By Bishop Mike Rinehart
This year, we asked over 400 pastors, staff and congregation council members what they thought about the church, and the work we are doing together as a synod. We learned volumes. After 400 responses we learned that respondents want us work together on the following things:
- Equipping pastors and other leaders in congregations with strategies that enable them to reach new members. (EVANGELISM)
- Equipping pastors and other leaders in congregations to help members become growing, vital disciples. (SPIRITUAL GROWTH)
- Taking a leadership role in working with churches that are struggling. (SUPPORT)
- Developing a discernment process to rethink how to be vital Lutheran churches in our specific region. (STRATEGY)
In short, they want us to continue with Evangelism and Spiritual Growth as our top priorities, with some support and a clear strategy. This comes as good news, because I don’t think Evangelism and Spirituality can be separated, and support without strategy is just putting out fires.
Next we had a couple of bishop’s gatherings where we discussed this and some of the other things we learned from this process. We asked, “What are your deepest hopes and dreams for our congregations and their ministries? What do you want to see happen? What can synod leadership do? What ideas do you have?” Then we assembled a team to pull together all the ideas. They boiled down the strategic plan to three simple words:
HELP CONGREGATIONS GROW.
This is what the synod needs to be about. Helping congregations grow, in faith, in love, in worship, in service, in generosity. That’s what we’re called to do.
How good are synods at resourcing congregations? In 20 years of parish ministry, I did not always find synod staffs to be extremely adept in resourcing congregations. Often denominational leaders seemed to be steeped in dealing with congregations in perpetual conflict, with misconduct and other matters. My experience now that I am in the office is this: We could spend 100% of our time dealing with congregations in crisis and conflict. If we did so, we would have no time left to resource congregations that are ready to grow.
And to be perfectly fair I have to admit that as a pastor I was out of touch with what it took to send missionaries, to plant new congregations, to manage the call process, to support campus ministry, and relate to ecumenical partners and global partners, and all the things we want the wider church to be doing.
But here’s the deal: If congregations don’t grow, don’t make disciples, don’t thrive, then none of those other important things happen. 100% of our mission work together is dependent on congregational giving. 100% of the synod’s resources and denomination’s resources, come from the congregations. The power of all of us together, rests on this. This is what led the team to the inescapable conclusion that synods must HELP CONGREGATIONS GROW.
This is not the only thing that synods need to do.
We must still send missionaries, vet candidates for pastoral ministry, plant new congregations, support campus ministers, respond to disasters and so on. But if we don’t help congregations thrive, none of this other stuff can happen anyway. Somehow we have to find a way to make helping congregations grow, a top priority.
How are we going to do that? We are going to have to change. Change our structures. Change the way we do things. Change the system. Because if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.
W. Edwards Deming, one of the smartest people in America said: Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you are currently getting.
Our system is perfectly tuned to give us the results we are getting. If we want different results, we are going to have to change things.
Peter Drucker said your personnel are not the problem. Your system is the problem. 90% of the time the system is your problem. 10% of the time it’s a personnel problem. We have great pastors. We have great staff. We have great leaders.
So we’re going to work the system a little bit, starting with synod staff, council, deans, our pastors and lay rostered leaders, council members, lay leaders and congregation.
The Strategic Plan is a short-range plan to change the way we’re doing things, and see what happens. There are four Ministry Result Areas.
MINISTRY RESULT AREA 1: We will streamline Synod Structures.
A couple of years ago we moved the synod office and saved $900/month. It didn’t hurt our productivity at all. This year we are looking at moving into a smaller office in the same building that could save us another $2,000/month! That’s money that can go into ministry. It can be done. My office is a laptop, cell phone and car. Files can be digitized. We work differently than we did a few years ago. Time to adapt to new realities and stop operating like it was yesterday. We can get slim and trim and agile and become more effective.
When our lease is up, we are going to move the office into a congregation.
Why pay a corporate leasing agency, when we could be paying a congregation? I’ve spoken to a few bishops who have offices in churches. They say it works quite well. Not without some challenges, but overall well.
I don’t want to be one of those synod staffs that is out of touch with congregational life. In a congregation, we will feel the rhythms of congregational life much more closely than we do in a corporate office. We will have the worship space, kitchen, fellowship hall and other space and resources of a congregation.
So think about this. Several congregations have already shown interest. Two congregations have already offered us space. We will develop the criteria, and this will change the game.
Streamlining means also reconfiguring staff, minsteriums and deans. We will utilize our deans more like deployed staff, appoint them and maybe stipend them as such. We will organize the staff to have a director of communications.
Innovation does not usually come from the institution. It often comes from the creative periphery. So we will seek out those who are doing things exceptionally well and put them in a teaching role. We will reform the whole system from its creative peripheries.
We will create teams to handle issues like conflict. There are lay people in our congregations with a lot of experience in this kind of thing. We are leaning too heavily on a small staff for this. With some financial investment, we’ll train a team to do this well.
We are going to work much harder at trying to connect directly to all 40,000 Lutherans in our region, through email and other electronic social media, connecting them and helping them catch a vision for the exciting work we are all doing together.
These things will not solve all of our problems, but bloated bureaucracies no longer work. It’s time to get out of our vertical silos, and adopt more networky, flat organizational structures.
MINISTRY RESULT AREA 2: We will help Congregations Become Known in their Communities.
In the survey results, the number one thing people wanted was for the synod to equip pastors and other leaders with strategies that enable them to reach new members. That starts with having a presence in the community. What do we want the face of Lutheranism to be in Houston, New Orleans, Brenham and so on? When people hear “Lutheran,” what do we want them to think of? How do we intentionally shape that presence?
Web: These days, if someone visits your congregation, you can be 90% sure they’ve already been to your web page, to find out who you are, where you are, and when your services are. Some congregational web pages don’t have directions or an address. Some don’t tell their service times. We’re going to help congregations with their web page, especially small congregations, by providing a free template that they could use, that has all the necessary ingredients for a good web page.
Signs: We’re going to work with congregations on signage.
Check out this sign. Every congregation should have a couple of these positioned strategically at intersections that lead people to the church. We’re going to work with ministeriums to help congregations get signs and put them in the right place.
We’re going to work with ministeriums on the possibilities of newspaper ads, TV ads and so forth. The ELCA has some free ads we can use, if we can pool resources to get them on the air.
We are going to continue to help congregations connect to, and reroot in their communities.
And we are going to create teams that will give congregations outside eyes on their worship and evangelism, so they can get some helpful, objective feedback on what visitors see when they come.
We will be trying to help congregations grow, by getting them to do some different things, because as Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same things, but expecting different results.”
MINISTRY RESULT AREA 3: We will establish a new, separately funded Partnership for Ministry Excellence
We can say that we are going to help congregations grow as our top priority, but you know how institutions are. They do something for a while, but eventually the forces of inertia and gravity suck them right back into the same old ways of doing things. If we are going to have to create a new way of being synod that is obsessively focused on helping congregations grow, we need a new structure. We’ve been honing the way we do things, but we’re still doing basically the same things, and we are still getting the same results.
You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. So, we are going to build a new structure alongside the old, a new structure that is more effective in resourcing congregations. We’re going to create a partnership that will provide outstanding training, coaching and consultation to leaders of congregations.
We are going to train two evangelists in every congregation. Lutherans in the growing churches of Africa have evangelists. The early church had evangelists. Could it be that this is an important role in a growing church? This will help our congregations become more adept at evangelism. We’ll provide top-notch training in Spirituality, Intergenerational Ministry and Worship, and also in multicultural ministry, governance, administration, and justice. We will become the synod that helps congregations grow.
MINISTRY RESULT AREA 4: Finally, we will start at least one new worshipping community a year.
It always seemed a mystery to me what congregations were being started where, when, how. From now on, we’re going to start at least one new worshipping community a year, and we’re going to announce it at assembly, asking every congregation to support one new start with prayers and offerings. Every new start from will have dozens of supporters.
Then, at next year’s assembly, we’ll report on how they’re going, what we learned. And then we’ll start another one. And so on each year.
We will identify congregations that have the capacity to start new worshipping communities. We will identify the three fastest-growing areas in the synod where we should be starting new worshipping communities. And we will ask ministeriums/conferences to develop a mission strategy for their area.
There are no guarantees that if we do these things, we will change the playing field, if we keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them, it certainly won’t change. Now is the time to act boldly and decisively. Now is the time to imagine, think creatively, take a few calculated risks and think outside the box.
I ask you to look back over this article and ask yourself what this means for your congregation. Ask yourself where your gifts might help us realize some of these result areas, so that when we come together next year for assembly, things will look different, we’ll see some changes and have something to celebrate!
Yours in Christ,
Michael Rinehart, bishop