December 30, 2021

You Keep Using that Word “Mission”

Last month, Greg Syler posted an essay, You Keep Using that Word “Parish”, that challenged us to use the word “Parish” in a more intentional and historically accurate way – referring to a geographic area rather than to a specific type of congregation. In this essay, I would like to challenge our use of the other word that we use to describe our congregations: “Mission”.

The dictionary defines “Mission” as a specific task to be completed, or as a vocational calling. The canons of most dioceses define “Mission” as a congregation that is not self-sustaining. These two could not be more different. The dictionary definition is filled with purpose; the canonical definition is characterized by scarcity.

How did we – and, I might add, how dare we! – define “Mission” as anything except the task and calling that was given to us by God? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” That’s a mission, and it is characterized by hope and abundance.

Most of the Episcopal Church’s “Missions” today are congregations that were self-sustaining until the ravages of generational, cultural, or demographic change took their toll. But, in a previous age, our “Missions” were more missional: We established “Missions” in the places where our voice needed to be heard or our ministry needed to be felt. Some of these “Missions” became self-sustaining, but some did not. Sustainability was not their goal; “Missions” existed for the purpose of furthering the church’s mission.

How do we get back there?

First, we need to stop seeing “Mission” as a status, and we certainly need to stop seeing “Mission” as a lower status than “Parish.” Some of our congregations are financially self-sustaining and others are not. Let’s start being honest about that rather than using ill-defined code words. Phrases like “supported congregation” and “supporting congregation” would be more accurate and would convey the sense that all of our congregations are working together towards a shared mission.

Second, we need to determine which of our “Missions” are still advancing the church’s mission. Is a supported congregation proclaiming the good news in a place where it would otherwise go unheard? If yes, what resources does it need? If no, what is its purpose?

Third, we need to start establishing “Missions” again – true missions that proclaim our voice and advance our ministry in places where the traditional model would not provide for self-sustaining congregations. Today’s “Missions” might be congregations in remote locations or among people without deep pockets, but they might also be homeless shelters, or college chaplaincies, or mental health counseling centers, or safe places for the LGBTQ community, or refugee assistance centers, etc.

Let’s not let the Episcopal Church become a place that proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ only to those who are able and willing to pay for it. Let’s commit ourselves to mission again, and let’s use words that make that commitment clear.