I was told that the first church I served destroyed pastors and was doomed to fail. It was definitely a congregation in transition. The advantage my church had is that things were so diminished that no one had the illusion that they could keep their doors open without significant changes. They did not look forward to those changes, but they preferred change to closing. Love for their church was more powerful than fear of change.
I also believe that situations many may view as hopeless can turn around and that should not surprise us. We serve the God of Sarah who was not impressed with promises of vitality: “After I have become worn out with use and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the visitors asked. Sarah laughed and God carried on.
I would never assume that congregational renewal is impossible, but my call is also to not give false hope. In many cases, remaining as we are is a false hope.I love the Biblical story of the paralyzed man and his four friends who wanted to bring him to Jesus. In order to make a way for their friend, they had to move tiles and break through the roof to make a new space to let the man down. Digging a hole through the roof was a big structural change. What structures in our churches have to change in order that more people might come to Jesus? A change in our physical structure or location? A change in our decision-making structure? A change in language and culture? Such changes are often difficult, but in the end, the hope is that we can join the crowd in the story, "so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, 'We have never seen anything like this!'”
In accompanying churches through change and renewal, we have tried and true tools.
1. God’s Word. I would want every congregation facing choices before an uncertain future to commit to increased, communal study of God’s Word. The bishop might provide some guidance for such studies. I have seen what Luther described when he wrote: "The Word of God, whenever it comes, comes to change and renew the world.”
2. Worship. Strategic praying before strategic planning. I would want every congregation facing choices before an uncertain future to commit to worshipping more regularly than ever, to pray communally for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
3. I would ask each such congregation to assess their community's assets and needs determine one new ministry of outreach, however small, that brings the love of Christ to others.
4. The synod would pledge to make decisions together with each congregation. The ELCA constitution states that we should "Provide structures and decision-making processes for this church that foster mutuality and interdependence and that involve people in making decisions that affect them."
If a congregation persists in resisting all of the above, then the weight of decision-making would fall to others.
Faith formation is a vital part of congregational and synodical life. Children, youth, young adults, adults, and diaconal formation are especially important. As Bishop, how would you encourage and strengthen faith formation? Provide examples of faith-formation efforts you have led.
I would want synod staff who would focus with others on the needs and gifts of children, youth and college students. I would hope for some special attention with those with special needs. I would want to support our unique Diakonia program and other diaconal formation opportunities.
In my experience, some of the materials provided for faith formation by our wider church are not culturally competent in their assumptions about class, race, family make-up and special needs. Where that is true, I would hope to gather those interested in helping find and/or create materials that do reflect those competencies, in readily accessible formats to share.
I think it would be fun to have a Synod-wide Bible study once a year as a bridge-building exercise with materials spanning all age groups, including ideas for incorporating various arts in the exploration of a text.
I know that domestic and international mission trips, if done well in a non-paternalistic way, can make profound contributions to faith formation. I also believe that young people should not have to leave the country, or even the synod, to find church life that fires the imagination and invigorates faith. I would like to see youth, and even children, go on fact-finding, or better yet, faith-finding missions from one end of the synod to another. I’d like to see the children and youth return to teach adults about what they have seen and heard.
I would like to support every area in our synod to have greater access to some of the many world-class theologians, Biblical scholars and thinkers on our territory.
Two examples of faith-formation efforts I have led are:
1. Wee Worship- Wee Worship began as an opportunity for very young children to learn about worship by coming to worship with their families at a liturgy sensitive to the particular needs and gifts of wee ones. We have Holy Communion every week, served by trained children, but it is a shorter service. I use puppets for the sermon time. We have four year olds who can tell you more about the church year than many adults.
2. We started a kind of weekly Dinner Church which transitioned into a meal followed by Bible study and prayer. Most of the people were not regular church attenders and so we've spent more time on faith formation. We average 20-30 people in the study every week which is many more than we've ever had.
What is your understanding of our synod’s current strategic plan, and how would you advance that plan as Bishop?
"Claimed, Gathered and Sent!" I can still hear the jingle we sang when the plan was rolled out. My understanding is based on the mission statement for the plan. The Claimed strategies focus on communicating our Lutheran identity, helping people know about and connect with a variety of Lutheran ministries and encouraging new initiatives for faith formation. The Gathered strategies support our Word and Sacrament gatherings throughout the territory of the synod. This includes the locations and buildings where worship happens, recruiting, training and supporting clergy and lay leaders, identifying new opportunities for planting worshipping communities and providing resources to do that. The Sent strategies focus on serving our neighbors, including networking and forming partnerships with other organizations doing good work and advocacy for peace and justice. There will be ongoing financial and human resources dedicated to this plan.
I believe that the strategic plan is a gift for an incoming bishop, offering a strong framework for moving forward. While the plan itself is set, each area is flexible with plenty of room for fresh ideas and initiatives. To my understanding, the plan has engaged a range of lay people through committee work. I would hope to see the vision and investment of even more people from around the synod in working to attain the goals before us. I believe that every strategy in the plan intends to reach and be responsive to the needs of every area of the synod. I would want to evaluate how that is going and see how to build on and, where needed, improve on what has happened so far.
One stated goal for all three strategic areas is to "nurture racial, ethnic and cultural awareness and sensitivity" in all aspects of our life together. We have taken key steps to promote and provide anti-racism training. That work needs to be strengthened and continued.
Since the next bishop's term ends in 2025 and the term of the strategic plan ends in 2023, there will need to be a focused evaluation of where we are and what steps we need to take following 2023. I hope that along with evaluation, there will be reason for celebration!
What do you see as the principal challenge of our synod in the next six years, and how will you approach and address it?
I believe that our challenge is to be a Do-Not-Be-Afraid Synod sharing the grace, hope and liberating message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a fearful world. We live in a time of nationalistic fear-mongering that heightens divisions and dehumanizes and demonizes others. It is a time of changing racial demographics that shock the system of white supremacy, both outside and inside our church which remains the whitest of denominations in this nation. There are generational changes that impact church attendance and provoke questions around worship opportunities, leadership styles, about what contextually meaningful and authentic mission looks like. There is fear and avoidance of environmental degradation. There is new information about gender differences and human sexuality that challenge many assumptions. Reasons for fear may be new, but fear is obviously not. "Do not be afraid!" rings out through the pages of the Bible. Our challenge is to be:
+Unafraid of facing what ails us and divides us so that we can be healed and liberated as witnesses to the Gospel with greater focus and power. Several years ago I had the honor of preaching at a synodical racial reconciliation event and I choose the theme of "Facing the Snake" from the Numbers 21 story. We cannot be reconciled with one another if we don’t face up to what’s biting us and poisoning us. In John’s gospel, Jesus says "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must I be lifted up. " When we see Jesus lifted on the cross, we never need to face what’s wrong in us and around us, without seeing our belovedness, for God is with us, for God so loved the world.
+Unafraid to name white supremacy as evil.
+Unafraid of difference and diversity, honoring the creative imagination of our God.
+Unafraid of allowing God to liberate us from sinful systems that dehumanize us and others, leaving us less than the beloved community God desires.
+Unafraid of taking risks in the face of change and loss.
+Unafraid of prophetic passion.
+Unafraid of talking about Jesus. We need to match our public speech with our public actions. We can be more comfortable with actions than bearing witness to the Word with our words.
+Unafraid of our Lutheran identity. What we believe as Lutherans matters in this often graceless world. As bishop, I would hope to lead in this effort.
A bishop needs to help the synod face our ills, as a theologian of the cross, "calling a thing what it is." A bishop needs to help the synod see and lift up the presence of God's grace and love in our midst in tiny and in mighty ways. A bishop needs to be a passionate lover of God's Word, honest, transparent and vulnerable. A bishop needs to know in their bones that "having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart." I do not know if I could or should be that bishop, but I am open in discernment. The Word that tells us "Do not be afraid" is a word of promise. It carries within it the power to lead us through our fear: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear for you are with me." In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” ¡Adelante! ¡Sin Miedo!
As Bishop, what steps will you take for self-care? How can congregations be a support for the office of Bishop? How will you, as Bishop, also encourage self-care for pastors, deacons, and synod lay leaders?
The self-care practices I find most helpful include:
- Taking a weekly day off and vacation time.
- Spending quality time with family. Since January of 2018, that has included spending weekly time with our baby grand-daughter. Although I’ve spent my years as a pastor in the heart of the city, a piece of my heart now resides in the beautiful Hudson Valley and I travel there on an almost weekly basis.
- I regularly see a spiritual director.
- Writing. Writing is a form of prayerful reflection for me. At least once a year, I go on a writing retreat, usually in the context of a monastic community.
As to congregations supporting the office of Bishop-
An old day camp song comes to mind- the one titled "I‘ve been Redeemed" with the verse: “You can talk about me (You can talk about me) All that you please (all that you please) I'll talk about you (I’ll talk about you) down on my knees.” My hope is that congregations and pastors would not talk about their bishop behind the bishop’s back in a gossipy, undermining manner, but rather, would pray regularly and sincerely for their bishop. The great African bishop Augustine puts it perfectly: "Help me by your prayers and your obedience to carry out these many serious and varied duties. Then I shall have the joy of not so much ruling you as of being useful to you."
How will I encourage the self-care of others? I would hope to set an example that resists the perverse sense in much of our culture that equates busyness with importance, ie "I haven’t taken a day off in months": as if that statement is a badge of honor. I think not taking time off for months is dangerous and I would hope to set a tone where taking time off is valued and honored. What each person needs for their health and well-being will vary by individual and life season and these differences should be supported. I would want to make sure that every congregation has resources to learn about clergy sabbaticals and funding opportunities. Our synod has a wonderful resource in the Lutheran Counseling Center and we can and should help clergy who wish to make connections for spiritual direction.
I also believe that some of what counts as "self-care" is inseparable from what we might call an ecclesial ecosystem. The synod needs to recognize and account for the stress caused by inadequate compensation and work with seminaries to address student debt. In addition, there is the stress caused by micro-aggressions (and major ones) related to racism, sexism and homophobia and these impact clergy health and the need for additional self-care, a burden that falls unjustly on some among us. I would also want to address the stigma around mental illness and chronic illnesses such that clergy can get the help they need without fear of reprisals.