How Do You Organize a Spiritual Fellowship?

When I was teaching the Doctor of Ministry course on Church Management, a pastor-student for his course project chose to plan a fundraising program for his congregation.  He was disappointed and even angry when I gave him a low grade.  He had written out an elaborate scheme of boxes representing committees and job descriptions.  It was very rational and comprehensive. What he hadn’t done is address issues of motivation.  Why would individual church members put special energy into filling somebody else’s written expectations of what to do?

Jesus taught that the Spirit is like the wind.  You can’t tell where it is coming from or where it is going.  How do you organize something that is unpredictable?  Poor church leadership tries to dictate what the Spirit will do in their midst by drawing boxes and giving the Spirit assignments.  Sometimes the Spirit will comply.  But part of being unpredictable is not staying confined to routines.  As many congregations have learned, what worked well enough in the 1960s no longer works with newer generations.  What happened to the Spirit of the 1960s?  He may well have moved on to newer ways of doing church life.

For centuries mainline church bodies each had their own type of structure for a congregation.  It was called polity, a word from the same source that gives us police.  Too often the Spirit was not welcome in their routines.  Traditional mainline churches were tightly organized to prevent bad things from happening.  Heavily institutionalized churches over the centuries simply overlooked the Apostle Paul’s revolutionary way to organize the churches around what the Spirit is doing in their midst.

After spending a year and a half with the Corinthians, Paul knew individuals who had their own special contributions to make to the fellowships he initiated in that city.  1 Corinthians 12 and later Romans 12 are his descriptions of what he saw in action.  Individual believers had their own special contribution to make to the common good.  Some were good at teaching, others at encouraging, yet others at serving and others at leading.  Paul witnessed how the Spirit energized them to enrich the fellowship with what they were moved and happy to contribute.

I believe there are two lessons to be learned.

Lesson #1:  Quit trying to fit church participants into predetermined boxes of tasks they should do.  Find what they are good at and help them make their contribution.

Lesson#2: Look for the special energy God the Spirit kindles within individual believers.  Institutionalized churches preferred to get along without the passions of believers which could be hard to deal with.

It is hard for me to imagine Christian churches doing well in the future without a greater appreciation for the energy that comes from special empowerment by the Spirit.  We are coming out of a period where mainline church leaders thought they could get higher performance out of congregations through management techniques used in other organizations.  Their continuing sharp decline should stamp that approach as a failure.  They ran out of special church energy.

The chaos of everyone doing their own things is not good either.  Stability is important for any grouping of people to survive more than a year or two.  Churches can achieve that by distinguishing between two types of structure.  One is the governance structure.  The other is the ministry structure.

Most congregations have to look after financial offerings and property they own.  Assuring good stewardship should be a priority.  Set up a small governance structure of respected members for that purpose.  Traditional church polity structures served that purpose.

Then add a second structure for stimulating and guiding the ministries of individuals who seem empowered by the Spirit to make their special contribution to this fellowship’s life.  Informality and flexibility are OK.  Follow the special energy the Spirit may well be offering through specific individuals.

Because the Spirit works through empowered individuals, congregations in the same church body often appear very different over time.  Institutionalized churches that don’t value the Spirit’s work might worry about that.  Effective churches observe where and how the Spirit is working in your community and learn what they can.  Pray for the Spirit’s renewed energy in your midst.  Then be wise stewards of the Spirit-energized people God sends.

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