We hear much talk these days about the role of congregations in public life. For good or ill they are active agents in shaping our shared life. President Bush and Charitable Choice advocates seek to remove legal barriers so that congregations can serve the common good with public money. Congregations, by this logic, can deal more effectively than most institutions with problems such as homelessness, illiteracy, addiction, and recidivism—and in so doing make pivotal social contributions.
Another logic runs contrary to the first: congregations in their private practices cover up issues of race, class, and economic disparity. They are too frequently places of denial about sexual abuse and homophobia—thus, congregations can weaken our public life by patterns of silence and avoidance. Instead of building bridges of understanding between religions and cultures, they foster hatreds and misunderstandings.
Paying Lip Service
We tend to think of congregations and public life in terms of clergy who represent congregations in the public arena, or of congregations that collectively take a stand. In both conventional concepts we leap over the key link between congregations and public life—members themselves. While paying lip service to the “ministry of the laity,” we revert to thinking either of official representatives or of institutional advocacy.
Both prophetic professional leaders and compelling institutional stands are essential for congregations to make an impact in public life. Both inspire and challenge. But they are not the whole story. The public is made up of citizens—many of whom are in our pews on Saturday or Sunday—and many discounted as people who infrequently attend, do not pledge, and remain inactive in most congregational programs.
I pondered this mystery as I accompanied a group of civic and business leaders on a tour of the Maryland High Technology Corridor beyond Washington’s Capital Beltway. Our journey took us into a world of acronyms, high technology, specialized scientific languages, and ethical quandaries. We learned that breakthroughs at the National Institutes of Health may put a cure for diabetes on pharmacy shelves within a few years. At the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Institute we heard about protein structures, molecular modeling, and the “plasticity” of the brain that allows it to make connections or break them, and to reorganize information flows. Then we moved on to TIGR, the Institute for Genomic Research, where scientists are unraveling the mysteries of DNA and chromosomes. Most of what we saw was of such sophistication and intricacy that our group was reduced to silence or amazement. We stood on the edge of a new world—but one that was here and now.
What Role for Congregations?
How do congregations and clergy contribute to the public good in a rapidly evolving arena? Persuading a congregation to take a stand on any one of the ethical issues raised by the new science would take years—and the congregants would still lag behind the learning curve. Asking clergy and other professional leaders to acquire the knowledge to develop an informed opinion on one of these topics would require costly and unsustainable lifetime immersions in specialized arenas. So must we choose between glaring ignorance or deafening silence?
What about the scientists themselves? Even if we allow the stereotypical portrait of scientists as “more secular than thou,” we still have to make room for precious anomalies—members who may sit silently in congregational discussions and then speak out bravely during work hours on the ethical frontiers of their specialized professions. How are congregations equipping their members for this important public work—the task of mediating between faith tradition and public arena? I sense that the answer is mixed.
Many congregations send messages that the only way to fulfill one’s religious calling is by participating in church or synagogue work—serving on committees, reading lessons, instructing children in the faith. All are important parts of religious life. But to reduce the life of faith to activities within the congregation’s walls is to lose the public connections, the links between faith and world. A few congregations—like Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.—celebrate the daily vocations of members and see these public lives of faith as means of grace for the world. A few others seek to become leadership academies that equip and support their members to lead in these challenging spheres. But to connect faith and public life, we must value the links our members make; we must equip these people to make the connections between public life and faith that our old assumptions about ministry miss entirely.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.