I recently attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual General Assembly where Baptists from across “the Fellowship” typically gather for a few days in a humid Southern (or Texas) city to wear name tags, listen to keynotes, eat room temperature hotel chicken breasts and learn about our community’s church starters, field personnel, lobbyists and advocates working for measurable change among marginalized peoples.
Conferences like these are always a bit of a mixed bag for me, but my favorite experience — of what is mostly a weekend-long slog to restaurants selling $4 sodas — is when we all gather together to “commission” our institution’s new church starters, field personnel and chaplains/counselors.
Moments like these fill my chest with a kind of air I don’t normally breathe, air that isn’t stale, anxious, cynical and polarized. Air that reminds me that sometimes people still believe in God at great personal cost. And that instead of pretending they heard something else from the divine, they take a risk and enter a world devoid of certainty, clearly marked paths and (probably) reliable health insurance.
At the end of this commissioning we join hands and admit together, maybe for the only time all year, that God does unexpected and interesting things in our world, and that sometimes these interesting and unexpected things require interesting and unexpected kinds of people to undertake them without the assurance they’ll be rewarded for their work.
People without the right last names, or the appropriate credentialing, or the necessary funding, or even the total acceptance of the institution sending them out into the world. They stand under the weight of our hands as we pray blessings over work we ourselves feel too afraid, too old, too indebted, too unsure or too broken to undertake ourselves. I’ve found it truly humbling to commission, bless, and ordain people who should be commissioning, blessing, and ordaining the rest of us to, theologically speaking, get our asses in gear.
You know, just like Balaam and St. Paul on the Damascus road. What did you think I meant?
In these moments, it’s like the ground cracks open under my feet, allowing a few shoots of green grass to grow up under the harsh florescence of the ballroom and the thickness of the low-pile, stain-resistant carpet. That, when I think about it, feels almost as uninhabitable for Christian faith as the polarized and limping world we inhabit on the regular.
I’ve noticed over the years that those of us at the center of institutional life are incredibly good at commissioning other people to do hard things most of us wouldn’t do ourselves (if we’re being honest). We’re even quite good at supporting them financially (as long as we agree with what they think, say, do, believe and feel about everything at all times). But once we begin facing our own crises of faith, our own moments of financial instability, our own moments of shrinking influence and growing anxiety about “the future,” one of the first things we do is to cut contact with those on the margins.
We don’t do this because we want to, or because we’re suddenly hard-hearted. We do it because when you’re drowning the first thing you do, even if you know better, is to begin flailing and desperately reaching for the security, certainty and stability we believe the center of our institutional life offers.
Put more baldly: even if our boat is taking on water, our body still knows that to survive it’s better to be on the top deck rather than in the locked gates separating steerage from first class. Which is why these kinds of gatherings are hard for someone like me. Not because I don’t have institutional advantage, education, or support, but because I feel my own anxiety over “making it” (whatever that means) pulling me toward the center of our institutional life, toward those I inherently believe have access to power, influence, wealth and to (hopefully) renewed self-worth and existential meaning.
And if I’m being honest, those people aren’t the ones we’re all commissioning at the end of the week.
As a matter of fact, I wonder how many of us have ever followed up with any of our commissioned chaplains, field personnel or church starters following the grandiosity of our anointing oils and prayers of solidarity?
Seems like they could probably use our help from time to time.
As a matter of fact, I wonder how many of our church starters or field personnel enjoy programs like the two-year Fellows cohort for young leaders transitioning from educational life into their first pastoral or congregational leadership roles. I wonder how many of our church starters or field personnel provide steering and direction to the trajectory of an institution attempting to entrepreneurially, creatively and faithfully navigate a world of uncertainty, doubt, polarization and anxiety?
Seems like we could probably use their help from time to time.
As a matter of fact, I wonder why it is, no matter how long our church starters pastor people who wouldn’t dare darken the historic double doors of downtown sanctuaries, that they must always be referred to as “church starters” rather than “pastors” like the rest of us with name tags, firm handshakes and navy blazers.
Seems like they could probably use your help from time to time.
I (mostly) love the CBF, well, as much as you can love an amorphous collection of individuals representing other groups of individuals who prize their individuality above (almost) everything else and gather once a year in a large downtown hotel to talk about it. I feel connected to the work we’re doing in my bones when I pray for it, encourage it and hug it tightly in the flesh-and-blood human right in front of me.
However, if we persist in handing the reins of our organization to institutional managers who remain befuddled at the world’s increasing disinterest in the managerial tasks they were taught to oversee, we will continue to argue about identity politics and designated budgetary line items. And anxiously compete with one another for the remaining shreds of power and ecclesial prestige at the top end of our sinking ship until the whole thing slides under the water.
Scarcity depletes so much of our creative energies.
In moments of uncertainty, liminality, anxiety, polarization, fear and violence, the narrative of our biblical text reminds us continually that God didn’t send an institutional manager to rescue and reclaim the identity of God’s movement in the world by mostly ignoring the reality of what was besieging his people.
God sent strange prophets, disgraced priests, people from the wrong tribe and religious tradition, the poor, the oppressed. And when we ignored all of them, God sent God’s self in the flesh and blood of an impoverished Jewish man from the wrong town with followers who were both too few and too weird to get a seat at the Sanhedrin’s bargaining table.
God started a global movement in houses and pubs and lean-tos and trailer parks and in the dingy conference room at the Best Western near the airport.
So when we as ecclesial institutions find ourselves mired in another moment of apocalyptic uncertainty, liminality, anxiety, polarization, fear and violence, to believe that the voices who will lead us into a new tomorrow can come from anywhere but trailer parks, converted warehouses in gentrified neighborhoods, apartments halfway around the world or a dingy hotel conference room at the Best Western near the airport is probably a bit naive, if not biblically illiterate.
Who better to teach us about this world, show us this world, challenge us from this world and commission us all as pastors, prophets and priests into a universe of uncertainty, doubt and (probably) a lack of reliable health insurance than those who have gone before us into this new tomorrow?
So, whether we’re church starters, church managers, or church enders; whether we’re “in the field”; responsible for mowing the field; or just trying to get our kids on time to soccer practice at the field, may we remember that none of us know what we’re doing, no matter how many workshops or luncheons we attend.
May we remember that the future is a lot of things, many of them a bit frightening to us when we reflect on them long enough. But may we take comfort in knowing that in many ways the future is already here in the transformative work of our brothers and sisters on the margins.
It is to this future that we are commissioned by them, by their work, and by their faith.
May we be brave enough to say yes to their call, which is really the call of a sending, wandering, liberating, dying and rising God making all things (even those of us anxiously clutching our lanyards at this point) new.
And all God’s people drinking bad Starbucks in the atrium said: thanks, I’ll need a receipt.
This opinion piece originally appeared on the I’m Eric Minton blog. It has been edited for style.