Visions for The Church, churches, denominations: a waste of effort?

I’ve been the minister here (and a minister) for two months now and I’m just beginning to feel I understand something about the two churches. I’m getting a sense of their stories, their people, their lives. I’m also getting more idea of their ambitions and their fears, their hopes and their anxieties, as individual people and as corporate bodies.

Out of this I’m starting to want to do some work with the leaders of the two communities to arrive at some common view of what my priorities should be as my ministry develops. How should I spend my time and more especially my energy? What should I try to change about the life of the two churches, if anything? Are there new things we should try to develop? Are there things we are now doing that we should think about stopping doing?

I don’t want to write about the particular circumstances here but I am intrigued by the whole idea of strategic planning in Church life. For the last 10 or so years of my previous career I was (mostly) a strategic planner. My job was to define, build business cases for and plan strategic computer systems development projects. Initiating strategic change was what my professional life was all about, and I think I was pretty good at it.

In that context the first step was always to sit down with the key people who were in charge of the area being changed and get a sense of what we were supposed to be trying to achieve. In many cases this was not a very edifying or satisfactory process. Often the true purpose was, ultimately, advancing the careers of a small number of influential people. They had come, in one way or another, to be identified with some change or other and they needed it to happen for that reason. If it didn’t they personally and the job they filled ceased to have a purpose. Their professional purpose in life had become convincing decision makers that they needed to spend (the bank’s) money on whatever it was.

To this end they concocted highly speculative and sometimes purely imaginary benefits that they argued would flow from doing this thing. Normally they would have strong and long-standing relationships with more powerful figures in the hierarchy of the bank which was how they came to occupy the cushy and lucrative positions they did. Usually they were also intelligent, well informed and highly expert. Occasionally what was proposed actually was a good idea, more often there was no effective way of discerning whether it was or not.

Together we (I was to an increasing extent one of the people I’ve described) would confect a case designed to catch the attention of the (very senior) executives we needed to convince and to compete against the other demands on the (fixed) annual investment pot. We would study their preoccupations and prejudices, look for ways to build alliances with others, seek advice from those who we thought could influence them and so on.

There was always a “vision” the purpose of which was primarily rhetorical and persuasive rather than to provide a guide to subsequent action. The point, in the world I came to inhabit, was to get agreement to spend. The actual spending, let alone living with the consequences, were someone elses problem.

So that’s the background to which I come to the problem of setting a vision for these churches, for our denomination, for The Church. I’m suspicious of this process as one who has done it as I have is bound to be.

So when I see a proposed planning paper for the URC I want to know what it’s really about (for my first reaction to the recent Mission Council presentation see here). When I think about setting a direction for my ministry I can’t help but begin to think about “stakeholder analysis”, “best practice comparison”, “SWOT charts”, and all the other paraphernalia of management consultancy. Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bringing these techniques and my own expertise to bear on church life. The problem I have is that there’s a prior stage that both needs to be done and is impossible. We need to ask what the churches are for and to answer that question we need to ask what The Church is for and how these churches relate to it which probably requires asking a question about what denominations are.

Our individual churches are part of The Church of Christ, as are our ecumenical partners and neighbours. Each has its particular character, history, composition and context but, we must presume, they also serve one purpose. In the case of the bank for which I worked its overall purpose was clear and unambiguous, really, it was to make profits on behalf of the shareholders, to deliver “shareholder value”. It can be argued that it is inappropriate for a bank to take this as its core purpose and this is more complex now that it’s owned by the government, but at the time I worked for it that was its purpose as set by those in charge.

Each unit then had its role to play in the great corporate effort to make money. I never worked in an income generating section so we had other ends; provision of systems as required by the business units, for example, or provision to them of information they needed. Nonetheless both the overall end of the business and the particular task at hand were fairly uncontroversial. How best to do it was the difficult bit.

Now it isn’t clear at all what the primary purpose of The Church or the particular purpose of any part of it is, Different people very obviously have different views on this, The main options I have heard advocated are:

  • saving souls from damnation by converting people to faith – those without faith, those outside the Church, are doomed and we need to save them;
  • advancing Kingdom Values of justice, peace, and compassion – working to bring a new way of life into being that will reflect God’s will for the world by including the excluded and supporting the poor and the powerless.

I don’t find either of those at all convincing as a purpose of the Church. I simply don’t believe that those outside the Church are doomed. I also don’t believe that the Church can materially advance Kingdom values if that’s understood as a political or quasi-political effort to change the way the world runs. We have no better hope of that than any political party ever has (which is next to none).

On the other hand I do think we are called to proclaim the gospel, the good news about Jesus, and I do believe that, given that it’s good news, people are the better for believing it. I also believe we are called, as part of that, to show love and compassion both individually and collectively, to work for justice, although we may well not be able to agree with one another about how to do that any more than we are able to agree the detail of what the good news is.

The overall purpose of the Church is rather mysterious to me and I’m pretty sure I’ll never understand it. The place to start may not be with that kind of vision but with a more modest attempt to discern what we, individually and as congregations, are called to. We need to follow the immediate promptings of the Spirit and trust that somehow it will all add up.

I’m still going to do my stakeholder analysis, best practice comparison, and SWOT charts, though.

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