ll be eager to hear your thoughts this month as you comment on the blog posts or on Facebook  and Twitter (@nextpcusa). If you have some reflections on the ways your congregation or presbytery is thinking of governance and connection in fresh ways, send me an email and we’ll see about fitting those reflections in this month.

And lastly, if you’re going to GA (or know someone who is) I’ll be there and would love to connect. NEXT Church leaders will gather in the bar/lounge area of the Marriott Renaissance on Tuesday night at 8:30pm. Stop by to connect to other leaders, to talk about your GA experience, to learn more about what NEXT Church is up to, to dream together about what God has in store for us next.


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church. 

photo credit: takasuii via photopin cc