By Sarah Gioe
When Dr. Peter Steinke came to lead workshops in Western Suffolk last March, council member Barbara Gai signed up to attend with the pastor and another member from her congregation, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in East Northport. Gai knew that participants of "New Visions: Leadership for Mission" were expected to return to their parishes and share what they had learned and, as a recently retired teacher, she was up to the challenge.
Dr. Steinke’s workshop centered on his book A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission. "There’s a lot of meat in it, the first three chapters are very challenging," says Gai. "It’s thought-provoking, it makes you look deeply into how you are living your life as a Christian, what is church to us. It was life-changing on a spiritual level." Upon returning from the workshop, the three participants worked to condense all the material they’d received into a 12-hour class for members of St. Paul’s. Interim pastor John Jurik, an active promoter of the Healthy Congregations program, notes, "We need healthy leaders in the church but it can’t stop there. A Door Set Open is the textbook for a series of classes—we called it a mission school—to equip people to become more aware of the importance of mission in the church."
St. Paul’s mission school began with a group of twelve handpicked people, people who would be receptive to a new way of thinking. The group read the book and met weekly to work through study guides. The material focused on the current state of Christianity, and how to be the church in today’s context, challenging students to determine their congregation’s unique mission. "It was well-received," said Gai. "There’s camaraderie between those of us who have taken the class. Our congregation is in a transitional period. At a time when we’re calling a new pastor, this is going to help us choose a direction where we want our church to move." Three mission school graduates are on the call committee.
The three teachers hoped that those who attended the mission school would infiltrate the structure of all the organized committees of the church and recruit another 12 people, slowly influencing how committee work is done and the questions that are asked. "It’s not a magic bullet, but it is a home run in looking at why we are here," says Pr. Jurik. More members are becoming interested; St. Paul’s is planning to run another mission school in the future, hopefully after a new pastor is called.
Will Growvogel has been a member for 40 years. When asked what compelled him to attend the mission school, he replied, "A growing awareness that there is a need for change in the way that we approach the world and bring new hope to the community. It was an opportunity to update my thinking. We have to adapt. I hope this spreads to more congregations, because we need this for the future. We have to overcome negativity." Growvogel is prepared to teach the material to the next round of students.