Matching structure to mission

We must listen to the Spirit and then respond to the call
November 6, 2009

God does work in mysterious ways. There are deep parallels between how God's mission to heal or reconcile the world has proceeded in centuries past and how it proceeds today.

I had the great privilege to join the people of St. Philip's Church, New York, in celebrating their 200th anniversary recently. This is the first African-American church in New York and owes its beginning to the evangelistic work of a Frenchman, Elias Neau.

Neau was a Huguenot, a French Protestant, cruelly persecuted for his faith in his own homeland and confined as a galley slave for several years. His experience led him to work with others who had known the horrors of slavery, and he came to New York, where the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (an Anglican mission agency) hired him in 1704.

There was a lot of anxiety in the church about baptizing slaves – wouldn't the fact of baptism somehow make them the equals of their owners and require setting them free? Those 18th-century Anglicans understood a good deal about the reality of baptism!

As a condition of taking up his work, Elias Neau had to make a compromise with the larger (white) church. He labored under the theory that baptism should have no effect on the bound state of the person baptized and certainly did not require manumission.

Despite the fears of many, and the human limitations placed on God's promises, the work in the African-American community flourished.

St. Philip's became a named congregation in 1809, incorporated soon thereafter, yet waited another 45 years to be recognized as a congregation of the Diocese of New York. At one time in the late 19th century, St. Philip's, with more than 4,000 members, was the largest church in the United States.

The ministry of St. Philip's continues to transform the community around it – today serving the people of Harlem with a school, credit union, housing and ministries for all sorts and conditions of people. That work also includes jazz concerts, upholding this particular gift of the African-American experience!

In September, I also had the great privilege to join the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Japanese province of the Anglican Communion) for its 150th anniversary. Episcopal missionaries were the first to enter Japan in the mid-1850s when the borders opened.

Even though the Japanese government didn't permit active evangelism for several decades, those missionaries started schools and hospitals, which still serve the people of Japan today.

The Christian population is less than 1 percent of the total, and Anglicans a small portion of that, yet St. Luke's Hospital and Rikkyo University play far above their Anglican weight. The hospital serves 2,500 people a day, trains hundreds of doctors and nurses and has a specialized ministry to foreigners as well as a free "medical-information clinic."

Rikkyo serves 20,000 students in many fields and supports the life of its students with four Anglican chaplains. Struggles and external limitations cannot limit the freedom of the gospel.

One of the laments I hear most often is about numbers of Episcopalians. When asked by a reporter about the small numbers of Episcopalians in his diocese, one Western bishop was heard to reply, "Well, look at who those Episcopalians are. They include many of the judges, the leaders in local government and the school principals. We may not be many, but we have a remarkable part in caring for the whole community."

Executive Council has just met to begin its work of the triennium. As chair of the council, one of my responsibilities, together with the vice chair, Bonnie Anderson, is to assign the members of the council to committees and name the chairs of the council committees.

We tried something new this year – we invited the members of council to think hard about the work with which council is charged and about the opportunities and challenges of this Episcopal Church, and then to consider whether the existing structure of council fit the work or not. We ended up redefining the committees as "mission committees" (Local Ministry and Mission, Advocacy and Networking for Mission, World Mission, Finances for Mission, and Governance and Administration for Mission), inviting the members to reflect on their gifts and passions and then decide which committee best fit those gifts and passions.

Rather than fit the people to the structure, we have tried to fit the structure to the mission and encourage people to engage where they feel a call. We also asked the committees to discern their own leader(s).

God's mission continues. We can't always predict the shape it will take or how the good news will be expressed. Yet God continues to be at work, transforming the world around us.

Our job most often is to discover the gifts we have and then to offer them to the opportunities and challenges around us. Sometimes that's called cooperating with the Spirit. Even if the obstacles seem insurmountable, faithful persistence eventually will see the fruit of seed planted long ago.

Where are you listening to the Spirit and offering yourself to God's mission?