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Our Churches Need a Sense of Purpose
Churches are much like people: They need purpose. The United Church's move to unionization reflects a professional quandary concerning purpose.

I have followed with interest the debate over whether United Church clergy should join the Canadian Auto Workers union. The fact that some ministers are dissatisfied with their working conditions does not come as a surprise. As a United Church minister myself, I have heard my colleagues expressing deep frustration for years.

Most Evangelical churches, though they have conflicts and crises, are clear about their purpose …

As I see it, the unionization issue is a minor symptom of a larger problem: The mainline Christian denominations, including my church, are unsure what their mission is for the 21st century. For decades we have been a "civi-lizing" influence on society and the state. But many other groups with little or no faith connection are now performing that role. As our expensive buildings age and we continue to enjoy tax-free status, we must ask ourselves:

"What is our mission in the communities and the global village we serve?

When someone comes to me complaining of anxiety and a lack of fulfillment in their life, my first questions are not about income or job benefits. I know nuns and priests who run soup kitchens and encounter life disasters every night that I can barely imagine. Their salaries are low, but they know that what they do matters. Churches are much like people: They need purpose.

Most Evangelical churches, though they have conflicts and crises, are clear about their purpose: to save people from damnation, to give them the joy of Christ in their lives.

But in mainline churches, we are not fundamentalists. Some of us clergy think our role is to be a chaplain to a social club, some of us think we are social workers, some think we are teachers, some think we are revolutionaries and same of us just don't know. The move to unionization reflects this professional ennui.

The churches we serve are even more conflicted. They want to grow, but why? To restore our forebears' legacy? To civilize the state or the masses? To be a bright beacon shining on a hill? To show others the way?

The lack of a clear mission has real consequences to the covenantal relationship between clergy and congregations. When attendance falls, when volunteers are tired because no one will replace them, when ministers with seven years' university education are paid less than all other professionals, when churches are forced to merge or close, then the clergy blame listless laypeople, who blame incompetent clergy. Dwindling numbers in the pews wouldn't matter if the congregation felt it was making a meaningful difference to the community and to each other. Volunteers would find the time; clergy would take night jobs and serve the parish by day; churches could merge or meet in school gyms or living rooms.

Instead, churches draw up complex job descriptions. They are looking for a Messiah to do it all. Clergy become disillusioned and look for chaplain positions or staff jobs at outreach ministries, where the mission is much more clear.

The church is the very place in our consumerist, individualistic and narcissistic culture where the search for meaning can have real consequences, where Jesus can speak to us.

Consider, for instance, the Church of the Saviour (CoS), started in Washington, D.C. This is a unique movement in which mainline believers dare to live their radical discipleship to Jesus without worrying about consequences. Buildings don't matter, nor does liturgy; the goal is not to fill the church for its own sake.

The Church of the Saviour is a worthy model for other mainline denominations. To become a member, one must complete a rigorous two-year education program in five fields: Old Testament, New Testament, doctrine, ethics and Christian growth. In contrast, I was confirmed at 13, but I can't recall a thing the minister and my class talked about. At CoS, new members serve an internship in a mission group, usually in an inner city. Community discipline includes tithing (which is almost unheard of in the United Church), keeping a personal journal, reporting weekly to the group's spiritual director, fasting and renewing one's covenant annually.

Mission cannot be an after-thought …

Still, the United Church has a rich history of social activism—on the equality of women, medicare, refugees, gays and lesbians and care for those with HIV/AIDS. If every denomination had such courage, the Body of Christ would be a bolder and more dynamic force to be reckoned with. The missing link is the connection between our hungry spirits and the nourishing work of Jesus in our midst. Mission cannot be an after-thought to a deeper and more profound encounter with the Divine. This encounter must come to permeate every aspect of the church; our Bible studies, our prayer, our worship celebrations.

Unionizing the clergy will not help this painful, yet re-energizing transformation; it is an irrelevant distraction.

Kevin Little is a United Church minister serving in Ottawa.

Originally published in the National Post, December 4, 2004.




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