Horizontal Church: Accountability


The word corporate has at least two meanings with two different connotations.

-Perhaps corporations first come to mind, and along with them, broader corporate culture. We might imagine board rooms, shareholders, and CEOs. Perhaps we imagine the organizational flow charts that describe how individuals and groups answer to individuals and groups. Profit margins, stock prices, cutthroat competition. . .

-But the word corporate also means ‘of the body.’ In the context of Church, this calls our minds to the language and imagery of the Body of Christ — the whole, collective body — every person, every part, every spiritual gift.

If we’re honest. . . I think our Church organizational models often look a lot like the first example. We already have a shared Church history that includes traditional, hierarchical roles and vertical organizing. In the American context, we then additionally infuse those roles and structures with the culture and power of the corporate business world.

With this in mind, I want to challenge a particular assumption today. Consciously or perhaps unconsciously, many of us believe this:

The more vertical a church is (i.e. the more top down and hierarchical) the more accountability there will be. We assume, when there is a clear and firm understanding that certain people will always answer to certain people, we will have greater accountability within an organization.

But. . . I actually believe the direct opposite.

The more vertical and hierarchical we become, the less accountability we tend to have. Because people and groups at the top have a great deal of power. That power is easily abused.

First of all, when any of us has a tremendous amount of concentrated power, it’s not good for us or an organization. In fact, studies are showing that concentrated power can actually lead to brain damage, greatly decreasing the ability to feel and demonstrate empathy. This is not only crucial for exhibiting kindness and compassion; it also makes it challenging to read people within the organizational structure.

But beyond this, in addition to concentrated power being abused in highly vertical models, it is also easily covered up. The same individuals and groups that benefit from vertical organizing models and concentrated power often use vertical organizing models and power to silence dissent. And people toward the top tend to protect one another. One only needs to recall the horrific sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church. Or perhaps, scratch the surface in mainline churches, and discover just how many incidents of sexual harassment and employment abuse are routinely covered up.

Hearing this may sound depressing. (You may also disagree with me and want to challenge me here. Please add your voices. Let’s have a horizontal conversation!) But deep down, hear this good news: I believe there are other ways to organize church communities.

I certainly don’t claim to know all the answers. I am more in a learning place than a teaching place, but I do think that horizontal organizing structures can actually lead to greater accountability. They can certainly lead to greater transparency. I’ve seen this work in activist organizing collectives. Why not also in Church?

Here, I find myself especially wanting to take my learning cues from the Quakers. (See also, My Awakening). I am aware that there are different accountability risks with horizontal models, including,

pressures to conform to the collective,
group shaming,
sudden shifts in group vision, especially when dictated by dominant individuals.

I’m wondering how the shared practices and procedures of the Quakers (and other horizontal collectives) can help avoid these pitfalls, increase accountability and transparency, and ultimately lead to a life-giving, collective body.

Pondering. . .

Renee Roederer

This post is a part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces as well:

This Week: Horizontal Church
Horizontal Church: Who Speaks, Prays, and Preaches? — Why?
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 1)
Horizontal Church: Participatory and Empowering (Part 2)
Horizontal Church: The Priesthood of All Believers and Collective Organizing
Horizontal Church: Christian Education


6 thoughts on “Horizontal Church: Accountability

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