The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America



August 14, 2015

Simple congregations: The no-program church (Repeat)

(This slightly longer entry is part of a continuing series of occasional blogs that apply simplicity ideals to congregational life. These entries can complement any program of congregational transformation)

Previously I wrote about "the simpler pastor," whose ministry could be manageable in part because his/her congregation no longer depends on programs. Let's explore that idea in a little more detail.

Programs have an honored place in congregational identity. They consist of regularized benefits that are offered to congregation and community members. The programs require funding and leadership that are provided by lay volunteers and professional staff. The planning and maintenance of programs comprises the majority of a congregation's meetings. When developed and administered well, the programs fill presumed needs and can become a standard for measuring the strength of a congregation. (So an outreach program can satisfy congregation members' desire to care for those in need and be known as a primary marker of that congregation's vitality.)

In many congregations, programs continue to multiply to fit a growing number of recognized needs. The sophistication of programs frequently requires increased expertise (staff), funding or volunteer time. When these resources aren't easily available, the programs can deteriorate in quality or dependability. Staff members may have to pick up the slack when fewer volunteers are willing to lead or participate; staff stress and burnout become more likely. Congregations that have few staff members or whose volunteer pool is shrinking may find it difficult to compete for the attention of program-seeking members. Except for very large congregations, many program-oriented churches have begun to diminish or eliminate programs.

What might a program-free congregation look like and how could it fulfill functions formerly assigned to programs? Let's look at some examples:

Asset-based planning
At least annually, congregations can map the assets of members. This establishes a basis for the useful gifts, talents, skills and connections that can be available for the congregation's ministries. These assets—not the needs that programs ostensibly fill—determine the work that members will undertake together. Where the assets of the staff and lay members do not warrant a ministry, it is not begun or continued.

Instead of offering regularly scheduled programs, congregational leaders can plan and offer periodic events. Here, planning focuses on one-time experiences that offer opportunities for fellowship, training, conversation, service, learning or mission-funding. This focused approach takes advantage of members' assets for only a specified period of time. This makes the events more likely to be manageable and successful.

Some examples: Parent training events (offering family devotions, Bible reading, spiritual conversations) could take the place of a formal Sunday school. Ongoing social ministry could be replaced by periodic expert-briefings about a pressing problem or opportunity for service that are offered to the entire community. Fellowship meals or retreats could spark informal caring ministries. Adult Bible study programs could become online courses from authoritative sources, with occasional gatherings for networking or testimonies.

Participation in community efforts
In some situations congregational programs duplicate already-existing efforts in the community. Here this is true: congregation members can offer their expertise or time to whole-community efforts. This can enrich members' experience of success and the community's appreciation of the congregation's involvement with its neighbors.

Orientation toward lay ministry
All significant program-like efforts of the congregation can be led by lay members. More importantly, the congregation can repurpose itself to be an equipping place for members' daily ministries in the world. Because it takes advantages of members' already-existing relationships and skills, this may be a more effective and efficient method for outreach, evangelism, creation stewardship or justice ministries.

These few thoughts don't cover this subject completely and may give rise to many questions. But I hope you can begin to see that it's possible to maintain a healthy, strong congregation without letting proliferating programs drag congregational leaders—lay and professional—into unsustainable roles or ministries. 

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August 22, 2009

Hanson: Talk to one another

An emotional Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson urged ELCA members unhappy with the Churchwide Assembly's decisions on sexuality to make thoughtful, careful decisions about their continued involvement in the church.

"Now perhaps more than ever, we need to stay engaged with one another," Hanson told the more than 1,000 voting members at the close of the assembly's business early Saturday evening in the Minneapolis Convention Center. The assembly will formally wrap up with worship on Sunday.

Earlier in the day, the leader of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod got right to his point: actions taken by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on sexuality and rostering of gays and lesbians could be a deal breaker.

Saying he spoke in "deep humility, with a heavy heart and no desire whatsoever to offend," Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the LCMS said, "The decisions by this assembly to grant non-celibate homosexual ministers the privilege of serving as rostered leaders in the ELCA and the affirmation of same gender unions as pleasing to God will undoubtedly cause additional stress and disharmony within the ELCA."

"It will also negatively affect the relationships between our two church bodies. The current division between our churches threatens to become a chasm," he said.

Kieschnick acknowledged that money woes and strife have hit his 2.4 million member church as well, but that what's happening in the 4.6 million member ELCA boils down to an understanding of Scripture.

 "Simply stated, this matter is fundamentally related to significant differences in how we understand the authority of Holy Scripture and the interpretation of God's revealed and infallible Word," Kieschnick said.

The ELCA's constitution describes the Bible "as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of [the denomination's] proclamation, faith and life."

Hanson responded by encouraging the LCMS to remain in close collaboration with the ELCA in existing projects such as hunger and disaster relief, as well as a looming joint effort to attack malaria in Africa.

In another greeting, Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, thanked the ELCA for its many contributions to Lutheran efforts around the globe, urging the denomination to look beyond its current controversy over homosexuality.

"God, those people [ELCA members] love their church, I know it," Noko said. "God, send the Holy Spirit to keep them together. You stay together."

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August 21, 2009

Day of decision

Whether the hours of quotations from Scripture or impassioned speeches of personal experiences changed any minds will never be known. But in the end Friday, the ELCA's highest governing authority opened the door to gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold pastoral and other ministerial leadership roles in the church.

Following a key 559-451 vote by the Churchwide Assembly, silence engulfed the Minneapolis Convention Center. Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson led the group in prayer. Later, he called for unity and peace in the church, saying "it would be tragic if we walked away from one another."

"We need all of you" to contribute to conversations of where the denomination goes following the historic vote, Hanson said. The assembly approved four resolutions on ministry policies that would eventually produce rules for gays and lesbians "in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relations" to serve as pastors, associates in ministry and the like.

Rebuke came swiftly from Lutheran CORE, a coalition that holds a traditional or conservative view of Scripture. Leaders renounced CORE's recognition by the ELCA of it as an independent Lutheran organization in relationship with the denomination.

It also plans to host a gathering next month for disgruntled members and congregations to see what happens next. While upbraiding the assembly for its action and calling for certain economic sanctions, "it is important that congregations and individuals not make hasty decisions about their future in the ELCA," said Pastor Paull Spring, chair of CORE.

Debate during the day remained civil but did have moments of emotional appeals for each side to see the errors of their ways. One resolution was amended so that the ELCA makes "provision in its policies to recognize the conviction of members who believe that this church should not call or roster" gays or lesbians. That would allow congregations opposed to such ordinations from being forced to accept a gay or lesbian pastor.

Hanson said "it's going to take time to sort out how we live together."  He said the ELCA has grappled with its unity and diversity throughout its 22-year history. "The maturity [of the denomination] will be tested but the Spirit will be faithful," he said.

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August 20, 2009

Something to sing about

Some of the enthusiasm clearly left the ELCA Churchwide Assembly Thursday, but the more than 1,000 voting members bounced back upon the approval of a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church.

The 958-51 vote at the Minneapolis Convention Center met with a thunderous applause and rousing rendition of the Wesleyan hymn favorite "Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

The accord brings to six the number of denominations with which the ELCA shares altar and pulpit fellowship. The others are the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church of America, the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church in North America.

The agreement was some 32 years in the making. The United Methodist Church's governing body approved the measure last year in an 869-19 vote.

One ELCA voting member opined that he knew what Lutherans would be bringing to joint potlucks and wanted to know what Methodists could contribute. Bishop Sally Dyck of Minnesota didn't skip a beat: "I think we have the same cookbooks."

The mood turned more somber when a video greeting from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cautioned the assembly of taking actions that deviate from historic biblical interpretations. While not specifically mentioning the assembly's vote on a social statement on human sexuality, the intent of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta was clear.

On Wednesday the highest governing body of the ELCA approved the social statement that, among many other things, addresses committed relationships by gays and lesbians. Another controversial measure, to open the roster of the ELCA to gays and lesbians, will likely be considered Friday.

Lutheran CORE, an umbrella organization of traditionalist and conservative Lutherans, announced Thursday it would host a "convocation" Sept. 25-26 in Indianapolis to discuss implications of decisions by the assembly and "what the future might hold for" those upset with the actions.

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August 19, 2009

Close as it gets, times two

Talk about close calls. First a tornado struck the far end of the building hosting the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA on Wednesday, followed by voting members approving a social statement on human sexuality by one vote.

Sirens and announcements marked the approach of the storm that raked Minneapolis. Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson told the more than 1,000 voting members to stay in the assembly hall. He later informed the crowd that a tornado nipped the building and damaged the steeple of nearby Central Lutheran Church. Minneapolis media reported no injuries.

The jolt was reinforced a short time later when the highest governing body of the ELCA voted 676-338, or 66.67 percent to 33.33 percent, to adopt the controversial sexuality statement. Social statements of the ELCA must be approved by a two-thirds vote. A change of one yes vote to a no would have rejected the statement.

The document acknowledges that members are of divided views on same-gender relationships. It calls for "profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor," including same-sex couples. It also addresses a wide range of issues, such as trust, marriage, family, sexual education for and the safety of youth, sexual exploitation, and adult cohabitation. It opposes "non-monogamous, promiscuous or casual sexual relationships."

Several attempts to change the wording of the document or delete portions of it to make it more traditional or conservative were defeated.

Still to be considered are proposed changes to rules governing those admitted to the roster of the church, such as pastors, associates in ministry and deaconesses. If adopted, it would allow the rostering of gays and lesbians in committed relationships. The proposal, which will likely be voted on Friday, needs only a majority vote to pass.


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August 18, 2009

Nearly unanimous: Malaria must go

Voting members to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly may not agree on sexuality issues and related rostering rules, but they do on malaria: they don't like it and want it stamped out.

On Tuesday they voted 989-11 to support the development of a Lutheran Malaria Initiative that calls for a possible $25 million appeal to help eradicate the disease in Africa. Plans for fundraising would have to be approved by the Churchwide Assembly, the ELCA's highest decision-making body, at its next gathering in 2011.

The malaria campaign would be a joint effort of the ELCA with Lutheran World Relief, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the United Nations Foundation.

The voting members, meeting in the Minneapolis Convention Center for the church's 11th assembly, also heard Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson deliver a challenging state of the church speech in which he addressed fears that actions taken at the gathering on controversial matters of sexuality would cause the ELCA to become another Protestant denomination to suffer loss of membership and influence. "We already are and have been for years," Hanson said. He urged members to make the ELCA "a Pentecost church," with "each and every one of you" serving as an evangelist. He also said the ELCA must become a more diverse church to reach out to the ethnic and racial groups that have changed the face of the U.S. in recent years.

Tuesday also saw the start of debate over a proposed social statement on human sexuality. Voting members lined up at microphones, some quoting Scripture in opposition to any acceptance of homosexual relations, others offering testimonials of their personal experiences as gays and lesbians of faith.

Later in the week, likely Friday, the assembly will vote on the proposed social statement and possible changes to ministerial rules that would accept gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be pastors, associates in ministry and deaconesses.

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August 17, 2009

And they're off

With 1,045 voting members signed in, the 11th Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA is off and running as of Monday evening at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Just hours after launching the gathering with a rousing worship that featured just about everything from Bach to African to modern music, the highly anticipated gathering got right to it with a spirited debate about rules to govern the seven-day event.

Presiding Bishop Hanson presides at opening worship
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson presides at communion during the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly's opening worship.
Earlier, Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson tried to keep the secular media focused on the variety of issues before the highest governing body of the church, matters that range from a full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church to HIV/AIDS and malaria initiatives. The hook for the press, however, is a proposed social statement on human sexuality and recommendations on ministry rule changes that would allow inclusion of gays and lesbians in committed relationships.

Standing in front of a shiny new backdrop featuring the ELCA's logo and new tagline, "God's work. Our hands.", Hanson highlighted the other items on the agenda for the media while acknowledging that the sexuality statement and rostering rules would likely take much of the center stage at the assembly.

The voting members proved him correct as they grappled with rules governing the debate before even getting into the specifics of the recommendations. Those will come in the next few days, with a vote on the statement and rostering rules possibly on Friday.

Voting members gather for th first plenary session at Churchwide Assembly.
Voting members gather for the first plenary session of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

For more than one and a half hours, the body debated a number of bids to require a two-thirds vote to change rules governing those allowed to be pastors, associates in ministry and deaconessses. Supporters of a two-thirds minimum vote asked the assembly to hold itself to a higher level of consensus before making a change, with those backing a majority vote repeating the theme that unity should not be confused with uniformity.

In the end, the main bid for a two-thirds vote to change the rules failed 436-584. On to Tuesday, and Hanson's report on the state of the church.

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August 13, 2009

On to Churchwide Assembly

The Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA meets in the Minneapolis Convention Center Aug. 17-23. There are a few related activities starting Aug. 16, and I'll be there for it all.

I'll blog from the Twin Cities every night, barring an emergency or unforeseen complication. All effort will be made to keep the postings light yet still informative.

Most ELCA members have never attended an assembly. This is only my second. There is still much to learn about the gathering. I'll do my best to take an "eyes wide open" look at the event, trying to paint of picture of the flow of action and the flavor of the gathering.

Say a prayer for all the voting members. They have much to ponder.

More to come, from Minnesota.

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August 7, 2009

Getting ready for assembly

The Lutheran
's office has been busy lately as we plan for the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.

The Lutheran's editor Daniel J. Lehmann will be blogging here during the assembly. He'll be sharing daily news tidbits and more personal reflections on the assembly events, deliberations and decisions.

If you'll be in Minneapolis for the assembly, be sure to look for these staffers from The Lutheran:

Daniel J. Lehmann
 Daniel J. Lehmann  Editor
 Sonia C. Solomonson Sonia C. Solomonson
 Managing Editor
 Kathleen Kastilahn Kathleen Kastilahn  Associate Editor
Elizabeth Hunter Elizabeth Hunter
 Associate Editor
 Julie B. Sevig
 Julie B. Sevig
 Associate Editor
 Curtis Peterson  Curtis Peterson
Circulation and Marketing Manager
 Joel Stombres  Joel Stombres
 Advertising Director

I won't be attending, but will be following the assembly from Chicago via Twitter hashtags marked #CWA09 .

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