UNCO 14: ecclesiology and entrepreneurship

During the UNCO 14 session on ecclesiology and entrepreneurship, convened by my old friend Ms. M, I got to hear a little about innovative ministries, and innovative approaches to ministry, that UNCO participants are engaging in right now. Some of these innovative ministries are outside traditional congregations; some are innovating within traditional congregations. But it seemed like all of us are trying to figure out how to find money to fund these ministries.

Mindi, who is working part-time in a traditional congregation and part-time in a non-traditional start-up ministry, pointed out that the old donation model — asking church members to donate money to their congregation — is on its last legs. What will take its place? Amy said her new non-traditional congregation has a business model where worship services are open and free, and everything else is on a fee-for-service basis; they still solicit donations, but donations will go to allow sliding-scale payment for the fee-for-service programs. A number of people talked about using crowd-sourced funding. Anna said she will be trying patreon.com, a platform for crowd-sourcing ongoing funds for arts projects through a monthly payment scheme, to fund her non-traditional arts-based congregation — she said she’ll let us know how that goes. Jeff said he had tried Kickstarter, and had had less then stellar results.

During this session, we talked quite a bit about using capitalist methods to fund organized religion. Should we just accept that consumer capitalism is our cultural milieu, and use it to fund good projects? Or should we in organized religion stay in tension (to a greater or lesser degree) with consumer capitalism? Carol argued for staying in tension with capitalism; Amy seemed to not worry about it, focusing instead on the good she could do by using consumer capitalist techniques. While this discussion was going on, I was asking myself: If the old donation model is over, what’s our theology for new funding sources? — this is the question at the heart of an ecclesiology of entrepreneurship.


When Max Planck turned sixty, he was honored by the Physical Society of Berlin. Several scientists gave short talks in his honor, including Emil Gabriel Warburg, Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, and Albert Einstein.

Einstein spoke about the motives for engaging in scientific research, “Motive de Forschung.” He said that some people take to science out of a sense of superior intellect, some as a kind of sport, some out of ambition, some for utilitarian purposes. But, said Einstein, some people — including Planck himself — engage in scientific research out of a very different motive:

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

And there are many people like this in our liberal congregations: finely tempered natures who need to range through pure air and look into eternity.

In the next paragraph of the talk, Einstein went on to explain that this motive for doing scientific research is not simply a negative one of escapism:

With this negative emotion there goes a positive one. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that best suits him a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience. [Bibliographic information below.]

And again, there are many people in our liberal congregations who engage in religion for the same motive: like the poet and the painter, these are people who do religion the way an artist does art, to help make sense out the world. Among religious liberals, this motive does not impel people to replace science with religion, any more than religious liberals would try to replace painting with poetry. Religion, especially I think for those who are mystics, can be another way to make sense of the world, to look into eternity, to place oneself in the context of the cosmos.

Of course there are other motives for doing religion, just as there are other motives for doing science. Many religious liberals conceive of religion in utilitarian terms: religion is a way to promote justice, religion is way to build social capital, and so on. But there are also the poets and painters and scientists among us, who want to look into eternity and seek to understand our places in the cosmos.


Bibliographic information: Albert Einstein, “Principles of Research,” 1918, address delivered at a celebration of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday to the Physical Society, Berlin. Published in German in a collection of essays: Emil Gabriel Warburg. Max Von Laue, Arnold Sommerfeld, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck, “Zu Max Plancks Sechzegstem Geburtstag; Ansprachen, Gehalten Am 26. April 1918 in Der Deutschen Physikalischen Gesellschaft” (Karlsruhe; Müller, 1918). Reprinted in: ed. Carl Seelig, Mein Weltbild (1934, 1953). Published in English: ed. Carl Seelig, trans. Sonia Bargman, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954). The complete text of the English translation of this talk is available online, among other places, here.

Survival is overrated

The summary for a recent post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog reads as follows: “The sector needs to shift the definition of success from organizations that survive to organizations that actually achieve their missions.” The actual post was less interesting than this summary because it narrowly addressed specific challenges faced by social entrepreneurs. I want to rewrite it to apply to congregations….

Congregations need to shift the definition of success from being institutions that survive, to becoming living organizations that actually achieve their missions.

At the founding of a congregation, you can feel the excitement among the founding members. They are thinking, saying, and feeling: This congregation is going to be where we bring into being our dream of a warm community that holds us accountable to our highest shared ideals while supporting us through the difficulties we have in our individual lives. These people are willing to try something new and untried, and it’s exciting.

Sixty years later, in many congregations you can feel the anxiety among all the members: We have to raise money to keep the congregation going, so we need enough new members who will supply that money, but not so many that they will use too much of our existing programs, programs which exist solely to draw in new people who will give us more money.

But the truly successful congregation will feel little anxiety, and a lot of excitement. Sixty years after their founding, the truly successful congregation doesn’t care much about raising money, but does care a great deal about bringing into being our dream of a warm community that holds us accountable to our highest shared ideals while supporting us through the difficulties we have in our individual lives. We are the people who are willing to try new and untried things, and it’s exciting.

An appreciation of Peter Gomes

In a recent appreication of Peter Gomes, William J. Willimon tells an anecdote with implications for ecclesiology:

One Sunday, as Peter say in the vestry and prepared for the morning service, a student usher entered and stammered, “There’s somebody preaching here this morning.”

Peter replied, “Of course, me.”

“I mean there’s somebody preaching in the pulpit. Now. Is that OK?”

“What?” Peter thrust his head into the sanctuary. Aghast, he saw an African-American woman in the pulpit ranting at the docile congregations, screaming over the organ prelude. Indignantly, Peter bustled over to her and hissed through gritted teeth. “You, come down here this instant. Yes, you.”

The intruder stared down at Peter.

“This instant!” he sneered.

Startled, she came down the steps and informed Peter that she had been commissioned to preach that day a word direct from the Lord.

“Look you,” said Peter, in love, “this is my pulpit. I have earned the right to preach in this place. No one is going to deliver any word from the Lord today except for the Reverend Doctor Peter J. Gomes. Now you go sit down on that pew and keep your mouth shut or I will call the campus police after I wring your head off.”

Peter reported that the woman sat there through the service — silent, with a beatific smile upon her face.

“As the prelude ended, I looked with scorn upon my congregation,” Peter confessed. “White, guilt-ridden liberals all, they would have sat there all morning, doing nothing while that woman continued her drivel unabated. They should thank God that their pastor is not some intellectual wimp.”

— “Harvard’s preacher” by William J. Willimon, The Christian Century, 5 April 2011, p. 11.

Would that all religious liberal congregations treated their pulpits with as much respect as Gomes treated the pulpit of Memorial Church.