Monday, April 8, 2013

The Client is the Mission

The wilderness narrative in scripture resonates powerfully with my experience of church leadership.  We have crossed over into a time when our culture no longer sends people through our church doors, or listens for our social pronouncements.  Familiar church activities no longer produce the same results in this new landscape.  We find ourselves living and ministering where we do not know the language of the people or are familiar with the digital terrain.  For those of us over 30, we are like immigrants and digital  social media is a second language.  There seem to be no maps charted for ministry in the global village, ethnically diverse, digital, spiritual but not religious world in which we live.  In such a context, there are no experts, but explorers, who chart a course of exploration into the unknown, who pay attention to what they find on their journeys and return to share their learning. 

Presbyteries and clergy groups are being called today to be such communities of learning.  We’ve been at this wilderness journey for awhile now.  What have we learned?  At recent meetings, Lake Michigan Presbytery has sat with Landon Whitsitt, Graham Standish, John Bell, explorers who came among us who have shared what they are learning.   

Gil Rendle, one of my mentors, wrote an article last year in which he explores some new basics many have learned in the wilderness thus far.  The first new basic is a huge shift of thinking.  He writes,
“Perhaps the most central of the new basics learned by those who have responsibility for the operation of a denominational system and the deployment of its key leaders is the reality that the ‘client’ they serve is the mission of the church. This most fundamental perspective is critical to all non-profits where leaders commonly struggle to understand whom they are to serve. For-profit organizations are very clear about their stakeholders (primarily their stock holders), and they understand they hold the business or corporation “in trust” for those stakeholders. In a non-profit organization, like a church or a denomination, the single and primary stakeholder for whom the organization is held in trust is the mission for which it exists.”  (Article:  “Next Steps In the Wilderness, Rehearsing Our Path in Order to Move Forward, by Gil Rendle, 2012, page 16)

One of the gifts of our Book of Order in the new Foundations section is clarity on this same point, that the client is the mission.    
“The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church.  In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ.  Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.” (Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part 2, Book of Order F-1.01)

OK, the transformation of creation and humanity is not overly specific, or measurable! As God’s local agents we must put flesh on what that means where we live.  This statement also helps me to see that proclaiming the good news of God’s love, and offering the grace of God, and calling people to discipleship, all primary, right and good activities of the church, are not ends in themselves, or the outcomes God seeks.  They are the ministry activities we do along the way with the resources at our disposal toward the end of transforming creation and humanity toward God’s beloved, blessed community.  In God’s economy, there is abundance and enough for all and all thrive!  OK, this is apocalyptic, and seemingly out of our reach!  The gap between our present reality and this vision is too far of a leap to get there from here.  The call to discipleship, however, encourages us to see through the lens of God’s future victory and glory, calls us to live in God’s economy anyway, as if bending that future glory back into our present, and to live accordingly now. 

Understanding the client is God’s mission of transforming the creation and humanity, changes to whom we give power, attention, resources and determines how we measure success.   Keeping people happy, pews filled, and budgets growing may not be the right measures of fidelity to the mission.  Organizing people and money is how one builds power to affect change, but as means, not the end.  To whom do you give power, the loudest voice seeking his or her desire, or to the transformation, which the community of faith discerns God is leading?  What does that desired transformation of creation and humanity look like in your neighborhood?  What would a provisional step in that general direction look like in your neighborhood, in southwest Michigan where we live?  What will be different in a year or two, because of your congregation's, this presbytery's spent energy and resources?  Can you paint a picture of what that would look like so you know when you’ve arrived?