The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

5. How a Church Can Give Its People the Business

In this chapter we will talk about the local congregation and its function of conducting "business." We are using this term in the broadest possible sense to include not only those decisions dealing with property, personnel, and what we usually call "business affairs," but all the multitudinous decisions that affect programs, activities, and other aspects of the church.

There are two very different ways to make these decisions, and they correspond rather directly to our commissary and caravan models. In a commissary church, the great majority of important decisions are made by the pastor and professional staff. Many of these decisions are made through regular church channels and with the help of an official hoard or various committees. Nevertheless, by the time matters get to the congregation they are pretty well accomplished. Most of the time, the people do not expect or want things any other way; they come only to see what "the church" is going to put on for them.

I am not saying that this method is undemocratic; it is democratic in precisely the same way as our political system and most of our organizations are--we elect officials and representatives to make decisions for us, and these officials and representatives are ultimately responsible to us. Yet, for a caravan church, democracy is not good enough; participation and community decision are required. A caravan may have leaders and even committees (i.e., groups with special responsibilities), but in the final analysis each member has an equal investment in the life of the caravan and equal responsibility for its existence and survival. Each individual is as much a part of the church as anyone else is. Each contribution is as necessary as anyone else's is. One does not come to see what the church proposes to put on for oneself, because each is as much "the church" as anyone else is.

That the New Testament envisions the caravan form of congregational government seems obvious from the way churchly admonishment is directed. In Revelation's letters to the seven churches and in the great majority of the Pauline and general epistles, when the writer calls for something to happen, he addresses the congregation as such and not any staff or official board. Decisions and actions are seen as the responsibility of the community, although this clearly is not taken to mean that all leadership functions are abrogated.

Now it is evident that the larger a congregation is, the more difficult it will be to practice participatory community, and perhaps at this point representative democracy becomes the only practical form of church government. But as we have suggested before, large congregations chose to become such on their own, have created their own problems in regard to the New Testament model, and will have to take responsibility for their own solutions. But one way or another, the people ought to be given the business.

Even so, to talk about the business of the church is to talk also about disagreement, tension, and conflict. As more people participate there will be more ideas as to how things should go, and thus there will be more controversy. So there is no doubt that the larger, commissary-type churches have the easier time of it. The proper people are in charge and the average churchgoer is not consulted, his opinion is not welcomed, and he probably does not realize that he has a right to one. The views of a single member-or even a small group of members are not given serious attention. In the large, professionally organized church, it takes a major rebellion to endanger the peace. In barbershopping caravans, tempests in teapots are the order of the day.

And the principle holds true not only in regard to conflicts. In the commissary church it simply is not true as John Fawcett's hymn states: "We share our mutual woes; our mutual burdens bear." The private problems of an individual or family do not become those of the church as such. One of the staff professionals takes care of the matter, and most of the church members probably do not even hear of it, let alone become concerned and involved.

Often, the burden to bear is another person--a person, to state it kindly, with many idiosyncrasies. In the commissary church this type of person is easily tolerated, because the most he can do is come and watch the program. In the caravan church this type of person could become a real pain, because, along with everyone else, he must be recognized, lived with, given his part of the action, and (by the grace of God) loved.

So a commissary church is more peaceful than its caravan counterpart, but that is not to say that it is healthier. Its peace is achieved at the cost of limiting communal participation. We do not mean to say that tension and conflict are good in church life; we do say that it is good for the life of the church that those things are free to appear. And in this sense, the fact that the troubles of the New Testament congregations are so apparent is a sign that they are doing something right. Let us examine what a caravan church should do when disagreement, tension, conflicts, and fighting arises.

The key lies in another pair of contrasting terms. This pair, however, is completely different from previous pairs because, although it is important to distinguish between them, we are not pushing for an either/or choice; both must be and should be kept in the picture. The two terms are "votables" and "non-votables."

There are some issues in the life of a congregation for which it would be utterly inconceivable to propose that they be settled by voting. For example, the church does not vote on whether Jesus is Lord. Issues of this sort could be called "matters of principle," or "constitutive principles"; they represent the commitments that define the community and make it what it is. There can be no giving up of these without destroying the community (or at least the Christianity of the community) in the process. If and when these issues come into question, I have no good advice on procedures, for you have an irreconcilable fight on your hands. What ought to happen in such a case is for those who are deserting the constitutive principles (their baptismal, ordinational, creedal, or church-membership vows) to be honest enough to recognize that they have moved outside the hounds of the community, and so absent themselves in actuality.

"Votable issues," on the other hand, such as "what hymnal should we use in the church?" are those that can be settled one way or the other (or compromised) without affecting the essential character of the community. These issues ought not to be called "trivial" (because most often they are not seen that way), yet certainly, in comparison to the "non-votable" issues, they are trivial. None of them is worth destroying the community over, and at most, they produce unnecessary conflicts.

Now I suppose there may be borderline issues that could be either "votable" or "non-votable"; nevertheless, such issues are likely to be few and far between. But the real secret behind how a caravan church conducts business is to keep everyone aware of the distinction between the two types of issues as well as aware of which type is under consideration at any given time. When this is done, interesting things can begin to happen.

The more unified a group is regarding its "non-votables," the freer it will be to argue over its "votables" in a completely healthy, open, and non-threatening way. The caravan church is more likely to have such a united commitment on "non-votables," simply because its members have been given more opportunities to share and witness, to know just how they stand with one another. On the other hand, where there is any doubt about unity on the "non-votables," there is bound to be touchiness about the "votables" as well. There will always be the hidden agenda, the suspicion that deeper issues are involved.

So it may be that a peaceful commissary is afraid to entrust much decision-making to the people for fear that it could lead to deeper issues and consequent disorder. And it may be that a caravan's regular tempests in teapots represent a healthy freedom, a sign that its "non-votables" are in such good shape that it can afford the fun of letting everybody sound off on whatever they feel like sounding off about.

When all understand that a "votable" is a "votable," they may still have strong and genuine feelings on the issue, but the vote itself is tantamount to the consensus by which some communities operate. Contrary to the common understanding, a consensus does not necessarily mean that everyone agrees. It can mean that some members have chosen to go along with the majority in order to keep things moving, and because the matter is not important enough to risk disunity. And just so with the right kind of vote--"win a few, lose a few"--the community is operating as it should whether I get my way or not.

No one would say that barbershop business meetings are the most efficient method of procedure--they are not. But they do accomplish some things that a more structured and efficient organization cannot. In the congregation to which I belong, we have congregational business meeting one long Sunday evening each month - much more frequently than most churches. Very few (if any) decisions are made without the involvement of the entire body.

A few years ago, a sharp Mennonite family (which may be a redundancy) was looking for a church home. They visited one of our Sunday morning services. They were pleased, and decided to attend one of our evening business meetings in order to learn more about our church. (This was a real switch. Goodness knows it's hard enough to get members to come to business meetings, let alone visitors.

The evening was, as usual, a rather wild and spirited affair. Everyone felt free to have his say on everything in the form of passionate and highly opinionated speeches (except mine, of course). There was also, as usual, a goodly amount of wisecracking and general hee-haw. (One of the best ways of keeping it clear that "votables" are "votables" is by not taking them too seriously.) We made it through the evening - if not the business - and a good time was had by all. The visitors were hooked, eager for their chance to get in on the action.

In that one business meeting, where they saw the congregation with its hair down, and where body language was most visible, they received more insight into the essential nature of the congregation (warts and all) than they would have received if they had attended our Sunday morning services for an entire month. They saw what sort of standing the individual (even the idiosyncratic individual) had within the group, and how these individuals related to one another as a body. They observed the kind of Christian freedom that does not evade or play down disagreements, tensions, and conflicts, but takes them in stride. Above all, the ease with which the group handled "votables" probably was a better indicator of the power and character of its constitutive principles than listening to sermons or reading statements of faith. At least here faith could be seen in action and at work - and that in a situation of potential stress and trial.

The church is at least as much, if not more, the church when it is making its decisions of program, spending, outreach, and service as it is when it is worshiping--particularly if that worship represents the planning of professionals rather than the expression of the people. How is it with your congregation? What do your business procedures say about the nature and health of your faith community? Should your church give its people the business?

Copyright (c) 1980