Basic Tool 36 — Moving from Maintenance to Mission

Not a Journey but a Migration
by Wayne Schwab

Moving from maintenance of the church as an institution to mission in the world is a topic of much discussion.  The move appeals to many people as a way to get the church out of its doldrums and difficulties.  To move from maintenance to mission, however, is not an easy task.  It would appear that God is dismantling the church as we know it.  Fortunately, God can be trusted also to build and to plant.  Recovering mission is not the new “gimmick” for renewal.  Rather, it is a call to a new and special kind of journey to a migration.  We return home from a journey to familiar surroundings, but migrants leave their past home forever.  They carry with them only the bare essentials for survival in a new land. Migrants expect what they bring with them to assimilated into a wholly new way of living.  The church will face a migration if it plans to move from maintenance to mission.

Migrants have a vision of their future home.  The Episcopal prayer book’s “An Outline of the Faith” states our vision, namely, ‘to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” 1 This vision guides our migration.  Our constant task is to discern its shape in our own time.  Today’s question asks who the primary agents of the mission are.  Today’s answer is that the primary agents of mission are the baptized in all of the arenas of their daily lives.  This answer is still far more of a vision than a lived reality.  For many people the reality is that the ordained are the primary agents of the mission.  For all of us to know ourselves as agents of God’s reign wherever we are constitutes a grand vision of a future home indeed!   No one know just what our future home will look like, but at least we have a vision to inspire us.

As migrants prepare to move, they try to anticipate what lies ahead and how to organize themselves to reach their destination.  Furthermore, all of the migrants need to be part of the conversation.  I asked three other migrants—Robert Davis Hughes III (a professor of systematic theology) and two native American clergy, Mark MacDonald (now bishop-elect of Alaska) and John E. Robertson (a missioner for Indian work in the Diocese of Minnesota)—to converse with me by electronic mail about this vision for mission and how to realize it.  Their candor has helped me to put my thoughts into this form.  For example, John Robertson quickly spotted instances of the language of ownership and dominance which come so easily to Judeo-Christians of European ancestry.  I have tried to remove those instances from this article.  Similarly, a rereading of what we have shared makes painfully clear the limits of our four voices.  We need to hear women’s voices, as well as the voices of the aging, those of young adults, youth, and children, and especially today’s oppressed and out casts.  All of the voices are needed to present a fair and inclusive picture of the transition from maintenance to mission.  These three thinkers join me in the discussion only as part of the growing chorus concerned about the migration from maintenance to mission.  This article presents some of the experiences, challenges, and obstacles that, we suspect, lie ahead of us.


Cultural Diversity

Incorporating the present cultural diversity is the first challenge.  Northern European images and forms of thought dominate the life of the Episcopal Church.  Any move to mission today must begin with the recognition of one’s particular cultural limitations.  Genuine dialogue with people from other cultures will bring such recognition, as long as the northern European community is read to respect the culture of the other.  For example, northern Europeans simply cannot work and talk meaningfully with native Americans without respecting their culture and seeking to grasp the ways the have already made the Christian story their own.  Liturgical forms especially cry out to be shaped in the images and forms of thought of native Americans.  The exchange of genuine encounter will both challenge and enrich the experience of northern Europeans.  They can expect to be surprised at how big God is—to use a metaphor of J. B. Phillips.2 They will be offered riches tat they did not even know existed.

The same is true for encounters with African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans.  Cultural limitations demand that people from all cultures take part in these debate about the future shape of mission.  Probably the most serious limitations come from eons of make dominance in our Western culture.


The Grip of the Institution

We must also face the hold the institution has over the minds and visions f its members.  The ability of the institution to keep its attention focused on itself rather than on its mission is truly astonishing to Behold.  “Faith” and “Christian community” are the usual content of goal statements.  Mission, however, rarely appears, and no one seems to notice.  For instance, a diocesan search committee for a new bishop sent a questionnaire to all members of the diocese to prepare a diocesan profile.  The used the SWEEP categories3 from the early 1980s—service, worship, evangelism, education, and pastoral care—to collect data on what was happening and what was desired.  They added an additional “S” for stewardship, as has been done in many places.  From the original categories, however, the omitted service, replacing it with spirituality.  Not one of the more than twenty members of the committee noticed.


The Laity as the Primary Missionaries

Perhaps the basic challenge of mission is to grasp that in today’s world the primary missionaries and ministers of the gospel are the baptized, active in each of the arenas of their daily lives.  The church’s members are slow to see their daily round of activities as their mission fields.  Ministry is almost always an “add-on,” an extra that one does when one thinks about it.  Being a spouse, parent, worker, volunteer, or worker at one’s hobby is not seen as a “field” of mission and ministry.  This perspective is especially true in our daily work:  if you get paid for it, it must not be ministry.

In some congregations the clergy are expected to visit members at their daily work and to plan for the celebration of vocational and volunteer groups in Sunday liturgies.  These are good beginnings, but they only begin to address the issue.

The next step would be to use these or similar questions to guide congregational planning and work:

  • Does every member recognize and accept each of the arenas of their daily lives as their unique arenas for mission and ministry?
  • Is the congregation’s life oriented around supporting is members in their daily living?
  • Is worship a private encounter with God, or is it the people together offering the world and their life in it to God for cleansing and empowerment?
  • How are visitors informed that Christ’s call is the call to mission in all of the arenas of one’s daily life?
  • Are the clergy—whether seminary-trained or locally ordained—understood to be consultants to the members as individuals and the congregation as a whole in carrying out their call to mission? Do the clergy see themselves this way?



A further challenge is the need to recover apologetics—the critique of social and cultural patterns of the day in the light of the gospel.  Seldom does Christian commentary seem aware that reincarnation, not resurrection to eternal life, dominates the understanding of death in the minds of many.  Further, many people seen to have lost and sense of the reality of evil.  Church leaders show some awareness that people do not take evil seriously, but there seems to be little attempt to bring the issue into open exploration.  Social critics such as Robert Bellah point to neocapitalism as today’s dominant value system.  Bellah describes it primary values as individualism, a compulsion for independence, a contempt for weakness, and the adulation of success.4 These circumstances imply that when nonchurch people com to the church, they will arrive unaware of the radical reorientation that the Christian message requires.  Furthermore, today’s technology, historical research, and distrust of institutions mean that nonchurch people are full of questions.  When they are not questioning, it is appropriately the role of the church to help them to raise questions.5 Yet much of church life does not seem to make room for the radical inquiry and reorientation needed.  Few and far between are the congregations that value doubt and skepticism in such a way as to uphold and work constructively with them.

The final irony of insensitivity to the world in which we live is how slow church leaders are to learn from the explosion of knowledge.  For example, the Episcopal Church withdrew from utilizing research about leadership in the early 1970s.Consequently, the ability to formulate vision the ability to communicate that vision, and the readiness to make the hard decisions to realize that vision are unfamiliar ground for church leaders and their trainers today. 7 The world has much to teach us.  God is at work in the world just as surely as God is at work in the church.  Apologetics can adopt and enhance as well as challenge aspects of the secular such as research or leadership.


Blindness to the Call to Action

A more disconcerting obstacle is a widespread blindness to the call to action.  Many seem to have been traumatized by the ferocity of the critics of “works righteousness.”  It may be, however, that the real problem for church members is “Works avoidance.”  George Gallup names one of three gaps he sees in the religious condition of Americans today in this way,

First, there is an ethics gap—the difference between the way we think of ourselves and the way we actually are.  While religion is highly popular in this country, survey evidence suggest that it does not change people’s lives to the degree one would expect from the level of professed faith.8 

In recent years a great deal of attention has been devoted to spirituality.  Much spiritual direction emphasizes the relinquishing of the compulsions and drives that imply we are in control and can do anything we want.  Often this emphasis serves to distract us from concrete action in either private or public life.  Moreover, we must recognize the culture’s attempt to confine religion to personal life and to leave public life free of an ultimate measure of justice.  It is necessary, therefore, to take great care not to separate personal holiness from public righteousness John Wesley saw these two aspects of the Christian life as indivisible.9

Likewise, William Wilberforce combined personal and public holiness throughout the whole of his life.  He was sustained during his costly but finally victorious struggle against slavery in the West Indies by his Christian support group known as the Clapham sect.  He wrote to his son, “In short, my dear Samuel, the best preparation for being a good politician, as well as a superior man in every other line, is to be a truly religious man.”10 Charles Gore, Frederick Denison Maurice, and William Temple have shared this conviction with Wesley and Wilberforce.11 This spirit would cause many people not to be so quiet when prejudice and hardheartedness flavor the flow of conversation at the coffee break or a social event.  Fewer people would despair of influencing the government; more might evaluate their present method of working for social change and seek new ones.

Another popular conviction that guides church life runs along these lines:  “I tried social action in the 1960s. Now, I believe I need to straighten myself out first.  Individuals who have been straightened out will then straighten out the world.”  This stance often structures the way in which people are prepared for commitment and membership.  “Don’t get into justice issues while new members are in the process of entering the community-such concerns are too complex for babes in the faith.”  Jesus appears not to have practiced such a norm.  He seems, rather, to have spoken persistently of living a life of costly discipleship, of sharing what one has, and of treating outcasts as sisters and brothers.  Did we not learn that church participation in the civil rights movement confounded many people because they had never been briefed about the public implications of loving one’s neighbor?  Why are congregations that are recovering catechumenal or discipleship formation more prone to state the purpose of this process as formation in faith and community rather than as formation in mission? 12

The biblical story up to and through Jesus Christ is clear on the central place of justice in the life of faith. God may reject our worship because our work for justice is weak (see Amos 5:21-24; Matt. 23:23-24). God never seems ready to reject our justice because our worship is weak.


Blindness to Understanding Poverty and Wealth 

Most congregations reverberate with talk of the evils of “welfare dependence.”  Yet members of these same congregations have no hesitancy to claim the mortgage deduction on their income tax.  Apparently, middle-class home owners have become “dependent” on this form of “welfare” payment to maintain their lifestyle. Are not corporations “dependent” on a form of “welfare” when they accept tax breaks in order to locate in a new community! Ranchers and mining concerns that use public lands at rates set in the 1850s have likewise become “dependent” on a kind of “welfare.”

These actions reveal lack of a true understanding of poverty and wealth.13 A great deal of money flows into the inner city, but it flows right out again. The rate of absentee ownership of land, buildings, businesses, and banks in our inner cities is seventy to ninety-five percent.  It approximates that of the Third World.  Moreover, the poor have little access to the monies they put in their banks.  One study found that only three percent of a bank’s deposits were on loan in the poor community that the bank served.

Likewise, the origins of wealth are overlooked.  Not all individual wealth has been individually earned.  Few recognize that the community as a whole is a generator of wealth.  Certainly, individuals are economic actors:  they deserve to be respected, their investments should be protected, and their equity should be returned.  The community is their business partner, however, and wealth is neither public nor private.  Rather, a close examination of the nature of wealth shows that the public and the private spheres work together in almost every economic relationship.

Many people speak of how the churches are taking over the government’s role in caring for the poor.  How many congregations exist, however, in which the members ask each other how the companies for which they work and the communities in which they live can help to raise the quality of life for everyone, but especially for poor people?  If congregations discussed these issues in depth, individual members might start to ask these sorts of questions at work and on the town councils on which they serve.  They would begin to take up the mission of Jesus Christ where they are, that is, where the most powerful difference can be made.  For example, I recently served on the finance committee preparing the local school budget. During talk of how to make ends meet with scarce funds, there was little attention given to the responsibility of local business and industry to play a role in providing some of the equipment and training for those same young people whose skills those businesses and industries will need to employ in order to prosper in the years ahead.


Changing Structures in Leadership and in the Training of Leaders 

There are also structural obstacles to mission. The belief that the only “real” churches are those congregations that have the “right” full-time priest remain strong.  As long as we are caught in this pattern, our migration will, indeed, be slow.  In many places this way of being the church is no longer economically feasible.  More to the point, however, this pattern continues a dependence upon the ordained as the center of ministry and implies that the non-ordained are second-class citizens in Christ’s reign.  A variety of responses are being explored.   One is the gathering of congregations into clusters to share the ministrations of one or more ordained clergy who live in the area.14 Another is the ordaining of members of congregations under Canon 9,15 possibilities to investigate include the use of African models of lay catechists or adapting some form of Methodist itinerancy to present conditions.  Clusters of clergy and laity living together under a common rule as they serve the surrounding region—the model used by the English ministers of the tenth through thirteenth centuries—may also be a suitable option.

My three colleagues and I have had our liveliest interchange over the place of locally ordained or Canon 9 clergy in the restructuring of church life.  Robert Hughes has underlined the need to uphold the value of a sufficiently trained and educated priesthood, for which we fought at the Reformation.  He has often been alarmed to encounter sacerdotalism in Canon 9 clergy, manifested for example in too high a view of orders and an inability to separate the office from one’s own person.  In commenting on this problem, Mark MacDonald noted that Canon 9 clergy often do not receive the ongoing supervision and constant call to accountability that they both need and deserve.  The Diocese of Northern Michigan is among the dioceses that have considerable experience in developing systems of support and supervision for their locally ordained clergy.  Its bishop, Thomas Ray, readily acknowledges that many years of experience are still needed before the long-term effect of this structural change can be fully evaluated.
Hughes observed that the English have also been developing regional training schemes that are not focused on universities and theological colleges; similar programs might offer some alternatives to seminary education in this country.

We do well to recall recent advances in knowledge about the leadership of systems.17 Significant change takes place over the long term, and such change must affect the system as a whole.  A system is designed to produce the results that it is getting.  In order to get different results, it is necessary to change the system. The church, as it is currently designed, produces compliant, loyal members.  We will need to redesign the system if we want to produce agents of Christ’s reign who believe themselves called to transform the arenas of their daily lives.  Centering on mission and the laity as the primary agents of mission requires substantive changes in the system. Small congregations may have an advantage over larger congregations in this shift.  Supporting their members in the mission fields of their daily lives already is the primary work of small congregations.  They do not need complex organization.  Support for mission at work, at home, and in the community already lies within their resources.

Change is also needed in seminary education so that seminaries are able to train clergy and lay leaders to lead congregations to reshape their life around the ministry of the members in the arenas of their daily lives.  The central skill for this task is the ability to articulate and sustain a theological vision for the mission of the laity over an extended period of time.  Sustaining a vision means making the hard decisions needed to realize that vision week by week, year by year, over at least a ten-year period.  If a vision is sustained in this way, changes take root, grow, and blossom.  Seminaries must learn to teach these skills for use in whatever structure of leadership we have.

Hughes also has observed that middle-size and larger congregations in the South and Southwest are now finding it difficult to locate clergy with enough past experience to lead them.  Most seminaries are graduating people in their forties and fifties with late vocations because diocesan commissions on ministry have shown a preference for older candidates.  These graduates, however, have not had the learning experiences in leadership open to those who first undertook church leadership when they were in their twenties.  Even at a young age, learning to orient one’s leadership around the laity as the primary agents of mission is sufficiently difficult. The problem is much harder when one has to develop such leadership in one’s forties and fifties, especially if one comes from a background in a secular, hierarchical structure.  We have sawed off the bottom half of the pipe line, as Hughes has put it.  In addition, as discussed above, fewer small congregations can afford a full-time, seminary-trained priest, and fewer medium-sized congregations can afford a curate-in-training.  This situation further diminishes the opportunities for developing effective leaders.


The Worldwide Mission 

A final observation is that the mission of the church is worldwide as well as local and national. Migration challenges migrants to develop breadth of vision.  Reckoning with cultural difference is essential to worldwide mission.  Living and articulating the gospel in a wholly different culture is invaluable in the task of discerning the difference between the gospel and one’s own culture. Moreover, preaching the gospel and making disciples of all nations calls for genuine encounter with the other world religions.  The other great religions of the world are already part of our national life in the United States.  The search for ways for believers to speak of the centrality of Jesus Christ for themselves in discussions with believers of other faiths has only begun.


Migrating to a New Land of Promise 

The move from maintenance to mission is not a relocation—a temporary trial made tolerable by rented trucks or vans with teams of movers. It is a migration.  God’s people have a long history as a migrant people.  We shall need to say goodbye to much and leave it behind us.  We journey to a new land, a land that flows with the milk and honey of finding ourselves as people through whom God is pleased to work today and tomorrow.



  1. The Book of Common Prayer (New York:  Church Hymnal Corp., 1979), 855.
  2. J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: \Macmillan, 1953, 1977).
  3. Guide for Congregational Self-evaluation (New York: Education for Mission and Ministry, 1983). This fifteen-page guide presents a way to evaluate congregational life based on the main emphases of the baptismal covenant:  service, worship, education, evangelism, and pastoral care.
  4. Robert N. Bellah, “Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership,” The Christian Century 113:16 (May 8,1996): 515.
  5. See James R. Adams, So You Can’t Stand Evangelism? A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth (Cambridge: Cowley, 1994), for one congregation’s attempt to take people’s questions seriously.
  6. From the early 1950s through the mid-1960s, the Church and Group Life Laboratories of the Episcopal Church provided both lay and clerical leaders with emerging insights about leadership of small groups and systems. In the mid-1960s, when the national
  7. See Abraham Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review 55:3 (May-June 1977): 67-78. According to W. Warner Burke, chair of the Department of Organization and Learning at Columbia University, Zaleznik’s work provided the breakthrough to contemporary understandings of leadership. Zaleznik distinguished between the manager as one who makes what exists work better and the leader as one who makes what exists into something new. (The article was reprinted in HBR 70:2 [March-April 1992): 126-37, with an additional “retrospective commentary” by the author.)
  8. George H. Gallup, J r., Religion in America 1996: Will the Vitality of the Church be the Surprise of the 21 st Century.  (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1996), 9.
  9. The core of Wesley’s revival was the “class is,” a group of twelve or so people meeting weekly. In February 1743 he issued the requirements for membership in a class is as giving evidence of one’s desire for salvation “by doing no harm; by doing good of every possible sort; by attending upon all the means of grace.” Cited thus in Encyclopedia Britannica (1926), 13th ed., 28.529.
  10. Quoted in David Lyle Jeffrey, ed., A Burning and a Shining Light: English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 510.
  11. The Anglo-Catholic Charles Gore, editor of the controversial Lux Mundi in 1890, described its purpose as “to bring the Christian Creed into its right relation to the modem growth of knowledge, scientific, historical, critical; and to the modem problems of politics and ethics.” See Encyclopedia Britannica (1926), 13th ed., 12.255. H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper; London: Faber & Faber, 1951) saw F. D. Maurice as a classic example of “Christ the transformer of culture,” and Maurice’s social concern evoked the Christian Socialist Movement and the Anglican tradition of the social gospel in which William Temple stood. See William]. Wolf, John E. Booty, and Owen C. Thomas, The Spirit of Anglicanism: Hooker, Maurice, Temple (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow; Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1979, 1982), 49-50. William Temple’s Christianity and Social Order (New York and Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1942, 19S3) brought into the twentieth century the important place of religious debate about the current and future health of a society.
  12. For a process of formation that prepares participants for public as well as private witness, see The Catechumenal Process: Adult Initiation & Formation for Christian Life and Ministry: A Resource for Dioceses and Congregations (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1990), prepared by the Episcopal Church Center Office of Evangelism Ministries.
  13. This discussion of poverty and wealth draws heavily on a presentation by Chuck Matthei as recorded at the Province One convocation, November 1995, by Christ Church Tape Ministry, Red Hook, New York.
  14. For a current example, see the story of the Diocese of West Virginia as told by its bishop, John H. Smith, in Cluster Ministry: A Faithful Response to Change, 2nd ed. (Charleston, W.V.: Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, 1996).
  15. Title III, Canon 9, “Of the Ordination of Local Priests and Deacons,” Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.
  16. See Stewart C. Zabriskie’s report on the Diocese of Nevada in Total Ministry: Reclaiming the Ministry of All God’s People (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1995); James D. Anderson and A. Wayne Schwab, eds., “Forming Local Ministry Support Teams: Bishop Rayon How It’s Done in Northern Michigan,” Clapham 21 (December 1995): 1-5; and a story from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, “Orienting a Congregation for Local Ordination, Clapham 21 (September-October 1995): 1-5, also edited by Anderson and Schwab.
  17. The following basic concepts about change in systems are drawn from secular workers in the field. Ezra Earl Jones, general secretary of the Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, has made a concise summary of these concepts for church leaders.  See “Church Growth and Decline,” E Share 5 (August 1992): 20.