Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 Annual Pastors report

2009 has been a momentous year for the Community of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We are in the third year of a process of Transformation supported by our Synod and the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission branch of the ELCA. Our year began with some dramatic property changes: the removing of the two large trees that stood in front of our building, which we both mourned and celebrated. This was part of living into the purpose statement we developed for our property: “To make clear that everyone is welcome and help everyone encounter God in this place.” With renewed openness and vision, we saw our property continue to transform over the year: a new sign, plans for landscaping redesign, our beautiful statue of Jesus teaching children done by Spokane Artist Ken Spiering, and a whole host of changes to the inside of our building. Whatever our neighbors may know or not know about us, it’s clear that things are changing at Bethlehem Lutheran.

In the spring we started to face the reality of our budget challenges. Though in the previous two years we’d received 49 new members and with it a ton of new energy for mission and ministry, our financial situation had not been keeping pace with that growth. Our leadership realized that our path was not sustainable, and that something major needed to change by Christmas of this year if we were going to “keep on keeping on” with the way we have been doing ministry. What that might be, none of us were sure, but in our conversations as a congregation we claimed our guiding principle “God shows the Way” and said we were ready for whatever God had in store for us.

And God did show the way, that very same week, when we were approached by Bethany Presbyterian about the possibility of sharing space with them for two years while they figured out where God was calling them to re-root after having to leave their building which is in the path of the North South Freeway plan. And the “negotiations” over the summer seemed blessed by God as well—and it seemed like a partnership that was meant to be. This fall we began the adjustments to our new partnership, which came to include Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church as well, because as long time renters at Bethany, they too were homeless. We switched our worship time to 9am, gave over some space to be used for the offices of the other churches, and began to adjust to an increasingly active building (which we are also using to host many of the AA groups from Bethany as well.) We celebrated with a joint Reformation Day service, so large (over 275 people in attendance) that we held it in a tent on the lawn—something that wouldn’t have been possible before as the altar was placed right on the spot one of the trees had once been.

And yet, despite the newfound blessings and the energy of our partnerships and new ministries, our congregational life seems to be more and more difficult to maintain. The influx of money from our new partners is an amazing blessing, but still not what we need to pay for our ministry as we have come to structure it. We end this year with a budget forecast more in trouble than three years ago when we began this transformational journey. Our grant funding from our ministry partners is ending, and the economy has not helped us out at all. We’ve been trying to “do more with less” (at least since 1990, when our income was nearly identical to today) and haven’t found a way to be sustainable as we are. In addition to our financial concerns, volunteerism is down, hope seems to be fading, and our fear increasing. Many of us have begun to seriously wonder, will Bethlehem Lutheran still be around a year from now?

I have a renewed sense of hope and vision that God is up to something among us. And I believe that if we embrace it, it will be a blessing not just to us, but to so many--to other Lutherans, to other Christians, to people who are outside of churches, to God's world. The question before us is: Are we ready to boldly go where God is calling us? This is a question we each need to ask ourselves and that our community as a whole needs to be clear on. And its not a question that can be answered "Maybe" or "Let's see what happens"--we've tried that approach for three years as we've prepared for this journey, and the last few months have shown us what it looks like to say "yes" but mean "maybe". It's exhausting and counter productive--and leads us closer to having no choice but "no"--to not act is to act, to not choose is to choose. Now is the time to get going, to claim "Yes" or to claim "No" as individuals and as a community. And I truly believe that if we can claim "Yes" to embrace the difficult and uncertain future trusting only in God to bring us through, that God will bless our efforts beyond anything we can imagine.

I'm getting more and more glimpses of this every day as I see the people just outside waiting to see if we are serious before they jump in with both feet. It's like the question I heard somewhere about the way churches do "evangelism": "Why do we think people who aren't here yet will be more committed to this than we are?" The willingness to "go for it" and acting despite our fear will be contagious and I believe will release a well of creativity that has been kept just below the surface. Like the trees, the "way we've always done things" has become a sacred cow, an idol, and is are keeping us from having the freedom to do what we feel called to do. It’s time now to create some space for God to do a new thing among us.

Will people all of a sudden flock to our Sunday worship service because we rearranged the furniture (literally or figuratively)? Absolutely not. But are people interested in being a part of a faith community that is deeply rooted in the ancient faith that began with Jesus, but isn't so tied to old ways of doing things that it is afraid to act boldly and embody that faith today? Absolutely. I talk to people all the time in coffee shops and pubs that remember fondly the deep peace and the sense of God's presence they got from the liturgy in churches they used to be a part of, but have left faith communities who refused to actually embody the presence of God the liturgy is meant to bring into our experience. Communities that were more concerned with preserving and repeating what had been done before that it cost them the life of their community now and into the future. Instead of reinvigorating the "community" element, our congregations have invested an ever increasing amount of time and energy into keeping the "church" from crumbling around them. The "church" may live on, but without the vibrant "community" that is its soul. To use Bonhoeffer’s distinction, we’ve become Kirche (church structure/building) without its Gemeinde (church-community). And the call I hear over and over from people outside the church and from an increasing number of people inside the church (especially the under 35 crowd) is all about the Gemiende and we should build a Kirche that is able to create the space (physical and spiritual space) for that to happen.

I know that we are afraid to loose some of our dear members, especially those older ones who will experience "going for it" as pulling the rug out from under them. I am no longer afraid of this, I believe it will happen and it is part of the call of God for this community to change--and part of that change is saying goodbye to people we love who can't or aren't willing to join us on this journey. And that is a time for sadness, for mourning, and for caring for our brothers and sisters. But I want to encourage us to also remember that Bethlehem Lutheran is not "The Church". Let's remember the bigger picture, that God is blessing Spokane through over 15 ELCA churches--many of whom are struggling much as we are and would be blessed beyond measure to find Lutheran Christians committed to the liturgy as American Lutherans have done it for 75 years, who adore the stability of worship space and format that doesn't change, who are willing to give sacrificially to keep that way of being Lutheran Christians alive as long as possible. Perhaps that is the calling of other Lutheran communities--but I can't see that as our calling. And if you are feeling like Bethlehem is on a journey you don’t feel called to be a part of, let us mourn with you, and bless you on your journey to the places God is calling you.

God has blessed us with a moment where it is possible to embrace something totally new, to see if we can't be a part of figuring out what the Lutheran church will look like 30 years from now, to try to figure out how to honor our heritage and traditions in a way that deeply connects to the generations that will be part of God's mission when we are dead and gone, to do as generations before us have done for nearly 2000 years: pass along the faith of our fathers as a blessing to our children and our children's children. Will God be upset if some of our members moved to an ELCA church across town? Or to another Christian denomination? Will God be upset if we close down operations here and disperse our members and financial resources to profoundly bless the other things God is up to in Spokane and in the world? I can't see why he would be. I do think God will be upset if we are too afraid to loose what we have (even as it slips away from us) to embrace the gift God has laid before us.

I almost want to say to us, (quoting our Synod's Guiding Principles) "No Fear, Transformation!" but I don't think that's quite right. Because I don't want us to deny that we are afraid. I think we need to name our fears, to bring them to the light of day, to talk about them and support one another through them--but finally to not give into them. Let's not let our fears overpower us (this is the power of evil) but to trust so deeply in God to be with us in the midst of our fears, and to lead us from darkness into light. I say we look at our fear in a very Lutheran way, as "Law" and "Gospel". Let us allow our fear be the "law" that shows us finally that we can't rely on our own strength, but instead let the law (our fear) turn us to trust even more deeply in Christ--and the "Gospel" is again (and again, and again) that powerful reminder that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has already done for us what we can never do for ourselves. We have spent the last three years re-rooting ourselves in scripture, in prayer, in community, in seeing what God is up to in the world, and in preparing to go into that future that God has in mind for this community. And God has given us everything we need to step boldly into that future--to not be afraid but trust that where he is calling us is where we are meant to be. And more and more that call for Bethlehem seems to be "Loosing our lives for Christ's sake, and for the sake of the Gospel" so that we can find life abundant.

As I see it, the decision before us is: Do we loose our life by spending the next year closing down and celebrating God's ministry through Bethlehem for 55 years? Or do we loose our life by being willing to risk the response to the call of God we have been hearing? I hope we are willing to embrace that loosing of our life by laying it all on the line for the possibility God is giving us glimpses of. But if we aren't, let's be clear on that too so that we can honor the gifts and ministries and history of this community, and can release the resources we have so that this bold transformation can happen somewhere else.

2010 will be a year of great Transformation for us, whichever path we choose. I believe God has called us to be the people to make this journey, and that now is the time he has given us to make it. It’s an adventure into the great unknown, but a leap of faith we can make confidently, knowing that God has been with his people through bigger challenges than this, and will be with us now. God shows the way, and calls us to follow. Ready?

+Pastor Erik

Pastor Erik--January 2010

Our stewardship season has drawn to a close. For the past several months, our church community has spent time in prayer, considered what God is calling us to do together, and each of us has made commitments of time, talent, and treasure based upon how we feel called to be a part of what God doing in and through Bethlehem Lutheran Church. As we tally the numbers on the financial side of things, its clear that there are some major changes in store for us in 2010—that God has in mind something very different than the way we have been operating. During the month of January we will be preparing together a budget and plan for mission in 2010 and will be making decisions on this at our annual meeting on January 31st. We will need as many people as possible participating in this process, so we can get a clearer vision of where God is calling us go and what God is calling us to do with the abundant resources he has given us to use in his mission in the world.

Here are the facts (in round numbers): As of December 13th (at the end of our stewardship campaign), the giving estimates you all submitted for 2010 give us an operating budget of just over $70,000. (There are likely to be more gifts coming in, but its hard to tell just how much.). Sharing of our building costs with Bethany Presbyterian, Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church, Hearts and Rainbows Preschool, and the AA and other support groups, frees up an additional $20,000 (though only for the next two years for sure). That brings our total up to just over $90,000. This is an amazing abundance and comes from both small and large gifts: 7 commitments were for $300 or less for the year, 16 were for $300-$3000 and 7 were over $3000 (some significantly over $3000). Whether your resources are meager or plentiful, you have committed generously to God's mission through Bethlehem (and these figures don't include the gifts of time and talent which are no less valuable). Thank you for your prayerful and abundant gifts to God's mission. Through you, God has unleashed $90,000 for his purposes in Spokane (and that doesn't even include the other places we share our gifts). And in these uncertain financial times, that's nothing short of a miracle.

The question before us now is: “How is God calling us to best use these amazing gifts for his purposes in mission for the sake of the world?” Although our stewardship campaign may be over, the task of stewardship is not a once a year thing—its a way of life. How are we as a community going to be good stewards (caretakers, managers, trustees) of the gifts God has entrusted to us? Or, in other words, how can we use this $90,000, our building, and the gifts of time and talent of our community in the best possible way—in the way God is calling us to?

I recently discovered Bethlehem's financial information from 1989 and the budget for 1990. 20 years ago we had an income nearly identical to what we have today and we gave nearly $12,000 to the synod for the work of the wider church. As I've read the annual reports of the years since then the theme has been “Let's keep what we've got going for another year.” And with some creativity (and a bit of begging) we have. But as you know, 20 years ago a dollar was worth significantly more than it is today, and it seems like our costs for everything from electricity to health care keep going up—doing things the way we've always done them just costs more and more every year and so we've had to do less and less. Our draft budget for 2010, based on a trimmed down version of the way we've done mission and ministry at Bethlehem for our entire history, comes in at just over $130,000 and that's before we include the over $10,000 shortfall from our 2009 budget.

In the past we've kept things afloat by holding bake sales, working at baseball games, serving coffee at rest areas, by pressuring one another to just give more, and by failing to keep our commitments to the synod and the ELCA. For the past three years we've kept things going with the help of a Transformation Grant from the ELCA. But we're at the end of that help and need to figure out how it is God is calling us to use our resources in mission for the sake of the world. We've reached the point where “just trying harder” isn't going to come up with the additional $40,000 - $50,000 we need to keep doing things the way we have always done them. Perhaps our problem is that God is calling us NOT to do things as we always have, but to engage in mission and ministry in a whole new way. And while we're falling short on resources to do what we've always done, perhaps we have more than we need to do what God is actually calling us to do.

In the past year we've gotten clear on how God wants us to use our building—not keeping it for ourselves but sharing it widely. Today mission and ministry take place in and from our building pretty much every single day of the week. Prayers are prayed, quilts are sown, couples are counseled, the Bible is studied, God is worshiped in many ways, forgiveness of sins is given and received, alcoholics find community, drug addicts find ways to stay clean, and lonely people find others to share their lives with. And from all of these communities God multiples our efforts, sending us forth to visit the sick, help our neighbors, care for the poor, and make a difference in God's world. Sharing our building in fact hasn't diminished our resources, instead God has given us more: $20,000 more to use for mission rather than keeping up a building and new partners for living out God's mission together. In some ways it doesn't make sense, but God's economy is like that—the more we give, the more we receive.

The question before us in the next month is this: How can we do with our finances the same purposeful reflection and transformation that we've done with our property? How can we reshape the ministry that we have to make the best use of the financial abundance God has provided for us? I truly believe that God gives us the resources that we need to do what God is calling us to do. $90,000 and a prominent building on a major road are amazing gifts—and its no wonder God is calling us to use them for the sake of others. Our task as a community is to figure out just what we think God is calling us to do with these gifts and then to set about doing it. It's not going to be easy, its going to take our entire community to figure out, and it will likely mean making some tough choices and perhaps even putting our survival on the line. But we can trust that God has something in mind for us—perhaps a new mission we haven't even dreamed of yet—and not only will God show us the way, but will give us what we need to do what he is calling us to do.