Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Advent Community

The group formally known as the Acts 8 Bible Study will now be known as “The Advent Community”. We will gather in the fellowship hall at 10:30am every Sunday to listen for the call of God (and go there), to pray together, to support one another, and “do life” together. This is not “Bible Study” in a traditional sense, though we will read the Bible together. We believe God has something in mind for us and we want to be a part of it. Everyone is welcome. Come and see what God is up to among us.

Pastor Erik--December 2009

God is going to do what God is going to do. The question is, do we want to be a part of it or not?

On Sunday, October 12 I preached a sermon entitled “What is holding me back from following Jesus?” (you can listen to it here) The Gospel story was Mark 10:17-31 about a rich man who wanted desperately to follow Jesus. He had been very religious his whole life, followed all the rules, done everything right. When he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to give his riches to the poor and follow him. The rich man didn’t follow Jesus, but went away grieving because he had many possessions. We explored how Jesus asks each of us “What is holding you back right now from following Jesus?” is it money like this rich man? Is it fear? Is it your family? Is it tradition? Is it too much stuff? What is it for you?

After we pondered this individually (on our now classic sticky notes) I shared what the answer was for me, though it was difficult for me to do so. What is keeping me right now from following Jesus is trying to save our congregation. Over the past three years as we’ve engaged in transformational ministry together, I (along with many of you) have poured my heart and soul into this community, helping to lead us through some difficult but important work to discern where God is calling us, and how we might transform to be better able to go where God calls. This spring our council leaders realized that while many changes were happening and our life together was improving, our finances were still in trouble, and the path we were currently on was simply not sustainable without some deeper transformation and more changes. The council invited us all to take this seriously and make a decision to either step up in a whole new way with time, effort, and finances for the sake of mission or to find a way to live together that requires less resources and less energy to maintain. To either lay it all on the line for mission or to choose to maintain what we have as long as that lasts. And in those conversations, folks by and large enthusiastically said “Let’s go for it!”

But in the months that have followed, the actual response has been less enthusiastic. We’re having an unbelievably hard time getting people to participate, even in things like ushering, bringing cookies, and reading the lessons. Attendance on Sunday morning has gone down, not just the temporary summertime “dip” we have come to expect. Offering is below what we need for our budget, and because of that we’re nearly $10,000 behind in our commitment to the wider church and the world through our Synod. Nearly two thirds of members invited to our “member appreciation event” who RSVPed earlier that week, didn’t show up. Events planned by new members did not find support among the congregation, and now many of those new members have disappeared from our community (some are just not around much and some have decided to join other churches). There have been fewer and fewer children in worship. And complaining is high: about the liturgy, about worshiping downstairs during the summer, about all manner of changes that are taking place. And we are hearing more and more “When is this transformation thing going to be over so life can get back to normal?” This is hardly the “let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work” response any of us were hoping for.

And so, for the past 6 months I’ve been praying fervently for our congregation. “Lord, what is it going to take to save this place? Just when we need to step up into your dream for us it seems like we are taking a step back? What more can we do? What more can I do? And as I studied and prayed over Mark 10:17-31 in preparation for that sermon in early October, the voice of the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear “Give up what is holding you back, and follow Jesus.” And I realized that in the previous 6 months (and probably longer) I’d been holding on to the “saving” of Bethlehem Lutheran Church as my personal responsibility—or at least to lead the charge that would save it. And God reminded me that this is not my job, and I was not called to “save” this community, but to lead efforts to transform it. And the transformation was not ours to make happen, but God’s. Our job is simply to figure out what God is up to and do what we can to join in. As rock star Bono of U2 once said: “Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing -- because it's already blessed. And so, in the face of all this, “I let go, and let God.” And so I pray: “God, if it is your will for Bethlehem Lutheran to continue as your people in mission in this place, let it be so. And if it is not, help me (and all of us) face this reality and live and love one another though it.”

Since that sermon, many people have asked me if I’m “giving up” or “planning to leave.” And I can see how people might have gotten that impression. The answer to both is no. What I’ve given over to God is the “saving” of Bethlehem. I am not intending to fall short on my call to lead us into the future God has for us—even if it’s a future none of us was expecting. I was called to this community to lead our efforts to transform into God’s dream for us and the world—and that is still my calling here. But I had confused that with saving the organization known as Bethlehem Lutheran Church (and maybe you have too). I feel called to be a part of this transformation effort until I simply can’t be any more—at which point God will be calling me to other adventures.

I have to admit given the lower offerings, the threats to leave or withhold giving if changes continue, the lack-luster participation of these past 6 months, and the seeming rejection of the next stage of transformation raises my anxiety level. As the stewardship packets come in this month and we meet to discuss what we are going to do with our budget, I wonder if there will be enough support from the congregation to pay my salary—and I don’t know what this means for my family. And even if the finances come through another year, is it going to be sustainable in the long run? And what about participation and volunteering? The truth is, I simply don’t know what all of this means for us as a community of faith. But the call to follow Jesus is not always meant to be clear, and he certainly didn’t suggest following him would be easy. But it is easier together than alone, and it leads us into deeper community and authentic life together. I can’t imagine a harder, or more rewarding, way to live.

I hope that all of this doesn’t sound too pessimistic, because I don’t doubt that God has something in mind for us, and that God is going to transform this community for the sake of the world. It’s just becoming more and more clear that it’s going to be a different sort of transformation than any of us hoped. More “death and resurrection” than “resuscitation.” But I (and we) can trust that God will come through on God’s promises to us—to be with us on our journey even (maybe especially) in the wilderness. And God has a plan, even if the details are foggy (or frightening) to us. Ruban Duran, from the ELCA Churchwide division we connect with in our transformation efforts, once said “God is going to do what God is going to do. The question is, do we want to be a part of it or not?” And that, I believe, is the question before us all.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pastor Erik--July 2009

In February of this year our congregation entered into the third year of our three-year Transformational Ministry grant, a grant from the “Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission” division of the ELCA to help us reconnect to God’s mission in our congregation for the sake of our neighbors and the world. The grant provided us $15,000 the first year, $10,000 the second year, and now $5,000 this year. It also committed us to engage in the “Transformational Ministry” process, including forming a “Transformation Team,” which we voted on and approved as a congregation at our annual meeting in January of 2007. While the grant funds were intended to support innovative projects for mission and outreach, we’ve been using the funds mainly to plug the holes in our budget, with the expectation (and hope) that the renewed energy, excitement, vision, and mission this process would give us would make our budget and congregation participation concerns go away.

At the May meeting of the church council it became clear that this was not happening to the extent that we had hoped, and we were facing a $3,500+ budget shortfall for the first four months of 2009—a trend which, if it continued, would mean around $12,000 short for the year. Next year, with the grant funds ending, that will be closer to $20,000. In addition, while we have built up a new and energized leadership core, these leaders have been struggling to find people willing to participate in the existing volunteer and ministry needs we have—and we’ve found little excitement around any of the outreach and mission “adventures” we have tried. At the June council meeting we took a hard look at where Bethlehem Lutheran Church is, and realized that the “plateau” we seem to be on is not sustainable, both financially and in terms of leadership and participation. We’ve come to see that we are at a real turning point in our life together—a place to either take on the challenge that God has in mind for us and engage in mission in our neighborhood, or to scale back our ministry to focus on meeting the needs of our existing members. Whatever path we take, major changes are in store for us as a congregation.

The council wanted to extend this conversation to the whole congregation; and so on June 28th after church we will start to talk together. Since not everyone will have been able to be there, I’m writing this article with some of the things we will use to start the conversation on June 28th, so we can all engage in this conversation together over the next few months.

First, it is important to be clear on what kind of change we need. Most of us expect organizations like churches to operate on the level of “technical change.” This sort of change assumes that the leaders know what needs to be done, and it is just a technical question of how to get it accomplished. This is where we expect our leaders to figure out a solution for us to follow. However, the crisis we are facing is one that needs “adaptive change” where everyone must learn new ways of operating and the whole organization must adapt to what will be required of them. “Adaptive change” is at the heart of Transformational ministry—where we trust that God will direct not just our leaders, but all of us to engage in the ministry God has in mind for us. This goes along with “there is no they, only us.” Someone else (who we often call “they”) is not going to solve our problems for us. We have the gifts and abilities we need to figure out what is wrong, and to begin together to address our common concerns. God has put before us an opportunity for all of us to rethink what it means to “be church” together—and to together take up the mission of God. But it can only happen if we are all willing to respond to this call and take up this great (and probably chaotic) adventure to figure out what God is calling us to do and to be.

At the June council meeting we discussed the understanding of our congregation of what it means to be a “real church,” meaning if any of these elements were missing our congregation would feel like we were not living up to what it means to be a church. We’ll do this again on June 28th so the answers might be slightly different, but our council talked about these 6 elements: For Bethlehem to feel like a “real church” means 1) Having a building (preferably well maintained) 2) A full time pastor 3) Certain programs including worship, Bible study, Sunday school, and visitation of sick and homebound members 4) Enough members to pay the bills 5) Enough volunteers to do what needs to be done 6) Minimal conflict. This seems to be our basic image of what it means to “be a church,” and is connected to the sort of church founding visions that were in place in the 1950’s when Bethlehem began. The goal of a new congregation in the 1950’s was to find enough members to worship, support a pastor, build a building, support some programs and then, once established, to find a nice plateau, set the “cruise control” and things would continue on from there. We might need little adjustments from time to time, but not really any major changes to our trajectory.

Over the past 50 years Bethlehem has at various times fallen off of this plateau, usually connected to the loss of a pastor. And as soon as a new pastor was found, the situation improved and life continued on pretty much as normal. However, as the situation with our budget and lack of participation now is making clear, this simply isn’t the case anymore. Even with 48 new members in the last 3 years, the current plateau financially won’t last much beyond Christmas (or spring of 2010 if we draw down our endowment funds). A big part of this has to do with how the culture has changed—people no longer simply show up at churches the way they did in the 1950’s and people aren’t as excited about simply maintaining church buildings and church programs for their own sake. Churches that are thriving are engaged in mission and ministry not only within their walls, but in their neighborhoods. They are focused more on others than themselves. And they are not only doing “the same thing, only better” or even “the same thing with guitars and drums” but looking for creative ways to live out the Gospel in the world.

As I look toward our future together, it’s becoming clear that this 1950’s model for a “real church” just isn’t sustainable for us. It was the right way to be the church at the time, a faithful way to live out the Gospel in this neighborhood in the day and time and culture in which the congregation was planted, and for much of our history. But it hasn’t really been working for a long time, probably longer than we’re willing to admit. I think right now we are at a crossroads where we either need to decide together to be less than this or more than this. To be less than this “1950’s real church” would mean to scale back our programming, probably move to a part time pastor, focus on worship, fellowship, and caring—spending our efforts and energy on our current members. Something would likely need to be done to reduce the cost of our building (especially utilities)—either through renting out more space or sharing with another congregation (or two). To be more than the “1950s real church” would mean really recommitting ourselves to mission and transformation, and being willing to lay it all on the line for the sake of God’s purpose for us. It might mean any number of creative ways to rethink what we do together, and we will very likely re-emerge a very different community than we are today, though still connected to the rich history and tradition that has brought us to this point. It means each and everyone one of us rolling up our sleeves to engage in some hard work learning what God is up to in our neighborhood and seeing how we can be a part of that. It means giving ourselves away for the sake of others—loosing our life for Christ’s sake so that we may find it. It means being willing to change, adapt, and renew—even if this means changes we don’t personally like. And it means letting the vision of the “1950’s real church” die so God can give birth to something new in us.

If we were going to start a new congregation in this neighborhood in 2009 we would do so very differently than was done in 1950. To start, we would gather together to read the Bible, pray, and talk about what God was up to in our lives. Then we would spend some serious time getting to know our neighborhood—what is God up to there, and where could we make a difference for the sake of others. We would take stock of our gifts and try to find ways to connect the gifts God has given us to the needs and opportunities in our neighborhood. Then, before ever holding a worship service or breaking ground on a building, we would start to work for the sake of our neighbors—as our guiding principle states: “We are called to work in God’s world.” And only after engaging in mission in the world, would we think about how we might come together for worship, to support one another, to build one another up, to connect more deeply to one another and to our newly befriended neighbors. If it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us we might then use our resources to build a building, but depending on what our neighborhood needed it might look more like a coffee shop, a pub, a food bank, a gym, an arts center, a community center, or a gathering space than a 1950’s church. And all the while we would root ourselves in Word and Sacrament, in Bible study, worship, and prayer, in fellowship and support of one another—trusting in the Holy Spirit to use the gifts God has given us to proclaim in word and deed the Good News of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and the world.

The call of God is before us—giving us the opportunity to take up this challenge or to scale back our efforts. Spend some time in prayer and reflection, talk with one another, and then decide which way you feel called to go. I believe God has a grand adventure in mind for us. If we respond to this adaptive challenge, if we engage with this transformative work, if we are willing to put our congregation on the line for God’s mission I believe God will lead us into an amazing future. Is this something you feel called to be a part of? How will you respond to this call? What could God be calling us to do together?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Pastor Erik--June 2009

              Paul Turner, author of “The Slice” column in the Spokesman-Review was one of the speakers at this year's “Bike to Work Week” kickoff breakfast.  Barb Chamberlain, the organizer of the event, asked him to ride for a week last year and write about it in his column.  It was a big gamble, Barb said in her introduction of Paul, because she knew if it was a good experience for him he would write glowing things about biking in Spokane. But if it wasn't...we'll, you've read “The Slice.”

              Paul took Barb's challenge, figuring even if he hated biking to work, he'd at least have a good weeks worth of sarcastic comments for his column.  But instead, Paul found he actually enjoyed biking to work—and kept it up even after Bike to Work Week was over. And so he was back this year, encouraging all of us at this breakfast event to be, in his words, “bike evangelists” and spread the news about commuting by bike in Spokane.

              This call to be “bike evangelists” struck me as funny, because I was standing there wearing what I had been calling my “bike evangelist” outfit—which is really just my regular bike gear with a black clergy shirt and white tab collar.  I felt amazingly out of place in that outfit standing in Riverfront Park at 8am—even more so than I had felt wearing that same outfit in the pulpit at Bethlehem the day before.  In our culture you aren't supposed to mix things like religion with ordinary things like riding bikes, or commuting, or eating pancakes in Riverfront Park.  Religion is meant to be private, practiced in sanctuaries filled with like-minded people, or in the privacy of your own home.  These are two separate realms and you aren't supposed to mix them.

              But its not so easy for me to separate these two, because riding my bike (to work or otherwise) is a deeply spiritual experience for me.  First, it causes me to slow down.  When I don't have my car, I can no longer pack in appointment after appointment across town, counting on zipping from place to place with only a few minutes to spare.  I've got to plan, be deliberate, make use of the time and energy God has given me to do what is most needful.  Secondly, time on a bike is time with God, experiencing the amazing beauty of God's creation—seeing, hearing, and smelling all those things we miss when we travel at 70 miles an hour.  On a bike you feel part of it all—sun, wind, even rain—and it is so much easier for me to see God at work in the world.  And third, I find time on the bike to be perfect for prayer.  As I pedal down the road or trail my mind and body are occupied just enough that I can find that focused place where distractions are a little bit less, and where I can connect in prayer to God.  Or I'll take the scriptures assigned for Sunday and roll them over again and again in my mind—and find a sermon beginning to take shape.  There's just no way to separate bike riding and religion for me.

              And so I find myself a “bike evangelist.”  A pastor wearing a bike costume on Sunday and a bike rider wearing a pastor costume on Monday.  And as such, I don't really fit into either world entirely.  I want my church friends to know and experience the joy of riding a bike to work (and everywhere else) and I want my bike riding friends to know and experience the joy of a life lived in a community centered in Jesus Christ.   And I must admit, it's easier to say to someone “come ride with me” than it is to say “come follow Jesus with me.” 

              As Christians we do live in two worlds; like dual citizens we live both in the “kingdom of God” and in the “kingdom of the world.”  And we really don't fit entirely into either.  As dwellers of God's kingdom we get caught up in the cares of the world and forget to trust in God alone.  As dwellers of the kingdom of the world we never can quite believe that things are only as they seem for we trust in God's promises.  And God calls and sends us as witnesses into the world, bearing Christ in word and deed to a world that longs to experience him.  We are all meant to be evangelists, wearing our world costumes in church and our church costumes in the world—blurring the line between the so-called holy and ordinary places and reclaiming the entire world as loved by God.  And we're meant to be so caught up in the joy of life in Jesus that we can't help but invite others to come along.

              What excites you the way riding a bike excites me?  What brings you so much joy that you can't help but want others to be a part of it too?  My guess is, for most of us, following Jesus or participating in church doesn't make it high on that list.   Why not?  What keeps us from saying “I've experienced great joy as a follower of Jesus, come with me so that you can experience this too”?   What do we need to change about our life together, or our worship, or our service to others that would get you excited enough, energized enough, caught up in the joy of God enough to say “I want everyone I know to experience this!”? 

              Bike to Work Week Spokane grew from an expected 200 participants last year to over 1500 this year—and pretty much all because of “bike evangelists,” people who love to ride their bikes to work getting out and spreading the word.  And while I know the term “evangelist” brings up images of bullhorns and bullying—no one was forced, no one was tricked, no one was bullied by these “bike evangelists.”  We simply shared our story and our love of biking and encouraged others to come along with us and experience it for themselves.  Come and see, come follow me, you just might find joy here too.   That's what evangelism—sharing the Good News—is all about.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pastor Erik--Toward God's Purpose for BLC

Towards God's Purpose for Bethlehem Lutheran


On Sunday March 8, 2009 Pastor Erik preached a sermon on Mark 8:31-38.  This is the story of when Jesus tells his disciples that following God's purpose for his life means that he will undergo great suffering, be rejected, killed, and will rise again.  His disciple Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, insisting that there must be another way.  Jesus says to Peter (so that all the disciples can hear) “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Then to  the disciples and the crowd Jesus says: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”


Peter wasn’t able to see that God’s purpose for Jesus would bring him to the cross.  He probably suggested all sorts of safer ways that Jesus could have continued his ministry more safely and without taking the sorts of risks Jesus was talking about.  But Jesus told Peter (and the disciples, and the crowds, and us) that following God’s purpose for us is not safe, it’s extremely risky.  It’s not that Peter’s plan wasn’t a good one—maybe he suggested Jesus continue to heal people, travel the world proclaiming Good News, and live a long and happy life—but it wasn’t God’s plan.  The real danger in this story isn’t a bad idea, but a good idea that just isn’t what God has in mind. 


Pastor Erik gave everyone in the congregation index cards and asked us to write “Get Behind” on one side and “Take up” on the other side.  (He realized later that it should have been “Put Behind” which is what we’ll use from now on.)  On the “Put Behind” side we were asked to list those things that Bethlehem Lutheran Church might spend our time and energy on that, while certainly “good” things to do, might not be what God has in mind for us.  These are “safe” plans that don’t involve much risk.  On the “Take Up” side we were asked to list those things that God might be calling our congregation to—risky things that might cause us to “loose our life for Jesus’ sake” but are the ways to ultimately save it.  Here is our list of the things we think Jesus is asking us to “put behind” and “take up” to better follow Jesus into God’s purpose for our congregation.


Put Behind


l Church improvements

l Groups using the church

l Ceremony and beautification if they are for superficial reasons—if for outreach, take them up

l Elaborate building

l Unwise use of funds

l Beautification of church building grounds and landscape

l The property being beautified—money better spent elsewhere

l Spending time designing and funding member programs

l Spending all our resources on just our property

l Coming to church and fellowship only

l Speed at task completion

l Having members only groups that discount those interested in our church

l Disguising God's calling in a way we like

l Misjudging or ignoring a task of God

l “Contemporary” worship service

l Beautifying the church out of vanity

l The finances as they will be discussed today

l Being self serving

l Having functions, fundraisers, etc that serve only BLC members

l Not rocking the boat

l No conflict

l Landscaping with an architect when we have talent in our own church

l Pay the mortgage

l Focusing just on church members

l Complaining—count your blessings

l Landscaping renovation things

l Greeting and talking to friends but not greeting visitors

l Worrying about money for things: yard, building

l Worrying about more people in church for money purposes and membership numbers

l Raising a lot of money

l Having more social events

l Church members and their needs

l Welcoming on a superficial level

l Being concerned just for our church or comfort zones

l Being self centered, self serving


Take Up


l Neighborhood welcome activities

l Compassionate care for people in need outsite of the congregation

l make church more open and inviting to encourage others to see what we are about and hear God's message

l Lutheran community

l Hunger

l Reach the neighborhood individuals and families

l Feed the hungry

l Build homes for the poor

l Work with other groups to do even more

l Outreach

l Evangelism

l Welcome others to this church

l Children education

l Youth

l More personal outreach

l Neighborhood dimension

l Ice cream social

l Evangelizing

l More friendliness to visitors and each other

l Sponsoring a Thrivent Food Bank here in our parking area

l Get out in the world of Spokane

l Spend finanical resources on ministry in Spokane

l Get out of pews and donate time to ministry in Spokane not just Bethlehem

l Having more volunteers for projects going on in the area

l Get to know the neighborhood better

l Have more activities for teens

l Sending a group of people to help in suffering parts of the world

l Use financial resources on parts of our city that need help

l Have congregational interaction across the city, looking for callings from God

l Service to our neighbors

l Let neighbors use our space

l Some sort of weekly feeding program

l Global mission

l Food bank and homeless shelter assistance

l To be a place that welcomes gay and lesbian people—open and affirming

l Help at community dinners

l Assist with shelter for the homeless

l Utilize church property for community needs (like AA, NA, etc)

l Reach out to neighborhood

l Change—new music and liturgies

l Open doors to community even if they might spill something on the carpet (risk)

l Evangeliszing

l Care of needy

l Mission Support

l Lighting of windows

l Upgrade sound system with “audio loop” for hearing impaired

l Spread what we have learned from service to give to friends and neighbors

l Service to worthy causes outside of church

l Evangelizing to the neighborhood and friends and family

l Service in this community

l Look in the neighborhood for service projects

l Help our neighbors

l Reaching out to the homeless

l Caring about the souls of neighbors

l Making God's house a place of welcome and safety and a place of learning about Jesus and God

l Reach out to more people geographically

l Think more about doing things for others

l Evangelizing

l Providing refuge sanctuary

l Donating money to causes

l Witness to the gospel

l Serve the needy

l Artistic expression

l Be God's light to the neighborhood

l Reach out to our neighbors

l Do for others even if it costs us the “put behind” concerns

l Be examples that show this (doing for others)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pastor Erik--March 2009

Prayer and Purpose

In the next several months you will be hearing the words “prayer and purpose” quite a lot. In part, this will be because this is our theme for Lent this year. But also because during this season of Lent we are going to devote some time to prayer and trying to discern our purpose as a congregation—and drafting a purpose statement. Lent is the perfect time to do this, because the season of Lent is meant to be a time of reflection, taking stock of who we are and who we are called to be, repenting of where we have strayed from God's calling, and recommitting ourselves to be about what God would have us be about.

Dave Daubert, in the book “Living Lutheran” writes the following about our purpose as the Church of Jesus: “A primary point of being the church together is to refocus us when we gather so that we can be effective when we are apart. We don't gather to escape the world. We gather to be sure we are doing a good job of engaging it. God wants our help. If a church is doing effective ministry, people leave better prepared to be missionaries to the world and ambassadors for Jesus. Our participation in this work is called our 'purpose.'” The next phase in our Transformation process is to figure out what specific purpose God has in mind for Bethlehem—just which part of God's dream are we called to be a part of?

Daubert makes clear that there is a difference between “mission” and “purpose”: “Mission is what God is up to. It is the mission of God. Lutherans are very clear that the mission belongs to God. Everything that is of ultimate importance and eternal value starts and ends there. But that doesn't mean that God prefers to work alone. In fact, God has demonstrated time after time that God prefers to work with others—to include people in the creative work of bringing in the kingdom.” (Living Lutheran, pg 38)

We've already seen the power of purpose (and purpose statements) at work at Bethlehem. Last spring, our Property Mission Task Force met for prayer, Bible study, and conversation around how God was calling us to use our property. Out of that process, we developed a purpose statement for our property which reads: “The purpose of Bethlehem Lutheran Church's property is to make clear that everyone is welcome and to help everyone encounter God in this place.” And since then we have seen some pretty major changes take place to our property, starting with a rock wall on the corner of our property, a transformation of our lobby to be more welcoming to all who pass through our building, and the cutting down of the two large trees in front of our building and the opening up of our property for a whole host of projects. And all of this has come about because we started to ask ourselves “Is our property fulling living into the dream God has for it?” and as we looked at our purpose statement we realized there were ways to get closer to this dream.

God has done some amazing things with our property through this focus on its purpose. Just imagine what God will do with us as we form a purpose not just for our building and grounds, but for our congregation. And much like our guiding principles, this purpose statements will not just come out of the blue, but is meant to be deeply connected to the things God has been doing among us for our entire history. When we figure it out, it should “feel right” for us—though it may also stretch us, much as our guiding principles have done.

I hope that you will take the opportunity to get involved in this process, because the more voices involved, the better chance we have of really hearing the dream God has in mind for us as a community. We'll be engaging in prayer, Bible reading, and conversations. We'll think about purpose in sermons (yes, the sticky notes are coming back), through some cottage meetings, in Adult Ed, during coffee hour, and in all sorts of other ways. Join in the conversation as we figure out together the specific purpose we are meant to play in what God is up to in the world.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pastor Erik--Annual Report 2009

Note: this post is the text of my annual report to the congregation. It's all about Transformation so I figured I'd better post it here as well.

Pastor’s Report on ministry in 2008


This past year has been one of beginning to live into our Guiding Principles. It was one year ago that our congregation met as over a foot of snow fell outside around us (which seemed like a lot at the time) and committed to six Guiding Principles: Jesus is Lord and Savior, Everyone is welcome, Love changes people, We are called to work in God’s world, God uses ordinary people like us, and God shows the way.  We had spent many months previously in prayer and conversation about what the central principles were for the ministry God was calling Bethlehem Lutheran to be about.   These six statements emerged, newly articulated but core to what this community has held central from the beginning.  And for 12 months we have been living those principles out in many ways—figuring out what they mean for us and the purpose God has for us in the world.  And we have only just begun this adventure.


Some mission moments that have come from our living out our Guiding Principles:


The ministry of caring at Bethlehem has expanded exponentially this past year.  Thanks to some dedicated leaders, a growing team of people have felt called to participate in caring ministries, and are bringing care and connection (and transportation) to our shut ins, to the sick, and to those in need of God’s presence. And God has used these people to bring about amazing miracles of healing in mind, body, and spirit.  An example: After returning from a hospital visit last week, I got a call from one of our parish nurses informing me that she and another nurse had visited the wife of the person I had been to see to pray and to help her understand his medical condition. Based on that conversation, our nurses wanted to be sure that our whole congregation was aware of some key medical information that could help others in similar situations, and contacted the leader of caring ministries—who knew that another of our nurses was intending to write something similar for the newsletter.  This nurse happened to be out visiting a shut-in member and bringing her communion, and offered this person a ride to church the next Sunday.  What an incredible network of caring that has emerged because of an amazing team of people. These ministers have felt called to use their variety of gifts (organizing, nursing, driving, time, listening, prayer) to proclaim the Good News of Jesus into the lives of people at a time when they most need to not only hear, but experience the love of God.  Love changes people. We are called to work in God’s world. God uses ordinary people like us. 


Our connection to our synod and other Lutheran congregations in our area has grown a great deal in this past year.  Where once we were cut off from our neighbors in faith, we are now becoming ever more connected and interconnected.  The synod assembly this year included a whole host of mission workshops which were open to not only delegates, but all the people of our congregations—and many of you went and learned some amazing things about mission and how to be a part of what God is up to in the world (and have been putting that to use here at Bethlehem).  For one of these workshops, our congregation was asked to share the story of how God has been working through us in Transformational Ministry.  I heard just the other day that the story of our struggle and how God has been present through it (and transforming us) has inspired a small rural congregation in another part of our state to renewed hope for their congregation too.  Our connections with the other Lutheran Churches in our cluster over the past several years has this year shifted into a real sense of collaborative ministry—which has been named “Lutherans Together.”   Beginning with shared youth ministries, this relationship is evolving to include a network of small groups for young adults, and likely soon a network of Bible studies throughout our congregations.  And that’s just the beginning of where God is leading us together.  God uses ordinary people like us.  God shows the way. 


The work of the church council has been transformed in the past 12 months.  When I first got here nearly three years ago, church council meetings were exhausting 3-4 hour marathons in which the common complaint was “But we never actually DO anything!”  For the past year we have spent the first 45 minutes of our meetings—before any business or discussion—in prayer, scripture reading, and worship.  We pray for our congregation and for what God dreams for us, we pray for the world, we pray for those in need, and we pray for one another.  We share the Lord’s Supper, and invite God to be present in our meetings—to show us the way. And you know what?  The meetings rarely go over 2 hours—even with less time for “business.” We’ve remembered that our first business as the people of God, and as leaders of God’s church, is prayer.  And so much more is getting done.   The miracle this year which you will see today is that we actually have more people running for council than there are spots to fill.  Jesus is Lord and Savior.  God shows the way. 


Another mission moment has come through this transformation in the council. Rather than spending all our council time doing all the work of the church and making all the decisions, our council is shifting into a new mode. No longer to we see our task as “gatekeepers” limiting what goes on at Bethlehem, but instead we are vision shapers and permission givers—helping to shape the vision of where God is calling us, and to get people in our congregation to participate in making that a reality.  When conversations about changes to our church property came up, our council appointed a task force to listen to God’s calling for the use of our property, shape a purpose statement to reflect this, and empowered them to get to work making it a reality. This task force would be led by our property chairperson—who no longer needed to be a council member.  Through prayer, Bible study, and conversation the task force appointed by our council came up with this statement: The purpose of Bethlehem Lutheran Church’s property is to make clear that everyone is welcome and help everyone encounter God in this place.  The task force then set about thinking of ways to make our property more in line with this purpose—and began to dream some dreams for the Ray Street side of the church property.  This side of our property was picked because of the word “everyone” (remember our Guiding Principles?) and thinking about the thousands of “everyones” who drive by our church every day.  How will our property communicate to them that they are welcome? Even if they never even slow down, how will the people who pass near our property get some experience of the presence of God?  Some corner landscaping and a new sign are the first two phases of that transformation, and the next phases include plans for a memorial garden (including a place to inter cremated remains), walking paths to make us more neighborly, and new trees and plants that will show forth the beauty of God’s creation. Out of this work, other’s have felt called to bring the inside of our building closer to God’s purpose as well and have begun to find ways to make our inside space more welcoming, hospitable, and useful to the people whom God sends our way.  Jesus is Lord and Savior.  Everyone is Welcome. Love changes people. We are called to work in God’s world. God uses ordinary people like us. God shows the way. 


These stories, and the many others like them, give me great hope about the future of our congregation and its place in God’s mission in and for the world.  But there are a few areas which we have not engaged as fully as I have hoped, and that will be some of the primary work ahead of us in the year to come.  One is developing and stating a purpose statement not just for our church property, but for our church community as a whole. The question before us is: What specific role is God calling us to play in what God is up to in the world?  The second area is renewing our connection to our neighborhood and to our neighbors. The second set of questions we need to ask ourselves (which are harder to ask, let alone answer) are: If Bethlehem Lutheran blipped out of existence tomorrow, would our neighbors care?  Would they even notice?  How are we making the Good News of Jesus real and present in the lives of our neighbors?  


Answers to these questions are already beginning to bubble up among us, and God is already at work making these dreams a reality.  Our call is to respond to this task and through prayer, Bible study, and conversation to engage in the tasks before us.  What an exciting time and place to be the church! Isn’t Transformation fun? 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pastor Erik--Jan 2009

As you may or may not know, I've been participating in a leadership program since September called “Leadership Spokane.” This organization describes their program as “an intensive, 10-month long training for 50 emerging and established leaders from business, government and community organizations.” Each month I gather with the rest of my “class” (which consists of leaders from throughout Spokane) for a day long session about a particular topic such as governance, media, community health, the arts, etc. Additional opportunities happen between sessions as well. I've taken tours of manufacturing plants in Spokane and learned about their operations from their CEO's, toured a new affordable housing complex downtown, and participated in a ride along with a police office. One person described the experience to me as a crash-course in the Spokane community—the sort of thing it would take 10 or more years of active involvement to gain experience in. The purpose of this program is to develop a network of what they call “trustee leaders,” people connected to the various business, non-profit, and volunteer organizations in our community who can participate in building better and stronger community—developing citizen-leaders to make our community a better place together. I thought I'd write a bit this month about why I'm excited to participate in this experience, and also share some of what I've learned in the first few months.

Part of our commitment to the Transformation process is to seek ways to re-connect and to more deeply connect our congregation to the neighborhood and community in which God has planted us. This has been a bit of a challenge for us because, although we once we a largely neighborhood church, our folks are now from all over the Spokane area. On any given Sunday at Bethlehem, people have come from Cheney and Otis Orchards, from the south side of Spokane Valley and Newport, from Greenacres and just north of the Y on Division—and everywhere in between. And yet, God has drawn all of us to gather week after week in a little church building on Ray St in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. For two years I (along with the Transformation team) have pondered how to wrap our minds around which community God is calling us to engage—and how. While deep in prayerful discernment of this last spring, I received an invitation to apply for “Leadership Spokane,” which I had never heard of before. As I looked into this organization and what they were about, I realized that this could be an excellent opportunity to learn more about the Spokane community, its needs and gifts, and what sort of role Bethlehem might be called to play in God's dream for our area.

While I'm just getting my feet wet in this experience and just beginning to build the relationship with other participants—one common theme has jumped out at me that connects to our Transformation work. In the book “Living Lutheran” that we have used various times in the past few years (and that helped us in forming our guiding principles) the author, Dave Daubert, describes how the church finds itself faced with “discontinuous change.” It used to be that we could get our minds around how the world around us was going to change—it happened slowly and predictably and we could guess that in the future things would look pretty much like they do now, only better. But now, the world changes so often and so rapidly that it seems nearly chaotic—and we no longer can predict what will happen next and so the change is dis-continuous. The Christian church has realized that we have pretty much stayed put, resisting most change—but that the world has changed around us. Where the church once was the center of culture, family, and neighborhood life, we now (quite surprisingly) find ourselves on the edges of society—not quite sure how we got here or how to get back to where we were. How do we engage with a world that changes so quickly and so unpredictably? That is what our Transformation process is meant to help us figure out.

What I have realized in my experiences with Leadership Spokane, is that the church is not alone in this strange and precarious position in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Manufacturers in Spokane (and around the world) are seeking ways to make their production processes “lean” so that they can respond to constantly changing markets and conditions in the volatile marketplace. Media outlets are questioning how to reinvent themselves in the face of 24-7 news coverage on cable and the abundance of (free) news on the Internet. Non-profits are struggling with sagging donations and a dwindling volunteer force. “The way we've always done things” just isn't working anymore in any sector of our society—and everyone is struggling to figure out what is coming next—and how to make our community and our world a better place in the midst of all this chaos.

While its comforting to know that we aren't the only ones experiencing this, I'm starting to wonder if the Christian church might really be a resourse for the rest of society in navigating these difficult times. The Bible is full of stories of God's people struggling, wandering, feeling abandoned and confused—and of God's continued presence and guidance in the midst of all this chaos. The foundational story is the wandering of the people of Israel in the desert. Through no fault of their own, God's people were ejected from a bad but at least predictable situation in Egypt to wander for 40 years in search of the promised land. It got so bad that the people longed to be re-enslaved in Egypt—at least they knew what was coming next! But God was with them through their difficult wandering—through the trials, dangers, and chaos of the wilderness—and kept his promise to deliver them and fulfill his promises to them. And again and again this theme reoccurs in the Bible: with the people of Israel, with individuals, families, and communities, with the followers of Jesus, and with the church. God remains with us through our wilderness experiences and keeps his promises to us—even when all signs point to doom and disaster. The trick is to listen and respond to God's call for us—and to be ready for God to do something new with us and through us.

I would venture to guess that nearly every one of us lives within walking distance of a Christian church—and that this would be true in nearly every community in the United States. And I would also venture to guess that a majority of these Christian churches are struggling to make their way in a world that is very different from the one in which they were founded. And I think in our success oriented society we've come to take that struggle as a sign of divine judgment—that we must have done something wrong to fail to attract people to church like we once did. If only we'd get better at what we used to do so well, everything would be back to normal. But what if our struggle isn't a judgment, but an opportunity that God is giving us to make a difference in the lives of people and in our community? Because unlike the businesses, media, and secular non-profits—the Christian church has the resources, the strength, and the faith to weather the sort of chaos that we are in.

In the wilderness God's people learned that they could trust in God when everything else had failed them. They learned that they needed one another and the importance of community. They learned that though they may struggle, God will provide what they truly need. And they learned that even when it seems like God has abandoned them, that God is with them and that God keeps his promises. So valuable were these lessons that we've told them again and again, teaching them to our children and grandchildren, for thousands of years. What if our struggles as a church were to remind us of these important truths, and what if God intends for us to remind the world of these things as well? What a gift is our struggle! What a gift is our time in the wilderness! What a gift it is that God is giving us to share! What if the little struggling churches God has planted in every neighborhood are meant to witness to God's continuing presence in the midst of the wilderness? Our task then is figuring out how to take this gift (and all the others God has given us) and make this message of hope and faith ever more present in our families, neighborhood, and community. How will you do it? How will we do it together? Isn't Transformation fun?