Why Connectionalism Matters

There are essentially two types of church denominational systems: connectionalism and congregationalism.

In connectional systems (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, etc):

  • pastors are assigned to churches
  • churches are accountable to meta-church agencies and boards
  • church buildings and property are owned by the meta-church (the denomination) and held in trust by the local congregation.

In congregational systems (United Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, etc) or individual congregational churches:
  • Pastors are selected by the local congregation.
  • churches are accountable only to their own rules and regulations (which is not terrible, look at the excellent structure in place when Ted Haggard was removed from his church)
  • local congregations own the church building and property.
While both are legitimate ways of doing church, Connectionalism has taken some hits in the last month, especially to our sisters and brothers in the Episcopal Church.

First, the schizmatic churches in the Episcopal Church have wrested ownership of the church property (you know...the ones that the denomination owns and the local congregation holds in trust) from the denomination.  In other words, they have taken from the denomination that which for its entire existance has been considered to be the denominations.  There have been isolated incidents of this previously, but this is a major change in denominational understandings and in understandings of local churches holding property "in trust" not "owning it themselves."  It's a terrible step, in my opinion.

Second, even though much hoopla has come up of the rival Episcopal denomination that is emerging, there is not much hope for denominationalism as a whole.  ReligionLink.org reports:
At a time when denominations are floundering — even the Southern Baptist Convention is losing members — the formation of another denominational-like structure runs counter to all the congregational trends of the past 40 years. Study after study — the latest by Mark Chaves of Duke University — confirms that increasing numbers of churches choose not to affiliate with any denomination.
Further on this point, the article collected the responses of why congregations want to dis-affiliate from the denominations.  Let's look at these from a HX.net perspective:
  • Leaders of these churches don’t want to get caught up in politics. It tends to drive away newcomers.
    • Translation:  Leaders of those churches have not succeeded in changing the denominational structures or policies in ways that are agreeable.  So they want to take their ball and go home where they can play in their own sandpit. Instead of continuing the conversation, they opt to leave for their own echo-chambers where their perspective is shared and reinforced, not challenged.
  • They’ve dropped many of the trappings of the Anglican Communion, such as vestments and formal Anglican titles (rector, vestry, senior warden, etc.) 
    • Translation:   They have moved away from a sense of unity and common purpose/history with their brethern and sought to remake their local congregation in their own image, not reflective of the denomination.  Impossible?  You'd be surprised how many anti-denominational sermons and actions I've witnessed in the denominational churches I've worked with.
  • They’re used to giving away money for specific projects and are unlikely to welcome a superstructure that demands monetary commitments.
    • Translation:   At least in the United Methodist Church, people want to stop paying mission shares (apportionments) because part of it pays for the General Board of Church and Society which is at the cutting edge of promoting social justice and thus has to take controversial stances in the name of promoting human rights.  They want their money to go to only like-minded projects...again, the echo-chamber.
  • They’d rather avoid fresh battles over the role of women or the use of the Book of Common Prayer.
    • Translation:  There's a fresh wind of the spirit blowing through denominational structures, and they want to shut the door.

At Hacking Christianity, we are fascinated and disturbed by the ecclesial echo-chamber, or the ways in which we customize our lifestyle to avoid dissonant messages and reinforce our beliefs. It is my firm belief that this trend towards anti-connectionalism is another facet of the echo-chamber: entire churches becoming like-minded that they disaffiliate from the meta-church.

Hacking Christianity takes an anti-authoritarian viewpoint on most things.  That's our own bias, admittedly so.  Connectionalism has its flaws and we expose them here.  But the structure and the spirit of connectional churches helps keep us talking to one another, keeps us appointing different pastors to churches to get them to grow, moving pastors when they become cults of personality, and, basically, keeping the conversation going.  Otherwise, connectional churches risk falling into echo-churches (ooo, that's a nice new term).

Your turn:
  • Thoughts on connectionalism?  Are you familiar with connectional or congregational churches?
  • If you are congregational, in what ways do congregational churches keep from becoming cults of personality or a like-minded echo-chamber?
  • Other thoughts?
Welcome to our visitors and comments are welcome!


Charles December 22, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

I've grown up congregational in the Churches of Christ, which has strong echo-chamber tendencies. As I've looked around at other churches, though, I don't see connectionalism presenting any less of an echo-chamber, just one more removed from the lay membership. When my CoC eldership goes echo-chamber, I can see it happening and have a chance to make my case to them, which has worked a surprising number of times. To take the extreme form of connectionalism, what the Vatican says goes, which seems to lead to a view of Christianity as a buffet of things to pick from instead of an entire story and perspective of God the creator that we are blessed to learn, explore, and share.

I have no doubt that a lot of churches, and especially church leaders, are doing exactly what you translate (I'm currently looking for a new church because of these styles). And the wealth redistribution is a destructive trend in how Christians treat each other. But I bet a lot of them have real problems (or their congregations do) with decisions from on high that are not from On High.


Rev. Jeremy Smith December 22, 2008 at 8:41 AM  

I think your congregational church then has a good system and avenues for discussion. While it may have difficulties, I'm glad you were able to speak and feel listened to.

At Annual Conference in the United Methodist church a few years back, the Bishop spoke about churches that still requested male pastors. He said if they requested a male pastor, they would get a female pastor. That's not fair to the pastor, for sure, but it illustrates one tenet of connectionalism: the pastor sent doesn't have to reflect the views of the echo-church, unlike congregationalism where the echo-church picks their pastor.

Again, this is all theory. That's why I asked for personal experiences, and yours fit the bill nicely. Thank you Charles!

Anonymous,  December 22, 2008 at 11:42 AM  

I find our medium sized yet wealthy UMC doing an end around the connectional system. They hire seminary students rather then allowing the conference to appoint associate pastors. I find that deceitful especially when it isn't brought to the Administrative Board.

Rev. Jeremy Smith December 22, 2008 at 11:50 AM  

I've seen that also, with the distinction of the position being "assistant pastor" rather than the appointable position of "associate pastor."

It's debateable: one can see the other pastors as "under" the ministry of the senior pastor, so thus the senior pastor would want some say over who is doing the ministry. But in practice, this happens anyway in the connectional system (with glaring exceptions, of course).

I've also seen it in congregations that want a particularly-gifted person as their assistant pastor, but the person isn't far enough along the ordination process (or excluded from it entirely) to be appointed.

Like I said, debatable, but definitely deceitful when done behind the back of an accountable Admin Board.

Charles,  December 23, 2008 at 10:05 AM  

What keeps the denomination level from becoming its own echo chamber? Since it selects its own members, it seems even more susceptible than a congregation. As much as you (and I) like the progressive tendencies towards female pastors, the policy you describe sounds almost petty and power-trippy. Don't the congregations still risk having the will of an echo chamber, just one the congregation isn't a part of, imposed on them?

John Wilks December 26, 2008 at 2:16 PM  

Your "translations" are nice, but the bottom line is this: trust clauses should work both ways.

The trust clause keeps congregations from going rogue and violating the basic theology of the larger body.

So when a congregation chucks aside orthodoxy, the Bishop can step in and set things right.

But when the congregations have remained in the stream of orthodoxy while the Bishops have gone after a "novel" and "progressive" re-imanging of the Gospel, they are forfeiting the right to drag orthodox congregations with them.

I don't mind that our churches hold buildings "in trust" for the annual conference because I trust my Bishop to proclaim and defend essential Christian doctrine.

But if the Bishops abandon that task, as the ECUSA Bishops have done again and again and again, then the covenant is already broken- not by the leaving churches, but by the Bishops.

Basically, asking orthodox congregations to remain in broken unions torn apart by heresy is like asking someone to stay married to an abusive and adulterous spouse.

If the ECUSA wishes to continue down this theological path, that is fine and dandy. But they should have the common decency of letting those who cannot follow exit gracefully.

Anonymous,  December 26, 2008 at 5:12 PM  

Interesting post.

Aren't Presbyterians a call system? That's congregational, isn't it?

karla December 31, 2008 at 1:03 AM  

My (Episcopal) church is in the process of calling a new rector. I've been an Episcopalian for about 10 years, and began near the beginning of an unusually long-staying rector, meaning that this is the first time I've observed a call process. I was Roman Catholic in my childhood, and priests were assigned by the bishop I suppose? Anyway, the priest you got was the priest you got. My understanding in my current case is that our parish calls (selects?) the priest we will get, but our prospects (for lack of a less crass word) are limited to bishop approved folks. Seems a bit like a hybrid of that portion of the distinction you make between connectional and congregational. But our bishop frequently asserts that we're "not" congregational, and I think that's the accountability involved which seems to be the bigger part of the connectional concept that you describe here. We're not an unmonitored echo chamber, so to speak? Anyway, I rather like being an Episcopalian, so I hope that we can maintain conversations and agree to disagree on the non-essentials. That's what attracted me to this worshiping community/style in the first place. [sigh]

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