The way Jay Kieve sees it, the congregational form of church governance is ideally suited to enable congregations to who they really are, where they are.
“It’s genius,” Kieve said, “is that its spirit works … so each church is an expression in its own context and flexible to minister in its own context.”
Kieve was so fired up about that form of church polity that in March he posted a blog titled “The Genius of Congregational Government.”
But that’s not all that is surprising — Kieve is a Baptist and, to boot, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina. That vantage point gives him a front-row seat from which to view congregations working through their callings and challenges using the faith-based version of the democratic process.
But is a model of governance in which congregations rule themselves well suited to an age in which Americans are abandoning faith and churches in huge numbers? Can groups of people from all walks of life come together to make the hard decisions many experts say are needed to not just survive, but to be relevant in the 21st century?
“I have thought about this quite a bit,” Kieve said. He’s confident the congregational approach can help churches navigate these frightening times.
“The religious brands that will be successful in the future are going to be the ones that share authority,” he said. “One of the reasons congregational polity can be attractive to all generations is that participation is open to all generations, not just the legacy folks.”
But others aren’t so sure that younger generations — i.e. Millennials — are all that impressed by democratically run congregations.
“Millennials don’t care about being part of the decision-making process most of the time — they want to participate in mission,” said Mark Tidsworth, president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates, a clergy and congregational coaching and training organization based in South Carolina.
“They are not interested in running organizations,” he added.
Nor are Millennials usually interested in joining organizations — and membership is usually a requirement for participation in congregational polity.
But that form of church government, like others, has its advantages, Tidsworth said.
“The strength of Baptist polity is everybody gets a say in some level of decision making,” he said.
But it has weaknesses, too.
“In Baptist churches, we are not always sure where leadership is going to happen,” he said.
In some congregations deacons are servants, in others they are servant leaders.
“We have competing visions and understandings about that, which oftentimes leads to confusion in terms of leadership.”
Other forms of polity in which bishops or committees govern congregations also have advantages, according to Tidsworth.
“A strength in mainline churches … is they are very clear on where leadership happens,” he said.
Kieve agreed there can be pitfalls when congregations govern themselves.
“We can be wrong together on things,” he said. “The majority tends to rule and when the majority acts on their privilege they may not be very responsive to minority views or minority participation.”
But even when that happens, it often doesn’t end there, Kieve said.
“Even when we are wrong together, the spirit may do a mighty work.”
“Part of the genius of congregational polity is that when it works right, the loyal opposition, the minority voice, can still participate in the community,” he said.