About a year and a half ago, Steve Staten and I co-authored an article entitled “Observations Regarding the Unity Proposal.” It was a combination of a letter I had written to answer questions about the proposal (now called the United Plan For Cooperation) and Steve’s very relevant comments about various types of written documents in religion. Over 350 churches have affirmed the Cooperation Plan. Many others are prayerfully considering it. In the months since that article was published, many of us have continued to answer questions and clarify issues as some among our movement of churches have continued to express reservations and raise questions about affirming the proposal. (Note that I use the term affirm rather than sign, which is more accurate.) In re-reading that earlier document, I feel much the same now as I did then, but I do have additional observations I would like to share, given the nature of the reservations expressed and questions asked since then.

A Brief History

But before proceeding, let me go back to the beginning of the upheaval in our movement several years ago. As soon as it began, I had immediate concerns for its impact especially on smaller churches and less mature disciples. The foremost of these concerns at the time was about how mission churches that were dependent on outside support were going to fare. Unfortunately, some of my worst fears were realized. One example that is near and dear to my heart is what happened to the churches in the Philippines (which my home church in Phoenix helps support).

Before the firestorm hit our movement, Manila had been one of the fastest growing churches among us. They had about 4300 members and had planted 14 other churches in the Provinces of the Philippines. They had over 100 people on staff in Manila and another 28 in the Provincial churches (men and women). They had an annual budget of $420,000 a year. One year later, due to rapid loss of financial support, they had only 8 brothers on staff in Manila (no women) and 8 on staff in the Provinces (one of which was a woman). They were devastated by the rapid loss of staff and financial support − which dropped to $150,000 for that year. Thankfully, their support has gradually improved, more are being put on staff and they are growing once again. They have planted four new churches and plan to plant another four in 2008. Churches in developing nations have suffered more than most of us can imagine unless we have been there to see the situation with our own eyes.

They need more financial support, to be sure, but that alone will not solve their problems. Sometimes we assume that the main thing lost was finances, which is not true. Last year, the Philippine leaders asked that some of us come over to teach and encourage them − by taking money for travel out of our special contributions designated for them. This meant that they would rather have emotional and spiritual support through personal visits from supporting churches than more staff, which the money would have enabled them to hire. Some of us went to encourage both leaders and disciples, and the results of that were more than we could have imagined. Suffice it to say that scores of churches in the developing nations suffered similar fates in loss of support of all kinds. They felt isolated and abandoned. The Cooperation Proposal encouraged them tremendously by restoring their hope of a united brotherhood, who would once again wrap their arms around them.

My next biggest concern was that our congregations would swing from the end of the pendulum in our interrelationships (of dependency on “Big Brother”) to the other end (of independence and isolation). This concern has also become reality in many cases, although good progress has been made, thanks in part to the Cooperation Proposal itself. The proposal has caused us to examine more closely what we once took for granted. We have been moving from a forced type of unity to a forged unity, and the forging has not always been easy nor the results ideal. But thankfully, we are in process and are making progress.

The Unity Proposal was designed to address these two concerns of meeting needs on the mission front and promoting congregational relationships. Additionally, it was also an attempt to help clarify the beliefs and practices that we shared in our past history. Probably this part of the proposal was the most controversial initially. A number of people were concerned that putting these things in writing would produce some sort of creed that would take on a life of its own. I don’t think this has proved to be the case, but I understand the concerns. (You might want to see Steve’s relevant comments in this regard in the aforementioned April 2006 article in the archives of Disciples Today.)

The Present

At the present time, the concerns I continue to hear are about the second part of the proposal regarding congregational relationships, but perhaps most concerns are still about the third part of the proposal regarding commonly held beliefs. The concerns about the congregational relationships and grouping of churches in geographical settings are largely that one congregation will exert an authority over another against their will. No one will argue that this was not a problem in the past, but the question is whether we will revert to the old ways in time. All I can share on this point is what I have experienced. The churches in the Southwest part of America were grouped together in the proposal with former “Big Brother,” the Los Angeles Church. In Phoenix, given the history of sending people and money to the West coast, we were apprehensive − to put it mildly. I expressed this apprehension to Bruce Williams, congregational evangelist in LA, and to Al Baird, one of the elders there. Bruce, Al and John Mannel (another elder) made a trip to Phoenix to meet with our elders and staff brothers. Concerns and hurts were expressed and questions were asked by us, all of which were met with sensitivity, gentleness and apologies. The humility of these three men dispersed our fears in one fell swoop. We suggested that they also take trips to at least two other SW churches that had an eldership, which suggestion that were happy to follow.

Since that time, we have enjoyed a very harmonious relationship. I’m not concerned in the least that we are somehow going to revert to practices of the former days. I believe the brothers in the larger churches have truly changed, and I know the rest of us have changed as well. I am not going to have another church dictate what we in Phoenix are going to do, but I very much want their input and help, have asked for it and have graciously been given it. Relationships among congregations need to be viewed with a good dose of common sense. Church plantings need to be very submissive to the church that planted them until they reach a reasonable level of maturity. Then they and the more mature church should have a relationship much like we older folks have with our grown children. We want to have a close relationship, and because of that relationship and our added maturity, we still want to give input − but the decisions they reach are their own decisions. Period. Surely that should describe relationships between more mature churches and less mature churches. Where the maturity level is similar, brotherhood should mean that we provide mutual help to one another. Just as disciples need other disciples in their lives, church leaders need other church leaders in their lives. Independence and isolation is a curse. Interdependency and cooperation is a blessing − for individuals and for churches.

Some brothers have expressed the concern that organizations tend in the direction of more and more centralization and control. This is likely true overall − unless the organization is aware of that trend and intent on functioning in a way that avoids it. Truthfully, organizations can start well and degenerate, while others can start poorly and make positive changes. Again, all I can share is what I have experienced. One year ago at the International Leadership Conference, we delegates from the affirming churches selected a group of nine well respected brothers to continue attempts to help us become more unified and effective in our collective efforts. This year, the group of nine, by their own recommendation, was replaced by ten committees, with a chairman chosen for each committee. (That’s called decentralization, I believe.) The chairmen were asked to form their own committees, and no stipulations were given for those choices. Committee members could be chosen from churches who had affirmed the Cooperation Proposal or from those who had not. Before the committee idea was approved, those from the group of nine kept restating that they were in no way a governing board, but only a serving group to facilitate what the larger group wanted to do. When someone says repeatedly that they don’t desire or intend to act as from any authoritative position, I believe them − especially when their entire demeanor and speech is clothed with humility, as theirs was.

What about the concerns of the other category in the Unity Proposal − the statement of shared beliefs and practices? My religious background was in the Mainline Church of Christ. We prided ourselves in not having written creeds. Our oft-stated battle cry was “No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible.” But that group took division to a whole new level. Did they avoid creeds simply because they didn’t write them down? Hardly. They divided into many different flavors and had quite well defined unwritten creeds − but creeds nonetheless. Some of my friends who have not affirmed the Cooperation Proposal are worried that we will devolve into something akin to the Catholic Church. I am much more worried that we will devolve into the independent, highly autonomous churches from which we originally evolved. Even with my Mainline church background, I don’t understand the fear of written statements of shared beliefs. In our techno age, everything stated verbally can quickly be put into print. When our leadership in Phoenix delivers messages regarding sensitive areas (finances, church discipline, etc.), we often print them, and hand them out and then put them on our web site. I would far rather people know exactly what we said than embellish and distort it into gossip and slander. In actual fact, this part of the proposal has received a lessening emphasis, as the other two parts about cooperation in mission efforts and intra-congregational relationships have received the most attention. Said another way, the Unity Proposal has evolved into the Cooperation Proposal for good reasons.

Why did those who collaborated to write the original Unity Proposal believe that the beliefs and practices section needed to be included? One, Kip McKean was saying and writing that we had lost all of our convictions in these areas, and he was having a very negative impact on younger disciples and churches. With our mature leadership in Phoenix, it wasn’t a problem for us − we dealt quickly and decisively with Kip’s Phoenix satellite church in our city. But the large majority of our churches outside the US (which outnumber those in the US) do not have the same maturity of leadership and thus were being influenced negatively. They needed the more mature leaders and churches to state what was true and untrue regarding Kip’s allegations. They needed clarification and assurance. Two, these same less mature churches were full of disciples whose world was shaken by the upheaval we experienced. They were asking (often with tears) if we were still a movement and if we still had convictions about these issues addressed in the proposal. These disciples in these churches (and they do constitute a majority) were relieved at the offering of the proposal. Most of them affirmed the proposal quickly, because it addressed directly all three areas of concern that they had. Further, they were (and are) puzzled when this was not done by a number of our more mature leaders and congregations.

The Future

Now for the toughest question: why have 30% of our churches not affirmed the proposal? For reasons noted already, to be sure. Others are focused on very basic needs in their own churches and some are difficult to contact. A few will probably not cooperate in the near future. But I believe that something more subtle is involved as well. I would call it unintentional myopia. We tend to see the situation of others from our own perspective, in spite of the fact that our situation may be quite different from theirs. Some time back, I wrote an article entitled “Self Starters and the Rest of Mankind.” The gist of it was that self starters don’t need as much structure and motivation as others do. Better stated, non-self starters (who comprise the majority of humans) need more structure and outside motivation than do self starter types. But it is the self starters who tend to judge the needs of others by their own needs. As one insightful person pointed out to me recently, it is the self starters who are basically insisting that every Christian be a self starter. In an unintentional way, they are essentially saying “You should be like me.” Well, maybe they will be in time, but we must meet them where they are presently and keep helping them to grow in this direction. Anything less suggests a lack of humility and genuine care for others, whether or not we intend it or realize it.

Applying this to the Cooperation Proposal, the more mature may well insist that they agree with everything (or nearly everything) in the proposal, but don’t feel the need to have their name on a list of affirmers. They don’t see the need for any defined structure in a movement of sister churches. I understand that line of reasoning on a personal basis. I’m 65 years old now, and I know what I believe and what I am committed to. I don’t need to sign or affirm anything, for myself − but I think others need for me to have my name on that list. They need the reassurance of knowing that someone with my history in this movement wants to cooperate in every way possible to keep our churches working together as closely as possible. To me, it’s a simple matter − why not publicly assure them in a way that all know where I stand, whether they live in my state or in the southern tip of Africa or of South America? And by the way, if I had written the proposal, I would have worded a few things differently, and I’m sure most of us would say the same. However, my focus is on the general tenor of things relating to the purpose of promoting healthy unity and cooperation, rather than on a few details that I might have said differently. If we have to agree on every last detail to have unity and cooperation, we will be frustrated and unhappy in every relationship known to man, including marriage!

I know that some will inevitably feel that articles like this one are an attempt to force them to put their name on the list of affirming churches. Let me assure you that such is not my intention. Forcing anyone to do anything is counterproductive and unbiblical. However, I am unashamedly trying to persuade you to reconsider your position if you have not affirmed the proposal by giving your heart to cooperation with brothers and sisters around the world and having the name of your congregation added. My love and acceptance of you as members of God’s family is not in question. But I do believe we need to think seriously about the impact of our example on less mature disciples and churches. What I may think I need is not the key issue here − it is what others need of me. Please think and pray about these things. Call or write me if you want to discuss it further. And please forgive me if my intentions were not expressed in the best way, in spite of my goal to do so! May God help us all to work hard in continuing to forge the unity for which Christ prayed and died!

Gordon Ferguson
Phoenix Valley Church of Christ

Posted by Cooperation Service Team