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Mission. In your own words.

Mission. In your own words.

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.


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Elizabeth Kaeton

On the surface of things, it sounds pretty silly to ask for a definition of the word ‘mission’. I mean, if you have to ask the question . . . .

That being said, I’m from Massachusetts where I grew up hearing the Kennedy boys start every political debate with an insistence that words – and terms – be defined. That’s especially important when in the arena of church politics.

Thanks for this clarifying article, Jim. The Kennedy’s would be proud of you.

Clint Davis

I don’t understand. These people whom you are claiming to be seeking power already don’t have any real power at all. What do you mean by “power” and “decision-making”? Power over what, and what decisions? What in the world can these people you’re so worried about really do?

Are you really talking about money here? Writing checks? Or are they wanting to structure the Church in such a way that this amorphous They can write a new Prayer Book and the rest of us have to use it every day? What do you mean? They can’t deny us the Sacraments, and can’t tell a parish who to hire and fire if this person is duly qualified, so what else is really important? I just want to know.

And about mission? Well, I entirely agree that this and a whole host of terms mean pretty much everything so they mean almost nothing to anybody. I just read that Connecticut Mission Statement and it still didn’t tell me anything. I’m going to go so far and say this. If you can’t tell me what “Mission”, “empowering the baptized” and all this stuff means without more inbred religious language, then start over.


The most nimble government is a dictatorship. 😉

Seriously, it seems to me that if we change our system of church governance, the direction should be devolving away from a center of power. There is no magic about the ordination to bishop ceremony which confers upon the order more wisdom or better judgement than what would be gained from a broader cross section of the church that includes clergy and humble pew warmers.

And, yes, to aggregate power to the center in the name of helping the poor does not seem quite right.

Before we plunge headlong into the adventure of changing governance, let’s agree on what we mean by mission. I don’t mean to imply that change should not happen, but if it is to happen in the name of mission, we should all know what we are talking about when we say mission.

June Butler

Rev. Kurt

Oops forgot my tag line…

Rev. Kurt Huber

St. Peter’s, Monroe

Rev. Kurt

Here’s how the Diocese of CT put it, God’s Mission in 100 words:

Put together by a working group in the diocese. Its not quite what you are asking Jim, but at least they are trying in one diocese to make sure we are all on the same page about “mission.”

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