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Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry

Issues Facing Missions Today 28: Three Models for Ministry


Part of my role in ministry, which especially includes theological education and involvement with mission groups, has entailed figuring out how to minister through an intentional community of disciples of Jesus Christ.  This has been a life-long pursuit, and I’m fully aware of the challenges this side of Paradise!  In this brief blog post, I would like to highlight several distinctions that might help others—including myself and my colleagues.  This is not formal research, and it is not much based on some body of literature.  It is mainly born out of my own experience and thoughts.

I would like to frame these thoughts around a distinction I first came across decades ago in Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.’s A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics.[1]  Long suggests that there are three ways in which to consider and pursue moral change: the institutional, operational, and intentional community.  I have found these useful when considering issues not only in ethics but also for ministry and missions.

The Institutional Model

The institutional model is well represented in the residential seminary, the institutional Church, a large law firm or business, and so forth.  Part of its appeal is often, in fact, its physical structure and campus.  An institution develops bureaucratically, with its committees and clearly written statements of quality assurance and procedures.  Authority is located in certain offices, and members of the institution relate to persons in their official positions.  Pay scales are variegated to reflect the status of the office a person holds, and there is typically a large discrepancy in pay between the chief executive officer and the secretary.  In my experience, the theological seminary that I have worked for in the US from time to time well represents this model of organization.  Some professors are paid more than others, administrators may be paid more than professors, and some serving the institution may be paid close to minimum wage.  This model produces a lot of reporting—when applied to public schools, as it usually is—students are frequently tested and teachers have to fill out a lot of paperwork to keep a paper trail for an investigating committee to follow to be assured that students have personal educational plans and that measures have been taken to implement them.  Mission committees that relate to their supported missionaries by having them fill out forms about goals and performance are moving in an impersonal, institutional direction.  

The institutional model is difficult to change, and people sometimes find that they are viewed as employees or workers contributing to a great system.  There was once a president of a seminary that began his brief tenure in that position by telling his faculty that they are just employees of the seminary.  Churches that experience growth into mega-church sizes perhaps inevitably gravitate towards the institutional model.  The institutional model is concerned about what is effective, but at times it struggles to make this a priority over what is expected.  Either way, what is morally right frequently dissolves before effectiveness and expectations.  At times, individuals are ‘sacrificed’ for the greater good of the institution—the word ‘restructuring’ is often used for this.  Establishing residential institutions to train ministers can be a way of shaping persons in community, but the costs often outweigh the benefits, and proper training for ministry cannot be done by separating people into an academic institution that then struggles to give its students some slight exposure to actual ministry during their years of study.  An institution can, alternatively, be non-residential and engage the church in its ministries more in the training of students.  However, non-residential institutions struggle to develop meaningful community among the students, who are shaped more by the local church—which is fine, unless that context is actually unhealthy.

The Operational Model

The operational model is somewhat more descriptive (although not in every aspect) of mission organizations.  By ‘operational,’ Long means that the means of moral change is what is effective, not what is official.  In military terms, one might think in terms of the sleek, clandestine, highly trained operations force over against the air craft carrier.  Or one might think of James Bond, the secret agent—someone operating outside the rules, guided by what is effective more than anything else.  Missionaries often fit into a more operational model as well, although with a clearer sense of right and wrong than Mr. Bond!  They are given freedom to assess the situation on the ground and take appropriate action.  This is why they often chafe at the expectations of written reporting by supporting churches, mission agencies, or field directors and much prefer face-to-face reporting—although even that is difficult for the ‘operator’.  Reporting itself requires being ‘pulled out’ of the ‘field of operation’ in order to do so.  Missionaries struggle immensely with bureaucracy—and it they do not, they may be ill-suited for mission work.  When churches want to peg missionaries in terms of a precise form of work that they do, a precise place where they work, or some other such specific definition, this can undercut the reality the missionary experiences, which may involve starting new works, going to new places, forming new partnerships, and so forth.  What is needed is not so much an accounting of work done but a confidence in the person himself or herself—that he has the skills, calling, heart, and is rightly equipped and enabled to be effective.  Of paramount importance in evaluating someone in an operational model for ethics or mission is effectiveness, a slippery term that can be defined in various ways.  (Was Billy Graham’s mass evangelism more effective than the faithful witness of a believer in a country hostile to the Gospel who had only a few converts?  It depends on what we mean by ‘effective’!) 

Theological education is going through a crisis as problems arise with the institutional model—as in much of higher education.  Online education, which ten years ago appeared to be easy and sleazy, can now produce more effective educational experiences (not just teaching of content and methods) than many classroom experiences.  Professors are finding that online forum interaction can produce better interaction than in-class discussions, for example.  Technology of various sorts can improve the presentation of content and methodological material and give students the opportunity to review the lecture material as often as necessary.  (There are other aspects of education, though, that online education cannot easily address, particularly where personal interaction is necessary.)  The institutional model of higher education is terribly expensive, and Christians are rightfully concerned about the social formation taking place at secular institutions.  Online education is presently deconstructing residential, institutional approaches to education, has the potential to bring down the costs of education (provided it is not delivered by an institution!), and can improve the quality of instruction.  On its own, though, it lacks key components of ‘education,’ particularly when this involves collaborative learning, acquisition of skills on the job, and character formation—all significant for ministerial training.

The Intentional Community Model

Long’s third type of a means to moral change is the intentional community model.  This model has been explored through the ethical writings of Stanley Hauerwas perhaps more than any other—although we need to say that John Howard Yoder was greatly influential for him.  The intentional model focuses on significance of a community in bringing about change.  This should be the story of the local church in a larger social setting.  Hauerwas is fond of saying, ‘The church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.’  The oldline denominations, operating out of an institutional model, have concerned themselves with having a social programme that it supports.  Picture the difference between a wealthy Episcopal church concerned to have a programme to help the poor on the other side of town, rather than the Pauline church in which are found home owners, the poor, and slaves as part of the same community in Christ.

In the history of missions, there are many examples of intentional communities.  Some were dead-ends, out of which no ministry flowed, whereas others were both vibrant communities that made a significant difference by the nature of their very existence and the ministry that bubbled up out of the community into the surrounding areas.  Jesus himself first banded together a group of followers and took them as a micro-community into the villages and towns for ministry.  They were a travelling, ministering, missional community, learning together, ministering together, and developing spiritually together.  What we have proposed to do in our approach to mission work is to establish such intentional communities in various areas.  To describe this would be difficult, since description reduces what is experienced to speaing of programmes and types of relationships.  I am reminded of my dear professor, Gordon Fee, saying that one cannot watch worship (he compared this to pornography!): one can and only should experience it. 

Intentional communities can be awful experiences—this should not be absolutized as a perfect alternative to institutions and operations.  Families are intentional communities.  Paul’s churches—the ones who received his corrective correspondence—were intentional communities.  And his own missionary team was an intentional community.  Some intentional communities define their existence around community itself—always a mistake—rather than their relationship to God and their purpose of following his call into mission.  Community is the means, not the end itself.  We’ve seen movements of intentional community that have been hopelessly abusive, with dictatorial leaders exerting their personal power over miserable members—intentional communities can become cultic, even.  Thus, getting the focus, balance, and relationships right in intentional communities is very important.  That focus can only come if people in positions of oversight understand their roles not as leaders exercising authority (as in the institutional model) but as persons in more specific roles (teachers, pastors, e.g.) with responsibility (a different word from authority, mind you) to help others and the community itself flourish—and all this under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

Almost invariably, as intentional communities form, some individual or individuals emerge as leaders with personal power.  They intentionally try to ‘shepherd’ the ‘sheep’ in the community along their ‘paths of righteousness’—their own foci not related to the purpose and function of the ministry. They coerce and cajole, try to exert communal pressure on others, call everyone to engage in a certain task that is not really what the community is all about and then shame persons for not participating, and so forth.  All this can only be avoided if people keep their focus on what they are really about, not the personal agenda of the emergent community ‘leader’, and, a Christian would add, keep their focus on glorifying God in all that is said and done.  Even so, coercion and manipulation must be opposed at every turn in every intentional community.  One way an intentional community moves in such a direction can be contrasted with the institutional model.  Pay levels distinguish people on the institutional model, whereas an intentional community model is more likely to determine pay levels in terms of the sizes of families.  A mission agency, as opposed to a seminary, is likely to have a pay scale in which an elderly director is paid less monthly than the family of five that has just joined the mission.

If ministerial training were to start with a model of intentional community, its focus would be more on retreats, communal living, formation of character, ministry together, and relationships that include teachers.  This last point needs expansion.  In the institutional and operational models, education is personal: one studies to attain a degree that certifies a person has reached a certain level of training (institutional model) or can perform to a certain level of competency (operational model).  The intentional community model of learning understands that people are gifted differently, and one person who struggles academically or who simply lacks sufficient education can still function well by being in the same community as someone who is highly capable academically and knows the Scriptures well.  The teacher is a resource to the student—or the pastor, or evangelist, or prophet—in the community.  Education in community relies much more on trusted teachers who know the tradition, who are academically capable, and who are role models for others in the community.  Teachers, moreover, function collaboratively in the community—and this should involve disagreement in the process rather than affirmation of what has become a politically (communally) correct position on a matter.


The specific thoughts in this post are clearly somewhat random, but they are intended to try to flesh out three fairly distinct models of going about education, ministry, and missions.  The three models are the institutional, operational, and intentional community models.  My primary purpose has been to explain these three models for ministry.  Others may also find them useful to form the ongoing discussions they have as they are involved in mission and ministry.  I also hope that particular examples given—out of personal experience—will prove helpful to some.  Finally, I hope that the examples offered show where there are some strengths and dangers in each of the various models.  While my own focus is on developing ministry out of an intentional community, my own personality is likely more comfortable with the operational model: none of us likely functions fully in only one of these models.  Problems arise when we confuse matters, such as when weekly written reporting becomes a tool used to check on others in an intentional community, or when a 'chief administrative officer' in an institution tries to function as though the institution were an intentional community.  And so the conversation might go, using these categories, for others involved in ministry together.

[1] Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., A Survey of Recent Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).