Long time, no see!

Hi. It’s me. Remember?

Yeah, so I haven’t been terribly active on this page in the last few weeks. Not to make excuses, but (you know that means an excuse is coming, right?), things have been very busy, first with the run-up to the Youth Gathering, then there was the Youth Gathering itself, and finally there has been a lot of catching up following the Youth Gathering. If you guys feel neglected, you should talk to my office, which looks like a bomb went off in there.

Anyway, I’m back now – though I’m heading out on vacation next week. Before I go, I wanted to give you a glimpse at a plan of things I’d like to talk about on here over the next day or two prior to abandoning you once again.

So, things I need to cover include:
1.) Some follow-up from our “First 15” discussions based on a lectio divina reading of the ELW hymn “All are Welcome;”

2.) Some follow-up on our Town Hall session with Cynthia Gustavson;

3.) Youth Gathering reflections.

I’m going to do these over three posts, for ease of navigation, should you want to come back to the posts later.

So, there we are. Now I’m off to write the first post!

Town Hall: Hurt People Hurt People; Healed People Heal People

This coming Sunday, we will meet in Town Hall to discuss Congregational Healing. Cynthia Gustavson, whom many of you will remember from the days she held a Clinic Office here in our building, will be joining us to lead this session.

I know that some folks have objected to this meeting. I’ve heard you say, “I think we need to stop talking about The Conflict and move on.” I can appreciate that. This congregation has been through a lot of pain and trauma, and it makes sense that you would want to say, “enough!” On the other hand, even though I’d agree that things have gotten better in the last little while, the pain that the congregation AS A WHOLE still undergoes is evident in a number of ways. People are STILL reticent to step into leadership positions. People STILL tend to focus on personalities from the past – personalities of people who aren’t even here anymore. It’s clear that, while some individuals may feel that they have moved past the trauma, the congregation has not.

I’m reminded of a wise saying: Hurt People hurt people; Loved People love people. And I’d add to that: Healed People heal people.

Last Sunday we had the reading from Mark’s Gospel – the story of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth, only to find that his townspeople rejected him. As a result, he was unable to do any great works of power there. He had to shake the dust of Nazareth off his sandals and move on; and he sent the disciples out ahead to go and do likewise.

What resonates with this story especially well for me in light of this idea of Healed People healing people is the way the narrative moves.

Jesus comes into his hometown and teaches in the synagogue. The people hear his teaching and they are “astounded.” They’re also amazed at his deeds of power and healing. But they’re torn: On the one hand, here’s Jesus, the hometown-boy-who-hit-the-bigtime. On the other hand, here’s “this man” with his novel teachings and fancy miracles. The people ask, “Where did he get this?” It’s not a question bred from curiosity. It’s more sinister than that. It’s more like, “Who does he think he is? He used to be one of us; now he’s something Other.”

The text says that the crowd was scandalized by Jesus, and they sought to expel him. It’s even more heightened in Luke’s Gospel, where the crowd tries to shove Jesus off a cliff after his first hometown sermon. While Mark doesn’t go there, his Gospel still contains the Passion story in which people attempt to drive God in Jesus out of the world by hanging him on a cross.

It’s a profound story of human Truth – a painful truth about us as a species. We have a strong tendency to “Other” people – to turn people into an “Other.” This is especially true in times of great stress or anxiety. Jesus heightened the anxiety of his hometown fellows with his teaching about the nearness of the Kingdom of God. His teaching was novel. It challenged peoples’ notions of what was true, and as a result, he went in this story from hometown kid of whom the people are proud to “this man” with “these teachings.” Jesus’ teachings scandalized the people and they turned on him.

Jesus, we know from this side of history, was innocent of wrongdoing. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were correct, and so his expulsion by the crowd was unjust. But sometimes we humans expel people who are less innocent than Jesus. Sometimes they even seem to “deserve it.” Maybe they hurt us. Maybe we hurt them and the expulsion was mutual. Maybe it escalated. The point is: Hurt People hurt people.

Our congregation is a Hurt Congregation. You all have suffered pain and loss. We have a tendency to refer to a recent time of pain and loss as “The Crisis.” The fact is, we’re still in a crisis of loss. We’re no longer the large, program-based congregation we once were. Our neighborhood looks different than it did in the past, and so the way we exist as church isn’t nearly as “relevant” (though I hate to use that buzzword) to our neighbors as maybe we once were. We have financial struggles that we either didn’t have several years ago or that we didn’t know about several years ago. We have a lot of other things going on that we might justifiably perceive as loss, that we might experience as painful, that might cause us anxiety. When we are hurt or threatened, we tend to pay the hurt or the threat forward. We tend to cast about for someone to blame. This is not healthy, and it does nothing to forward the Kingdom of God.

In our Gospel story, Jesus was outright rejected by his hometown. He didn’t cast blame. Though he was unable to do great works of power because of the crowd’s rejection, he dusted the town’s sand off his feet and moved on. Those were also the instructions he gave to his disciples when he sent them on to the neighboring villages in his stead: “Go, heal people. Cast out demons. If you’re welcomed, stay there and work. If you’re rejected, recognize it. Name it and move on. You’ve got stuff to do.”

We, too, have hurt. We, too, may feel rejected. We need to name it rather than hide from it. We need to face it, so that we may cast out the “demon” of pain and rejection … in order that we may move on, cuz we have stuff to do. There’s no time for us to blame so-and-so for killing Program X, or to blame Tom, Dick, and Harry for not doing Program Y or to blame Suzie Q for not bringing in a new members. You may feel the pain of the loss of those programs or the lack of members, but paying your pain forward helps no one. Hurt People hurt people. Loved People love people. Healed People heal people. Let us be healed.

Please come to the Town Hall meeting this Sunday following worship. Let’s name our pain. Let’s be healed of it. Let’s shake the dust of our disappointments from our sandals and move on. There’s a lot of Kingdom stuff we have to do.

Sermon: Scapegoating and Stepping Away from the Crowd

Pentecost 4 Year B 2015
June 21, 2015
Job8:1-11/Mark 4:35-41

I have three stories to tell today.
The first one Imay have told before.
If you’re hearing this for the 100th time, I apologizea
nd ask you to bear with me.

First Story

Before I went to seminary,
I worked at a mid-sized history museum just outside of Indianapolis.
It was the best of jobs.
It was the worst of jobs.
I loved the people I worked with
Most of them, anyway
and we did a lot of good and creative work together.

But we also had an enemy.
The enemy’s name was XYZ College.
XYZ College owned the museum.
That is, they served as the trustee for the museum.

Although they didn’t create the programs,
They were ultimately responsible for our programming.
And although they didn’t write the budgets,
they were ultimately responsible for our budget.
That’s not what made them the enemy, though.

The real problem was
that XYZ College
was also named as a beneficiary of the museum’s assets, should the museum shut down.
If the museum closed its doors for any reason,
this little denominational liberal arts college
with its struggling finances
and decreased enrollment
that wasnt part of our community, but rather existed 2 hours away from us
and had no real interest in our daily operations
… well, they stood to suddenly come into about 200 acres of land
in one of the top 5 fastest growing real estate markets in the US.

And on top of that,
they stood to suddenly find themselves with access
to the 9 million bucks that made up our yearly budget.

Can anyone say, “Conflict of interest?”
Yeah.

So, in 2003, the museum board was pushing the college board
to recognize the conflict of interestand to
– out of their sense of doing the right thing – ahem
allow the museum to make a complete governance separation.
Needless to say, perhaps,
the college declined the separation.

In fact, in June of 2003, the college’s president
fired all 21 members of our museum’s board,
including the Museum President.

Long story short:
The case went to the Attorney General’s office
and was eventually resolved in the museum’s favor.

But it took us 3 years to get there.
During those three years
you would not BELIEVE how well our museum staff worked together!
We created new programs
We made innovation after innovation
We were a well-oiled machine.
And part of the reason we worked so well together
was because we had this common enemy named XYZ College.

Anything bad that happened at the museum
could finally be blamed on those jerks at XYZ.

This system worked really well for three years.
And then the case was resolved in the museum’s favor.
We separated from XYZ
and suddenly had to face responsibility for ALL of our own actions.
We no longer had a common enemy to kick around.

But scapegoating and blame casting had become so ingrained in us,
it was the only we knew how to operate.
We had been steeped in that culture for all those years.
And so now, whenever we failed at something
our first instinct was to look for someone to blame.

And that’s what happened
over and over and over again.
With no common enemy
we all turned on one another
in search of a new, unanimous common enemy
so that we could try to build a new kind of peace and unity
around that identified scapegoat.
It was ugly.

The worst part of that whole ordeal
wasn’t even the destroyed friendships and working relationships
that made up the wreckage- although that was terrible.
The worst part was
that the search for a scapegoat consumed us
and never allowed us to look in the mirror
and see our own role in the destruction
our own complicity in the tragedy.

And it took me getting out of that system
sort of stepping away from the mob mentality there
to see what was happening
and to recognize MY own role in the whole thing.

____________________

Second Story

There was a guy named Job.
Had a beautiful family
was really prosperous.
And Job loved God.

As the story goes,
God was sitting around in heaven one day
having tea and biscuits with the satan.

God says to the satan,
“Hey, check out my servant Job.
That guy really loves me, ya know?”

The satan says,
“Well, YEAH he does!
Look at how you’ve blessed him!
Beautiful wife,
lovely kids
a 4 door camel AND a Ferarri!
But if anything bad were ever to happen to him,
he’d curse you just like anybody else.
Job ain’t so special.”

So God tells the satan, “You’re wrong.”
And God gives the satan free rein to do his worst.

The satan plagues Job with boils
and zits
and hemmorhoids
(I’m not making that part up).

He makes Job lose his house and family
and all his possessions.

Job doesn’t CURSE God for all of this,
but he’s none too happy
and he calls on God to tell him WHY.
Why do I have to suffer like this?
I’m a good person!”

Job’s friends, in the meantime,
keep saying to Job,
“Dude, you must have done something really horrendous to make God this mad.
You must have sinned in some kind of big way
to get a smackdown like the one you’re getting now.”

But Job, knowing better, rejects this “advice.”
He knows that he hasn’t done anything to make God mad.
He knows that God doesn’t operate like that.
But Job still wants to know:
WHY!?
It’s the question we ALL would like an answer to, right?
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Well, after a while,
God finally responds to Job.
He doesn’t give a DIRECT answer to the question of the persistence of evil, of course.
But he does respond.

God says,
“Look, Job.
Last time I checked,you weren’t there with me when I created the cosmos.
Then how is it that you think you could have done a better job of it than me?
Get off your high horse, Job.
Bad things happen.
Sometimes they even happen to good people.
But know this:
Even in the middle of your poop storm, Job,
I’m I’m here with you.
I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?
At some point, Job,
you’re going to have to trust
that I’m working on this problem of evil.
You may never fully understand it,
but I’m working on it.”

And that’s what Job walks away with.
Not with any better an understanding of suffering, really,
but now he walks away with a changed perspective.

But in order to get there,
Job had to walk away from the crowd.
He had to get away from his “friends”
and their “advice.”

It seems that his crowd of friends was caught up
in an understanding of God that had to do with
tit for tat
an eye for an eye
so that the only explanation for suffering was,
“You must have deserved it.”

Job’s friends looked at Job and his suffering
and the suffering of his family
and they tried to lay the blame for it at his feet.
That’s mighty convenient, though,
because while the finger was pointing at Job
it wasn’t pointing at his friends.
They were free NOT to examine themselves
and THEIR role in Job’s suffering.
I mean, did they every lift a finger to help him,
or did they just sit and accuse him all day long?
What was THEIR responsibility?
What was THEIR role?

Sounds a lot like me and my friends
back in those museum days.
Maybe it sounds familiar to you, too.

_____________

Third Story

A couple of days ago
a 21 year old man walked into a church in Charleston, SC.
He attended a Bible study with the members of that congregation
and after about an hour of studying and praying with them,
he opened fire on that assembly
killing 9 human beings.
Why?
Because they were Black
and he hated Black people.
He saw them as an enemy of White people.

“You rape our women” he said,
“and you’re taking over our country.
And you have to go.”

We don’t know much about the gunman
and what all of his motivations were for killing those people,
though more information seems to be coming to light in recent days.

But what’s clear is that
he looked around himself and saw society in a bad place.
He looked for a culprit to blame it on
a convenient scapegoat
and that’s what he found in the African American community.

More specifically,
he had found his scapegoat
in the people of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Today that 21 year old man is behind bars,
as he should be.
He committed a crime against society
He planned the attack
He pulled the trigger
and he needs to take responsibility for that.
There’s no question about that.

My fear, though, is this:
We now have a man behind bars.
We’ve caught our Bad Guy.
What now?
Go back to business as usual?

This man,
who sought in the Black race a scapegoat
a group of people whom he wanted to eliminate
as if that would make everything OK in society.
Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing with him now?

Now that we have caught our Bad Guy
it seems as though we’re now free from examining our own role in creating him
and the hatred and bigotry that led him to do the evil things he did.
As long as that finger of blame is pointing at him,
it’s not pointing at us.

Or is it?

He didn’t come by his prejudices and his hatred all on his own.
Bigotry is a family problem.
And It’s a society problem.
And it’s a Church problem.

Here’s an excerpt from a statment
from Presiding Bishop Eaton
on the attack on Emanuel AME Church:

It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this … the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism. The church was desecrated. The people of that congregation were desecrated. The aspiration voiced in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are “one nation under God” was desecrated.

Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel. The suspected shooter is a member of an ELCA congregation. All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.

We might say that this was an isolated act by a deeply disturbed man. But we know that is not the whole truth. It is not an isolated event. And even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture. Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly. The Rev. Mr. Pinckney leaves a wife and children. The other eight victims leave grieving families. The family of the suspected killer and two congregations are broken. When will this end?

The nine dead in Charleston are not the first innocent victims killed by violence. Our only hope rests in the innocent One, who was violently executed on Good Friday. Emmanuel, God with us, carried our grief and sorrow – the grief and sorrow of Mother Emanuel AME church – and he was wounded for our transgressions – the deadly sin of racism.

I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.

Kyrie Eleison.

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The shooter’s family belonged to an ELCA congregation.
2 of his victims graduated from an ELCA seminary.
This is OUR problem.
This hatred came from someone raised in on of OUR churches.
We need to take responsibility, too.

The Mayor of Charlotte told the press last Thursday,
“In America, we don’t let bad people like this
get away with these dastardly deeds.”

We good people
can’t let these bad people
get away with doing dastardly deeds
as if we had nothing to do with it.
Convenient how that frees us from having to look in the mirror.

It seems as though we’re still standing in the midst of the crowd
pointing fingers
and skirting blame
for systemic racism
and for promoting bigotry.

______________________________________

In today’s Gospel reading,
Jesus has just finished telling the parable of the sower
who sowed seed on 4 types of ground.
75% of the seed was lost.

He then told a story about the kingdom of God
and how it grows from a tiny seed into a mighty shrub.

Nobody in the crowd understood what Jesus was talking about
So he took his inner circle aside explained it to them.

But even THOSE guys didn’t get it.
They were so wrapped up in the kingdom of God being about liberation for Israel
and about kicking the Romas to the curb
that they didn’t see they were still looking through an old set of eyes.

Sure, they were right about the Romans as oppressors.
But the kingdom of God isn’t about getting even,
or getting rid of trouble makers.
That’s what the crowds wanted, though.
They would even force Jesus to be their king
and force him to drive the Romans out,
as though that would change anything.

To see with that set of eyes
is to remain in the crowd
to remain caught up in the myth of sacred violence.
Eye for eye.
Tooth for tooth.
Find a bad guy.
Blame everything on him.
Kick him out.

The problem is that this is a never-ending circle of violence.
You can tell this story a hundred times,
changing the characters each time,
but never altering the script.

The Pharisees wanted to oust the Temple authorities.
The Temple authorities wanted to do away with those pesky Pharisees.
Everybody wanted to get rid of that trouble maker, Jesus.
Look at how he blasphemes God’s name.
Look at how he thwarts Sabbath laws
and food laws.
Look at how he disrespects religious authority.
Let’s get rid of him
and our problems will go away.

That’s the old satanic lie that says:
“Your brother is your enemy.
Get rid of him, and life will be grand.”

But the Kingdom message of Jesus is the opposite:
“Your enemy is your brother.
Be reconciled to him and the Kingdom of heaven will be yours.”

The key to ending all of this circular scapegoating
is to look to the cross of Christ
to the place where we hung the final scapegoat
the one who was without sin
but who was made to be sin.

On the cross, Jesus shows us the futility
of all our scapegoating and our blame casting
and our attempts to drive out the evil other.

From the cross he points us to a better way of being human.
The way of Jesus
incarnates forgiveness
and reconciliation.

But in order to “have ears to hear” this gospel
we have to step away from the crowd.
We have to examine our own failures and shortcomings
as individuals
as communities
as a society
as a church.

I was thinking about us
our little congregation.

I can’t see the depths of anyone’s heart
and I can claim to know everything about any of you,
but from the 2.5 years I’ve spent with you
I can’t say I’ve met a single bigot among you.

I mean, we all have prejudices and stuff
and nobody is immune to that.
And maybe you hid it well.
I don’t know.
I just mean that
nobody I’ve met here strikes me as a Dylann Roof.
We’re all “good people.”
We’re all pretty reasonable about differences
and we all usually just go along with our own lives
minding our own business.

But I wonder:
even though I’d say we’re all good people here
I wonder whether just minding our own business
isn’t part of the problem.

As long as we keep to ourselves
aren’t we just staying with the misunderstanding crowd?
If we don’t get outside of our walls
aren’t we failing to examine ourselve
sand our own role
– as quiet, respectable Lutherans –
in things staying just as they are?
Aren’t we isolating ourselves from
the problems and suffering of our brothers and sisters “out there?”
Contributing in our own way to the problems?

I’m going out on a huge limb here, but here we go, anyway.

Next Sunday,
I don’t want you to come to church here.
Let me say that again, so you hear me right:
Next Sunday, don’t come to church
HERE.
That’s not a blanket encouragement to skip church altogether.
Instead, I invite you to step away from the crowd.
To get outside your comfort zone.

Go to an African-American church where you will be in the minority.
On Tuesday,
I’m going to try to compile a list of potential congregations to visit
and give it to Christina in the office.

Given these attacks in Charlotte,
it might be good to plan this out.
Instead of a bunch of unexpected White people showing up in a Black church,
it’s a good idea to call the pastor beforehand.
Tell them that you want to come, just to listen
and to stretch yourself.
Ask if you’ll be welcome.
And then go.

Then,
come back and tell us how it went.
Come to the Link and share your experience with all of us.
Tell us what you heard
what you saw
what you learned.

Take a risk.
Step away from the crowd.
It’s the only way to move forward.
It’s the way of reconciliation.

Amen.

(By the way, if your child is coming to the youth lock-in on Saturday, when you pick her up, head out to a different church. A Latino church. An Asian church. Especially a Black church. Someplace where you’ll be obviously different from the majority.)

Congregational Identity

There’s a really good book that came out of the Alban Institute in 2004. It’s called The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics. Israel Galindo is the author. Chapter 7 has to do with “The Hidden Life of Congregational Identity.” I want to give you a run-down of that chapter.

Galindo believes that a congregation’s identity is one of the most important dynamics in the corporate life of an assembly. He states that there are 3 major components of that identity: Spirituality, something he calls “Stance,” and Style.

Spirituality strongly influences things like how a congregation approaches worship – how the people understand the reason we gather. It also influences the rest of mission and ministry, including it’s “stance.” It may influence Style, too, but Stance is mainly what I want to address here today.

Galindo writes, “A church’s stance has to do with how it views its mission and ministry and how it relates to the world around it” (117). Geographical context may well play into a church’s stance: Is the setting urban? Suburban? Rural? That makes a difference. So does the composition of the congregation. Are the people primarily Latino? Black? White? Asian-Pacific? That’s also a determining factor.

Galindo states, though, that membership/participation usually determines a congregation’s viability (ability to sustain itself and it’s ministries) LESS than whether a congregation is involved in the life of the neighborhood where it’s planted. This is something that’s VERY worth considering!

“Doctrinal or mission task emphasis” can also determine a congregation’s stance. Galindo points out that a stance can and often does shift over time; however, “imprinting” by founding members (even, let’s hypothetically say, 105 year ago) sometimes so strongly shapes an assembly’s stance that the congregation has trouble adjusting when demographic shifts in the neighborhood take place. “For many congregations, it’s easier to pull up stakes and move to a different geographical location when the neighborhood changes than it is to change their stance” (118).

Incidentally – or not incidentally! – FELC has stayed put in this particular neighborhood for 60 years, demographic shifts notwithstanding. I don’t know whether that has to do with stubbornness, with determination, with the fact that there are numerous other congregations within a 15-mile radius that individual members/families can choose from instead of uprooting the current congregation … or whether it has more to do with a real sense that THIS congregation is ROOTED in THIS PLACE, planted here by God for a purpose. Another thing worth pondering …. You tell me. And if the latter is the case, then what do we have to do in order to make our ministries more viable in this place where God has put us?

Back to Galindo!

Galindo lists 9 common congregational stances (118 – 123). Let’s see whether any of these (or any combination of them) sounds like FELC. Here they are, along with brief descriptions:

1. The Urban Ministry-stance Congregation
* “This congregation’s stance is informed and shaped by its geographical location in the urban setting.”
* “Commitment to the welfare of the city” is a major value.
*As such they are active in community ministries: aftercare programs, ESL courses, tutoring/training ministries, AA, NA, single-parenting groups are hosted here. There may also be secular agencies stationed in these churches (clinics, counseling centers, etc.)
* These folks likely intentionally remained grounded in place rather than moving to the suburbs.
*People in this congregation “seek to impact the lives of those in their neighborhood, which is made up of a broad spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic groups.”
* The membership reflects the demographics of the neighborhood.
* It’s not uncommon to find congregations like this in large buildings that also house several separate (ethnic) churches (or schools) in the facility.

2. The University-stance Congregation
* Geographic context is in close proximity to a university or college.
* Membership includes a large number of people from that school (students, administrators, professors, etc.)
* Education and learning are strong values.
* Sermons (and overall approach to matters of faith) tend to be critical/scholarly.
* Book studies and lecture series make up much of the educational programming.
* This congregation has a good sized endowment but often struggles with finances beyond the bare essentials.
* The membership is well educated, but often transient; therefore, membership loyalty and program/ministry continuity is a challenge.

3. The Country Club-stance Congregation
* Members tend to be financially affluent.
* To outsiders, this congregation seems aloof, exclusive, disconnected from the real world.
* The exclusive nature of the membership creates intense closeness. (I added this aspect. It’s not in Galindo.)
* Members may resist direct ministry, but are generous financial supporters of various ministries.

4. The Community-stance Congregation
* Values inclusivity, belongingness, diversity, and tries to “welcome all”
* Tends to downplay denominational affiliations (because those can be obstacles for new people)
* Celebrates the wider culture insofar as it aligns with the congregation’s faith values
* Sermons include pop culture references, and congregation tends to “get it”
* Educational offerings tend to be “creative” (e.g. Bible studies along pop culture themes, such as “A Spirituality of The Matrix,” a “Survivor-themed” youth lock-in)
* Tends to provide a “cafeteria plan of ministry opportunities” – “everything from day care for toddlers to art classes for seniors” – which provide multiple entry points into congregational life.
* Outreach tends to echo the “If you build it, they will come” concept
* Drawbacks:
– Requires major investment in competent staff.
– Gets trapped in a consumerist mindset (“Market analysis” approach to outreach;                   attractional model for certain constituencies (e.g. parents with young children, young           thirty-somethings, etc.)) which creates pseudo-community of like-minded people                 instead of creating community “around building [an authentically] inclusive, multi-
generational faith community”

5. The Mission-stance Congregation
* Intentionally outward-focused.
* Values service to the world.
* Faithfulness as a church includes work “to transform the world through active engagement”
* Committed to the ministry of all believers.
– “As such it is effective in organizing, structuring, and providing processes that
facilitate its members’ quick and effective engagement in personal or corporate
ministries” beyond the four walls of the building.
* Values a theology of “call” (vocation) and service through ministry to others (discipleship)
* Has difficulty maintaining multigenerational membership
– is primarily an “adult” church
* Has difficulty maintaining programs to provide for more dependent members (older adults, children, youth)
– Sees faith formation of youth/children as primarily the responsibility of the family

6. The Pillar-stance Congregation
* Enjoys prestige (if not always influence, or if so, may no longer have much affluence)
* Enjoying a rich history and reputation, often caught in the bureaucracy stage.
* Leadership strongly supports denominational structures and orthodox theology (if not always orthodox practice)
* Places high value on professionalism of staff and pastor.

7. The Shepherd-stance Congregation
* Values affirmation of persons and care-giving
– sees self as “family of faith”
* Sermons tend to focus on reconciliation, healing, peace, justice.
* Members welcome the broken and hurt, offering comfort, healing & restoration
* Danger: potential addiction to pain (little room for healthy, mature members who need a challenge rather than affirmation)

8. The Outreach-stance Congregation
* “Outreach” tends to mean “evangelism” to the “lost”
* Highly values the conversion experience and some outward sign thereof
– As such, every practice of the congregation is geared toward that goal or toward reinforcing that value
* Every gathering is a chance to preach repentance (and to offer an altar call)
* Heavy stress on sin and the need to be rescued from it
* Social activism (if present) seen as “bearing fruit” and as outward manifestation of the indwelling of the Spirit

9. The Crusader-stance Church
* Holds a strong “Kingdom of God” theology
– As such, participates actively in the public square, engage in public debates, provides prophetic stance, ensures that the voice of God is heard
(Exists on both sides of the political and theological spectrum)

Take a look at all of these stances, what congregations who fall into these categories tend to value, what the pitfalls are (if they’re stated or if you can see them), and try to determine whether our congregation fits one stance more than another, or whether we might have more of an Old McDonald approach (here a value, there a value…). Armed with the insights you come away with, let’s determine what we want to DO with that info. How does this affect how we choose and negotiate our own values and the principles that guide us?

I hope you enjoy this discussion. I find it all very fascinating!

Keep on chooglin’,

Pr. Rob

Why Core Values?

For the past 2.5 years we’ve been doing a lot of introspection. This is good! Socrates is supposed to have said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” or some approximation of that. Probably this is more about an individual life, but it applies just as well to a corporate life – a congregational life, for example.

The purpose of our introspection, though, isn’t just for our own amusement. To paraphrase Augustine and Luther, that kind of reflection as an end in and of itself would make us a congregatio incurvatus in se (a congregation turned in on itself) – something Luther discouraged in the strongest terms. (In his Lectures on Romans, Luther said that a person – and by extension, a congregation – that thinks in this way “not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.”)

Instead, the purpose of all this introspection is finally oriented outward. Knowing what moves us and what drives us helps us as we go about in the rest of the world. It’s kind of like a rudder that steers us through life and comes in handy especially when we’ve got tough decisions to make.

Each person and each corporate body moves and operates according to certain values and principles. These are the things that ground and center us. They are the glue of integrity – the things that bind the integers of who we are to the whole.

(On the flip side of this, sometimes we act in ways that conflict with or even downright oppose our deepest values and convictions. This can lead us to feeling uneasy, unsatisfied, all around unhappy. That’s why it’s so important to identify and articulate what’s truly important to us – so that our actions and are values can be in alignment, not in conflict.)

That’s kind of a long preamble. Sorry. It’s just that this stuff is really important. The practical side of all of this is: There is pretty much NO END to the number of activities and ministries that we COULD get involved in as a congregation. But we will be much, much more effective if we’re focused. And our focus ought to be something that we, as a corporate body, can really get behind.

Maybe it would be helpful to think of it this way. Say we have $1000 to give to some worthy cause. And say we have 100 people in the congregation, each one of whom supports a separate cause. We could choose to give $10 to each of the 100 causes and not really make much impact … OR we could pick one or two causes that we ALL (or at least most of us) support, which could really benefit from a focused gift of $500 or a thousand bucks. Makes sense, right?

Let me be explicit here and just say that this isn’t primarily about money. It’s about energy. Money IS energy. Expending time and talents also is energy. So the question becomes: What does this congregation care about the most? What are we most willing (and called!) to expend our energy on?

So, what we’ll be talking about for the next little while will be these Core Values – these things that we care enough about to spend our time, talents, and treasures on.

This isn’t super easy work, but it’s totally worth it. From the conversation about core values, we’ll move to articulating a set of 5 or 6 Guiding Principles that will serve as a checks & balances as we determine where we’ll focus our ministry energies. Eventually (by October) we’ll have a Purpose Statement, too. We can finally get rid of that 3-paragraph-long mission statement that we have held onto since the 1980s and have something that reflects who we are NOW, what God is calling us to NOW.

That will be helpful in lots and lots of ways, including the energy focus I’ve already mentioned, but also in terms of articulating to potential financial supporters what we stand for and why they ought to get on board with what we’re doing as called and commissioned people of God working in this little corner of God’s creation.

Throughout this whole process, we can’t forget this primary thing: We are striving to do God’s work. GOD’S work! As such, we need to be grounded in prayer; we need to be grounded in Scripture. Please continue to pray for this congregation, that the Holy Spirit will guide us, will strengthen us to faithfully discern our path as we continue in this process. Please ask your friends to pray for us, too. As I keep saying, God does have a purpose for THIS congregation. We’re put in this place at this time for a purpose. God isn’t finished with us yet, but instead is just beginning something brand new!

Keep on chooglin’,

Pr. Rob

Some Post-Annual Meeting Thoughts

The spring Annual Meeting this past Sunday was a bit of a mixed bag. Some highs, some lows. First the highs:

We have a President!
After going for a year with no single person taking the helm of the Board, we are blessed to now have Lisa Milzarek sitting in that position. Over the last year, the Presidential duties were shared – somewhat haphazardly, I’ll say (certainly to your complete shock, right?) – by the entirety of the Core Council. Bruce did all the heavy lifting, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. Now that Lisa is Prez, it’s important for her to know that she’s not left holding the bag all by herself. We will continue to row in the same direction – as a team! I’m very excited that she has stepped up to the plate, and I think we’ve got some good things coming.

In fact, I’m excited about the whole team! Apart from working with Deb Silkman as a kiddo-wrangler, I haven’t had much chance to see her in action. Same is true with David Beymer. But I’m so glad that they heard God calling them to this leadership ministry (as Secretary and as Linking In Member-at-Large, respectively) and that they answered that call in faith. We’ve got “new blood” in leadership, and that’s going to be good for us, even if we will also miss Eleanore Beymer’s and Laura Bunch’s leadership – even as we rejoice.

We also have our first volunteer to help lead a renewed Financial Stewardship Team. Mary Jane Halley is a gifted accountant and she loves this congregation. Many of you may not know her yet, because she has been very active in the choir and very busy at work. But she’s a powerhouse and isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. That’s exactly the kind of thing we need. I’ll keep you updated as the Stewardship Team grows. We still need 2 or 3 people for this ministry, so please pray about whether you might be called to serve the congregation in this way.

That’s the good stuff.

I used to work in agriculture, so my analogies may be a little “earthy” for some people, so forgive me if it sounds offensive to say that good things grow out of some “crappy” situations.

We looked a bit more closely as a congregation than we have in a long time – at least as long as I’ve been here – at the financial situation. It looks rough. And I think this may have been surprising to some people. Both the rough shape of the finances AND the fact that this may have been shocking is, indeed, “crappy.” It feels crappy. The congregation isn’t used to that, and it isn’t used to or comfortable with talking about money. We, as a whole, are pretty conflict-avoidant and would rather NOT discuss this stuff. It’s dirty work. But it’s also essential work. We’re going to have to get more used to dealing with some “crappy” truths and  with being able to talk openly about them. You have to put some manure on the crops if you want a healthy harvest. Right?

Another analogy that might hit home more powerfully is the Easter analogy. You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. You can try, but it won’t work. That’s actaully central to our Lutheran theology. Out of the ugliness of death (take it literally AND figuratively), comes life, rebirth, new creation. Let’s embrace that. It’s our heritage as Christians, and it applies to our congregational Life Together as much as it does to every other aspect of life. So, let’s not be scared to face that. Once we know that death has lost its sting, finally we’ll be able to LIVE, and to live abundantly.

Speaking of which:  I was talking to the women of Dorcas Circle today. (Wednesdays are the best part of my week: I usually get to interact with the ELC kids; I get to chat a bit with the sewing ladies; we used to do Morning Prayer, but now we’re starting to translate that into a mid-week Mass. It’s the most Spirit-filled day of my workweek, hands down.)

I said to them that I had been losing sleep about that meeting. And it’s not so much what happened at the meeting as much as what DIDN’T happen, and specifically, what I didn’t say. It didn’t really come clear to me what was bothering me until this morning as I was studying for this coming Sunday’s sermon.

This coming Sunday, we’re going to be reading a story from Mark that appears in all three synoptic Gospels. Jesus has been performing miracles – healings and exorcisms, primarily – and the crowd that follows him contains a small group who wants to accuse him. They accuse him specifically of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Jesus chastises them and finally says that their accusation and attempt to expel him is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Hold that in your mind while we think about the Genesis 3 story that goes along with this reading. It’s the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. This happens in the context of the garden, where God has given them everything they could possibly need. They’re not hungry; they don’t realize they’re naked, so they don’t need clothes. They literally have everything at hand that they need for survival, and God shows them all the trees and says, “Eat, eat!” But then, God also says, “Just one thing: don’t eat from that tree over there.”

And what do Adam and Eve focus on? All the abundance? No. They focus on the one, teeny tiny restriction. In the midst of all this abundance, all they can see is scarcity.

Well, it goes on from here and we’ll talk more about that on Sunday, but look at how this can apply to us. We have everything we need. Right now. In order to do the ministry that God has for us to do, we have been equipped. We have 75 people who attend services here every Sunday. We have 35 people who come to “extra-curricular” stuff all the time. We have great musicians. We have a time-honored liturgy. We have a beautiful building.

But what did we focus on last Sunday? Scarcity.

I’m not laying the blame on you. I did it, too.

Don’t get me wrong: money is necessary for ministry. Giving is a spiritual practice. I believe both of those things strongly.

But really – we already have what we need in order to do what God is calling us to. We’re at a point where we can look around and find someone to blame for financial shortfalls, but how does that honor the Spirit of abundance? Blame and accusation are not of THAT Spirit.

So let’s leave that aside. Let’s look at what we DO have. Yes. There is still a lot of work to do in terms of using our resources more wisely. No question. But let’s never forget that God has gifted us richly, and has already equipped us with what we need.

Another little thought: At 12:15 Mass today, I read from the appointed Psalm (20), which I’d like to share with you now, along with the Psalm prayer appointed for the day. I ask you to make this Psalm your prayer as you read it. Treasure it, and keep it close to you.

Psalm 20 (ELW version)

May the LORD answer you in the | day of trouble,
the name of the God of Ja-|cob defend you;
send you help from the | sanctuary
and strengthen you | out of Zion;
may the LORD remember | all your offerings
and accept | your burnt sacrifice;
grant you your | heart’s desire
and prosper | all your plans.
We will shout for joy at your victory
and unfurl our banners
in the name | of our God;
may the LORD grant all | your requests.
Now I know that the LORD gives victory
to the a-|nointed one:
God will answer out of holy heaven,
gaining victory
with a | strong right hand.
Some trust in chariots and | some in horses,
but we rely on the name of the | LORD our God.
They collapse | and fall down,
but we will arise | and stand upright.
O LORD, give victory | to the king
and answer us | when we call.

Almighty God, you gave victory to Christ, your anointed one. Answer us when we call to you. Lift us from reliance on our own securities, that we may put all our trust in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Amen.

Comprehensive Ministry Review – Recommendations

About a week or so ago, I wrote a post about last December’s Comprehensive Ministry Review, the results of which just came in recently. Specifically, this post was about a series of Affirmations by the Synod review team.

I noted that we should just take a few days to let those affirmations sink in before we began to look at what the review team recommended. Well, a few days have come and gone, so now let’s take a closer look at areas that we need to focus on in upcoming months. I’m going to editorialize these a little. The recommendation language will stay pretty much verbatim (but I’ll let you know if there’s an edit), but I want to add on some areas where we’ve already begun the work. OK? OK.

Recommendations

1. “Collectively as a congregation, before March 1, 2015, start a process to discern God’s purpose for this congregation and identify your shared core values/guiding principles (possible resource: Living Lutheran by Dave Daubert). Complete this process within six to eight months and then find creative ways to keep both statements fresh in members’ minds, for decision-making and inspiration.

N.B. The link for the above title will take you to the Amazon Smile page. If you use Amazon Smile, a percentage of your purchase will be donated to First Lutheran. Just thought you might like to know about this small way of supporting our ministry financially. Thanks!

So, we’re a bit behind on this, but I’m confident that we can still have in place a set of core values and guiding principles to shape the way we do mission here at FELC by August/September 2015. Our new Town Hall structure should provide us opportunities to work on this as a group. Already at May’s Town Hall we began to identify this value: FELC is a Safe Place. We said that this should be a safe place physically – now we need some actionable items put in place to help us make sure that’s the case. We also said we are a safe place psychologically and spiritually  – One member mentioned specifically that he lives on property belonging to a church where he knows his doubts and questions will not be welcomed or tolerated, and so he comes here, halfway across town, because he feels like he belongs, questions and all.

I’ll do another post on discerning core values and guiding principles in the near future. Keep your eyes peeled. In the mean time, think about (AND SHARE! It does no good to examine ideas if you’re going to just keep them to yourself.) what’s important to you about this congregation. It can be things we already do, or things we could do. The point is to get the discussion rolling.

2. “Prioritize goals, including action steps, resourcing needs, timelines, and designated project leaders. Follow through on your plan [as identified in discussions with our consultant from Kairos] to choose two internal and two external projects to focus on at a time.

3. “Develop and commit to engaging in a healing process to work through issues lingering from past conflicts. Seek out an external counselor or therapist who specializes in group healing processes.”

Mark your calendars for June 14. Cynthia Gustavson will meet with us during our Town Hall that day to begin a more formal process of healing. I know that some people are less affected than others by the conflict(s) that occurred in the congregation in 2010/2011, but it’s very clear both to me and to our consultant and to our review team that there is residual trauma in the congregation as a whole. Even if you feel like you are “over it,” please understand that not everyone is, and your participation in this process will be in support of your brothers and sisters who need you to engage. This is important work, if we ever want to move forward.

4. “Build up lay leaders within the congregation by helping them to identify their spiritual gifts, encouraging them to live out their unique gifts both inside and outside the [congregation], identifying applicable gift/role pairings supporting the life of the congregation, and providing ongoing training and support.”

5. “Live into your CAT survey goal to “provide more opportunities for Christian education and spiritual formation at every age and stage of life.”

6. “Create and maintain a balance of energy between the internal missions (discipleship) [or Linking In] and external missions (evangelism and outreach) [or Bridging Out].”

7. “Determine a long-term plan for the building, including potential sale of the lower parking lot in order to offset expanded parking nearer the corner of Utica and 12th, and rental of space to community partners. Look into a building assessment from MIF [Mission Investment Fund] and or/energy audit from PSO and prioritize repairs.”

Some things have changed since the review team was on site. At that time, we were not partnering with House Church Tulsa, for example. We were also in conversation with a neighboring health provider concerning the potential sale of our lower parking lot. This negotiation is currently in limbo, and we’re not even certain that the sale of the lot, given an increased need for parking thanks to House Church and other potential building use partners, would be the best option.

Our partnership with House Church and the continually expanding work of Padre Alvaro and the Comunidad de Esperanza, plus ongoing relationships with the Early Learning Center  are helping us to see our building less as a liability (60 year old building with a bad boiler, in need of a lot of upkeep, etc.) and more as an asset for the whole community. Not only has House Church really embraced working with us, but also CdeE has been using the building for teaching Spanish and English as a Second Language, as well as for working on social justice issues for the Latino community in Tulsa. We have a LOT of potential in this building, if we continue to steward the resource well.

To that end, a task force has worked with the Core Council for putting together contracts and covenants for Building Use Partners – and these affect other policies including renting the building for events such as weddings, etc.

In short, we’re making really good progress in this area, and are actually building excellent relationships through the broader community. People may not be aware that First Lutheran had a certain reputation for not playing well with others for quite some time. I’m only now learning the extent of that, and your openness to trying new things has already helped us heal some of those old wounds.

8. “As you explore rental of space to other entities, we recommend you do so from an intentional posture of partnership/relationship rather than a stance of proprietor.
   * Explore establishing a building stakeholder consortium that shares responsibility for           building and grounds upkeep and repair.
   * Consider having monthly stakeholder meetings with building partners in order to                 coordinate building use and develop stronger relationships
   * In addition to financial contributions, consider inviting all building partners commit         to contribute to and participate in worship life at least once a year (e.g. an artist or           musician can share from their gifts, a counselor or spiritual director could share how       lives are changed, separate congregations can participate in a joint worship, and etc.       as fits budding partnerships.”

There is a lot of momentum (or inertia) to overcome here, but we are making progress. First, it seems clear to me that we are already approaching the Building Use Partners precisely as that – partners, and not lessees. We have been sort of informally working together to figure out how best to share the space. There are hiccups here and there (sound bleeding through floors and ceilings, though this doesn’t appear to be too distracting) and so forth, but overall, the informal approach has been working so far. It will be better to formalize some of these things.

To that end (and secondly), we have identified and are currently testing some software that should help us avoid room use scheduling issues. This is an ongoing process.

Finally, on May 22 we held the first of four joint worship events with our Building Use Partners. We grilled food and shared bread and wine/juice around tables while hearing Scripture and sermons, and while listening to excellent music jointly offered by House Church musicians and members of our own music program. It was beautiful to behold! From this meeting, I spoke with someone who wants to help us with some of the landscaping around the building! Relationships grow in the midst of all this stuff, and it’s really, really great!

9. “Increase signage, upstairs and downstairs, inside and outside, particularly at doors to indicate preferred entrance points, and to direct people to worship, office space, nursery, and restrooms. Explore placing signs at prominent sites, as fits city ordinance, to point people to the existence of this congregation and its location.”

10. “Make the front of the building (facing Utica) more visible so that it is evident this building houses an active and vibrant congregation.”

11. “Broadly utilize your developing branding to grow awareness of your identity in the community.”

12. “Live into your desire to attract youth and families and be more welcoming overall, by updating gathering and transitional spaces, in order to make it more visually and olfactory appealing. Engage a building engineer or other building professional to determine where gasses are being leaked.”

Fortunately, the gas trap fiasco of last year has finally been resolved, thanks to Bruce Torkelson! But we need to work on that other stuff!

13. “Build upon your history of providing quality worship and music, adapting as relevant for the changing mission field. As you build a family-friendly, welcoming, and engaging community, consider bringing the choir down from the choir loft to join the rest of the congregation in the main worship space.

Two things here: 1) We are in the process of calling a part-time choir director, whose engaged presence will help us tremendously musically. The current staff and volunteers have been doing a great and commendable job in the absence of a consistent presence, but it’s a LOT of work. Getting a part-time person on board will be great! 2) Our long-standing tradition of a worship committee who picks music just isn’t working any more. We need to form something like a “liturgical arts task force” to help think more broadly about worship experiences – thinking about the use of space and smells, for example, especially in the more dramatic seasons of the church year. The Altar Guild can and should be part of this process, but not everyone on the Altar Guild wants to do that particular kind of work. That’s not a problem. We need to all work together on this. I’m also thinking that we need to think a bit differently about how to more effectively use people’s gifts during the worship experience. The task force can help to guide those discussions.

14. “Create a sustainable budget and financial policies, including written policies for bequests, memorials, sale of property, and rental use of space.”

I have tried to avoid using names in most of this report, but I want to lift up Robert Ohlde for a minute. Robert has held pretty much every position on the council since he became a member here, and the man works tirelessly in areas that aren’t always comfortable for him. Our congregation seems to have a bit of a history of taking talented people and using them so much that they’re just worn out. Nobody deserves that. Robert doesn’t deserve that. We need a couple of people who are willing to help, especially in the area of Financial Stewardship. By condition of various grants, we are committed to looking at Financial Stewardship all year long (as opposed to the old model of a single campaign in the fall). Right now, Robert and I are the Stewardship Team. This is a recipe for disaster. We need help. Help?!

15. “Utilize activities you already do (e.g. the annual performance of Messiah and the Early Learning Center) as leverage points for moving to the next level of relationship and increased exposure of your branding.

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All of these recommendations are solid. I think the review team, though they only spent a couple of (admittedly very intense) days among us, really listened to what people had to say, and this is reflected in their recommendations.

This gives us a good list of things to work on and provides a framework for a strategy for moving forward in ministry. We now need people who are willing to donate some blood, sweat and tears to help us plan and implement a couple of these projects at at time. The Core Council will need to tackle this work and manage the project, but they cannot and should not do it on their own. One thing I’ve seen from this congregation is that, when you are motivated, you can pull off amazing things. You have the resources already, because you’ve done it before. Now it’s time to do it again! There is much at stake, but God has already equipped you with what you need to do the work. Persevere! Your gifts won’t fail you.

Comprehensive Ministry Review – Affirmations

In December 2014, a team comprised of leaders from around our Synod joined a team of leaders from our congregation, as well as several community leaders from around Tulsa  – Area pastors and lay leaders, a director at the psychiatric hospital who shares our block, and the director of a not-for-profit that works with formerly homeless people of faith, with homebound Christians, and with faith communities, bringing them all together in healthy relationships.

Gathered together, they discussed our congregation. They talked about our place within the Tulsa community and how we are working to engage (or not engage) in ministry to the people we live among. They toured around our neighborhood in order to get a sense of the physical context of our ministry. In short, they wanted to see how are we doing as a community of Jesus followers in terms of fulfilling our commission to be salt and light in the world.

This gathering was a pretty grueling process that began on a Friday night and continued through Sunday morning. It was exhausting. But it was also really positive.

In the end, the group assembled for us a report that includes a list of affirmations – things they see at work in us that they’d like to hold up as very positive – and a list of recommendations concerning things that they would strongly encourage us to address. I’m just going to list those things verbatim.

Affirmations

* You are to be commended for welcoming and accepting a first call pastor and embracing a major shift in pastoral style. You are serving an important role as a training ground for a first call pastor.

* You have a strong core of dedicated leaders that have worked hard for the good of the congregation and community.

* The congregation has a strong sense of fellowship and community experienced through planned events.

* The congregation has lay leaders taking ownership of taking communion to home-bound members.

* The congregation has quality liturgy and music in worship.

* The congregation is committed to a healthy Mutual Ministry.

* The congregation is supportive [financially and spiritually] of the newly forming Latino ministry, Comunidad de Esperanza, and its developer[.]

* The congregation supports two active W[omen of the] ELCA circles, WELCA sponsored global mission activities, and a redeveloping Men’s Group, which is currently focused on fellowship but plans to begin Bible Study and service activity in 2015.

* The building is located in a prime area of Tulsa, situated at a crossroads where it can serve as a bridge between North and South and between the Downtown and Midtown communities, as well as serve an an integral part of a “mind, body, spirit” care [center – based on its proximity to both Hillcrest Hospital and Parkside Psychiatric Hospital.]

* The building is large and full of petential for expanding ministry and community partnerships.

* The Early Learning Center is a necessary and long-standing ministry in the community.

* The congregation is now starting new partnerships with Abba’s Family, Manna Meals [at St. Paul’s UMC], and a joint youth group with other area non-Lutheran congregations.

* First Lutheran has a strong identity in the community with its longstanding ties to the annual presentation of [Handel’s] Messiah.

* You have a strong Pastor who is building trust with and among the congregation. He is also actively reaching out into the community.
—————————————————————————–

So, these are the very positive things our Review team saw in us. If we were to conduct the review again today, there would be more things to add, I’m sure. Some of those new affirmations would be based on our having begun to address the recommendations that the team offered to us. But those recommendations I’ll save for a follow-up post in the next couple of days.

In the meantime, just let these things soak in. And don’t worry – the recommendations aren’t negative things: they’re more opportunities for us to seize. Some of them are going to be extremely important, others maybe less so. But let’s save those for tomorrow, and focus today on these affirmations. OK? OK.

Innovation in the Church

Last fall, George Couros, Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning in the Parkland School Division (Story Plain, Alberta, Canada) wrote this great post about 8 Characteristics of the “Innovator’s Mindset.”

You can read the article for yourself, but the reason I wanted to post it here is that what Couros writes about innovators applies not just to the field of education, but also resonates in the congregation, as well.

Each of us, as baptized Christians, is called to reach out beyond ourselves to the world around, to share the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. This is, in fact, the ONLY reason the church exists. It’s not for great fellowship; it’s not for good music; it’s not for creating warm, fuzzy feelings with the Creator. Our job is to share the gospel. Full stop. How do we do that? We go – beyond the four walls of our building. We make disciples (students and followers of the Way of Jesus). We baptize and teach people about Jesus and his Way, so that those whom we have taught can go and do likewise. There’s always a sending. Always.

The way this reaching out looks changes from time to time and from place to place. What has worked for First Lutheran in the past, is very likely not what will work today. In fulfillment of our Baptismal promises to BE the church in the world, we all need to think of innovative ways to get the gospel message to folks in our current setting.

According to Couros, innovative thinkers are empathetic; they are problem finders; they are risk-takers; they tend to be well-networked; they are observant; they create; they are resilient; and they are reflective. You may come to different conclusions about how Couros’ article relates to our work as the Church, but here are some thoughts I’m working on.

Empathy – Couros writes that we first need to understand WHO it is that we are serving, so that we know HOW to innovate ways of reaching them. We need to understand where people are coming from, what their experiences are, what needs they have, and then determine from that what gifts of our own we might bring to bear on their behalf. This kind of empathy doesn’t come from giving our best guesses about what people need, but rather from building relationships and asking questions.

Problem Finders – As we build relationships and learn to ask good questions of our friends, then we can turn to working on problems ALONGSIDE those whom we are called to serve. Finding problems to solve isn’t exactly our job, but relational work with others leads there as we learn what is important to people. We’re not there to do work FOR others, but with them. Together, we help people learn to innovate, we help to reframe issues and questions. But we don’t assume. That relational work comes first, and we need to get good at asking powerful questions. Couros wrote, “The invention of the home computer started with the focus of, ‘How do we bring the experience of a powerful computer into the homes of families?’ Many capstone projects developed by students in their classrooms start with first finding, and then solving problems both locally and globally.  How often do we as educators immerse ourselves in a similar process?  If want to be innovative, we need to look at questions first.” Our questions will look different from those related to technological innovation, but questions is where we, too, need to begin – not with answers, and certainly not with trite answers that don’t relate to where people are coming from.

Risk-Takers – A question we really need to ask of ourselves time and again is: “What are we willing to risk for the sake of the gospel?” Couros wrote about “best practices” (by which we often mean “those things we’ve done the most and know the best”) are “the enemy of innovation.” What are we willing to change? In what ways are we willing to go off the beaten path, the path of the tried-and-(formerly) true? Taking risks is about change, which I know people generally hate. But remember this: change is inevitable. We simply can’t not change, and we also can’t go back to what’s past. The question becomes, are we going to settle for the change that leads to decay, or are we going to choose to risk change that might well be transformative – for ourselves, but more importantly, for the world, who needs us? This is NOT a rhetorical question. Let’s talk about this.

Networked – Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens when we learn to beg, borrow, and steal from other people who are having success. But that requires that we get out of our own four walls again. We need to poke our heads out of the hole and see what’s going on elsewhere. This was part of the reason I invited people to head down to First Christian Church on Good Friday and check out their Tenebrae service. It was to break us out of the pattern that we have established and see what other folks are doing. Not so that we can copy it, but so that we can see that “different” does not equal “bad.” Seeing different ways and approaches even to worship services sparks new ideas, and the greater the variety, the more new ideas come about. I’ll repeat Couros here when he says “Isolation is the enemy of innovation.” Get out there and experience something different. Then bring it back and let’s work it around to see how we can tweak it to fit our context.

Observant –  This, to me, is much the same concept as Networking above. It’s about deliberately looking for connections and TRAINING ourselves to look for connections. After some practice observing connections, it becomes second nature. Thinking of a practical example from my own life, I’ve noticed that managing a museum is a lot like pastoring a church in some respects. There are obvious differences, too, but there are certain things that are remarkably similar. Non-museum people won’t observe those similarities, but since I’ve had a foot in each world, it’s easy to make the connections. And this is why I’m able to explain some church-related things to my non-churchy museum friends. I see patterns common to both worlds, and I can translate. It’s because I have a network that gives me a vocabulary to span both worlds. How might this kind of adaptive and integrative thinking be helpful in our Great Commission work?   This, too, is innovation.

Creators – Couros writes, “So many people have great ideas, yet they never come to fruition.  Innovation is a combination of ideas and hard work.  Conversation is crucial to the process of innovation, but without action, ideas simply fade away and/or die.  What you create with what you have learned is imperative in this process.” In other words, “Innovation without works is dead.” This is why we need everybody in the church rowing. In the past, it was OK (it was never ideal, but it still managed to work, more or less) to follow the 80/20 rule – 20 percent of the people did 80 percent of the work and the financial support. That doesn’t fly in a small congregation like ours. We all need to do more than just show up on Sunday morning. This work belongs to all of us, as baptized and commissioned Christians.

Resilient – Sometimes our risks don’t pay off on the first go-around. That’s OK. We need to learn to embrace failure as a teacher and be encouraged that we at least tried. We can’t let false starts and outright disasters deter us from trying again.  Jesus never promised us an easy road to success (TV preachers’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Persevere!

Reflective – Couros states this just about perfectly: “What worked? What didn’t?  What could we do next time?  If we started again, what would we do differently?  What can we build upon?  It is important that in [working on God’s mission] and innovation, we sit down and reflect on our process.  This last point is definitely lacking in many aspects of [the church] as we are always “trying to get through [from Sunday to Sunday]”, yet reflection is probably the most important part of [church work].”

Innovation in the life of the church can and probably should have a certain inward component: It’s good to think about and apply the concepts of innovation to things like our worship and our governance structure, for example. But we have to remember that those things exist BECAUSE of the Great Commission, not in place of them. We absolutely NEED to move our focus more to the outside. It’s only in connection to the Great Commission that the work we do within the currently gathered body has any meaning at all, apart from a sort of narcissistic and hyper-individualized satisfaction we get (aka “What I get out of going to church”). This kind of thinking may itself be innovative for some of us. That’s fine. Let’s begin there.

For you members of First Lutheran, let me ask this question: How can the leadership (myself included) of this congregation help you to embrace innovation as a way of being the church? How can we help you learn to embody this even more than you are now?