I remember telling friends – when I first started a denominational position after 27 years as a parish pastor – that they might throw up a little in their mouths when they hear about my new ministry. I was not A Denominational Person. I was all about the local congregation. My “connectional denomination” sometimes didn’t feel very connected.
I still believe that the local congregation is best suited to addressing what breaks God’s heart in the neighborhood and creating spiritual community. And yet I also believe that a connectional denomination makes that happen more efficiently if – a big if – the denomination is focused on the message and ministry of Jesus.
Before Christmas, our Presbytery staff became aware of a need in one of our smallest congregations. The small congregation had been meeting virtually but they wanted to “come back” to in-person worship for Christmas Eve for the first time in over a year. When they did an extensive clean up of their sanctuary to prepare, it was discovered that they needed thousands of dollars for some construction repairs. There would be no in-person gathering without those repairs.
At the suggestion of a colleague, I phoned another pastor in the Presbytery and shared the situation and – without creating a committee, without setting up a series of hoops to jump through – he agreed that his congregation could cover the cost of the repair needs for the other congregation.
This is why denominations exist.
Because of our denomination – people are fed, doctor bills are paid, bail is covered, affordable housing is constructed, children are tutored, and God’s will is done in ways that would never happen without a lot of congregations working together. Because of our denomination there are countless opportunities to learn, worship, serve, and create community that could never happen in isolation.
I was one of those get rid of per capita people. As a “discipleship over membership” person (once upon a time – I mean, I still am, just more nuanced than that ) I used to dislike the per capita thing… in my mind in those days it forced the counting of membership which I considered a category of dubious import (and with any narrow definition it still is).
“Per capita” is the boring word that means – in my denomination – the price your church pays per each member for the privilege of being on the rolls of a congregation in our denomination. In these days when membership of all kinds is dramatically less important than it was decades ago, please remember that “membership” is not about having your name in a directory or perpetuating an institution.
For followers of Jesus, it’s about making a public statement about what we believe and how we pledge to live out what we believe. It’s about publically being part of a community committed to making earth more like heaven in the name of Jesus. That’s my definition at least.
Being part of a denomination is saying “yes” to global ministry alongside local ministry. Thriving denominations rebuild schools damaged in war and create medical facilities in underserved rural areas and stick around long after The Red Cross and FEMA leave disaster sites. No single congregation can manage the breadth of this ministry.
Being part of a denomination involves participating in the “gift of being a part of a larger community than just our community of faith” – in the words of Andrew Kukla. Yes, being part of a denomination is a gift.
If you like giving gifts:
Consider whatever it costs to be a member of your congregation in your denomination. Let’s say it’s $50 per member.
What if today you sent a check to your congregation for the purpose of being part of The Wider Church for $50 as a New Year gift of hope for what God can do. Or consider giving $50 in the name of a member who has nurtured your faith. Or give $50 in the name of someone who cannot share that gift right now. Or give $50 in the name of a youth member who is important to you. Or give $10. Or $100.
It’s like secret Santa for those of us who know that Christmas is about more than Santa.
You might be rolling your eyes about now thinking, “Of course Jan wants to support our denomination because that’s how she gets paid.” This is true and if you don’t believe that our Presbytery staff is worth what we are paid in terms of keeping all the parts of ministry moving, then please don’t contribute to the ministry of our Presbytery. But if you see that God’s will is being carried out in terms of the bigger picture, I hope you’ll embrace the gift of being part of a connectional Church.
We could also call it supporting The Church Universal. (It’s really hard to be The Church Universal alone.)
Happy New Year and I’m excited about what God will be doing in 2022.
Image is a mosaic of some of the ministries of our congregations in Charlotte Presbytery.