This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Of the church … in the world

Leadership: A word from Mennonite leaders

Our church-related institutions face profound challenges integrating faithfulness to core mission and values while adapting to changes in the environment. They operate with a foot in the community of faith and a foot in the marketplace. Both are turbulent …

Our church-related institutions face profound challenges integrating faithfulness to core mission and values while adapting to changes in the environment. They operate with a foot in the community of faith and a foot in the marketplace. Both are turbulent.

Stiffney Rick 2014Sometimes the line between the two seems blurred. But why is intersection of mission and market of institutions important to readers of The Mennonite?

Our church-related institutions help our church continue to be in mission. Every day, thousands of residents, clients, patients, students, staff and families are served in the name of Christ. But this work is not straightforward.

Eastern Mennonite University’s recent study of its hiring policy related to individuals in same-sex relationships illustrates the complexities our institutions face. EMU, Harrisonburg, Va., is not alone. Health and human services organizations, other schools and still other service ministries are wrestling with a broad range of issues related to policy and practice.

For 17 years I have served as president of Mennonite Health Services, a national network of health and human service organizations. For the last several years, I have also chaired the Goshen (Ind.) College board of directors and interacted with many of our schools. I have witnessed boards and executives making sense of their mission in the contexts of church and world. As tensions arise across the church and the marketplace changes, making sense of institutional mission becomes more challenging.

This is not new. Institutions founded in the community of faith and serving in the larger world have always needed to integrate fidelity to mission and their deepest core convictions while adapting. This has always been risky. If institutions don’t adapt, they fail. If they chase the market, they may lose their soul.

The nature of the relationship and influence between church and institution is shaped by different histories and local dynamics. At one time, the institutions could not have survived without the hands-on practical support of the church or its members.

Today, the connection between the two is expressed in various programmatic, structural and policy provisions and often in the appointment of leadership. These help shape the institution’s identity and inform how they address complex questions.

Jack Shea, a Catholic ethicist, observed that if a church-related organization loses its grounding with the community of faith, in time its corporate mission and values may be clear but devoid of theological or churchly content.

Institutions need biblical/theological perspectives. Likewise, the church needs the ongoing witness of the institution and the ways institutions give back in support of the church. But what is the shape of meaningful engagement, exchange and influence?

I suggest that institutions need the following:

  1. Most importantly, we need a church that is strong, growing and committed to engagement in the world. We need a church that supports “mission” in its many expressions, including that of the institutions.
  2. We need individuals willing to serve as trustees who are prepared to dedicate time and energy to bring thoughtful guidance to the work of the boards.
  3. We need dialogue between church and institution. EMU’s interaction with church constituents on a major policy question demonstrates engagement, listening and learning. It isn’t easy, but it is strategic.
  4. As institutions and church, we need to embrace interdependence. Who leads whom? Does the church set the direction or vice-versa? Both? Many of our executives and trustees are appointed by the church or represent the community of faith. But in turn, those leaders and their institutions have helped the church come to new understandings of faith, see new possibilities for mission and service. Such interdependence comes with some cautions. Institutions should not assume they know best. And the church needs to be careful not to use theological understandings or doctrinal formulations that shape congregational identity as a litmus test for the fidelity of an institution. The church and its institutions need each other. But they are not the same. The institutions are “of the church but in the world.”
  5. The leaders of our institutions need the encouragement of the church to make sense of faithfulness and effectiveness in a fast-changing world. There will be mistakes. There is need for grace as the church and its institutions each seek to be communities through which the healing and hope of Christ flows to the world.

Rick Stiffney is president/CEO of Mennonite Health Services Alliance and a member of Southside Menno­nite Fellowship in Elkhart, Ind.

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