August is the time of year when the heat of summer is accompanied by a blessedly slower pace, unless one is a college football player, in which two-a-day practices begin. Nebraska football is a month away! It’s vacation season for many (e.g., all of Europe) but it’s also a time when organizations, including consistories (sessions) hold planning sessions for the upcoming school year. Sometimes these are long-term planning meetings. The most notorious long-range plans were those of the former Soviet Union. They were notorious because the system was inherently flawed and the Soviets never hit their goals. The five-year plans mocked their system. Not all plans are as fruitless as the Soviet plan and I’ve attended many planning meetings as a pastor, teacher, and school administrator. The grown-up in me knows that they are necessary but the owly part of me sometimes wonders about their value. I sometimes worry that such meetings can be an occasion to derail a train that is running well.
Nevertheless, there needs to be a degree of organization. Any successful group needs to know and agree about some basic things:
- Why are we here?
- What are we doing to fulfill our mission?
- When are we doing it?
- Where are we doing it?
- Who is responsible for seeing that the various aspects of the mission are accomplished?
- How are we doing so far?
It’s a good idea to meet regularly to make sure that these questions are being asked and answered effectively, i.e., that everyone directly involved in executing the mission of the organization is asking and answering these questions in the same way.
The most important question to ask and answer is the first: Why are we here? You might be surprised how often pastors, elders, staff members, and congregants (or “stakeholders” as the organizational efficiency experts now describe them) answer that question differently. Congregations get planted for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they come to exist because of a split. There are at least a few towns in America that have congregations from the same denomination that aren’t very far apart. There is usually a reason for this and that reason isn’t always missional in nature. Sometimes congregations are planted for the purpose of serving members of the denomination that have relocated from rural to metropolitan areas. This seems to happen quite frequently in NAPARC circles. Once upon a time I was critical of this pattern but now I see it as an opportunity, in the providence of God, to reach new areas with the gospel and the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Sometimes congregations come because a group of people are seized by an idea or an approach to ministry, worship, or mission and sometimes congregations are daughtered or planted strategically by a planting congregation in order to reach a particular area. The reason a congregation is initially planted is very important. It tends to determine the identity of the congregation and redirecting the initial identity, intent, purpose or mission is quite challenging.
Whatever reason initially animated the formation of a congregation, if it confesses the Reformed faith, the congregation should be agreed about some basic priorities and convictions. Here are some answers to the first question: Why are we here?
- To preach the Word, administer the sacraments and discipline.
- To worship God according to his Word
- To reach the lost with the law and the gospel
- To catechize covenant youth and converts.
- To nurture communicants.
- To visit the ill and infirm.
- To relieve suffering in the congregation.
These seem like more or less permanent priorities in a confessionally Reformed congregation. I don’t know how to order this list easily so it’s marked with bullet points. Reformed folk agree that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (WSC Q/A 1). We might disagree about how that is accomplished. E.g., some might start with evangelism and then worship. Others might start with worship. That is where I begin. The Israelites were delivered out of Egypt that they might worship Yahweh, their Redeemer, at the foot of Mt Sinai. Catechesis and Christian nurture are essential to the church but there must be people to instruct and encourage, thus it seems as if, in the New Covenant, reaching the lost is essential to the church. It’s in the great commission. Yet, those whom we reach, must be taught and encouraged. There is a reciprocal relation between the two. Mercy ministry to the congregation should be the natural fruit of gospel ministry. These seven have been our ecclesiastical priorities since the Reformation and arguably were the priorities of the apostolic and early post-apostolic church.
There are five other questions to answer and there will be different perspectives on how to answer them but if we can begin at the same place we have a reasonable hope of ending up at the same place and working toward executing the same mission.