Church cooperative?

Let’s think for a moment of how a church is organized; not the theological justification for its being, but the social models for its running. Business models are common; so are models from civil government. So too hints from organized labor and mass social movements. Sometimes these borrowings are conscious and obvious and others are hidden. Take a former mode of church finance — pew rents and the chapel proprietorship — that was clearly and undeniably a part of congregational polity churches at one time, but now is extinct and generally regarded as repugnant.

But one mode of organization that I don’t see as direct influence in congregational polity churches is that of the economic cooperative, which apart from the equity inherent in a co-op, is such a familiar model for so many Unitarian Universalists that I wonder why it doesn’t come any closer than the Memorial Society. (Then again, we don’t have a history of denominational mutual aid societies, either. Perhaps this was siphoned away by Freemasonry, the influence of which has never fully been accounted among Universalists or Unitarians.)

Co-op organization is more than a four-hour stint at the organic food place across town, and I’m discovering ways and places the cooperative movement has touched that I never knew existed, such as the “social cooperatives” in Italy which began as a way of providing employment for consumers of mental health services as a part of deinstitutionalization.

Right now, I’d like some comment on the mechanism of church goverance — congregational polity or not — or experience readers have had with cooperative governance. I’ll get to the theology later.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

6 thoughts on “Church cooperative?”

  1. What irks me about congregational polity is my (perhaps mistaken) impression that the typical board/council/committee-type structure is so corporate, or if not that, then still very rich. Is this what we want to say about ourselves?

    I’d like to hear more about the coop model, not being too familiar with it myself.

  2. You’re not mistaken, Chutney. “Policy Governance,” the same sort taught in business schools, is crossing over into UU board structures. If you dig deep enough at the UUA’s site, there’s resources all about this model. Makes me sick. Organizations behave as though they’re absolved of accountability once “policy” is defined. Ick.

  3. I tend to agree about “Policy Governance.” On the whole, it has caused more trouble than it is worth. Some of the churches in our movement that have tried it have faced real problems with that model.

  4. I wasn’t speaking specifically about “Policy Governance,” although that certainly pertains. I’m thinking more generally about the unspoken assumption (in most mainline religious bodies) that the only option for getting something done is to form a committee. Add to that widespread ignorance about how to even run a committee meeting. Then a general lack of actual decision making at those committee meetings (because someone important is not there or because a more powerful committee holds the decisional authority).

    My guess is that this pattern of church organization dates back to the grey flannel suit 1940s. Any ideas, Scott?

    We have a growing 20/30something group at my congregation (120+ folks on the email list), and yet there are no committees, titles, or even officers. And yet six or eight activities per month still manage to happen! Even more comprehensible: we see no wisdom in categorizing our events under the appropriate “council” (RE, Fellowship, etc.).

    How do we do it? Our organizing principles (which we’ve never laid out in so much of an official way) are: (1) Get things done in the simplest way possible until that no longer works. Then, do things in the next simplest way possible. (2) If you think the group should do something, go ahead and make it happen. (3) If it fits with the mission of the church, it’s kosher.

    One caveat: All our activities are participant-funded, so having money management out of the picture does simplify things tremendously—a luxury you obviously won’t have on a church-level basis.

  5. Scott asks: “Right now, I’d like some comment on the mechanism of church goverance — congregational polity or not — or experience readers have had with cooperative governance. I’ll get to the theology later.”

    In the religious education side, many congregations have experimented with cooperative models of doing church school and youth groups, with mixed success. Sometimes the cooperative works extremely well, but persoanlly I have run into two types of unpleasant situation. First, if you’re requiring everyone to work so many hours in the cooperative, you usually wind up getting a few “volunteers” who feel coerced into doing their work stint, and they can pull down everyone else’s morale such that ministry is no longer happening. Second, you can wind up with families who are in a personal crisis, or in an economic situation, where the families simply can’t contribute the required hours — such families are often the ones who need church more than anyone else, but they rather than ask for waivers they often quietly drop out of cooperatively-run church schools and youth groups. My personal experiences with these two situations have led me to feel strongly that the cooperative model does not allow churches to do the kind of ministry we should be doing.

    As far as committees and all that…. A hundred and more years ago, New England congregations run under congregational polity were two governance structures in one. There was the corporation, which took care of the physical plant and ran the finances. And there was the church, which looked to the spiritual side of things, including overseeing communion and who got to be a full church member, rites of passage, etc. Most UU congregations today have mixed these two separate governance structures up, which is fine and usually works well. But I believe we have also mixed up the two sets of goals for these two governance structures, which can lead to ambiguity, confusion, and conflict.

    So for example, Policy Governance would probably work pretty well to run the corporation side of a congregation (if the two sides were still separated, and assuming the congregation is big enough to require Policy Governance), but it does not seem as appropriate for the church side. Historically, the minister was the head honcho of the church, and the moderator (or sometimes, the board chair) was the head honcho of the corporation — and that implies that trying to make the minister into the CEO of the congregation could lead to ambiguity, confusion, and conflict, not the least because s/he is taking over duties historically assigned to an elected lay leader.

    In terms of committee structures, etc., it’s easy to dismiss church committees as anachronistic, racist, sexist, oppressive, etc. It’s easy to say, as I have said, “No one joins a church in order to join a committee.” However, I can find counterexamples to disprove these statements. I have now met a number of people who joined churches specifically to get on committees — that truly is their spiritual path, hard as it may be for me to understand. And when I look at the history of the women’s movement within UUism, it sure looks like there were lots of committees that were formed, and that there were lots of committees that really overturned things. So it is not a simple either/or kind of thang.

    So I’m an anarchist at heart, but the ideal of committees is to make the decision-making process explicit, so there are no smoke-filled back rooms. You can critique committees on the basis of who they let in and who they keep out, but that does not necessarily imply that committees should be banned. Rather, you can work to force equal access for all persons to committees, or you can set up an parallel committee structure to force change on the corrupt committee structure (as the women’s movement did within UUism 30 years ago). My personal experience of doing away with committees has been mixed In one situation some years ago, a young adult group I was involved in which had no committees dissolved in bitter conflict because there was no open, explicit, established process for tracking finances — which meant no one agreed on who had the authority to spend the budget.

    A final note — It’s wise to remember that the way the denomination is run has nothing much to do with the way a local congregation is run. The denomination does not do rites of passage, or communion, or any of the things historically assigned to the church side of congregational governance. The same is true of districts. Just because Policy Governance (or any other governance structure) seems to work reasonably well for the denomination and some districts does not necessarily mean that it will work well for a local congregation.

    OK, I’ve gone on way too long. I’ll be waiting to hear Scott’s comments on theology.

  6. I’ll reply to Dan’s comments first. Not having much RE experience, I rather intuited his warning about a cooperative religious education program. That said, I think the basic problem there is money and staffing rather than the cooperative model. Land O Lakes and Ocean Spray are producer coops, but I’ve never been asked to churn my own butter or pick my own cranberries. But his/your comments should be on the record since I think there’s a sunny mythology about the co-op RE program.

    I would like to look more at how decisions are made and where the money comes from. I’m very glad that Dan mentioned the polity of two institutions, something Unitarians and Universalist shared. I do think “society” or “parish” (on the one hand) and “church” on the other are more useful terms since “corporation” refers to a legal status. Parishes — my perferred term, and the one I’ll use here — usually are incorporated because they own the real property, if any. And since they hold the pursestrings, they tended to call the shots over and aboce the church. And this is where I’ll make my last caveat with Dan’s analysis, which overall I think is correct and helpful. I don’t think the parish and church melded on equal terms; rather, I think the parish overwhelmed and in many cases exterminated the church. One sign: though it isn’t often stated, the sacraments declined before the non-Christian Unitarians and Universalists became dominant, not after. The practice of public social works and educational outreach are signs of a “parochial piety,” not a churchly one. On the Unitarian side, consider the Dedham decision. In many places, the church never existed — the company of believers — a condition more institutionally conservative Universalists cautioned against. I’ve observed that you find more evidence of “churchness” (say, the presence of deacons, a “church” office) in the Christian churches in the UUA than anywhere else — there’s a certain logic there — though I can’t say which conditioned the other. And heck, the once dominant “society” nominclature of Unitarian Universalist — er — societies tells the story of which is dominant. The role of the clergy is complicated in a parish-church condominium (another model!) and parochial social dominance (over the church, in sheer numbers; the historical intro in Seaburg’s The Communion Book is illuminating here) in the eighteenth century is directly related to the rise of liberalism in the Standing Order.

    Indeed, the only way I can see a professing Christian church can be Unitarian Universalist is to be in a joint-relation with a non-professing parish — the parish but not the church would be the UUA member — but that might be to Byzantine a relationship to bother with.

    None of the foregoing, of course, has anything to with the cooperative model but it gives hints to where I’m going theologically.

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