I have had the blessing of introducing the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to pastors and congregations who are considering affiliation. Invariably someone will ask the following question: “Can you show us an organizational chart for your denomination?” I never know how to respond to this. One could, I suppose, depict the Disciples as a pyramid, with the General Assembly, General Board, General Minister and president at the top; the Regional Assemblies, Regional Boards, the Regional Ministers in the middle; and the local congregations at the bottom. But one could just as easily depict the triangle with the congregations at the top, the regional structures in the middle, and the general structures at the top. But neither of these pyramids would even begin to account for all of the ministries of the church: mission organizations, educational institutions, ethnic constituencies, Pension Fund, publishing house, camps, etc., who each operate with their own boards and have great autonomy from each other and from the other manifestations of the church. My organizational “chart” is never a pyramid, but merely a collection of smaller and larger circles with dotted lines running everywhere. It is very difficult to chart the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on paper accurately, because no congregation, no region, no ministry, no national officer is really “over” any other congregation, region, ministry or national officer.
So is our church merely chaos? Is each institutional manifestation of the church completely independent of every other? NO! We are bound to each other by covenant. This covenant is not a document, even though each congregation, region, and ministry have their own constitution and bylaws, and the General Church has the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This covenant is an idea expressed in the following words: Free and Voluntarily Accountable.
The “free” part is why our denomination’s organizational polity is so confusing. Different and various individual Disciples and their organizations get together to form and reform different organizations. New and reconceived congregations, ministries, areas, and regions are forming and reforming all the time. Disciples are forever reorganizing themselves freely into new corporate entities. We have a tremendous amount of freedom to do this without hindrance, because there is no one “over” us to tell us that we can’t.
The “voluntarily accountable” part is why our denomination actually does, in fact and in reality, work together. Although each Disciples board could, in theory, make decisions without reference to any other part of the church, they don’t do this—at least not if they are healthy. Instead, each manifestation of the church is voluntarily guided by input from all the other manifestations of church.
Take, for instance, the way in which our own congregation sought a permanent minister. In theory, the board of the congregation could simply go out and find any minister through any means and present them to the congregation to be voted on. The board of First Christian Church in Smithville, however, chose (in my opinion wisely) to search for a permanent minister in voluntary submission to the input of others. So our board formed a search committee who were guided by the Area Minister, who in turn followed procedures recommended by Disciples Home Missions (a national body), who in turn administer a cooperative bank of ministerial candidates, who in turn have been interviewed and recommended by their respective Regions. In all of this no one has been “forced” to do anything. All follow and often adapt and modify complex procedures in conversation with others.
This “free and voluntarily accountable” model has, therefore, certain expectations built in. The Design and the various constitutions express these expectations fully. But I think I can summarize the expectations with three words: “Participate, Report, and Contribute.”
There are all kinds of ways to participate in the life and work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): national, regional, area assemblies; camps, retreats, and mission trips; ethnic ministries; educational opportunities; etc. No one is forced to participate in any one activity. But there is an expectation that all Disciples will participate somehow at some point in a local congregation. There is an expectation that all congregations will have some of their people (and certainly their pastors) participate in some activities of the area, region or general church. And there are concerted efforts by all to include all in each other’s activities.
All are expected to report. For congregations, the basic report is a very simple one page form that updates the congregation’s information in the Yearbook and Directory, the annual publication that is an authoritative guide to Disciples ministers, congregations, and ministries. All other bodies are expected to report to each other in various ways.
All are expected to contribute beyond themselves to the good of others, both within the church and beyond to the world at large. Congregations are expected to contribute financially to the cooperative work of area, region, and general bodies. How much? The congregation is free to decide, but in my opinion the total congregational outreach should be at least 10% (Just like 10% is the Biblical guideline for individuals). To whom? Again, the congregation is free to decide how it divides its outreach gifts between Disciples and non-Disciples organizations and bodies. But it is not healthy for us to try to coerce our fellow Disciples by withholding our support to “punish” some Regional or General Ministry because we “don’t like” them.
You will have noticed that I started the last two paragraphs with “all are expected.” Who expects us to participate, report, and contribute? Is it our area minister? Is it the General Assembly? No, it is all of us together who expect this of ourselves and of those who seek to represent us. We have understood that our faith teaches that we flourish in freedom but only when we ourselves discipline our own freedom in submission to Christ. Our life together in Christ is better if only Christ and no other human agent is “in charge.” We exercise our Christian faith as we “submit one to another out of love for Christ”. We expect this of ourselves and are right to expect this of all who claim to speak for us.