Institution or movement??? Answer: Yes.

This is a response inspired by a blog from another ELCA developer, Joe Smith. Read his post at

It seems like Joe and I have been thinking along the same lines. This shouldn’t be surprising because we are both ELCA mission developers, and both doing what is really ‘redevelopment’ work. Most redevelopments have been aimed at renewal and transformation of long-existing congregations, my context not entirely but at the same time we are an existing congregation which has been called to renewal and transformed ways of being church.

His blog about the choices to be made between ‘institution’ and ‘movement’ hit me. With Joe, I think there is a way to be both institution and movement. I am also in a transition from one ‘season of ministry’ to another (thanks, Joe for that word to claim this as not a linear break but a transformation). In this new season, I have been struggling a lot with things that get seen as mutually exclusive. Our nature is to label choices or opportunities as ‘either / or’. I am increassingly suspicious of dualisms. This plays out because of the congregations journey in the last year together. We have an energy and an excitement that has come out of where we are and where we are called to go. But the struggle will be to keep that nimble, flexible and forward momentum “movement identity” while at the same time looking for the strengths and permanence that can come with having the institutional aspects. Insitutions are good. They give grounding. But the institution is there not of its own ends, but to support the movement that gave it birth in the first place. An image:

There are few parts of a tree that are permanent. The trunk and main taproot is about all. Even the strongest and largest branches of a tree get shaded by newer ones above and eventually have to grow outward and can’t support their own weight. Sooner or later a windstorm knocks them down. Leaves come and go with the seasons, and even the evergreens aren’t permanent… their leaves just fall more gradually but yet more constantly. The twigs off of the main branches support some leaves, but eventually clear away as the branch grows outward and others above it.

The secret is that the only parts of the tree that are actually growing are the very edges, the very tips. The outermost bark on the trunk and branches, and the tips of each branch is all that grows. The rest is finished and will never get any larger. The rings at the center of a 2000 year old tree are the exact same size they were when Jesus walked the earth. Branches have come and gone. But even when branches and leaves fall and die, they return to life, recycled into food that grows the tips of the tree once again.

How does this apply to being institution and movement and avoiding the dualism? Because neither can exist apart from the other. Where the institution of the church is healthy, its core is exactly the same as it has always been. Only if that core, the center of the trunk and root system, is the God whom we know in Jesus, is the church still the church. But at the same time, Jesus didn’t set up or found an institution or a religious system. He founded a movement. The institution came later, to support the movement. The different ministries of that institution come and go. They, like the branches, get shaded out by newer ministries and when they no longer serve the movements mission, they can’t support their own weight and (should) get pruned. The leaves, the individuals involved, are some closer to the trunk, some on the very edge. Unlike leaves, we move from ministry to ministry over time, sometimes right on the trunk, sometimes on the very edge, and occasionally moving from one tree to another entirely, just as at times some trees have different patterns of bare spots and fully leafed branches. But the movement and its mission only grows on the edge, as it pushes boundaries and goes beyond itself. When the tips stop growing, the tree, or the church, end up rotting out the core and ends up a lifeless and empty shell, with neither leaves or eventually branches. But when the core is there, life can still spring anew. I have seen trees broken off at the very base, with roots and just a few inches of trunk. No branches, no leaves. The part that broke from the core is dead, but the tree had already started to put on new leaves and new life. If the core were gone, it would be all over. But when that core is still there, the church could grow again. New leaves, new branches, completely different from before, a new movement takes root on that same core. The new movement builds a new institution, one that will work for where it is. But the church grows on, fed even by the decay and regeneration of what was once and will be again.


About Pastor Tim

I'm pastor of First Lutheran Church in San Marcos, TX. I'm also a husband and dad of two amazing boys.
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