As with so many things, Luke Timothy Johnson says it right. “If we identify the church as a community of faith, the process of decision making ought to make the structures and implications of this response to reality called ‘faith’ more explicit. Reaching decision in the church should be an articulation of faith.” (Scripture and Discernment, 23, italics his).
I want to steal the last sentence and change the first words. “Processes in the church should be an articulation of faith.” Said another way, how we do things together should reflect our belief that God is active in the world in a particular way. How we do things together should also embody our belief that God leads the congregation.
God is active in a particular way. There may be any number of ways to get things done. Some organizations prize urgency and efficiency, for instance. I remember the opening scene in Castaway where Tom Hanks has the big clock shipped to him in China to create a culture among Chinese fed-ex workers defined by the second hand on the clock. Processes are defined around values related to efficiency. That’s one way to get things done. And it teaches an organization which members are valuable and which are a liability.
The Kingdom of God is different. Nowhere does it say that fruit of the Spirit is urgency. The fruit of the Spirit is, however, patience. And all of the fruit of the Spirit honor the neighbor and create the possibility of welcome and hospitality. The Spirit creates a community in which the capacity among all its members to give and receive is enabled and enhanced.
I think congregational processes should attempt to embody this reality. Processes recognizing both the character and movement of the Holy Spirit should aim at hospitality and giving and receiving. This is so also because we believe that by virtue of baptism, all share in the Spirit of God. The very first days of the earliest Christian communities emerged out of an experience of the Spirit being poured out on all. Processes should embody this belief.
God leads the congregation. I often ask elders what it is that they are communicating when they report a decision to the congregation. Most of them indicate in one fashion or another that they are reporting the wisdom of the elders. I think that’s the wrong target. What you’re aiming at is the leading of God. What we’re hoping for is an Acts 15 moment, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is a bigger payload than the wisdom of the elders.
And because the recognized leaders of the church don’t have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, their task is always to help the congregation discern what the Spirit might be calling them to do or become in a world where the Spirit is already active. Processes that aim at the leading of God must include both a sense of what God is doing in the congregation and in the world.
As an aside, I do think there is a vital role of leadership in all of this. Again, I like what LTJ says: “All Christians are required to interpret their lives before God, but some in the church have the ability to make those diverse interpretations available to all, and to articulate more formally the implications of the choices being made by all of its members” (Scripture and Discernment, 27). In addition to this larger work of interpretation, I think leaders in the Christian community have the task of tending to the ecology of a congregation so that people can talk to one another, share their stories, even the ones that are difficult to hear. This is big work, work that allows processes to be open, hospitable, productive, and peace giving.
I wonder if you did a congregational audit on processes what they might say about your understanding of faith. My sense is that our processes tend to be very instrumental. They tend to be fairly limited in terms of participation. They tend to be very human-centered rather than faith centered. We might even think of processes as something other than the spiritual work of the church. They are mechanical, not spiritual. I think, however, that as an embodiment of faith, they may be one of the most spiritual aspects of a congregation’s life.