There are people whose lives are defined by the institution of which they are a part. Their inner workings, rumor mills, ethos, hierarchy, etc., take on importance for them that overshadows everything going on outside the institution, except at the boundary between it and whatever outside matter is of interest to it. There the importance they assume for the institution as an influential power is likely to be overestimated, keenly defended, or deeply worried about. You probably have acquaintances who have defined their lives that way through their career, club, or fraternal organization. The Church is no exception. Indeed it may be example number one.
Clergy ranks are filled with ministers ordained more to the service of the institution than to the gospel. Some do it by confining their ministry to what goes on inside the building and among their parishioners. Others are fixated on church politics, the inner workings of dioceses, synods, conventions, and clergy meetings. Mix the two together and it’s more than a full time job. There’s hardly enough room left for golf. It’s not an unknown problem. For some years now, getting outside the walls has been the hot topic of conversation reported on at length in religious news services, discussed in journals such as The Christian Century, and as an item on annual meeting agendas. For a good many clergy, the talk, earnestly engaged in, is an adequate substitute for doing anything different. Each of them would take umbrage if they thought this was about them, but considering the many “Decades of Evangelism” that have come and gone with no visible change in behavior, what else can it be?
Is real change in the air? Maybe so. As an Episcopalian, one of the things I most like about our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, is the way he seems to burst out of the church doors into the world filled with delight in proclaiming the good news of God in Jesus Christ. He calls us “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” He’s not alone. Pope Francis appears to have found a way to break down the walls fortifying St. Peter’s chair in like manner. Who else in our time? Anne Lamott, Henri Nouwen, a few other famous types? What counts more are the ranks of clergy and lay leaders in congregations, especially small congregations, who are inspired to do the same by engaging in their communities as visible agents of the Jesus Movement outside the walls of their institutions. It means more than making the local church into another social service organization, although moving in that direction is not a bad thing. It means clergy personally engaging with and in the community as Jesus engaged with and in his community. It means proclaiming the gospel by word and deed without so much anxiety about attracting new members and patching the finances. Yes, it means clergy engaged in forming disciples among their parishioners, but formation by example is an essential element that cannot be set aside.
I’m retired now. I spent many years of my corporate life as an active member of my local congregation in a time when it was casually assumed that you were either Christian or Jewish. The only question was which church or synagogue you attended. That’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for a long time. Indeed, we have a generation or two who have no religious affiliation and are suspicious of Christians. As a late vocation priest, my time in parish ministry was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute of it, and I think the congregations I served were healthy ones. I do have a regret, and that is that I did not get out into the community as energetically as I now think I could have and should have. Yes, I served on boards and committees, was a member of a service club, and taught a bible class at the local mission. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I’d like to have spent more time walking around downtown, greeting various morning coffee groups, sitting with the homeless in the park, wearing my collar at the county fair, talking with anyone who wanted to know about Jesus, and being the presence of the healing, reconciling power of Jesus for those who needed it. Consider that a word of advice for those now active in their ordained ministry.