Mission Audit: A CornerStore Church?

We are familiar with financial audits – a somewhat detached assessment of ‘what is’ and ‘what has been’ regarding the use of an institution’s money over a period of time.

Large urban centers conduct periodic transportation audits to examine how traffic flows throughout a city.

Some of us in the church may also be familiar with the Green Building Audit – an examination of the stewardship of each square foot of a church building.

Despite the various applications, all audits serve a similar purpose: to plan for future directions. We take stock of the current reality in order to make good decisions about the future of the community according to its highest held values and identity.

In mainline Christianity many today express concern about institutional atrophy and limited resources.

Before tumbling headlong into some knee-jerk, expedient, compulsive and convenient plan of action, would it not be wise to examine our situation? An ancient proverb puts it well – ‘Vision without action is daydreaming: but action without vision is a nightmare’.

Would it not be wise for each congregation to take an honest, careful and thoughtful look at what we do and why? Arriving at an institutional crossroad, is it not high time for churches to conduct a mission audit?

In the first of a series prefaced by the title ‘Mission Audit’, I want to begin this conversation by using the metaphor of an independent, neighborhood corner store.

I suggest that the independently owned and operated corner store is a dominant metaphor capturing our imagination about the church. Even for those of us who belong to regional or national denominations, the corner store has pretty much defined what we really think about the institution of our local congregation. And therefore how we ought to run it down the line.

In the rural community of my first parish, on the crossroads bordering two concessions stood a hallowed institution: the local, family-run corner store. It had everything – from nails to stamps, rakes to frozen veggies, litter boxes to engine oil and Legos.

The joke conveyed some truth: If they don’t have it, you don’t need it!

I can list the stand-out characteristics of this economic metaphor: Exclusive. A one-of-a-kind, niche market. You will only find it here. A small business. An entrepreneurial prospect.

The cornerstore-mentality affects also the kind of leadership expected. The success of this enterprise hangs on the owner-operator. If they play their cards right, theirs can become a booming business, literally like no other.

Sound familiar? The more I think of it, the more I believe individual congregations regard themselves like the proverbial corner store. And worse yet, their leaders see themselves like small business owners.

It may be culturally in vogue to herald the values of small business as the building blocks of a strong economy. However, whether or not we in the church have come to confess our fascination with creating yet another small business for an elitist clientele, I believe the church is more than building ‘niche’ congregations reflecting corner store entrepreneurship.

Recently I was in Ottawa for a church-wide convention. One morning when we had some free time, a couple of us walked downtown to find a place to eat brunch.

My friend from out West who travels extensively likes to surf the Internet to research the best places to eat, wherever he goes. So we were in good company, you might say, because he was to lead us to enjoy the best brunch in Ottawa (according to Trip Advisor).

We walked for at least a couple of kilometers down Elgin Street, past many what seemed fine establishments that could have nicely met our needs, I am sure.

But my friend led us to a corner of a building where, not easily visible from the street, there was a staircase leading down to the basement level. I felt like I was entering Diagon Alley through a mysterious, invisible hole in a wall.

Notwithstanding its non-accessible, hidden entrance, the doorway was narrow and, frankly, uninviting. Once inside, however, the place was packed with energetic university students and local residents. The food was excellent, well deserving of its high rating.

Such elitist, exclusive, niche-market establishments – whether a country corner store or urban deli could be a jewel on the culinary itinerary of the fortunate and/or discriminating traveler. I can remember times in my travels I have lucked out or simply happened upon these gems.

With this approach, from the perspective of the traveller, visitor, or consumer, such a find can be an absolute delight. Or, an unmitigated disaster.

On the journey of life, there is a better way for the institutional, mainline church which has always espoused more inclusive, accessible and socially leveling, values for any community.

Not based on luck. Nor dependent on some elitist notion of ‘who you know’ or the hard work of a prospective visitor.

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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