Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The make it or break it issue..

Is your church a voluntary association, or a community in covenant? A voluntary association allows members to set their own rules for participation. A community in covenant is one in which the institution of the church sets the standards. This is a VAST contrast in approaches.

Many churches claim to be covenanted communities, but they really aren't. They function like voluntary associations. The more theologically liberal, the more likely this is the case. If your church is a voluntary association, chances are good that what your church is today is what it will be forevermore. It will only attract people who desire a low expectation environment.


  1. Good point, Michael, and very much in my mind as we approach that old "community and giving" season.

  2. What an interesting question! I'm very curious about how members of my church would answer this question. A topic for our next get together!

  3. Restless souls in a "voluntary association" type of church who wish to become a true community of covenant are likely to encounter fierce resistance. Be forewarned.

    At the same time, the voluntary association character of traditional Protestantism is why mainline religion has lost its way. In contrast, the meteoric rise of nondenominational and more conservative churches is because they were founded as covenanted communities from the get-go.

  4. I'm slightly confused. Is a covenant with each other the same as a covenant with the institution?

  5. A sociologist would say that most churches in America are voluntary associations (even if their theology is orthodox, their polity hierarchical, and their politics conservative). It's not the *voluntariness* that you're objecting to, though, is it? It's that people aren't voluntarily joining communities that expect a lot of them—and that liberal churches aren't expecting more. Right?

  6. Let me see if I can answer two questions in one. Yes, churches are the ultimate volunteer organization. But they function very differently.

    Churches that fall into the community of covenant category often proclaim, "This is who we are, what we teach, and what we preach. This is the journey we are on. Come join us." The path is extremely clear.

    Minimum standards include regular Sunday attendance, an ongoing faith formation class, being involved in a mission or outreach project,
    and greater than average charitable giving.

    These churches claim outright that they are not in the business of creating spectators but rather committed souls. Newcomers enter into a structured environment in which highly trained volunteers and staff ensure they have a positive experience. The quality of church services and programs is astonishingly high.

    For those who are only familiar with churches where members set their own standards for membership, the covenanted community sounds like a forbidding, alien world.

    Church literature, however, reflects that higher commitment churches are experiencing the greatest numerical growth in America today. Hmm, is there a lesson to be learned here?

  7. Having just come out the wrong side of a bruising quest to move a UU church from entitled country club towards a covenantal community, your post resonated with me. Always enjoyable to see what you are thinking...

  8. Yes, the low-expectation church lives on, and on, and on...

    Kudos to Alice Blair Wesley for her tireless work over more than a decade to help UU churches re-examine our relationships within the congregation and among congregations and our Association.

    But too many congregations are too comfortable with low expectations. The churches I've been familiar with are starving themselves of vision and resources (material and human). Our embrace of unmitigated individualism has cost us dearly.

    This seems to be a particularly difficult cultural shift. But I have seen some movement in some congregations.

    Priscilla Richter

  9. As a lay leader of a mid-size (approx 500) congregation, I think part of the problem is our inability to hire sufficient professional leadership. If we are going to have higher membership expectations, we need more professional staff so that we could offer the increased worship opportunities, adult education classes, and social justice projects that members would be expected to participate in. As it is our small professional staff is overburdened. We have many members who are devoted volunteers; no lack of commitment among them. But as long as programming is left largely in the hands of volunteers, it is likely to be casual and disorganized. Yet without higher membership expectations, especially in the financial area, we can't increase the professional staff who could provide structure for these volunteers. It's a vicious cycle.

  10. A real dilemma, to be sure. Schaller writes that if someone describes their church as having good preaching, good music, and a good Sunday school, it's usually because of good staff leadership. A real plus.

    At the same time, he writes that churches being completely staff driven may create a somewhat passive congregation. I know too many ministers and church staff who work 65 hours a week.

    In the higher expectation church, people often go through five-year training programs to become deacons, or to hold other prominent lay roles. Holding such a position is a real honor, and usually connotes excellence in that role. Thus, the quality of congregational life as a whole becomes higher and more professional.

    This is a key factor in the difference between voluntary associations and communities in covenant, usually a greater commitment to the larger cause over a longer period of time.

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  12. More training and high expectations of volunteer program leaders are great ideas. But these changes would be difficult to implement. For one thing, in our democratic congregational cultural any hint of hierarchy, that some are more equal than others, would not fly. We have worship associates (though they don't receive much training), but I'm sure we will never have deacons in my congregation! Any suggestions regarding terminology?

  13. Changes would be difficult to implement because the leadership of your congregation desires a low expectation, voluntary association church and is probably unfamiliar with the concept of a covenant of community. This is very common in theologically liberal churches, along with an inherent distrust of leadership. A perfect storm.

    I'm completely unfamiliar with a church in which all are supposed to be equal. It reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut novel in which people who can run faster than others are weighted down with sandbags.

    What is your congregation's role or purpose in this place and time? If that role is a rambling statement that is a hero sandwich of good intentions that few can even recite, then, as I wrote before, what your church is today is what it will be forevermore.

    This may be good news to some, and dreadful news to others.