Sabbatical Findings

I just finished my monthly report to Saint Peter's Leadership Teams. This one actually covers three months (9/1-11/30). In it, I tried to share with our group what I've learned during my reading and reflecting this past Fall. Reviews of the books I read can be found below, on this blog. I've posted a portion of this report here, with some of the questions I've considered and conclusions I've drawn.

 

I continue to be very grateful for this year’s Sabbatical leave. I am especially grateful for those of you who filled in during my absence. We have a talented and committed group of leaders here at Saint Peter, and that is such a gift to all of us. Thank you for your service.

I had a number of hopes for my Sabbatical. I intended to read and reflect, do some fishing, play some bluegrass, exercise more regularly, and travel a bit with my family (did most of that: probably should have fished and picked a bit more…). In my time of study and reflection, I focused around the following interests:

  • The Q Movement, and its research and recommendations regarding the faith of young people
  • Administrative issues; particularly how to be most effective in working with both paid and volunteer leaders at Saint Peter
  • Assorted theological and pastoral writings.

Below you will find a summary of the reading I did. I encourage you to peruse it, and let me know if you have any questions or insights. I did come away from this time of study with some findings of my own. Included in them are:

Finding #1: Evangelism Is Who We Are; the Core of Our Mission

Evangelism is sharing good news from God with the world. We do this not by what we say, but by who we are. By being faithful in what we say and do, by treating one another with love and respect and compassion, by committing ourselves to forgiveness and reconciliation, by giving of ourselves in service to others, by working with God to make all things new (opposing and working to eradicate all that goes against God’s will for the world)… by doing these things we are doing Evangelism. This is what it means to be the church.

Every ministry, every activity and every belief communicates to insiders and to outsiders that God is transforming us – helping us to become people we could not otherwise be on our own. To come into contact with Saint Peter Lutheran Church should cause people to have an experience that is different than any other experience in their lives. It should cause them to be touched by the promise and presence of God.

Saint Peter’s current Mission Statement is inherently evangelical: we are welcomed into God’s love, and sent into God’s world. Both the welcoming and the sending are profound examples of God’s touch in our lives. Both can lead us to transforming experiences — leading us to completely new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. Every ministry of the church has evangelism as its focus, when it asks: how does the way we conduct this ministry cause people to experience the real presence of God in their lives?

Dr. Kenneth Haugk (Stephen Ministries) likes to ask, “What is distinctively Christian about the way we care for one another?” Similarly, Saint Peter Lutheran Church asks, “What is distinctively Christian about our life together?” The very essence of the church proclaims grace, forgiveness, compassion and renewal — in a way that is strikingly apparent. That is Evangelism.

  • Is it time for us to re-imagine how to be in involved with Evangelism at Saint Peter? We currently have an Evangelism Team, but does the existence of such a team take the rest of us off the hook? (They’re doing Evangelism, so we don’t have to…) Perhaps we would be wiser to (1) disband our Evangelism Team, (2) study Evangelism together (we could start with Guder’s book) and better understand what it really (3) is, invite all of our leaders to become committed to Evangelism in everything they do, and then (4) create a “Hospitality Team” and/or a “Publicity Team” to coordinate some of the specific Evangelism efforts we want in place.
  • Then, the responsibility of our leaders, and of every ministry team, would be to: (1) assist our members and supporters in living lives that have been transformed by their faith, (2) communicate that faith is not what we believe (or what we don’t believe), but it is who we are and how we live, and (3) see that every person understands himself or herself as a minister, called to be involved in day-to-day ministry (working with Christ share our faith with the world).
  • If this is going to work, we would need to seek a commitment from all church leaders (paid, elected, or otherwise…) to ensure that their ministries help people experience the Gospel, and have a concrete experience of Christ, who causes the church to be a completely different reality that what we experience everywhere else.

Finding #2: Times of Crisis and Conflict Are Opportunities to Witness to Christ

It’s no secret that Saint Peter has had its share of conflict, and it should be obvious by now that we won’t be immune to conflict in the future. In fact, conflict is inherent in organizations that are seeking to grow and improve year after year. Change brings anxiety, and anxiety causes conflict. But the old adage about marriage applies: a healthy marriage is not one in which there is no fighting; it is one in which the fighting is fair and respectful.

As an organization that wants to grow, we should expect that we will occasionally face conflict over what is taking place. As a Christian organization, we should be committed to resolve conflict in a way that honors every person involved, and that demonstrates our absolute commitment to forgiveness, renewal and new life. Conflict should never result in the group whose opinion didn’t hold the day feeling they need to leave and become part of some other congregation.

We live in a time when public figures don’t handle conflict well. Disagreements turn into battles, in which shameful tactics are used to discredit and undercut those of the opposing point of view. Conflict gives the church an opportunity to witness to an entirely different way to resolve differences – a way in which every participant is honored, affirmed, taken seriously, and welcomed to play a meaningful role in the process.

  • Do we, as leaders, need to study some conflict resolution strategies, and prepare ourselves to be as helpful as possible when conflict arises?
  • Do we need to evaluate our current (and widely unknown – have you read section 15 of our constitution lately?) constitutional process for member discipline, and replace it with something that is more Gospel-centered, and appropriate for a congregation that is being transformed by God’s grace?
  • How can we honor the notion of loyal dissent, and remain open to the understanding that when God speaks, it is often through an outsider, and contrary to the commonly held beliefs and practices of church insiders?

Finding #3: The Consistency of Our Lives Is Our Most Believable Testimony to Faith; Especially When It Comes to Sharing Faith with Young People

In my reading about young people and their faith, I have seen three broad, yet deeply troubling patterns:

  1. Many young people have had first-hand experience with the Christian faith, and with Christian community (often involving intense personal involvement), but have been deeply offended by the behavior of community members to the point that they have given up on the church altogether, and in some instances, given up on the faith altogether.
  2. Many young people see in Christ the invitation to be touched deeply by God, and to respond by caring deeply for the world, but are surrounded by adult Christians who show very little sign of that in their lives. Consequently, they have concluded that these Christians are hypocrites, and that the Christian faith is a fraud.
  3. Too many young people have been raised in families and congregations that demonstrate a significant lack of religious devotion – and they have learned well from their elders, having come to embrace, themselves, a faith that will neither last long nor serve them well.

Kenda Creasy Dean and others make the case that for many, a robust, Biblically-based transformative Christian faith has given way to what they describe as Moralistic (a law-based system to get us to do what is right) Therapeutic (my faith is primarily about me, and about making my life better) Deism (a bland affirmation of God’s existence that has more to do with “spiritual, but not religious” than biblical faith). This Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may fit well with a consumer society where we are all encouraged to “have it your way,” but it runs directly counter to the life of Christian discipleship, in which believers are transformed by God’s grace, and called by God to lives of sacrificial love.

If it is the case that most Christian communities in our day are theologically bland, and incapable of sharing a transforming faith with their younger members, then Lutherans (who come from a rich and powerful theological tradition) should be well positioned to make some inroads. But first, we need to be more firmly rooted in our own tradition, if we want to be capable of sharing that with others.

In Dean’s book “Almost Christian” she offers these suggestions as to how a faithful church might respond:

  • Adults and youth must work together to become more articulate about the faith – able to speak more clearly and confidently about God’s role in their lives.
  • Youth must be surrounded by a culture of adults who are committed to lives of services, and willing to make any sacrifices it takes to make a difference in God’s world.
  • Adults and youth must grow in their capacity to trust that our loving service is made possible by  God’s power – a belief that can give us great hope.

Finding #3: We Could Do a More Helpful Job of Supporting Leaders at StPLC

Leadership in a church is puzzle. People often volunteer, and then are unsure of what to do. Individuals who are accomplished in the business world are sometimes mystified as to why it seems harder to make things happen in the church. Volunteer organizations, including churches, can be chronically underfunded and understaffed.

At the same time, there is a wealth of wisdom and support and energy that often goes untapped in Christian churches. There are members who would step up to lead if the expectations were clearer and the support was more substantial. We believe in a God who has gifted us for ministry, and who promises to be our source of power and strength.

A thriving church (1) finds the leaders God is calling to serve, (2) is clear about what these leaders are being asked to accomplish, and (3) supports, encourages, trains and evaluates these leaders, helping them to become more focused and more effective.

  • What do we need to do to be wiser about how to find and support leaders? Do we need a staff member who can help people identify their gifts and interests? (We used to have one.) Do we need a group of volunteers to carry out a similar function? Are we clear with the congregation as to what we perceive the current needs are for leadership?
  • Should we return to a practice of gathering individually with each of our leaders on a regular basis? Should that group include paid staff, elected leaders and other volunteer leaders? Perhaps an ongoing conversation with them might help everybody in being better prepared and better focused for the work we believe God is calling us to carry out.
  • There are some questions related to leaders that we have not yet clearly answered. When it comes to helping paid staff members be more faithful and more effective, what role should the elected leaders play? Should there be a personnel team or a mutual ministry committee? What role should the head-of-staff (Pastor) play?
  • A comprehensive periodic conversation might ask questions like:
  1. What are you getting from me (and/or the system) that you like and find helpful? If relevant, comment on the bigger picture: how we are organized and how people and units interact.
  2. What are you getting from me (and/or the system) that impedes your effectiveness and would like to have stopped?
  3. What are you not getting from me (and/or the system) that you think would enhance your effectiveness, and tell me, specific to you, why do you need it at this time?
  4. What aspects of your ministry are thriving, and which ones need to be refined?