The Congregation’s Angel: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 7, 2016

You remember the hand gesture — locking your fingers inward and saying, “This is the church, this is the steeple,” and then, as you open your hands, “open the door, here’s all the people.”

That’s the way church looks — an aggregate of individuals. When you look out over the congregation on a Sunday morning, what do you see? You see individuals separated in rows, each with a distinct appearance, each with a different personality, each with a different history with you. Or, looking through the church pictorial directory you notice individual faces, most of whom are shown within families, each with different names. Or, in your imagination when your congregation comes to mind you likely think of individuals to call or families to visit.

But on some level we know there’s more. Intuitively we know church to be more than separate individuals and family units. We just know it. There’s an invisible reality that will never show up in a church directory. Consider two fictitious individuals reflecting on their first visits to a particular congregation:

“I walked down the aisle, found a seat, looked around, breathed in the ambiance of the space, glanced through the worship bulletin, and took a deep breath. I don’t know why but I just felt at home. This fits. I could be a member here.”

“The people seemed nice enough. The sermon was okay. Nothing wrong with the music. But, somehow, I didn’t feel engaged. I’m not sure what I am looking for, but this is not the congregation for me.”

This felt, invisible force that each of these church visitors experienced we call by a number of names: “culture,” “spirit,” “corporate personality,” or “gravitas” of a congregation. Walter Wink calls this reality the “angel” of a congregation. Wink’s interpretation of angel, new to me, immediately became a re-frame that mattered.

Angel? Angel of a congregation? Who believes in angels these days? Aren’t angels disembodied figments of a non-enlightened mind? What possible meaning could this ethereal construct have for us?

Walker Wink is convincing. He opened my eyes to an added dimension of congregational life. This New Testament scholar wrote a trilogy that shook the theological world, including my theological worldview: Naming the Powers (1984), Unmasking the Powers (1986), and Engaging the Powers (1992). In Unmasking the Powers Wink notices that in the Book of Revelation, in chapters two and three, seven letters are sent to the seven churches in Asia Minor. But they are addressed to the angel of each congregation, e.g. “To the angel of the church of Ephesus,” “To the angel of the church of Sardis,” etc. In contrast, Paul addresses his letters to an entire congregation, like the church at Ephesus or the church at Philippi. Until Wink’s observation I had never noticed this before. Frankly, up to this point angels had no place in my understanding of life. They were contrary to my way of thinking. Never had I taken them seriously — until Wink came along.

For Wink the angel of each congregation represents its totality. The angel is not something separate or moralistic or airy. Rather, the congregation is the angel’s incarnation. The spirit or angel of a church is embodied in the people and place. The angel represents the spirituality of a congregation, its corporate personality, its interiority, its felt sense of the whole. Angel (aggelos) in this context means “messenger.” The angel of a church conveys its true unvarnished message. It tells it like it is, the good and not so good. In the above illustration of fictitious visitors, these individuals encountered the angel of the same congregation. They engaged its spirit or culture. For one visitor the experience felt uninviting; for the other it was a coming-home feeling.

The angel or spirit in each of the seven churches in Revelation reveals a mixture of mature and immature characteristics. These letters picture Christ’s spirit addressing the angels of these congregations with both affirmation and challenging critique. For example, to the angel of Ephesus: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance … [but] you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2) To the angel of Laodicea, the message begins with a scathing indictment, “…because you are neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” but ends with, “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:16, 20) In fact each letter ends with the same challenge: “Let everyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Although Wink, and this reflection, focus on congregations, it is important to note that every collective entity with continuity through time has an angel. A family or a business has it own unique spirit, as does a school. We even speak of “school spirit.” Wink provides a way to name the invisible spirituality within any visible institution. Wink reclaims a biblical image — granted an unfamiliar one — for naming this invisible reality.

This is the picture: In these seven letters in the Book of Revelation, Christ is imaged as walking among the congregations, engaging the angel of each, sometimes critically, sometimes affirmatively — all in the service of transforming the angel into Christ-likeness. The living Christ is at work not only in the lives of persons in all their relationships. The Spirit is also at work loving, confronting, healing, and transforming the spirit-angel of each congregation.

Now, let’s turn to the significance of this re-frame during my last stint as pastor. This awareness I received from Wink dove-tailed so perfectly with family systems theory. As the new pastor I set before me two tasks: one, come to know the people; and two, come to know the system, the corporate spirit that I later learned from Wink to be the angel of the church.

The second task felt like detective work. I saw clues. I noted the architecture, the placement of pulpit, choir, and other symbols. What’s the message they tell about our spirit-angel? I kept asking questions: what’s the glue that holds us together? I continued to listen for favorite stories about past events, past crises, and past pastors. What former rituals continue to be life giving? And what are people in the community saying about us? One observation began to clarify as a characteristic of our long history: our angel had two strong wings — attention to worship and attention to social justice. Of course, there was more to learn about the angel, but this awareness jumped out with clarity and became a reference point for the rest of my leadership.

This was my assumption: The angel, if I allowed it, was introducing itself to me. I was being invited, less to analyze the angel than to learn to love the angel. In what may appear strange, I was forming a pastoral relationship with the angel, as well as with the people. It’s not unlike learning to care for another person. I was being invited to love this particular congregation with all its complexities, gifts, failures, inconsistencies, and richness.

Perhaps some specific examples will help you understand the value of this double vision seeing individual persons and paradoxically seeing the invisible corporate spirit, the angel.

I first experienced the angel of this congregation as cool, reluctant to extend a warm welcome to visitors. The church had been through some stressful years that absorbed the energy required for getting through a significant transition. So when the congregation gathered for worship members wanted to be together, to reassure each other, to enjoy each other. Wink gave me language for what I was intuiting, namely a wound in our angel that needed healing. For the next decade a priority for our leaders was to recover the church’s former generosity and eagerness to welcome the stranger.

This angel was severely tested in my ninth year. The congregation was discerning whether or not to add a ritual to our ministry — the blessing of a same-sex union. At the time there was not a more contentious, divisive issue in the larger church. This was the surprise. During this extended process of decision-making, we experienced more conflict outside the congregation than within it. We splintered, but we did not split.

I wondered then and now — what kept us steady in the water during this whirlwind of controversy? I believe it was the angel. During those stressful months, often a member would say something like, “Yes, we will lose some members. Yes, we will lose some money. Just like we did when we elected women deacons in the ’40s and when we racially integrated in the late ’50s and when our pastor was speaking out against the Vietnam War in the late ’60s. We made it through then. We’ll make it through now.” The angel with its passion for social justice, rooted in favorite passages such as Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4, provided the keel that kept our ship from overturning in turbulent waters. When enough members said, “This is who we are,” they were referring to our angel.

This imaginative metaphor of a congregation’s spirit inspired my occasional sermon that addressed the angel of our congregation. In a 1990 sermon, drawing on Wink’s interpretation of these verses in the Book of Revelation, I imaged Christ walking among us, engaging our angel. I spoke of Christ’s affirmation of our angel’s heart for community matters arising from and supported by our core practice of worshiping God. I gave some specific examples of this rhythm between worship and service, being at our best when not taking ourselves too seriously. But I also imagined Christ confronting our angel for our sometimes pride in feeling special, “progressive,” and yes, superior. I also envisioned our angel being chastised for being, at times, so open and inclusive that such grace could be morphed into cheap grace with little sacrifice or commitment.

And I ended the sermon, “So, these are some reflections on our angel. More importantly, I want you to take home this picture — the image of the spirit of Christ encountering our collective spirit, walking among us with the desire to transform our angel into his likeness.”

I conclude this reflection by noting a peculiar characteristic of our work. Like few vocations, pastoral ministry is all about seeing the un-seeable. The realities of trust, hope, and love — indeed, the Mystery we name God — are all invisible Spirit, like the wind, an uncontrollable force experienced but not seen. Even inter-personal relationships, the very heart of our work, cannot be seen or precisely measured. In these words I am underscoring another invisible reality on the list: the angel. Discerning and loving the angel of the congregation in the service of further transformation became for me a re-frame that mattered.

 


Power-Over to Power-With: A Re-Frame That Mattered

September 14, 2015

“I’ve been Pharaoh to every liberation movement,” once wrote William Sloan Coffin. “Me too,” I remember thinking when these words passed in front of my eyes over thirty years ago.

I’ve been “Pharaoh” in this sense: I was born into systems — family, church, nation, world — that work to my favor, my well-being and to the dis-favor, ill-being of others. Just being male, white, heterosexual, upper middle class, American — not my choice or achievement — gives me a privilege and power edge. “Born on third base” makes the point. At times this fact has been a source of guilt; at other healthier times, it’s been a resource of influence, an “alongside” resource to mercy and justice making.

During my life-time I have been engaged by the major freedom movements of our day:
women’s liberation; black liberation; gay liberation; class/economic liberation; and liberation from USA as empire. The surprise to me, or more accurately, the grace to me has been the taste of inner freedom these movements have brought to me as well. In my advantages, often disguised, I have found some liberation from the loneliness, constriction, and fear that comes with being in “Pharaoh’s” seat. Or to shift to a biblical metaphor, privileged positions are “logs in our eyes,” preventing clear vision. Every liberation movement is all about seeing clearly and acting from that awareness, from that awakening.

The re-frame that mattered is this: from relationships characterized by power-over to relationships embodying shared power, power-with. Unlike the other re-frames I have named, this change has been gradual and incremental, sometimes painfully so. The older I become, the deeper I see my complicity with domination systems that privilege me. But this re-frame has been clear for decades. It has provided a lens through which I have viewed power. This aspiration for just relationships, which I take to be God’s intention, has been a theme of inner work for all these years.

The rise of feminine power came first to my awareness. In my nuclear family, it was my education that received priority, since my sister would be “only” a wife and mother. There were no females in my seminary classes. At the time, there were no female pastors anywhere except among Pentecostals. And it was assumed that once married, Janice and I would move to where my vocation took us . . . with no questions raised.

But the question was raised soon after Betty Friedan in Feminine Mystique (1964) set fire to a revolution. Around 1968, my wife, Janice said to me, “No longer do I want to be the woman behind the man. I’m returning to graduate school to prepare for my own vocation.”

She did. And we entered therapy. The hard, long work of redefining our marriage began. We relinquished marriage as a one-vote system or one-vocation system while reaching for the capacity and skills to become partners, equal partners. We risked, both of us did, toward a fresh life in this new way of experiencing power. Janice and I were among the fortunate ones, making it through these rapids without capsizing. Beyond marriage, this shift opened me to the gift of women in church leadership, the gift of feminine scholarship, and friendships that have gifted my life and ministry ever since.

Next came the black liberation movement. “Black power” was the awareness finding voice in neighboring Washington, D.C. in 1967. Our suburban congregation, Ravensworth Baptist Church, formed a partnership with a black congregation, First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church. On many Saturdays about twelve members from each congregation met with a trained facilitator to explore the possibilities of honest, interracial relationships. We keep meeting until they became tired of helping us see our racism. However, during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, our church partnership provided a bridge of support during those fearful, divisive days. It was the beginning, a very small beginning, of interracial friendships that allow for difficult, transformative conversations.

Let’s stop at this point, allowing me to name the theological shift that was under-girding this re-ordering of power-relationships. Walter Wink was my primary mentor, in particular his Engaging the Powers, the third book in his trilogy on Powers. Other theological framing, such as process theological thinking, has shaped me as well, but Wink addressed directly the theme of this essay. He notes the rise of systemic domination around 3000 B.C.E. with the city-states of Sumer and Babylon, each system being authoritarian and patriarchal. He steps back, noting the prevailing assumption of “domination systems” for these five thousand years — the fundamental right of some to have coercive power over others (power-over). There developed what Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that power as violence can save, can solve problems. No wonder, with so many centuries of re-enforcement, this transformation of power in relationships is slow, arduous work, one step at a time.

Domination systems have largely prevailed as the norm during these centuries, but not without challenges and not without alternative options of relational power. The Old Testament prophets denounced the domination arrangements of their day, giving words to the longing for a more just order. In Jesus, God’s domination-free order of nonviolent love is clearly and profoundly unveiled. By word and action Jesus gave flesh to this re-frame of liberation by up-ending assumed power structures of his day. But the domination system proved too strong. Roman imperial forces joined with Jewish leadership to crush the Jesus non-violent movement of compassion and equality. Well . . . not fully or finally. Resurrection, among other things, means that this God movement could not be crushed. Indeed, and in every century since, within domination systems there have always been counter witnesses of Domination-Free relationships. Against this historical background, we can marvel and hail — and yes, join — the multiple liberation movements over time, and in particular our time.

Then came the gay liberation movement in the last decades in the 20th century, another challenge to “Pharaoh.” At that time, when I was a pastoral counselor, some persons came to me struggling with their sexual identity. A few became clear: their orientation was same-sex attraction, not opposite-sex attraction. I was close enough to feel their dilemma — costly to “come out of the closet,” costly not to. There it was again: I, a person of privilege, hearing stories of abusive power, including condemnation from the church. By 1984 I had returned to the church as pastor. Soon I began hearing from some clergy: “AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuality.” I knew better, I thought. I was, in some sense, forced out of “my closet,” feeling called to offer another voice from the church. Once again, the paradox was at work. In joining a freedom movement I experienced a measure of new freedom and grace.

Economic injustice, another form of abusive power, remains even more entrenched in my life. My privilege of income, house, insurance, and automobile has set me apart, in spite of efforts here and there to come alongside the hungry, thirsty stranger, the naked, sick, and imprisoned — those relationships where Jesus said we could find him. I remain, certainly by global standards, an affluent Christian, just as I remain in systems that favor me and disfavor others.

Within these systems, I can and do attempt to dis-identify, dis-engage, and de-tach from the abuses of power, while at the same time I continue to enjoy the fruits of privilege. Rooted and grounded in mercy within this soil of ambivalence and ambiguity, I can find some laughter at my efforts, even a measure of joy in my half-heartedness.

In this reflection I am not advocating the effort to dismantle hierarchy, even if we could. A hierarchy of roles is necessary in families and other organizations. I am advocating a different understanding of power, one incarnated clearly in Jesus of Nazareth. We know the difference between power that is coercive, dominating, and abusive and power that aligns, comes alongside, empowers, and invites, valuing mutuality, offering partnership. We know that difference.

It’s the difference I saw in the re-frame: from power-over to power-with in all relationships.

This re-frame mattered. It still matters.


The Powers

October 20, 2014

“I’m so tired, so very tired,” she said. “Physically, but more emotionally and spiritually. I feel exhausted. I know what to do but I don’t have the energy to do it.” Let’s name her, Linda.

I remember the feeling. When I was about her age, also a first time parent and first time solo pastor, that same dark tar settled in my soul to stay for a long while. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. And I said.

I wish I had known then about Walter Wink. He was the gift that made a second round of being pastor a different, more understanding, more liberating experience. In Engaging The Powers, he writes about folks like us—persons caught up in the good, exciting work of healing and justice and mercy. He names the time when the wells of compassion run dry, when the very love that gave birth to our vocation is exhausted. “If you feel powerless,” he says, “then it’s a sure sign that the Powers have your spirit.”

The Powers? What does that mean? What are the Powers? The Powers are the third factor in every situation. The first two factors we can see. Factor one is ourselves; factor two is the other person or group of others, for example, a colleague, family, committee or congregation. People, along with the physical environment, are what we see. Do you remember the ditty with movements: “Here’s the church; here’s the people. Open the door and there’s all the people.” That’s it, I thought. Ministry is about people and me.

But there’s a third factor, always a third factor. It’s invisible, a spiritual reality we cannot measure, control or name precisely. These Powers are supra-human, transcendent forces, the more than “flesh and blood,” what the Apostle Paul named “principalities and powers” against which we contend, lest they capture our spirit. (Ephesians 6:10–17)

You and I experience this truth—the Powers—but seldom name it. We feel it in a cheering, crowded stadium and call it “school” spirit. Or, it may be a mob spirit that we name “demonic.” We enter a home and sense hospitality or hostility, formality or informality. The same when you worship in a church that is new to you. Immediately you take in the spirit of the place coming from the architecture, the congregants, and leaders. When we speak about the personality of a congregation, we are referencing its culture, its collective spirit—that is, the Powers. And Powers, whether for good or ill, whether life-giving or death-dealing always influence what’s possible in a system. They can be so dominating they virtually determine what’s possible. Wink names this the “domination system” in which, along with divine Spirit, we live and move and have our being.

Back to Linda. She is not primarily contending with “flesh and blood” congregants. Actually, most members, she says, are supportive, collaborative and appreciative. She is contending with supra-human forces. She is breathing in and internalizing the thick messages of her family, church and cultural context. She is inhaling its imperatives: “It’s up to you to pull out of this exhaustion” . . . “you are not enough, spiritual enough, doing enough” . . . “pull yourself together, try harder” . . . “your worth is on the line” . . . “after all, you are paid to carry the anxiety of this church” . . . “to ask for help is weakness.”

Then there is the larger pervasive assumption: what Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence,” that is, coercive force (violence) solves problems—internally or externally. Linda was violating herself, condemning herself, trying to force or coerce different behavior and feelings.

All this and more are the unacknowledged waters we swim in. It’s the air we breathe. These invisible powers press upon us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. They are the third factor, always present. When we give in to these oppressive, dominating Powers, we feel powerless—like Linda.

“Great,” I imagine Wink responding to Linda. “Now, you know a freeing truth: by yourself you can not fuel your good work even with your gifts, stimulating insights, superior training, ‘try it again’ efforts or a self-willed determination. Simply, you are being reduced to prayer. He writes, “Unprotected by prayer, our social activism [ministry] runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, [and] the well of love dries up.” Prayer, for Wink, is opening up to the transcendent possibilities of God always pressing for realization in every situation. Praying is aggressive, joining God as partner in the struggle for Shalom against the anti-human Powers ever pressing us down. This struggle against “principalities and powers” is so challenging, Paul writes, it demands “the whole armor of God.”

“Linda,” I hear Wink saying, “You have over-estimated your will power in overcoming the oppressive messages, both internal and external; you have under-estimated the prayerful resource of alignment with the power of God. Paul even provides a sample prayer (in the same Ephesian letter) that, I like to believe, includes us as well.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3: 14–21)