I grew up on an independent Baptist church. I remember being told we weren’t part of a denomination because denominations were all liberal. Evil, maybe. Certainly not biblical. Maybe they didn’t actually teach it, but that’s how I processed it.
In Bible college I met strong Christians worshiping in vibrant churches that were part of denominations (or associations, as many prefer to be called now). But I didn’t imagine myself in one.
And then my husband took an associate pastor position with an Evangelical Congregational (E.C.) church. I had to deal.
Now, after 30 years in ministry, I embrace being part of a denomination—as a pastor’s wife and as a church member. When I hear that a church member doesn’t see the point in being a part of a denomination, it saddens me.
Here’s what I want them to know about why I find it so valuable:
Support for the pastor and his family
Being a pastor isn’t easy (nor is it easy being a pastor’s wife or kids). Having a district field director or bishop who can serve as a sounding board helps. Getting together with other pastors to share ideas and learn from each other makes my husband and other pastors better.
When a pastor is discouraged, barely hanging on, the encouragement coming through solid, supportive relationships with other pastors can make the difference between keeping on and walking away. And when ministry is going well, there are others to rejoice with, because they know the battles.
But I also value being a part of a denomination because sometimes things go horribly wrong. Maybe it’s a sticky church issue or power play. Having a “higher authority” that can step in when a discord threatens the pastor’s mental or emotional health or his position, or the church’s health, matters.
As a pastor’s wife, it calms me to know there is denominational leadership who would assist me if something happened to Les. When a pastor dies they are there, assisting a wife who worries not only about how to provide for her family but also about where they will live if they are in church-provided housing. And we’ve seen this sensitive support even in distressful situations where a pastor’s sin has caused an end to ministry (and sometimes the marriage). The wife and children are not left stranded.
Each January we host a Pastoral Assessment Center (PAC) where those interested in pastoral ministry and, if married, their wives come for four intense days of evaluation. It’s an exhausting process, served by a team of male and female assessors, that involves evaluative tools, interviews, observational exercises, and conversation. It can be scary for the assessees, but what many have told us afterwards is that they feel loved. They feel heard and known. They recognize that we (yes, I serve as an assessor) care about them. We want them to flourish in ministry and in their family. I love that. As a bonus, lasting relationships with denominational leadership are formed.
Support for the church
In those awful situations involving a pastor, the denomination is also on hand to help a congregation through the shock and grief. Leaders who care provide comfort and support in the midst of the storm. They most often provide interim pastors to help them heal, and eventually give direction on the hiring of a new pastor who can help them move forward.
When a church has a big need, as one recently did for a new heating system, a letter to sister churches can bring donations to meet the expense. A need a church could not handle alone is supplied by the larger body of Christ. Pastoral compensation is a tricky and ever-evolving legality; having a denominational specialist who can provide competent advice provides volunteer church treasurers peace of mind. And let’s not forget group health insurance.
The PAC process doesn’t only benefit future pastors and their wives. Churches know that the pastors coming their way have been thoroughly vetted. They know the pastor is aware of his own gifts and graces and his weak spots. The committee that helps recommend pastors to them is aware of these as well and therefore has a better handle on recommending matches where both the pastor (and his family) and the church can thrive. We want pastors and churches to “fit and flourish.”
A bigger world view
It’s easy to see church only from your insular church perspective (see my first paragraph as an illustration). Being part of a denomination where you regularly interact with other churches and pastors can break that. As one of our pastors expressed it to me, “Being part of a denomination helps me realize others think differently about things, and that’s okay, that’s good.” It ends the myopia.
You gain ideas from each other on creative ways to minister. But you also are reminded that each church setting and neighborhood is unique and each pastor and member has different gifts, so no two churches will look or minister in exactly the same way. And they shouldn’t try to.
Denominational camps give the children and adults in our church the opportunity to meet other believers who share a common bond.They study God’s Word together. They have fun together. Campers come back year after year. Friendships develop. Occasionally, thanks to the larger pool of “candidates,” marriages result! One-time campers become future counselors and leaders, developing their discipleship skills.
A connection to the global body of Christ
Our denomination is a small one—at least in the U.S. We have Evangelical Congregational conferences, though, around the world, some with far more members than we have. Our Global Ministries Community has done a great job of connecting our conferences in Nepal, India, Liberia, Mexico, Japan and the U.S. together, sending delegates to each other’s national conferences. We are getting to know one another, connecting on Facebook, and seeing God work around the world through his one body, the cap “C” Church.
We also have missionaries ministering across the globe, but not through our own mission agency. Instead, E. C. missionaries go out under other mission agencies, like One Mission Society (OMS), European Christian Mission (ECMI), Wycliffe Bible Translators, Africa Inland Mission (AIM), and Teach Beyond. Our small church couldn’t support them all even at a fraction of their support, but as we pool our resources, we can be involved around the globe. This expands our connection to the unified Body of Christ even more as we see many working together to share the gospel to all people.
A family to belong to
Our yearly national conference took place two weeks ago. The first 20 years of Les’s ministry I didn’t attend. Now I won’t miss it. It’s like a giant family reunion. There’s catching up with those we haven’t seen in a year. There are hugs. inside jokes, laughter and, maybe, tears. There are stories to tell and meals to share. There is worship—powerful worship—to experience together. We take time to learn with and from each other.
A Facebook group for the pastors and one for wives exist, a place we can share prayer requests, ask questions and even debate theology and polity. Hopefully these continue to build the connections throughout the year, making the reunion each May even more special.
I’ve been excited to see the number of younger wives joining their husbands at national conference increasing. Because of the connections with denominational leaders and others they’ve made at PAC, they are eager to reconnect. They are recognizing the importance of being a part of what is taking place, of hanging out with family. For some it’s difficult to pull off. More of us work and have to take time off if we wish to attend. Many create an elaborate childcare support team that allows them to get away for all or part of conference. I hope we continue to cherish the connections and get creative in ways to help more wives attend.
Attending conference helps me get to know our leaders better on a professional and personal level. I see their passion for ministry in the presentations they give. But I get to know their hearts for Christ and his people in the one-on-one and group conversations. It allows me to trust them more, to believe they really are there for our family and our church no matter what happens.
Being part of a denomination has been a surprise gift to me. I hope it’s one I can help nurture so pastors, their wives, and congregations find the value for themselves.