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Due to COVID-19 restrictions we are currently holding one blended service at 10:00 AM (there is currently NO childcare available)

Bethesda Youth Ministries (5th thru 12th grade) - 6:00 pm
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Kidz Klub (age 4 thru 4th grade) - 6:30 pm
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Wet Cement Theology

 A blog from Jeff Byerly at Bethesda EC Church

The world doesn't need another know-it-all theologian. My goal is simply to search the Scriptures, analyze current theological dicussions, respond to the events of the global, national, and local communities in which I live, and share my life incarnationally in order to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. As I do this please realize that I am wrong from time-to-time and more often than I think. :-) I am also naturally skeptical and often doubt convictions that are held tightly by many others. I invite you to dialogue with me in this same spirit--to explore how Jesus intersects with our world and to keep our sanity as we view this world from his kingdom perspective. 


Posted by Jeff Byerly on Friday, June 14, 2013 @ 6:48 PM

As an Evangelical Congregational pastor, I live in the aftermath of a system that was designed to model fairness and provide several voices within a decision making process in order to govern the churches of our National Conference. That system is called congregationalism — a form of democracy, in which every member votes upon every decision, no matter how large or how small it may be. At first glance, it seems to be a very practical and fair way for the church to make decisions. However, I have been convinced for some time that taking a vote is not the best way to make decisions for the whole. And that this system has led us to the result of many poor choices and to the brink of ineptitude.

Recently, our National Conference registered a negative vote against a concept to re-structure our denomination. In all fairness, I’m not sure whether the proposal had a chance from the beginning. My point in this post is not to validate or invalidate the vote taken, but to evaluate the process of congregationalism. In our setting, many voices were heard – some for the better and some for the worse. As for the vote, I was hopeful, but skeptical about the outcome. As for the system, I believe it failed miserably.

This raises very formidable questions for the church. Where does authority exist in the church? How should major decisions get made? And how do we safeguard against our own ignorance, fear, selfishness, and comfort?

I believe that we may overvalue and take pride in an American system that upholds fairness for people, but extinguishes the voice of God in leading his church. When we look realistically at this system, we are expecting that God will speak to a majority (or super-majority, when such votes are asked for) of people in the same way. We believe that an objective truth exists that we can all embrace if we use our God-given faculties. In reality, we are exalting human reason (a hallmark of the Enlightenment) as the guiding force for our decisions. In other words, a good decision makes sense to the many, which sounds well and fine except it does not work well in a system where sacrificial living is not the norm. The bottom line is that we have four forces to overcome.

Ignorance: One of the major problems in a system of democracy (or congregationalism) is that we must assume that everyone has the same understanding of the problem that is before us. The reality is that some people are not familiar with the magnitude of the problem that looms before them. Others are unaware of the history of the situation. Many more are simply lazy in educating themselves about the ramifications of their choice. So their vote is cast without clarity. These people usually come forward afterwards and say something like, “If I would have known, I would have voted differently.”

Fear: The second obstacle to a good decision-making process is fear. This creeping ogre looms throughout the process looking for opportunities to pounce upon people. It raises its ugly head during discussion and debate. It sweeps in and carries off our wild imaginations to the land of “what-ifs”. The classic example is found in Numbers 13, when the explorers return from exploring the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve say something like, “It is exactly as God said it would be! But the cities are fortified and we heard rumors of giants in the land. We fear we are not capable to go in and take it.” However, Joshua and Caleb say, “We can surely take the land, for the Lord has given it to us.” The people embraced the majority report wrapped in fear, and the conclusion of the story is: They wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

Self-centeredness: Another glaring impediment to sound decisions is the idea of selfishness. During our recent decision, I heard at least one story that described a vote that was cast specifically on how it may detract from their church specifically over against the benefit for the whole group. I am sure that many others also decided to vote based on an appeal to whether it would lend to or detract from their own situation. I believe that most national elections operate this way, which reveals a problem with the whole system.

Comfort: The last one on my list of obstacles focuses on what would be easiest. We do not handle the loss of emotional attachments well. So every story about the value of something to us in the past becomes the prevailing thought for many. We can't imagine life without it. Inevitably, change becomes a four-letter word—trust me. I know it looks like six, but it’s really four, at least for my example. Ultimately, our comfortable preferences become convictions and non-negotiables in the process of decisions. We cling to what we know, even though it is on board a sinking ship.

I just think that in today’s church, these four concepts can easily derail the best ideas, in the name of fairness and equality. The question is: Is this how God desires for us to make our decisions? Can an authoritative answer be agreed upon by a majority and then embraced and lived out by the whole as part of God's desire?

Let’s see how this process would have worked out in a few situations. If Moses had taken a vote among the people after crossing the Red Sea and journeying toward the Promised Land, I think the Israelites would have returned to slavery in Egypt. We already saw the result of the exploration above – a majority vote that sent them into the wilderness for forty more years. Elijah stood by himself as one of a few faithful prophets of YHWH, while the majority served King Ahab’s desires. A vote among prophets would have declared Elijah as out of sync and incompetent. The problem is that the four factors mentioned above are just too insurmountable to overcome within the democratic process.

Throughout the New Testament, we see demonstrated and hear about roles of leadership that are administered by the laying on of hands. It is a system that depicts the mantle of authority that is bestowed upon men and women who have proven themselves as honorable and of good character. Yes, I know this system is not perfect either—there are poor leaders. However, it does place the burden upon the church to identify those whom God has called, and raised up as competent leaders of good character. These leaders learn to discern the Spirit by listening well to others. They are teachable and know how to gather good feedback from others. They know how to invest in others. They establish trust throughout the body. And they make decisions that are well-informed, courageous, for the good of the whole, and often uncomfortable. (Please note: these four qualities positively correspond to the four weaknesses of congregationalism listed above.) And that is what good leadership looks like throughout the Bible.

So are you ready to vote? All in favor?

Dale Kramer said...

Posted on Sunday, August 18, 2013 @ 5:55 PM -
I've wanted to write a response for some time...but alas between my propensity to procrastinate and the struggles of Bi-vocational ministry it hasn't happened, till now. Here goes,...on this issue of congregationalism being supported... that in itself will take a whole study on the role of church elders, how we station, and the disciplinary moves of conference leadership of to men they confronted as being too "autocratic". I'll put that subject on hold for now.
On the subject of conference lay delegates being the "cream of the crop" ...I said that a little tongue in cheek. I did find it a little odd that one year Dave Wood could vote at conference as lay delegate and the next year after having been examined by the supervisory committee and approved as a ?was it approved candidate or licentiate? he could not vote. Hmmmm after more examination He was disqualified. You say you have better qualified men..." a missionary, three people with seminary degrees, and some young entrepreneurial leaders all of whom can't commit the time that conference requires of lay delegates." Two things , First I believe if they(the better qualified men) felt called of God to fill the position( the only reason anyone should take it) then wild horses couldn't keep them away. Historical sidebar in the earliest years lay delegates were not assigned from each church only laymen that had an interest and calling to help the fledgling denomination attended conference (hence most of the conference was made made up of the ministers with some respected laymen from the various churches). Secondly be careful of choosing qualified men solely on their credentials. That is the reasoning of Samuel who would choose Saul over David(the young ruddy upstart). You can have a seminary degree and still be an infidel. (not saying any of your men are). Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.
Finally to the heart of the matter. I'm glad you agree our system needs reformed. Congregationalism as currently practiced has harmed our churches. However you say. "I don't know how we can say the Bishop is the spiritual leader and then allow those under his direction to thwart his interpretation of God's vision..." the scripture says ..."no prophecy of scripture is of ones own interpretation." I didn't know we had given the Bishop papal powers to speak inexcathedra (?how's that spelled?) from the throne for God. I think(and I voted for the plan) one of the weakness of the plan was the disunity among the leadership. The Bishop and his lieutenants should have gone away on a retreat and locked themselves away until they heard from God and came away in agreement that xyz was God's will. Tony Evans often says if there is a mist in the pulpit there will be a fog in the pew. The Bishop is a spiritual leader overseer over the Missions Chair but He doesn't dictate to Randy what Randy must do. The Bishop is a spiritual leader to the school and the home but He doesn't dictate to them their policies. Neither should He dictate to the Conference Ministers. Historical sidebar in the early years there were appointed more then one Bishop (different ones oversaw several different annual conferences often with some overlap). The last time a Bishop tried to exercise papal powers(unwilling to be questioned in his judgement) our denomination went thru a church split. You rightly said, "In the New Testament we see demonstrated and see roles of leadership that are administered by the laying on of hands. It is a system that depicts the mantle of authority that is bestowed upon men as honorable and of good character." In our system we do that with and to the Conference Ministers. I believe Gary B, Gary K and Gordon L. are such men, honorable and of good character. I therefor have to believe that God has something better for us...we just have to find out what it is. We can't continue as we are. This has been a good discussion. Rethinking how I voted if I were to vote again I would have to vote against the motion only because the men with the mantle of authority given them were not in agreement. To me that means something either needs tweaked or a new idea must be discovered. For the King and for the Restoration...your companion in arms Dale

Jeff said...

Posted on Friday, July 12, 2013 @ 5:37 PM -
Dale, sorry it has taken so long to respond.
On your first point, I thank you for your historical insights about the advent of our form of governance. I do not disagree with any of this. It is noteworthy that for us congregationalism (a form of democracy) came from elements of distrust.
On your second point, I don't know that I would agree that we champion congregationalism at the local level. One of the aspects of the 2010 Strategic Plan that Bishop Kevin and I presented focused on developing a balance of accountability between pastors, laity, and denominational leaders that was more balanced and in alignment with biblical guidelines than the forms of democracy from which they arose.Bill Worley and Gary Brown wrote a position paper that was not communicated well to the wider body. Kevin's death left a void in carrying out many (if not all) of our 2010 objectives.
I would also challenge that we have the cream of the crop at National Conference. It is more like we have those who are available and willing. With no offense intended toward any of my own lay delegates over the past years, I have a missionary, three people with seminary degrees, and some young entrepreneurial leaders (all of which that cannot give the time that National Conference requires). In all honesty, I think I see much better responses and wiser solutions from our younger Christians at Bethesda than what I see from "mature" Christians at National Conference. Just an observation.
On your last point, I don't know how we can say the bishop is the spiritual leader and then allow those under his direction to thwart his interpretation of God's vision. I think they should provide input, but they are not the one's in the visionary role.
I do believe that structures help or hinder the culture of the church. Sociologically, (or in view of Church Health concepts), a church's culture helps to develop the structure, the structure then dictates the kinds of roles that are needed within the structure. The problem is our external culture has changed, our internal culture has taken a posture of resistance, our structure only gets tweaked occasionally, and as a result the roles feel the tension and are confusing.
I'll simply conclude that regional leaders worked well in a system when critical information was passed along through newspapers. A regional leader could travel from place to place without experiencing much variation in terms of pastoral and church need from place to place. Eventually, information sped up in a media age (TV and radio), and so did the pace of culture. The demands of leaders now had to process larger aspects of information and the information began to diversify. We began to see these positions take on stress. But we kept thinking that regional leadership was the way to go. Today, we live in a "Just In Time" world where information changes on an hour-by-hour basis. People get angry when they hit a dead zone where their iphone is not able to retrieve information. Our resource information in the church is diversified into discipleship, evangleism, leadership, church health, global ministries, and many other facets of ministry. How can one man wear all these hats and at the same time and be understanding enough with up to 60 churches that all have varying needs? So in visual terms we have a wide variety of issues, and one man to deliver them to a wide degree or varying churches. Wide-narrow-wide creates an hour glass, or a bottle neck. This structure that has been handed down to us needs a makeover. In my view, it's no wonder our churches are suffering under this model.

Dale said...

Posted on Monday, July 8, 2013 @ 4:12 PM -
This is a timely subject. One that deserves a lengthy discussion. I too believe our "democratic" system of congregationalism is holding us back. However you failed to mention the weaknesses of strong leaders and how Biblically accountability is handled. I won't get into all that now. But if I may I'd like to point out three things. One the evangelical church was not founded as a democratic organization. Through the class leaders and elders it operated much like a Presbyterian board of elders. An interesting note about the streams of influence Bishop Mike champions, 3 of the 4 come out of revival movements as God impressed and shaped the church: i.e. 1.the stream of Piety comes from the German pieitistic movement , 2. the stream of Wesleyan/ Evangelicalism comes from the Wesleyan revivals, 3. the stream of Holiness comes of course from the mid century holiness movement. NOTE OUR DEMOCRATIC FORM OF GOVERNMENT AND THE ENSUING CONGREGATIONALISM CAME OUT OF A FIGHT, A SPLIT AND A DIVISION IN OUR CHURCH. Secondly, note that our democratic form of government was instituted because of the heavy handedness of a Bishop and others in leadership. Interestingly we are moving away from the democratic process at the conference level all the while we champion congregationalism at the local level. NOTE IF WE CAN'T MAKE THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS WORK AT THE CONFERENCE LEVEL WHERE WE ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE THE CREAM OF THE CROP(APPROVED PASTORS AND THE MOST SPIRITUAL LAY LEADERS WE HAVE). HOW THEN ARE WE EXPECTED TO MAKE CONGREGATIONALISM WORK AT THE LOCAL LEVEL WHERE WE HAVE EVERYTHING FROM NEWBORN CHRISTIANS, TO BACKSLIDERS, TO SENIOR SAINTS ALL WITH THE SAME VOTE. Finally. Jeff I sense your frustration with the outcome of the vote. BUT DIDN'T YOU ULTIMATELY GET WHAT YOU WANTED...a system that depicts a mantle of authority that is bestowed on men who have proven themselves as of good and honorable character. In our system we have four chosen to lead the larger church(the bishop and the three conference ministers). Two of these spoke openly in opposition to the committees work and the body collectively agreed. If it were left to just those four I'm not sure we would have had any different result. I personally would have liked to see what the committee would have developed. CAVEAT THE REAL PROBLEM IN OUR CHURCHES IS NOT THE STRUCTURE OF THE NATIONAL CHURCH. Any changes at that level only buys us time to fix the real problems. Thoughts?

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