We need to identify ourselves, why we're here and how to act on it
February 6, 2007

How do we understand our mission -- as Christians, as Episcopalians, as congregations in this church? We might begin with the catechism's definition of it as "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" (p. 855 in the Book of Common Prayer). We're meant to understand that in the broadest possible terms, involving us in mind, body, spirit, community and all of creation.

How is that broad understanding of mission lived out in your life and the life of your congregation? For several years, I've used three questions to frame that issue of mission in congregational settings: Who are you? Why are you here? What are you doing about it?

Mission is particular, in the same sense that the Incarnation happened in a particular human being in a specific time and place. None of us has the same bundle of gifts, and each of us is invited to put those gifts to work in different settings and contexts. Each congregation has a unique constellation of gifts in its members and a unique context in its neighborhood and community.

Answering the mission challenge begins by recognizing who we are. Identity, giftedness, the values and images we find most important -- how would you name and define those for yourself?

Sometimes congregations begin to engage this by asking how their identity is reflected in their names. What does it mean to be the congregation called "St. James" or "Holy Trinity" or "Resurrection?" Do you as a congregation claim that name in a conscious way? Does it inform your way of being?

In a very real sense, we can't love others until we love ourselves. We only can give out of what we have – and if we are unaware of the gifts we have, we haven't anything to share. Beginning to know and love the body you are is essential to mission.

Maybe it is the gift of being a small and rural congregation that's survived and thrived for 130 years, the ability to welcome a stranger passing through, a small group of folks who are willing to challenge each other to look beyond the surface of things, or even a bunch of guys who like to eat breakfast together once a month. Perhaps part of your identity is a big building in the middle of a blighted urban area. Maybe you've rebuilt after a fire, and you've learned something about finding the blessings in unexpected loss and change. All can be gifts if they are claimed.

Why are you here? The old catechetical answer that immediately rises from deep within me is "to give glory to God."

The next question becomes, "How?" Why are you on this earth? What particularities of your identity lead you into ministry? Do you love to sing or explore or work with children or work with numbers? Knowing who you are, in all your particularity, becomes one of the sources for vocation and the ministry to which each of us is called in baptism.

As Frederick Buechner said so eloquently, "Ministry is where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need." What gift, when used well, brings joy in your life? How can it be used to meet the world's deep need? That implies that we have a sense of the community, the context, in which we're planted. Who are your neighbors? Do you have an accurate understanding of the community in the five-mile radius around your church? What does the neighborhood look like, where does it suffer, where is it broken and in need of healing? What are we being sent to do (which is literally what mission means)? What are you doing about it?

That's the evaluative and direction-giving part of the mission endeavor. It might be a useful way to frame an annual review – what have we learned about ourselves in the past year, how have we grown in our understanding of the world around us and how have we met the challenge in action?

An example. I first heard about St. James, Cathlamet, about 1990. It's a small congregation on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state. In the mid 1980s, the bottom fell out of all of the region's employment: logging, dairying and fishing. Mothers who had stayed home with children suddenly needed any employment they could find, or were going back to school.

The congregation of 15 or 20 people began to ask what they might do to provide some child care, and a teacher in the congregation went to the vestry and said, "Well, if you let me use the Sunday school rooms, and if I can find six or seven children, I think we can break even."

They started off, and within a few short years the St. James Family Center had built a large facility on the piece of land they'd been saving to build a proper sanctuary. The center was providing day care for infants and toddlers, Head Start, after-school care, youth and teen programs and parenting classes and managing the county's domestic-violence shelter. It has become the third largest employer in the county, and it continues to transform the community.

St. James' members are reconciling their corner of the world, because they know who they are and why they're there. Learn more here: www.stjamesfamilycenter.org.