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?