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Church Cooperation In Community Life by Paul L. Vogt


Rural progress under church leadership has been much like the first drops of water on a placid lake at the beginning of a rain. Little rises of water appear and some waves circle out, but the ultimate level is not much raised. So with the church. Here and there a minister stirs up some local community, some definite progress is made, attention is attracted from other communities and they may have a few symptoms of a rise, but too often the minister moves, another comes, and the general level of community life falls back to what it was before.

The difficulty is that with the overlapping of interdenominational jurisdictions it is impossible for any group to lead in progress outside of the local community. Methodists cannot lead in a county program because Baptists and Presbyterians will not follow them. Neither can the other groups lead because Methodists are not gifted in following the leadership of other denominations. It is perfectly natural and justifiable that this should be so. Before the churches of America, Protestant or Catholic, can render the entire service demanded of them there must be a thoroughgoing system of interdenominational cooperation worked out which will insure joint responsibility of all denominations concerned in providing for community leadership on a large scale. If this is impossible, then the inevitable alternative must be accepted of passing by the churches of America in carrying out comprehensive plans of progress and of turning to other agencies for this service.

During the past, largely owing to the apparently hopeless situation so far as interdenominational cooperation is concerned, Christian organizations, such as Christian Associations and Sunday School Associations, have sprung up to do for the denominations and for the ministers what they could not do under present conditions. These agencies have done notable work. They have accomplished much in preparing the way for a nation-wide recognition of what the broad function of the church is; they have brought representatives of all denominations together and have gradually increased the social spirit while at the same time lessening the emphasis upon those things which have divided the Christian Church into so many isolated camps. They have pioneered and experimented. They have had failures as well as successes, but their failures have been a real contribution to the sum total of human experience and have taught us many things that should be avoided. The service rendered by these agencies must ever be remembered as of the most vital and important character.

But it will be admitted by representatives of all organizations that a large part of what is now found in the programs of those other religious organizations, |arms| of the church, is a legitimate part of the work that should be supervised by the minister of a community program and included in his program, and that in those communities where such trained pastoral leadership exists the functions of these other agencies can be materially modified and their activities directed into still further new and untried fields of endeavor. The church needs organizations supported from funds not coming through the regular channels founded on the budgets of individual churches. These subsidiary organizations can go ahead with experimentation, and their failures do not bring the discredit to the parent organization that they would if done by the church directly. On the other hand, their successes can be adopted into the regular program of the church and thus conserved. Complete control of experimentation or demonstration work is likely to destroy or prevent initiative, which is the soul of progress.

In adjusting problems between denominations in local communities a number of plans have been tried with greater or less success. One of the oldest is that of the |union| church. This is a type of organization in which the people of the local community, tiring of the uneconomic system of interdenominational competition, and without hope of uniting on any one of the local organizations represented, decide to separate from all and form themselves into an independent local organization.

No large denomination to-day is favorable to the so-called |union| church; and all are opposed to the plan sometimes followed by rural industrial concerns of erecting a church building open to anyone who pretends to speak with authority about religious matters. The |union| church usually begins with enthusiasm, but because of lack of outside contacts, because of lack of continuity of program, because of lack of a broad missionary spirit, it is generally shortlived and gives way to some church with denominational affiliations. The |union| church without denominational affiliations should not be confused with the |community| church with denominational connection. It is the latter type that most religious organizations are now agreed is most desirable as the solution of the inexcusable overchurching now existing in many communities.

In these days of get-together movements denominational leaders should think clearly with reference to |federated| churches. A few of these have had a fairly long life. But their growth in the past fifteen years has not been such as to inspire confidence that they offer a satisfactory solution to the overchurched situation. The |federated| church idea is not in harmony with a connectional polity nor with the principle of world democracy with centralization of administrative responsibility for carrying out democratically adopted plans implied in that polity. Local federation involves giving of full power of selection of pastors and of determination of policies to the local congregation. Whatever may be said about the occasional failures of the connectional system in finding suitable pastors, or in other ways, it is nevertheless true that this system has a vitality and efficiency that are now being recognized by many of the leading religious organizations. The polity of the |federated| church is congregational; and extreme congregationalism and connectionalism do not mix readily so far as polity is concerned. The growth of the one form involves the decline of the other. This is why the Methodist Episcopal Church, for example, has developed so little sympathy for the |federated| church idea.

Far different from this is allocation of responsibility for community leadership. This insures leadership to one denomination or the other. Then the local congregations can work out their problems of adjustment as local conditions indicate is best. Usually some form of affiliation in worship and in sharing local expenses with continued separation of support of missionary and other benevolent enterprises has proven the most satisfactory method of local adjustment. By this method connectional interests are preserved and fixing of responsibility in each community assured.

With the vastly increased missionary resources made available by the missionary |drives| of the leading denominations there is positive danger of the problem of interdenominational adjustment being made still more serious. If the Home Mission Boards, through unwise use of mission funds for the purpose of assisting in competitive struggles, should precipitate retaliation by other denominations, a misuse of missionary funds would result that would not only dry up the sources of missionary support but bring Protestantism into lasting disgrace.

In working out a program of interdenominational adjustment the following plan has been tried with success on at least three Methodist Episcopal Annual Conference districts:

1. A survey of the district and the preparation of a map showing the location of all churches, residences of all pastors, circuit systems, and whether churches are located in villages or the open country.

2. Separate lists are then made of cases of apparent competitive relations with each denomination.

3. Conferences are then called with the representatives of each denomination to consider the problems of competition between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the particular denomination with which the conference is called.

4. After tentative plans have been adopted representatives of both denominations visit the local field together, confer with the churches concerned, and arrive at some agreement as to adjustments to be made.

5. This method is followed with each denomination, separately, with which Methodism has competitive relations.

This plan has been tried with success in the State of Vermont, where Methodists, Baptists, and Congregationalists had to cooperate or abandon the field; in the Portsmouth district, Ohio Conference, where the principal problems were with the Presbyterians, United Brethren, and Baptists; in Montana, where a conference was held to consider adjustments affecting an entire State; and in the Wooster District, North-East Ohio Conference, where adjustment of relationships is proceeding satisfactorily.

The results of this program already noticeable are:

1. The increase in salary of rural ministers made possible by uniting the financial resources of all religious forces in the community.

2. Saving of missionary money by eliminating duplication of missionary grants by competing denominations.

3. A marked increase in membership and church attendance.

4. A more vital relationship of the church to community welfare through unified action of all religious forces under the trained leadership of one pastor.

5. Resident pastorates to more communities through better distribution of pastoral residences of the denominations concerned in adjustments made.

6. A more vital appeal to life service in rural work can now be made to young people who have objected to service in rural charges where efforts at community service have been handicapped and even nullified by the presence of competing religious organizations and pastors.

It is believed that the results obtained far outweigh the possible losses that may come through Methodists intrusting leadership in service to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, or the reverse. The good work made possible by fixing responsibility for leadership to a given denomination in one community is destined by the force of example and imitation to compel similar progress in communities to which leadership responsibility has been assigned to other denominations.

A word of caution to ministers in charge of local fields is desirable in regard to settlement of interdenominational difficulties. The interests involved are so much larger than the local church that the initiative must be taken by the district superintendent, always in the fullest consultation with the resident bishop, or the proper State, synodical, or other representative of the other denominations concerned. In a number of cases local initiative in this matter has resulted not only in defeating the end sought but has created embarrassing situations between the supervisory representatives of the denominations. If a local situation needs adjustment, the matter should be gone over fully with those responsible for church administration, and it is believed that in most cases such adjustment can be made satisfactorily. The experience of those in the Methodist Episcopal Church who have tried to bring about adjustments by the method suggested has been that in most cases other groups are ready to come to an agreement.

If other groups refuse to make adjustments, then the denomination making the advances has no other alternative than that of caring for its own obligations as adequately as possible and with every resource that can be made available. But no blame can attach to this policy after effort has been made to cooperate with other groups and these efforts have failed.

After communities have been allocated for leadership to one or another of the denominations, then the problem of a united program by all denominations remains to be solved. Unless this end is attained, then rural churches must continue to work largely alone, each in its own community without relation to the program of neighboring churches or communities. Unless there is coordination between the churches, then we shall continue to witness the spectacle of the three interdenominational branches of the church, the Sunday School Association, and the Christian Associations, each moving in its own self-chosen direction, each raising an independent budget, and each establishing county organizations without reference to the interests of the other; and none of the three doing anything to encourage the organization of county groups of the churches as such. The time has arrived when the church as such should take the lead in bringing about interdenominational cooperation for community service under its own auspices and in the most inclusive way.

For many reasons the county offers the best basis for this type of organization. It is the most permanent political unit, next to the State or the incorporated town or city. Social progress finds the closest opportunity for cooperation with economic and political agencies in the county. The following proposal for a County Christian Association, supported out of the budgets of local cooperating churches, has been worked out:


1a. Proposal for County Christian Association or Church Federation.

1b. Board of Directors.

1c. County Council chosen by each cooperating denomination on basis of membership.

2c. Election or appointment of denominational representatives to be left to each denomination.

3c. Selection of county secretary.

2b. Duties of county secretary.

1c. Survey -- Follow up what interchurch county office has done.

1d. Location of all churches.

2d. Residence of pastors.

3d. Community boundaries.

2c. Organize county religious movements as:

1d. Evangelistic drive.

2d. Membership rally.

3d. Go-to-church campaigns.

4d. Religious worship in the home.

5d. Common programs with reference to moral and spiritual problems.

6d. Other religious movements.

3c. Interchurch adjustments.

1d. Act as secretary of Committee on Adjustments -- provide office for interchurch activities.

2d. Depository for interchurch religious information.

3d. Follow-up plans made as result of interchurch survey, including:

1e. Encouragement of building parsonage and getting resident pastor in every community.

2e. Getting a community church building in every community adequate to its needs.

3e. Getting a community building under joint religious auspices where need exists for several houses of worship.

4e. Clearing house for membership conservation.

5e. Determination of parish boundaries.

6e. Establishment of new work in communities where there is none.

4c. Social and recreational.

1d. County field days.

2d. Cooperation in organizing boys' and girls' clubs in Sunday school or otherwise.

4d. Direct social and recreational activities.

5d. Assisting in selection and training leaders for church and community service.

5c. Religious education.

1d. Recruiting membership campaigns.

2d. Perform all functions now expected of volunteer county Sunday school secretary.

3d. Assist in analysis of Sunday school methods and organization in local churches in organizing for larger service.

4d. Week-day religious instruction plans.

6c. Social service activities to be encouraged:

1d. County free library.

2d. County hospital and nursing program.

3d. Adequate provision for dependents, defectives, delinquents.

4d. Securing desired State public service.

5d. Health and sanitation campaign.

6d. County Farm bureaus.

7c. Cooperation with other agencies. In general, give moral support to agencies doing effective work in the fields mentioned in (6c).

8c. Act as bureau of advice with reference to appeals for charitable purposes.

9c. Religious publicity.

3b. Budget.

1c. Estimated Salary of Secretary [USD]3,000
Travel 400
Office rent 300
Equipment 200
Stenographer 750
Publicity 400
-- -- --

2c. How to raise.

1d. Estimate amount that should come from each cooperating church. Ask each church to assume its share on a three-year guarantee.

2d. Make list of special givers who may become a private source.

3d. Communicate with respective missionary boards for aid in carrying balance of budget until such time as it can be brought to self-support.


[Footnote 1: Prepared in Collaboration with C. J. Hewett, Garrett Biblical Institute, Evanston, Ill.]

This form of organization has many advantages, among which are:

1. It coordinates all the religious forces of Protestantism, for a common community service.

2. It insures ultimate permanent support by being financed out of the budgets of the cooperating churches instead of by a limited number of private givers of large funds.

3. The county organization develops its work through the churches, strengthening the program of the minister instead of developing independent organizations locally with volunteer leadership related to an |arm| of the church instead of directly to the church.

4. By organizing to do their own work in this way the churches obviate the necessity of private Christian agencies organizing with outside support to carry on interdenominational work.

If the churches of America do not rapidly work out plans of interdenominational cooperation in the development of their work, other agencies will enter the field and will receive popular financial support for doing those things in rural progress that are the legitimate task of the church and for which the church should receive support. Church people will supply the large part of the funds for carrying on these activities through nonreligious agencies; and because of the narrowness of program the church will have chosen for itself many of the brightest and best minds, and consecrated hearts now found in our student groups in educational institutions will find their life's activities outside the church instead of within its ranks where they would prefer to be. This will be the misfortune of the church and she cannot clear herself of the wrong of depriving her young people of the opportunity of rendering a service to humanity within her own ranks and of forcing them to render that service through independent social agencies.

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