Why are denominations important?

Tim Keller and I agree: denominations do something important. While Keller and I might express that importance differently, I will take what I can get. Saying anything positive about denominations has not been popular for decades.

Keller was interviewed this spring on Christianity Today’s “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which chronicles Mark Driscoll’s ministry at the Seattle megachurch and the church-related networks he helped establish and influence. It is a troubling account of fame and abuse.

In a bonus episode, the host gave the bestselling author and now-retired founding pastor at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church a chance to explain his connections to Driscoll and to interpret what happened.

Keller took a moment to explain how his and Redeemer’s participation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) created an accountability that was not present for Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, because Mars Hill did not have a denominational affiliation. Keller was a part of networks with Driscoll, and those networks functioned very differently from denominations, Keller said.

Networks connect people to each other to make a difference, particularly in a community, while denominations provide oversight and doctrine, he said. Although Keller focused much more of his efforts in connection with Driscoll on establishing and nurturing networks, he also accepted the discipline and rules created in the PCA, and he believes that congregations are better off being part of denominations, he said.

Given the context of the Mars Hill story and the convictions of the PCA, it is not surprising that Keller would emphasize the regulatory work of his denomination. But when I pull back and consider why we need denominations, something broader comes to mind: discipleship, the formation of Christians.

Think about who shaped you. Who inspired, supported and encouraged your development? Was it parents, grandparents, pastors, schoolteachers or community volunteers? I am conditioned by American culture to recognize all the individuals that support me. I hope that you can name a cloud of witnesses in your life from childhood to now.

But I am also thinking about where that cloud of people comes from. Where do they learn, get support and resources? How are the lessons of the past brought to future generations?

This is the work of institutions — schools, churches, child care agencies, camps and more. It takes time and money across decades to build such institutions. I am specifically thinking about organizations that have served their missions across three or more generations. These organizations have traditions that get passed down, and that is one of the ways formation works.

For generations, denominations have been the institutions that support congregations and organize ministries of all kinds. They set rules for life. They articulate convictions on matters of faith and life. They train and ordain clergy. They discipline violations of their rules. Some denominations, like the PCA, have books of order that include many regulations. Other denominations have short covenants that describe expectations but very few regulatory functions.

Denominational work has not been popular for at least 40 years. Most of the time, people in congregations see accountability as a hindrance rather than a lifesaving barrier. The work of passing on the faith and providing structures that support discipleship doesn’t receive much attention. Yet this work is vital.

Keller mentions the significance of networks, and I agree that these loose associations of people formed around a common interest or concern are significant sources of innovation and encouragement. Networks form within geographies, within and across denominations, and around critical work like disaster relief or church planting. Generally, networks don’t have any rules and may not have any legal structure. As a result, networks can rise and fall quickly.

If a network continues beyond a generation, it often develops a structure, including a paid staff and other financial obligations. This process of institutionalization leads to forming something that for groups of congregations looks like a denomination.

Can a congregation be healthy without a denomination or similar institutional support? Sure. I have seen congregations be healthy for a whole generation or longer. But eventually, there is some difficulty. Maybe it is conflict or legal problems or misconduct. At that moment, the congregation needs friends from outside their membership. They need someone from whom to seek advice or get direction. If they are not a part of a denomination, they create a structure. Essentially, they create a temporary denomination.

I am not arguing that the 20th-century denominations and their agencies can rest easy. Most denominations are in trouble. They need to focus on the work that they are best suited to do. This requires discernment and painful trimming.

In the 21st century, denominations need to identify their core work. What do they offer that both meets needs of congregations and communities in the moment and offers the discipline necessary for future generations? I believe denominations need to focus on those activities that are most effective in forming the disciplines of discipleship and the identity of “Christian.”

When I got started in ministry in the 1970s as a teenager, I witnessed the last moments of an age when denominations were the “main thing” and congregations served to support the work and life of the denomination.

Soon after I went to school, that script flipped, and denominations have been figuring out that flip throughout my career. The process is slow, because denominations are complex political systems. Authority is diffused, and decision making is multilayered. Yes, such work requires much patience.

The starting point is a conversation about why denominations are important. The stake I drive in the ground is that denominations provide the support that helps congregations form Christians to live as faithful disciples. What stake would you drive in the ground? What is required for congregations to continue their vital work in your communities?

In every sector of our lives, we are faced with critical turning points: crises of climate, public health, abuse in the church, gun violence, mental health, and on and on.

We have good reason to respond with fear and despair.

The pandemic has forced many in leadership roles to become — or perhaps at least appear to become — expert crisis managers. We’ve taught ourselves how to manage the disappointment of canceled plans, how to avoid or reduce the impact of unwelcome behavior by others, how to steel ourselves for the loss of yet another beloved one, how to make a way when there seems to be no way.

Crisis, by definition, is a critical turning point, but crisis management gets us only so far. If we focus only on the turn itself, we offer ourselves nothing — no vision or hope — for the future. Locking ourselves into the role of crisis manager imprisons us in a fearful place; it holds us in the anxious dread of not knowing what is next.

Ultimately, crisis management is not the leadership that we need. What Christian leaders must embrace is apocalyptic leadership.

I don’t mean turn-or-burn preaching or doomsday prophesying. Despite its popular association with chaos and catastrophe, apocalypse is not about senseless destruction; it is an uncovering and a revealing, a cosmic remaking of our world and lives as we know them.

In the final chapters of the book of Revelation, the great apocalyptic text of the Christian Bible, John sees a new heaven and a new earth, a place without tears, mourning, death or thirst. This new heaven and new earth are so full of God’s glory that the light of the sun is superfluous.

Can you imagine that with me? A world in which each person’s dignity is celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are nurtured and protected. A world in which value is not determined by production but is inherent. A planet that is treated not as an expendable resource but as a place worthy of reciprocal respect and care.

It takes apocalyptic leadership to see that vision with John. Things do not have to be as they have been. God is already doing something among the coalition of the willing.

Apocalyptic leaders name the destruction and suffering for what it is — the product of generations of hoarding power and wealth, driven by hate, ego and greed. Such leaders do not deny the disaster but call out the source of the destruction and the harm it has caused.

Apocalyptic leaders offer a steady hand of presence, hope and assurance. When a family experiences the personal apocalypse of the death of a loved one, a good pastor is often found nearby, in the hospital waiting room, at the foot of the bed, deep in a text thread reminding the family that they are not alone.

There is a steady hand, a soft net, a safe place to fall apart. Apocalyptic leaders offer this same safe place to their communities, their congregations or their teams — the simple assurance of not being alone when nothing makes sense anymore.

Apocalyptic leaders resist the forces of “the way we’ve always done it” to imagine and create new economies that center the well-being of all living creatures — persons, plants and animals as a collective whole. They willingly accept personal risk to try new ways of doing things for the good of all.

Apocalyptic leaders don’t rely on shame, blame or complaint to lead. They create spaces for hard feelings to be processed and understood so they can point the community to liberation and healing. The desires to be right and perfect are transformed into the desires to be in relationship with one another and good enough.

Apocalyptic leaders map their communities’ connection to work that matters. They seek out small ways to take action on big things — to build practices that connect their people to themselves, to God, to one another and to the land — to reconstruct the imagination after the devastation.

Apocalyptic leadership is engaging in the daily practice of seeing beyond the destruction to the new heaven and new earth. It is dedicating ourselves to what God has already told us is possible. It is living our hope and acting on our hope and letting our fear take a much-needed rest.

While we may become crisis managers by force, we become apocalyptic leaders by choice.

Yet we cannot do so alone. There are no star apocalyptic leaders in this invitation, only bands of people choosing, not to face the crises alone, but to confront the destruction collectively and create glimpses of the new heaven and new earth all over the place.

Despite its popular association with chaos and catastrophe, apocalypse is not about senseless destruction; it is an uncovering and a revealing, a cosmic remaking of our world and lives as we know them.

We might expect churches and other ecclesial organizations to have a natural aptitude for managing conflict among parishioners and staff. After all, Christians are called to peacemaking, which should translate into an open culture that encourages raising and effectively addressing concerns.

But churches struggle with these issues as much as other organizations, maybe more. They often lack clear lines of authority, have modest to nonexistent oversight of clergy, staff and volunteer performance, and have few, if any, people willing and sufficiently trained to assess the conflict, let alone resolve it and restore relationships.

An overlay of bad theology or a strong majority voice that tacitly shames those who speak out and counsels silence produces further complexity. Concerns go unreported, unsafe conditions and minor improprieties are not corrected, and injury, illness and misconduct — ranging from harassment and discrimination to financial and sex crimes — result.

As a lawyer in the nuclear power industry, I find my work constantly informed by the premise that small problems uncorrected can easily become big problems. To avoid that, the industry emphasizes the importance of an environment where everyone feels comfortable raising nuclear safety concerns, no matter how small, and provides training, resources and oversight to support it. The industry’s regulator — the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC – also expects that kind of environment and has various tools to assess and encourage compliance with its standards.

As I investigate compliance with these expectations, I see not only the benefits of such an environment, but also the behaviors that impair it. These experiences rush to mind when I learn about the reluctance of people in faith-based organizations to raise concerns — and the resulting harm — thus prompting me to translate my nuclear experiences into three key takeaways for leaders in ecclesial contexts.

First, it is important to frame an accurate image of the concerned individual (CI). Contrary to perceptions, CIs typically do not desire attention, revenge or pecuniary gain. They are often quite loyal to the organization and want it to succeed.

Yet they perceptively identify leadership behaviors that discourage raising concerns which, along with natural inhibitions against speaking out, forces them to struggle regarding the proper action. They fear ostracism, embarrassment and tangible acts of retaliation.

Under these conditions, CIs might test the organization’s receptivity to their concerns by hinting at them, making relatively innocuous observations and then assessing the reaction as indicative of whether the concerns will be welcome. This practice is particularly common with concerns related to bullying and harassment, and it demonstrates how important the initial response can be.

Second, it is important to recognize a unique risk in ecclesial organizations — a leader’s manipulation of theology to shame and silence CIs so the leader can avoid scrutiny, as depicted in the following scenario:

The Staff-Parish Committee (SPC) receives an anonymous report of concerns about the pastor, including detailed information regarding his absence from the office, failure to respond to emails, and refusal to visit sick and elderly members. The SPC chair informs the pastor that concerns have been raised and requests a meeting to discuss them.

The pastor states that he’s certain that Angela, the associate pastor, has raised the concerns because she really wants his job. He hints that Angela has “other problems” as well and reminds the SPC of Matthew 18:15, which requires Angela to raise her concerns with him first. He advises the SPC chair to meet with Angela instead. The SPC chair calls Angela and asks whether she raised the concerns because she wants the pastor’s job.

In this scenario, the pastor’s arrogance prevents him from even hearing the nature of the concerns raised. He focuses on the person he believes raised the concerns, impugns her theological knowledge and ethics in not coming to him first, questions her motives, and denigrates her character. This suggests that he will retaliate against anyone he perceives to have raised concerns about him.

Unfortunately, the SPC yields to his self-motivated theological pronouncements and asks Angela whether she raised the concerns, thus inadvertently but very clearly communicating to her and others that if she did — or if she does so in the future — it will be her acts that are scrutinized, not the pastor’s.

Third, because some ecclesial organizations lack the resources and infrastructure of large commercial organizations, it is important to start with small steps to encourage concerns with an eye toward continuous learning and improvement. Though each organization must adapt any guidance to its own context, adopting the following behaviors and practices are key first steps.

Behaviors:

  • Routinely request the opportunity to hear any concerns and commit to working with the parties involved to understand and resolve them.
  • Seek to understand fully each concern raised.
  • In all communications, focus on the concern, not the individual who raised it — information typically irrelevant to its resolution and best shared only on a strict need-to-know basis.
  • Treat CIs with appreciation, kindness and respect regardless of your view of the validity of their concerns.
  • Promptly condemn and correct any statements or actions disparaging individuals who raise concerns.
  • Act with humility, readily admitting your own lapses in judgment and encouraging feedback.

Practices:

  • Provide user-friendly, alternative avenues for raising concerns, both internal and external. These might include committee chairpersons, pastor(s), and diocesan or conference personnel. At least one pathway should permit receipt of anonymous concerns.
  • Provide clear guidance for receipt and consistent management of concerns, including:
    • Provisions for confidential treatment of information regarding each concern and its source;
    • Methods to ensure that the allegations of each concern are promptly assessed by qualified, objective individuals;
    • Triggers for involvement of external resources; and
    • Directions for timing and content of updates to the CI.
  • Assign responsibility for addressing each concern and its underlying causes, keeping in mind the need for independence.

These efforts require a modest investment of time and resources but have far-reaching implications. They cultivate self-awareness, discipline, patience and kindness. They ensure that Christian traditions of peacemaking and reconciliation receive more than lip service by becoming ingrained values supported by specific practices.

These nuclear industry risk-management practices point ecclesial organizations down a path with clear benefits. The Christian practices they reinforce should inspire church leaders to travel it faithfully.