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Institutional Insanity & Alphabet Soup


I have been giving a great deal of thought to the institutions of the church, lately.  The ELCA speaks of its three expressions – congregations, synods, and the church-wide organization.  “According to the ELCA constitution, we are one church body organized in three expressions — each expression has its particular functions but all three together share a common mission. Together, they ensure a strong foundation of leadership that enables faithful gathering and gospel proclamation, community involvement, open dialogue and a culture of support for our 4.5 million members.”   Lately, I find myself taking exception with that understanding of what it means to be the church.

As social movements grow, a certain degree of structure becomes essential to sustain and nurture continued growth, health, and functionality.  Over time, however, structure becomes an organization and an organization becomes an institution.  And therein lies the rub.  Experience has shown that all too often an institution the function of which is to serve the movement which brought it into being becomes an entity unto itself – essentially disconnected from the grassroots levels of the movement.  In the worst case scenarios, the institution reaches a point where – despite its stated purpose and function – in reality it exists to serve itself and maintain its own existence.

I think that religious movements are particularly susceptible to those patterns.  In her book “The Great Emergence” Phyllis Tickle touches tangentially on that issue.  She refers to a pattern of the Christian church out of necessity re-inventing itself roughly every 500 years – the last time being the Protestant Reformation.  But I think that since the Protestant Reformation, the cycle is somewhat more frequent.  The fracturing of the Christian movement that ensued with the onset of the Protestant Reformation has given rise to multiple Protestant denominations and then a plethora of non-denominational congregations.  Mergers, spin-offs, splits have characterized the Protestant movement since those fateful early days of Reformation. Denominations  splinter into their own sub-denominations.  Hen I first moved from the Roman Catholic denomination to the Lutheran denomination, I was very confused.  LCA, ALC, AELC, LCMS, LCWS – all these sub-denominations of the sme “Lutheran” church.  As I Learned my Lutheran history, I discovered that was more or less a repeated culture amongst Luatherans in North America.  I found it a bit overwhelming.  I began by attending a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod(LCMS) congregation.  I eventually ‘settled’ in a Lutheran Church in America (LCA) at about the time of the big merger and found myself a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  After 20+ years, I found myself a pastor in that same ELCA sub-denomination.  Then there popped up a ‘new’ Lutheran sub-denomination Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ (LCMC).

In the past two years for various and assorted reasons, the ELCA has found itself with congregations spinning off into other Lutheran bodies.  LCMC has absorbed some congregations.  And another ‘new’ Lutheran body has evolved the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).  I have spent a significant amount of time in the past two years considering which sub-denomination or denomination I might best be suited to call ‘home.’  Being a female pastor does limit some of my options.  Returning home to the Roman Catholic church as a pastor is pretty much out of the question.

My course of discernment has led me to realize that while there are some concerning issues with the institution of the ELCA for me, and some attractive possibilities with the newly forming NALC,  at this point in my life there is NO denomination or sub-denomination that will provide a more suitable home for me.  They either are or will eventually grow into an institution which exists to serve itself.

So I remain in a flawed institution uncomfortably comfortable with the fact.  I simply remind myself that the institution is NOT the church any more than the building in which our congregation worships is the church.  Most days that is enough to keep me from getting sucked into to the institutional insanity that ends up being alphabet soup.

Because there isn’t a denomination, sub-denomination, or non-denomination that has a lock on the gospel and because, when push comes to shove, the miraculous movement that began when God became incarnate in Jesus Christ moves in the mundane realities of individual disciples’ lives and congregation of said-same disciples – not because of, but in spite of the institutions which try with such diligence and self-sustaining efforts to “express” the church.

INSTITUTIONAL INSANITY AND ALPHABET SOUP – Sometimes I think that they are the two most deadly things to ever happen to the Christian movement.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 23September2011 07:03

    I think the cycle is about 20 years. . . so just before I retire it will probably happen again. My hope is that we will all be about the mission of the gospel in whatever pots of alphabet soup we are floating in.

  2. PTC permalink
    23September2011 08:41

    Amen and amen… I think it is our human need to figure and sort (even little children are drawn to sorting activities) that moves us toward one pot or another. My hope (and my trust) are that the binding agent (ie, the broth) of the soup can be love in Christ. My hope is that anybody who tastes of us will experience the aftertaste of love, not the bitterness of pain or brokenness.

  3. 23September2011 11:44

    As a soup recipe, this tasteless article lacks meat, salt, and simmering. To use what I consider a better analogy, the church may be likened to the tree of life in the garden… though church life branches out and gets old, a main trunk persists through right scriptural interpretation and persistent fidelity to the tenets of the faith. I believe that the ELCA has thus withered due to gross theological injury and the task of true growth now falls to the NALC.

    • 23September2011 18:27

      Thomas –

      Tasteless? Lacking in meat, salt, and simmering? WOW! I appreciate the constructive critique and the corrective analogy. Since my intent was not to pit the ELCA against the NALC, but rather to express a bit of my own frustration at the intsitutions of the church on all levels and within all denominations, your corrective seems a bit reactive to me.

      I do realize that when we post publicly, we open ourselves to critique and criticism, so I cerainly will attempt to put the most charitable construction on your words and take no offense. I will however ask you to consider the limitations of the black and white nature of your agrarian analogy. There are faithful, fruitful and theologically solid congregations and pastors within every denomination of CHRIST’S church (yes, even within the ELCA). Your black and white analogy displays a tree with a stifled root system.

      KMS @ CCD – the author of that tatseless and inadequate post.

  4. 23September2011 19:33

    As an author on this blog and also a pastor in the NALC I remain committed to dialogue as well as working with those in the ELCA that I trust and respect. Some have actually chosen to stay where they are in faithfulness to their call to the local parish. I sure would hate to see those of us in the NALC start cutting ourselves off from faithful leaders and laity who are still in the ELCA because we are upset with the institution. An us versus them mentality does not foster the furthering of the gospel message, in fact it inhibits it severely. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of course, but a little grace and basic respect are still in order. The last thing I want to be a part of in this new church is a denomination that puts itself above others and relegates people to “less than” because we disagree, even on very important matters. Okay, nuff said. . .


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