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9 minutes reading time (1713 words)

Reflections on the past year. Hope for the future.

What follows is the text of the address Pr. Kathy made to the Congregation at its Semi-Annual Meeting on Sunday, January 28. 2018. | 

I want to thank the Church Leadership Team members for all their hard work over the past year. I want you to know they gave a lot of time to the discernment process, devoting themselves to prayer and deep listening. They opened themselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and we were all surprised where we ended up.

I also want to thank them for granting Peter and me a sabbatical this spring and early summer. Having experienced them in the past, I know the healing and life changing gift that they are. We look forward to the opportunity to re-tool, to rest, and to experience the Gospel from the pew instead of the pulpit.

The last few years of Peter's and my ministry have been what we consider the most difficult and challenging of our careers. It's not because of any weird or perplexing problems here at Messiah. It's because the landscape of ministry has changed so dramatically since we began in ministry 31 years ago. And the change is accelerating.

Peter and I, along with our colleagues across all denominations, were well trained at "doing church" and proclaiming the Gospel in the ways it was done when my parents and my grandparents went to church. Along the way, church consultants and experts have taught us technical changes to help us keep up with current culture. We learned new programs, and ways of tweaking old programs and worship which made them more user friendly, and pretty much did the trick. With these learnings, Messiah was able to reach people where they were and help them move into a deeper relationship with God. We believed we were living in a culture where people knew, that if they wanted to find out about God, they should go to a church.

But times have changed. Church scholars tell us that we are likely living through the next great emergence in the Church, another reformation, if you will, something that is well documented as having occurred about every 500 years or so in the life of God's people. Honestly, it has been a relief to have the words to describe the experience I and my colleagues have been experiencing. Tweaks to processes, new programs, working harder and faster have not been effective in recent years. Despite our best efforts, we have not connected with the vast number of people, who, for a whole host of reasons, no longer look to a church as the first place in which to find meaning and community.

Throughout this process the ELCA has been trying to find new markers to determine the health of congregations. Given that regular worship attendance is no longer a priority for most members, the ELCA has been trying to assess how many people congregations touch throughout the week.

We at Messiah have noticed the worship attendance slide, especially here at the Hazel Dell campus. What is interesting to me, is that for the most part, we don't see members falling away or moving to other congregations, they simply don't worship as often, or can be found connecting with Messiah in other ways throughout the week.

Those of us who were trained in the skills of "doing church," now know that technical changes are not and will not be enough to shape and grow the future church. We also know there is currently no road map … no singular path or answer as to how to adapt. We are somewhere in the middle of a paradigm shift in our culture and in the church. The future, while we know is in God's good hands … is still foggy to all of us.

While the last few years of our career have been the most challenging, I would also say they have been the most hopeful.

Hopeful, because, I believe God is doing a new thing. I believe that God, who has always been out ahead of us, working in our communities, is now moving (and in some cases dragging) God's church along with Him. There is no road map. Yet there is this palpable breath of the Holy Spirit moving around us … letting us know that change is on its way and that God is in it.

So we wait … and watch … and experiment as we feel called, during this awkward time to be the Church. The ELCA, of which we are a part, is eager to have congregations test the waters, experiment, tread on untrodden ground to see where God has already prepared fertile soil and good seed that needs tilling and watering.

These past few years have been difficult … but they have also been hopeful. When you walk through one of our beautiful Pacific Northwest forests, you will always see some old growth trees that once stood tall in the skyline, but are now on the ground. They have fallen for a variety of reasons … but we know it is all part of the natural cycle of the ecosystem.

What I find most beautiful are the nurse logs … the ones that while they look like they are dead and rotting, are teeming with new life. They offer seedlings water, disease protection, nutrients, and sunlight. Without a nurse log, many of these seedlings would not have a chance to survive.

I wonder, if God isn't calling Messiah to act like a nurse log, though not as one that has fallen all the way to the floor of the forest. We, as a community, have the resources, both human and capital, we have the wisdom of years, the stamina to withstand storms, the grace to grieve losses and celebrate new life. We can provide fertile nutrients and the protection for God's nascent and emerging Church.

This work is not about us. This work is about our children, our children's children, our neighbors, our family members, and our dear friends, who hunger for a place to belong, who hunger for a place to be themselves, who hunger for a place to talk about what breaks their hearts and what makes them soar. These are the people, who, for whatever reasons, are not looking to the church as a place of primary connection and meaning with God. But they may be willing to gather once-a-month with other families for a meal in a public space, one that offers room for their children to play and hear a Godly Play story, room for meaningful conversation to flow. They may not feel comfortable darkening the doors of a church building, but they may gather at a coffee shop, or a pub to find community, and, in the midst of it, see God. They may not be comfortable sitting through a church service, but they may find meaning and see God when we serve alongside them in alleviating hunger or homelessness or bringing relief to the most vulnerable.

I often wonder if the future church will look a lot like our North County people, who unencumbered by debt or the work of maintaining a building, are nimble and free to give their whole attention to meeting each week for worship. They are small enough to be a community of people who have the advantage of being able to be intimate and comfortable enough to celebrate with each other in very personal ways. They are connected enough to be an effective force that reaches out to serve the community as they have the means.

A mission developer is specifically trained in identifying good soil and engaging people in tilling it. A mission developer has the energy and patience of a gardener who knows that much of the growth of new seedlings must first take place underground, before its beautiful sprouts break the soil.

For God the metrics of "success" have always looked different than ours. God's success looks like a cup of water given to a thirsty person, a forgiven woman's tears, a warm welcome home by a community. God has never been impressed with numbers and big budgets and power. Success for God looks like a cross.

Should Messiah eventually vote to call a Mission Developer and make a bold commitment of both financial and human resources—and I sincerely hope that we will—it will not be a move about us. It will be a selfless act for the future of the church. It will be taking the risk of trusting that God will help us see the new things that God is doing among us.

In the words of Grace Imathiu "… God is calling us out of the tombstones of nostalgia and into dreaming of the future ... God is calling us out of the tragic habit of maintaining the church of the present rather than building the church of the future, a church that takes life's complexity seriously and searches persistently for new ways, new structures, new concepts, new language, new metaphors to speak directly, clearly and meaningfully about God. We have to get new wineskins for this new thing God is doing. There is no way the old skins can hold the new wine! The excitement is sometimes overwhelming when we catch a glimpse of God's church of the future …"

I don't want to be the one that God has to drag into the future. I want to walk hand in hand, skipping alongside, as God leads us. I pray that God's Holy Spirit will continue to ignite these flames of creativity, hope, healing, and faith among all of us here at Messiah.
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Articles and documents that provide background information to the CLT's discernment process and Capital Campaign proposal to the congregation.

Capital Campaign One-Page Overview from the CLT
Capital Campaign Cash Flow Model from the CLT
Frequently Asked Questions Document from the CLT
Reflecting on 40 years at Messiah and Its Future by Doug Ruecker
A Whole New World by Pr. Peter
Report of the CLT's Year-Long Discernment Process by President Kris Ann Bial
Of Pastoral Interns and Missional Directors by Greg Rhodes
Stewardship of Community by Pastoral Intern Ryan Dockery

VIDEO LINKS
Pastoral Intern Ryan Dockery shares some of his frustration in pursuing pastoral ministry and his hopes for a Mission Developer at Messiah (4.0 minutes).
Vice President of the Congregation Mike Odren reviews the 3-year process that brings us to this point (6.0 minutes).

Megan Dilitto hired as Director of Children's and ...
The report of Congregation President Kris Ann Bial...