When I was a seminarian at Yale Divinity School, I served as a ministry intern under Rev. William T. Kennedy, Jr., pastor of the Mt. Olive AME Zion Church in Waterbury, Connecticut. He was a wonderful mentor who continues to influence my life and ministry today, though he retired from active ministry in the 1990’s and passed away in 2001. When he would stand in the pulpit and share news and announcements about the church’s meetings and activities, or invite others to share, he would refer to this sharing as “The Lord’s Business.”
For Rev. Kennedy, these words and these matters were not an intrusion upon worship; they were part of worship. The actual meetings themselves were sometimes complex, and occasionally contentious — but not often, because Rev. Kennedy and congregational leadership had done their homework, and trusted and respected one another. I was never acutely aware of the rules of procedure being followed; the relationships were primary.
By the time you read these words, a revision of our First Baptist Church constitution and by-laws will have been considered in a public session of the congregation, and voted up or down. In general, the guiding philosophy of the broadly representative committee that considered possible revisions and drafted the document placed before the congregation was to: 1) simplify rules and procedures; 2) maximize persons’ gifts by uncoupling the necessary link between the church’s governing board and the various ministry teams (some people are called uniquely to governing activities and others to direct service); and 3) foster decision by consensus wherever possible.
As we all know, First Baptist Church of Portland is a diverse congregation. This diversity is reflected in age, ethnicity, educational background, professional identity, economic condition and theology. We all love Jesus and wish to serve him in this urban setting, but some of us have little else in common. And our diversity of outlook and experience, and — in particular — our generational differences, have sometimes made consensus difficult and have yielded conflict.
Baptists are often fond of saying that — granted the Lordship of Jesus — a Baptist congregation is a pure democracy. Every baptized believer has an equal voice, and the majority rules. Robert’s Rules of Order are the gold standard for letting every voice be heard yet assuring that, in the end, the majority wins. (Many of us have heard that we at FBC have a local connection to Robert’s Rules of Order. Brig. Gen. Henry Martyn Robert was stationed at Fort Vancouver in the 1870’s, charged with port improvements in Oregon and Washington, and — according to tradition — attended FBC at that time.) But Robert’s Rules of Order assume at least the possibility of conflict, and when it occurs, assure that there will be “winners” and “losers.”
According to Wikipedia, the original genesis of Robert’s Rules was the disorderly and rancorous discussion of Abolition in the First Baptist Church of New Bedford, Massachusetts. When consensus is impossible, take a vote. But is conflict inevitable? Is consensus indeed impossible? Is the majority always right? Must someone lose?
Contemporary Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman has written of our Baptist connection to the church “catholic” (universal) and to beliefs and values we share with believers of many different times and places, and of our intimate family relationship to continental Anabaptists of the 16th and 17th centuries who prayed and listened to the Spirit and heard every voice until they were one in the Spirit. Our relationships with one another and our shared relationship to Christ are more important than rules and procedures when we are doing “the Lord’s business.” I pray that we will move our congregational life in this direction.
—Dr. David L. Wheeler