“I believe in God. I just don’t like ‘institutional religion’”?
How many times have I heard (and said) the aforementioned phrase? Too many to count. I spent my late teens and early 20s swearing off institutional religion; still, I later found myself yearning for a connection to something beyond myself. Though I spent my growing up years as a Roman Catholic, I stumbled into a United Church of Christ church and found a new home as an adult. God had clearly led me there, because I couldn’t have discerned consciously a more perfect place for myself. I remember reveling in the fact that the UCC is a place that allows so much individual freedom, has so little ‘top-down’ structures of authority and does not espouse a stifling dogma.
More than a decade after finding the UCC, I now find myself called to working for the wider church. Working for a United Church of Christ conference couldn’t be any more representative of ‘institutional religion.’ (I’m sure God is laughing about that one.)
I admit that I now find the UCC’s non-dogmatic, nonhierarchical system as great a liability as it is a strength. When we learn about our system of governance, we hear that the basis of our system is two contradictory concepts – autonomy and covenant. This means that our churches covenant to be in ministry together, but at the same time maintain local autonomy. Working in my current position, I see us embrace autonomy far more than we embrace covenant. It’s very easy for churches and individuals not to care what the national church or even the church down the road does because they can just do their own thing.
It’s easy to understand why many simply want to go it alone. Institutions and the people within them succumb to inertia or corruption. They are often not living, breathing communities, but rather are vehicles for containing and maintaining power. But, as I’ve lived into my institutional-level work, I’ve become more and more convinced that we in the church, as well as in the wider culture, are in desperate need of vibrant institutions — but not bureaucracies or organizations. For my Foundations of Christian Leadership program at Duke Divinity School, I’ve been reading a book by political scientist Hugh Heclo called On Thinking Institutionally. He argues for the need for honest and authentic institutions that are guided by a higher sense of purpose beyond just keeping the doors of the institution open. In the church this would mean grounding ourselves in the message of the gospel in ways that meet the deeper needs of our communities.
Living in covenant is a long-standing practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Israelites entered into covenant with the God that led them out of slavery in Egypt. God entered into a new covenant with people in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Over the nearly two years that I’ve been looking at things from the vantage point of the wider church, I’ve come to believe in the power of living covenant. Though my work may, on the surface, be about supporting youth and young adult ministries through training, coaching and mentoring (which I do), my call is really to create space for our churches to better live into their covenant with one another.
When I host workshops or create groups of support and accountability for youth leaders, I am helping them live into covenant in the simplest possible way – by getting to know each other. When I work with youth leadership teams in local churches, I ask them to look both internally and externally at needs and resources in the formation of their ministries — ways that they can be in covenant with each other and their communities. When young people attend wider church events, they are learning about the blessing of the diversity of our wider church that covenant makes possible.
I would like you to think about the ways you’ve been impacted — positively and negatively — by institutions. What would your vibrant institution look like? What would it’s guiding principles be?