The Challenge of Institutional Church Life
June 12, 2017
By Christopher Page, rector St Philip, Oak Bay
Institutions need to be constantly reforming in response to the deep moving of the Spirit and the realities of the context in which they are attempting to serve.
Bob Sabath suggests,
If we are lucky, we outgrow the organizations that we ourselves give birth to and become “joyfully disillusioned” with the very institutions that we help to create.
But, at the same time, we cannot afford to simply abandon the institutional structures of the past:
if we are wise, some of us will grow by staying within the very organizations that we ourselves have outgrown.
The tension of this seeming contradiction is the transformational stew of new possibilities, both for the individual who stays and for the organization. We should not expect the institution to be more that it can be.
In some ways we no longer “believe” in the organization, but we do pin our hopes to the renewal energy that birthed it, and keep letting that spirit renew us.
The challenge of serving within institutional structures that are at times over-bearing and stultifying can be almost overwhelming. How do we keep alive the possibility of continuous rebirth while respecting the “necessities of policies, procedures, protocols, precedents, and concerns about hiring and firing, supervision and management, promotions and salaries, lawsuits and litigation”?
Sabath suggests it is only by holding this tension that
we can stand in the midst of organizational disappointments and betrayals, of silliness and pettiness.
Then he says,
Broken dreams and relationships do not need to destroy us. Instead, with consciously applied inner work, they can become small doors that lead to greater wholeness.
There’s the rub. Maintaining this balance between the constriction of structure and the freedom of the Spirit requires “consciously applied inner work.” And institutions do not tend to be sympathetic to the time, energy, commitment, and discipline that “inner work” requires. Institutions rejoice in the energy of the full-speed-ahead, take control, make-things-happen, hands-on, micro-managing activist.
Institutions are less comfortable with the quiet, set apart, waiting energy of the contemplative.
But, the unfortunate truth for institutions is that doing more, putting everyone’s nose to the grindstone, pushing harder, and dedicating sixty hours a week to keeping the machinery of business turning over, is not a recipe for creativity, innovation, and depth.
Organizations that claim to be committed to doing the work of Jesus, have a particularly difficult time reconciling institutional life with the contemplative call. In our busy, complex, activist world, it is not easy to know what leadership looks like in an organization that is committed to a teacher who is reported to have said,
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6:25-29)
But Bob Sabath points the way forward to what “consciously applied inner work” will look like, saying:
It takes a contemplative mind to see one’s own inner contradictions, the failures and inherent betrayals within our own lives and the institutions that we help to create. Those who take this journey of descent into their own sacred wound understand that what is flawed in them is somehow intimately connected to the unique gift that they have to offer to a broken world.
Shadow work becomes a necessary spiritual discipline. Seeing in themselves what they dislike in the other, they learn to be gentle and kind.
They delight in vulnerability and weakness, and believe that the wisdom that comes from their mistakes and failures is worth passing on to younger communities and movements.
If we are to do this “shadow work” we are going to need to step aside frequently from the demands of institutional life.
While acknowledging the demands of institutional life, in the church we do not serve the institution. We serve the One to whom all structures exist to encourage us to open our hearts.
Source: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/the-challenge-of-institutional-church-life-2/. Reprinted by permission.