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Saturday, April 23, 2005

How are liberal churches like newspapers?

Rick Heller at Transparent Eye points to an extremely provocative comment over at Jay Rosen's journalism blog, PressThink. Jeff Gill, a Disciples of Christ minister, observes that the professionalization of journalism gave journalists a false sense of their own authority and the newspapers that employed them — but his provocative suggestion is that the professionalization of the mainline Protestant clergy during the same period has dangerously misled ministers about the nature of people's religious commitments. It's as if entrepreneurial Evangelical and Pentecostal ministers are blogs and late-night talk shows to the mainline Protestant churches' daily newspapers, and they are drawing audiences away from the old establishment.

Gill writes:

[T]he huge influx of thankful vets and Boom Babies [in the post-World War II period] masked systemic problems that went back before even WWI, and as downtown churches and regional/national structures consolidated and calcified, they pushed aggressively a model of clergy "professionalism" that left them utterly unable to respond to the entreprenurial surge of untrained, personally motivated new start-ups of the Assemblies of God, COGIG, Vineyard, WillowCreek, and Saddleback approaches. The world they built was based on a "weird, ahistorical 1960-2000 period" and many national and regional structures still can't comprehend what's going on.

Add to that a recent uptick in bequests from dying WWII era folk that mask the final drawdowns on endowments, etc., and a new found appreciation for stewardship and tithing preaching from even liberal pastors, which has pushed per capita giving up enough to cover the decline in total numbers, and you have. . .

Well, it looks a lot like the newsprint and ink world to me. The core function of communicating to and between people is still vital and necessary, but when the mechanism for doing it breaks down, folk will find one that works, no matter what it looks like. There is no loyalty to the mechanism, not because loyalties changed, but because they were never loyal to the mechanism in the first place. Their connection is to the community that's created, and the sentiments about the delivery mechanism were no deeper than, well, sentiment.

This ties both newspapers and oldstyle programmatic, board/committee driven churches together, with Masters of Divinity/seminary trained pastors and J-school journalists in the same leaky boat. It's not that they don't "like" us or stopped "liking" us: they never "liked" us, they liked and even love the community we helped to deliver and maintain. Stop doing that, and they move to the light and warmth of company and community somewhere else.

What sorts of entrepreneurism can Unitarian Universalists and other liberal Protestants encourage?

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 23 April 2005 at 11:00 AM

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3 comments:

Philocrites:

April 24, 2005 10:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dave's Mormon Inquiry mischaracterizes the point Jeff Gill is making when Dave points his readers to this post. In the process, though, he provoked a few more thoughts -- for which I thank him!

Here's what Dave's teaser to this entry says:

Philocrites likens professional clergy to professional journalists, arguing both have become disconnected from their audience and are being displaced by upstarts (like lay clergy and lay bloggers).

I can easily see why he thought I (channeling Gill) was pointing to a contrast between professional and lay clergy: Mormons have lay clergy at the congregational and "stake" (i.e., diocesan) levels. Which means that unpaid men with full-time jobs elsewhere run the local congregations, and every other position in the congregation is a volunteer appointment or "calling." (Mormons also have, at the top levels of the church's hierarchy, a class of paid religious professionals called General Authorities.) Plus, Mormonism keeps on growing.

But the denominations and groups of churches Gill pointed to do not have lay clergy. Their ministers are paid and seminary-educated. (I know almost nothing about the Church of God in Christ, Inc., -- which Gill refers to as "COGIG" -- so I'm not sure if this is true for them.) Gill's distinction actually has to do with models of professional ministry and church organization that the mainline ("Protestant establishment") denominations and their university-affiliated theological schools adopted and the models that upstart denominations starting new congregations have embraced.

I wish I knew more about the systems of structures of different denominational approaches to growth; maybe a reader who does know more can chime in. But here are a few thoughts I had in response to Dave's post:

Mormonism and the Jehovah's Witnesses are growing rapidly, especially elsewhere in the world, through member-missionary programs — but their church planting efforts seem to be bureaucratically coordinated and funded from top-down headquarters. These aren't entrepreneurial models so much as corporate expansion models.

Churches like Vineyard and the suburban megachurches, however, have training programs that cultivate entrepreneurial ministers who plant new local churches. It's their job, although sometimes the ministers also work in another field as well. This training isn't provided by denominational headquarters but by mother churches that were often started by entrepreneurial ministers without significant ties to any denomination. Their growth has been so substantial that some of the megachurch groups are now larger than many denominations. So even though they now function in many ways like denominations, they're entrepreneurial movements that cultivate and train new pastoral entrepreneurs.

The older establishment denominations rarely work this way. Our theological schools cultivate academic skills and professional expertise -- but not much in the way of management, fundraising, administration, marketing, or growth skills. Most of the time, ministers assume that congregations already exist, waiting to call them. And it's possible -- just possible -- that many of the people encouraged to enter the mainline Protestant ministry are selected for their caretaking skills in long-established, relatively static congregations, and not for their aptitudes for starting new congregations.

What does all this have to do with Gill's newspaper/blog analogy? Daily newspapers, like the establishment churches, are institutions with roots in an earlier era that now face competition from new forms of church organization. Mormonism is growing, but not because it resembles blogs or alternative media: It simply follows a highly effective, top-down corporate growth model. (Or so it seems to me.) The Protestant groups Gill mentions, however, are trying more entrepreneurial models. And I'm asking what mainline, liberal Protestants can learn from this.

Jeff:

April 25, 2005 10:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

The humbling thing about blogs: you see people restate your offhand ramblings so much more clearly than you ever could.

To wit, you say: "The older establishment denominations rarely work this way. Our theological schools cultivate academic skills and professional expertise -- but not much in the way of management, fundraising, administration, marketing, or growth skills. Most of the time, ministers assume that congregations already exist, waiting to call them. And it's possible -- just possible -- that many of the people encouraged to enter the mainline Protestant ministry are selected for their caretaking skills in long-established, relatively static congregations, and not for their aptitudes for starting new congregations."

All i can say is: Bingo.

OK, i'll say this much more (as i've said to some angry e-mails from friends/acquaintances in ministry): it's like our national gatherings, whose "breakfast" and "lunch" events, let alone plenary stuff, is set up on the assumption that we all still get an open-checkbook expense line for going. The reality is, of the dwindling number of us who still go, we're paying almost entirely out of our own pocket, and so have to decide (instead of just going) "is this worth MY money" -- or how to explain to spouse why i went to the $18 breakfast instead of hitting the hotel continental spread.

I tell general and regional office staff this stuff, and they just say "But your church should be paying for that!" Everyone out here knows they don't, and they're still putting on $35 dinners with lame, in-house speakers and a men's quartet served over chicken breast.

And that's what's wrong with professionalism. But you said it better.

RevThom:

April 25, 2005 05:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

Was meaning to poast a response to this over the weekend. I was having a conversation along these exact same lines with a couple of colleagues a couple weeks ago.

I'm beginning to feel like our strict insistence on a "learned clergy" may be a bigger impediment to growth than all other factors combined. The type of entrepreneurial personality required to start and grow a church from scratch seems different than the type of personality that would pursue a 3-year MDiv, do an Internship and CPE, and have an appointment with the MFC. Or maybe the cost and culture of a seminary education would diminish prospective church-planters' entrepreneurial zeal?



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