Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
I have made the argument on this blog that Christian unity is best understood as a relational quality, like the relations of a family, and that in the United Methodist tradition, connectionalism speaks to the importance of relationships as the basis of the church.
I have also indicated that the four main official functions of a modern denomination are to set theological affirmations, to establish lines of authority and decision-making, to credential ministers and pair them with congregations, and to engage in collaborative ministry. Note that “establish relationships” is not on this list.
Of course, relationships may still be connected to some of these four points. Authority is always a relational attribute. At its best, itinerancy means United Methodists know pastors or parishioners in places other than their current congregations. And certainly, engaging in shared ministry can produce relationships as well.
Yet none of these official functions is geared directly toward producing relationships. Moreover, each of these functions may be affected by or even cause relational stress. If relationships are poor, authority becomes contested, and impositions of authority often hurt relationships. If pastors or congregations don’t trust the conference, they are not likely to trust the appointive process, either. That distrust can be created through previous bad experiences with appointments. People are naturally more interested in collaborating in ministry with those with whom they have pre-existing relationships. When ministry is indirect, it fails to produce relationship. Two people both sending in checks to relief work does not create relationship, as important as it may be.
The opposite is also true, though. When relationships are strong, they can facilitate easier and better decision-making, more effective recruitment, credentialing, and assignment of pastors, more collaborative ministry, and greater depth of theological discussion and insight. Just as Peter Senge wrote about systems thinking as a “fifth discipline” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a learning organization, Christian relationships serve as a “fifth function” that unites and magnifies the other four functions of a denomination.
Thus, if relationships are important to unity and unity is important to denominations, then fostering relationships should be important to denominations. However, the official functions of denominations are poorly set up to foster relationships. Herein lies a problem.
Fortunately, organizations can and do fulfill functions other than their explicit functions all the time. This insight applies to churches as well. Churches serve to help people find spouse, increase voting participation, establish business networks, and increase people’s longevity. None of these are directly related to theology, authority, ministers, or ministry.
Of course, nurturing the relationships of a Christian family is directly related to the purpose of a church than are any of the personal or civic byproducts of churches mentioned above. Therefore, this goal is more important, so churches should be more intentional about nurturing Christian relationships.
Yet churches should be careful about how they go about this goal of nurturing Christian relationships for two reasons.
First, as stated above, relationship is not a direct by-product of any of the official functions of a denomination. Therefore, denominations can’t produce more relationship by simply doing more of what they’re already doing. They can’t produce more relationship by calling for greater deference to authority, by calling for more shared ministry, by pushing for a particular theological position to be made official, or by advocating higher standards for ordination. Yet, because these are the things a denomination is set up to do, these are often the first impulses.
Second, there is a tricky relationship between structure and relationship, whether that is relationship among people or between people and God. Structures are important and can facilitate relationship. Yet, relationship is a fluid quality that cannot be reduced to structures. Moreover, the structures that facilitate relationship in one place and time will not be the structures that facilitate relationship in other places and/or times.
Structures can easily become rigid such that they fail to support relationship in the same way and, at worst, harm the relationships they were created to support. Relationship must always take priority to particular structural supports, but because of the dynamics of institutions, there is a tendency for structures to take on a life of their own and then to fight for their continued existence, even if they are disconnected from or antagonistic toward their original purpose.
Thus, I have no specific structural recommendations for how The United Methodist Church can improve its function of building Christian relationships. Nevertheless, I think there is a structural practice in the United Methodist tradition that can play an important role in fostering relationships: conferencing. I will explore more about conferencing as a means to relationships in my next piece.