“I’m not an appliance or computer program!” That’s a comment I’ve heard from ministers as we planned an installation service in their new congregation. “Can’t we find a better word than ‘install’ to describe what we’re doing?”
It’s a question I’ve pondered as area church minister, and one I invite you to ponder with me. What is it we’re doing in this service: ceremony or celebration? What do we mean by it, and how might we best describe it?
Our Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership states: “When the church ordains, licenses or commissions, it installs a person into a position” (emphasis added). That’s why and how we use the word. Granted, this description was developed almost 20 years ago.
Given that the meaning of words changes over time, this understanding of “installation” may no longer be adequate. Might there be another word to describe more accurately what we’re doing? Some have suggested “covenant,” “blessing” or “consecration.” Each brings its own meaning and nuance, and each requires a clear and relevant definition in its own right. So we may not be much further ahead!
The dictionary offers this definition of “install”: “to induct or welcome into an organization or office with special ceremonies.” There may just be something helpful and instructive in that definition. Can we bring enough content and meaning to these special ceremonies to redefine and reclaim that word?
Our Polity document describes these special ceremonies as “rites” of the church. And what exactly does that mean? I’m reminded of the question posed by the Little Prince (in the book of the same name): “What is a rite?”
“Those are actions too often neglected,” he is told. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.”
So what makes that difference? How might their meaning be symbolized and conveyed?
Meaning is seldom fixed or singular. Words and symbols, rites and ceremonies have a variety of meanings, depending on the context, the culture and the people involved. They contain and convey intended meaning to us. At the same time, we interpret their meaning in light of our experience, understanding and expectation; in other words, in light of the meanings we bring with us, as well as our relationship to what’s happening and who’s involved. The interplay and relationship are central to meaning-making.
And let’s not forget the role of the Spirit! In this season of Pentecost, we are reminded of how the presence and power of God can redefine human experience, giving new meaning and life to familiar words and rituals. That’s what happened among the early Christians. How does that happen among us today?
The next time your congregation “installs” a minister, I encourage you to think about what this rite or ceremony means. What meaning is intended? What meaning do you bring to it? Is there another word for it? And what words and actions might be used to symbolize and express both the human and divine aspects of this important rite and relationship?
Henry Paetkau is area church minister for Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.