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?