During my time as a lay-vocation seminary student at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, I became familiar with the work of the Alban Institute, and especially Arlin Routhage’s Sizing Up Your Congregation. Routhage’s book contains a schematic for understanding local churches based primarily on the size of the congregation. It was never entirely clear to me how this was measured, or what other variables were taken into account(budget, number of services per week/month/year, percent of local population that attended, how many ‘competing’ congregations were in a given geographic area). As a one-time arts administrator, what was clear to me was that the classification by size was eerily similar to the way the League of American Orchestras had been using for several decades, but has since significantly reworked.[i] As the premier umbrella organization in North America for cultural institutions, the League has served as a model for the nonprofit and charitable sector for almost three-quarters of a century.
There is no question that churches are cultural, nonprofit, and charitable institutions, and have much to learn from other organizations, and it would be hard to find a longer-lived or more successful umbrella agency from whom to borrow a model. But, if borrowing from the League is what has in fact been done, the Alban Institute could have done a more nuanced job by creating a more sophisticated classification system, based on multiple variables, than the ‘Sizing Up Your Congregation’ scheme. And, for me, the biggest difficulty is that congregations do not behave the way orchestras do.
On the surface, it looks like there may be a lot of similarities. Both orchestras and Christian congregations gather in spaces that have a reputation for formality, with a lot more people sitting in silent and stationary observation of those who are doing the really interesting stuff. Even the active participants in both are usually in fairly fixed positions, and working under the direction of one central person. But that is where the similarity ends.
In a church congregation, even the most active participants are usually less educated in the language and practice of faith than the ordained leader. As a result, people look to ‘the Rev’ as a teacher, authority figure, personal mentor (and to some extent, to provide assessments) as they progress in Christian proficiency. Members are frequently encouraged to take on new, unfamiliar, roles within the congregation—reading lessons, working with young people, polishing silver and pressing linens, leading intercessions. Often, they practice their faith only once or twice a week at most, and only in that particular location—and if a church has more than one service, each service often creates its own ‘congregation’ whose membership may have little contact with people who attend at a different time on Sunday or day of the week.[ii] Each expects a certain level of personal support and attention from the ordained leadership. The congregation actively seeks to bring in people with no experience or knowledge of their faith tradition, and (usually) there is, in principle, no limit to the number of people who can be included. Some congregational leaders (lay and ordained) exercise a degree of influence over the lives of their members that would be found unacceptable from anyone outside the members’ immediate family or closest friends. Ordained leadership is limited—often one individual is responsible for coordinating, and sometimes carrying out, all preaching, teaching, presiding, managing for the congregation. In a very large congregation, there may be one or two assisting ministers; in a solo pastorate, the only time the congregation will experience a different face or voice will be during the minister’s annual leave or in the event of an illness so severe as to make his or her presence in church impossible. The departure of a Christian minister is a disorienting experience for the congregation, calling into question the future direction of the local church, often occasioning a contraction of activities, sometimes bringing about celebration or mourning (and as frequently as not, both). Finally, members of congregations are often attached to their built environment and equipment, relying on pulpits, communion tables or altars, liturgical fixtures, and the like. Even the church I attended that had ‘sandy mass’ (summer Sundays, 8 a.m. on the shore of Lake Michigan) needed quite a bit of equipment to do eucharist on the beach.
Now, contrast this to the functioning of a symphony orchestra, and here I speak as a former aspiring musician. An orchestra has a limited number of places available, each of them highly specialized, and they are only available to people who have developed a set of skills specific to a particular role in the group. Mobility between roles is very limited: a musician may move from first to second violin, and occasionally a member of the orchestra may be a featured soloist, or (in smaller, semi-professional organizations) serve as a rehearsal conductor or music librarian. Musicians spend hours each week in musical activities separate from the full orchestra, such as studio teaching, chamber music, theatre orchestras, thus diversifying their musical experience (and in the case of professionals, developing additional income streams). As a result, orchestra musicians will develop proficiencies in a wide variety of musical styles. Additionally, they may take lessons from other musicians, and certainly they spend a great deal of time in individual practice, as they will not be ‘taught’ in a rehearsal. Orchestra musicians do not expect a high degree of personal attention from the music director or principal conductor, as they are usually more proficient and knowledgeable than that individual in terms of their own instrument. In a large professional orchestra, musicians will work with a range of guest conductors as well as their music director and/or principal conductor. Finally, although the most common image of a symphony concert is in a formal, purpose-built venue, an orchestra can set up and play wherever there is space for chairs and music stands (and most musicians carry their own folding stands in their practice bags). They may not even need that .
What kind of cultural institution, then, functions more like a Christian congregation? Years ago, I worked for a presenting theatre society. Our staff shared administrative space with the local ballet company, whose rehearsal studios were in the same repurposed school building. This company was still under the leadership of its founding artistic director, who was in the process of dying from AIDS (this was 1989, when HIV/AIDS was far more a death sentence than it is now). From my observation of this company, I am convinced that the description I gave of the congregation could be applied with alarming accuracy to a dance company. The dancers—often younger than orchestra musicians, often without a high level of education (dancers frequently leave school before finishing to pursue these time-limited careers), were much more dependent on the artistic director than orchestra musicans are with their conductor. Progress with a career in dance will depend heavily on getting the attention and approval of the director. Individual dancers might take different roles (a prima ballerina in one production, a member of the corps in another), but they were tied very much to a particular genre, in this case, classical ballet as opposed to the very different techniques of jazz or modern dance. Working together is the primary way of practicing the art form, from daily class to dress rehearsal—and all of it requires heavy, fixed equipment (barres, mirrors), lighting, and flooring, as the dance environment has to be artistically appropriate as well as physically safe. The time required in group work, as well as the need for appropriate equipment, makes it difficult for dancers to work outside their primary company. As well, the future direction of the ballet troupe was at best ambiguous, tied as it was to the personal vision and leadership of their dying director. There are many more parallels between dance companies and Christian congregations that could be drawn; my list is not exhaustive.
The question, for me at least, is should a Christian congregation be so much like a dance company, or should it be more like an orchestra? The answer, for me at least, is that healthy, vibrant churches to balance the best of both. The maturity, institutional mobility, and individual accountability of the orchestra musician can provide a balance to the youthful eagerness, increasing expertise and institutional commitment of the dancer. The personal attention of the ballet company’s artistic director can complement the variety of styles that comes from a rotation of symphony conductors. By learning from the best that each kind of institution has to offer (and by identifying the difficulties of each), a stronger, more creative, vibrant church can emerge.
[i] The former categorizations for orchestras ranged (from smallest to largest) included Community, Metropolitan, Regional, National, World. Orchestras were classified by a weighted calculation of the geographic range from which they drew the majority of their subscription audience, audience size, budget, number of programs and performances per year. At the time of writing this piece, I have requested the League to provide me with a copy of the ‘old’ classifications, and what, if anything, has replaced it.
[ii] This is beginning to change, especially in the American context, where people may attend multiple churches—and even across entire religious traditions—as part of their spiritual quest.