Congregations as Political Systems


David Brubaker says that while every congregation is a political system, political activity doesn’t need to be manipulative, polarizing or demeaning. He outlines four requirements for a church to function as a healthy political system.

Congregations, like all organizations, are arenas for political activity. While we tend to think of politics as pertaining to governmental entities, the phrase “workplace politics” communicates the reality that political activities occur in multiple organizational settings. Power and authority are negotiated and contested in every organization, thus political activity is also endemic in every organization.

Congregations are indeed political systems. But they don’t have to be dysfunctional and polarized.

While every congregation is indeed a political system, political activity does not need to be manipulative, polarizing, or personally demeaning. The Greek word translated as “church” in the Christian Scriptures, ekklesia, means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly.” Likewise, the word “synagogue” is derived from the Greek word synagein, and means “to bring together.” In Hebrew, a synagogue is referred to as beit ha-knesset, which has the same meaning — a “house of assembly.”

When citizens leave their homes to “assemble” in a synagogue or church, they inevitably form a political system as well as a spiritual and social one. Yet the reality that congregations are not only spiritual and social systems but also political ones is for many congregants a deeply disturbing thought. Politics appears to be brutish, nasty, and coarse — particularly in the current U.S. election cycle. Bringing such malodorous activities into a religious congregation strikes many congregation members as something abhorrent. Can a congregation be a healthy political system, or are we condemned to replicate the political grandstanding, intransigence, and polarization that now dominate our national politics?

I would suggest that there are four essential requirements for a congregation to function as a healthy political system:

1. Clear and consistent decision-making policies and practice

Destructive political activity often results when individuals and groups in a congregation do not understand — or do not trust — existing decision-making mechanisms. Fuzziness in decision-making is a chronic cause of negative politics in congregations.

2. Clear lines of authority and accountability

Position descriptions for professional staff are as essential for healthy congregational functioning as they are in any other organization. Periodic role clarification is needed as individual positions turn over or are revised. Every position description should also clarify to whom that position is accountable, and provide for annual review and accountability, in order to ensure meaningful accountability.

3. Clear channels for communication and participation

Nearly every congregation I’ve attended or worked with gave significant attention to how it was communicating “to” the congregation. The combination of verbal announcements when the congregation gathers, a printed bulletin, a website, and email blasts are today all standard. But less attention is given in most congregations to how the leadership hears back “from” the congregation. Two-way communication is essential in contemporary congregations, as members experienced with social media and open discussions in university classrooms generally won’t abide one-way communication for long.

4. Dignity and Respect as Cultural Norms

By far the most important requirement for healthy politics is that congregations hold and practice strong cultural norms of dignity and respect. Author Donna Hicks defines these terms this way: “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it. Respect, on the other hand, is earned through one’s actions.” To be treated with dignity, therefore, is the inherent right of every human being — even if we are unable to accord respect to the behavior of a given individual.

When implemented, these four requirements for healthy congregational functioning produce dramatically different political behavior. Congregations are indeed political systems. But they don’t have to be as dysfunctional and polarized as our more visible political systems currently are. Commitments to clarity and to upholding human dignity are the two most essential requirements for healthy congregational politics. Whatever the state of politics in your congregation, it’s never too late to start improving them.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter of the Congregational Consulting Group and is used by permission.

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About Author

David Brubaker

David Brubaker is Director of the MBA and OLS Programs and Associate Professor of Organizational Studies at Eastern Mennonite University. He has trained or consulted with over 100 organizations around the world, and wrote Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.