The following is a portion of a blogpost that I wrote that appears on the COMPASS blog. Please enjoy this sample, and then read the whole post over at COMPASS.
Student loans? Broken down cars? How am I ever going to pay this off? Those are some pretty normal reactions to debt, and ones we have heard a little bit about this past month on the COMPASS blog.
What strikes me though as I think about these questions, is a reminder of the way God is present even in the face of our stress, uncertainty, doubt, and fear, all of which can surface when thinking about money and debt.
The Gospel of Luke is full of stories and parables from Jesus about money, wealth, poverty, and debt. For example, there is the confusing parable of the Dishonest Manager found in Luke 16:1-13.
In this story we hear of a manager who has been called to account for his business. In the face of what sounds like the manager’s certain firing, he goes about reducing the amount owed by different individuals in the community to the manager’s master. This is something that certainly could be praised, in that those oppressed and marginalized by debt were getting some of it forgiven. Of course, the story is much more complicated than that.
It’s not as likely in our daily life that someone will come along and just because they can, reduce the amount of debt we owe. If you are assuming that is going to happen for you, I wish you well, but I wouldn’t advise you to plan and budget that way.
Debt is a reality of life. It doesn’t need to be a crushing one, however. It only has power, like money, when we give it that power. We can certainly live in fear of it, if we are not careful. And unexpected and big expenses can help lead us to be in fear.
A couple of days ago, my wife and I faced one of the downsides of moving across country from Washington to Nebraska…
Being able to share this wonderful news fills my heart with joy! My wife Allison Siburg has been called to serve alongside the people of Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska as their pastor. It’s a wonderful congregation full of great people with beautiful stories that I am excited to hear and see.
Allison’s and my life together has been a beautiful journey from PLU and focuses on vocation; to congregational work; to marriage and moving across country for seminary in Minnesota; back to Washington for internship; and now to Nebraska. It has been and continues to be a wonderful ride in our life together as a ministry couple.
Allison’s ordination will be at 1pm on Saturday November 5th at St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Bellevue, Washington. Friend and professor from Luther Seminary, Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis will preach, and Bishop Brian Maas from the Nebraska Synod will preside.
My consecration as a Deacon will be on the same weekend, and be held at First Lutheran in Poulsbo, Washington the next day, Sunday November 6th at 11am. Friend and professor from Luther Seminary, Dr. Terri Elton will preach, and Bishop Brian Maas from the Nebraska Synod will preside and be assisted by Bishop Rick Jaech from the Southwestern Washington Synod.
Rostered leaders and ministers of the church are invited to vest, and please plan on a group photo after each of the worship services.
What does this mean?: Those who are pastors, deacons, associates in ministry, deaconesses, etc., are invited to robe and depending on call and office, invited to wear a stole with the color of the day. For Allison’s ordination, the color will be red. As my consecration will occur on All Saints, the liturgical color for the day will be white, but if you are traveling from out of town, wearing red so to celebrate and so you don’t have to haul two different stoles would be just fine.
If you aren’t a rostered leader, I highly encourage you to wear red to Allison’s ordination, and some kind of white or red for my consecration.
All are invited and welcome! So if you are free the first weekend in November, we would love to celebrate and worship with you. Thank you all for your blessings of friendship, mentorship, community, and for being a part of our lives!
Tuesday means that it is time to share some links to things that I have found thought provoking. To help navigate the different themes, I have grouped them by the following categories: Church and Ministry Thought & Practice; Cross-Sector Collaboration; Leadership Thought & Practice; Millennials; Neighbor Love; Stewardship; Vocation; and Miscellaneous. I hope you enjoy these links!
Friend Hannah Heinzekehr shared “Five Observations from Visiting Congregations.” Observations Hannah makes regarding those congregations that have welcomed guests well, include: information about worship is easily accessible; having helpful greeters/ushers; having optional introductions; providing activities for kids; and coffee and conversation are readily available. How might these observations connect with your experience and/or ministry context?
Friend and colleague Lisa Kramme shared an invitation to join an upcoming Practice Discipleship Webinar focused on “Wondering in Prayer.” It’s scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 13th from 1-2pm CDT. Sign up for the hour session, not just because it’s free, but because it would be a great resource for your ministry.
If you, like me, are in Nebraska, be sure and join me at the upcoming Discipleship Days in the Nebraska Synod. This week we’ll be gathering in Wakefield and Scribner. After a break for the Fall Theological Conference next week, then we’ll be out west in Scottsbluff and North Platte, and then in early November in Auburn and Omaha.
Steve Keating wrote and explained that, “Change is Not Optional.” I appreciate Steve’s points particularly that, “organizations can’t innovate, only people can.” And, “if you’re a leader and you’re not providing your people an environment where taking thoughtful risk is encouraged and occasional failure is risk free then your people will fight the change needed to succeed tomorrow.”
Friend, blogger, and artist Vonda Drees shared a number of beautiful posts over the past few weeks. These have included: “I Wonder…“; “creative per mission“; “wild grace“; and “loved into being.” Check out these beautiful posts and all the rest that appear daily on Vonda’s blog.
In light of recent events, particularly the release of a video of presidential candidate Donald Trump and his comments that detail sexual assault, pastor and blogger Meta Herrick Carlson shared some important reflections about rape culture in thinking about “bodies.”
Marcia also shared, “Finding Your Enough: Some Practical Suggestions.” The suggestions she highlights include: reduce your consumption by setting tangible goals; use something up before buying something new; plan low-cost entertainment that enriches; and more.
Friend, mentor, and professor Dr. Terri Elton pondered, “What does it take to bless future generations?” Good question. Check out her thoughts about vocation, life, leadership, and generations in, “Passing on Blessings.”
In exciting news, the PLU Christmas Concert from last year, “A Christmas Invitation,” is now available to be purchased on DVD. Check it out, and be sure and order your copy!
That concludes this edition of the links. I hope you have enjoyed them. As always, if you have particular questions or topics for me to think about on the blog, please share them. Also, if there are things you would like to see included in the links, please let me know that too. Thank you for reading and being a part of the conversation! Blessings on the rest of your week. -TS
The following is the manuscript of the sermon I shared Sunday October 2nd at Messiah Lutheran in Aurora, Nebraska. The sermon was grounded in the appointed gospel lesson from the revised common lectionary, Luke 17:5-10; and included some reflection on the congregation’s stewardship theme, “Live Simply” based on 1 Timothy 6:18-19; as well as words of welcome and introduction in my role as Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod.
“We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!” How’s that for an uplifting end to the gospel passage for today? We’ll come back to this in a minute, but maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds?
Well, grace and peace be with you all this day. It’s my privilege and great joy to be with you, and I bring greetings on behalf of the Nebraska Synod staff and the other 244 congregations of the Nebraska Synod. Thank you for the invitation to be with you today, and to join with you as part of your stewardship theme of “Live Simply.” By way of introduction, I’m Timothy Siburg, the new Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and this is actually my first official congregational visit as a member of the synod staff. So thank you for the warm invitation and welcome.
Turning to today’s gospel. There’s a lot packed into these few verses, as Jesus is talking to the disciples and sharing about the complexity and challenges of faith. The disciples have just spent a good deal of time listening to Jesus talk to them, and to the Pharisees about all of the complexities and amount of sheer work and expectations involved in being a disciple. It’s safe to say the disciples are feeling overwhelmed.
Together, as a group, the disciples tell Jesus, “Increase our faith!” It’s an honest and understandable request. This isn’t just you or me, in prayer trying to ask God for a little help. This is crying out as a community of believers saying, how on earth are we supposed to feed the hungry, forgive at all times, hold no offense, take up Christ’s cross, and go without bags or cars full of stuff out into the world, sent to serve?
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that the voices in the back of your head say, “you aren’t enough! You aren’t good enough! You can’t really do this…” Or, “what have you gotten yourself into? Are you crazy?” Or, “what is faith? What is our faith good for? Does our faith get us anywhere? Is our faith worth anything?” Why does this matter?
Let me let you in on a little secret. This isn’t just a question that the disciples have and are wrestling with.
This isn’t just a question of one or two of us in the pews today. This is one that pastors, teachers, and each and every one of us, if we are honest wrestles with and wonders about from time to time, if not daily.
Because of this, maybe we can understand why the disciples cry out to Jesus, in order to make this possible, “Increase our faith.” But when we get to that point, we really aren’t trusting the Lord like the Psalmist calls us to do. Besides, thinking like this makes faith into something we can count, a resource that is scarce that might run out, that it is something that can be measured.
When Jesus compares faith to a mustard seed, maybe it’s not so much about the size, which is so small, it’s just barely a speck? Maybe it has more to do with a faith grounded in a certainty or promise. A mustard seed, like most plants, has one goal, to grow and produce. Maybe Jesus, by drawing us to think about the small speck of a mustard seed, is admiring the fact that it will grow, trusting that it will do what it is supposed to do. Likewise, maybe we are called to trust in the final outcomes of discipleship, and the coming and in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, where the promises of God are revealed?
This certainly seems like a lot to ask. But maybe, maybe it’s not so much?
Live Simply Theme
The centering passage for your stewardship theme from 1 Timothy is helpful given today’s gospel lesson’s complexity. It reads, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Like the apostles, we are called to do good, to serve, share, and be generous. This isn’t so that we can have eternal life. That’s a gift from God we cannot earn. But doing these things I believe leads to living an abundant life, and that’s what is at the heart and hope of stewardship.
Stewardship has been described by some as “everything you do after saying or confessing, I believe.” I prefer more thinking like this- Stewardship is faith, hope, and grace in action.
Stewardship is faith, hope, and grace in action.
Stewardship is what we do in our joyful response to the pure gifts of God. How do we use and allocate our time? How do we steward our strengths, passions, talents, and gifts? How do we tell and share our stories- beautiful and unique stories which are woven into God’s on-going story? How do we steward, allocate, and share our finances?
Our answers to these questions describe who we are each as individual stewards. And when answered, they help point to what it might mean to live simply and abundantly.
The promises of God- the hope of the resurrection and abundant life are pure gifts. Faith is also a gift.
What we do in response to these gifts helps us discern if we are in fact living abundantly? Are we doing good, serving, sharing, and being generous? And if so, are we doing that because our lives have been changed and transformed by the pure gift of the Gospel? Is the way we live our life, as a baptized child of God showing faith in action? Or are we going through the motions of life? Do we live in hope? Do we live in the knowledge of grace by extending grace to others?
Any one of these questions could be the center of a sermon, book, or perhaps even career. But, these are the types of questions that I am wondering as the synod’s stewardship director. And I wonder if you are pondering them too?
Response- Grace, and Gifts
The gospel today is an odd one, part of a ten verse section where Jesus is talking to the disciples about faith. We are compared to slaves, painting the picture of faith and obedience, ending with the declaration, “We are worthless slaves, we have done only what we ought to have done!”
This is a humbling response. Perhaps it’s a humiliating one? It’s not much of a stretch from this image, to Martin Luther’s thoughts that we are all “stinking maggot fodder.” Where could there be good news in this?
The good news is in the reality that it’s not up to us. We live because we are supposed to live. We give and serve because we are called to care about those in need and our communities, as we are called into communities, and created to be in relationships with one another. Our faith is not up to us, much like growing is not up to the mustard seed.
Faith is a gift which we can’t really do anything about. Though it might be nice to seemingly have more of it, faith doesn’t work that way precisely because it is a gift from Jesus, and not anything we do ourselves.
When we recognize this, we are freed up. We are freed up from feelings of guilt and burden. We are freed from the fears of not being enough, or not having done enough, or purely having enough. We are freed up from thinking that it’s all up to us, and instead, we get to live and serve in joy of the good news that it’s all God’s, and we are called to be participants with God. To be co-creators and doers of God’s work and creation. To be stewards of all that we are and all that we have.
An Admission about the Challenges that come along with this
I have to admit that this isn’t as easy as it always seems. As you are the first congregation that I have visited and as I am in the early days of this new ministry as the synod’s director for stewardship, I have to admit something. There are days when I am afraid I am not enough. This synod is so great, and here I am, a new guy originally from the Pacific Northwest being called to be with all of you and serve alongside you. God has done and continues to do great things through you, and I am in awe of that.
My wife Allison, who is soon to be ordained, and I officially moved to Nebraska about 3 weeks ago, and have been more or less living out of a suitcase and what fits in our car. Our things and furniture are in the back of a moving trailer which we last saw when we packed it in early August. We’re hoping we’ll see it again sometime in the next month, but there are days too, when I wonder about that and worry. But those are the days when I most clearly need to remember, that we have what we need.
It’s an opportunity to live simply and abundantly now and to remember that with God, we are enough and we have enough. But I admit, as I preach this morning and mean these words, please know, I also know how hard it can be to do all of this.
Life with Questions, Abundant Life
To live simply means to live abundantly. To deeply believe that the life that really is life, Jesus Christ who was born, lived, died, resurrected, and ascended is life for you and for me. That this gift we know most clearly in and through the cross, is just that, a gift we can never earn. And you know what, thanks be to God for that.
The disciples were overwhelmed because they thought the work would be impossible. When we think it’s all up to us, it really is impossible. But thankfully, it’s not.
Faith is trusting that this is true. And stewardship then is a life of living an active faith- one where we live in joy, but also openly share our questions, wonderings, fears, joys, and stories. Where we can come together as a community in hope. And where we forgive each other without ceasing just as God in Christ has forgiven us and through grace continues to forgive.
Faith, hope, and grace in action. That’s stewardship. Living simply starts with a recognition that it’s not up to us. Freed from that, what will we do next?
How will we do what we are called to do? What we ought to do? And how are we being led into abundant life today through the flowing waters of baptism, and the promises we share in the meal around this table? What have you done? What are you doing? And what will you do?
These are beautiful questions, and the stories that come from them, are the type of stories that show Gods great and beautiful diverse work in action- a work only possible through all of the completely unique stewards that I see in front of me, and across this whole synod.
It doesn’t matter what size our faith is. It matters that we get out of our own way, let God be God, and to live faithfully, fully, abundantly, and joyfully in the knowledge of the risen Lord who calls us all to faith and life in him. Amen.
After a moving hiatus, it’s time for the triumphant return of the weekly dose of links. The new version of links will be a bit slimmer, with up to 5 links per section each week. To help navigate the different themes, I have grouped them by the following categories: Church and Ministry Thought & Practice; Cross-Sector Collaboration; Leadership Thought & Practice; Millennials; Neighbor Love; Social Media & Blogging; Stewardship; Vocation; and Miscellaneous. I hope you enjoy the return of the links!
Church and Ministry Thought & Practice
For those of you preparing to write a sermon or planning worship for this weekend, check out friend and professor Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis‘ reflection about “The Bosom of Abraham,” based on the revised common lectionary gospel passage of Luke 16:19-31, as well as Rev. Dr. David Lose’s reflection on the same text, “Eternal Life Now.” These two posts and the work of Justo Gonzalez inspired this homily on “Lazarus and the Rich Man,” which I shared earlier this week.
Back in seminary I had the great chance to get to know Pastor Jodi Houge and her fantastic mission start congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota called “Humble Walk.” I spent a semester as part of a group project researching, profiling, and discerning what ministry in that context looks like and might look like. When I saw that Jodi and Humble Walk were profiled in The Atlantic, I just knew that that would be a major piece for the next edition of the Links. So, without further adieu, Adrienne Green writes about, “Why Church Hymns are Better Sung in Bars.”
If you are looking for a great time of business, church, leadership, stewardship, and collaborative thinking, check out the “Hope Leadership Conference,” and definitely plan on attending. Thanks to friend and mentor Dr. Terri Elton for first sharing this with me.
This past week Julie Zauzmer reported about a recent report published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. The report found that “Religion contributes more to the U.S. economy than Facebook, Google, and Apple combined.” Interestingly, but not necessarily surprisingly, “Religious charities also contribute to the economy. By far the largest faith-based charity, according to the study, is Lutheran Services in America, with an annual operating revenue of about $21 billion.” Check out this report for interesting thoughts about ministry, stewardship, and the economy.
Jon also shared important observations about how “Business Leaders (are) Raising Political Voices.” This is not something new, but it is unique how many business leaders are speaking out this election cycle, and I think that says something about the importance of this election. Check out Jon’s thoughts.
Scott Savage reflected about “Receiving Leadership Lessons Via a New Antenna.” Some of the leadership lessons Scott reflects about include: what got you here won’t get you there; what worked there doesn’t work here; what you’ve been holding on to keeps you from receiving something new; and if you haven’t done it before, reach out to someone who has.
In a post both for leaders and Millennials, Jon Mertz shared an observation he is seeing about, “Minimalists: Essential Shift for Next Generation Leaders.” Jon cites three reasons why he believes next generation leaders will be minimalists: because purpose is at the heart of work; a digital world necessitates clarity of relationships; and “always on” is shifting to “smartly on.”
Following the conclusion of August’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly, Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas shared this piece from Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin, “In Search of Authenticity.”
Friend, professor, and mentor Dr. Samuel Torvend last year was filmed and interviewed on “The Forgotten Luther.” Check out this video made available over the summer, as it may be of particular interest and use in thinking about the Reformation and the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.
Friend and mentor Dr. Terri Elton shared this great look at a most entertaining video called “Mission Possible,” which is a fun way to invite participation in Luther Seminary’s big giving push on September 28th. Check out the post and the video, it’s quite enjoyable!
I am excited to share that the COMPASS blog has gone under a slight revamp, as friend Matthew DeBall has taken over in the role I previously served overseeing it.
For those in discernment, or perpetual discernment, check out this opportunity that my wife and pastor-in-waiting Allison Siburg shared from Wartburg Seminary about how “The Conversation Continues,” focused on the topics and questions related to “Lutheran Vocation: Discernment & Calling in the Real World.”
Friend and blogger Julia Nelson has continued her good work, despite my absence of links, sharing weekly vocational and life reflections with her Tuesday Tea Time. If you need some Tea Time today, check out this week’s edition.
In a story that is sure to make you smile, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of the Disney animated film, “Beauty and the Beast,” Angela Lansbury over the weekend sang again the film’s title song. Check this out, especially if you are like me and love the soundtrack, movie, and think nostalgically about your childhood from time to time.
That concludes this edition of the links. I hope you have enjoyed them. As always, if you have particular questions or topics for me to think about on the blog, please share them. Also, if there are things you would like to see included in the links, please let me know that too. Thank you for reading and being a part of the conversation! Blessings on the rest of your week. -TS
The following is a homily that I shared for first-call pastors and rostered ELCA leaders gathered for a retreat on Tuesday September 20th in Nebraska. The retreat centered especially around topics related to stewardship, faith, and finances. The focus passage was Luke 16:19-31 in preparation for the upcoming weekend’s appointed readings from the revised common lectionary.
This week’s parable is another doosie. It follows on the heels of the confusing parable of the Dishonest Manager, and put in context of Luke 16, appears to be a response to the Pharisees. We’re always so hard on the Pharisees, but today, they are the subjects of Jesus’ rebuke because of their love of money and ridicule of Jesus’ lessons and warnings. 
I love this parable. I love it, not just because it might challenge our Lutheran warning bells of works righteousness. I love it, because it’s deep, complex, and with multiple meanings. For those of you preaching on it this coming weekend- notice the altering perspectives and wonderful insights from Justo Gonzalez, Karoline Lewis, and David Lose. They all focus on different aspects of the same story this week, and offer plenty to chew on thinking about the many questions created and pondered in light of it.
I love this parable most though, because it’s this story which probably first lit a fire about stewardship for me. I was in undergrad at PLU (Pacific Lutheran University), in a class called “Wealth and Poverty in the Ancient Church.” I had recently decided to declare a double major in Economics and Religion, so the class sounded intriguing and about half way through the class I was reading St. John Chrysostom’s, “On Wealth and Poverty,” basically a small book with different sermons on this very passage. I would share it with you, but it’s currently in the back of a moving trailer somewhere in Omaha, I hope…
That book challenged me, as it was shaped by the Middle Ages’ perspective on this parable- where not only do we need to give alms, our salvation may depend upon it. I don’t prescribe to that latter view, I’m a Lutheran after all, but I do believe it matters how we steward all that we’ve been entrusted with, especially in response to the pure gift of the gospel- that of the knowledge that someone indeed has risen from the dead- conquering sin, death, darkness, and all that gets in the way of our relationships with God- including money and the power we give it.
If there ever were a clear anti-prosperity gospel passage, this is it. The unnamed rich man, goes from his daily feasts and fame, from his life set a part in his luxury gated community… to an end where he simply died and was buried. No mention of legacy. No story. No relationships. No tears shed perhaps?
To early hearers of this passage, there may have been no sympathy for this man- someone respected by the empire. A member of the 1%, a person of “the haves,” not the “have nots.” Yes, this is one of Luke’s many stories of a great reversal. But there’s more than this.
The rich man really isn’t even the center of the story. Perhaps more important, but also not the center of the story is Lazarus.
Lazarus lived a hard life. But is given a story of resurrection and comfort in the bosom of Abraham. It’s interesting that this story is the only parable where a character is actually given a name.  That’s one more layer of the reversal Luke illustrates about what the Kingdom of God is like, and another example of Mary’s Magnificat made manifest.
A rich man ends up in poverty, a poor man in abundance. But, I think at the center of this story, are not these characters. It’s not Abraham who comforts Lazarus and responds to the rich man, who he calls child, acknowledging a relationship as another one of God’s children. No, at the center of this, is an acknowledgment of the human condition, the complexity and challenges of faith, and the hope for abundant life.
In light of this story, Justo Gonzalez writes, “There is no miracle capable of leading to faith and obedience when one has vested interests and values that one places above obedience to God, such as ‘the love of money,’ of the Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing… The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof- its is an excess of other interests and investments- of time, money, dreams, and so on…”
This parable is perhaps a way Jesus is returning to the heart of the law and the prophets- such as Amos. At the heart of the rules and law, is the hope that life may go well for you. That you may live life abundantly. That the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized are seen and cared for- that community exists. When this all happens, the Kingdom of God breaks in.
This story is a challenge though. It’s in part a call to confession of the many times we know of the needs of others, but we refuse to see them. The rich man knows Lazarus by name, but refuses to see him, his plight, and as a person, and more than just as a means to serve him and his own interests and needs. Even in death, the rich man doesn’t get it.
“Before you can have compassion, you need to see” the person in need. You can’t build a wall or bigger gate and try and stay on one side. That doesn’t work in God’s kingdom. You can’t stay on one of the tracks or river. God calls and leads across barriers and chasms.
We know this. It’s engrained in each of our calls of ministry, and identities as baptized children of God. We can probably even repeat the words of the Gospel of Matthew that relatedly reminds of Jesus’ declaration, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
We were created to be in relationships. And it’s out of these relationships with each other, in community with one another, where abundant life comes.
We know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, for us. But, does it matter? Are our lives changed because of this? If so, what’s our joyful response?
The answers to these questions are what shape a life of discipleship, and a life of being a steward. The hard work of beating sin and death was done for us. But, how are we responding to this pure gift of Good News now? How do our lives tell this story?
Are we out seeing, listening, and being with our neighbors, or are we passing people by, who are clinging to the promise of the resurrection and the very hope of being seen?
Do we lock our gates and build bigger walls out of fear, or do we go out, shaped, changed, and sent by the gospel, in the co-creative work of building the Kingdom of God?
Do we store up food for a potential cold winter that may come, or do we feed the malnourished child needing food now?
These are stewardship questions. These are life questions.
These are questions best pondered in community, in faith together. But that takes intentionality and time. And it starts with a willingness to listen and make time. A willingness to stop, see, and be present. A willingness to admit that all that we have and all that we are, come from and are God’s, really.
So, in light of this, what have you been called and are being called to do about it?
Plenty of questions to wrestle with, in the comfort of the promises of the Gospel, and the challenges because of it. May we each have the time to be present, to wrestle, to be, and to do. Amen.
According to the title page, “This directions paper shares the key messages harvested through conversations across the ELCA. We invite you to comment on the directions and priorities that have emerged.” If you have not yet seen the paper, please read it here.
After reading the paper, and then going back through it a couple more times, I am very happy with this. I believe it is a great step in the process of conversation, discernment, and decision making as we are church together, continuing to discern and articulate who we are, who we are becoming and “why we do what we do.”
Instead of some just quick immediate reactions, I want to walk through the paper with what stands out to me.
Opening of the Paper- Purpose, Mission, and Perspective
In her opening letter to the paper, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton notes that, “There is broad consensus about the church we want to become, but in some of the areas that are highly important we do not have a clear or effective strategy.” I think this is an important recognition, which you can see if active in a congregational, synodical, or churchwide capacity. To help address this, there is an open invitation for feedback, shared discernment, and conversation within the paper.
The release of this paper signifies the end of the first of three stages in 2016 of “Conversations across the church about the future.” Now the church is entering the next stage of “Consultation on directions and priorities that emerged through these conversations,” which will then lead to the third stage of “Reaching decisions about where the ELCA is heading and to what it will give importance” (page 1).
I am particularity inspired and excited to see the repeated questions raised about the importance of connection, collaboration, and clarity. For example, “How can the ELCA maintain strong congregational participation and ownership and become more connected as one church?” (2) “How can we be clearer, better focused and more effective in the way we tell the good news and embody God’s love for the world?” (3)
There is a stated understanding that “While God’s mission is clear, as people of God, we must constantly discern how to express and carry out that mission in a faithful, relevant and compelling way in today’s world” (3). What that looks like will be dependent on context, skills, passions, needs, etc.
Growth, Membership, and Data
There was an interesting discussion about the commitment to growing membership, and I found myself writing in the margin in this section that these data points illustrate why it’s critical for rostered leaders to cultivate stories and be story tellers themselves. On a more personal level, for me this is yet another reason why I believe my wife Allison has been called to be a pastor in this church in this unique time and space, and why in part that I believe I have been called to ministry as well.
There was also important discussion about diversity, interdependence, generations, age, and mutuality.
Within the section sharing “Key Messages From Across the Church,” big points of identity and what it means to be a distinctively Lutheran church were articulated (8-9). I particularly appreciated the insight about collaboration and relationship I read in the statement, “As church together, through formal and informal relationships and networks, we can achieve things on a scale that would otherwise not be possible” (9).
“God’s Work. Our Hands” and the idea of a Relational Church
I found myself underlining much of the section explaining that “We are a relational church.” Perhaps that is a product of me serving as a mission developer this year? Whatever the reason I love the way that this section begins, “We are a faith community, some would say a movement…” (9) I also am glad that the importance of ecumenism was named and explained, as well as the importance of engaging in dialogue and collaboration across faiths and other parts of civil society, government, and business for “the sake of justice, reconciliation and peace in the world” (9).
It seems that from the conversations and listening process, the tagline, “God’s work. Our hands” was affirmed, and hoped to bed retained and broadened in use (10). I was also glad to read within the section, “A Christ-centered thriving church,” there has been a “call for the ELCA to be a more public church,” which is something I have written about much before on this blog over the past few years and months (11).
Theologically, I greatly appreciate the emphasis given to both sacraments (baptism and communion) and their relationship and connection to the Word (12), as well as the great importance for leaders and leadership development. I loved the majority of this section, especially the wide view of the importance of education and formation at all levels (13). I agree that continued leadership development, education, and life-long learning are imperative to being a leader in general, and especially in a world that is changing so rapidly.
Key lines that caught my eye included recognition that,
“This church needs leaders who are passionate about Christ, spiritually grounded, theologically fluent, ecumenically committed and growing in their capacities to lead in a complex world” (13).
“Leaders for tomorrow will need a more mixed education- with a strong theological and vocational orientation and knowledge and skills relevant to different contexts. The rapidly changing world requires church leaders who are compassionate, adaptable, courageous, committed evangelists with strong relationship and communication skills and cross-cultural competence. Future leaders must be able to explain theologically and practically who we are as a Lutheran church and why we do what we do” (13).
There it is again, one of my favorite phrases, “why we do what we do,” which is offered a few different times in these 19 pages.
Different Expressions of Ministry
There was a good acknowledgement of social ministry and the joyful response of service that are part of the church (13-14). However, I honestly would have expected more conversation here given the large umbrella of Lutheran social organizations that there are that most members and congregations are not even aware of.
There was also a helpful discussion about “Youth and young adults,” though I did sense a bit more fear here than in other sections, which I think reflects the average feeling within congregations who are dealing with big questions related to “life, death, resurrection,” and the present and future. I guess that tone shouldn’t be surprising to me, but it does leave me hoping for more intentional multi-generational and cross-generational work, because that will be critical for both being a “now and not yet” church (14).
The stewardship leader and organizational behavior management student in me was excited to read the “Church structures and relationships” and “Stewardship of resources” sections, but honestly I didn’t learn anything really new here. That probably has more to do with my current roles and reading interests than anything else. If this is an area of ministry or leadership that is new to you, then it probably would be a very helpful summary (15-16).
Tensions and Next Steps
The theological nerd in me appreciated the paradox and tension acknowledgment towards the end of the paper where it is written, “Lutherans are comfortable living with ambiguity and uncertainty. This is a strength when it comes to being church in an increasingly complex world” (16). I was equally appreciative to read at the end of this section that, “The Future Directions Table was keen to see that living with tension does not become an excuse for not making hard decisions,” thus, even though there is tension, that cannot prevent action and forward movement, or paralyze us to act (17).
Perhaps a central question to this whole paper is, “How do we get the right balance between the autonomy, interdependence and being church together?” (17)
Priorities are proposed (17) and thoughts about implementing them are shared (18).
If I had to pick one element that caught my eye towards the end was the desire and importance of having “more gatherings and networks that bring people together for spiritual discernment, future planning, problem solving, and learning exchange” (18). Of course, I did underline much of this section.
I am still digesting my thoughts on this document. But my first reaction is that I am encouraged. I am grateful and appreciative for the team and table members doing this work (19), and look forward to being part of the conversation and work of the church together in thinking and acting on this in the year(s) ahead.
In an upcoming blog post I will start offering some answers to the questions I highlighted above. For now, I invite you to also read and sit with this paper.
What do you hear? What do you wonder? How are we called forward together in Christ for the sake of the world?