Reinventing the Judicatory in an Unthinkable World

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By Alan Roxburgh of the Roxburgh Missional Network

Judicatories come in all shapes and sizes. They also come in many different forms, each with names that come out of a tradition. We know them through such names: diocese, regions, conferences, presbyteries, and districts. These are the denominational organizations that stand between national bodies and local churches.

Many of you reading this are aware of the radical transitions moving across denominational systems these days. You are probably someone involved in leadership at a national, regional or local level of your denomination and very much aware of the challenges that need to be addressed. Some people are going about talking about a post-denominational North America, a myth created by those who need straw men in order to set up their own neo-romantic ideals.

The sociologist, Rodney Stark has studied denominations in North America for a long time and it is clear that all the data indicates denominationalism is alive and well and not about to disappear any time soon (see What Americans Really Believe). He owned the fact that certain denominations (mostly those who used to be labeled the Mainlines) are in free-fall but that other denominations are in periods of significant growth.

Denominations are an essential and important part of North American religious life; so, we need those in the older mainlines and the others struggling to stay alive to understand how to innovate transformation in these systems. That is what increasing numbers of judicatories are asking these days. What is fascinating in traveling across North America and meeting with many judicatory leaders is that they are able to name the issues and even describe something of what needs to happen in their systems but usually have little sense of how to practically go about doing transformation. They know some important things such as:

  • National bodies have important but limited roles to play in the reinvention of their churches. Giving time, resources and emphasis to changing the organizational structures or the basic constitutions and rule books of the denomination will hardly touch the actual levels of innovation required. These kinds of activities provide a certain kind of technical purpose and energy to those in leadership but are peripheral to the adaptive changes that are needed across they system.
  • Local churches on their own are not the source of transformation. It is not unusual within a judicatory to see several individual churches with excellent leadership thrive, minister effectively in mission and grow, even while the majority of churches in their system stagnate or decline. There are multiple reasons for this, but the basic fact is that these individual churches tend not to change the system (the region or diocese or presbytery, etc.).
  • The most critical level for initiating and sustaining transformation is the mid-level judicatory. Of late this has been a little understood fact so that mid-level judicatories are usually viewed as out of touch and unimportant to the process of re-invention. The opposite is the case. It is at the level of the judicatory that the adaptive challenge of transformation and reinvention lies. Denominations want to initiate transformation but have tended to believe it needs to be a national rather than regional strategy. Local churches hunger for transformation, but, in their loss of confidence in national and regional bodies (often justified) they have opted for congregationalism, basically feeling it’s everyone for themselves in spite of the ecclesiology shaping their tradition. (In the homogenization of North American church life commodified by a consumerist, survivalist mentality, most local churches, across all denominations, have become congregationalists – not out of theological conviction but the anxiety of survival). The plain fact is that this will not and cannot create the adaptive innovations required to recreate denominations. This will happen as mid-level judicatories rediscover the capacity to gather and assist local churches in creating an imagination and future few can do alone. The mid-level judicatory is the most powerful, but under-estimated, force for transformation today.

The challenge is that most mid-level leadership might believe this as a concept but feel they are in this unthinkable world where everything they’ve tried has resulted in more of the same. Usually, the ‘more’ has involved doing the very things that actually undercut transformation; such as, working at organizational and structural change, or coming up with yet one more big vision and mission document (generally known as a BEHAG – a big, hairy, audacious goal) to plant a big number of new churches or resource and develop some new program, or promulgate a new strategic plan for the area. Each of these are born out of genuine desires to create transformation, but they will all quickly burn out with little effect because they are samples of using the tried-and-true tactics in an unthinkable world that requires adaptive work.

One of the huge adaptations that is required has to do with the imagination about the source of renewal and re-invention. The video (http://www.vimeo.com/6490898 and http://www.vimeo.com/6492528) where I am introducing a process of reinvention among the Disciples in Kentucky will give you some clues about where we have to start and why this reinvention won’t happen through any kind of top-down initiatives.

Another huge adaptation involves our imagination about what denominations are supposed to do and how they go about doing it through their national and regional staffs. In the 20th century, denominational DNA was formed around ethnic identity that provided a program-driven set of standard deliverables from one end of the continent to the other involving denominationally branded, cradle-to-grave programs for every church, provided by a cadre of professionals and experts. As that model crumbles under loss of membership and financial implosions, national and mid-level judicatory leaders are casting about for new ways of defining their roles and functions.

However, they continue to do this within the old DNA, within the paradigms of a 20th century church. One of the primary ways they are doing this is by trying to become more flexible resource-agencies that offer a variety of resourcing services to their churches. This is a dead end in our networked, Internet world. It is akin to closing the barn door after the horses have left. Any local church, anywhere across this continent has access to more varied and better resources than any current denominational or regional agency can produce. Not only is that another technical response to an unthinkable world, but it will accelerate the sense that judicatories are less and less relevant to the issues facing local churches and their leaders. The metaphors of program agency and resourcing agency coming from the denominational DNA of the last century have neither the engines nor the fuel to energize a reinvention of denominations. What is required is a completely different metaphor that might splice into and transform denominational DNA, that of the judicatory as a mission agency. When leaders hear this, they intuitively sense its rightness but feel again they are being catapulted into an unthinkable world. How does one reinvent a judicatory shaped by programs and seek to provide resources to transform it into a mission agency?

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