A great conversation has spontaneously erupted over on Facebook and I’m following up on the suggestion to open the conversation up to the “wider world” outside of our Facebook friends lists.

It all started when Josh Brockway posed the question:

Is the Church of the Brethren congregational or connectional in polity?

He later clarified  his meanings with:

Congregational- the local congregation is free to act autonomously and is thus the primary locus of decision making within the denomination. (Think American Baptist)

Connectional- the local congregation is related to a wider network of constituencies. Thus decisions are made in reference and understanding of the wider denomination. (Think United Methodist)

Comments thus far have been all over the board, from “connectional in polity, congregational in practice” to “congregational in polity, connectional in practice” and many points in between.

Also mentioned was the struggle to live into what seems to be a both/and model that seeks to meld connectional and congregational.

When we agree with what the established “connectional” network / authority says we’re glad to claim it, especially with regards to the potential influence it may have over others.

However, as soon as we’re in the minority we embrace our congregational side. It seems to me that in many situations it’s the district conferences and leadership structures which seem to have the most influence in preventing us from being a purely congregational polity structure.

To my ears it’s kind of like asking if we’re Anabaptist or Pietist. We’re both … sometimes we reflect more of one side or another, but in the end it’s a mashup of two seeming opposites. Of course, I think our Anabaptist/Pietist tension is often more life giving and generative than our connectional/congregational one!

In the end I’m not sure if we can “have our cake and eat it too” when it comes to this – there will always be a question of where the ultimate authority lies until it is clearly answered. In many ways this is the looming spiritual question for all of Christianity in our generation, even for those who have their sense of institutional authority figured out. -Matt McKimmy

Several folks have also suggested other possible terms, like “relational congregationalism” and “mutual empowerment” that might better describe how we operate.

A trend within our denomination towards an increasingly congregational mentality was named, along with the struggle we face when existing power and authority structures are put in positions of no longer having such power or authority.

I think part of the problem stems from the fact that once a particular institution is given (or claims) a voice of power or authority it is hard to undo without major upheaval and discord.

As I reflected more on this I also pondered how this relates to (reflects?) our moves over the last 100 years towards churches having less direct “control” over the particular actions of individuals. Might our current situation reflect the same sort of shift writ large on the institutional level? -MMc

The role of theology in our polity and policy decisions has also come up:

If we believe that we can hear the Spirit moving best when we’re gathered together discerning as a Body, then do we have limits as to how large the particular part of the Body can be in order to hear the Spirit’s direction? Annual Conference would fall into the connectional category, and a congregational council meeting into the congregational, but we’re pretty insistent in our continued claim that the Spirit moves at both… -Dana Cassell

I feel like we’ve lost the ability to even consider how God speaks to us through voices that do not echo our own deeply-held beliefs and insights. We no longer even agree on what it means to “seek the mind of Christ.” To one it may mean primarily what the words on the pages of the Bible say. To another it may foremost mean witnessing God’s continuing revelation in the world. We’ve lost our ability to reconcile these different ways of seeking the Spirit, instead moving towards a reflection of our larger society’s increasingly individualistic spirituality. -MMc

Additional comments have touched on issues of authority, history, and the ideal vs. the real:

As much as I like the concepts of relational / empowering models of polity, I’m just not convinced our current polity would allow us to move towards them. How might we overcome such massive institutional momentum? -MMc

I think we are on to something here I’m terms of empowerment, discernment, and polity vs. reality. One of the things that has struck me while teaching a course on Protestantism is the adaptability of the radical traditions. Yet, we often are bound by realities such as polity and emotion (such as nostalgia and comfort). -JBr

I’m better at writing and talking than I am at doing, though, and that takes time and patience and somebody or some bodies who have experience and practice in working that way. -DCa

The question is really one of what authority we ultimately believe has the most credibility. Do we honestly believe that God’s will is more clearly known when we gather together, discerning Christ’s mind through scripture and community? Or do we gather with our communities assuming we have it all figured out and trying to convince others our way is God’s way. I pray we can still find ways to embrace the former of these. -MMc

So … what say you? Do you think we’re connectional, congregational, relational, or “other” with regards to our polity? Where does the movement of the Holy Spirit fit in?  Are there trends you have noticed, and do those trends bring you hope or concern? How is God calling us to be the church in the 21st century, and how might that be reflected in our polity and ways of doing church business?

(If you’ve already chimed in via Facebook and want to re-state your thoughts here, please do so. I chose not to quote everyone simply because I know Facebook is not widely understood to be quite as “public” as sites like this blog are. Likewise, if I have quoted you and you would like me to remove your quote, please let me know.)