Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy. Most faith organizations have local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.
Does this approach still make sense?
I can think of one faith organization for which it definitely does, and that’s the Mormon church, more officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The reason geographic organization makes so much sense for that group is because they have a policy in place that members cannot attend a congregation other than the one to which they’re assigned geographically—or rather, they can, but there are serious limits on the ways in which they’re permitted to participate in the congregation if they do. Because members understand that worshiping where they are assigned to worship is expected of them, they almost all do. And because the church is organized so hierarchically, there are constant reorganizations of geographic boundaries, including closing of congregations and opening of new ones, in order to make sure that every local congregation is a sensible size. This works efficiently and serves everyone well because the institutional organization is a good match for the behavior of the members.
But most faith organizations don’t function this way, and organizing ourselves geographically when the behavior of members is no longer based in geography isn’t working. People attend the congregation to which they are drawn. If one faith community no longer feels like a good match, they’ll move to another one, sometimes even crossing denominational boundaries to do so. People attend one faith community over another for affinity reasons: I like the music there, I like the preaching there, I like the people there, I like the social opportunities for my children there.
Studies do show that, absent an Internet-based alternative, seekers are most likely to try out a new faith community within a twenty-minute travel radius of their home. So geography matters at least that much. But long-term members of a congregation behave differently. Even if they move a town or two away, they will often continue to attend their “home” faith community because they have an affinity to it. And when many of our communities started worshiping online, many of us discovered members returning from years ago—people who moved across the state or across the country but have always missed their “home” faith community.
What’s the purpose of our larger-than-local denominational organizations? I think this differs based on theology.
For some of us, it’s a top-down hierarchical structure. We receive our instructions from people in leadership of the larger groups, the theory being that people holding those positions have been ordained by God to do so.
For some of us, it’s covenant relationship. We connect to something larger than our local organizations so that we can have mutual reliance and help one another out.
For some of us, the larger organizations exist to support local groups, by providing expertise or guidance when the local groups are having difficulties.
For some of us, it’s a matter of needing someplace to “kick things upstairs.” If there’s a conflict or an issue that can’t be resolved locally, we send it to the next-highest rung of the institution.
For some of us, it’s a matter of collective resources, knowing that larger institutions can do things that local institutions can’t because they have more money, more staff, and more connections.
For some of us, it provides validity for the local faith community, a way to say, “Yes, we are part of such-and-such denomination, which does all this great work.”
And for most of us, it is some combination of the above—and possibly other aspects, as well.
Here’s the problem: while having smaller groups within larger groups might still be the best way to organize ourselves, delineating these groups geographically wasn’t serving a lot of us pre-pandemic, and it certainly isn’t now.
For one thing, younger adults are incredibly mobile. The average person in the United States today will move 11.7 times in the course of a lifetime. Half of those moves occur between 18 and 40, which means that the average young adult will move every three or four years. Under these conditions, structuring membership and belonging within our faith communities in such a way that it requires commitment to a local congregation no longer makes sense. In faith traditions that traditionally require local commitment, younger adults have been asking for—and in some cases, getting—changes, so that they can be members of a larger, more geographically disparate organization.
But now, we’ve hit the point where non-geographic membership is an issue not just for individuals but for whole congregations. Communities that moved their worship online, or partially online, now find themselves with frequent national or international participation. To which geographic regional organization does the distant online member belong? If, for example, the faith community’s building is located in Arizona, does the family attending their worship online from Portugal belong to the denominational organization in Arizona or to the denominational organization in Portugal? Where do their financial contributions go? Where does their service go? Who provides support for them when they need help?
What if the faith community with a building in Arizona hits a point at which more than half its regular attendance is online and comes from outside Arizona? In that case, is it still the denominational organization in Arizona that’s responsible for the whole of the group? Suppose that, instead of being spread out, the online contingency was actually a network of several hundred people all located in Portugal? Does the denomination continue to serve them from Arizona, or does the denomination try to form a new congregation in Portugal? Will the Portuguese worshipers even want their own local communities, or do they feel as though they are intimately connected with the group in Arizona?
These are not just hypotheticals. I’ve met a Lutheran bishop facing a situation very much like this.
Let’s look at it another way. I work with a Quaker institution that’s geographically organized to serve Quakers in New York, part of New Jersey, and part of Connecticut. When we organized online Quaker parent support groups, we opened participation to Quakers everywhere. We did this partly out of kindness but partly out of self-interest. We simply don’t have enough parents that they would have enough schedule cross-over to form large, functional groups of parents with children who are similarly aged. Even though the funding for the program came entirely from the New York-based institution, we had more than twice as many parents participating from outside our geographic area, and that was the only way to serve our “own” people effectively.
Most online denominational programming is drawing people from outside the designated geographic area. We have moved to the eighth continent.
And I haven’t mentioned yet the new faith communities that have formed during the pandemic that are entirely online, with literally no geographic boundaries. Where do they fit into denominational systems? Or will we leave them adrift, without a larger organization to provide resources, support, and mutual accountability? Some such groups may want to be independent, and that’s probably fine, but others feel very much a part of some particular denomination. Are they? Have we found a way to make that true? Will these online groups have a voice in denominational decision-making?
I can think of three ways in which denominational organizations might be able to respond to these changes.
First, geographic organizations could decide—now, before test cases appear, if they haven’t already—how they will respond to membership requests (or de facto membership) coming in from the eighth continent. If a local congregation used to have sixty regular participants, and that same local congregation now has seven hundred regular participants online, how will the denominational organization respond to that? How does God ask us to be in relationship with distant members? Who do we serve? Who has the authority to participate in decision-making? What is our financial relationship with members outside our geographic boundaries? How do we support clergy people who are trying to be in relationship with members outside of their geographic boundaries? How can we be assured that distant members are cared for in terms of physical needs, spiritual formation, and more? Are there cultural implications or power inequities of which we need to be aware? What will the organization do if a new “local congregation,” entirely online, inquires about affiliation with the organization? If accepting an online group feels right, what about a distant group that is not online but that feels called to be part of your organization? How will you approach that relationship?
Second, denominations could form online “regional” organizations for the express purpose of giving online members and online congregations groups with which to affiliate. We might actually need denominational organizations for the purpose of serving the eighth continent. If this is what’s needed, and if it’s not clear how to do it, why not look to our historical processes? It might have been a while since we last opened a new geographic region, but we all have that procedure somewhere in our history.
Third, and most radically, denominations could consider phasing out geographic organization all together. If we did not organize our regional groups geographically, how else could we do it? What would it look like to have an affiliation of local congregations that are deliberate multiage faith communities? Or an affiliation of local congregations with a primary concern for racial justice, or for earthcare? Congregations that run schools? Congregations with ministries to the homeless? A worldwide “region” for congregations that worship in French?
Would affinity-based organizations be able to do things like hire staff more effectively? If the entire region agreed on a single focus, then we might not have to hire people for every position. We might even have more clarity about who we are and what we’re called to be doing, which is definitely a center of conflict for a lot of religious organizations.
Some of these ideas might be ridiculous. Some might have their own downsides. But it’s time to start experimenting. I’m not sure any new things we try could be more ridiculous than organizations operating strictly geographically when humans simply aren’t living our lives that way.