March 2014
Building Strong Teams

Church as Base Camp

There is a story of a man racing up to the church door one Sunday morning just as the rector was greeting the people on their way out. Out of breath, he asked, “When does the service begin?” Before the rector could answer, an astute woman responded- “The service begins now!’ She got the Sunday-Monday connection, the link between liturgy and life. The Dismissal was sending her out “to do the work God had prepared for her to do.”

Believing that God is most interested in how lovingly and justly we live Monday to Saturday, how are we using Sunday, and all of our church life, to help us do this better? How might a congregation support, encourage, challenge, equip, empower, affirm the laity in their daily lives? After all, it is the dismissal in the liturgy that “sends us out to do the work you have prepared for us to do.” How might a vestry stretch its vision to help its baptized claim their ministries in their lives beyond the church doors?

Let me suggest a metaphor and some ways and means.

First the metaphor. Think of base camps like those on Mt. Everest. What are they for? Guidance, stories, repairs, nourishment, maps, equipment, supplies, encouragement, etc.. Now think of our congregations. Are those the same things that a congregation could supply for its “hikers?” As a Presbyterian pastor, Stephen Jacobsen, puts it:

“One image that may be useful is that of the church as a base camp…. The church is a base camp in which a community of people gathers to reflect on life, be reminded of their identity, and make plans for exploration. From there, each person goes out during the week to take on that part of the mountain that is theirs to explore. The base camp exists to serve the climbing team. In itself, it is neither the goal of the expedition nor the mountain itself. The value of this image is that it affirms the importance of the community…. but does not mistake the institution for the central reality. The hikers don’t exist for the good of the base camp. The base camp exists for the good of the hikers. How well (is the church) empowering people for the work on the mountain those other six days? The church exists for the people, not the reverse. People deserve our help in making sense of all seven days.”
(From Hearts to God, Hands to Work, Alban Institute)

In light of this, a reality check: Isn’t Christ the Lord of our daily lives as much as the Lord of our church's programs? If so, how might a congregation embrace a paradigm that includes the places beyond the church doors where the hikers “live and move and have their being?”

This is an issue that stretches a vestry’s vision and imagination. How might a vestry focus on enhancing the mission of all the baptized in their daily lives? To do so a vestry must make the conscious and intentional decision to put the hikers’ journeys as a priority in its strategic planning. It calls for vestry leadership to enable the parish’s programs to focus on equipping and empowering the laity to live out their faith in their daily vocations. Given sufficient intentionality, creativity, and prayer, church leaders can help their congregants claim their ministries, in and through their daily lives.

This may seem obvious, but my own experience reflects something different. Take the workplace. I have been visiting parishioners where they work most of my ordained life. The initial questions are: What do you do here and what is the faith connection with what you do here? For the vast majority that second question is the first time the faith/work connection has been raised. That should tell us something- that at the heart of a person’s daily life where he or she is spending most of his/her God-given talents and God- given time, the church has been delinquent.

Let me share the story of my visit with Lisa, an attorney with a major transportation company:

“When Fletcher Lowe originally asked if he could visit me at work to discuss the ‘faith connection,’ that is the connection between what I do to make a living and my faith, I agreed reluctantly. Not because I was reluctant to talk with Fletcher or because I was reluctant to talk about either my work or my faith. I just wasn’t’ sure I saw any connection between the two. So, I agreed, but planned to rely on Fletcher to steer the conversation, because I really couldn’t draw a connection there. I mean, after all, how could working as an attorney for a trucking company tie in to God’s work anyway?

“In our discussion, Fletcher challenged me to see how the gifts I have and the work I do is in fact God’s work. That drafting up a contract fairly, is applying my faith and the values rooted in my faith. That treating my fellow employees with respect, behaving in an ethical manner, and being able to help two parties work through issues and come up with a problem solving approach… is doing God’s work. That, in fact … using whatever talents I may have, is God’s work. It was a revelation to me! I tended (and still tend, it’s hard to re-train my brain after 48 years), to view God’s work as what the priests and choir directors and youth ministers and Mother Teresas of the world do. I viewed the work world as separate from the faith world.”

So, what if a vestry had as its mission statement: We prepare people for the dismissal, what shape would its congregational life look like? Some initial thoughts of vestry programmatic initiatives:

  • Liturgically: How do the readings and the music and the sermon illustrations and the prayers of the people and the dismissal point to the doors Sunday after Sunday and on special days like Labor Day Sunday and Rogation Sunday? 
  • Christian Formation: What if its main emphasis in programming focused on nurturing and equipping the hikers in their daily journeys at work and family and school and community? 
  • Pastoral Care: What would it look like if it broadened its reach to include supporting and affirming people in the places of their strengths- on the job, in the home, at the school, in the community, as well as helping those in physical or emotional or spiritual need? 
  • Communications: How might the congregation’s various publications, web site, social media, and public media connections reflect the parish’s life as a base camp?

In short, how could a congregation’s life be seen as a staging area - not the destination- for its members on their daily hikes, the place of replenishment providing spiritual nurture? Then the parish becomes a base camp where each hiker is equipped and fed for her/his Monday- Saturday journey. The dismissal truly becomes the marching orders of the baptized.

J. Fletcher Lowe is the convener of Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission, a group of lay persons, priests, and bishops committed to promoting the ministry of all the baptized in their daily lives. Rector emeritus, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, Fletcher authored the LeaderResources book Baptism: the Event and the Adventure, and co-edited the book, Ministry in Daily Life.


Resources, Ministry in Daily Life

This article is part of the March 2014 Vestry Papers issue on Building Strong Teams