Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Undercapitalized Ministry

As I write this, Citigroup just announced a fourth quarter loss of $7.6 billion. You would think that is bad news, wouldn’t you? But the markets have reacted to the loss with tepid relief; you see, they expected much worse. Citigroup was the institution most severely hit by the recent financial mess, and clawing its way out of the hole into which it had dug itself has been painful for all involved (and, of course, given the fact that virtually everyone who has a credit card or a mortgage or a retirement account has a “stake” in large financial institutions such as Citigroup, that means all of us were “involved” to some degree).

The “mess” into which we had gotten ourselves was the result of what economists refer to as “undercapitalization.” Simply put, that means that an institution doesn’t have the resources it needs to carry on its work. In the current fiscal crisis, banks and other financial institutions were carrying on their balance sheets “assets” by means of which they had supported lending practices that proved, on reflection, to have been ill-advised and recklessly speculative. Then, when the value of these artificially inflated assets collapsed, so also did the balance sheets of many of these financial institutions as well. Undercapitalization – more activity is generated than there are resources to support them. They needed a “bail out” to survive.

The same thing can happen to a church when it is “undercapitalized;” and here, I’m not referring to its financial resources, but rather to the spiritual and, more specifically, theological resources necessary to engage in Christian ministry. Churches too can find themselves engaged in far more activity than they have resources to support them. In the never-ending quest to be “successful” (too often defined in secular and – dare I say it? – pagan terms), too many churches and their pastors are enamored with finding “the next big thing” out there while at the same time neglecting the theological foundations for ministry that alone make ministry “Christian” and a church the “church.” That’s why you get so many sermon series these days on such wonderful “biblical” themes as “Home Improvement” and “Extreme Makeover” and “Pants on the Ground” (if you don’t know what that last one is, there still may be hope for you!).

But that’s not what sustains a church or a ministry for the long haul. If, finally, the church and its ministry have no “capital” in God and His purpose in the world, then it will collapse under its own weight. If it is not God leading us to worship and to preach and to teach and to care, then we are well-intentioned “social servants” at best, pious frauds at worst. What I’m saying is that finally the church’s “capital” is theological.

But how do we restore theology to its rightful place in the life and work of the church? Well, it’s a double dilemma. Part of the problem lies not with the church but with the seminary. Seminaries, over the past fifty or so years, have learned that if you want to keep the customer happy, you’ve got to give the customer what he wants, and what he wants is not theology. And so, there’s been a move in the seminaries to “update” the seminary curriculum by replacing the old “body of divinity” (Bible, theology, church history) with more “relevant” and marketable skills. And so, the seminary curriculum has replaced courses in Bible and theology and church history with courses in counseling and psychology and “leadership development” and marketing and administration and on and on. And so, what the seminaries have produced is a generation of pastors who know lots about sales and marketing and management and social theory and psychology, but not so much about the Bible or its God. And, of course, most congregations learn their theology chiefly from their pastors. Unfortunately, the theological education system now is so invested in a non-theological approach to theological education that it will be difficult to correct it. I know; I tried once.

The other part of the problem lies with the congregations. After a generation of not thinking theologically about what we do, a secular culture has emerged in the church that makes it increasingly difficult even for a theologically-minded pastor to provide a theological rationale for the church’s ministry. I saw this played out once in a church where I was worshiping. I noticed that the Pulpit Bible had been unceremoniously placed on a shelf under the communion table at the front of the church, and on top of the communion table was an arrangement of flowers. I’m sure no one noticed, or if they did, that they thought much about it. But I did. The symbolism was striking. “Put the Bible under the table,” was the message being communicated. “We don’t need that here; besides it’s not really relevant to what we’re doing here today.” Is there any wonder today why so many churches engage in activities for which they lack the necessary theological “capital?”

But churches need not be theologically undercapitalized. As with the financial industry, it will take not only a change of heart, but a change in the culture to bring about a course correction; but it is certainly doable. How? By placing God back in the center of the church’s life. Put the Bible back on top of the table where it belongs, and make it the center of the church’s worship. Reclaim the role of the pastor as “worship planner,” a role pastors too often abdicate to others. Redeem the symbols the church already has (baptism, the Lord’s Supper, stained glass windows that tell the Story of the Gospel in glass). Teach the congregation to reflect theologically – not just pragmatically – on the church’s life and work. Provide opportunities for the congregation to engage in serious, thoughtful, and extended "conversations" with the Scripture. Use the church year to frame the church’s agenda and to keep the church’s Story before the congregation. And most importantly, call a pastor who understands that the chief role of the pastor is to be the congregation’s pastoral theologian, not the circus’ “ring master,” or the company’s marketing guru, or the parish psychologist.

And if you do, when the winds blow and the waves crash and you’re taking on water and the storms that come to every life (both individual and corporate) come to yours, you’ll not find your life or your ministry undercapitalized and in need of a “bail out.”

No comments: