Called Forward Together in Christ for the sake of the world

The logo of the ELCA has a cross, and a globe, which for me, makes the statement, of "we are church, for the sake of the world."
The logo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Earlier this week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) released a 19-page “consultation paper on future directions of the ELCA,” entitled, “Called Forward Together in Christ for the sake of the world.”

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

The first of my "every member" visits, a goal of mine as mission developer to hear each person's dreams and stories.
In thinking about being a relational church, for example, in this past year as mission developer, I made a number of “every member visits.” This is a picture of the first of my first such visit, where I invited and hoped to hear a bit of each person’s dreams and stories.

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 Connective Leadership Model
In this paper, I also can’t help but think of “The Connective Leadership Model” proposed by my Claremont professor and mentor, Dr. Jean Lipman-Blumen. This is the kind of leadership I believe is needed “in an increasingly complex world.”

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?

The “Yes, And” Church

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the past couple of years online, in teaching, leading, and writing, about the the distinction between a “Yes, and” and a “Yes, but,” culture and approach. This morning it hit me, that I feel called to serve a “Yes, and” Church, and not a “Yes, but” Church.

yes and

I believe I am part of a “Yes, and” church as a whole. However, I also believe that the “Yes, but” is a more common tendency and reaction within the system that is the church and congregations within it. I have heard a lot of “Yes, but” lately, for example in the congregation I serve. I don’t blame anyone for this, but at the same time, it tells me how far we have to go to really get to a day when the church gets out of it’s own way to do and proclaim the promises and work of God.

The church I know and love is a “Yes, and” church. It is a church where the Good News of the Gospel is proclaimed, but that Good News is not left there for each individual to solely make meaning of it alone. It is then connected and responded to in the world and larger community. The gospel is not something static, but living. It is a challenging Good News, full of promise but also challenging and prophetic calls. Too often I fear, Lutheran congregations end up on this spectrum on one side or another, when in reality, I would hope it is a “both, and.”

The gospel as I understand it, is highly political. By this I mean, Jesus Christ was proclaiming promises, but also challenging the systems and statuses that got in the way of abundant life. Where there was division or barriers, Jesus always seemingly appeared on the “other” side, or perhaps more accurately on the side of the “other.” Because of this, when I hear congregations and leaders say, “we aren’t an issues church,” I really hear that “we are a church that isn’t actively engaged in the world.”

On the other hand, when a congregation is seemingly always engaged with every single issue, it more than likely could miss the deeper meaning of its existence, and why it feels uniquely called to be engaged in the world, responding to the perceived issues and challenges. If the church is so focused on the doing, it might miss the chance to make the connection to the deeper Gospel call which leads to the response of doing.

The logo of the ELCA has a cross, and a globe, which for me, makes the statement, of "we are church, for the sake of the world."
The logo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a cross, and a globe, which for me, makes the statement, of “we are church, for the sake of the world.”

Within the context of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the denomination that I am a part of), I believe this is why the Social Statements that are compiled by the church are so important. They reflect deep thinking and discernment, and are meant to ponder the meaning of the Gospel in light of today’s contexts and challenges. They are hardly perfect. I think everyone would agree that they take too long to write and approve, but they are also an honest effort for the church to spur thinking, and to proclaim the Good News in response to the brokenness of systems, the prevalence of barriers, and all those who might say, “but.”

I want to be a part of a church that can talk like it did last week about “The Good Samaritan,” and how Jesus comes near in the unexpected, and between the unexpected.

I want to be a church that this weekend can talk about Martha and Mary, and how perhaps it’s not so much of a dichotomy that Jesus is explaining between their different approaches, and perhaps, more of a spectrum.

And I want to be a part of church that after talking and proclaiming, actively acts on those messages in the local and larger community.

This might mean a number of things- walking in solidarity in a pride march, joining a peaceful but powerful Black Lives Matter march or protest, sharing cookies and appreciative notes with the local police office, collecting and then distributing food to the hungry…

All of this is important. None of it is possible though when a church says that it is “not an issues” church. When that claim is made, I deeply believe that the congregation sacrifices its ability to be a prophetic voice and presence. It sacrifices its ability to be a “church in the public square.”

I want to be a “Yes, and” church. I want to be a part of that in my Word & Service capacities, and feel called to that. My wife wants to be a part of that in the Word & Sacraments capacity, and feels called to that.

Perhaps it sounds as if I am offering another “yes, but” perspective. So let me try to put this another way.

I want to be a part of a church that says, “You are a beloved Child of God. You are enough. And though grace you have been saved through Christ.” That’s Good News. It’s a pure gift, not dependent upon us at all.

I want to also be a part of a church that then asks (like Mary Oliver), “In response to this Good News, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? What stories and experiences will you have? And where will God show up? Where might God be leading you and calling you?” And then, after thinking about that individually (like Frederick Buechner) ask, “In response to this Good News of Abundant Life, how are we called and sent together out into the world, meeting its great needs?”

What "Yes, and" makes possible from a "design thinking" approach.
What “Yes, and” makes possible from a “design thinking” approach sketched on a napkin.

I want to be a part of a church where vocation is something embraced. Where identity grounded in the promises, creativity, and flowing waters of baptism is proclaimed weekly. Where identity across time and space, is connected to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through communion, and the promise that “Christ is for you.” Where the people within the congregation understand themselves to be: a Child of God, a Steward of God’s Love, a Disciple, a Christian, (in my case… a Lutheran), and someone who is uniquely created and loved just for who they are, and also someone who is entrusted with unique questions, ideas, stories, and gifts. And these are holy things not to be shunned, but embraced.

I want to be a “yes, and” church, where someone of faith who feels a deep passion to respond to it in some way in the world, is affirmed and supported, not questioned and doubted.

Will there be times where people will come up short, of course. We are people. We are sinners. We inevitability will sin and come up short. But I suspect, more times than not, if we really create a church where dreaming and passion are central, that the work of the Holy Spirit will really be set loose in ways we cannot yet even imagine.

What might a “Yes, and” Church look like to you?

Image Credits:”Yes, and” and  Yes, and” what design thinking makes possible.

Reconciliation and Repentance

I went to bed last night with the terrible news of yet another young black man being shot and killed by police. What made this worse was that this was basically from the neighborhood I called home for five years in Minnesota. In the following, I am sharing a post from Bishop Patricia Lull, Bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Following her post originally shared on Facebook, I offer my own thoughts this morning. I know I feel called to write more, but at this moment, this is what is on my heart and mind.
Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA's photo.

Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA

A young black man, Philando Castile, has died in our community after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. His family grieves, friends are outraged, co-workers are stunned and news of the deaths of black men that we too often hear about in other communities has become our local news. Whether you are joining the Black Lives Matter movement in a public vigil, explaining this news to your children, or coming to terms with the fact that such violent deaths happen in our cities, we all have work to do to build a community of justice and safety for all, especially persons of color. I invite prayers in our congregations this Sunday – prayers for Philando Castile, for his family and friends, for the officers involved, and for the work of repentance and reconciliation that is needed in our country. ~ Bishop Patricia Lull

All morning I have wanted to write. This was basically my neighborhood for five years. I have written blog posts and sermons explaining why we must proclaim that Black Lives Matter. There is much work to be done for reconciliation and repentance. I grieve for Philando Castile’s family and friends.

I am also mad and sick to my stomach this morning, because I know that if I was pulled over, and I reached for my driver’s license and registration I would not have had a gun pointed at me (let alone fired).

We are called in our baptisms to name and respond to injustice, working for justice and peace in all the world. We are called as congregations to be a place of truth telling, of sharing the Good News with a hurting world, but also actively engaging the news and challenges of the world and not ignoring them in preaching, teaching, prayer, service, and presence.

For those congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary, this week’s gospel lesson is that of the Good Samaritan. What might Jesus say through this parable about the need and importance of reconciliation, repentance, and community?