My colleague and I had the opportunity to attend the Bishop's Theological Conference in Trego, Wisconsin earlier this past week. I left with a distinct sense of newness in the air and of some very positive conversations and many, many opportunities that are presenting themselves to us as a Church, synod and local congregation.
First, our new Bishop, Ann Svennungson, has assembled a very solid team of leaders around her who have already been in contact with our congregation or me personally 6 times in the past 4 months. They have indicated that this is an era of speaking the truth to each other both in the hard and joyful things. This spirit was quite present over our time together on retreat. It is exciting and welcome.
Second, our presenters were top notch. Our topic was "Practice Discipleship" and surrounded the idea of being a "public" church. We had four of the seven national presenters for this program with us and they were all dynamite. (Can you tell I'm excited yet?)
Third, one presentation in particular is still percolating in my mind and heart and that was the word from Dr. Jeremy Myers from Augsburg College. He leads the Youth & Public Church Initiative and his presentation was entitled: "Going Public".
In this model are four areas of work for congregations and ministry leaders: Accompaniment, Interpretation, Discernment and Proclamation.
Accompaniment: walking *with* a community and its members rather than being at a remove. When a church goes out of its walls INTO relationship with the place where it has been planted interesting things begin to happen and new stories begin to emerge.
Interpretation: how do we make sense of what we've heard? Where is God at work in our community?
Discernment: What do we believe we are being called to do?
Proclamation: What is the Good News we wish to bring to our community? Who do we need as partners? How will we do this?
I'm thrilled that Elim has already made the decision to walk down this road with me as their pastor for the past three years. We have already initiated several new community partnerships while opening our building to four other worshipping communities.
We are also thrilled to welcome Church Innovations into our building and our community. Their 20+ years of experience walking with congregations through change will be a huge asset to us and our neighboring congregations.
All in all it is a good time to be the church at work in the world.
Elim has its own challenges, of course, but they aren't really that new to anyone who has been around in the first ring suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul for the past 30 years:
1. Aging infrastructure. Our buildings are 60 years old and need major (expensive) upgrades.
2. Aging membership: We have what is known as a "donut" in that we have a large population of elderly who aren't able to perform the tasks needed to run committees and boards, an emerging population of young single, married and married with children folks who are showing up but not, necessarily, to be immediately put to work on those boards and committees, and a largely absent 50-75 year old population who decamped to other congregations or who have gone inactive.
3. Decreasing budgets. As our elders pass on so to does the generosity of the builder generation. For every elder that we bury at Elim we would need to have 8 young families join just to maintain our current budget. Younger people generally don't have the means to be as large a giver as their parents and grandparents, or they have the huge debt that so many college graduates are coming out of school with, etc. etc.
4. Changing demographics. Our neighborhoods are increasingly changing and don't look like the white, Northern Europeans members that make up our congregation. How can we welcome into our life together those who may not share our common heritage and history? This takes hard work and an openness to change. Which brings me to:
5. Allergy to change. Most congregations know cerebrally that they must change and adapt or die however when leaders emerge to take them through that process they are often chewed up by dissension, complaint and transfers of membership. This can deflate the sail of even the hardiest souls. Elim has embraced some minor changes to date but the hard work is ahead of us and it's all hands on deck to get us there.
6. Biblical illiteracy. Many of our members have never read their Bibles for themselves or else have put it up on the shelf after their confirmation. We are finding ourselves having to begin at the beginning with our people in order to enable them to be familiar enough with The Story that they might even take it with them out the door into their daily lives.
But alas, this is really God's Church, and yet He has given it over into our hands. Thankfully He has also given us the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our discernement and then our work. Stay tuned for more thoughts and I'd love to hear yours if you'd take a moment to comment.
May God bless your day.
Pastor Chris Enstad