Response 1: Miles Harbur
You’re making a great observation! It’s one I can speak to from personal experience…
Several years ago our branch church gradually decided to move out of our building and rent it out. It had become too big and too expensive for our group. We felt we were serving the building, instead of it serving our needs. The members wanted to improve the venue and the feel of our services, meetings, and community engagement.
Moving out of the building was a very important step in putting these desires into practice, but not the only step. We wanted greater informality, greater democracy, fewer committees, increased authenticity, and easier access to our services and meetings for members and for anyone else who was interested. We began to see that the way we were "doing" church had to evolve along with our change in location. We began to experiment with new Church Manual consistent forms of organization, services, meetings, and other ways of acting as a church that would have been impossible under our old bylaws.
For example, we shifted the new member admission process away from a focus upon judging an applicant against a checklist of personal behaviors (smoking, drinking, using medical care, etc.), toward an honest assessment of whether the person loves and believes in Christian Science and is trying to live the ideas in Science and Health.
We tried to consciously focus on church activities that members felt were really important and worth their time and attention. For our group, it meant including everyone in all decision-making via email. It meant eliminating committees or activities that no one really cared about, and encouraging individuals to try out new ideas that they felt divinely guided about—activities such as participation in health and healing expos, conference call services, and more engaging Wednesday meetings.
The process of syncing our bylaws with how we are evolving and learning as a church—with more vigor, inclusiveness, inspiration and connectedness—is a continuing one. In the meantime, our financial picture has grown into greater freedom to do things that are important to our members and for our community. Our membership has also grown.
It's really freeing to ask ourselves, “What kind of church do we want to be part of?” And as we live, pray, experiment, and learn in honestly addressing this question, we'll naturally reassess our current bylaws. Are they serving us—making the best use of our church resources to fulfill its mission? Or have we become servants of our bylaws—have they become burdensome, causing too much busywork, out of date?
At a recent Church Alive conference, I heard a talk given by a member of a church group that reduced their bylaws to a single page as their group's sense of spiritual purpose evolved and clarified.
Church members deciding to make buildings, spaces, and bylaws into servants, rather than masters of their church experience allows the spiritual mission and energy of the Church of Christ, Scientist—proving the utility of Christian Science in ways that speak to hungering hearts—to determine the specific forms it takes in our branch and its community.
Response 2: Susan Mack
I can speak from experience on this question. I have been a member of four branch churches with lengthy bylaws, and while I never questioned the need for so many rules, I do remember wondering if our members were really familiar with them—I know I wasn't. So, when I was part of a start-up Christian Science Society about a decade ago, I wondered what it would be like if bylaws could be one page long. Could it be done and really cover the necessary structure to govern a branch church? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have bylaws that were so simple that every member could easily master and refer to them? The basis for these bylaws was a living, palpitating spirit of hearts aflame with love for church, with just enough guidance for the day to day activities of church so that we could proceed with "wisdom, economy and brotherly love" (Manual, p. 77).
Three of us constructed this document, and 11 years later, it still stands as sufficient to guide our vibrant and growing Society. I love this quote from Irving Tomlinson's book Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy: "With Mrs. Eddy, I well know simplicity of rule and action was the important thing. She saw the value of simplicity in branch churches and warned about over-organization. At supper one evening she commented, 'I do not believe in much organization in church. The churches are over-organized. Were I to have charge of a church today, I should have it founded on the Bible. I should talk to them from the Bible. I should direct their thought to the Bible, and I should expect them to be obedient to the Bible” (p. 156).
I'm not sure it's so much a question of the times but a demand of timelessness, which always thrives in simplicity. We can all relate to how the passage of time tends toward accretion in organizations. Mrs. Eddy wrote, "Christian Science presents unfoldment, not accretion" (Science and Health, p. 68). Clearly, accretion is not helpful in Christian Science. Frankly, I think many branch churches have tended to just use boiler-plate bylaws from other branch churches to construct their own, but I don't think it was ever Mrs. Eddy's intent that the branch churches model their bylaws after other churches.
From my study of The Manual, I have concluded that Mrs. Eddy’s hope was that each branch church would be keenly alert to the needs of its particular community, and that its bylaws would be designed to meet the needs of the members and the ways in which those members most naturally can communicate and support the democratic processes of their branch church. For example, in our Society, the Internet has allowed for much more efficiency and flexibility in getting a quorum, taking votes, and forwarding useful activities. It has been wonderful to have only twice yearly in-person meetings, and much more business done by email consensus. But that may not be what another branch church finds helpful at all.
The important thing is not "what" we do, but "how" we do it. The measuring stick of the "simplicity that is in Christ," (II. Cor. 11:3) and the prayer of "Shepherd show how to go," (Hymn No. 304) are unerring rules for church organization, and will guide us all to find joyous models for governance that let our churches breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit.