The idea of cooperative parishes is nothing new. In the past couple of decades, they have most commonly been used to solve an appointive dilemma. In other words, when a church can no longer afford a full-time pastor, no pastor at all, or experience some other reduction in pastoral support, the judicatory leader responsible for that church brings together another nearby church to be in some sort of cooperative ministry with each other. Typically, the reduction in pastoral support is driven by shrinking financial resources. The church believes they are at a crossroad with no other options than reducing pastoral compensation. Structure rather than vision is clearly driving this decision. When structure is driving organizational decisions, the church is on the declining side of the lifecycle.
Since the appointment of a pastor is year to year, there are critical decision-points that congregational leaders are forced to make each year about appointments. This is unlike other decisions congregations can delay month after month and year after year such as their missional effectiveness in reaching new people. And because the judicatory leader typically only has one real influence and tool for each congregation, the appointment of pastors, forming a cooperative parish or multiple point charge is the only option used for congregations in this situation.
By using the cooperative parish as a solution to appointment issues, we have limited our understanding of the meaning and purpose of cooperative parishes. In addition, we have also severely limited what might be possible if we were to use the cooperative parish model more like it was it was intended and even outlined in the UMC Book of Discipline. In fact, there are multiple models of cooperative parishes offered in the BOD! Check out the ten distinctive models in the BOD in Part VI, Section II, ❡206. You just might be surprised at the variety of cooperative parishes offered.
What is this fresh approach we are challenging churches to consider? In our book, An Effective Approach to Cooperative Parishes: A Congregational Guide to Discernment and Implementation, my co-author, Jason Stanley, and I suggest that the approach in becoming a cooperative parish is much healthier when it is organic and congregationally-driven. The process to make the decision to enter into a cooperative parish takes time and must be part of discernment by all the congregations involved in the potential cooperative parish. A decision for congregations to become a cooperative parish due to a judicatory mandate (top-down approach) hardly ever proves to be effective or vital. It often feels imposed and heavy-handed to the congregations. Therefore, there is usually low commitment by the congregations.
On the other hand, when congregations take an organic journey through a process of discernment (grass-roots bottom-up approach), holy conversations, facing current reality, making critical decisions upfront, and having a shared vision for God’s preferred future for the cooperative parish, there is a much higher likelihood that the cooperative parish will be healthy, vital, and have Kingdom impact within the mission field of the new cooperative parish. This approach is not structurally-driven like the top-down approach. Instead, this approach is driven by vision and provides the opportunity for a new lifecycle to be birthed together by the newly formed cooperative parish.
Fore more information on this organic approach to cooperative parishes, check out, An Effective Approach to Cooperative Parishes: A Congregational guide to Discernment and Implementation. This resource is for churches who are considering forming a cooperative parish together. The guide will take leaders through a step-by-step process of discernment and understanding what true cooperative ministry actually means and how to enter into a cooperative parish model with a comprehensive plan and shared commitment from the start. The congregational guide walks leaders through the process of developing a shared and cooperative vision. One the vision for the cooperative parish has been established, the guide then guides the leaders through a process of how to develop the plan for cooperating through ministry, resources, and strategic alignment. No stone is left unturned! The process takes leaders through questions, surveys, analysis, and conversations that help them clearly understand the current reality of their own ministry landscape as well as the ministry landscape of the other potential cooperative parish partners upfront. It also aids leaders in having the tough conversations about alignment, planning, resource allocation, and more. It like the pre-marital counseling equivalent for cooperative parishes!
And finally, we believe there are four key advantages for cooperative parishes to be built by church leaders:
- Greater Leadership Impact
When local church leaders decide on their own to form expressions of cooperative parishes, the local church leaders lead the local congregations in the discernment and decision-making process.
2. More Creativity
When local congregants are involved in the process from the very beginning, there is a much higher likelihood of creativity and innovation in the options and implementation. Local congregants are likely to be more engaged in creative solutions to make the cooperative parish successful when deciding to move forward.
3. Wider-Spread Engagement
When the cooperative parish idea springs up organically from the local context, the excitement and enthusiasm build and spread from leader to leader and congregant to congregant. Before long, it will be a snowball effect rolling down a giant hill picking up steam and growing in size and momentum.
4. Deeper Commitment and Buy-In
When people are a part of the decision-making process, they have a deeper sense of commitment and buy-in. They are more likely to sacrifice their preferences for the greater good since their voice is part of the decision-making process. They participated in the discussions and decisions along the way. They were privy to the information, the “why” from the very beginning, and heard varying pros and cons for each step in the decision-making process.