Blaming Our Denominational Polity When Things Go Wrong

Mark Tidsworth, President, Pinnacle Leadership Associates

Themes show up in the oddest places sometimes.

I'm thinking about three congregations wherein we have done conflict management consulting; Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. Conflicts in these three churches were related to different issues, but they share a common theme. As we worked to identify the problem, disciples in each church frequently blamed their denominational polity. Obviously, each church is organized differently. Yet, each of these three believes their polity was a large part of the problem leading to conflict in their congregation.

The form of this blame was articulated in these three ways:
1. Because of our polity, the congregation was not consulted sufficiently before this decision was made (the decision(s) leading to the conflict).
2. A small group in our church (the elected Deacons, Council, Elders, or Personnel Committee) exercised too much power in making this or these decisions.
3. This polity or form of church governance locates too much power in the hands of too few.

Remember, all three of these congregations verbalized the above complaints...all three with different polities or forms of church governance.

What's this about? How can three churches from different denominations believe their conflict is generated by their polity; their form of church governance? Part of the answer is the faulty beliefs behind the blame. What people mean when they blame the polity is
*"If we adopt the right church polity and decision-making processes, then we will come to unanimity, or at least strong consensus, on all decisions."
*"Effective church polity prevents all (or at least 95% of) church conflict."
*"Effective church polity will almost guarantee that my perspective will be the outcome of decision-making." (The insidious belief behind this one is believing that things in church will largely go the way I want them to go)
*"Unpleasant, hard, and jagged-edged decisions can be eliminated in church life through effective church polity."
*"Everyone is willing to play by the rules, when we have good rules."

The following are more truth-based beliefs about church polity?

*There is no perfect church polity system, but there are many effective systems.
*Unproductive church conflict can be partially prevented by skillful use of church polity, whatever the denomination.
*Unpleasant, hard, and jagged-edged decisions are part of church life (like family life). They test the nature, strength, and maturity of our Christian community.
*When we don't get our way at church, our response (the way we handle ourselves) is primarily a spiritual issue, revealing our maturity levels.

Remarkably, all three of these congregations were content with their church polity before the conflict began and after the conflict was resolved. We human beings work to make sense of life. Blaming is one of our specialties. It's funny how the grass looks greener on the other side of the denominational fence when we are conflicted in a local congregation. May we grow the courage to look at ourselves more fully when the reflection is unpleasant.

Mark Tidsworth, President, Pinnacle Leadership Associates