Last week, Julian Reese, with volunteer GFM staff Teresa Hooper, introduced the idea of incarnational presence habits or practices around three “social imaginaries.” This week, they discuss the first of these, the parish, and the habits that follow.
Julian M. Reese with Teresa Hooper
“We are the people of the parenthesis—at the end of one era but not quite at the beginning of the next one. Maps no longer fit the new territories. In order to make sense of it all, we must cultivate a vision.”
Jean Huston (quoted in THE SHAPING OF THINGS TO COME p. 182)
Incarnational presence is a vision for ministry as well as a vision for following Jesus— an imaginary. I first encountered the term “imaginary,” or “social imaginary” while reading James K. A. Smith and philosopher Charles Taylor.
The concept enhances the idea of worldview. It is not only how we THINK about reality, but it also engages our desires, our will, our emotions, our imaginative faculties. Our imaginaries encompass our loves and our longings, those things we imagine to be true without thinking about them as we go about ordinary life. It is the lens we use to look at things and to feel a “rightness” about our reality and our place in it.
An awareness of our imaginaries will assist us in resisting institutional or cultural pressure. Inhabiting the imaginary is where faith shapes our heart and our mind, where we step into life with a conviction that God truly exists, and that he rewards those who seek him.
In this post we develop the imaginary of the parish and discuss some practices or habits that emerge from this way of imagining our ministry calling.
This past July, my son-in-law, Jimmy, was installed as an Anglican priest in his first parish in Dorchester, England. As the bishop installed him, saying, “Receive this cure of souls which is yours and mine,” Jimmy stepped into a fresh vision to represent Jesus in a community within established geographical bounds.
This area is designated as his parish, an ancient concept of ministry largely lost to American evangelicals. We suggest that the parish is a useful imaginary for ministry on the university campus.
Jimmy understands himself to be the “priest” to the entire community, not just those who attend his meetings on Sundays or at other times of the week. With his words, the bishop is saying to Jimmy, “These are your people, all of them.” Jimmy is to pray for them, visit them, learn their histories, their interests, their families, their worlds.
So Jimmy does a lot of walking these days, wandering around the village in his clerical collar. His goal, he says, is “to find out where the center of gravity of the community is, and to stick myself there… I want to have my finger on the pulse of whatever is happening in the community just by being there.” That is, he is establishing an incarnational presence.
In InterVarsity we talk about “every corner of every campus.” A “corner” is a community of people, our “parish.” In GFM your parish may include all the people of an academic department: people of faith or no faith, religious or non-religious, whether they attend our ministry groups— ever. We are called to know them, to pray for them, to heal them, to care for them. We are sent by Jesus to be Jesus in their midst, making the invisible kingdom of God a visible reality. Our mission is to establish an incarnational presence in their midst.
Eugene Peterson points out in The Jesus Way (pp. 204-5) that Jesus chose Capernaum as his “base of operations” a small town in the out-of- the-way region of Galilee, away from the political, religious, and cultural centers of influence. He did his primary teaching and preaching and miracles in communities small enough that everyone probably knew everyone else. Peterson says that “Virtually everything took place in a web of intimate personal relationships. Morals, meals, celebrations, marketing, business, politics, worship. Nothing was impersonal. Everyone knew your name…. As you went about your life and work, you couldn’t avoid people you knew and people who knew you.”
This is what we mean when we imagine parish.
The Jesus parish included a diversity of people— sick people, untouchable people, fearful people, the powerful and wealthy, the poor, pious people and people running away from toxic religion, and those deconstructing their childhood faith— and he was priest to all.
He treated them all with respect and dignity. He valued them as human persons and honored their accomplishments. He was indiscriminate in his healings, available to people regardless of their status in the community or their agenda.
Our invitation is to step into the parishes of our universities. Leave behind fear and intimidation. Leave behind an “us and them” adversarial mentality. And leaven the cultures and conversations we find in our academic departments without a need to control or dominate.
Hopes of the imaginary yield clusters of habits that produce the fruit of presence over time. We create and innovate according to our personal interests, context, training and personality.
The first priority of the parish minister is to establish a presence in the community of her parish. Two habit clusters we have found helpful for this are “Habits of Presence” and “Habits of Posture.”
HABITS OF PRESENCE : “GET YOUR BUTT ON CAMPUS”
Some time ago I heard Harry Reeder, then pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, NC, talk about breaking away from the demands of a church office and engaging in “Ministry By Walking Around”(MBWA). This is how he could serve the people in his community, beyond those who would attend his church meetings. He set aside time to get out of his office, leave behind his to-do list, and be present in his community.
For the parish minister on campus, the first principle of a ministry of presence is to “get your butt on campus,” and we cultivate our presence in a university parish through developing our own MBWA.
When we started our GFM work at the University of Tennessee, some of the first students we met were Christian PhD candidates in philosophy, so we adopted the philosophy department as our parish and began thinking about ways we might start showing up and making ourselves known in a positive way.
We then practiced MBWA in all the places where members of the philosophy department community could be found. I would have lunch in a visible seat in the coffee shop where department faculty members would have lunch. The vibe was different. It was not the place where the Christians were hanging out, but I could have a presence there.
When I learned that the department was having weekly “klatch” gatherings where they took turns presenting their work in progress, I asked if I could attend. I showed up, took notes, and asked questions after the lecture to some of the faculty I had met.
I cultivated habits of MBWA: looking at bulletin boards and reading websites. Enjoying the “brushes” of hallway greetings or touching base in the coffee shop. These ministry habits gave me a presence in my parish.
HABITS OF POSTURE: “CURIOSITY WARMS THE HEART”
Over time, we have found in our parish imaginary that our posture toward our parish matters. The secular academic community is not our enemy. The academics of a department rarely opposes us, nor do they merely tolerate our presence. On the whole, they welcome us instead. They are glad when they see us, and we value what they do. We try to find ways to encourage them and help them succeed in their mission.
We are curious about their work. We read their books. We celebrate their publications and awards. We attend their lectures. We become their cheerleaders, affirming them that their work matters. As alumna Teresa Hooper says, “If you want to warm the cockles of an academics heart, ask them about their research.”
And they share themselves with us, their expertise and knowledge, their academic culture, occasionally their personal lives. Sometimes these people who do not consider themselves religious allow me to be their pastor, even though they would never call it that.
Often, they become my friends. Through living as an incarnational presence, the presence of the Kingdom of God makes itself visible.
We hope the imaginary of parish will inspire us as we enter the parishes of our universities. We wish to consider our work in fresh ways and to awaken the imagination to new thinking about ministry and renewal of long-forgotten principles. We want to discern our parish, and to discover how we might establish an incarnational presence there.
In our next post, we will consider a further phase of developing communities of Incarnational Presence, earning an incarnational voice as we reflect on inhabiting the imaginary of the farmer.