August 5, 2011

Hammers and Nails

The first chapter of Acts shows Jesus telling the Apostles to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit. With understandable impatience, and some initiative, they decide instead to fill the absent spot in their number left by the betrayal of Judas, with the essentially backward-looking criterion that the candidates have been witnesses to all that Jesus had done from the beginning They elect Matthias, who is enrolled among their number — and about whom nothing else is heard.

For it appears that the Holy Spirit, for which the Apostles were too impatient to wait, had other ideas about the shape of ministry for the emerging church. The Apostles were concerned about office while the Holy Spirit was more concerned to raise up ministries.

The pattern repeats a few chapters later when the Apostles are called upon to address the complaints of the Greek-speaking community’s widows, cleverly appointing seven Greek deacons to this newly created office, to placate the complaints and address the concerns. But once again, Stephen, notable among the deacons, very quickly overleaps his job description and engages in a prophetic ministry of preaching and proclamation that ends in his martyrdom, perhaps even sowing the seeds of Saul’s later conversion.

The church — and let’s face it, almost any institution — is very often caught between the expressions of charismatic ministry emerging to meet unexpected needs, and the tendency almost immediately to stamp these ministries with some kind of official recognition. In many cases the office is maintained even after the need for which it was created may have changed or ceased altogether. In doing this the church loses the flexibility to address the actual needs presented to it by the world, and stumbles about trying to fit people with a truly rounded charismatic call to serve an emergent need into the square hole of an office not ideally suited to that work. Or the leaders may despair of finding a suitable candidate for an office that is really no longer needed — such is the power of the office itself to conform or induce conformity. There is an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and this can happen with ministry as well as carpentry.

This is true not just of individual offices but of programs — a church begins a ministry of feeding the homeless, for example, to meet a real need. But after some years, when changes in the neighborhood or the demographics have reduced or eliminated the homeless population, the church still feels that it must perpetuate this program even though the need has lessened or disappeared. The church has become so identified with that program that it is no longer able to see the new and emerging needs staring it in the face.

The Spirit calls us to sit lightly in our offices and our programs, to keep our eyes open to the world around us. Parishes, dioceses and even national churches can be paralyzed into inaction when they become so set on filling offices that they miss the crying needs, and the Holy Spirit’s abounding grace providing ministries emerging in their midst.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Sam Smith+ said...

I really appreciate these thoughts, Tobias. They echo what I have said many times about the outreach programs in our diocese. So often they began because of real need, but 15 or 20 years later the church is still doing the same program, even though the need is really gone. I see this particularly with after-school programs - in many areas of the Diocese of New York the public schools are now offering after school programs, and they have better facilities and leadership than we. We must always keep our eye on the current environment and the needs today, not just "once upon a time."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Sam. BSG went through a bit of this some years back, and the topic came up at our recent Convocation in a fine workshop led by Br David John Battick of Newcastle, Australia. One of our brothers started a "Vestment Exchange" ministry of collecting donated unused vestments and forwarding them on to places in need at no cost. When he was no longer able to carry on the ministry, there was a felt need to continue it, even though no one with the real gift for that kind of work came to the fore; so it stumbled along for a couple of years before we finally woke up to the reality that this wasn't really working, and in the meantime, along came Sister Elias Freeman in NJ who was more than willing and able to do the work!

The Very Rev. Daniel B. Brown said...

Another view from this perspective is the one so often found in the life of smaller congregations. The ministry is Christian formation for all ages. The office is Sunday School for our children.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Dann. A great example! Ironically, it is sometimes easier to do intergenerational Christian Ed for all ages in a smaller parish, once people accept the work not be defined by the old "model" of Sunday School for children.

In a similar (non-church) way, a whole generation of executives failed to take advantage of computers because the keyboard made them think it was a "secretarial" tool -- when the PC actually always had the potential to be an executive power tool...

We need a whole new shift-load of paradigms!

emeritus said...

In this connection this book may be of interest: WAKE UP LAZARUS: ON CATHOLIC RENEWAL by Pierre Hegy
Reviewed in National Catholic Reporter here:

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Emeritus! I often find myself returning to the tripartite renewal model of Paul VI in Perfectae Caritatis: the call to be

1. Faithful to your Charism
2. Convicted by the Gospel
3. Attentive to the Signs of the Times

(That's my wording, but the idea is Paul VI's).

June Butler said...

Tobias, by 'intergenerational Christian Ed for all ages', do you mean that parishioners of all ages would participate together in the classes or whatever other activity is planned?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear GM, that's the general idea. It can work for a small parish that may not have the resources or the people to warrant much division by age. Obviously I'm not talking infants here, but my experience of another Bronx parish was that some of the best "childrens' sermons" (delivered by the rector at the steps of the sanctuary with children gathered around) were also some of the best "adult sermons"!

June Butler said...

Our rector who recently retired always preached a brief children's sermon before the regular sermon, most often using hand puppets, which the adults in the congregation enjoyed, too.

We have regular Sunday school classes for all ages, separated into age groups, but we have difficulty recruiting enough adults to take the children's classes, even though we don't have that many children to serve.