(Reprinted from a series on the Episcopal faith and work blog “Living God’s Mission.”)
By J. Fletcher Lowe, Jr.
I live in Richmond, VA, a reasonably large metropolitan area. There are several Episcopal churches from which people can choose. The congregation that I rectored several years ago made a conscious identity decision—to be known for its creative liturgy and for its community and international outreach. To make that happen, the system of our congregational life was molded to affect that. That meant having a liturgy team that could think out of the box. It meant taking some initiative both toward community needs and international connections.
Every congregation makes decisions about its identity, some conscious, others not so. It has a system that is designed to produce certain results. The systemic question is, going back to the earlier discussion of 2 blogs ago, is your mission statement where your congregational system is? The actual mission statement may be something that is unwritten, but really lived into—different from the one stated, yet securely at the heart of a congregation’s life. It’s how that congregation really functions and operates, its modus operandi. For example, a congregation’s mission statement may read that it believes in lay ministry, but practically its system only prepares/trains/honors laity who serve/minister in the congregation, e.g. lay eucharistic ministers, church school teachers, altar guild members.
So let’s take a congregation that really wants to live into a mission statement to empower the 99%, the lay folks, in their daily lives—the lives they live outside the church walls. Then conscious decisions are made in terms of its liturgy, pastoral care, communication, and formation which support that decision. For example, in liturgy, how do the Sunday- and week-day- liturgies enhance the calling of all the Baptized. Through sermons, prayers of the people, the Dismissal? On occasion are there liturgies or litanies that recognize the lay members in their work? Are there frequent Ministry Moments when congregants share their Sunday-Monday connection? Depending on the congregation’s past, this may mean a systemic change. But engaging with the questions makes clear the congregation’s desire to match its mission statement with its actual systemic actions.
The truth remains: A congregation’s system, not its statements, is what produces the kinds of members who fulfill that system.
So how do we redesign a congregation’s system? Stay tuned.
J. Fletcher Lowe is the convener of Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission, a group of lay persons, priests, and bishops committed to promoting the ministry of all the baptized in their daily lives. Rector emeritus of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, Fletcher is the author of Baptism: the Event and the Adventure, co-editor of Ministry in Daily Life, and co-author of Radical Sending.