Re-Centering Congregational Life around Members’ Daily Missions By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

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Rather than a single “vocation” or calling to some specific work or task in Christ’s name, experience has led me to see that each person has many vocations or tasks and that they are in constant change.  We need to look at each area of daily life—home, work, local community, the wider world, leisure, and church—to discern what God is calling us to do there now.  With these specific tasks or “missions”1 in mind, one participates in church life for support in discerning one’s specific vocations, guidance in how to live them out, and power to live them out in whatever way the Spirit communicates that power, through word or sacrament or both.  For this to happen for the entire congregation, the whole of congregational life needs to focus around the daily living of the members.

This is a major change.  Congregational life tends to focus on its own well-being.  It constantly draws the energies of the laity away from their daily missions to focus on the missions of the congregations.  Everything one reads these days about effective church leadership and life still centers on the congregation and what happens there.  Little or no attention is yet given to what helps the members live better as agents of Jesus Christ once they leave the church and its programs.  Yet, if there is any truism today, it is that the institutional church at every level of its life is fairly well excluded from participating in the decisions that shape life in today’s world. The institution is not in those places, but its members, the baptized, are!  They are the ones who can transform the world in the direction of God’s reign. Therefore, today’s vital need is for church life to center on helping the members in their daily places—their daily “mission fields.”

To focus on the Monday-through-Saturday lives of church members would be a substantial contribution to God’s mission.  While this may look like a huge change in direction, is it not really a next step in congregational effectiveness?  Effectiveness will now be measured in terms of what the members do in their daily places Monday to Saturday rather than on what they do together in some program or mission of the congregation.  This is a new “frame” for the church and its mission, but notice that it does not discard the missions of the congregation as a whole or those of any of its parts; “church,” with its congregational life and worship, its community outreach, and its service, is still one of the daily mission fields.  The new frame does, however, make congregational missions secondary to the daily missions of the members.

From my early years of family life, following Jesus Christ was about how you lived each moment of each day. Seminary enhanced that conviction.  Early parish ministry centered on the members’ daily lives at home, at work, and in the local community and wider world.  National church staff time further enhanced this stance because evangelism and conversion made sense only when connected to what people were actually doing.  Mark Gibbs, with whom I worked in both parish and national staff days, drove home to me the daily mission fields of home, work, the local community, the wider world, and leisure.

Working with Jim Anderson (then director of the College of the Laity) in the late 1980s and early 1990s to develop ways to help seniors find missions for their retirement years, I learned a way to analyze a given field of daily life so as to discern what God might be calling one to do there.  Applying this analysis to all of a person’s mission fields and adding “church” to Gibbs’ list, I began to test and to practice it in my national staff work.  The analytic procedure included finding helpers for one’s emerging mission.  The helpers could be either church or non-church people.  Our shared mission could be an occasion for recommitment for the church helper or conversion for the non-church helper.  At last, I had a way to put evangelism inside of mission.

The rest was a matter of testing the “member mission” approach, which I did with the help of a grant from Trinity Church, Wall Street; developing a network of people and resources through the use of this approach; and writing When the Members are the Missionaries: An Extraordinary Calling for Ordinary People (Member Mission Press, 2002).  Again, the key to the member mission approach is that the congregation makes its primary purpose the support of its members in their daily living as Christians—as Christ’s agents by baptism in each of their daily mission fields.  If a congregation cannot start with supporting the daily missions of the members as its primary purpose, let it begin to move in that direction by making it one of its primary purposes.

Now for some stories.  In January 2001, while I was serving as interim priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, New York, the congregation agreed upon a member-centered mission statement.2  A revised and shortened version of the statement is still in use, and the present rector describes it as useful in teaching an awareness of mission.  St. Anthony on the Desert Episcopal Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, has also made member mission central to its purpose.  There, pastor Jon Coffey asked all members what they needed from St. Anthony’s to help them in each mission field; their answers became the congregation’s program for the coming year.

In addition to helping St. John’s develop a member-centered mission statement, I met weekly with four members to work through an initial format of seven questions for discerning daily missions.3  As a result of those discussions, all four members found that they began to think much more deeply about each of their daily arenas; they were also heartened by each other’s stories.  The questions that group used were subsequently updated and hints added to help people use them more effectively4 (see box, page 37).  A number of churches have reported positive results from the use of these hints and questions.  In St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Readfield, Maine, with a Sunday worship attendance of about 30, the daily missions of the members within the congregation are crucial.  Happily, those using the mission discernment questions took up revitalizing the Sunday school, making new families welcome through the skillful use of photos, and writing the parish profile in their search for a part-time priest.

At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the questions inspired deacon Michelle Mooney to invite kindergarten through 12th-grade public school teachers to “come and talk about your vocation” on three Wednesday nights.  Fifteen came!  After the first session, participants were thrilled. Mooney had recognized teaching as their mission field of daily work.

Bill Roberts, rector of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Deerfield, Illinois, uses the mission-discerning questions with his Education for Ministry group with good results, and ongoing groups of both regulars and newcomers are using the approach to explore their personal missions and ministries in the home, at work, in the local community, in the wider world, in their leisure, and at St. Gregory’s.

John LeSueur, coordinator for the Lilly Endowment grant for pastoral excellence in the Diocese of New Hampshire, has used the member mission approach to help vestry members see their daily living as missional, not just what they do on Sundays.

In summary, what a great next step for the congregational concern of the Alban Institute if it moved to helping congregations to make supporting their members in their daily living as Christians their primary purpose!  Some months ago, Loren Mead lamented how the lay ministry movement had not seemed to get anywhere.   I believe he was seeing yet one more seduction of lay ministry by the institution. Put lay ministry, the daily missions of each member, at the center of congregational life, and Loren and all of us will see the desert that had been lay ministry rejoice and blossom.

Questions for Discerning Mission in All Areas of Life

  1. What has God been doing in (this mission field: home, work, local community, wider world, leisure, or church)? What message am I getting about it? (Try a response beginning with “I believe God is…”)Home example (a mother): I believe God is telling me that my family is being fractured and that we are not as close as we could be.Work example (a Post Office worker): I believe God is telling me to speak up about the unfair workload that all of us have at my job.
  2. As I think about God’s message, what is my goal or vision for how I want life to be in (this mission field)?Home example: My vision is to have a family that spends more time together and enjoys being together.Work example: My goal is to see that all of us are treated with respect and dignity at work rather than as automatons.
  3. What am I doing right now to make this goal or vision a reality? (Be honest, and remember that small steps count.)Home example: I am working for us to eat together as a family every day.Work example: I am trying to get to know my coworkers better and to find common ground with each of them.
  4. What do I still need to do? (A good place to begin is to think of where you need to increase love, fairness, or peacemaking.)Home example: I need to sometimes turn off all the distractions—the television, the computer, and video games—so that we can give more attention to each other as a family.Work example: I want to be able to have something positive to suggest when the manager is being unfair.
  5. What, specifically, will I do or continue to do to make my vision a reality? (Limit yourself to one positive change, and let your answer to question 4 guide your answer to this question. Be as specific and concrete as possible in your answer.)Home example: I’ll work toward spending every Tuesday night eating together and doing something as a family.Work example: I will speak up the next time we’re not being treated fairly at work.
  6. Whom do I need to work with me to achieve this change, and how will I word the change I want to make? (Consider how you might word this goal so that it will appeal to a specific potential teammate. Any work toward change goes better with a teammate who knows what you are trying to do, who regularly checks on your progress, and who offers any insights he or she might have.)Home example (a father): I’m sure you want more family time as much as I do. Let’s do a family night once a week where we do something together without the distractions of computers, televisions, or video games.Work example: I will encourage the other workers to speak up when there is discontent. I’ll check with a couple of people when I have something to bring up to make sure it is something that will be useful to us all. I will remind them that we can make a difference when we stick together.
  7. As I recruit and work with my teammate, how will I talk about God while I am sharing my vision or working toward it? (Be yourself and use everyday words.)Home example: There’s a lot of talk these days about spending more time together. Maybe there’s a kind of message here for us.Work example: I believe we are made to work together in harmony so that we all feel that we matter and are heard.
  8. How will I encourage my teammate to seek help in church life as we work for this needed change? (Begin with your own sense of how church life helps you.)Home example: My week always seems to go better when I’ve been to church. Come to church with me for a few Sundays and see if that happens for you, too. Maybe while we’re there we can pray for our family time to go well.Work example: We’re making progress. We must be getting help from somewhere.

 

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NOTES: 
1. While “ministry” is widely used for what we do and say as Christians, it misses some of the breadth of “mission.” Ministry is based on the verb to minister and has serving or helping or meeting the needs of others as its primary meaning.  However, Christian living often calls us to confront wrong and to correct it.  And coping with wrong calls for words as well as actions.  Besides acting to resist wrong, we need to talk of what we believe God wants done and how God might already be at work among us.  For Christians, mission embraces both correcting wrong and talking of God.  It is the grand word for any Christian action. Any action that confronts and corrects evil—lack of love and justice—is a grand action and deserves the grand name of “mission.”
2. See www.membermission.org, Making the Vision Work, Basic Tools, Basic Tools 7.
3. See www.membermission.org, Making the Vision Work, Revised Appendix A Questions.
4. See www.membermission.org, Making the Vision Work, Basic Tools, Basic Tools 3, 3A, and 3B.

 

[The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab; Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker.and Workshop Leader.]