Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are We an Institution or a Movement?

Two weeks ago I attended the National Church Leadership Institute (NCLI) in Atlanta GA. The conference was hosted by the Center for Progressive Renewal (CPR). CPR is the organization the Vermont Conference has begun a long term relationship with to help equip our churches and pastors for mission and ministry.

The theme of this year's conference was "Finding Our Way Again," apropos since Brian McLaren was the main speaker and that is the title of one of his books. Brian is a great writer and an engaging speaker. He shared too much to try to summarize here, so I'll pick one point and expound a bit.

Brian, in one of his presentations, explained about the difference between institutions and movements, and how they come about and how they are changed. Institutions are, by nature, defenders of the status quo - they have a system and processes and direction and changing that from within is hard. Movements, on the other hand, aren't burdened by history or tradition - they are trying a new thing, trying a new way, trying to upset the status quo.

Movements generally have three outcomes:
- They wither and die, unable to sustain momentum
- They become accepted, and eventually become an institution themselves, or
- They cause significant change in an existing institution.

What does this mean to us? Well, it would take only a cursory look at the history of the UCC and its predecessor bodies to see how movements for change (abolitionists, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, ordination of women, et al) eventually became part of who we are as a denomination. You might carry that a step further and see how we as a denomination could be seen as a movement to society at large - eventually affecting change in a much broader sense. (I'm not asserting that the UCC gets the credit for all social justice ever - but we do have a history of being on the leading edge of such change - which is where the movements are)

That part is exciting and affirming. Here's the not-so-affirming part. Our churches, associations and your Conference are, you guessed it, institutions. That's why change is so hard. We're not built to be nimble; but to defend, to protect, to continue as we are. A review of mainline Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century makes this all too clear. As our culture changed and swirled around us, we become more steadfast, more resolute, more insular, hoping the latest church growth program would solve all our ills. We know now that each successive program was designed to try to bend the culture back to us, rather than the other way around. And therein is the answer on why they didn't work.

So, what to do? I think two choices are before us: either we start being an institution that acts like a movement, or we find ways to embrace and accept fundamental change from the emerging movements sprouting up around us. We have to retire from leadership the folks who assert "We've always done it that way!" and instead invite younger people into positions of leadership, even if their ways are not our ways. We have to stop worshipping our buildings, and instead think of them as a tool to do mission and ministry. And acknowledge that sometimes tools wear out, or no longer are the tools we need. We have to learn to be nimble, or step back so that the nimble can lead, and stop trying to protect what once was. We have to stop trying to recapture what we once were, and use that energy to make a new future, appropriate for this time, this place. We have to cuddle up to uncomfortableness as a way of embracing change.

It's a lot to digest, I know. But we don't have forever to get started. Your Vermont Conference has begun relationships with CPR and Partners for Sacred Places for just this reason - to help us become movement-like again - to embrace change, and become the church we are meant to be in the 21st century.