Where’s that bishop on my speed dial?

Congregational polity requires us to have a little more skin in the game, to put more of ourselves into the nurture of healthy communities. That can hurt.

By Amy Butler

Just last week Episcopal laywoman and noted author Sara Miles stopped by for a conversation about life and faith and some other interesting things. Given the ecumenical nature of the evening it seemed only right that the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, also join in on the conversation.

Holding a public conversation with a best-selling author whom I’ve admired from afar is nerve wracking enough; add the Episcopal bishop of Washington to the mix and I felt a bit out of my element. Clearly the low-church girl on the totem pole, wholly out-liturgied from the start, as the evening began I felt increasingly unsteady and even a little bitter about why we Baptists don’t wear those cool collar things that automatically make people think we know what we’re talking about.

As it turns out, both Sara and the Bishop were wonderful conversation partners, full of wisdom and wit about the life of faith — individual and corporate.

I found myself wishing, in fact, for a bishop like Bishop Mariann, so at the end of our conversation I appointed her the official Baptist Bishop of Washington. (I had to break it to her later that I didn’t really have any authority to do that, given the whole Baptist congregational polity situation.)

This experience, along with a few others this week, offered a good invitation to think a bit more deeply about congregational polity and the gifts and challenges of such.

Since my very first church history class I’ve felt a bit self-righteous about our polity. I mean, we are the descendents of brave rebels who had the guts to buck the system and do something different, a stance I relish in many expressions of my own life and certainly in the life of the church.

I think it’s usually a good idea to think outside the box, challenge the system, see the world in new ways.

My smug congregationalism, however, sometimes has led me to believe that our polity safeguards us from unhealthy and abusive leaders, from church members who wield power in destructive ways.

Of course, that belief is not true; in fact, congregational polity may add to the challenge of building healthy faith community because we don’t have a hierarchal structure designed to keep us on course.

I can’t tell you the times I’ve been faced with a difficult church conflict or a complicated organizational issue and wished for a Baptist Bishop of Washington on speed dial.

Unfortunately, unless we officially vote her in, it doesn’t look like we’ll have a Baptist bishop anytime soon. So the truth is that the practice of congregational polity asks us to have a little more skin in the game, to put even more of ourselves into the creation and nurture of healthy communities. That can hurt.

In fact, it’s an unavoidable truth that human community is messy and sometimes painful, and both church leaders and church members in congregational systems have risky investments to make.

The tasks of leaders in a polity like ours are to lead with clear vision, to set a standard for behavior and to model that standard ourselves, to admit our mistakes and to forgive the mistakes of others, to listen and to love, to have the courage to take necessary steps and
make hard decisions, all the while encouraging the larger group to actively live into the vision.

Members add their voices to the ongoing conversation of vision and direction, relate to each other in loving and honest ways, determine to live in the tension of uncertainty and differing perspectives, and practice personal faith that enlivens and undergirds the practice and discernment of the larger congregation.

I’m not sure those dynamics are exclusive to congregational polity, but they are certainly absolutely necessary for any congregational polity expression to result in healthy, vibrant community.

While it is true that congregational polity is difficult and it can be painful, I still think it’s a beautiful gift. It offers us freedom of conviction and expression and the opportunity to feel deep ownership of and investment in our faith communities.

And it calls all of us, leaders and members alike, to risky and selfless relationship and strenuous personal and communal faith practice.

I’m convinced the possibilities of such living in a world where healthy community is so rarely modeled can be stunningly transformational, small glimpses of God’s imagination and intent for the whole world.

That’s not to say I’m completely persuaded we shouldn’t all be a little more Episcopalian from time to time. They really do have an amazing bishop of Washington.

And have you seen these things they use in worship called thuribles? The Baptist adaptations for creative worship with such are, well, almost unlimited!

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.