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Who Runs Your Church?
By: Lyle E. Schaller

One system that is widely used in American Protestantism is encountered most frequently in congregations that have been gathering in the same room for the corporate worship of God since before 1945 and average fewer than 85 at worship. A modest number of larger and/or newer congregations also follow this same system.

In simple terms, the system places a high value on local traditions and usually affirms the power of one or two or three family trees and/or a few individuals who satisfy their thirst for power by "volunteering to run the church." When challenged, a frequent response can be condensed into nine words: "Someone had to step forward and fill the vacuum."

How Do Human Beings Divide Up Their World?
One common thread in human history is that nearly every collection of human beings on this planet has divided their people into three categories: family, clan, and tribe. The Old Testament is one source for that observation. A second is the research of cultural anthropologists. A third is the global political scene since 1950 as scores of new nations have engaged in civil wars between tribes over control or in battle with the tribes in a neighboring nation.

The fourth association of human beings in this scenario has been to create a new nation out of a collection of tribes. A 21st century example is the nation of Iraq. One way to build a nation out of a collection of tribes is to place a dictatorship in charge. A second is to identify a common enemy and rally the people behind the leader to defeat that enemy. The war in 1980s between Iraq and Iran modeled that strategy. The invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War appeared at first to fit that model. Nation building in Iraq, however, is between difficult and impossible because the tribes also are divided into three factions by religion.

That paragraph could be used to introduce why most of the mergers of Protestant denominations (nations) since 1955 have produced an aging and shrinking number of members. For most Christians in America, it is difficult to generate and sustain institutional loyalties beyond congregations…and extremely difficult if the size of that congregation (tribe) exceeds 750 people at worship.

Ten Formal Systems
If we switch the focus from human behavior to the governance of institutions called Christian congregations, it is easy to identify 10 systems of governance. The larger the average worship  attendance and/or the greater the level of anonymity among those human beings, the more likely the system of governance will provide a realistic response to the question, "Who runs this church?"

1. The Participatory Democracy
This is the choice of most small Protestant congregations that are not controlled by a top-down denominational system. Every major decision is made at a congregational meeting, and every member has a vote that carries as much weight as any other vote.

2. The Representative Democracy
This is modeled after the American political system. The members elect and empower the people who will "run our church." This can be a relevant and effective system for congregations averaging between 75 and 350 at weekend worship.

3. The Elder Run Model
This model empowers a smaller number of elected lay elders, plus sometimes the pastor, to hold and exercise the final authority in "how our church is run." This model is different in that it means the pastor is first among equals.

4. The Denominational Rulebook
This model is based on varying degrees of distrust of local leaders. That requires the denominational leaders to write the rulebook and local leaders to follow that rulebook. The Roman Catholic Church in America, the Episcopal Church USA, The United Methodist Church, and most Presbyterian bodies use this model. Because this model was created on a foundation of distrust of local leadership, it tends to be more acceptable to Americans born in the 1800-1920 era than to those born after 1960. A major deficiency of this model is it usually assumes one system of governance can and should fit all tribes (congregations), regardless of size or of the membership of the clans that constitute each tribe.

5. The Charismatic Personality
This usually is the senior pastor who speaks for God and/or the Holy Spirit. These often are self-identified "Spirit Led" congregations since the Holy Spirit speaks to and through the senior minister or pastor.

6. The Founding Pastor Led Model
This model has been widely used since 1940 as that long-tenured founding pastor created what eventually became a nondenominational mega-church.

7. The Senior Pastor Led Model
In this model, the senior pastor may have the authority to nominate the members of the Elder Board, as well as in choosing new paid staff members.

8. The Staff Led Model
The senior minister may or may not serve as the team leader for this model.

9. The Team Led Model
This is a rapidly growing response to the question of who runs this church. It is especially popular among congregations averaging over 750 at worship and served by a senior minister born after 1970 who fulfills the roles of coach and team leader.

10. The Very Large Church Model
This is the team of teams in which each of several ministry teams of volunteers and part-time lay specialists is led by a full-time team leader. That group of team leaders is led by a team leader who may or may not be the senior minister.

So What?
Why is this a relevant issue in your congregation? The obvious first reason is life is less complicated, and the temptation to engage in internal quarreling is reduced if everyone affirms the same answer to the question, "Who runs this church?" The most common explanation for the unhappiness created by the dismissal of the pastor is the absence of agreement on who runs our church.

An overlapping second reason is the absence of agreement on the appropriate response to this question helps to explain why one-half of the congregations in American Protestantism average 75 or fewer at weekend worship.

A third reason to seek agreement on this issue is it is easier to design, adopt, and implement a customized ministry plan for a congregation if there is widespread agreement that, "This is our system of governance."

A fourth reason is this is the best single explanation of why (a) most very large Protestant congregations in America today use one of the last four of these 10 systems of governance and (b) congregations averaging fewer than 250 at worship use one of the first three systems on this list.

A fifth reason is this helps to explain why congregations that are committed to following the denominational rulebook tend to encounter difficulty in reaching, attracting, serving, assimilating, and nurturing Americans born after 1960.

Finally, this discussion helps to explain why the most gifted specialists in ministry tend to be found in congregations using one of the last three systems of governance on this list of 10, and that helps to explain why most megachurches in American Protestantism belong in the same category with the very large law firms and the very large medical clinics and large universities. All four affirm a preference for specialists over generalists.

During the past four decades, church growth expert Lyle Schaller has greatly enhanced his ability to respond, "What you're asking of me is beyond my area of competence. I don't do that." When appropriate, that response by a paid staff member can help clarify who does and who does not run that church.

Copyright 2009 by Lyle E. Schaller

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