Uniting Eight into One
by Robert M. Goldstein (November / December 1999 — Volume 15, Number 6)
The pastors' role in forging a mission-focused church consolidation process
In 1998 eight Lutheran congregations on the northwest side of Chicago consolidated into a viable and mission-focused new congregation called United in Faith.1 I was one of the five pastors of two of those consolidating congregations.
I want to describe the pastors' roles in this boldly faithful decision of the eight churches, some with histories stretching beyond 100 years.
Please note that I do not use the term "merger" because, strictly speaking, it was not a merger into a pre-existing congregation, but a consolidation into a brand new ecclesial entity. The term "merger" fed fears that the larger congregations would swallow up the smaller ones. "Consolidation" was a more accurate term legally and suggested the true equality of the congregations.
The five pastors serving the eight churches played a pivotal role in the success of this venture. Indeed, without their support, I seriously doubt that the consolidation would have been realized. In at least one case, a pastor was opposed to having the congregation join the process and, even though there was almost an even split in that congregation's preliminary vote on joining the process, that congregation, along with two others, chose to remain outside the consolidation.
|Can the mission of the church be better accomplished in a new arrangement of things?|
Further, the five pastors were the primary force in the opening stages of the process. They were building upon a 10-year joint confirmation program, as well as the work of a clergy and lay coalition called the North West Lutheran Parish (which had suggested some sort of change to the current cycle of dropping memberships and rising costs). The pastors then covenanted to work towards the consolidation of their congregations into a viable new church that would focus on mission rather than survival.
The pastors also agreed that they would all resign their calls upon the creation of this new congregation. They would also neither seek nor accept the pastorate of the new congregation. This pastoral agreement of "letting go" became a source of inspiration for lay people to also take on the risk of suggesting that their own congregation should die and be reborn into something yet to be defined.
Once the initial vote was taken by the congregations to work toward consolidation, an outside leader skilled in the dynamics of mergers was brought in to act as our facilitator. Furthermore, Lutheran Brotherhood underwrote the expenses of this person, as well as the consolidation process. We are very grateful for the fraternal company's help.
The strategy was first to separate the pastors from direct participation in the consolidation process. It was reasoned that the pastors needed to focus on their own grieving and anxieties of lossfor which a fellow pastor was brought in to act as the pastors' facilitator.
Secondly, the strategist reasoned that the laity should be the ones to lead the process of consolidation. This was due to the fact that the pastors would no longer be a part of the process nor would any of them be part of the new congregation at its birth.
This strategy proved effective in helping both the pastors work through their feelings and move on, as well as for the lay leaders to grow. I am not saying that the pastors no longer were involved in any way. We focused on helping the people grieve the coming loss of their home congregations and their heritage of memories. We invited and explained this need for grieving at church council meetings, in sermons, and in all the informal situations of parish ministry.
We also tried to avoid possible triangulation as power struggles broke out between members as well as the various music staff from the eight congregations.
Our only unsatisfied concern was in what we judged was a weak theological basis for the consolidation. Since we were no longer directly involved, it was hard to both ascertain how deeply this issue went and whether we were trying to interfere in the process because of anxieties over our loss of power.
I led one churchwide Bible study early in the process. It was difficult for people, who saw their children baptized and married and had had funerals for their parents in their beloved churches, to give it up on an as-yet-vague promise. No wonder the Bible study on the wilderness wandering of the children of Israel spoke to us! Yet the study was poorly attended and we led no other studies. So clear was the break in focus between the pastors and the lay people that I do not know whether any other Bible studies were held which focused theologically on the process.
At one point we pastors wrote an open letter to the new church council of the consolidating churches expressing our concern that the process was focusing too much on procedures and not enough on a theological basis for the new church — or, as one colleague expressed it, what it meant to be the church in this new situation.
The new consolidating church council instructed their secretary to reply to the effect that "if we just continue to preach, baptize, and commune, things will be fine." We responded that the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments were not merely those actions one sees in worship; we were raising our concern over a perceived lack of a theology of mission.
We received no response. But were we right? Or were we letting our anxieties of loss get the better of us?
In spite of this, our sermons and evangelical counsel encouraged the people of our congregations to hold to the vision of a new consolidated congregation that was not in the world to just survive but to strive and thrive.
And so, after the prayers and efforts of a lot of people, all eight congregations died on Good Friday 1998 and came together on Easter Sunday as the new congregation, United in Faith.
Only one of the pastors was present at the Easter service. The remainder of us intentionally did not attend because we felt our presence would cause people to look backwards instead of what was now a new future. Such was our passion and commitment.
All of the pastors were given three month's severance pay with an option for three months more if we were not employed. Some of us have found new calls. Others continue to work as interim pastors with one in the later stages of the call process. Our bishop has been with us all along the way.
A Living Faith
Pastors do play a key role in the life and death of congregations. Any bold venture in mission requires that attention be given to the needs of the pastors in the process. Part of the success of the Chicago consolidation lay precisely in paying attention to this factor.
If the pastor is afraid of losing his or her call and therefore income, power, and security, it will be an upward battle to let go rather than an experiment in mission and faithfulness. The Bishop's office is integral to reassuring the pastor and his or her family.
Of course, the most prominent factor is that pastors have that living faith asked of all of us. This faith is given to us in baptism, but even pastors can forget and hide it under a bushel. If we are secure in our faith and in our identities as pastors of Word and sacrament, we ought to quickly see what needs to be done.
But will we? It is so easy for us to "play church." From baptisms, committees, hospital visitations, and the like, we can be kept busy with legitimate tasks of our calling. But church work, like house work, is never done. Sooner or later a housekeeper has to step back to look at the whole picture and ask, "Is it worth living here any more?"
At some point, we pastors have to step back beyond the busy-ness of day-to-day ministry and take in the bigger picture. Can the mission of the church be better accomplished in a new arrangement of things?
Perhaps some of the clergy burnout and crises of confidence in vocation are because we have simply gotten tired of the details of church work, like house work, and that we simply haven't taken the time or been given the encouragement to step back and look.
Both laity and clergy on the northwest side of Chicago did step back when given the opportunity. And what they saw behind them wasn't pleasant: survivalism, encroaching silent despair, and eventual death. But God gave them the eyes to see and the ears to hear a vision from their pastors and each other.
So take a step back from where you are — perhaps with some assistance. Look at the big picture. Is your church "playing church" in a deep form of forgetfulness? Let God offer the vision. It is important for our congregations, especially after the formation of the ELCA in 1988, to take a look at the big picture in your city, suburb, or town. You will be called upon to articulate the vision, at least initially.
Will that vision come? Well, that depends on a lot of things, not least what you learned on your mother or father's knee. But surely the power of the Word and the sacraments will feed you, strengthen you and embolden you!
Robert Goldstein is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Chicago, Ilinois.
1. The eight former congregations which joined in this new Chicago-based mission consolidation included St. Andrews, Holy Communion, Nebo, Medill, Our Lord's, Gladstone Park, Peace, and Our Saviour's Lutheran churches.