Leadership Issues Down the Road
by Mary W. Anderson (November / December 2004 — Volume 20, Number 6)
In the next five to ten years, what leadership issues will you and your congregation be considering? From her setting, our author considers four possibilities.
Our church is a big place. And it’s diverse. In some regions of these United States, Lutheranism is part of the air you breathe; in other places that air is too thin to fill a lung. In many towns and states, the Lutheran church is a church small in number. As the post-modern age is lecturing us, there is no “common”or one-size-fits-all experience. Context matters.
I imagine myself sitting atop the steep roof of my church building which sits facing (can you believe this!) Devine Street. Even up high, the view is still limited. The locus of my current context is Columbia, South Carolina. Here the Lutheran church is ancient by American standards (early 1700s) but a minority church when compared to Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Columbia is my hometown, as it was the new home of my Lutheran ancestors who came here in those earliest years.
God’s call has taken me from this place and returned me to it. I entered the seminary in Philadelphia in 1978. I have served in a rural parish, on churchwide staff, and in two metropolitan areas and am now in the heart of a medium-sized city.
So here I sit, looking out from my rooftop, able to see a little beyond my context, but not all the way into yours. I hope that these reflections into the future will ring true for you or at least challenge you to articulate your own visions for leadership in the coming decade.
Context and Effectiveness
Over the next decade, I hope that we will leave behind the one-size-fits-all view of what a successful/healthy congregation looks like. Many church leaders have spent the last thirty years feeling depressed about their ministry as models of mega-churches were held up as the ideal. We wearied quickly of mailings to our congregation which promised that if a congregation just followed in the footsteps of a particular church or program, we could supersize our now struggling and ineffective places of ministries. But who, may we ask, defines ineffective?
Well, for one, the questions we are asked to answer about ourselves each year in parochial reports to the ELCA do some of that defining. It pains us to report that we lost three more members than we gained in the past year. We may feel shamed that we are telling the church we didn’t have any children enrolled in Sunday school for grades 3-5.
Administratively, we know these are essential facts that do say something about our health and effectiveness. Yet, we also know that a congregation reporting a membership of 3,000 may be nearly torn apart by conflict, while a congregation of 100 is ministering in a very healthy way. As we move forward in mission, we need to evaluate our success/health/faithfulness in light of our context instead of measuring it against some unrealistic model of success.
A few years ago, I attended a presentation by Bishop Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jerusalem (serving in Palestine, Jordan, and Israel). The Lutheran community in Palestine is very small and the entire Christian community is a minority community as well. Against these odds and in the face of a deficit budget, Bishop Younan proclaimed that they would continue to operate their five Lutheran schools. A person small in stature himself, the Bishop raised his voice and said to the crowd, “Our ministry is bigger than our size!”
If we do believe that we are a body with many members and that all members have value, it’s essential that we cease even kindly competing with each other and focus on mutual support.
It will be essential to support each other — pastors, diaconal ministers, musicians, seminary professors, and others — so that each of us is affirmed and strengthened in the place where we are planted.
A small inner-city congregation is an important place of mission as is a large suburban one. Anywhere we can provide a ministry of presence is positively wonderful. We need to talk with each other about how we can move from a culture of competition to one of mutual support and discuss how we can re-define effective ministry in the ELCA.
Voice over Volume
In tandem with the concerns of context and effectiveness is one that I refer to as voice over volume. Having never lived in a region of the country where the Lutheran church was the majority religious body in the community, I have experiences only as a religious minority. As minority communities of all kinds have taught us, the only way to be heard with the voices of those in the majority is to lift up our own voice. Following Bishop Younan’s wisdom, Jesus’ mustard-seed lessons, and even Star Wars’ Yoda, size matters not.
This means that we need to better develop our relationships within the community. I believe that church leaders, along with the congregations and institutions in which they are employed and to which they are accountable, need to make partnerships with the civic, ecumenical, and interfaith communities a priority and less of a luxury. I know that pastors and congregations especially struggle with this. Congregations often believe the pastor and other staff are called only to the present membership of the congregation. In fact, we are rostered leaders of the whole church who are called to be Christ’s presence in both the local congregation and the local community. Certainly I would not suggest that a pastor attend a city council meeting instead of visiting someone in the hospital, but neither should we fail to serve the community.
Over the next decade, church leaders will need to consider defining effective ministry as one of presence in the community — not simply as how many were present for worship. By so doing, I believe we will increase our voices in the community.
To help lift our voices up, I believe we will also need more training in the area of communications and the media. This includes making use of technology as best fits our context, learning how to be more comfortable with interacting with local, public media, and being willing to help engage in community organizing.
Not all of us will have the specific gifts for this kind of community outreach and evangelistic presence. This is another good reason why we need to move away from a “Lone Ranger” ministry model and work together with each other. In our local clusters of congregations, institutions, and agencies, at least one person, rostered or lay, will have the gift to work well with communications and media. Let them be the Lutheran face for you in your locale.
Race and Multiculturalism
And speaking of Lutheran faces in America, there remains the concern of who makes up this church. Back when our predecessor parents — the LCA, ALC, and AELC — were pregnant with this child they came to name the ELCA, they dreamed this child would grow up to be a beautiful, strong, and multicultural church. Our past church leaders, many who honed their leadership skills in the Civil Rights movement, maintained the dream of one people in church and society where race didn’t matter.
But race continues to matter in America for good and for ill. After all these years we struggle to comprehend why our teenagers sit mostly with others of the same race in the school cafeteria and why our congregations do the same. Our denominational baby didn’t grow up looking the way we had hoped despite the efforts we put into raising her!
In the coming decade, church leaders, along with civic leaders, will need to work together to ask what’s next in the conversation on race in America. We once witnessed separation of ethnic groups as a tool of oppression. In some places it still is, but perhaps in this new day it is also a tool of empowerment. Though this may sound counter-intuitive or just wrong, I have been tutored by colleagues and friends in the African-American and Jewish communities to understand that while majority folks may desire for us all to be together in one place, those in the minority are suspicious of such overtures for fear they will sink to the bottom of some hegemonic hole, eventually becoming culturally extinct. For many, extinction isn’t a price they are willing to pay for unity.
Our conversations must continue on the subject of race even though they are often painful and awkward. One book to read is Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum (Basic Books, revised edition, 2003).
Interaction, conversation, and shared experiences will be essential among community and church leaders to journey to the heart of these concerns and dreams. Ecumenical and interfaith groups must do more than only plan a joint Thanksgiving service. We need to get to know one another better in the days ahead and work more consistently at laying a foundation of trust and understanding with one another.
As I look into the future, I believe leadership will be concerned with issues involving faithful ministry done in context, lifting up our voices through cooperative ministries, becoming more versatile with communication technology and the media, and dialoguing around issues of race and multiculturalism.
Mary W. Anderson is pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church, Columbia, South Carolina.