Mark Chaves: What are denominations good for? Consulting.

Many people cheer when denominations weaken. They may fail to realize exactly how much crucial support denominations still provide.

InfographicWhen a denomination loses members or resources, cuts to national and regional staffs often follow. The result is weakened denominational infrastructure. Many people seem not to be bothered by this weakened infrastructure, perhaps because they think there was waste and inefficiency in denominational agencies, or perhaps because they did not approve of the initiatives pursued by denominational agencies, or perhaps because they think congregations can find elsewhere the materials and services that denominational agencies traditionally provided.

It may be surprising to learn just how often congregations turn to denominations for help and resources on a wide variety of issues.

In an earlier post, I reported that 1 in 3 congregations turned within the last year to outside consultants of some sort for help on a wide variety of issues. Here, I report the perhaps surprising fact that three-quarters of this outside help came from denominations. That means that 1 in 4 congregations have received some sort of direct help or expertise or service from their denomination within the last year.

For each of the most common issues on which congregations seek outside help, the graph above shows how much of that help came from a denominational office or leader. More than 90 percent of the outside help that congregations received on personnel or staff issues came from denominational sources. Only on building and facilities issues did a majority of the consulting help used by congregations come from other than a denominational source.

Congregations seek and receive help from their denominations on a wide variety of specific issues. Denominational help ranges from placement services for clergy and other staff (probably the single most significant kind of help denominations provide to congregations), a Committee on Ministry that helps find an interim minister, a Synod office that provides training materials for lay leaders, a Conference Minister who mediates a conflict, a Diocese that provides training for a large parish’s administrative staff, another Diocese that helps congregations with information technology, denominational offices that give loans or grants for building projects or other new programs, national staff people who help congregations develop new initiatives, a District Superintendent who provides legal advice, an Archdiocese that provides training on immigrant issues, a Convention office that helps congregations develop mission projects, a regional denominational office that helps churches find guest speakers, a denominational office that helps congregations with their Sunday Schools, another denominational office that provides demographic information about a church’s neighborhood, and yet another that teaches congregation leaders how to write grant proposals. This list could go on and on.

What should we make of this? At the very least, it is clear that denominations provide services and materials that many congregations use. If denominations do not provide a particular service or resource, congregations will look for it elsewhere, but it is not clear that congregations are better served when they buy goods and services on the open market (so to speak) than when they receive them from offices within their own denominations. Faced with ever increasing local costs, congregations have been spending smaller and smaller portions of their money to support denominational infrastructures. This is understandable, but we should recognize that the resulting weakened infrastructure means that the help that many congregations sometimes receive from their denominations may not be there the next time they need it.