On Addressing the Angel

Do you remember the shock when, for the first time, you were in a position of leading an institution? If you are a pastor, it would be your first church.

In 1957, I was invited to be pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church in rural southern Indiana. The “call” was extended after a brief huddle of a few deacons one Sunday night. They approached me with this package: fifty dollars a week, along with eliminating the “annual call.” I didn’t know what an “annual call” was, but I could tell by the tone of their voices that it was some special fringe benefit to “seal the deal.” I said, “Yes, I can do that” (and later said yes to teaching fifth and sixth grades and coaching the high school basketball team). I dropped out of seminary for a year in order to try on the pastoral role, like a robe, to see if it would fit.

Initially, with this first attempt as leader of an institution, I saw only people and a building. You know the ditty: “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door, and there are the people.” That’s was I saw — building, steeple, people.

But here is the shock: There were invisible forces at work in Coffee Creek Baptist Church. Like a free-floating planet pulled into the gravitational field of a solar system, I was pulled into the gravity field of this rural, Indiana congregation of century vintage. I kept bumping up against invisible norms that protected past routines, “Oh pastor, this is the way we do it,” such as, music or Communion or funerals or decision-making. I was bumping into the personality, the values, the habits of the congregation — mostly out of their awareness and certainly out of mine.

My “wet behind the ears” suggestion about changing the pattern of viewing the open casket during the funeral service made perfect sense to me, and, even to them in the abstract. But when it came to a real funeral, the viewing of the casket was done as it always was. It’s like driving a car down a road that you think is smooth and level, and suddenly you experience the wheels of your car being pulled into ruts established from previous driving. That’s the feeling. That’s the shock.

I was engaging the corporate personality of Coffee Creek church, the kind of awareness totally left out of my pastoral education. I was prepared to see individuals and families, but I was ill prepared to “see” the invisible spirituality of a congregational system.

It was Walter Wink who opened my eyes to engaging the supra-human powers of institutions, powers that work for both good and ill. He noted that the letters in the book of Revelation were addressed to the “angel” of each congregation. In contrast to the Apostle Paul’s letters to churches with individual leaders often named, the letters in Revelation are directed to the “angel,” that is, the essential core, the spirit, the collective personality of each congregation. Today we speak of this reality as the culture of an institution.

For systemic change to happen you must address the “angel” of an institution. You must understand the “angel.” At times, you align with the “angel” when its a force for good. Sometimes you call the “angel” back to its original vocation when it has become a destructive, dehumanizing force.  (Wink spoke of “angels” of institution originally intending good, but “angels” fall, yet can be redeemed.) Regardless, you quickly learn that “angel” is more powerful than you are, and, in fact, more powerful that any few persons in the congregation. The gravitational pull is fierce.

Here is an example of the positive power of the “angel.” Our congregation was facing a controversial recommendation, one, that if affirmed, would surely mean the loss of members. The power of the “angel” surfaced in the comments like, “Well, when this church took a stand for racial integration back in the 50’s, we lost members, but we made it through those rapids.” Other examples of past difficult decisions were given, each one affirming the congregation’s capacity to survive tough times.

Looking back, I realize that these comments were referencing the “angel.” They were lifting up the norm: “In our congregation, it is our nature to take risks out of conviction.” In one sense, it was our “angel” that carried us through that stressful, challenging time.

What clues give hints about the “angel” of the institution you are leading? I suggest pondering: What’s the message from your “angel” through the architecture of the building or through the stories frequently told (especially the founding stories), the favorite scriptures, or the norms attached to decision-making, rituals and policies? What’s the collective personality that comes through?

Being intrigued by this understanding, each January (in parallel with the President’s State of the Union), I would preach that day on “Addressing the Angel of Pullen (the congregation).” I was addressing, or, more hopefully, I was allowing the gospel to address the invisible, inner spirituality of our life together.

I think we are drawing on Paul’s wisdom: we struggle not just with flesh and blood (visible people) but also with supra-human Powers (invisible spiritual forces). Then, he adds, “Don’t even try it without the whole armor of God!” (Ephesians 6:10-17)

4 Responses to On Addressing the Angel

  1. Ben Wagener says:

    Thanks, Mahan. I believe that our 1970’s church covenant speaks to our collective personality. During the worship service of the first Sunday of every month, we stand and repeat it. I think at times we are simply yawning and going through the motions, but the more I reflect on this covenant, I hear the the sound of a sucking whirlpool that pulls me, my leadership, and the call of the congregation to align ourselves to this alluring “angel.”
    Ben

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    • Joyce Hollyday says:

      Mahan, I appreciate the reminder that every congregation has a culture, even one as new as the one I serve–only a decade old. And your piece is a wonderful honoring of our dear brother Walter Wink, whose recent passing is a loss for us all. His profound insights will live on in beautiful reflections like yours.

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  2. Jim Strickland says:

    Mahan,
    Outstanding insight. Very timely for our congregation right now.
    Will say more later.
    Jim Strickland

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  3. Stan Dotson says:

    Mahan, I loved this piece, especially your homage to Walter Wink. His understanding of the angel reminds me of James Hillman’s work in The Soul’s Code, where he describes the “daemon” in those same terms, and he also uses the acorn analogy which we have talked about recently. Good to be aware of the angels that help shape the ethos of our communities.

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