Two Forces In Tension

"Draw your dilemma," my pastoral supervisor said to me this week. She is a skilled psychotherapist trained in Interactive Drawing Therapy, and we often move to crayons and paper to get at the deep-down stuff that is the fodder of good supervision. I drew a stick-figure image, added some attributes and named what was going on. Then she got me to write a prayer, offering the tension I was experiencing to Jesus. It didn't resolve what is still quite a difficult pastoral paradox to manage, but I had shaped it into a workable image. (No I wont tell you what it is, not today anyway!)

While I was attending to my own stuff in that drawing, a parallel process was going on, as I realised the notion of drawing a difficult-to-manage dilemma could apply to another one I had been dwelling on this week. At a talk on Clergy SelfCare and Maintaining Boundaries, Kevin Ward from Knox Centre observed that as humans we are always balancing two life forces - Togetherness and Individuality. The First we need to experience connection and affiliation, and the Second to maintain emotional independence. This dichotomy labelled what for me is a tension that surfaces in many different ministry contexts. As a follower of Jesus, I have to find the right balance between spiritual disciplines that connect me as an individual with God, and practices that help me connect with him through the faith community. Both are important. As a local church, our faith community also has to negotiate a boundary between individuality and connection with the wider Body Of Christ. In Baptist Churches this is expressed most clearly when we have to face issues of autonomy versus accountability, a tension that came up more than once at last week's "Gathering" - the annual Assembly of churches in the Baptist Union in New Zealand.

Compared with my experience of Presbyterian General Assemblies, I found there isn't much debate at a Baptist Assembly. This is because our polity allows member churches of the Baptist family to determine their own values and strategies. Some will lean more to Preaching and Teaching (what Murray Robertson called Word churches) and others will be keen about manifesting the gifts of the Holy Spirit (he called these Signs and Wonders churches). An emerging group among evangelical faith communities heed the call to activism and Social Justice; these he dubbed these the Deed churches. These differences occur in other denominations too, but because movements like the Presbyterian Church have a national polity (in that case, the Book of Order) to which all congregations subscribe, matters of theological preference as well as the level of funding of national Presbyterian enterprises like Knox Centre, are subject to the will of the denomination as a whole, as determined by the National gathering. So, this year, for example, the PCANZ passed some resolutions that will place very small congregations under the microscope, and exert some pressure to ensure the hard questions about viability are faced. Baptist Assembly would have no interest in ,or power to dictate, a process like that. Each local church decides for itself issues such as whether it can afford a minister, and what connection it will have with national resources like Carey Baptist College or the Baptist Missionary Society (Tranzsend).

All that is background to my describing what debates we did have at Baptist Assembly in Tauranga this year. Our national leadership has bravely put on paper what they think is a reasonable understanding of what a member church of the Baptist denomination in NZ needs to commit to and align with. It's not onerous, and for us as a middle of the road local church it is self-evident. But some saw it as encroaching on the autonomy for which Baptists fought so bravely four hundred years ago. So too with a very well thought-out paper on Clergy Registration. There was a feeling that the individual pastor is accountable only locally and not to the denomination. I found this quite odd, but then I am a Presbyterian by heritage.

The independent spirit springs deep in the Baptist breast, but one wise observer asked, is this actually "spirit of independence?" - and I don't think she meant the Holy Spirit.

More on this tension next week.....