An Evolving Theology

That we mainline denominational Christians face a crisis in the ways we have ordered ourselves is no secret. That the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated church closures and clergy burnout is no secret. And while everyone in the mainline church has been saying for quite some time that we cannot keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, an open secret in clergy circles is that we are struggling mightily to stay on top of an ever-growing mountain of administrative, technical, and bureaucratic tasks. There aren’t enough people; there isn’t enough money; and the whole denominational enterprise is teetering on the brink of collapse.

As a United Methodist pastor, I am ordained to the ministry of “Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.”[1] Word and sacrament are at the heart of my calling. I am most alive as a preacher proclaiming truth and goodness, and I am most connected to my people when I look them in the eye and offer the body and blood of Christ. Service continually tugs me toward my neighbors, justice, and upholding the integrity of what we say we believe by what we do in the world. But order always felt slippery to me, a catchall of church meetings, pledge drives, denominational committees, and menial administrative tasks. I considered it a necessary evil, something I had to do in order to get to the parts of my job that I enjoyed.

Then came the pandemic, which turned word into a relentless fight with technology, sacrament into an awkward at-home scavenger hunt, and service into a series of Zoom appointments. Meanwhile, the ministry of order was no longer some vague, slippery thing but suddenly crystalized into the very survival of the institutional church with a building and a budget. But while order suddenly felt alarmingly existential, the COVID-19 pandemic actually forced pastors to confront what was happening already: we have been given the impossible job of trying to impose enough order to save a rapidly disintegrating institution. No wonder clergy are joining the Great Resignation in droves. Add to the mix congregational fights over masks and vaccines, and any sane, self-respecting person would walk away.

And so, in this moment when our established order is crumbling, I want to ask what kind of ministry of order should emerge from this rubble. Can order actually be lifegiving? Is it possible for order to feel as holy and worthy as the sacred ministries of word, sacrament, and service? Is it worth our time and effort as clergypeople to build financially viable American nonprofits with budgets and buildings?

I think the answer to all these questions is yes, even for my colleagues serving congregations in precipitous decline, but I drew that conclusion only after clarifying for myself what order truly is. And I’ve found that when I’m clear with myself about what I mean by the ministry of order I have a better chance of putting my time and energy in the right places.

Administrative Order

Administrative order, which I experience as shitwork, is all the boring, just-gotta-do-it tasks that for all my creative reframing I cannot escape. (Yes, I’m swearing because no one is called into ministry to run errands and fight with the photocopier.) Administrative order includes those crummy, menial jobs that no one sees but which are necessary in a functioning organization, like updating the database, buying the Communion elements, and printing the bulletins.

Some amount of administrative order really is a necessary evil, but I’ve found that applying a feminist lens is helpful in reducing the amount of this work that I do. In feminist terms, shitwork describes the way these undervalued tasks are usually assigned to women. No one notices this work until Mom boycotts it and things start falling apart. In small churches without an office manager or administrative assistant, this work falls almost entirely to the pastor, especially when the pastor is a woman.[2]  

When I realized I was doing the majority of the shitwork for my church, I realized I needed to ask for help. Administrative shitwork makes for great volunteer tasks: it is generally simple, repetitive work that others can do after some modeling. Shitwork is not complex or confidential and can be made more equitable by asking for some help. In full transparency, I’ve noticed that most of my volunteers who help with shitwork are also women, and so this too is a growing edge of equity and justice in our common life together as a congregation.

Institutional Order         

Institutional order has to do with the survival of the church as an organization with a building, a budget, and a 501(c)(3) status. This blurring of the church with the American religious nonprofit has no basis in Scripture, and it has fundamentally confused the people in our dying churches, who think that if they lose the building or disband as a legal corporate entity they will have failed as disciples of Christ. In declining congregations, longtime members often become obsessed with preserving the trappings of a success they no longer have, and they become deeply resistant to any new ideas. Renting or sharing the building to reduce expenses, for example, would painfully impugn a dying church’s sense of a rightly ordered self, a self that does not need any outside help. The building, the budget, and the tax-exempt status all become ends unto themselves rather than the means for carrying out the church’s mission in the world. But the institutional work can be valuable if congregations leverage it for a greater social purpose.

I have found a way to make sense of the necessity of ordering the life of the church as an American nonprofit through my affiliation with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The IAF has been doing community organizing in the industrial areas of Chicago since the days of Saul Alinsky. When I was new to my job as a church planter, someone in my bishop’s office told me to find out who was doing community organizing in my area and to go learn from them. Our local affiliate is a network of unions, congregations, and community organizations; from the IAF I learned important principles of organizing that have served me well as we’ve worked to build a new church.

Most importantly, on days when the administrative shitwork is especially draining, the IAF reminds me that organized people and organized money create the power necessary to change the world and make our society one in which it is easy to be good, as Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day used to say. Instead of feeling guilty for asking for more time and money from my congregation than they have to give, the IAF has taught me to understand my work as one of inviting people to cocreate a buffering institution that shields them from the pressures of the capitalist machine. In the first few years of our church plant, we went deep on organizing around housing justice issues in our neighborhood and helped pass two significant levies at the city level for affordable housing funding. I can believe in doing the work to organize this dubious American entity called a religious nonprofit insofar as I can see how that organization can be a force for justice and healing in our broken world.

Here is the hard truth of the matter, though: most of our struggling, older mainline congregations are already too far gone, and no amount of institutional order can save them. There simply aren’t enough people, and there isn’t enough money.

Sacramental Order

If a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, I’ve come to think of order as the (usually) invisible structures that support a visible community. The visible community is our web of relationships with each other in a congregation, made visible in all the moments of connection that occur when people gather, supported by invisible structures like knowing how to contact each other and when and why we’re coming together. Such order, which I call sacramental order, overlaps with the other two kinds of order but also exists independently of them. Church-planting has taught me that sacramental order can be as simple as the contact list in my phone. Certainly, when we first started, that’s the only structure we had, and it was invisible to everyone but me. As we’ve grown and developed, our invisible structures have grown and developed with us: now we have a database for managing everyone’s contact information; we have a locking file cabinet for employee files; and some day, God willing, we’ll finally figure out a calendar system that we all don’t hate.

Of course, the apostle Paul is the unofficial patron saint of church planters (at least Protestant ones anyway), and I think sacramental order is what Paul so adeptly built across time and distance and culture in the early days of the Christian movement. He wrote letters. He raised money. He threaded connections between individuals and then groups. He shared contacts. I’m sure that, like me, he arranged transportation for people, and when someone was in need, he organized a response from the visible community. Yes, all pastors do some of this, but as a church planter, I had the opportunity to watch a visible community form where there had not been one before. That process of gathering a new congregation of people who come to know and trust each other requires an immense amount of this kind of work. And this work is really about creating the opportunity for friendships between strangers. That kind of order feels just as profound and transformative as saying “This is my body broken for you.” It is the gift of watching the body of Christ become real in the here and now, in front of our own eyes. Every time two people in my church plant exchange phone numbers, I rejoice inside. 

This ministry of sacramental order, of connecting people to each other, is easier to see and appreciate in a new congregation, but it is just as necessary and vital in dying congregations where people have known each other for decades. In situations where no amount of administrative or institutional order will save the church, sacramental order can still provide a refreshing means of grace. In the dying churches I’ve served, nothing brings me greater joy than when people are surprised or moved to learn more about the life of someone they thought they knew. Before the pandemic, this happened at potlucks and over coffee hour, at Bible study, and in rare moments of self-disclosure at a church meeting. Strangely enough, I’ve found that Zoom can be an oddly intimate format for encouraging people who are used to behaving in certain ways in the church building to let down their defenses from the privacy of their own homes. When I put this ministry of sacramental order at the forefront of my energies, I am guided by the need to help my people see and appreciate each other. This is the holy and life-giving work of order, both as our institutions crumble away and as we seek to form new communities of faith.

Grace in Order

Lest anyone think that I have a properly ordered relationship to my ministry of order in which I always find it good and life-giving, let me assure you that I do not. There are days when I resent the administrative shitwork with every fiber of my being, especially when someone accidentally undermines my perfectly thought-through system for doing something. There are days when my skepticism about the ability of any American nonprofit to create justice in our society comes roaring back. There are days when I would give anything not to arrange one more damn car pool to church. And there are days when I know my sermon is off or incomplete, and I still get up to preach; there are days when I am not present during the Eucharist, and I still offer it to my people as sacred; there are days when I do not want to take one more phone call from a neighbor in need, and I still pick up and say hello. All of that to say, every aspect of pastoral life can be mundane, but the work can become sublime despite our mood or the monotony of the labor. The same can be said of order. When our order is properly ordered, it too can become a means of grace. It can transform us into something beyond our individual efforts, beyond what we could ever be on our own. Order makes us the church.

[1] See The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2016), 332.

[2] See Pamela M. Fishman’s 1977 study on the ways in which the burden of women’s shitwork extends even to interactional spheres of conversation and relationality: “Interaction: The Work Women Do,” in Language, Gender, and Society, ed. ed. Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae, and Nancy Henley (Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1983), 89–101,