A conversation about “mission” currently underway in our church brings to mind this old George Carlin routine.
Most of us don’t have our own words. As Carlin says, we use the same words that everybody else does. The meaning of certain words, though, seems to vary from speaker to speaker. In the Episcopal Church, “mission” is one of those words. So when Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson, or Chief Operating Officer Bishop Stacy Sauls begin speaking about restructuring the church to focus on “mission”, we may think we know what they mean, but I am not sure that we do.
This is no fault of their own. We tend, in the church, to define our concepts rather expansively. We are the folks who believe that “Stewardship is everything we do after we say ‘I believe.'” I can appreciate that this slogan was probably conceived by someone eager to get us to stop thinking about stewardship as simply a matter of how much we donate to the church, and I suppose that there is a vague theological truth floating about in this hazy construction. But it is impossible to hold a conversation about stewardship vis-à-vis other elements of a church’s life and ministry with someone who defines stewardship as “everything.”
The word mission is subject to similarly lofty redefinitions. I read somewhere recently that mission is not what we do, it is who we are. The phrase has a nice ring to it, but I have no idea what it means, and I must admit that I am surprised to learn that I am mission when I was under the impression that I was a bald, middle-aged white guy trying to raise a couple of sons in suburban Washington, D. C.
I am comfortable, in an everyday sort of way, with everyone having their own definition of the word “mission” because I believe that the cloud of meanings that we attach to this word cohere in some essential way. I see no need for a conversation to define what we mean by mission because, as a certain Supreme Court Justice said in another context, we know it when we see it.
But I am uncomfortable when a Rorschach blot of a word like “mission” is defined to confer political advantage in a debate that really isn’t about mission at all. We are on the cusp of having a much needed convesation about how the church is governed and how it should be staffed. Some of our leaders favor diminishing the role of lay people and clergy in church governance, and they have chosen to advance their position under the banner of mission. They don’t tell us precisely what mission means, asserting mainly that it is morally superior to governance. Their argument runs that if the church spent less money on governance it could be more emphatic in exercising the preferential option for the poor.
There are a variety of shortcomings to what I think of as the argument from mission. The most obvious is that any savings from any source within the church’s budget can be spent on the poor, but the only savings being discussed are those that tip the power balance within the church toward the presiding bishop and those who serve at her pleasure. But I am less bothered by the argument’s weakness than by its disingenuosness. Those who advance this reasoning are attempting to turn an argument about authority and accountability, in which they would have to acknowledge their self interest, into an argument about who cares more about poor people, in which they can appear to act entirely on behalf of others. If this ruse were slicker, I might have to admire it, but it is not artful enough to enjoy.
Church leaders who believe that we need a more nimble form of government, and who are willing to see more authority concentrated in fewer hands, ought to make that argument boldly and let their case rise or fall on its own merits. It is cowardly to hide behind poor people while claiming to be their champion.