A few weeks ago I was part of something called the “First Call Theological Education Summit” at the ELCA Churchwide offices in Chicago. When I get invited to things such as this where I get to work with the other expressions of this church (the three expressions being: congregation, synod, churchwide) I usually try to take them up on their offer. I always come away having learned something more about what God is up to in the ELCA, hear exciting stories of mission and ministry from around the country, and come away inspired with something to bring back to our work here together. This trip was no exception.
The purpose of this “summit” (a fancy word for conference I think) was to talk about best practices for “First Call Theological Education” as well as what makes a healthy and supportive “First Call Congregation.” First Call Theological Education is a mandatory three year process that all pastors coming out of seminary participate in (including me). Just what is looks like varies from synod to synod and region to region. First Call Congregations are congregations (such as ours) who have called a pastor in their first call out of seminary. This event brought together those who plan First Call Theological Education, some of us who are participating in it (that’s why I was invited), as well as lay leaders and pastors from some First Call Congregations. Central to the conference was the presentation (in various forms) of the results of a research project the ELCA has undertaken (funded by the Lilly Foundation). First Call Congregations from around the country who were identified as “exemplary” were studied to find out just what are the things that make for successful First Calls—for the pastor and for the congregation.
As they were sharing the results and stories that came out of these exemplary First Call congregations, I kept thinking to myself “Man, Bethlehem should have been part of this!” When it came time to report the themes that the researchers found in these congregations, I realized why. Here are the themes that this research found make for a healthy and supportive First Call Congregation:
Nurturing: welcoming and supportive of their new pastor (including forgiving the pastor’s mistakes!, and creating a community of care for one another
Connected: to each other, to their past, across generations, to the local community, to synod and churchwide
Flexible: having deep, connected roots allowing for building on the strengths of the past while holding an attitude of openness and flexibility
Strong Lay Leadership: committed, faithful lay leaders who are called to ministries in the congregation and the world (including those that have traditionally been “the pastor’s job”)
Spiritually Practiced: centered on prayer, reading the Bible together, care for one another and those in need, mentoring and supportive of youth, practicing hospitality
I realized that these are the very traits that lie at the heart of what this community is all about, and they are all things that God has been bringing even more to the surface through our Transformation process. Having been built up in all of these areas over the past few years, we are now in a period of vibrant ministry in which God is using us in new and different ways. It’s exciting to imagine what God has in mind for us, and how these strengths of our community will be called forth for work in the world. Isn’t Transformation fun?