Holding tank to base camp

by Jennifer Woodruff-Tait

We’ve been having a thought-provoking series here recently on how to change your congregation’s system to produce a church where all the members know, and behave, as though they are sent on mission. (It was sparked by this post by A. Wayne Schwab, which you may want to keep close by for reference.)

Tents at the base camp, Susunia Hill, Bankura, West Bengal, at Basic Rock Climbing Course by MAK (Mountaineers Association of Krishnanagar)

One important piece of changing the system is the church’s leadership. Basically, the leadership needs to help determine what needs changing, redesign the ministries they lead in order to produce the change, and be accountable to someone for the change. This applies to those whose leadership we immediately think of, such as the vestry or the minister of music or the director of Christian education. But it also applies to influential people within the church even if they hold no formal position. (My father, a retired United Methodist pastor and denominational bureaucrat, likes to quip “You know why they call certain people pillars of the church? Because they hold things up.”)

Bears Bluff NFH volunteer nets a large cobia out of a temporary holding tank. Credit: USFWS Image

Whether they are official or unofficial leaders, many in church leadership are working within a paradigm where mission is seen as solely or primarily the job of paid staff. If they have a full-time priest and church staff, they expect those people to do the mission of the church; if they are (as many Episcopal parishes are) small churches who can no longer support full-time staff, they yearn for the day when they might have full-time staff again. This produces a “holding tank” church system that waits around for something to happen, instead of a base camp system equipping people to infect their communities with the love of Jesus right now.

How do we get the church leadership on board to move from holding tank to base camp? Church people have been wrestling with this question for years, and it is a question deeply intertwined with the fraught mood of our current society. We are the middle of a huge paradigm shift from church-as-business-as-usual to church-as-a-chosen-and-commissioned-way-of-life. Congregations–especially white, middle-class congregations–may feel that holding on to a priest-central model will keep them connected to their particular “good old days,” and read any change as being deeply threatening.

The important thing to remember here is that while the priest is the sacramental center of the congregation, this does not mean that he or she needs to be in the center of every ministry the Eucharist makes possible.  The Eucharist is the heart of the worshiping community, and the priest is needed to make Eucharist. But through the grace of God, that Eucharist is meant to strengthen all who worship so that they can be about the mission of God in the world. As the catechism reminds us: “The ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons” and the ministry of the laity is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be”  (BCP, p. 855).

So: whatever your place in the system, begin building trust with those around you, especially those in leadership. And once trust is built, begin raising hard questions about whether you are a base camp or a holding tank. When a church’s leadership is sold on a vision of every member in ministry, commissioned by their baptism and empowered by the Eucharist, the rest of the system will become easier to shift.

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