Our church was holding elections this morning for the pastoral council. So much to talk about, but just a few quick points here.
1) I’m a huge fan of democratically-structured institutions of civil society. At my wife’s request, we go to a Catholic church, which I have always rated low the self-democracy scale. It’s an international institutions with a pretty strong hierarchy preaching a pretty strong organizational authoritarianism and providing little congregation control over decision-making at the local or regional level. So I was pleased to see the ballot boxes out today, even if the organizational structure doesn’t allow for a whole lot of democratic decision-making and the elections were for what is, more or less, an advisory council..
I grew up in a liberal Protestant church that was pretty much exactly the opposite — close to total self-reliance on donated funds from the small congregation to run the church, with corresponding democratic control over pretty much the whole ball of wax — pastor salary, worship logistics and contents, youth curriculum, building improvements — with minimal to no input from the larger national church structure. As with any organization, there were large variations among the congregation regarding interest in decision-making, and practical political control of the church fell to a small cadre of highly-interested people. But the basic sense of the community was self-governance, and it was a pervasive cultural attitude of the church. People talked about the church budget, and the sunday school curriculum, and the proposed additions to the building. And when decisions were made, it felt like the community was making them.
Honestly, to me this is the single best thing about the American-born churches, as well as one reason I am more fond of American protestantism than I am of Catholicism. Strip away all of the salvation theology and the ethics system and what you have at the foundations of American protestantism is the essence of democratic civil society. We voted on everything in my church growing up. Yes, it could be bitter, and yes there were political factions. But it gave people a chance to participate in self-government in a way that I think reinforced both the clear advantages of the democratic system over all possible governing structures as well as the limitations and shortcomings of the same. Democracy is far from perfect, but you can’t help but believe in its magic after you observe how well it serves a 300-person church that doesn’t even have the power to tax. The spillover effects of democracy, both from public life to our church, and from our church to public life, were unmistakable.
2) I was unimpressed with the election structure today. Nine candidates for four seats, voters allowed to mark four candidates on a ballot, top four plurality winners elected, voting open after mass yesterday, today, and next Saturday and Sunday. This looks to me like a structure that could likely result in factional candidates — ones with lots of support but also lots of opposition — winning seats over consensus candidates. That’s never a great outcome, but it’s especially bad in a private non-profit organization, I think. One remedy would be to go to some form of Borda voting, but that would never happen in a church. Nor would a runoff. Luckily, this election did not seem at all divisive.
Another problem in a massive Catholic parish is that not everyone knows each other. With four different masses on a given weekend and people tending to always go to the same one, it can kind of feel like four different churches. And thus you get a situation where the candidates are unknown to a good many of the voters. Obviously, you can’t do anything about this; but it does speak to how the usually-smaller protestant churches, with their single services and tighter communities, are perhaps better structured for democracy. To combat this today, there was a candidate brochure available, which had pictures of each of the nine candidates and a brief (150 word) statement from each of them. Perusing the brochure, not a single candidate spoke to policy; the appeals were either made to gyroscopic representation (I’ve been a member here for 20 years; my kids are in the youth program, etc.) or to experience (I’ve been on the board for 3 terms, etc.).
The lack of policy positions revealed what was actually the most problematic aspect of the election — I don’t think most voters have any more than a vague sense of what the job actually entails. Well, I don’t at any rate. And maybe that’s because I’m not Catholic, but my wife didn’t know either. I assume it’s some sort of advisory group to the parish priests on various church matters, but I really don’t know. It can’t be like a stand-alone protestant church trustees situation, because there’s not that much congregation control in a Catholic church. But on the other hand, it might have actual administrative powers of some sort. I guess the point is that it would probably serve the church well to put up a description of the powers/duties of the job in the front of the candidate brochure.
3) On the good side, the voter eligibility was wide. According to the candidate brochure, any “registered parishoner” was eligible to vote. I assume this means any confirmed member of the church, which means that most high school students would qualify. That’s good for both the teenagers and the church. The teenagers benefit because there’s something very powerful about participatory democracy and self-government, and there’s no way to build a lifetime understanding of that then by getting started at it early. Teenagers live in a world dominated by authority: at home, at school, on the sports teams. To hand them even the smallest token of equality in a private institution is an eye-opener. I know it was for me. And this is to say nothing of the spill-over effects it may have on public society in their community or the nation.
But I think the big winner is the church. There’s no real reason to restrict the franchise in a situation like this; I’m almost certain that any of the nine candidates would be minimally-competent at the job. But the gains an organization can make by including their children and young adults in a process like this are potentially huge. First, you give them a sense of ownership over the church; it may be a trivial election to the adults, but any child who feels like they helped put a winning candidate over the top will find themselves looking at the institution in a new way, and they will bring a new sense of care to it. Second, churches constantly struggle to maintain memberships. In a country with a protestant/capitalist mentality, even the Catholic church cannot rely on its theology to bind parishoners; it surely competes less on the open-market than the protestant churches, but it still competes. Allowing teenagers to participate in the church administrative structure aids this retention, through both participatory effects and (in theory) policy outcomes.
4) I observed turnout for a while after church. It was abysmal.This doesn’t surprise me, because as I noted above, I don’t think a lot of people understand what the job does, nor do I think that the council has a lot of actual administrative powers. Still, it irks me that they don’t do a better job with it on the institutional side. The election was reasonably publicized, but the voting table was out of the way and not particularly visible. The in-mass message from the priest reminding people to vote was also pretty lukewarm. For a church that has no problem issuing dead-serious prescriptions for salvation and ethics, I would think that something along the lines of “it’s your duty to vote” could have been proffered without a lot of trouble and to some definite effect. I doubt they get 10% turnout across all of the voting days.