Greetings to you all, here on the brink of the Feast of All Saints!
It has been a real joy to share with you over the past few newsletters some further thoughts on how doing the work of church governance is theological work. I tried to emphasize that this is theological work both because it is work that tends to the body of Christ and because it assists in equipping that body to deepen the theologizing that its members are already doing, whether they recognize it or not.
This month, I’d like to reflect with you a little on one concrete difference it makes to think of church governance as theological work. This real-world difference concerns the actual decision-making processes in which you will engage as deputies.
When it comes to how we think of the reality we call “church,” it is all too easy to fall into extremes without realizing it. On the one hand, we can imagine church idealistically, as a holy body, separate from worldly things and the typical concerns of everyday life. On the other hand, we can see church as a thoroughly worldly entity, one that needs to be carefully managed like any other human organization or institution, often using the same tools we use to run successful businesses and non-profits. Both of these extremes, however, are mistaken.
Churches are composed of people. And those people come from the surrounding culture and society, with its quirks and particularities, histories and preoccupations. No church is ever so “holy,” so removed from the world, that the concrete realities in which it is embedded are left behind and become irrelevant. Quite the opposite, while churches (like individual Christians!) are certainly called to love God with all their minds and strength, they are also required to love their neighbors just as fiercely, neighbors both inside and outside of their boundaries. Loving the neighbor requires taking the condition of the neighbor seriously. And that means taking “the world” seriously. This is precisely what Jesus called for in his preaching and ministry: not to separate from or deny the world, but to move through the world differently, guided by a vision of flourishing supplied by the promises of God rather than of anything—however necessary or good—the world itself can provide. Just as Jesus called people not to separation from their daily realities but to new and more life-giving engagements with them, churches and those who do the work of directing their energies and resources should not turn away from the gritty and grimy reality of life in this messy but beautiful creation.
At the same time, taking the world seriously—avoiding the trap of thinking of church as so holy that it can safely leave the world and its preoccupations behind—does not mean we should do things as the surrounding society does. For example, many of us with professional expertise in any number of fields have a sense of how things should work. We call these notions “best practices” or “standard operating procedures” or “good governance.” And in many cases, they can be helpful. However, it is important to remember that, even though the church is not separate from the world, it is different from it. Sometimes, what counts as a best practice, a standard procedure, or an element of good governance is not what is needed in the context of church. In churches, the metrics are different than for other organizations. The logic of markets and outcomes and maximizing bottom lines is not the logic of God’s promised shalom. We seek to bring the world and the people in it into deeper and more life-giving relational communion with God, each other, themselves, and the rest of creation. Sometimes, that means allocating resources in ways that might seem risky or imprudent if goals other than this are driving the decisions. Sometimes, it means taking more time than we might like for a process to unfold. Building relationships of communion is not efficient! It is highly costly, in fact. But that’s the price Christians pay for being guided by its Lord, Jesus Christ, rather than any other ideological or conceptual idol that we might put in his place without even realizing it.
How do we know when we are either taking insufficient stock of the world around us or are putting the values of the culture around us in the driver’s seat in our governance work? That is a matter of discernment. It comes clear only through constant and critical questioning, deep prayer, dialogue with knowledgeable companions in the work, and the enrichment of one’s own theological imagination, guided by scripture and the tradition of the church.