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12 minutes reading time (2385 words)

The report of Congregation President Kris Ann Bial regarding the CLT's year-long Discernment Process and its Outcomes

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

I've had the opportunity for the last year and a half to lead a group of really amazing faith-filled people. In the six months since I stood here the last time, we've attended to the business of Messiah – the budget, the building, the activities – all of it. You can rest assured that we are being the best stewards of the congregation's resources that we know how to be.

As we talked about in June, the CLT has been engaged in a discernment process for, now, the better part of a year. During that time, we have learned things that were hard to hear, and even harder to believe applied to Messiah. We have begun grieving the loss of the way church has been done for many generations. We've started the process of understanding what it is going to take to make the church a viable part of the life of future generations, and how Messiah is specifically being led by the Holy Spirit into that change. Now we are inviting you to intentionally and wholly join us in that process.

We are in a cultural shift from a time of honoring "sameness" to a time of honoring "difference." Many of us grew up in congregations during a time when we expected our congregation to behave the same way as other congregations of our faith tradition. Much of this expectation was based on our experience of a culture that reinforced sameness.

In the 1950's, when this church was started, how many different types of telephones they could choose from if you wanted to get an extra telephone in your house? If you needed a phone, you got a "standard issue" telephone, which was black, heavy, with a rotary dial and a wire that attached it to your wall. You got what everybody else got because the assumption was that if you needed a telephone, you needed what everybody else needed. This culture of sameness applied to our homes, our appliances, our social groups, and our congregations.

If you were Lutheran, you worshipped like all other Lutheran churches, using the same liturgy as all other Lutherans at 11:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. You had the same administrative groups and meetings on weekday evenings. You had the same Christian education groups, the same Lutheran Church Women's Circles, you sent your mission dollars to the same denominationally sponsored missionaries. The assumption was that if you were Lutheran you did what other Lutherans did, and if you were looking for a church, you could (and should) pick from any of the "standard issue" Lutheran congregations that were near your home. After all, they were all the same in a one-size-fits-all world.

This uniformity among congregations was the outgrowth of the Christian paradigm in the culture of sameness: Congregations were understood to be made up of similar people practicing faith in a similar manner. In fact, the purpose of the congregation, in its larger social context, was to make good citizens. Citizenship itself was supported by the sameness of congregations, which undergirded and underscored the need for people to behave alike. Being a good member of a congregation and being a good citizen or good community participant were understood to be similar, if not identical. The lessons from that time were sufficiently strong that they continue to form many of our current congregational leaders' assumptions. They easily turn to reminiscing about the way things used to be when confronted with a difficult problem today.

We no longer live in a time of sameness, however. We live in a culture that embraces differences. Just as people expect to find telephones in a seemingly unending array of choices, people seeking a shared faith require that congregations offer paths and programs to meet their specific and unique needs and desires. Churches now need to offer worship services specifically designed for the worshippers they hope to attract, short-term task forces that will accommodate the busy lifestyle of members in ways that standing committees cannot, several specific groups that fit the age and interests of their participants, and ways to support mission programs and missionary personnel that have a specific appeal or relationship to this one congregation. We can no longer assume that one Lutheran church will look like or behave like a neighboring Lutheran church. In fact, it is important that each congregation of any faith tradition be able to differentiate itself from other congregations in order to speak to and welcome people who come to the congregation with their individual needs. We no longer believe that one size fits all, but that everyone is encouraged to find his or her own size.

This shift from honoring sameness to honoring difference is a change that is as much cultural as it is congregational. Because of the complexity of our lives, congregations will be traveling different directions and will experiment with new and different forms of congregational life and ministry as they seek to share faith with people in this time of changing assumptions and paradigms.The research and experience of the Alban Institute at Duke Divinity School, and research by a number of major mainline denominations, continues to underscore the reality that there will be lots of different ministry "destinations" for our congregations in the next chapter of our histories.

We can no longer assume that all (or many) congregations are heading in the same direction. And we can no longer hope that our programs or solutions can be counted on to solve our congregational dilemmas. In fact, there has been extensive work that was done by three national Lutheran church bodies and Aid Association for Lutherans (the "Church Membership Initiative" project) and it highlights the uniqueness of each congregation and the need for a unique ministry response from each congregation. To summarize the findings of primary research that was conducted over a period of six years, researchers concluded, "Solutions are found within individual, motivated congregations taken one at a time".

So congregational leaders and members need to accept that, while it may be possible to learn from other congregations and from the programs many congregational workers are developing, the path of ministry is necessarily one in which each congregation and its leaders are going to have to develop their own learnings and make their own decisions in this culture of differences. There are no magic or standard solutions available in this time of change that honors differences. There is no cookbook to follow, no established rules that will get us there.

I read an article about a CEO of a major consulting group, and she was very clear that the attribute that will make the difference in a similarly changing corporate world is not the ability to come up with "the answer" but the ability to be organizationally agile enough to find the right next step. "Passion for the business, alertness to opportunity, focus on speed and responsiveness, willingness to experiment with things as fundamental as distributions channels—these are characteristics of an agile organization."

Congregations are not businesses; that's obvious, but the point remains. Despite the economic realities that must be attended to and the fiduciary responsibility of board members, the purpose of a congregation cannot be compared to management. Nonetheless, the need to find our own path and the fact that we cannot lay claim to "the answer" that fits all congregations is a situation we share with other institutions, corporations, and systems in this time of great change.

What, then, is the role of congregational leaders? It is to be faithful to the journey-to the challenge, the experimentation, the trial and error of ministry in a culture of change. And it is to be responsive. Last week in Matthew 4 we read that Jesus turned to potential followers and simply said, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people," and the potential disciples "immediately" left their nets and followed him. There were no questions asked and no clear promises given about where the trip would take them.

We do not live in a time of clear answers; we live in a time when leaders will need to use discernment and experimentation to guide their congregations through changes.At Messiah, you elected a group of faithful, steadfast and patient leaders. We have worked and prayed and felt the Holy Spirit moving in ways that we had NO IDEA were coming. If you think the CLT rubber stamps the ideas of a handful, I invite you to a CLT meeting. We continue to listen to the sometimes-soft whisper of the Holy Spirit as we move forward. During this past year, I have continually gone back to one of my favorite definitions of discernment in a faith community: "Discernment can be like driving an automobile at night; the headlights cast only enough light for us to see the next small bit of road immediately in front of us. Ultimately discernment requires our willingness to act in faith on our sense of what God wants us to do."

We should keep in mind, too, that sometimes God's end-game isn't the outcome that we think it was supposed to be. We get caught up in what we believe is the appropriate product of a certain body of work, and forget that maybe the whole purpose of the work was something that shows up only because we were there in the first place. Sometimes the rest of the project, by all measures that we can think of, doesn't look like a rousing success, but because we were engaged in the project, something else happened. Sometimes a by-product ends up being the success.

So how can we move forward and lean into this change? The CLT comes to you with the recommendation, based in the calling we've heard from the Holy Spirit, that we consider a capital campaign, so that we can hire someone to help us embrace this change that is the future of Messiah. That someone – you've heard them referred to as a Mission Developer most recently – is someone with unique and specific gifts to lead Messiah into a new paradigm of doing church. This is not movement that is going to come from changing up what we currently do, because we do that well. Doing it well isn't enough.It is someone who will take us out so that we can meet people where they are at. It is someone who will completely shake up how we look at and build a community of people who become the body of Christ that is Messiah Lutheran Church.

Over the past year, we have heard you say that you are concerned about the current condition of our building, about this amazing resource that has been given to us by God. We've also heard you say that you feel burdened by our current debt. It is our intention to be good stewards of what we already have, and take care of those needs, while at the same time move forward into a new season of church.

We – the CLT – has heard you say you need more time to learn about what the Holy Spirit is calling Messiah to. We want to honor that need. Over the next seven weeks or so, we will be giving you information in many formats, with the specific intention of helping you hear what we feel we are being called to. At the same time, the CLT has granted Peter and Kathy a sabbatical for the summer, and they will be making and sharing plans for that, so that they can refresh, renew and learn in ways that will help carry us into this shift. We'll meet again – right here – on March 18 to finish this conversation.

Change is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable, unsettling, and often unpopular. But it is also necessary. Maybe this will help illustrate the need for change and the fact that this change isn't about us, it isn't about right now.

--"I'd like everyone who has children to stand."

--"Now I'd like those who have children that are NOT attending church on a regular basis to please sit down."

--Then to those still standing, "Please sit down if your children who DO attend church are NOT attending here at Messiah."

--"Look around the room. There are less than a dozen people still standing. Let's think about the future. For this church to succeed in the future, we need to address this situation. What will it take for us to create an environment where your children and grandchildren would view Messiah, or something connected with the Messiah Community, as an option for their spiritual growth? For any future plans to succeed, it will require that we, the population sitting in this room right now, support the changes."

We are a healthy, vibrant congregation and we've seen that the church as we know it is not growing. We have the resources to be a leader in moving the greater church in to a new season. The last thing we want to do is wait until those resources are no longer available, and we are breathing our last breaths as a congregation. I want my kids and their kids to have a faith community to call home, one that is as beautiful as this one we currently call home, even if it doesn't look anything like this building. I'm guessing you want the same thing. We are being called now to lead the change that will get us there.
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
Reflections on the Past Year. Hope for the Future by Pr. Kathy Braafladt
Of Pastoral Interns and Missional Directors by Greg Rhodes
Stewardship of Community by Pastoral Intern Ryan Dockery

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).

Reflections on the past year. Hope for the future.
Pr. Kathy's Book Club will read "Small Great Thing...

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