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Church meetings

Has the Church Meeting had its day?

Four years ago I wrote a letter to the Baptist Times questioning whether the time had now come to take a fresh look at the way Baptist churches organise their affairs. I wrote some strong things that, to my surprise – because governance doesn’t seem to be an especially sexy subject – provoked a range of angry and heartfelt emotions, both in support and in opposition. It felt like I had wandered onto sacred ground.

Two memories come to mind, one from a strong advocate of democratic congregationalism in my own church who questioned my calling, and one from a minister who I’d never met. He woke me up at 9am on New Years’ day to pour his heart out about his own desperate situation where he felt he’d been systematically beaten up in church meetings, and the attraction he now felt for turning his back on all things Baptist.  “Don’t give up fighting this battle,” he said, with real sadness and frustration in his heart.

In my own setting we’ve worked hard to make our Church Meeting more appealing and less confrontational: more prayer and worship; better communication; encouraging feedback; honouring people who serve the church; genuine interaction and collaboration; but cultures in churches take a long time to change. We’re on a journey with a way to go.

I am delighted that the Fresh Streams Theology Track has grasped the nettle and is taking a fresh look at a vital ecclesiological issue which impacts us all in various ways. I commend to you the variety of insights and stories from Rev John Claydon in my own association; Martin Young at Stafford, whose church has made a radical change in governance; Stephen Rand, who writes as a lay leader who has introduced new constitutions into two different churches; not to mention an excellent thesis on this matter. You can access all these via the links below.

I’m sure there’ll be plenty of debate and discussion, and possibly not a little heat. What most of us seem to gather round is the recognition that the time is ripe for a new look that takes account of the fact that:

  • No-one wants to leave behind a collaborative model for an authoritarian one
  • Abuse works both ways
  • Christians seem to have lost sight of the spiritual gift of discernment rather than opinion sharing, which seems to be the cornerstone of congregationalism
  • Most of the upcoming generation have disconnected from Church Meetings
  • We need to be brave enough to consider whether our ecclesiology serves our missiology, or not
  • Leaders are called to lead. How might we more effectively honour and release those called to lead whilst creating authentic, non-abusive and grace-filled communities at the same time?

I finished my letter four years ago by saying, “For a denomination known for its radical thinking it’s surely time for change and for action, not least for the sake of the next generation, most of whom feel alienated and disengaged from what passes as congregational government at the moment.

So, let the conversation begin, and may it be done with bags of truth and grace. You can make your comments at the bottom of this page: my breath is bated!

Mark Elder


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4 thoughts on “Church meetings

  1. Mark’s editorial and attached contributions are a good start to this debate and rightly highlight key issues such as the difference between opinion sharing and discernment and the role of leaders in congregational decision-making. I have been in a number of Baptist churches that have all struggled with issues around church meetings common to many of us; lack of attendance, worldly approaches to agendas that fit better in the boardroom and a lack of grace and love in debates. None of them have successfully changed dynamics enough for the church meeting to become fully functional, effective or dare I say it, enjoyable!

    The only place I have seen it done well is in both Pioneer and New Frontiers churches where people wanted to come, there was a sense of occasion and they wanted to participate. Why?? Because not only was this was a good place to find out what was really going on at the heart of the church and be part of it; but more importantly because God was invited to be at the heart of the meeting, his presence was encouraged and his voice heard in many ways (prophecy etc). Jeremiah 29:12-13 reminds us that we will find God when we pray and seek him with all of our hearts. For many of us to see that in our churches requires changing the culture along the lines Stephen suggests in his paper i.e. making decisions in a context of worship, praise and prayer.

    For me,the principal problem with the church meeting is not primarily an organisational one but a spiritual one. If we are to “discern the mind of Christ” together that means the church praying and reflecting over key matters BEFORE the meeting to hear the voice of the Spirit (even if this needs a lot of encouragement) but also being open to what the Spirit is saying whilst we meet. It’s not one or the other. The various suggestions made in the papers are important in encouraging changing culture so that God is given space to move and people are more sensitive to hearing what he is saying. Encouraging churches full of Spirit filled believers (as opposed to baptised believers) is a lifetime’s challenge for all of us, but would help change the culture of our church meetings. As we all know culture change is not quick or easy. Changing our church meetings so that the move of the Spirit is encouraged and discerned means that many of our church meetings need to be “born again;” born not of institutional governance but the Spirit. They need to be new creations.

  2. I haven’t ploughed through the attached docs yet, but currently I am reading ‘The Democracy Project’ by D Graeber. Although a secular book (about Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements), it has some interesting input on collaborative/concensus based decision making that is giving me food for thought.

  3. “Meeting” is a neutral term, however, when we prefix it with “church”, “staff”, “political” or other descriptors a range of responses kicks in! These responses tell us little about “meetings” but much about our lack of understanding about how organisations learn. Christian communities should above all be learning communities as “disciple” is our favoured personal adjective.
    Once meetings begin to serve specific and declared purposes, we can share and shape our assumptions and expectations. But this is not about meetings, it is about leadership and a key part of leadership is about understanding the processes involved when people meet together. As a leadership and management professional, I would observe that churches often blame “meetings” when the issue is poorly trained leadership.
    As one writer said: Leadership is about which wall you place your ladder against; management is about how we ensure the ladder is used to maximum effect; administration is about keeping the rungs clean. If the ladder is against the wrong wall, it doesn’t matter how smooth the climbing and descending are, nor how clean the rungs are!

  4. Our church meetings now happen around a meal – admittedly easier to do when there are less then 20 of you! We had a fellowship meal planned and had some urgent business so I asked people to consider this issue as we ate. At the end I said we’d better have a formal meeting to formalise the decision and they all (the majority traditional elderly Baptists) looked at me blankly and said ‘Isn’t this good enough?’ Then we had to set a meeting for the AGM and they all said, ‘Can’t we do it like this again?’ So we have done it like this for a year now. We only discuss spiritual matters eg the way the church is going, what are our values etc. So far so good.
    I think that there is a misunderstanding about the purpose of the meeting together and what members have covenanted to. We have to constantly remind ourselves we are gathered to listen for the voice of the Spirit not just in our own hearts but heard through other people present.
    A key factor is that it requires strong leadership from a leader who is prepared also to listen to the people they lead – people who want to work together in this way and have given permission to the leader to lead them in this. It works well when everyone is in agreement with the process of decision making or is prepared to back (it has usually been me who has backed down on what I consider non essentials) and when they are not in agreement then the leader has to be firm with those who are behaving inappropriately in the church. Not easy but it’s the only way such a community can work. As a leader I am constantly reminding everyone as well as myself what baptist ecclesiology is and what we’ve committed to.

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