Jason Byassee: Transitions at “Call & Response”

I'm eager to see how this site's conversation about the church and her institutions will proceed.

I have a stock response I give students who ask me whether they should do Ph.D. work. “You’re too smart for that,” I say, hoping to undercut the impression at elite universities that the really intelligent people will seek further academic credentialing. “We need you in the church.”

One can only give an answer like that so many times without feeling like a hypocrite.

Two weeks ago, I went to the office planning to get a ton of writing done. Instead, I got a call from my bishop. He had an appointment for me and another for my wife, Jaylynn, my fellow Methodist pastor. We had not sought such a move, but we had discussed with mentors we trust whether we might someday be called to pastor churches again. And now a call had come. The writing would have to wait.

I’ve worked two jobs now in which I hoped to be serving the local church at a distance. My work at the “Christian Century” was one in which I had a congregation of some 35,000 subscribers but I couldn’t see their faces. My work here at Leadership Education has been part of The Lilly Endowment’s charge to “support the institutions that support congregations.” I am beyond blessed to have worked in such places. Yet both have been institutional jobs at a remove from the local church. The justification for such a remove is clear enough: pastors can’t do their work without outside resources, intellectual and spiritual and financial. I have often wondered, while at both places, whether I was at least a little like Jonah, running fast, but in the wrong direction.

Now I have a chance to find out. With my denomination’s unusual appointment system, I cannot say yet where we are going, only that we are excited about it. I wake up in the night terrified but geeked up, like I did right before I got married.

I believe deeply in the work we do here at Leadership Education and plan to continue to support it through advising, writing and teaching. The most exciting work we have done is to push the opposite direction from the rhetoric about institutions that has reigned in the west at least since the 1960s and maybe since the Enlightenment: that individuals are good, noble and courageous, and institutions are faceless, hegemonic soul-destroyers that must be resisted.  But we Christians are saved not only in a community, but in an institution: the church, which is in turn nurtured and sustained by other institutions, such as denominations, seminaries, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, monasteries and magazines (web-based or otherwise).  When we think “institution” we ought to think first of Jesus’ words of institution in the eucharist, or of the place we first learned the sport we love, or to dance, or to be friends with one another, or to worship. As Hugh Heclo has argued, it is hard to do anything, from getting born to getting buried, without an institution. As Christians we might add baptism to the communion of the saints.

And now I have a call to serve one such institution, one cell in the body of Christ, one gathering and worshipping and dispersing and serving community. I look forward to writing from such a front-line ecclesial location again. I look forward to checking back in on this virtual space, which will be led effective immediately by my colleague Ben McNutt, a graduate of Duke Divinity School who has worked as a researcher and project manager for Leadership Education the last nine months.  And I look forward to the reign of God, the source of all Christian leadership and the end that inspires all our new beginnings.