Too much mission?

In the weekly e-mail from the Alban Institute, Peter Steinke has this to say:

Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people come together to support an objective but forget what the objective is. People lose their reason for being, even though they go through the motions. Many things contribute to the sidetracking, such as compromising ideals in succumbing to a pressure group, searching for instant viability or solutions, grasping for saviors, fooling themselves that they are vital or viable simply because they endure, preoccupying themselves with nonessentials, exchanging their core beliefs for more marketable ideas, or failing to attend to what God is calling them to do in their little corner of the world.

If mission is so essential to the congregation’s life and well-being, what exactly does mission mean? There is a movement called “the missional church.” People assign marks or attribute certain actions to a missional church, but I find the term confusing. It is similar to saying “the ruling government” or the “athleticism of the athlete.” Either a church is missional or it is not the church. Mission is the nature and purpose of the church, not some list of qualifiers.

Steinke’s point is well taken, and it jibes with some of Diana Butler Bass’s findings about church growth. That said, I have a question about mission, and one I hope our conversation won’t reduce to semantics. When I hear the word mission, I hear the word work, or job. I work all week long. I get spiritually depleted. I go to church to be fed so I can resume that work. If instead of food, what I get is another set of assignments, I get tired. I suspect that I am not alone in this. I am all for mission. I spend a great deal of my time encouraging people to take one on. But the church’s emphasis on mission in some ways makes me feel that it is just another task master. I certainly don’t want to belong to a do nothing church, but there has to be some room in which we can own up to our own needs, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I wonder if our church’s emphasis on mission makes this difficult.

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  1. I like these reflections of Peter Steinke’s and as with the earlier couple of posts at the Cafe on clergy burnout think there’s a dimension missing here talking about burn out – whether lay or clergy (actually probably inseparable – one feeding the other and vice versa).

    Steinke saying, ‘…what I get is another set of ssignments’ gets at what’s missing really quickly. The experience that this half-metaphor of ‘assignments’ invokes is our twelve, sixteen, or more years of school and then work, and both school and work as they’re experienced when we have little or no personal authority or autonomy. In much of school and in many work settings we’re not invited to shape the ‘why’ of our assignments and our motivation, what drives us to do the work simply doesn’t matter.

    Clergy and laity burn out when we consistently preach, exhort, and teach people (and ourselves) what we OUGHT TO do (and how far we fall short of doing our duty).

    Reading the New Testament I see far, far fewer references to duty than to desire, and far less evocation of how things are vs. how they ought to be than appeal to imagination and hope.

    Will people dream great and holy dreams if we don’t keep telling what they ought to be doing and ought to be thinking?

    Are people who are moved by passion and desire capable of sustaining commitment?

    My experience says that passion and desire fuel much deeper and more resourceful commitment than duty can touch.

    Every time we succumb to beginning from ‘what needs to be done’ and proceed to doggedly determining everyone’s fair share of the work (or some other form of obligation) we lost focus, feel a weight, and the group goes a little bit dead.

    Now, in a time when the Spirit’s fierce wind and a perfect storm of devastating circumstances are calling the church to startling new life, our reflex too often is to respond only to the storm and teach and lead by proclaiming duty and ‘ought to’ while we worry whether we’ll be able to save the church. We won’t be able to restore the church to what we knew or fantasized it was. The church we knew (and that counted on our good efforts to keep it going) is dying and the Spirit is doing something new.

    I return again and again to the remarkable phrase in Hebrews, ‘Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who FOR THE SAKE OF THE JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM endured the cross, disregarding the shame. . .’ That reflection resonates so strongly with Jesus in the synoptics saying, ‘With desire have I desired to share this Passover with you…’ and in Hippolytus old Eucharistic prayer, listing all the things Jesus’ living and dying accomplished for us, the prayer drives home,

    “to fulfill Your will and win for himself a holy people, he stretchecd out his arms to suffering, so that by his death he might set free those who believed in you, and when he was betrayed to death, a death he freely accepted that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil and tread hell under foot and give light to the righteous and set up a border post and reveal his resurrection, he took bread…’

  2. Actually, Donald, I am the one talking about getting another set of assignments. Let me see I can do a bit of rewriting to make that clearer.

  3. My personal peeve is how “mission” has been overworked and has become a nebulous, confusing, or eye-glazing term. It’s a convention buzzword, for sure. Perhaps it’s time to talk about what we mean by “mission” and find more specific terms?

    For parishes, help with mission may mean helping define the parish’s primary geographical area and taking a good look at what people’s needs are in that area that a parish and parishioners can help fill, and setting about filling one of those needs.

    I also think “mission” too often excludes spiritual needs…but they’re certainly part of mission as well. There’s often an overtone of “Let’s skip the churchy stuff and go out and do mission” as though worship and spiritual development aren’t among the needs in our parish areas.

  4. Ah, Jim. I see my mis-read and am glad to be responding to you because that makes this an actual conversation. It’s not so immediately clear to me that my response fits what Steinke is saying, but I do think it’s to the point for your really useful response and question-framing as it is for the previous postings about clergy burnout. Thanks.

  5. Bill Carroll

    I think in part it’s a question of vocational discernment. When we are aligned with God’s call, even the most demanding, time- consuming work can be deeply fulfilling (hopefully as part of a balanced life). Too often though, the demands of parish life have us arm twisting people into doing work they are not called to do. When people have found their calling and respond to it, enormous energy is released. An important goal of Christian formation programs should be to help people of all ages find and respond to that calling, whatever it is.

  6. I am actually in a parish which lives out is mission statement, but not exactly in the manner in which people expected. The mission statement is, “to be the hands, voice and body of Christ in our service to His world.” And this they actually do, by engagement in a myriad number of activities for ministries and charities around San Diego.

    The expectation and frustration for some is that we do not really have a common thing that we all do together, to which people might point and say “That is what All Souls’ is about.” And when a group tries to organize something that galvanizes everyone they usually run into a wall formed of people’s existing commitments.

    So when we talk about “mission” we need to honor where the spirit has led folks in our congregation and nurture them in that ministry to which they have been called. And indeed our most successful missions and ministries go completely unnoticed by the public eye even as they touch lots of lives.

    In my previous parish members were in the leadership of nearly every community group in our part of the county, and I never had to preach about involvement at all, just nurture what was going on.

    I suspect that in this particular time our experience is not unique, that Episcopalians are out there in the community in many places and so we do not need some forced “mission” to unify us.. Rather in Church we seek to nurture those already engaged and when needed challenge those who have not yet fed their hunger for serving in God’s name. We just don’t all need to do it in the same place at the same time.

  7. Ann Fontaine

    How do you see this article interfacing with the video this week?

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