Instituion. Church. Body of Christ.

I understand that rules are necessary, really I do.

Even as an individual, we set guidelines and directions for ourselves. Lines we won’t cross. Values that are important to us.

When we put to people together, they set boundaries and rules, conventions that help them work and live together. Most of the time those are unwritten. Sometimes we put them down on paper (or on screen.)

A more formal structure becomes important when a group gets larger than can know one another well. Larger than, oh, a dozen, let’s say.

When those little groups become larger groups, and when those larger groups become groups separated by a number of variables – distance, culture, gender, language, theological understanding or economic realities might be a few – that structure is part of shared identity.

All of my life I have been part of the structure of one part of the Body of Christ – The United Church of Canada. In some ways, it’s part of not only my religious identity, it’s also part of my personal identity. I’ve been an interpreter of the rules; as a minister in congregation, as a parliamentarian, as an arbitrator and conflict resolution facilitator, as one who has chaired committees and Presbyteries and gatherings of a Conference.

I’ve seen the Spirit move in and with and around and through those rules (and the interpretation of them.) I believe that God works with the structures we have created to help us live out our covenant relationships.

There is a “but” here.

But I’ve also seen places where the values espoused by the structure of the church and the values espoused by part of its body are radically different. Institutional structures tend to favour stability. They tend to favour actions that maintian. They tend to look for ways of building conformity.

Sorry. We tend to favour stability. We tend to favour actions that maintain. We tend to look for ways of building conformity.

But, what do we do if the Spirit moves us (and with us) into a place that is not stable? Where maintainence means constant change. Where conformity means stasis, rather than safety?

What do we do with our rules when our rules were built around a different reality – when our structures are built around a certain way of living out those rules, and that way of living out doesn’t work for the reality we seem to be living?

*crunch*

I think we need to recognize that our structures are not immoveable objects and our ministries are not irresistable forces. The ability to change is built into both our structures and our selves.

If we don’t get entrenched in this or that being the only way. It may be the only way we can see. That’s ok. Each of us has our own blindspot. But we need to recognize that there are almost always possibilities we can’t see – possibilities that can be played with to speak to the concerns of structure and ministry.

I also think we need to recognize that neither our structures nor our ministries are perfectly understood. That whole, “through a mirror, dimly,” thing. We need to find the places where our core values mesh and the places where they don’t… and we need to find ways of trusting one another in the process of discussion and action.

We need to be ready to dive into each other’s vision – and to be overwhelmed by each other’s hope and each other’s pain.

But we also need to be ready to be changed, mightily, by that pain, hope and vision.

Our rules need to be tempered by prophetic challenge, at the same time that the prophet needs to be willing to see God’s presence moving and hear God’s voice speaking within the structure itself.

Life is change.

Abundant life is abundant change.

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When badges ruled the blogs

An entrance sign on a gray background with fencing and chain.
An entrance sign on a gray background with fencing and chain.
There was a time, not that long ago, when many blogs were covered in badges. They’d talk about our affiliations with different groups: “United Church Blogger”, “Debian Rules”, “Knight of the Cubic Table of Fnarr”.

In some ways, I’m glad they’re gone. Many of them were not particularly beautiful, and some blogs were just covered in the things. As you can probably tell from this space, I’m somewhat of a minimalist. There’s something beautiful about a blank canvas. All of the possibilities, I guess.

One thing I did like about the badges is that it told me, at a glance, what people thought was important enough to share with the world. At a quick read, I could see what they wanted to share. For the most part, I just took it as a starting place. Reading what the writer wrote was actually the test of our connection. But the self-labeling had its uses.

I’m finding that I’m asked to self-label all the time. This week, I got asked if I would consider myself to be “progressive, liberal, or evangelical.” I’m afraid that my response wasn’t helpful. I said, “Yes! I also consider myself to be process and United.”

I really don’t think those perspectives are mutually exclusive, nor do I think they’re points on a spectrum. I think they’re places to start a conversation. Places to begin to understand one another.

In many ways I am progressive.
In others I’m liberal.
In others I’m rather conservative.
In some I’m quite evangelical.
In others I’m rather quiet.

But, really, in the end, I’m me.

Beloved child of God. Trying to understand what that means through being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, who many of us call, “Christ.” Taught by people of many faith traditions and of no faith traditions.

So. Who are you?

What badges do you wear that could be the starting place for us to get to know one another?

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How do we decide?

Black and White pedestrian crossing signOver the past few weeks, I’ve been part of discussions in the congregation with whom I serve, as well as with other congregations, about ministries which are taking place, or could be taking place. Often, we get bogged down in “stuff”. The “stuff” feels important – where will we find the money, or the staff, or whatever – but I believe it actually keeps us from recognizing the questions that are even more important.

The ones that need to be answered first.

When debating the life of a congregational ministry the first question that must be answered is this, “Do we believe this ministry is God’s desire?” Not an easy question to answer. It’s one that many of us, especially those of us in the “mainstream” denominations, tend to shy away from. We don’t want to presume that we know what it is that God wants. And yet, I believe that, in a Christian faith community, uncovering and discovering what we understand God’s desire to be is central to any action we take. We need to presume.

There’s a second question: “Is it Gods desire for us?” God may want someone to be doing that work, but it may not be us. It may, simply, not be our ministry. It may be someone else’s. (“No, David, you aren’t going to build a temple for me. That’s going to be one of your kids’ jobs.”) The thing we have to be careful about with this question is making sure that we don’t turn away from difficult ministries that God is calling us to, because we think someone else can do them better. Someone else may very well be able to do them better. If this ministry is God’s desire for us, we had better connect with those that are already doing it, or could do it better – because we’re going to need them. We’re going to need their partnerships, their ideas, their resources, their goodwill, their help and their love. We’re going to need their disagreement and their challenge.

If God wants us to be doing this ministry, we’re going to need all the help we can find. Whatever that ministry might be.

I think the third question is, “Is it God’s desire for us to be living out this ministry right now?” Sometimes there are great ideas and great possibilities. And, sometimes, those great ideas and great possibilities are something that God is calling us toward. But we also need to realize the complexity of – well – everything. The people who are here, with their gifts. The wider community. The price of tea in China. Sometimes, the bits and pieces that are needed aren’t lined up to live out the ministry. Sometimes, the bits and pieces are things that we have no ability to get lined up. They’re out of our control. If we’ve answered “Yes” to questions one and two then all we can do in this case is to get lined up what we can line up, and watchfully wait as other pieces come into alignment.

If the answer to any one of these questions is “No,” then we need to seriously consider why it is we want to be doing this ministry. Perhaps it is the ministry of someone in the congregation, but not that congregation’s ministry. Perhaps it is someones’ Call, just not ours. We still have a task to do. We need to help that person, or that group, to live out their ministry. We need to support. We need to challenge. We need to love it into being.

We need to test. We need to be ready to say, “You know, we got this one wrong.” We also need to be ready to say, “Yes. Heard that one loud and clear, God.”

If, of course, we believe we should be aligning our work with God’s.

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Behind the times

I just realized that it’s been a few months since I’ve posted here. I spend far more of my time “microblogging” over at Facebook and on Twitter. The hardest part, right now, is finding time to sit and write. Really write.

General Council Executive has decided to keep the General Council offices somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area, perhaps connected with one of our congregations. It will be interesting to see what happens with the way ministry is expressed (if anything), when the offices are more congregationally connected.

At St. Andrew’s, life goes on. We’re prepping for financial stewardship visits – using a “home group” style that we’ve not tried before. It will bring together small groups that will take a look at what our finances have been used for this year, what we’re planning on using them for next year, and to give people the chance to ask questions about our ministry in general. It should be interesting, especially with some people’s frustration around our movement away from passing the plate.

“Life goes on.” That’s quite the way to describe it. Pretty accurate, though.

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