People Over Institutions
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

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A basic tenet or truth of the Christian faith is that if we want to know who God is we must look to Jesus who was the fullest human manifestation of God on earth. His life, teachings, and ministry reveal the character of God.

Likewise, if we want to know the historical person of Jesus we should look to the church. The church – the Body of Christ – is called to reflect the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus. Sadly, it does not take a theologian or church historian to find the overwhelming number of historical incidents when the church reflected the sinfully oppressive structures of the state rather than the liberative ministry of Jesus. The fusion of the church with the policies of the state or multi-national corporations has been devastating to indigenous populations, justifying slavery, human rights atrocities, and even genocide.

Even more sadly, this is not confined to the pages of history. It continues to this day. The failure of the church to reflect the life and ministry of Jesus happens both structurally and individually. Just this week I had lunch with a friend who has worked for a denominational office for years. Her ministry has touched the lives of so many across the country. She is an amazing reflection of the teachings and ministry of Jesus and in spite of this she was fired. The denomination wants to “restructure” for the umpteenth time and for whatever reason – or for no reason at all – she was let go.

What stood out to me is that when she was telling me the story she mentioned that her new boss (as part of the constant denominational restructuring bosses come and go like waiters in a restaurant) invited her to coffee to discuss her future. My friend knew what was coming – layoffs were in the air. But when she got there to be fired, her new boss was sitting and drinking his coffee and told her to get her coffee and then come and sit down.

She had to pay for her own coffee while she got fired.

Now, I know that sometimes large organizations/businesses/denominations have to lay off folks. But what I just wrote is the basis of the problem: denominations are behaving more like businesses than the Body of Christ. And this incident is not isolated; this happens all of the time. It happened to me and I rarely go more than a month without someone contacting me – many times out of the blue – to tell me that in spite of their passion to serve God and serve the church, they were crushed by the bureaucracy of a denomination.

I also know that there is no easy or friendly way to fire someone. But to make someone pay for their own coffee to get axed seems particularly cruel. It just reveals to me that denominational leaders too often view people as objects; to move around or dismiss without a thought as to what is happening to the people themselves. Making someone pay for their own coffee infuriates me.

I know that denominations do a lot of good work, but having worked in the upper echelons of a large denomination for ten years myself I can also attest to the tremendous harm (not to mention waste) denominations do to individuals. I think the question denominational leaders tend to ask is, “how much harm is offset by the large mission programs we run?” Instead, I would urge denominational leaders to ask themselves and one another this: “how can we stop the harm done to individuals who do not neatly fit in our systems while we continue to leverage our enormous resources to benefit people in need?” The first question centers the denomination while the second centers people: people who serve and people who are served. Denominations ask the first question. I have yet to hear denominational leaders ask the second.

While there is much debate about the long-term sustainability of denominations, the history of the church has shown us that God’s Spirit always moves through people. When human-built institutions become static and focused on their own survival, God’s Spirit finds individuals, banned together through common passions and similar callings to bring about something new, something refreshing, something life-affirming. Focusing on institutional concerns over and above concern for people is a sure sign that that institution is failing. What’s more, any reflection of Jesus’ ministry will clearly lead us to a greater focus on those we are serving as well as the care for those who serve.

I frankly do not know what the future holds for Christian denominations, but if you want to talk about where the Spirit is moving let’s grab coffee because there is so much to talk about. And I will pay.

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