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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices

January 16, 2015


But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

convo2015logoThe theme for the July 23-25, 2015 Convocation sponsored by the Center for Parish Development will explore the leadership practices that cultivate Christian communities as a foretaste of the reign of God. The Rev. Dr. Paul M. Dietterich, Executive Director Emeritus of the Center, will be the presenter. Dr. Dietterich will be sharing results of extensive research over a 34 year period that demonstrate how the climate of a church shapes the life and ministry of that church. To begin the year long discussion of church leadership practices, various aspects of the witness of the church’s common life and shared ministry will be explored on this blog.

This and subsequent posts explore key operating assumptions about the nature and purpose of community. Although I did initial research on this subject in the 1990s—I think you’ll find that it is still relevant. For example, while not a lot of people currently advocate for “individualism” or “community as contractual association” the presumptions of this model still shape the way people view and interact in community. It is only as we recognize the crucial role of the church’s common life and shared ministry that leadership practices become important.

The Significance of the Church’s Common Life and Shared Ministry.

2015_ss6As indicated by the above quotation from 1 Peter, scripture proclaims a strong and even radical vision of the church as the community of God’s new people. In a democratic society which stresses equality and inclusion, this is shocking and threatening language. It appears to imply an inappropriate exclusiveness which can lead to an arrogant elitism. After all, who are we to call ourselves “chosen”? Yet this is exactly the point. Christian identity is not achieved but received: “once you were no people, but now you are God’s people” (vs. 10). Based not in good will or good deeds, but in the active receiving of God’s undeserved love and mercy, this identity is one of witness and service rather than of privilege and self-interest. As “God’s own people,” Christian communities have a vital mission: “to proclaim the mighty acts of God who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light” (vs. 9). The church is the “ecclesia” of God: a people called forth to fulfill a divine purpose: to witness to God’s love and mercy for all humanity. Christian community is not a loose collection of individuals who gather now and then to meet their self-determined needs. Transformed by baptism and faith into God’s new people, the church is a chosen, called, and gifted community of ministry.

What is “Community”?

2015_ss4In the midst of a disconnected, disintegrated, and depersonalized society, many people hunger for community: for a place “where everyone knows your name.” Yet alongside this yearning, there is also a widespread apprehension. “On the one hand we desire communal life, and on the other hand we are committed to individualism. We want to share life and work, to be bound together by trust and compassion, but we remain committed to the autonomous pursuit of our own destiny and the rightful possession of what we have earned. We want the support that comes from belonging to a community of shared values, and yet we resent group restraints and binding ethical principles. We want a community that will make us feel at home in a bureaucratic world, but we are wary of group demands and expectations.”1 While wanting the benefits of community, many people are not so sure about the corresponding commitments and responsibilities.

In scholarly and popular discussions, the word “community” has become both an overused word and an inconsistently employed concept: “’community’ continues to be one of those buzz words that can be so annoying that one reaches for the fly swatter.”2 Diverse understandings of community contain different expectations for relationship with others as well as different conditions for meeting those expectations. Beginning with this post, three models of community will be explored: (1) contractual association which emphasizes the freedom of the individual, (2) organic solidarity which assumes the priority of the group, and (3) Christian community as koinonia which affirms the worth and dignity of the individual within the context of communal life and practice.

Community as A Contractual Agreement.

Historically, this model emerged with the Industrial Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as an industrial market society replaced the agricultural feudal society. Leaving behind the close-knit communal forms of social relationship in rural villages, many people experienced a new-found freedom in the commercial activity of urban settings. In this new world, the basis of association was not to be found in tradition, habit, or custom but in the contract and consent of free, self-conscious and self-directed individuals.3

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), called by some the greatest political theorist of the seventeenth century, developed the essential elements of this contractual view of human association. He saw the world as a mechanical system, composed exclusively of discrete or mutually disconnected particular things. “At the heart of his approach was the conviction that reality was essentially composed of discrete atomic ‘bits’ of matter. The ‘ultimate’ or final explanation of anything resided in its smallest, simplest, most basic parts.”4 From this perspective, the most basic entities—individuals—which make up society, are fundamentally isolated, independent “atoms” concerned with their individual self-interest and self-preservation. Hobbes believed that left to their natural tendencies, individuals will “endeavor to destroy, or subdue one another” because others will always stand ready “to dispossess and deprive us of the fruits of our labor, as well as of our lives and liberties.”5 The motivation for human association—society—is the protection of individual security. Society is a means to an end, an artificial construction formed as individuals rationally decide to contract with one another for the mutual preservation of their lives, freedom, and property.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), expressed the fundamental tension between the individual and social order. “How to find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with the others, obeys no one but himself and remains as free as before.”6 Within this orientation, it is assumed that due to their diverse self-interests, individuals are naturally antagonistic and in competition with one another. Without some form of “social contract,” all will be frustrated in expressing their individual rights. Thus human association—community—is essentially a contract relationship with others which is necessary for individuals to achieve their own essentially individualistic ends.

Individualism in the United States.

Admiration for “rugged individualism” has been an enduring quality in the United States. Indeed it was Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation of the nature of American society which led him to coin the term “individualism” in the mid 1800s. “Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society forced to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”7 Tocqueville feared that the increasing isolation and sense of self-sufficiency among individual Americans would lead to the decrease of involvement in public life and thus create the conditions for a more powerful and dominant state. As individuals withdraw in order to “do their own thing,” they give more and more power to so-called leaders, and thus government would increase in power and influence.

individualAs a democratic society, the United States has continually experienced the conflict between the acceptance of an unqualified and isolating individualism and a commitment to maintaining some kind of social consciousness and involvement. While we may bemoan our modern impersonal, bureaucratic, competitive, individualized, and privatized society, the costs of a more personal, participatory, cooperative, communal, and public society may seem too great. Many Americans have both a “deep desire for autonomy and self-reliance combined with an equally deep conviction that life has no meaning unless shared with others in the context of community….Yet we are hesitant to articulate our sense that we need one another as much as we need to stand alone, for fear that if we did we would lose our independence altogether.”8

The Limitations of Extreme Individualism.

The individualism described above (illustrated by but not confined to the United States) moves beyond an affirmation of the inherent dignity and worth of the individual person to a particular view of the nature and meaning of human life. Human beings are understood to be fundamentally at odds and therefore must protect themselves from each other in order to preserve and advance their particular self-interest. All individuals are to be responsible for their own lives, to actualize their freedom in order to achieve their human potential, and thus to experience the maximum possible “happiness” in this earthly life. “Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious.”9

aloneYet how do human beings discover the meaning and purpose of their individual rights and freedoms? When “freedom of the individual” becomes an end in itself, the burden of knowing and judging in isolation from community or tradition can become an ambiguous and often bewildering responsibility. “American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying isolation.”10 Extreme individualism may mean not only freedom from external authorities and obligations, but a profound loneliness and inability to relate to others due to “my own incarceration in the egocentric autonomy of my individuality.”11

Implications for the Church.

Within this model of community, the church is viewed as one among many contractual associations formed to mediate between and fulfill individuals needs. Christian community becomes a voluntary association of like-minded individuals who join together for their mutual religious purposes. Since it is assumed that the individual has precedence over the group, the church is simply a collection of individuals voluntarily created BY individuals FOR their own individual needs and advantages. Not understood to be primary or truly necessary, the church functions only “as a place to express, develop, and share one’s individual Christian growth and development.”12

The individual’s relationship with God is to be a private one, grounded not in participation in the common life and shared ministry of the church, or in the interaction with traditional beliefs and practices, but in the isolated decision of faith. “Baptism is understood as a call to individual salvation, rather than an incorporation into a community; the Eucharist is seen as food for the individual soul rather than a communal thanksgiving meal; the church is believed to be a voluntary association to which we individually belong by choice and withdraw at will, rather than an eternal relationships established by God, binding us together to be a sign and witness of God’s reign in human history.”13

Not only within society, but within the church as well, this model of community assumes that individuals want and deserve “freedom” defined in solitary terms as “being left alone,” “not having other people’s values and beliefs forced on me,” “the right to pursue my own life my own way.” In the early church, individuals who decided faith issues on the basis of private choice were judged to be heretics. Today the expectation is that every individual will be a “heretic,” that is, forced to make fundamental decisions about ultimate questions in the isolation of one’s private self according to his or her individual conscience and life experience.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. When you hear the word “community” what comes to mind?
  2. Describe community as a contractual association. What are some valuable aspects of this model? What are some of the problems?
  3. Where do you see evidence of this model in American culture today?
  4. What are the strengths American “rugged individualism”?
  5. What are some of the limitations of extreme individualism?
  6. Where in the life of your church do you see evidence of “contractual association?”
  7. What problems can this model create for the church?

1John H. Westerhoff, Living the Faith Community: The Church that Makes a Difference (Harper & Row, 1985), p. 18.

2Leonard Sweet, “Can a Mainstream Church Change Its Course?” in Liberal Protestantism: Realities and Possibilities, Robert S. Michaelsen and Wade Clark Roof eds. (The Pilgrim Press: 1986), p. 245.

3Frank G. Kirkpatrick, Community: A Trinity of Models (University Press, 1986), pp. 16-17.

4Ibid., p. 19.

5Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil, ed. Michael Oakeshott (Collier Books, 1962), p. 99.

6Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Penguin Books, 1968), p. 60.

7Alex de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Anchor Books, 1969), p. 506.

8Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), pp. 150-151.

9Ibid., p. 142.

10Ibid., p. 8.

11Christo Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), p. 33.

12Rebecca Chopp, The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (Crossroad, 1989), p. 79.

13Westerhoff, Living the Faith Community, p. 10.


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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