By Sam Keyes
Several weeks ago, a clergy acquaintance online posted a provocative observation that “maintenance is mission.” This is a priest in charge of a parish of historical note, and his argument was that taking care of property and physical plant are important signs of stewardship and care; while some aspects of mission do not require them, many parts of parochial life become impossible or difficult without stable meeting space and infrastructure. Several years ago, in my early ministry as an Episcopalian, I was struck by Neal Michell’s similar recommendations in his little primer on parish ministry, Hit the Ground Running. While no one likes an obsession with buildings, neglect of buildings can be a sign of the neglect of persons (who are, after all, embodied creatures). Sometimes fixing a door or an HVAC system can give people hope in a way that no amount of brilliant homiletics can hope for.
Part of the pushback on “maintenance is mission” comes from competing notions of what we mean by maintenance or mission. In some important parts of the Church — for example, Sherry Weddell’s Siena Institute, a Roman Catholic apostolate focused on the discernment of charisms — “maintenance” refers not to infrastructure and building care but rather to a mindset of spiritual complacency. In that definition, maintenance is opposed to mission, because it is not simply the proper care of a place and community but its stagnation. Of course, “maintenance” might mean both: it may be that a spiritual “maintenance over mission” community plays out its apathy through self-satisfying building projects and ever-updated parlor furniture. Yet it is not necessarily so. A parish with a “maintenance” mindset on spiritual things might just as easily neglect the physical wellbeing of the church’s temporal goods.
I am struck by these conversations because I live them out in ways that a few years ago I never would have expected. My “parish” is a strange thing. It doesn’t truly exist in canon law (though it has a civil corporate structure); it is a community recognized by our bishop as seeking to become a parish. We do not have a building. We have maybe a dozen families, some books, vestments, etc. stored in people’s homes. As of Christmas we have a lease agreement with a small, independent Catholic school, where we can gather on Sundays and some weekdays for liturgy, fellowship, and education. There are plans for the future, of course, but they are uncertain. Unlike most diocesan missions (in whatever ecclesial communion), the Ordinariate is unable to provide financial support. While I would love to see a big-time champion swoop in and make huge gifts that enable us to build the Parish of Dreams (complete with choir school, of course), I remain grateful and amazed at the faithfulness of our people who have stepped out into the unknown for the sake of the Church’s mission.
With that experience ever on my mind, I find that I do have a knee-jerk reaction to the pious spiritualizers who think that Christianity has nothing to do with buildings. In the end, people who think Christianity has nothing to do with buildings are people who think that Christianity has nothing to do with people — it is some sort of vague ethical principle hovering in the ether to which we can attach whatever cause we care about at the moment. At the same time, I recognize with gratitude the purity involved in having so little temporal property: there is really nothing to do but evangelize, and if we do not evangelize we will not have fulfilled our mission, and there will be no temporal structures that keep us artificially on life support.
Whatever we mean by maintenance, it can only be good if it is for a purpose beyond itself. Whatever we mean by mission, it cannot be a real mission if it has no stable, real-world expression.
I do not think of myself as a pious spiritualizer, but I sure hope the Church is not about buildings! Those building doors continue to close in northern LA and southern AL, the 2 areas I spend time in. If we need those big buildings that that we can neither fill or maintain, we do not have much hope in something Greater than our feeble attempts to evangelize on our ego-based terms. Hang on.