Faithfulness in Mission and Ministry
In Parish and In Public
By Keith Forni, STS
Start with the Sending
Let’s begin at the end. Sunday in and Sunday out, the Eucharistic Liturgy ends with a commission. It’s Easter rendition may sound like this: “Go in Peace to Serve the Lord. Alleluia!” You know the assembly’s response: “Thanks be to God! Alleluia!”
That cousin of ite missa est — the mass has ended — signals (denotes) “sending.” Having gathered ‘round word and table, font and ambo, the assembly disperses to as many venues for ministry as there are people in its ranks. Bishop Mark Hanson recently quipped: Why doesn’t the assembly re-convene the next week with the query: “So… how’d it go?” That is to say, What shape did that serving take since our last time at the table? Or, cast in the language of our Festival’s promotional brochure: What kind of footing did you find out there? Did you make it across the (real or imagined) ravine between sanctuary and society? Was there any forward movement in the Spirit-led connecting of word and world? Or did treacherous footing prompt a retreat?
Pastoral Ministry with a Public Context
At the outset of my ministry as a Mission Developer in Joliet, Illinois, a type of “deliberate debriefing” took place often — in the form of a follow up from Frances Ramirez. Frances was a Mission Developer’s dream: especially when the pastor-developer was an Anglo Lutheran pastor, sent to serve out of an historically Swedish congregation, charged with outreach to the mainly Mexican-American population, already the dominate demographic group in the immediate parish service area.
Frances and her husband Eligio provided this pastor-developer with a wonderful bridge into the community — a “connecting path to the public.” She was the kind of key person that one will encounter in immigrant contexts: A resource person extraordinaire, a woman of deep faith, nurtured in several ecclesial contexts, savvy about school, health and governmental bureaucracies — and fully capable of guiding the newcomer through them all, whether in English, Spanish, or as was Frances’ way, a rapid-fire, winsome mix of the two.
Frances Ramirez had an eye for fellow countrymen and women in peril. The community knew this, and would refer folks to the door of Frances and Eligio’s tiny three-room apartment on Herkimer Street, a place of close quarters made even smaller because of the array of goods, stacked for ready distribution: dishes, food, clothing, cards. All were set to be shared with the new neighbor across the street or to be shipped back to needy families in her beloved San Luis Potosi, Mexico on their next bus trip.
Frances would make the point of detailing just how the Pastor-Developer’s week might faithfully unfold: “Pastor, be sure to visit…” And then came the list. Not infrequently, names would come with the qualifier: (So and so) No church…(Fulano?) no church… or she would note the hospitalized, the grieving, the imprisoned, the troubled needing a visit.
I learned from Frances, and gratefully welcomed her connections — marching orders of sorts into that close at hand public place called neighborhood. I also learned to have ready answers when she would, in her own way, inquire as to “just how it had gone” during the past week when she would arrive the following Sunday. Frances and Eligio are padrinos (sponsors) for the current ministry of La Casa de Amistad, or “house of friendship,” the congregationally sponsored Community Center of Santa Cruz Lutheran Church in Joliet where I continue to serve as pastor.
In this paper, with the backdrop of contemporary calls for the church to “go public” such as those of the church-based (professional) organizing movement and new, high-profile calls for Lutherans (and particularly the ELCA) to step more vocally and vigorously into the public square, I will briefly survey this current scene, with a view toward the challenges and consequences posed for parish ministry by these developments.
I will assert that the lively interplay of parish and public ministry venues is keenly expressed in the ministry of the whole people of God and that the ordained ministers dare not diminish their central role in serving this laos tou Theou: Equipping the saints for their ministry in God’s world… attending together “to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” just so the baptized are refreshed and sent out for their faithful ministry in the world. With you, I ask — and look forward to probing — the question: “What shape does Fidelity in Ministry and Mission take, both in parish and in public?”
How are the ecclesial and public venues for ministry kept in lively and faithful balance? Extremes of quietism and activism pose twin dangers. This presentation and our ensuing conversation will consider the tensions that exist as to the role of the ordered ministry in relation to that of the whole baptized people of God in the public realm.
Deluged by Invitations: Organizational Nibbling
While ordered ministers, parish pastors also live in the ebb and flow of sending and gathering.
With the people they serve and equip, they minister inside and outside the walls surrounding the sanctuary. Their public vocational spectrum, centered in their ecclesial call, also includes life as neighbor and citizen. They reside in a parish — but also in a ward, precinct, school district, municipality, state & nation.
With such multi-faceted public visibility, parish pastors can expect no shortage of invitations to sit on community boards, provide chaplaincy to service clubs and offer invocations at civic events. Who among us — feeling out of sorts in a brand new call, or in the midst of a wintry season in ministry — has not been perked up by such an overture? The range of such invitations can include the likes of these:
- Reverend, will you pitch in for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn? We’d like to put you in our “Lock Up” and have you phone your associates to raise “bond”for your “release”? — all for the cause, of course.
- We need you on the University Extension Advisory Board
- You’re just the one for the current council vacancy at the Community Free Clinic
- Please join our High School District Strategic Planning Group
- You’ve got a decent little neighborhood concerns group meeting at your church. Why not join our new church based organization and make a real impact?
This barrage of invitations is compounded by the stream of public-oriented overtures from denominational ties: These include (to name a few):
- The high-profile focus in the ELCA on Human Sexuality… with it’s broad constellation of workshops, studies, task-forces and conferences.
- Justice advocacy through Lutheran social services
- Organizing for the needs of ethnic specific ministries.
- There are also the issues that spring up in the community context itself:
- A neighbor’s inquiry “I’m new to the community. When does the block club meet?”
- A neo-Nazi demonstration at a highly visible entry area to a suburban shopping mall, which also happened to be right in front of a Lutheran congregation.
- The hungry ones knocking on the door — ”angels unaware,” not only seeking a help, but reminding of the need for advocacy that could address the root causes of their plight.
The net effect of these invitations prompted a colleague, Pr. Abraham Allende, in Canton, Ohio to fortify his resolve as he began a new and challenging mission development: “I am determined to keep myself from being nibbled away” by a barrage of good causes. He knew where his focus had to be: on the work of a pastor-evangelist, seeking, gathering, nourishing and equipping a community ‘neath the cross of Jesus.
Every time and place will give rise to varied opportunities for faithful public witness. I imagine a type of “triage (center)” through which to filter these overtures. The tradition we share leads us to assess these invitations in the light of our overriding call as “stewards of the mysteries” sent to bear witness in the world to the risen Lord Jesus. Opportunities abound for solo links to the community at large. They are best sifted through “missionally,” strategically, and collegially.
Invitations and issues external to congregational life and evangelical outreach can distract from central aspects of parish ministry — and yet they may also become avenues for incarnational engagement with the very community to which the pastor has been sent. For this reason, and perhaps especially in mission development contexts, the invitations can not be simply dismissed out-of-hand.
Focused on Central Things
At a Colloquium on Ministry in the Great Tradition last fall at Concordia Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Pastor Phillip Max Johnson acknowledged the challenge of keeping focused on “things central” to the ordained ministry: While there are worthy social ministry projects and needs, “preparing sermons is hard work and requires much time and energy.” His comment has lingered with me — a motivating force in setting out to write, resulting in a reassessment of my own pastoral time management — and my need to restore homiletical preparation to its rightful place.
Go x 2 = Green Light for Mission
The Sending of the eucharistic liturgy, “Go in peace, serve…” echoes the sending that concludes Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore to all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28) Here, then, is an emphatic green light for ministry and mission. The Gospel’s “GO” reverberates in the “GO” of the eucharistic liturgy. It is an imperative to the second power — a resounding “great commission” indeed.
In light of this great commissioning of the people of God, the public face of faithful (parish) ministry is not so much located in positions on the compelling societal issues of the day (as important as these may be) as it is with redundant forays into the public context — in all their seeming ordinariness — in which their ministries unfold. Nor does the “public face” of ministry reside primarily in the well crafted and finely tuned pronouncements of social statements or assembly resolutions (although these, too, have their place). Rather, the public face of faithful parish ministry has to do with a presence and participation in community, grounded in the radiating center which is Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen.
Headlines? Or Bee-lines?
This faithfulness is not measured by frequency of reference in the public press, although it may lead to such coverage. This view of fidelity in mission and ministry is not infatuated with making headlines, rather to making a bee-line to the places of human heart-ache, to the side of the “little ones” who are regularly deemed as being inconsequential by the world at large, to the vulnerable, the last, least & lost. Among them, in our Joliet context, are those who enter into this country at risk of their lives in order to earn a five or six dollars an hour and the youth who are besieged by a culture of consumption — courted by the false promise of feel-good consumerism. Your own context for ministry will quickly expand this list.
Such fidelity will find its shape though a balancing of time in the sanctuary and time out on the streets. Mindfulness of a calling to parish and public can challenge sedentary ways: it can stir movement away from isolated desks and computers, and toward actual community.
We who are so easily ensconced within congregational life and leadership would have ministry enriched through the simple act of more frequent & deliberate walks through the neighborhoods surrounding our parish properties. I appreciate the exercise that our field-work seminarians have been assigned: conducting such walks and coupling them with conversations with residents and leaders, so as to, as it is said, “exegete the community.” Needed, too, are deliberate, scheduled times to (intentionally and prayerfully) walk in the community and encounter the people of one’s geographical parish (the congregation’s immediate service area).
To be faithful in ministry and mission requires a faithful engagement of the world as the world redeemed by Christ. This fidelity is centered in a steadfastness, the gracious gift of the God who has drawn near to and embraced the world, as the incarnate one, the word made flesh. In a world which seems to be coming undone; in a world “wearied by the chances and changes of life”; those that commit their way to this faithful Lord are steadied by the abiding Christ.
In Affirmation of Social Ministry
Social issues cannot be ignored by the faith community. Why should they? The congregations regularly gather and go out again and again, in the confidence that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Ps. 24.1) In the baptismal liturgy, the newly baptized are greeted as those who will join in the proclaming of “the praise of God and the (bearing of) his creative and redeeming Word to all the world.” In the Affirmation of Baptism those who are making affirmation are invited to embrace the shared vocation of the baptized:
“…to live among God’s faithful people, to hear his Word and share in his supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
Those ordained to the mninistry of Word and Sacrament can read in their call to ministry, that they are, as ELCA call documents put it, “to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and the oppressed… to equip (the saints) for witness and service… to guide (them) in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.”
Sometimes the social context for ministry has come so unraveled that there is no other option for the faith community than to active, profoundly public engagement. Reflecting on the devastated community on Chicago’s West Side surrounding her Bethel Lutheran Church in the late 1960’s, Mary Nelson noted that she, her brother Pr. David Nelson (of blessed memory) and lay leaders had to act so that there would be a community within which Bethel could be the church. The ensuing Bethel New Life ministries and programs have been a model for many urban, congregational, public ministry initiatives, especially in matters of housing, economic development and education.
Public Church & Church Based Organizing
Let’s turn now to the contemporary call to “go public” as the church… and consider one expression of (or avenue for) such a “Public Church” — what has come to be known as “church based (professional) organizing.”
“Church based organizing” is one expression of a “church-that’s-gone-public.” What’s at stake here? Both peril and promise await us on this pathway.
Church based organizing has been advanced and developed by several networks or umbrella organizations. The major groups include: Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), and (the one with which my parish has had direct involvement) the Gamaliel Foundation. Several Society of the Holy Trinity pastors and their congregations have considerable experience in this realm: Pr. Jim Peters, of Emmanuel, Racine, with a church-based organizing group in his southeastern Wisconsin area and Pr. Tom Knutson, of First Lutheran Church in Harvey, with the South Suburban Action Council and its technical arm, the New Cities Community Development Corporation. My own experience has been through the Joliet Area Church-based Organized Body, (JACOB) which relates to Gamaliel.
(The roll call of organizational, Biblical acronyms is intriguing: There is a MICAH in Milwaukee, there was an AARON in Aurora — no one as yet, to my knowledge, has dibs on ZERUBBABEL.)
Promise and potential…
On the positive side, church based organizing can benefit congregational ministry and mission by:
1. Opening up new conversations and relationships through which the Good News of Jesus Christ can be heard afresh. The congregation’s self-perception, its property, people and purpose, can be reassessed from the vantage point of community-based, ecumenical ministry.
2. Church based organizing can assist pastors and parishioners, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry to grow in faithful engagement with the broad human diversity which often is far more apparent in the neighborhoods surrounding Lutheran congregations than in the actual, gathered communities of faith themselves. In Joliet, the gatherings of JACOB were without match, in bringing together on a monthly basis African American, Anglo and Hispanic-Latino Christians — believers who, for the most part, worship in congregations that are primarily or even exclusively comprised of members of their own ethnic group.
3. Organizing can be especially invigorating for ministry in hardscrabble places, along the racial and socio-economic fault lines of our society. It can have special impact in settings where change and attrition have dealt staggering blows or simply eroded the energies of congregations and communities.
Perils and Pitfalls in this brand of “Going Public”as Church
In my experience and that of my congregation, the liabilities of church based organizing loom larger than the benefits:
1. Through our two “terms” with JACOB — one in the ‘90s and another in the opening years of this decade, it was our experience that the church based organizing approach was sacrificing the breadth and depth of the Gospel for a frenetic and insatiable activism.
2. Troubling as well was the fact that the buzz of “issue-centered busy-ness” became wrapped in a veneer of religion. “Reverend, a prayer, please…” and then let’s cut to the chase: We’ve got to do a power analysis, plan our public protest, check progress on our Get Out the Vote campaign, line up our “one-on-ones” (self interest interviews). The ambitious list goes on….
3. Lamentably, our shared resources of faith life seemed lost in the rush to be active, to identify “winnable issues” and to gain “organizational victories.” Dominated by professional organizers with a view toward numerical turn-out, the life of our church based (professionally directed) organization was minimally shaped by Word, prayer and piety. Overtures to draw deeper from this refreshing well were rebuffed or ignored by the contracted organizers.
4. A major disconnect existed between the organizers and the worshiping assemblies. Eager to promote “one-on-ones” (intentional conversations intended to strengthen relationships), the organizers balked at the suggestion that they pursue a few “one-on-one-hundred(s)” that is, to be present at the public worship of the church based organization member congregations.
5. In the church base organization approach, as it has been experienced in Illinois, “self interest” and the acquistition of (worldly) power prevails. These are primary focal points which stand in stark contrast with the church called by the one who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45) of whom it was said, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:7)
6. Finally, “Going Public” along the path of church based organizing also meant Going to Meetings. Lots of them. In fact, the the church based organization had far more meetings each month than did our congregation. With the meetings came the organizational expectation that each member congregation be represented at every level of the church based organization. There were frequent exhortations to be productive in terms of “turn out” for special campaigns and events. Left unchecked, zealous church based organizations can drain congregational and pastoral time and energies.
These points were reason enough to terminate our relationship with “JACOB.” Their approach to ministry in parish and in public left us wanting on the congregational side of the ledger. And yet, experience of church based organizing stirs the imagination.
Shifting the Focus: Organizing with a Passion for the Parish
One comes away from this experience with a hope for a new generation of truly parish based, spiritually grounded, community organizations. Imagine such an initiative with a premium placed on prayer, worship and theological reflection. A churchly organization which is not shy about seeing strength in numbers — and yet which gladly embraces the vision of a servant church, following the Lord’s own emptying noted in Philippians 2. Pastor Mark Wegener, in his summer 2000 article in Lutheran Partners entitled “Investing in Strong(er) Communities” has called for an adjustment in nomenclature, preferring as he says, “to call our work congregation-centered organizing.” He adds, “Although the two terms are mutually complementary, they do suggest divergent perspectives. ‘Church-based’ focuses outward; ‘congregation-centered’ focuses inward. What we call something does make a difference.” The difference isn’t detailed in Wegener’s article, but the observation stimulates consideration of what a genuinely congregational-focused community organizing approach would look like.
1. There would be a closer link between ministry in the public context and that of congregational life. Initiatives and ministry partners would be regularly referenced in the prayers of the church.
2. This more intimate link with the faith heritage would also be evident in ecumenical life together. There would be a confident appropriation of our common ecumenical set of resources: Intercessory prayer, the Our Father, Psalms, laments, hymns, spiritual songs and times of shared silence. These could be truly formative if given their due place.
3. “Organizers” would be parish-commissioned, set apart in the public worship of the congregations they serve and to whom they would be accountable.
4. Alliances with other congregations could be forged, but kept unencumbered from complex, layered affiliations and commitments with wide-ranging networks. These local, inter-Lutheran and / or ecumenical partnerships would be “nimble” enough to provide quick response in times of crisis — and to work selectively on longer range, community-strengthening projects as determined by shared vision, time, personnel and resources. When vitally linked (woven) to the life of the assembly, such congregation-focused, church-based organizing could become an important ingredient in renewal of mission and ministry in the parish. (That is, in the faith community and its surrounding neighborhoods.)
The Sanctuary and the Streets
In his book, “Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing,” (Augsburg-Fortress) Pastor Dennis Jacobson reprises the “ravine” between the sanctuary and the city in this way:
“I love the sanctuary. It holds a calming, quiet beauty. One may hear shooting in the streets but in the sanctuary people share the peace. Outside is abusive, vulgar language. Inside language is sacred. Outside is gross inequality. Inside everyone stands equal in confession and kneels equal at the altar. Outside is a maddening, chaotic pace. Inside is orderly, liturgical time. Outside are the words of politicians. Inside is the word of God.
I resonate to the words of Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord… For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
Parish as Place
When parish is understood as place it becomes more than the set of shared experiences of a defined congregation. To reference “Faithful Mission and Ministry in Parish and in Public” is really a blessed redundancy: for any walls between the two require Spirit-borne permeability.
It’s best to make our ending with the sending. A widely beloved hymn in With One Voice casts that sending in paschal light: “Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the word around: loaves abound! Jesus calls us in, sends us out, bearing fruit in a world of doubt. Gives us love to tell, bread to share. God, Immanuel, ev’rywhere!”
Ordered ministers are called to attend to the central elements of their office. In doing this in daily life where we are called, the Spirit will teach us to respond in appropriate ways and to faithfully live out ministry and mission as under-shepherds of the Good Shepherd who leads the way.