From the Gettysburg P.O.
Michael Cooper-White, President
June 1, 2011
We have been bombarded of late with study after study suggesting that while most people are indeed “spiritual” and in search of the transcendent (God), more and more seek religious experience apart from any institutional expressions. The “church” (or other faith community) as institution is regarded as unnecessary, outmoded, too demanding of members’ time and resources, unresponsive, out of touch and often downright boring.
Now—in a “space” of true confession here—I will fess up that as a child of the 1960’s, I have gone through my own seasons of holding some measure of wariness when it comes to many institutions. I chafe at satisfying certain bureaucratic requirements, and get frustrated when things like bill payments or routine requests go ignored (like one currently pending with a police department documenting for our insurer that my daughter’s bicycle really was stolen from its parking perch just before her college year ended).
When things go badly, institutions and those who run them often take the blame. In seasons of budget shortfalls, like the current era, many who run for office exploit tough times and point scolding fingers at incumbents. “Throw those bums out and put good folk like me in charge,” is the basic platform of many candidates for political office across the board. To be sure, sometimes change is needed. But often newcomers find themselves even more overwhelmed and incapable of effecting change than the more experienced officers they replaced. It always strikes me as ironic to the point of being cynical when candidates for Congress or the White House run “against Washington” (as if they’re headed somewhere else should they be elected?)! Another dimension of anti-institutional bias rears its head when expenditure cuts must be enacted by legislatures and others—the default presumption that large organizations are inherently wasteful, inefficient and able to absorb huge budget reductions without detrimental impact on core functions and persons served.
By comparison to federal and state governmental agencies, the average congregation or even a small institution like our seminary is tiny. Despite our protests, “we’re not an institution, we’re just a little church or average-sized seminary,” many in the general population and even among our churchly constituency, nevertheless, regard us warily or even dismiss us as unimportant and irrelevant. In some instances, as when local citizens and governments complain that churches and other “non-profit” entities pay no taxes, it can be helpful to point to the positive economic impact of ecclesiastical institutions. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice determined, for example, that twelve Philadelphia congregations provide employment, community service programs and “catalytic impacts” (congregational activities that leverage other economic activity in their neighborhoods) for an estimated value of $52 million annually. The estimated boon to the local Gettysburg and broader economy that will be realized as we convert the Seminary’s “Old Dorm” to an interpretive center/museum is about $3.5 million annually. And that will be on top of roughly an equal amount of “consumer activity” already generated as Seminary employees spend the bulk of our incomes locally on housing, food, clothing and other necessities.
Beyond practical or economic arguments for the value and necessity of institutions, however, I want to make the theological case for church-as-incarnation-and-institution. In his last supper with the disciples, Jesus did not say, “this is my spirit” as he passed the loaf. As Martin Luther insisted so emphatically, our Lord said, “this is my body.” John’s Gospel is no less emphatic in declaring that, “The Word became flesh.” While we might quibble over definitions, any time a handful of people gather together on a regular basis, they have in essence organized an institution. The Church—the earthly body of Christ, therefore, from the time of the apostles on, has always taken on institutional form. We even refer to Jesus inauguration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday as the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
As is the way with all things short of what we often call “heaven” or God’s final realm, institutions, of course, have a life cycle. They are born; many endure for generations, even centuries. And then they may die or cease to exist. Thousands of congregations close their doors a final time each year. While sad for their remaining final members who must turn out the lights, such closures are rarely tragic when viewed in the larger picture wherein thousands of new institutional manifestations of the Body of Christ get born even as others are dying. But the prospect of an institution-less Church-on-earth seems as incongruous to me as having Holy Communion without the elements or a potluck picnic with pretend casseroles and barbeque. So if the Church to be Church must inevitably take on earthly institutional trappings, let’s make it as strong, faithful, efficient and effective as it can be!