Posted by: Titus Presler | October 12, 2009

Five mission committees? – good word, but overused by Executive Council

The October reorganization of the internal structure of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council – the group that oversees the church’s life between General Conventions – into five committee, all with the word “mission” in their names, sounds good.  It may be good if it helps the council focus on mission.  One danger, however, will be that when every name and every sentence includes the word “mission”, that word becomes synonymous with all the other genuinely good things that one might be concerned about.  Then mission’s cutting edge of our being sent into the world to encounter and form community with those who are different from ourselves get lost, or at least blurred.  Another danger is that internal issues of community life will not get tended adequately.

According to Episcopal Life Online, “On Oct. 6, the members informally agreed to a proposal from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to form five committees, tentatively named Local Mission, Church-wide Mission, World Mission, Resources for Mission and Funding for Mission. . . . The council had been divided into four standing committees – Administration & Finance (A&F), Congregations in Ministry (CIM), National Concerns (NAC) and International Concerns (INC).”  Schori’s proposal accords well with her salutary declaration at the 2009 General Convention that mission is the heartbeat of the church.

It was regrettable that names in the earlier structure did not use the word “mission” at all.  Yet it was often striking how  excitement would build around initiatives that were specifically missional.  Members of A&F, for instance, were consistently supportive of genuinely missional efforts during my time on the council, 2004-06.

On Oct. 8, ELO reported the revised and presumably now final names of the new standing committees: Local Ministry and Mission (LMM), Advocacy and Networking for Mission (ANM), World Mission (WM), Governance and Administration for Mission (GAM) and Finances for Mission (FFM).

The generous, even profligate, use of the word “mission” in the new structure could, contrary to good intentions, actually blur mission awareness.  In the initial round it was reported that “Members of the Local Mission committee will focus on work with individuals, congregations and dioceses in the areas of congregational development, multiculturalism, ministry of the baptized, clergy, and education and formation.”  Here community life and mission outreach were being conflated in an unhelpful way.  While multiculturalism is inherently missional, congregational development, a very important ministry, has missional aspects but is not itself necessarily missional.  The categories of clergy, education and formation, all vitally important, are more concerned with nurturing the health and depth of the congregation and diocese.  The revised committee name, Local Ministry and Mission, recognizes this implicitly, and it will be important for its members to reflect on the important differences between ministry and mission.

“Church Wide Mission will be charged with advocacy at a church-wide level for public policy issues that involve justice and peacemaking, anti-racism, care of the earth, health care, poverty, public education and prisons,” according to the initial ELO report.  All this is genuinely missional, so that was not an inaccurate moniker.  The revised name, Advocacy and Networking for Mission, is more cumbersome, but it is also more precise in highlighting the public policy focus, whereas “church wide” was both too vague and too comprehensive.

“World Mission includes the church’s work in partnership with the Anglican Communion and its ecumenical partners, along with considering the church’s interfaith dialogues, Anglican Communion matters, Millennium Development Goals work and the work of Episcopal Relief and Development,” again from ELO.  This is the one unrevised name change, and here things get a little blurry.  Much world mission is done in partnership with other provinces of the Anglican Communion and with other churches, but there’s a good deal of important inter-Anglican and ecumenical work that is concerned with building existing community, not with mission.  Inter-religious dialogue is inherently missional, and certainly MDG and ERD work is missional.

Finally, again according to ELO, “The Resources for Mission and Funding for Mission committees will split the functions of the A&F Committee, with the former set to handle Episcopal Church administration and governance issues and the latter to concentrate on budget and related matters.”  Now the two new groups are named Governance and Administration for Mission (GAM) and Finances for Mission (FFM), both names more precise than the earlier proposals.  Here’s where the missional focus may really be tested.  If the name changes are designed truly to shift the focus of Executive Council to the genuinely missional life of the church, well and good, but it’s an open question whether that can be or should be sustained.  Simply the fact that administration and governance are cited as the work of GAM and budget “and related matters” are cited as the work of FFM signals that much of the work will remain the same, only under new names.  There are many aspects of administration, governance and budgeting that are not particularly missional but which are nevertheless important to nurturing the church’s life.  And those matters cannot and should not be left only to staff, for the role of Executive Council is to oversee the major directions of the church’s life.  In the past the church has suffered when Executive Council abdicated that role.

The critique here is not that the name change is undertaken in bad faith, nor even that reality will not fulfill self-expectation.  It is rather that the faithful life of the church is made up of many things, all of them good.  Some aspects of the church’s life are internal, what can be called community life.  Some aspects of the church’s life are external, and those are rightly seen as mission.  As I’ve said before, community and mission are symbiotic: community life needs to be vital and dynamic to support mission, and mission both extends and feeds the life of the community.  Both community and mission fulfill the church’s purpose as the Body of Christ.  Community without mission dies out.  Mission without community burns out.  Calling everything mission turns out to be neither accurate nor helpful.

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