Be Thou My (Institutional) Vision

I read an article recently about the problem of institutions.  The crux of the matter is that once an institution (or a vision or a mission statement etc) is formed, then great energy is expended in upholding and maintaining that institution.  Energy that is taken away from other things, like flexibility, nimbleness, the capacity to change and grow, actual work in the community.  These observations are true.

On the other hand, having a mission statement or a vision rein in the scattershot approach and general wheel-spinning.  A group that has a vision or mission statement holds everything it approaches, from its current practices to its potential activities, up to that vision and asks, is this in line with what we have set out for ourselves?  Is this something we can and should do?  Is this an effective use of our time and resources?  Does it represent who we say we are?  (And is that different from who we really are?)  Presumably, the vision or mission has not been arrived at hurriedly or lightly.  And so checking in with the vision whenever a new idea comes forth is helpful.  It allows the institution or group to put boundaries around its activities in order to be more effective and sometimes to keep itself on track.

I think the problem comes when the vision takes on a life of its own, when it becomes too sacred to handle.  When it becomes a memory of who we used to be, when it preserves a notion of ourselves that is not longer true but we are not willing to face.  The vision has to be subject to adjustment, change, and even to be thrown away when it no longer works for the health of the group - when it becomes an unhealthy limiting factor instead of a clarifying one.  Then the mission or vision becomes like any other sacred cow and begins to control the group rather than to be a useful tool the group uses to be effective and to thrive.

It is difficult to strike the right balance.  The vision needs to be strong and not changed willy-nilly.  But it also needs to be subject to challenge when needed.  The skirmishes come in the ground in between those two places.  When is the mission helpful, when is it stifling?

Many of us of a certain age perhaps have a vestige of the sixties' notion of not trusting any institutions.  Such is a healthy notion but it too is subject to becoming a sacred cow.  Truthfully, institutions can and do good in the world and can give life both to those it serves and those who serve within it.  But institutions, like love, must be living breathing things.  They too have life cycles.  They become subject to change and even death.  And they can, like love, be revived and revitalized.

And what does this have to do with Advent?  There is often talk in the church about going back to the "pure" days before the church became an institution.  How Jesus was born outside of the institution (although I think this is not the case - did not Luke describe the faithful observance of Jewish custom by Jesus' family in the story of his circumcision, and did Jesus not teach in the synagogues?), how the early church was free from institutional life (but this is also not the case, as there were rules about how to meet and what to say during the Eucharist and fairly elaborate baptismal rites very early in the church's life).  Jesus was a reformer, but I think not an anarchist.  He preached Torah observance.  And so, as we wait for the one who will come and has come and will come again, we need to check our own vision and wonder if we are serving a vision that does not give us life.  A vision that our own salvation after our deaths is what matters rather than living life for others in this life.  A vision that relies on the casting out of those of whom we disapprove.  A vision that confuses God with Santa Claus on the one hand, or the Grinch on the other.

What are we waiting for?  A new heaven and a new earth, and perhaps in the meantime, a new church.