Hubs and Networks (and the United Church of Christ)

Last week, my denomination — the United Church of Christ — released a bit of bad news. Fourteen people were laid off as the national setting of the denomination reorganized itself around new mission priorities.  Among the transitions are the combining of operations and global ministries; the combining of justice work and local church ministries; and the combining of Publishing, Identity, and Communication with the Office of Philanthropy and Stewardship to form an Office of Philanthropy and Marketing. As a colleague and friend who used to work at the national offices pointed out on Facebook, this continues a precipitous decline in staff there: from around 300 near the beginning of the century to slightly more than 100 now (someone else pointed out that there were more than 400 in the early 90s).

These layoffs aren’t surprising. The national setting and muddle judicatories have been shrinking as long as the denomination has existed. Every year brings predictions about when the United Church of Christ will close its doors, even if individual congregations keep going.

One of the biggest challenges for the United Church of Christ is how money flows through it. Offerings are collected in struggling local congregations. Some of that money — almost always a shrinking amount — is sent to middle judicatories. Those struggling middle judicatories then send some of that monty — again, almost always a shrinking amount — on to the national setting. The pie keeps getting smaller every year and at every level, and much of the reorganization at every level is about surviving on less and less.

And, unfortunately, too many of the expressions of the United Church of Christ — from local churches to the national setting — respond to that shrinking pie by focusing on how they can get more instead of how they can connect more. We focus more and more on our hubs; we focus less and less on our networks.

Let me give a simple example. The new Director of Marketing and Philanthropy will be tasked with raising money for the United Church of Christ, meaning, by and large, the national setting and its initiatives. She will also be responsible for developing stewardship materials for local congregations. Historically, those materials include some third-party books on stewardship, as well as annual themed posters, bulletin inserts, pledge cards, letters, and so on (which, of course, local congregations have to pay for). That means she’s focused mostly on raising money for her hub: the national setting.

What’s missing? Real coaching and training for the local congregations who want to support the national setting and who are themselves struggling. In other words: the creation of networks that will connect professionals and successful congregations with congregations that they can help.

And that’s also true on a broader scale. As a denomination — and like many other mainline denominations — we are focused on the survival of hubs, from local churches through middle judicatories to the national setting.

But any future for the United Church of Christ, I suspect, isn’t found in keeping hubs alive. It’s found in creating and sustaining dynamic networks. If the United Church of Christ wants to be an effective denomination in the future, it needs to invest in serving and connecting its local congregations, covenanted ministries, and other expressions. For example:

  • we might invest substantially in a group of consultants and coaches focused on stewardship and church vitality
  • we might look at how congregations who are successful at a certain ministry can be connected to congregations interested in developing a similar ministry and share resources
  • we might provide smaller congregations merge into single church bodies with multiple campuses
  • we might investigate what new models of membership — models that recognize that fewer people are likely to belong to the same congregation for their entire lives — might look like

There are any number of options here, but they are all based on networks. And it is investment in creating and sustaining those networks — not keeping hubs functioning — that will help the United Church of Christ remain a powerful force in the future.