by Bob Sitze
Sisyphus, mythological King of Corinth, was unjustly punished by the gods with an unmanageable task—forever rolling a huge stone up a hill, whereupon it would careen back to its starting place, thus requiring his repeatedly futile efforts.
Many congregational leaders feel the same way about their ministries: Without their never-ending efforts, congregational programs and vitality can never make it to the top of the ecclesiological hill—for example, more members, more money, more programs. Should leaders choose to rest or diminish their efforts, “the stone” of supposed congregational health will roll back onto them, crushing or wounding them. These default leadership behaviors—and their underlying attitudes—could be termed “The Sisyphean Imperative.”
This is a serious matter—the physical, mental, and spiritual health of leaders is in jeopardy. (Stress makes us stupid and also contributes to the corrosive effects of cortisol on the brain and body.) Any ecclesiology—the theory and practice of “church”—that implicitly honors, condones, or encourages this kind of leadership eventually results in the ill-health of the entire congregation.
In this article, I want to propose that congregation-based community organizing may be a primary means by which congregational leaders can sidestep, tunnel under, or leapfrog over this Sisyphean Imperative.
Some background: In the several decades since its inception, community organizing has emerged as a consistently effective method for bringing together diverse groups to explore and achieve mutual self-interest. Built on foundations of respect and accountability, community organizing rallies people around proven attitudes and techniques that bring truth to power and affect meaningful, lasting change. Congregation-based community organizing adds a layer of spiritual wisdom to the organizing arts, and brings to congregations themselves the benefits of leadership development and demonstrable results. In a history still being written, congregation-based community organizing gathers together many of the strengths of congregational life and focuses them on the mission of God that best suits these gatherings of God’s people.
The propositions that follow invite you to “dance”—to enjoy moving around—within the supposed imperatives of congregational ministries, rather than to succumb to stress-related reactions—fight, flight, freeze—that seem to arise from what seems to be endless futility. Congregation-based community organizing will be your partner.
Current ecclesiologies may not be useful for much longer.
It’s fairly evident that the present ecclesiologies that guide leadership behaviors and identity are not working well. The most visible metrics of congregational vitality—attendance, financial support, and member participation—continue their slow slide toward an eventual demographic precipice. Other signs of ecclesiological collapse loom on stubbornly approaching horizons:
- A growing share of the population regards itself as “spiritual but not religious.”
- American Christianity is increasingly subsumed into the contexts of the general culture.
- In too many places, fear and anger characterize congregational life.
- Members’ attention and regard for the church bleed away, flowing toward increasingly distracting matters.
- Pastoral ministry becomes less manageable.
None of these trends bodes well for the continuing usefulness of current ecclesiologies. A larger share of congregations and denominations may not be able to sustain themselves past the present generation of leaders.
“Ecclesiology” may be understood best in its original context.
The term ecclesiology is usually defined as the study of the nature and function of the church—ostensibly from its Greco-Latinate parentage, “words about the church.” The actual etymology is secular in origin. The root ekklesia originated in ancient Greece and denoted a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place for the public good. These called-out people constituted the citizen assemblies by which Grecian democracy was formed. (In Scripture, the first use of the term was not related to the church. Instead ecclesia described the group of Ephesian silversmiths who gathered together to agitate against Paul’s ministry.)
Like stewardship or discipleship, ecclesiology came into use after the Christian church emerged as an institution in the 4th century. Modern usage didn’t develop fully until the 19th century, when it also acquired a quirky definition as “the study of church architecture”—more specifically, the refurbishing of Anglican cathedrals.
The original meaning of ecclesiology suggests some fundamental understandings:
- The church is composed of “citizens” (members) who come out of their homes (a church building) into a public place for the purpose of doing some greater good.
- The calling of the church is less about gathering together in private and more about working together in a public place.
- “Working together” can include decision-making as well as efforts that bear immediate results.
- The church’s calling can be partnered with the calling of secular ekklesias.
- Church-based community organizing may fit ecclesiology better than many enterprises of the church.
The original meanings of ecclesiology also suggest less fruitful applications of this term in these times:
- Word study (about the church’s structure or function) that circles endlessly around itself may not call anyone out from anywhere to do anything.
- “Redecorating the cathedral” that has its analogue in churches—and their leaders—whose single-minded devotion to their own appearance, marketability, or survival may be closer to frippery than identity. (The term “edifice complex” is sometimes used to describe this approach.)
- Church members who lack a sense of calling into a public place may grow content to stay in their homes.
A side note: The original meanings of most ancient terms get lost in the sands of time, or get covered with the barnacles of best intentions. With changes in continued usage come the inevitable changes in broader thought patterns. Etymological work can help repristinate vocabularies, eventually resulting in reinvigorated thoughts and actions. It’s possible that reformation always begins with old words.
Extra-Scriptural criteria can inform ecclesiology.
It doesn’t require more than a scintilla of humility or honesty to come to the realization that much of contemporary Western ecclesiology is not derived from Scripture. Doctrinal formulas regarding the church include subtle grafting of history, sociology, and psychology onto Scriptural roots. (For example, much of current Protestant doctrine and practice regarding stewardship has its roots in the 19th century, made necessary by great awakenings focused on “foreign missions.”)
God’s revelation continues from Scripture into other areas of human wisdom. So it seems logical to seek out other standards by which the effectiveness of church-related structures can be measured.
Congregation-based community organizing may lie at the heart of sustainable ecclesiologies.
The life spans of other ecclesiologies—for example, those based on the Great Commission, clericalism, world missions, justice, or care-giving—may be coming to their necessary endings, perhaps because they have not measured up to extra-Scriptural criteria. Congregation-based community organizing meets the standards suggested by the criteria outlined in the following propositions.
Congregation-based community organizing may be central to the church’s sustainability because of these strengths:
- It provides ways of thinking and acting that any group of people can access in order to get any part of God’s work accomplished.
- Congregation-based community organizing gains its strength from appreciative relationships among people, facilitated by focused and respectful conversations.
- Congregation-based community organizing is not dependent on narrow partisan sensitivities.
- Resting on decades of practical outcomes throughout the world, community organizing continues as a proven approach for achieving desired outcomes.
- Because it enables social change, congregation-based community organizing can become a powerful witness to those outside the church.
- With the Scriptures as foundation, congregation-based community organizing also honors practical wisdom (of God’s own doing) that exists outside Scripture’s witness.
- By its nature, it is nimble, honest, and realistic regarding power, decision-making, motivation, and connectivity. (For example, think of the implications of the community organizing principle, “Do not do for others what they can do for themselves”).
- It marshals strengths (assets) for the good of God’s world.
- Congregation-based community organizing brings together diverse groups of people who find like-mindedness in shared goals.
- Because it is not exclusively clergy-oriented or dependent, it diminishes the futility of the Sisyphean Imperative.
Some secular-referenced criteria
The value of any ecclesiology can be measured by standards that are approachable, measurable and familiar to lay leaders. The following propositions present criteria that may shed fresh light on models of the church currently in use. The philosophy and practice of congregation-based community organizing measure up to these criteria.
A sustainable ecclesiology depends on its manageability.
The Holy Grail of contemporary management theory, “sustainability” rests on a simple idea: What’s manageable is likely sustainable. To state the obverse, what’s not manageable probably can’t be sustained. This basic truth about all human enterprises also applies to the church. The logic seems incontrovertible:
- “Manageability” can be defined as the relationship between available assets and the requirements of the work to which they are assigned. The closer the match between assets and work requirements, the more manageable the system. When assets are lacking or mismatched, the system will likely become unmanageable.
- “Unmanageability” can be seen in systemic inefficiency, unwieldy decision-making, low motivation, a persistent orientation towards neediness or leadership burnout.
- Many elements of human enterprise—structures, programs, events, causes, people—are closed systems, subject to the laws of physics having to do with energy. Unmanageable ecclesiological systems use energy faster than it can be produced or stored, and sooner or later run out of fuel—brain power, motivation, appeal, relevance.
- Where intellectual or emotional dishonesty prevail, ecclesiological systems may operate with a facade of presumed assets. (For example, a pastor covers over inadequacies with his or her own Herculean efforts and wizardry.) Thus the presumption of manageability is false, and the unmanageability curve turns suddenly steep.
- Most congregations are tempted to “purpose greed,” a hyper-awareness of possible mission or the acceptance of impossibly expanding priorities imposed by ecclesiastical authority. Unmanageability—and later non-sustainability—creep into those congregations because they are trying too hard to fulfill expectations that they cannot manage.
- As time passes, unmanageable congregational systems come to a halt, and an organizational death cycle becomes apparent.
Emotional and intellectual honesty are essential qualities of a sustainable system.
One of the most disturbing and enduring traits of congregational life may be leaders’ continuing disregard or willful ignorance about matters outside the narrow purview of church life. This sometimes myopic vantage point easily morphs into existential dishonesty regarding a wide swath of cultural, scientific, philosophical, and relational wisdom.
This becomes problematic when an ecclesiology is built on what may be false, unimportant, trite, insipid, or old. Some examples might illustrate this problem:
- Stewardship practices sometimes depend on shaky exegesis of a narrow band of Scriptures, and may ignore what has been shown to be true in fields such as philanthropy, behavioral economics, or neuroscience.
- The destructive narcissism that plagues clergy is rarely addressed in a direct, cohesive and focused manner.
- The findings of brain-oriented learning/formation have had a hard time gaining widespread acceptance in Christian education.
- Clergy-oriented piety—the content and methods by which one shows devotion to God—may run counter to what “ordinary Christians” experience in their daily lives.
- Needs-based planning and programming predominate in congregations, despite ample evidence of the long-term ineffectiveness of this approach.
- Worship practices may remain stuck in neutral or splay out into emotion-dependent (and therefore unsustainable) fad-chasing.
The strongest antidote to dishonesty is truth. When highly valued and insistently sought after, emotional and intellectual integrity can clear away the cobwebs of purposeful ignorance and fear/stress-based decision-making. But truth-seeking has to move from Scriptural wisdom into other fields of human endeavor that reveal God’s will and love for the world. An ecclesiology that honors a more-than-Bible-bibliography, that taps the expertise of lay members, that transcends narrow attitudes and skill sets, that opens windows of inquiry into surprising or challenging fields—that ecclesiology has a better chance of sustaining itself through decades of change.
Some examples might help here:
- The findings of neuro-economics are yielding surprising conclusions about matters such as generosity, cause-marketing, and decision-making.
- Management consultants are honing many of the high-order principles of Christianity for their practical value. (For example, forgiveness, patience, unselfish regard for others.)
- Community organizing skills easily infuse leadership development programs.
- Studies of addiction mechanisms in the brain are helping people understand the processes of habit formation and change.
- The profound value of exercise and movement has been shown to address successfully a variety of matters such as obesity, depression, addiction, learning/memory, and aging.
One cautionary note: Some developing truths may seem to call into question the foundations of church life. Growing knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, genetics, cosmology and biology may threaten ecclesiastical leaders as researchers and practitioners delve into matters such as consciousness, gender identity, sin, the origins of the universe, or the nature of spirituality. Sadly, some church leaders may find it difficult to seek or accept truths that come from outside the boundaries of current ecclesiology.
Sustainable changes in human enterprises occur less because of engineering and more because of the principles of emergence.
In a continually chaotic world, it is difficult to assert that Cartesian presumptions (about cause-and-effect) are workable for the long haul. Increasing amounts of rapidly changing data and other information make it difficult to “plan your work and work your plan” over extended periods of time.
The field of theoretical physics has expanded its reach into broader systems of human endeavor. Principles such as self-organization (order comes from patterns already embedded in the complexity), coalescence (actionable truth and identity gather together and suggest action), and emergence (over time, a consistent whole materializes from its seemingly disparate parts) are now being applied with some success to social systems such as business, governance, epidemiology, or law enforcement.
It seems logical—and advisable—that the church’s continuing vitality might be enhanced by examining and using the insights of applied chaos/complexity theory. Some examples might help:
- A congregation might replace weighty organizational rules or practices in favor of broad principles that allow or engender emergent decision-making processes.
- Because they are already implicitly connected to complexity theory, the philosophy, principles, and skills of community organizing can become the preferred identity of a congregation.
- Congregational ecclesiology can discard baroque planning methods that require large amounts of work but yield few changes that sustain themselves through time.
- Congregational leaders can live expectantly inside the tensions of what seems to be unknown, incomplete, disconnected, or dangerous.
- Increased connectivity, surprise, and delight can characterize the emergent actions of a congregation.
- The Sisyphean Imperative might diminish or disappear!
“Strange attractors” can help measure the internal and external connectivity of any ecclesiology.
In complexity science, a “strange attractor” is a mathematical formula, essential concept, force, or originating event that helps explain patterns of behavior that seem chaotic, and that acts on a system as a whole. A strange attractor describes stable processes that are confined, yet never do the same thing twice. Strange attractors are useful because they describe seemingly unconnected processes in seemingly simple terms, and because they may have predictive value. One limited metaphor for understanding the function of strange attractors in chaotic systems is the intricate relationship of a magnet to iron filings.
As complexity science extends into management theory, behavioral economics, and neurobiology, its principles may also be useful for ecclesiology. In these human sciences, strange attractors may also be individuals (for example, Brian McLaren), bedrock values (for example, justice), essential brain functions (for example, the attention sequence) or biological processes (for example, inflammation).
In matters of ecclesiology, it is possible that many elements of our present understandings of the nature and function of the church (iron filings) are themselves dependent on quietly powerful strange attractors (magnets) that may be unknown or purposefully ignored. It is possible, for example, that the iron filings of the Great Commission, stewardship, discipleship, or governmental advocacy are in fact dependent on magnets such as lay-oriented ministry, addiction, reciprocity theory, neuro-marketing, or behavioral economics. Congregation-based community organizing probably behaves more like an ecclesiological strange attractor.
An ecclesiology that falsely claims strange-attractiveness soon demonstrates its lack of power or relevance in society. An ecclesiology that does not explain the seemingly erratic behaviors of congregational members is soon proved ineffective.
In order to remain useful, any ecclesiology must be easily approached and understood.
Because the church competes in the marketplace of attention with all other human enterprises, it must pass the tests of approachability and understandability, seen in behaviors such as these:
- Ownership—or stakeholding—in the mission of God through the church is vested in the church’s members.
- The language of ecclesiology continually adapts to contemporary popular usage.
- Retaining its necessary counter-cultural stance, the church is consistent, direct, and honest in its requirements of members or adherents.
- The benefits of the church within its members’ highest and deepest values—as expressed in a case statement—become a primary element in funding its mission.
- Organizational structures are flat and decision-making processes streamlined.
Refurbishing or reforming current ecclesiology is a daunting task. Metaphorical detritus, barnacles, mold, and oxidation have worked their will on the church. And yet, it is also true that the processes of renewal are always at work, even if invisibly incremental.
For those who want to lead their congregations toward new ecclesiologies, a difficult question remains: How might the church sidestep, diminish, or eliminate the Sisyphean Imperative that grinds clergy and lay leaders into the dust? Further answers to that question will arise in the near future. At this moment in time, though, it is possible that congregation-based community organizing—already available to the church as tool and as identity—can provide vitality, relevance, and sustainability for the long-term.
For this we can thank and praise God.
Congregations magazine, 2013-07-10
2013 Issue 2, Number 2