I was serving as a dean when the vitality norms were under development. I was - and am still - impressed with the thoughtfulness and comprehensive nature of those guidelines. Ideally they serve as an assessment tool for all congregations and ministries to determine strengths and weaknesses (along with other programs available for such assessment). At times those norms were used to tell a congregation they were no longer vital and needed to close. I’m not saying this is inappropriate. But I wonder if it wouldn’t be healthier to have a stronger spirit of cooperation between congregations, conferences and synod that could address questions of vitality all the time, rather than at the “end of life,” and take advantage of the many opportunities there are for renewal and non-anxious decision making?
I will return to my response to the previous question. In too many cases, congregations and ministry sites function as independent entities and “the synod” only “comes in” when there’s a problem. But if we, as bishop and synod staff, as conference deans and ministry colleagues, as congregations were walking and working together on a regular basis, I believe there would be less of a sense of isolation and more of an ability to address concerns before they become - literally - mission critical. I am aware that some pastors function as “lone rangers.” I also know some congregations are totally devoted to their own building and traditions. We will not reach everyone. The polity of the ELCA does not allow the synod to force itself into a situation where we can “take over.” That’s a good thing! But if we are in the habit of walking together, of communicating, of spending time, of learning together, there is less of a chance for unhealthy isolation.
What if we offered, in local situations, opportunities for regular fellowship and education that were planned by the pastors, congregations and ministry sites and for which the synod would provide some funding and expertise? What if each synodical staff person had responsibility, with the deans, for praying for and reaching out to specific groups of pastors, deacons and congregations on a regular basis? What if we developed sister congregations within our own synod to strengthen ministry and understand different contexts of being church?
In my experience with the synod, I have seen mergers that were sometimes locally inspired and others that were synodically advised. I don’t think either is a necessary formula for success or failure. But mutual care and concern can make these opportunities more organic and, therefore, welcome.
Finally, I have served the synod with congregations in transition not only as a dean but also as a member of a Bishop’s Advisory Committee on two occasions, helping congregations discern their current struggles and find a way forward. I felt the presence of people from outside the congregation but within the synod helped these congregations to know they were not alone and to find the perspective and peace to confront challenges.