March 7, 2017

What is church? Family? Corporation? Community?

My daughter’s Montessori school is in transition. The dynamic husband and wife who founded the school more than twenty years ago are devoted Montessorians and have had a profound impact on our local community and, indeed, my own family. But now they are preparing to sell the school, and they have a buyer – in fact, a former teacher at the school, herself a gifted educator, and her husband are getting ready to take the reins.

Even though my siblings and I grew up in parochial Christian schools – my parents made great sacrifices to send us there – I’ve personally never experienced the sale of a school. In and of itself, it’s a strange concept to my mind; our elementary school was connected to a Lutheran congregation, and our high school was part of the Christian Reformed tradition. It’s a strange place in which to be, committed to a school and watching our daughter truly grow and develop, now in the third grade, in the careful and beautiful environment of a Montessori curriculum, while also preparing to go along with what will undoubtedly be change, probably significant change. Even as the new owners promise that the same ethos and standards will continue, I know some kind(s) of change will come.

It makes me all the more sensitive to how hard it must be for parishioners of my own congregation, St. George’s in Valley Lee, Maryland, as we talk about and prepare for significant change ourselves – beginning, as we will on the first Sunday in Lent, to launch a new, shared Sunday worship schedule with our neighbor congregation, Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, the first big impact of our formal covenantal ‘yoking’. Our vestry and I say time and again that this change will be difficult and yet we’ll make it through, we’ll find a way, we won’t lose much but, instead, we’ll gain even more. I know this to be true, and I believe it in my heart. And yet change is also hard, no matter what.

It also makes me wonder about the powers of the various metaphors we use for church, and it makes me all the more aware that different metaphors have different, impactful emphases. Is the church a ‘family’? Yes, certainly. Family is a good metaphor because, on the one hand, it implies a deep connection through love and bonds of affection and, on the other, families also grow, change, and develop elastic tendencies: children get married, for instance, and along the way sons-in-law and daughters-in-law are added to the mix, and maybe even grandchildren, too. But ‘family’, as metaphor, doesn’t always work, for sometimes church is a corporation: a not-for-profit business venture, and we’re in the ‘business’ of reconciling the world and transforming hearts, minds, and lives. Indeed, the root of the word ‘corporation’ is ‘body,’ as in Body of Christ. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that that’s a part of who we are, and what we’re about. Corporations have investors, and a mission, and a need to develop strategically. But a corporation can also sound like a sterile, secular entity, and we’re also reminded that church is also a community; in fact, church is a series of communities in community, never one thing but many voices, many perspectives, many generations, many people. Not everyone in a community is necessarily ‘family’, and not everyone agrees with one another, but neighbors are still neighbors no matter whether they like each other or vote for the same presidential candidate or not.

There are multiple other metaphors for church, and each has its own power; each has its own meaning and impact. In times of change, I think we need to be careful about which metaphor we’re using, and which we’re hearing. Someone may be speaking about church-as-family and they simply cannot understand why the vestry keeps talking about church-as-corporation. Neither is better or worse than the other, but unless we’re hearing and speaking responsively to one another we won’t be able to communicate, for one, let alone move forward together.

Back to my daughter’s school; this is already going on, and it’s instructive for me to also participate in it as a member of the community, albeit a highly invested member and current president of the PTO. The head of school called for a meeting with the parents, and it was interesting to watch the various metaphors at play. The new owners wanted to talk about the school as a community of parents and families, for instance, and yet many of the parents – all of whom are significant investors, seemed to broadcast on the level of business, corporation. The current owners, for instance, wanted to talk about the bonds of affection they’ve enjoyed over these twenty-plus years, watching the children grow and developing meaningful relationships with the parents and grandparents, but the newer parents wanted to know how school events would continue and how that wider sense of community would be fostered by a new family taking the lead. Communication was happening, and dialogue was being built, even as it was also clunky at times and strained at others.

Neither one metaphor nor another wholly encompasses and describes what a particular ‘school’ or ‘church’ might mean to a given individual; all of us carry our preferred metaphors close to our heart. Not one is better or worse than another; there is room in the church, at least, for everyone at Christ’s table. But being careful in speaking and listening, being careful when particular metaphors are being used is often a good first step toward shared understanding.