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Is Your Church an Institution or a Family?

“My church is just like family to me,” the middle-aged man said. “I feel closer to the people in our church than I do to my own brothers and sisters. I just don’t know what I’d do without them.”
A lot of people use family language to talk about the church. They either celebrate that church feels like family to them or lament that it doesn’t. I understand.

Since we all need warm, nurturing and supportive relationships, it’s easy to see why we use family imagery to describe the church – either as it is or as we think it should be.

Is family language always appropriate? Size and complexity alone make this imagery problematic, don’t they?

How many families form committees to project strategic and long-range plans? Annually elect leaders? Form an executive committee to form and monitor their budgets?

We can’t really stretch family language to cover all of the dynamics and realities in church life. Quite often, when we can’t make family language fit our experience of church, we turn to the language and methods of the corporation.

We adopt organizational charts and develop policy manuals. The pastor becomes the CEO, the church term for which is “senior pastor” or “lead pastor.”

We expect skills in management and planning, just as much as we expect prayerfulness, teaching, preaching and pastoral care.

Stewardship becomes “fund-raising,” potential church members become “prospects,” and informal interactions get formalized and routinized into increasing numbers of meetings.

When we can’t use family language, we use corporation language.

Family language about the church reveals our yearning for intimacy and corporation language points to our realization that, whatever else the church is, it is an institution. 

Which should it be?

Of course, it is and must be both. Every church must find ways to nurture intimacy and negotiate institutional realities.

Of course, a lot of people have ambivalence about the “institutional” nature of the church. 

They’re not sure how concerns about budgets and buildings, personnel and procedures, and boards and committees relate to the church’s calling to declare, in word and deed, the good news of Jesus.

I understand the ambivalence, because there can be a wide distance between the good news of the kingdom and the condition of the church. There are times when “institution” threatens to “quench the Spirit.”

Even so, I’ve never been able to accept uncritically the rather simplistic rejection that some people make of “institutions.” We can’t be naïve human groups that extend and preserve their values and commitments.

For instance, when a movement grows beyond 50 or so people, especially if it’s a diverse movement, it will have to find organized ways of communication and decision-making. It will need division of labor, job descriptions and clarified expectations.

And, for a movement to endure beyond one generation, it must take on institutional forms. As Richard John Neuhaus said in his book, “Freedom for Ministry,” “Institution is simply another word for social endurance.”

Latin American liberation theologian Leonardo Boff wrote, “No community can exist without some institutionalization that lends it unity, coherency and identity. The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” 

The question is not, “Will the church deal with institutional realities?” It will.

Rather, the question is, “How can we ensure that the institution is the servant of the mission?”

Just as Jesus affirmed that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath, the institutional realities of the church were made to serve its reason for being.

Perpetuating the institution is not that reason. The reason is the gracious and joyful reign of God.

Guy Sayles is pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, N.C. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, From the Intersection, and is used with permission.