When laid of from my job as a minister (about two years ago) I did a stint in landscaping. One of the foreman would say something like, “you’re coming with me on an install” and from my confused expression he figured I’d be of little help. An “install” refers to installing a landscape that involves new plantings, potentially creating beds, and therefore removing or altering existing aspects of the landscape. While an install usually refers to a larger planting I think it’d be appropriate to say that I’m installing a tree in the above picture.
So plants can be installed, trees can be installed, tile floors can be installed (another experience in which I was confused) and pastors can be installed. Again, a different industry with a different set of terms.
This Sunday I was installed as an “Assistant Pastor for Church Planting” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI. This is somewhat of an odd occurrence in that:
-We just moved from the Providence area to Worcester
-I’m the assistant pastor starting a church at which I’ll be the lead minister
-I’ve been working at Trinity for over ten months.
The answer to all of these questions lie in the fact that Trinity, in particular, and churches in general are institutions. We have established, codified ways of doing things. Part of this is pragmatic because no one wants to think through a new procedures or processes for regularly repeated events (whether it is the formalization of a relationship between a pastor and a church or the installation of a landscape). Thus practices develop and are systematized over time and institutions (of religion, business, education etc) take on certain shapes and dynamics.
Beyond the pragmatic side, institutions also exist because certain ideals have been held together by people, over time, through the commitment of a variety of resources, until they take on a life of their own. I think of the some of the schools in this area (be it Harvard or The Bancroft School in Worcester), organizations like the MacArthur foundation, and most of all the church. I’ve been thinking about institutions due to some recent reading and then the webs of connection that spiral outwards when something is stuck on my mind. Here are some of the connections:
-The word “institution” generates a negative reflex of distrust and pushback in my mind. I think this is probably generation and sees institutions as organizations looking for power and control to best serve their own ends. On the other hand, institutions have a unique ability to serve and contribute over time. Both of these realities are likely mixed together in most organizations and it is unfair to think of only half of the equation. What would my life be, what would our society be like without institutions? I think of war torn areas like Somalia, regions within Africa, parts of Syria where so many institutions have broken down and the tragedy that follows.
-The church specifically exists as an institution. It not just an organism. It is not merely a collection of individual believers but has a shape given by God. There are means of entry and exit, norms of leadership, founding documents, and the major features of this institution have remained over the past two millennia. Despite all the change of peoples, time, and culture there is remarkable similarity between then and now. The church is thus an incredibly unique institution to which I belong as a member and now more than ever, as leader. When I think about my participation in this institution I continue to have mixed feelings and need to grapple with the inevitability of institutions and God’s purposes through this particular institution.
-One of the unique aspects of being Presbyterian is the larger network of connections. Beyond the local church there is a regional set of churches and leaders as well as a national body. If institutions have a unique capacity for longevity and influence it is neat to belong to this broader network. This is seen even more in Roman Catholicism, which despite significant diversity in theology and practice is united institutionally. With a larger institution the temptation towards grasping for power and control probably grows, but so does the ability to serve and contribute through the years. I need to think more about belonging to something larger than my specific church or even regional network. How do I serve the church at these various layers, looking to it’s well being and benefitting from its institutional presence?