crossposted from As of Yet Untittled
A few weeks ago I sat down with a group of Mennonite Mission Network staff who have been managing the $10 million capital campaign for the new Mennonite Church USA building on the campus of Associated Mennonite Biblical seminaries in Elkhart, Ind. The staff members were meeting with a number of people inside and outside of the institution who have had significant concerns and questions about the direction this project is taking the church.
In listening to the the responses from Mission Network staff to theological and missiological questions raised by the dissenters, I was struck by how much they focused on institutional values such as finances, efficiency and professionalism. The conversation made real for me the way the institutions of the Mennonite church are centered on values of professionalism and institutional interests in their decision making process. I heard them asking: What would a professional do? before asking, “What would Jesus do?”
For those talking with us, it was clear that they saw their institution at the center of the future of the church. You can see this clearly in the the language of the bulletin insert for the campaign. It invites donors to “Help strengthen the future of Mennonite Church USA” and “build the future” and talks about “investing in hope.” Is this building really the future of the church? Is this institution?
The metaphor that came to mind for me in thinking about church institutions was is that of a vehicle. In building the vehicle, the church hoped to better live out Jesus’ call. They looked to others building similar vehicles in both the secular and religious world. They valued stability, continuity and efficiency. They saw the necessity of the vehicle in moving things forward. Over time, the perspective of those who work within the vehicle is shaped by the necessiities of vehicle maintenance and fuel.
Here’s how Kathy E. Ferguson puts it in The Feminist Case Against Bureacracy.
The norms and rules dominant in bureaucracy, as in any social system, are generally those that support the requirements of bureaucratic self-maintenance. Motivations and behavior that are consistent with the needs of self-maintenance are encouraged and rewarded; those inconsistent with it are penalized. Thus the real goals of the organization become those that keep the machinery of the institution running.
At the same time, the instinct to institution build is understandable. Institutions promise to preserve a vision for a future generation: to make a part of ourselves immortal. Those who work for them can derive a sense of meaning and belonging, not to mention a job. My parents both work at Mennonite instititions and I spent a wonderful two and half years volunteering with the Mission Network in London. At their best, instiutions can provide community for their workers and constituents.
But how do we know when we’re off balance? How do we know when the values of institutional maintenance have become too central in our thinking about church? I look forward to looking more at these questions in part two of this article.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Jesus Matters, edited by James Krabill and David W. Shenk:
Does church mean an institutionalized, bureaucratic organization, irrelevant, slow to respond and limiting our potential? Obviously, this was not at all what Jesus had in mind. The church is meant to be an alternative community, subverting the values of our dominant society with kingdom of God priorities. It is to be radical, countercultural, and prophetic. It is to be a mobile and portable reservoir of kingdom-living that can be present and contextualized everywhere. Because the agenda of the ekklesia is the agenda of God’s kingdom, its interests are not narrow but broadly inclusive of all things that impact the welfare of society as well as creation. – Jack Suderman with Andrew Suderman and Irene, Bryan, Derek, Julie, Rebecca and Karen Suderman in the “Jesus and the Church” chapter