Connectionalism and Relational Boundaries

October 14, 2011

This week’s musings have attempted to sort out the nature of the tensions that exists in the PCUSA at this time. Many evangelical pastors I know are caught in the middle of a tug of war between members of their congregation and the denomination (often the presbytery representative of it). They are truly stymied by a lack of good options, and they understand now that any course of action (from status quo to radical departure) will require supreme patience, spiritual strength, wisdom, and “emotional intelligence” to pull off.

The focus of this post is one particular challenge pastors face: the navigation of institutional relationships, which are in a state of flux or stress right now. They include the following “ties that bind”:

• pastor and presbytery (on good terms or strained terms?)
• pastor and session (unified or divided?)
• pastor and outraged members of congregation (ready to leave or willing to work it through?)
• pastor and happy members of congregation (we like things just the way they are)
• congregation and presbytery (trust or mistrust? engagement or isolation?)

The question, as we Presbyterians renegotiate the terms of our connectionalism in the PCUSA, is whether church relationships would benefit by the establishment of boundaries. To sort this out, I offer a model that helps describe relational dynamics in play, first in terms of individuals (today’s post), and in terms of Presbyterian connectionalism (tomorrow).

An individual relates to different people at different levels of intimacy, intensity, and proximity. Picture a set of concentric circles, with the self in the middle (later to be substituted with your congregation or local body in the middle) and those to whom that one relates marked by the widening circles.

One relates to one’s spouse in unique ways, some of which are totally inappropriate with any other person. One hopes that the marriage relationship creates the environment for transparency, helpful demonstration of feelings, a mutually acceptable dance that modulates togetherness and solitude, and promise-keeping.

One relates to one’s close friends according to covenants of spoken and unspoken rules about transparency, feelings, frequency of interaction. But in general there is a bit more distance between you and your friends than between you and your spouse.

One relates to a club according to rules and covenants established to maintain order. Concentric circles moving ever outward from the center represent the different spheres of fellowship, relationship, and expectations. The concept is utilized somewhat by Google + and Facebook, social networking sites that allow a person to identify spheres of closeness and to target posts to the intended audience.

Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships are based on covenants of fidelity and chastity. Before my readers react to that phrase, let me expand its meaning beyond the application to marriage and singleness found in the former G-6.0106b (the “fidelity and chastity” requirement for ordination). Every relationship, when healthy and within appropriate boundaries, is defined by faithfulness to some kind of agreement about what is appropriate at this level (fidelity) and a commitment to honor the boundaries of propriety (chastity). Healthy relationships keep legitimate distance that is dictated by the covenant in force. So one’s marriage and parenting covenants require greater closeness than one’s membership in a gym, which is governed by a contract. The distance between oneself and the other creates the environment where appropriate fidelity and chastity can be maintained. One remains emotionally faithful to one’s spouse; one pays one’s monthly dues at the gym. At the extreme, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” highlights the reality of an outer circle (that is, those who would do me harm) that is still a relationship. We keep our distance, but we are still somehow related.

Unhealthy Relationships

There are three ways in which a relationship can become unhealthy, when one or both of the parties:

• over-attach (that is, get closer than is appropriate. An extra-marital affair between friends is one extreme example of this.)

• over-detach (characterized by avoidance behavior or distancing that betrays a covenant agreement)

• isolate—different from periodic “solitude and silence” which is a spiritual discipline! (complete divorce into separate universes).

Notice that the solution to an unhealthy relationship may not be to come closer (if the problem is over-attachment).

Tomorrow, I will apply this general concept to the relationships between pastor, congregation, presbytery, and denomination, in a way that may help sort out the “leave or stay,” “differentiate or assimilate” questions facing PCUSA congregations. The question will be, how close or how distant is the relationship between a congregation and the denomination going to be?

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3 Responses to “Connectionalism and Relational Boundaries”


  1. You’ve summed it up nicely, Mary. Having had my marriage end due to an over-attachment issue . . we were married for 29 years! with not only one friend but several I can really relate to this example.

  2. Ron Says:

    This is going to sound negative so don’t choke.

    Since upwards of 50% of marriages whether Christian or non are now ending in divorce, we have little hope for the other relationships. This is probably why Paul speaks so strongly about the different parts of the body.

    As for loving your enemy. They may kill the body but watch out for the soul. See Lk 12; Mt 10

    Just as an aside, there is some controversy on “periodic “solitude and silence” which is a spiritual discipline!”

    Some argue that this is a mystical RC practice and that as applied today leads into eastern mediation practices.

    There are of course some beautiful passages in Psalms to get alone with God’s Word to grow closer to him, but in the NT, I can’t find solitude and silence commanded by Jesus or taught or encouraged by any of the disciples. We are called to pray alone (Mt 6) but that’s in contrast to the prayers for show that others do.

    So although large portions of the church teach these practices you might be careful throwing those terms out unless you want to open that discussion point.

    Silence is however mentioned in Revelation 8:1

    “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” ESV

    And it’s probably a good thing for me to do now since I said all these things.


  3. Great design by the way, did you make it yourself or purchase on the theme?

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