Setting Priorities For The Congregation

File_2534August 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:

  1. Why are we here?
  2. What are we doing to fulfill our mission?
  3. When are we doing it?
  4. Where are we doing it?
  5. Who is responsible for seeing that the various aspects of the mission are accomplished?
  6. 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.

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  1. 1. A few years back, I had my head handed back to me when I pointed out that our [evangelical] church’s new Mission and Vision statements made no mention of RSC’s bullet point #1.

    I’ve never taken management courses, but I can’t believe that the trend of having vision and mission statements for churches doesn’t represent another case of sprinkling a bit of holy water on something currently in vogue and repackaging it.

    2. When evaluating church programs, I wish more effort was made to see how well (if at all) the programs fit the bullet points.

  2. Shouldn’t number one be to glorify God and enjoy Him forever?
    Shame on you Heidelbergers!

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I also wonder how this question might affect seminarians who face some difficult odds in getting hired. How might they communicate these priorities in such a way that helps them better pursue their calling?

    • Jed,

      I hope that elders and pastors (or REs and TEs) might read this and give some thought to setting priorities along these lines. The broader question is how sem students/recent grads should think about what ought/might be relative to what is. As servants of the church, we must serve the church that is, not the church that should be. Still, every pastoral call is a negotiation. I’m sure that no session/consistory gets everything for which they hoped at the outset and no candidate gets everything for which he hoped. Typically, in the calling process, this discussion will occur between the candidate and the search committee and/or session (consistory). I hope that, during these discussions, this approach might find some favor with a consistory/session. If a session said “absolutely not.” Well, that would be interesting and instructive. The candidate would want to say, “ok, that’s interesting. Can you help me understand why not? What sort of priorities do you envision and why?” Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics but maybe the candidate and the congregation (or its leadership) are on such different paths that no reconciliation is possible.

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thanks, I think your response does a good job of touching on the practical concern of my question. It does seem difficult for those who are a) confessionally Reformed, and b) seeking a call in a like minded congregation to find a reasonable convergence on the matters you bring up in the post. My heart goes out to the men who are seeking a call in the current environment.

      One of the things I have most appreciated about your focus, especially in RRC, is your effort to hone in on these matters in a way that is irreducibly Reformed. E.g. how we might approach these priorities based on how our own confessional heritage informs us. But, sadly what seems to exist at the forefront of these priorities is where one lands on the “hot button” issues of the day. Anything ranging from ones views on creation (irrespective of denominational statements such as those issued by the PCA or OPC), to union, or sanctification, seems to determine congregational priorities, as opposed to how our confessional bodies have aproached these matters over time. To me, the net effect is an erosion of our catholicity in an effort to ensure one lands on the ‘right’ side of current debates. It would seem, at least to me, that our confessions are sufficiently broad enough, or catholic, to allow for different points of emphasis while pursuing these (helpful and succinct) priorities, especially where the rubber meets the road in the selection and ordination of our leaders.

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