WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT UNION CHURCH IS A CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH?
There are two main ways that individual churches organize. Within each of these broad categories, there are varieties of methods of organization, but here is the basic outline:
- Conference–Many denominations have a central organization which is more or less led from the top. A denomination will be organized into divisions, often geographical, called “conferences” or “synods.” Leadership is elected within each division, which often exists at various levels: local, state or province, then larger regional unions, up to whole countries and sometimes global levels. There is likely a general set of beliefs or a creed to which all churches within the denomination must subscribe, and many decisions are made centrally. Tithes and offerings may be sent to a headquarters which will divide them among the churches, and any major changes must be made by delegates meeting together in large gatherings once every few years.
- Congregational–A congregational church may or may not have a denomination to which it answers, but in general, all decisions are made on the local level alone. Pastors and staff are called and hired by the congregation, which must raise money for salaries on its own. Decisions of mission, vision, and sometimes doctrine are determined by the individual congregation.
Our founder, Rev. John G. Fee, was strongly opposed to what he called “sectarianism,” saying that “the division of Christians into sects and denominations is contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Gospel, a hindrance to reforms, and to the greatest progress of Christ’s kingdom” [Fee’s Autobiography, held at Berea College, p. 189.]
For this reason, and because we still choose it, Union Church Berea is a congregational church in the most limited sense; that is to say, it does not belong to any denomination or conference. Its pastors may do so; our current pastor, Rev. Kent Gilbert, is a member of the United Church of Christ, for example. All staff and members are encouraged to be faithful to whatever faith tradition they choose, which means that we have members in good standing of many different denominations, some large mainstream ones and some smaller and less well-known ones, as well as members who do not belong to any denomination.
This means that we make our own decisions, and are also responsible for our own direction, fund-raising, and staffing. Every several years, we go through a long and detailed visioning process to discern prayerfully together where God is calling, what parts of our journey together are working well, what parts might need to be changed or adapted, and what new goals and visions might be on the horizon. Then, we meet yearly [link to Congregational Meeting reports] to pay close attention to how well we are adhering to that group-determined vision.