Family or Institution?

by Dan Hotchkiss

A church or synagogue always is two congregations at the same time. One is the formal institution, governed under bylaws by elected officers and boards and clergy. This congregation has procedures, rules of order (whether Roberts or some new alternative), and stated decision-making methods. Each newcomer who joins has the full rights and privileges of membership. If you want to know how this congregation runs, you read its bylaws, policies, and job descriptions.

The other congregation is more like a family. Its leaders are selected for charisma and respect, and remain indefinitely in office. Decisions are made informally, according to unwritten rules. Newcomers are accepted slowly, and until they are accepted have little or no voice in the deliberations of the group, even if they hold high office. Some things are “done” and others are “not done,” and there is no introductory brochure to clue the stranger into the folkways of the tribe.

The two congregations coexist; neither is more “real” than the other. They are in tension, to be sure, but it is a tension to be lived with, not resolved by victory and defeat. Most of the time the tension is so subtle that most members need not be consciously aware of it. The only sign of it, most of the time, is a bit of grumbling about “certain people who think they own the church,” or the fact that “around here money talks, no matter what they say.”

At other times, though, the tension between the formal and informal church becomes quite visible. At those times it can be helpful to acknowledge openly that both exist, and both are necessary and inevitable. Two responses almost always come when this is done. One, from the partisans of the formal congregation, protests that “it says right here in the bylaws” what should be done. To extreme advocates of Law, the informal process of the family system is always an injustice and a breach of contract.

From the other side come protests that the humane values of the informal congregation always should take precedence. “This is a church. We should do the Christian thing.” (Of course, as Rabbi Edwin Friedman pointed out, this attitude has little to do with Christianity. Jews also sometimes want to do the “Christian thing.”) “We should put people first, not rules.” “A congregation should be different from a corporation.” To extreme partisans of the informal congregation, by-the-book procedures always trample people’s feelings.

Certain occasions intensify the conflict between these modes of congregational operation. When a newcomer has a strong agenda, he or she is likely to take the congregation’s formal procedures at face value, because they give each member equal power. As a student I preached once a month to a small congregation in a Boston suburb. For two years, between 18 and 23 were present every Sunday I was there. Like most small congregations, this one ran informally under a strong matriarch. A young woman named Barbara, new to the group, was made membership chairperson, and proposed to hold a “Bring a Friend Sunday” similar to one that she had seen succeed in her prior church. Barbara asked me to prepare, on my next monthly visit, a short sermon on church growth, so she and her committee could prepare the congregation for the “Bring a Friend” event the following week.

I did as she asked. Barbara did what I thought was an excellent job of promoting her idea, and the small congregation seemed receptive. Several people mentioned to me afterward how happy they were that “new blood” was coming into the church, for after all, “we need young people.”

When I returned the following month, Barbara was not there, so I asked the matriarch, “How did it go?” “How did what go?”

I said, “The membership Sunday that Barbara organized.” And she said, “Barbara?” Like an alien bacterium among the T-cells, poor Barbara had been swallowed up without a trace.

The larger the congregation, the more power the formal processes are apt to have. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to ignore the informal networks and hierarchies. It is an old story worth retelling: a young minister arrives at his first church, and everybody says the organist is horrible. “We have been suffering with Gladys now for 18 years, and that is long enough. She’s a nice lady, but she never did play well, and since she turned 80, she has only gotten worse. You are the head of staff, and we expect you to do something.” Looking at the bylaws, the pastor sees that he is indeed head of staff, with power to hire and fire the organist. After consulting with the governing board and getting their encouragement, he fires the organist. At their next meeting the board asks for his resignation. “We think you’ll make a fine pastor somewhere, but not here. Till you came this was a friendly church. But people are complaining that you seem to think you are a CEO. Probably there are pastorates where you’ll do well, but not here.”

What happened? Informal networks in a large church kill silently, so it is not easy to retrace their steps. No doubt Gladys, like most church staff members, had a constituency all her own. They did not speak up in the deliberations of the formal church – the first board meeting, where the focus was on Gladys’s competence. In that setting, it would have felt out of place to speak of personal affection or the fact that Gladys had played for hundreds of weddings and funerals and had woven herself firmly into the fabric of the congregation’s life. Those considerations filled the agenda of the informal congregation. In this case, it was that congregation whose priorities won out.

Neither formal nor informal congregation is always superior, though the advocates of each are prone to speak in moral terms. In one congregation of about 500, the long-term minister retired because of a terminal illness. As he was dying, an interim minister began a year’s term. After the second Sunday, he phoned his regional executive in alarm. “What should I do?” he asked, “On Sunday, my predecessor came to church. Someone introduced him during the announcements, and the congregation gave him a standing ovation. Doesn’t Charlie know he should stay away for a while to give the congregation a chance to separate and make a transition? Also he had led a Bible study group in his home. The group is still meeting. Now they’re meeting to take care of him, but don’t you think that is a problem? Should I speak with him? Could you?

This interim minister was obviously well schooled in the standard rules and admonitions for ministers in the formal church: former ministers should stay away during the interim time, and stop attending church or meeting privately with members. It was the facts of life in the informal church structure that eluded him. When death looms, as it did for this former minister, it is the church family whose rules apply. The first duty of a religious congregation toward the dying is to care for them. In the face of this, formal protocols are unimportant.

Healthy congregations are both families and institutions. The family is tended, as a rule, by long-term members, small groups, and lay people. Clergy, new leaders, and denominational executives more often than not find themselves the advocates for formal institutional behavior. Family therapists like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke have taught that the informal, family nature of the congregation controls much of its behavior. Church growth advocates have shown us how small congregation informality must change if a congregation is to grow. Family behavior is important in the small groups even of the largest congregation, and the smallest country church can be quite formal, at least superficially, when it conducts business.

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