Is the Church an Institution?

Many of those who follow these blog postings are serving as pastors of congregations or giving leadership to Christian denominations.   And thus I am going to offer a series of reflections on whether and how and if it is that we think about the church through the lens of its institutional character. 

First, though, we ask the question:  is the church an institution?   There are some for whom it might appear obvious that it a church community is not an institution. It is a church – an community of believers whose shared life is governed by their shared faith.   And yet, surely we can and must insist that while a church community is perhaps not an institution in its essence, it has an institutional character.  It has elements that are, surely, institutional.   Surely this is an aspect of its common or shared life that it shares with other organizations. 

Second, we can go further and make the case that if we neglect this aspect – the institutional aspect – the part we perhaps most value about what it means to be a church community will be weakened.   Perhaps the way we think about it is like the body and the soul . . . that is, that the soul is necessarily embodied [no body; no soul].  Or, that we think of the institutional dimension of a congregational life as the structure, the skeleton that holds the body and soul together.   Thus, as the church grows and matures, the bone structure has to grow with it.   Not to press the metaphor, but it follows that the two need to grow together. 

Third, this would suggest that those who provide leadership for congregations – pastors, priests, clergy and lay elders or church council members – need to give attention to the institutional character of the church.  But I wonder if it could also be said that 90% of the challenges that a pastor has is actually on this score – the management, oversight, governance of the congregation.   It is not uncommon though, for congregations to make a distinction – which, while valid in itself, maybe should not be pressed too far:  to speak of the “spiritual” aspects of leadership – which, of course, is the responsibility of pastors and “spiritual leaders” and to leave the administrative and governance aspects to others – perhaps lay leaders who have particular expertise in matters of finances or care of facilities.   When I was last a pastor – of an international church in the Philippines – much was made of this distinction:   the pastor and the elders cared for the spiritual needs of the congregation and the church council was responsible for the management of the affairs of the church that were, presumably, not so “spiritual” in its orientation.   And I recently visited an Episcopalian church in San Antonio where the Rector made this very point – very much affirming the lay leadership who managed the finances and facility so that he could focus on what really matters – that is, the “spiritual” life of the congregation.   I keep putting “spiritual” in inverted commas precisely because I wonder if this is a false distinction. 

Could it be that the institutional character of the church is very much a spiritual issue?   And that, indeed, it is as essential – an essential aspect of what it means to be a flourishing congregation? 

And that, as such, those called into pastoral leadership need training and equipping in governance matters as something essential to their theological formation.  That lay leaders need to understand governance matters especially if they move from one congregation to another and learn then how governance functions in this congregation.   And that, actually, any invested lay person in the church will want to know how decisions are made, who makes them and how they relate to the life and vision of the church.  

Author

Gordon T. Smith

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ambrose is an institution owned by the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. It includes a whole range of undergraduate programs, including education, business, music, behavioural sciences an biology, as well as history, English and psychology. Ambrose also includes an undergraduate school of ministry formation. And, last but not least, there is Ambrose Seminary, a fully accredited graduate level institution of theological formation. Gordon has been the president since August of 2012.

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