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January 5, 2014

Finding Our Balance: Missional Polity


Striving to be missionally effective

Missional Polity? It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s a subject that is increasingly on my mind.

One of the more practical outcomes of our church joining ECO has been that where we once had a Book of Order we now have a pamphlet of order. This is a good thing and was, in fact, one factor in our decision to join ECO. We felt that the Book of Order had become too unwieldy and was not serving as an effective tool in helping local churches carry out Christ’s mission in the world and may, if fact, be working against that mission in some ways.

Our church leadership feels liberated to be free from the exacting stipulations of this particular constitutional document and we are excited to try out an alternative approach. As a colleague recently said to me, the ECO polity is:

“based on the assumption that churches will generally do the right thing when given the opportunity”.

Our hope is that our Session and those of the other churches in ECO will, over time, demonstrate the wisdom of this assumption, not only by ‘doing the right thing’, but also by striving to be missionally effective as an organized body.

But this may prove more challenging than we had originally supposed. Being trusted to ‘do the right thing’ is a wonderful idea and I have no doubt that our elders are capable of making right decisions when given the opportunity. But making good decisions is not necessarily the same thing as being missionally effective and I think that we need to be cognizant of both of these outcomes if we hope to live into the true intent of ECO’s polity. At some level, this gets down to what Ruth Hailey Barton calls stewardship of ‘organizational energy’.

Learning how to find our balance

In any given month, there may be a dozen or more decisions to be made that fall under the Session’s locus of responsibility. If we interpret being ‘trusted to do the right thing’ to mean that each one of those decisions must be made on an ad hoc basis by the particular group of active elders who happen to be sitting on our current Session, then a large chunk of our time together during meetings will be taken up by making these kinds of polity decisions. It’s not too hard to see how this use of our time and energy might get in the way of missional effectiveness.

It seems to me that we need our elders, not only to be trusted to make good decisions, but also to operationalize at least some of those decisions in such a way that in time elders can spend more time in Session talking about mission and less time talking about polity. It seems that we are going to have to replace at least some of the substance of the old Book of Order with a Manual of Operations that is better suited for the mission and context of the local church.

But this will need to be done carefully and with a fair amount of organizational acumen. A document that is too detailed in its prescriptions will cause the church to be less nimble and will limit the church’s ability to respond to promptings of the Spirit. While a document that is too limited in scope or lacking in specificity will cause the Session to get bogged down with the burden of making polity decisions at every meeting.

I’m convinced that all ECO churches are going to need some kind of a Manual of Operations that strikes a balance between specificity and flexibility while being keyed to the local church. A ‘pamphlet of order’ is a good start, but it is just a start. We won’t be able to look to ECO as a national body to supply a polity template for us because that just puts us back to where we came from. My hope is that this need for organizational structure at the local level will help draw out covenant partners within ECO churches that are gifted in this area and that those leaders will be able to produce local polity documents that can serve as best practices for other churches to follow.

Missional Polity? It may sound a little suspect, but it is on the top of my list of wishes for the New Year.

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