Focusing on Congregational Vitality

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

outwardly focused congregationsThe ELCA has recently reorganized its mission in the U.S. to focus on congregational vitality, recognizing that the ministry of this church is lived out to a significant extent (though not exclusively) in the work of our congregations. If congregations are vibrant, then ministry is as well. Without synods or churchwide, congregations might struggle, but they would continue. Without congregations, however, there is no synod, no churchwide organization to serve the world and the church.

The Conference of Bishops met recently to work on a definition of congregational vitality. We ended up with a draft that looks something like this: Communities of Jesus that promote life-giving relationships with God, one another and the world.

Notice this definition is not about numbers. It is about vitality. We have all seen small congregations full of vitality, energy and outward-focus. I have seen congregations split, have families leave, and in the end be healthier and more mission-focused as a result.

I am encouraged by our denomination’s reframing of its work. It aligns nicely with our goals here in the synod, to become a network of growing, Christ-centered, outwardly-focused ministries passing the faith to the next generation. Through the work of LEAD, we have become, some would say, obsessively focused on congregational vitality. We are learning volumes.

It would be helpful for us to have an ongoing conversation about how you think the churchwide organization can best promote congregational vitality. It would also be helpful to hear your thoughts about how the synod can do so.

In the next few years, the ELCA is committed to the following goals as it becomes the church God is calling us to be:

GOAL ONE: A thriving church spreading the gospel and deepening faith for all people (Acts 1:8, 1 Peter 2:9-10, Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 1:16).

GOAL TWO: A church equipping people for their baptismal vocations in the world and this church (Philippians 2:4-11, 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Romans 6:3-4, Mark 10:13-16).

GOAL THREE: An inviting and welcoming church that reflects and embraces the diversity of our communities and the gifts and opportunities that diversity brings (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 2:14-20, Acts 10, Galatians 3:26-28).

GOAL FOUR: A visible church deeply committed to working ecumenically and with other people of faith for justice, peace and reconciliation in communities and around the world (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, John 13:12-15, Isaiah 58:1-11).

GOAL FIVE: A well-governed, connected and sustainable church (1 Corinthians 4:1-2, 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, Micah 6:8, 2 Corinthians 9).

To these ELCA goals, I would share our synod’s four core commitments:

  1. Deepening faith: We will respond to the urgency in our community for deepening faith and spirituality.

Mindy Roll is our key leader for this conviction. Also on the team are Janelle Hooper and Kathy Patrick. Their plans to expand the team. So far they have produced a curriculum for small groups to deep in faith through telling stories. Harvey delayed our piloting and rollout, but 70 copies have sold, so its off and running. You can find this curriculum on Amazon at:

  1. Hospitality: Our synod and its congregations will model radical hospitality.

Chris Markert is our key leader for this conviction. He is in the process of assembling a diverse team. Hospitality is wide. It ranges from how congregations welcome visitors to how we welcome immigrants in our neighborhoods. They have prepared a congregational assessment.

  1. Leadership: Our synod will continue to focus on leadership.

Peggy Hahn is heading this up with some help from Blair. Their goals are to maximize teaching cohorts in our synod, to expand our digital resource center and to develop a pipeline for future leaders.

  1. Structure: We will tend to our structures, so that they serve us, not the other way around.

Evan Moilan is our key leader for this conviction. He has assembled a team. They have met by phone. John Turnquist is on this team, that will look at congregational and synodical constitutions for ways to streamline governance.



Synod Leadership Positions Available for Nomination

“Leadership is key.  Each year the Synod Nominations Committee is charged with presenting a slate of candidates for leadership in the church to the Synod Assembly for election.  This year we are seeking candidates for 3 Synod Council positions, and candidates to serve in 8 voting member roles at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly.  The nominations committee needs your help to identify leaders who may be called to serve in these capacities.

The following positions are available for nomination.

Council: Lay Female
Council: Youth
Council: Clergy Female

CWA: Lay Female
CWA: Lay Female
CWA: Lay Male
CWA: Lay Male
CWA: Clergy Female
CWA: Clergy male
CWA: Lay Person of Color or Primary Language other than English
CWA: Lay Youth/Young Adult (Under 30 at election)

Nomination forms, which include needed qualifications and minimum commitments are available at:

Nominations are due by April 14th, and can be submitted per the instructions on the nominations forms.”

Rejoice! — The Final “r” in Recovery

By Ele Clay, Disaster Recovery Coordinator

recovery 1When disaster visits your space and the single concern of the moment is rescue, relief comes much later in waves of thankfulness and appreciation. Meanwhile, something inside you knows a big piece is missing. You’re too weary to name it or own it, even as healing demands your attention. That’s when a unique corps of people stepping into your world, can bring life-giving energy that unveils the final R in recovery—Rejoice!

Lately we have had a burst of rejoicing in our Gulf Coast Synod as dozens of volunteers and thousands of dollars have poured into our lives from all across the country, lifting clouds of gloom left by the past summer’s deluge of tragedy. Even when two days of freezing temperatures and rain in January kept most of Houston off the streets, winter-savvy Iowans joyfully zipped through their rebuild assignment. They recreated the floor of a children’s ministry building to maximize a congregation’s capacity to serve their community. With tears in his eyes and a sob in his voice, one Houston construction project manager said, “I’ve never worked with any group of people like these friends from northeast Iowa. Nothing got in the way of the work they came to do and finish in record time.”

What does it take to recover from a crisis?

recovery 2Joy! That’s what’s it. Another crew of northern visitors made our business their business as they hoisted themselves onto the roof of a home whose owners they’d only just met. They replaced roofing tile and shored up gutters; cut out molding drywall and painted ceilings after a 14-hour journey from their hometown to ours. God’s work. Our hands. is more than a cool tee shirt motto to these volunteers. In a community where local congregations have been building trust, our northern sisters and brothers lived out the words they wore on their backs. They brought love to life in a community skeptical of untried promises. They deepened the gift of the Spirit as strangers became friends in the wake of untimely destruction.

What does it take to recoup critical losses?

recovery 3You! Your ongoing prayers, your listening ears, your monetary gifts. Without a doubt, people who surround us with practical support are the ground zero of recovery. Thousands of you have made it possible for us to experience the healing power of caring relationships. You’ve given us the capacity to extend food, books, and funds where needed in the last seven months. Through these you are working out God’s promise to care for us even as we walk through the blind valleys of loss and uncertainty. And it’s not over! In three months, 30,000 teenagers and their leaders will bring their energy to the city for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering. With three days of interaction and community life; touring around the dozens of neighborhoods where they will live; and investing their energies in multiple service projects, we’ll be set to say This Changes Everything! and know exactly what it means.

Rescue. Remove. Repair. Rebuild. Relocate. These are some of the practicalities we confronted when circling bands of wind and water scrawled the words “new normal” across piles of debris that once were lifelong treasures. In spite of this, the final “R” is determinedly writing the last word.  We REJOICE as caring friends and far-flung neighbors literally go the distance to take our burdens onto their shoulders giving us space to breathe, and grieve, and revive. We REJOICE when fear or despair is set aside in favor of a new kind of patience with ourselves and others around us. We REJOICE in the presence of God with us through the hearts and hands of you who share so fully in our story—“God’s servants, working together”.

Myths: Firearms, Mental Illness and Suicide

Myth: Most homicides are completed by people with mental illness.

Truth: First, it is important to recognize that mental illness affects 1 in 4 people, or upwards of 70 million in the US.

The vast majority of violence in our country is NOT perpetrated by persons with serious mental disorders. The best available estimates indicate that of all the violent acts committed in the US, only 4 to 5% is attributable to people with mental illness.
-NAMI, National Alliance for Mental Illness

Myth: Most firearm deaths are homicides;

Truth: More firearm suicides are completed with a gun than homicides.
-CDC: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013

Justice Advocacy Workshop

Sunday, Mar.  4, 2 – 4 p.m.

The Interfaith Environmental Network of Houston, a Houston affiliate of the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, invites you to attend a Justice Advocacy Workshop taught by experts from TX Impact, an Austin-based interfaith justice advocacy organization with which our synod is affiliated.  The Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy and TX Impact are sister organizations.

Justice Advocacy Workshop 2017

The Justice Advocacy Workshop is free, and will take place on Sunday, Mar. 4 from 2 – 4 p.m. at Christ the King in Houston, as well as online, via a simultaneous web meeting. Materials to prepare for Faith Climate Action Week in April will also be distributed.  Learn how to effectively raise your voice for the voiceless! Please register for this event. The training will be recorded, so if you can’t make it, you can still get a copy of the training recording to review later. Christ the King is located at 2353 Rice Blvd. Metro bus lines 27 & 41 stop nearby. For more information, please contact Lisa Brenskelle at

A Valentine Gift from God

By Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop, ELCA

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (Love Story).

“Forgiveness guaranteed. Repentance optional” (sign in front of a Lutheran church).

Elizabeth Eaton
Bishop Eaton

This year Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same date. It seems like an odd pairing—Ash Wednesday, a day of solemn repentance and honest reckoning of our brokenness, and Valentine’s Day, a lighthearted celebration of love. Do we fast and pray and commit to rigorous spiritual disciplines, or do we dive in to Champagne and chocolate? Is it a day of contrition or of abandon? Do we abstain or do we indulge?

It’s strange how our culture divides up human experience and the way it puts a premium on happiness, self-fulfillment and conflict avoidance, particularly in personal relationships. The good life is untroubled. There should be no worries and certainly no cause to acknowledge pain or wrong. It’s a life of endless possibility fueled by positive thinking and affirmation. It should be perky, upbeat and fun. And somehow love needs to be shaped the same way. Certainly there is no room for Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day in the
same space.

The two quotes above are the manifesto for this worldview. They hold out the promise of pain-free, investment-free, responsibility-free relationships. They encourage an unexamined life, a kind of Teflon existence to which consequences don’t stick. They sound like the real thing but are as poor a substitute as the sentiments printed on the little sugar valentine hearts are for a real expression of love. In this world, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day make no sense together. But here we are. This Feb. 14 will hold two holy days. And, in our life in Christ, they aren’t incompatible but inseparable.

The history of salvation is one extended love story between God and God’s creation, between God and humankind, between God and God’s people. We were created in love for love. Real love. Love that is solid and deep and unflinching. Love that is true enough to be honest.

God’s work of reconciliation in Christ is God’s eyes-wide-open acknowledgment of human rebellion and sin, the undeniable fact that all is not well no matter how hard we try to fix it or deny it. The remedy was the all-in, complete love of the incarnation, crucifixion and death of Christ. Jesus meets us right in the middle of our pain—the pain we feel and the pain we cause others—and without minimizing the depth of our offense, offers forgiveness and new life. Love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry—love means being able to say you’re sorry.

Lutherans point out that grace is a gift, but sometimes we get a little carried away. I believe the sign in front of one of our congregations that claimed “Forgiveness guaranteed. Repentance optional” was trying to announce good news. Instead, it sent passers-by in the wrong direction. Our reconciled new life in Christ not only makes it possible for us to strip away any illusion of a whole and holy life that we bring about by ourselves, it compels us to repent.

Theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about this cheap grace. He wrote: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).

So, Ash Wednesday is a valentine from God, one that invites us to enter deep into the mystery of true love, honest examination of our lives and the possibility of real repentance. The Ash Wednesday valentine starts us on the journey to the cross, to the passionate love of God shown in the Passion of Christ. And after the cross, the resurrection. No more pretense, freedom.

A monthly message from the presiding bishop  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her email address: This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s February 2018 issue. Reprinted with permission.

“Pastor, you’re being too political”

By Bishop Mike Rinehart

My kingdom is not of this world. – Jesus

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. – Jesus

american-flag-in-churchWhen is one being too political? Is it a violation of the separation of church and state for church officials to support or oppose certain legislation? How about church members?

Trained pastors and deacons, of course, know that the Bible is very political, and that Jesus is very political. If our people don’t know that, we have only ourselves to blame. It is up to us to help them understand how very political it was to call Jesus the Son of God, when everyone knew, because it said so on the coins, that Caesar, and only Caesar was the son of God. It is up to us to explain that to say that Jesus is Lord was sedition, a crime punishable by death. If our people don’t understand this, we need to up our preaching game.

The First Amendment

People often cite the first amendment to say that the church should not meddle in government affairs, and the government should not meddle in church affairs. Here’s what the first amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s just the first part of this amendment that addresses church and state. There are basically two points: Congress shall not establish state religion, and Congress shall not impede the free exercise of religion. The amendment goes on to talk about freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition.

There is nothing in the first amendment that prohibits the church from speaking to the state about laws. In fact, that would be limiting freedom of speech. Likewise, there is nothing that prevents the state from holding houses of worship and religious leaders accountable to the law. Religious institutions are not above the law. Congress is not to establish an official state religion, nor to prevent the free exercise of religion. This does not mean the two ignore each other. Government leaders belong to churches, and church members serve in public office.


There is a long-standing tradition of religious leaders speaking prophetically to government leaders. In the central story of the Old Testament, God told Moses to go to Pharaoh, and instruct him to release all the slaves. When he did so, was he being too political? Was Moses a religious leader or a political leader?

Prophet Nathan condemned King David for his sexual misconduct with Bathsheba. Isaiah went to King Hezekiah. King Zedekiah consulted with Jeremiah. Amos, Isaiah and the other prophets called kings and people to justice for the orphan, the widow and the immigrant.


There was a day and age in which the church in the state walked hand-in-hand. Political leaders and business leaders were expected to be church members in good standing. Church leaders were expected to support government decisions. To do otherwise was unseemly. To oppose the Vietnam war, or segregation was considered unpatriotic by some.

Both mainline church and the state upheld a vision for America. These visions were pretty closely aligned, especially after World War II. It was during this era that the flag started appearing in the chancels of churches. The problem was, it was a white vision. People of color were not worthy to drink from the same drinking fountains or eat at the same restaurants as white people. Churches were just as segregated as the rest of society. A Time for BurningPastors who spoke out against this system were often pushed out of their congregations for being too “political.” Watch A Time for Burning, about a Lutheran pastor’s attempt to integrate a parish in Nebraska. 

White churches and black churches developed different paradigms for preaching. In the white church, pastors were expected to support society’s dominant structures. Everyone knew they weren’t perfect, but it was felt the flaws were minor. It was often believed that everyone had the same opportunities to succeed or fail.

In the Historic Black Churches, it was recognized that those structures had failed African Americans. Pastors had to give people comfort and strength to meet the next day in a society where they were constantly being told to move to the back of the bus, the back of the line, or the balcony of the church, because of the color of their skin. Blacks were more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be convicted. Housing, education and opportunity was substandard, resulting in generational consequences. Preachers in the Historic Black Churches spent more time on transforming societal structures, and strengthening people to meet the challenges they faced. Church become the very place to deal with societal inequities, not the place to avoid them.

Not talking about uncomfortable social topics is a white church phenomenon. Challenging societal structures and corporate sins is considered being “too political.” One can decry the moral failings of the individual, but never the moral failings of the government.


Sometimes, when people say a religious leader is being political, what they really mean is partisan. They mean, that religious leader is supporting a particular party, as God’s party, or a particular candidate as God’s candidate. We know all parties to be under the power of sin. None can be equated with the kingdom of God.

When Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world,“ he makes it clear that there is no political party that can claim to be aligning itself with the kingdom of God. This passage does not, however, mean that God’s kingdom is irrelevant to the world. The kingdom is breaking into our world in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel has some very concrete ideas about how Christians are to engage the world. We are to be in the world, not of the world. Jesus did not shy away from denouncing the evil of his day, even defying Herod and call him a fox.

The moral voice, not the political voice

Cardinal DiNardo, when meeting with the bishops of various denomination in Houston, has been known to remind us that we are the moral voice, not the political voice. For those of us that are pastors and deacons, we proclaim the gospel, not any particular political ideology. If we are to be the moral voice however, we must not hide that voice under a bushel basket.

Morality is not just about individual behavior; it is about corporate behavior. Corporate evil. If one person can act badly, then many people as a group can certainly behave badly as well. If a law is immoral, it is immoral for religious leaders to be silent.

Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke prophetically against Naziism, and against Hitler himself. In fact, he participated in an assassination attempt on Hitler. It cost him his life. He spoke prophetically about following Christ in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.

What are Bonhoeffer had not spoken up? What if he had said, “This is a political matter, not a church matter?” Sadly, this is what most of his colleagues did.

Does the gospel have anything to say to the pressing matters of our day? Is it just about the afterlife? Does it have implications for how we live? I have discovered that when people disagree with you, they say you’re being too political. When they agree with what you were saying, they believe you’re being prophetic.

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.
―Dom Hélder CâmaraDom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

So when people say the pastor is being too political, they may mean that they feel the pastor is supporting one political party over another. This is a fair critique. No party is the kingdom of God. Other people, however, may mean that they simply disagree with the pastor’s position. They may not like that the pastor is making a moral stand in the midst of a controversy issue.

At the end of the day, religious leaders must speak from a moral center, no matter what the cost. To be silent in the face of evil is evil itself.

Just teach the Bible

“Just teach the Bible,” some will say, but one wonders what Bible they are talking about. Could they be talking about the Bible that is dominated by the words of the prophets? Could they be talking about the Jesus who took a whip of cords and overturned tables in the temple? Just preach the gospel, others will say, but one wonders which gospel they are talking about. Are they talking about a feel-good gospel that keeps everyone in line with things as they are? Is it a gospel about pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, salvation by in church singing Jesus songs and believing church doctrines? Or we talking about a gospel that calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus into a world in need of healing, feeding hungry, clothing the naked, welcome the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned?

The prophet Amos decried a phony religiosity that could sing happy God songs and ignore the poor and needy. God spoke in Amos 5:21-24:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

All of this leaves pastors and deacons in a bind. These are the people that pay our salaries after all. You don’t want to say anything that is controversial or that will make them mad. And one must be constantly vigilant about being self-righteous. We must speak the truth in love, but never, ever, assume we are the only ones to him the truth has been revealed. Even if we are trying to invite people into Jesus more generous, inclusive way of being the world, we cannot move them from A-to-Z. You can only move them from A to B, one step at a time. And they will only listen if they know you love them. You are in the right to be heard, by living love and generosity to them in your own life.

This is not easy. The Bible never said it would be. Paul was jailed, stoned, beaten and once had to be smuggled out of town in a basket. If you are silent about social evils, and there are plenty, you are complicit. If you speak up, you may risk being self-righteous, and possibly lose your job.

If only we had a good role model, one who paid a tremendously high price for speaking the truth in love.

The State of the ELCA: Review of Russ Crabtree’s book

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

The State of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: An Organizational Intelligence Perspective, by Russell Crabtree, has about 97 pages. It was probably finished in 2016, based on a few of the examples, though there is no date in the book that I could find.

The State of the ELCABishop Wayne Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod says the book is a “must read for congregational leaders, synod staffs, and synod councils.” Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod, who spoke at one of our leadership events a few years ago says, “Russ Crabtree… provides a clear evidence-based approach to assessing where we are as a church.”

There is a lot of data in this book, not attendance, membership or giving, information readily available elsewhere, but data gathered from 288 ELCA congregations of every size, 57,000 members in five synods. The information reports the experiences of members, as reported by the members themselves.

Crabtree gives us an example from another discipline. Yoga, in practice, has around $27 billion in revenue. There are 20 million practitioners, 91% of whom say they are satisfied with the experience of their current yoga studio. 91% satisfaction rate. What would members of ELCA congregations say?

The book has nine chapters. His conclusion is thoughtfully titled, “What does this mean?”

  1. Vitality of ELCA congregations
  2. Beliefs and spiritual practices of ELCA members
  3. Aspirations
  4. Pastoral transitions
  5. Financial giving
  6. Synods
  7. From data to discernment
  8. Interview of pastors from large and small transformational ELCA churches
  9. Interview of pastors from more conservative and more progressive transformational ELCA churches

Congregational satisfaction, contrary to popular thought, does not mean pandering to the members. Inwardly-focused congregations tend to have lower membership satisfaction rates, while outwardly-focused congregational have higher member satisfaction rates. This makes sense if you believe the gospel. Joy is found when we give ourselves away.


Crabtree discovered that Lutheran congregations fare some what better than a number of other denominations in satisfaction. They have higher satisfaction and less polarization than, say, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Episcopalians, and Methodists. The numbers, however, are not great. 33 percent of Lutheran members generally agree that folks are “going through the motions” in their congregation. Only 58% of white ELCA members are satisfied with their congregation, as compare to 70% in Latino ELCA congregations and 67% in African American ELCA congregations. Crabtree reflects with curiosity, that white males, arguably the most prosperous and privileged demographic group in the United States, are among the least satisfied. The least satisfied group of all is Lutheran households that make more than $300,000 a year. His conclusion about overall satisfaction: If you believe increasing attracting people with resources and power is a pathway to congregational vitality, you would be mistaken.

80% agree that the church exhibits and atmosphere of genuine care for members, however only 43% agree that the church adapts to meet the needs of those it wants to reach. Lutherans perceive their church to be more internally then extremely-focused.

There are some Lutheran congregations that have much higher satisfaction and energy levels than the average congregation, only about 10% of ELCA congregations. Crabtree calls these transformational congregations. The last two chapters have stories from interviews of these congregations, large and small, conservative and liberal.

Some church leaders may believe that simply having worship on Sunday is fulfilling the mission, but a high percentage of ELCA members wouldn’t agree. 57 percent of ELCA Lutherans agreed that the church is effective in fulfilling its mission.

Crabtree gives a sobering look at the church, but he also offers some pathways to a hopeful future indicated by the work he has done with congregations over the years.

When asked to prioritize the list of 17 goals across all groups and sizes of the church the top five areas where ELCA members want to invest additional energy are:

  1. Reaching new people
  2. Attracting families
  3. Healing the broken
  4. Developing financial generosity
  5. Equipping people for ministry in the world

Pastoral Transitions

Nothing gets the congregation fired up more than the call process. Crabtree regularly surveys congregations on their most recent pastoral transition. Sometimes denominational executives and interim pastors focus on the grieving process in congregations when a pastor leaves. While there are some who are grieving, only 16% of those who responded said uncomfortably so. Grief ministry is appropriate, but should not be a dominant theme in most congregations.

Like congregations in general, there is also some good news in pastoral transitions. 31% indicate a willingness to become more available to serve during a pastoral transition. Because participation breeds commitment, smart congregations will find 30 tasks for every 100 adults who attend worship during a transition: prayer teams, focus groups, going away parties, call committees, transition teams, listening, welcome… Rather than decline, some congregations find a pastoral transition is a good time for a shot in the arm.

Only 3% say they plan to give less during a pastoral transition. 13%, a significant group, indicate they are willing to give more to support a transition. If a congregation of 200 households in a community with an average income of $100K has 30 families willing to step up 1%, that $30K more for interim costs, interview costs, relocation costs.

During interims some people get off the bus and some will get on the bus. But only 7% say they intend to explore other churches. 1/5 are on the fence. How many actually leave will depend on what happens during the transition. Here the author offers a warning: If anxiety is high and not addressed by congregational leaders, more may leave. Only 50% of members feel their congregation’s leaders are doing an effective job of communicating. There is an opportunity here for us to up our game.

When asked, during a pastoral transition, if they feel the congregation is stronger, weaker or about the same as just before the pastor’s departure, one third say stronger, one third say weaker, and one third say about the same, an even split. If they believe the congregation is stronger, they will try to drag out the interim, believing the call process is moving too quickly. If they believe they are weaker, they will complain that the call process is not quick enough.


50% of ELCA Lutherans favor an annual appeal. 7% do not. 43% on the fence. When doing an annual appeal, leaders will simply have to spend a significant amount of time winning over the middle. But here is some good news: Even those dissatisfied with their church support doing a campaign.

When asked which of these five most influences their giving decisions, ELCA members prioritized them like this:

  1. Personal faith and call to be generous.
  2. Effectiveness of ministry in making a difference.
  3. How well the church manages finances.
  4. The state of the economy.
  5. Reaching out to the needs of the world.

It’s important to manage finances well, but this is not the reason give. Older members give out of duty, personal faith, a call to be generous. Younger members give if they feel their congregation is making a difference.

Different people give for different reasons. It’s important to listen to your congregation, perhaps survey them. Find out why they give. The way you approach giving can be adapted to the motives of your people. Be creative. Be generation-specific. Develop messaging that addresses various giving motives.

The Synod

The average person in the pew knows little about the synod or the churchwide organization. What the congregation knows or feels is often based on what the pastor and key lay leaders say and do. Only 41% of clergy are satisfied with their synod. 48% believe the synod is going thru the motions. With lay leaders the numbers can be lower. And as time passes, the numbers go down. Leaders who are very aware of the synod plateau at 48% satisfaction. After 6-10 years that satisfaction drops to 39%.

It is difficult for any entity to be sustainable in the long run if more than half of the persons who make decisions about funding that entity are dissatisfied or on the fence about how it is doing.

Our synod took Russ Crabtree’s survey in 2011 and in 2016. Congregational leaders evaluated the work of the synod. A survey was sent to every congregational council member that would give us their email address. In both years the sample was sufficient, though in 2016 the sample was smaller (233) than 2011 (385). In 2011, overall satisfaction was low. In 2016, after our first strategic plan, reorganization and creation of LEAD, Crabtree’s organization said satisfaction was high. We were told they had never seen a score this high from any judicatory. Here was the question:

On the whole, I am satisfied with how things are in our Synod.

2011    2016

Clearly agree              38%     52%

On the fence               53%     42%

Clearly disagree          8%       5%


More satisfied. Less dissatisfied. Less on the fence. In another question, in 2011 38% felt we were just going through the motions. In the 2016 survey that number dropped to 13%.

While we celebrate this, the survey still shows room for significant improvement. We are a long way from yoga’s 91% satisfaction rate. Our goal is to be network of Christ-centered, outwardly-focused congregations passing the faith to the next generation. How do we get there?

When asked what they wanted from their synod, congregational leaders listed these five things out of a list of 16:

  1. Equip pastors/leaders to reach new members.
  2. Equip pastors/leaders to develop disciples.
  3. Work with churches that are struggling.
  4. Rethink how to be vital Lutheran churches.
  5. Equip congregations to address community problems.

Leaders do not want the synod to:

  1. Streamline the synod organizationally and administratively so that it makes use of its financial resources. This came in DEAD LAST.
  2. Provide leaders with interpretive resources that will build more support among members for the work of the synod. This came in next to last.

Synods must not only change how they communicate; the must change what they do. Better marketing of a synod won’t change this much. The only path toward vitality for synods is to direct energy into helping congregations grow into vital entities. This is one of the reasons we created LEAD. After receiving a bad report card in 2011, we recognized we were not resourcing congregations as we would like. We were too distracted by congregational conflict, hurricanes, and other matters. We felt the only way forward was to create a separate organization that did not have to deal with maintenance, an organization that could spend 100% of its time focused on leadership development and congregational vitality. We now have that entity and are deeply grateful to Peggy Hahn and her team for their work in this church.

Our new strategic plan focuses on four things we heard congregations asking for:

Deepening Faith By Mindy RollDeeping Faith: We will help congregations and their members deepen faith. We heard you, loud and clear. We’re off and running. Please consider putting together some small groups to work through a new curriculum we created, authored by Pastor Mindy Roll, creatively entitled. Deepening Faith. This small group gathering will invite people to reflect upon their lives and their faith together. Each person will need a participant guide, and the group leader will need the leader guide. Deepening Faith Leader GuideThis lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them develop disciples. Our synod assembly this year, Faith5, will focus on thing we can do to teach the faith in the home as well.

Hospitality: We heard from congregational leaders a desire to get better at hospitality, from welcoming newcomers, to a deeper hospitality in the community. We all know we need to work on this. Chris Markert has assembled a team that is working on this. They are about to launch a congregational self-assessment on hospitality. This lines up with Crabtree’s data that shows ELCA congregational leaders want the synod to help them reach new members.

Leadership: We heard positive feedback for LEAD, and were told to keep that focus on leadership alive. A community will usually not grow any more than the leader is growing. With the context changing underneath our feet, we need to continue to learn adaptive leadership. We are going to continue to pour energy into coaching, digital resources, and feeding a pipeline for future leadership.

Structure: Our organizational structures, governance and constitutions were built for a former era. Some of them are still useful, some are no longer helpful. A committee-reports-to-the-whole council of four officers (president, VP, secretary, treasurer) and eight standing committee chairs (building, education, fellowship, stewardship…) is no longer the most helpful governance in many contexts. A one-size-fits-all approach will not do. How do we organize to be a lean, purpose-drive congregations that maximize people in ministry, rather than bury them in committees and administration? Are our structures serving us or are we serving our structures?

We hope this focused work will help us respond creatively to the challenges Crabtree to painstakingly lays out for us. This book is a good read for congregational and denominational leaders in the ELCA. I’m deeply grateful to Russ, Robin and others for their work in our synod, and in the whole church.

When Should I Announce My Resignation or Retirement?

By Blair Lundborg, assistant to the bishop TX-LA Gulf Coast Synod

pastor shaking handsOne of the questions we often field in the Synod Office is how and when to announce an upcoming resignation or retirement.  Perhaps you are not surprised to hear the simple answer “It depends.” There is not a one-size-fits-all answer. In fact, there are more questions than answers when it comes to announcing your departure. For example: How long have you served? Is there conflict or unrest in the congregation? Will the position you leave be full time for your successor? Have you accepted another call or are you at the point of considering making yourself available for call? Are you or considering a vocational change or going On Leave From Call?

Here’s the unvarnished truth. Our resignation or retirement will not be nearly as difficult for the congregation as they (or we) might think. It’s a humbling reality, but it’s true. Pastors and deacons change calls with regularity. At any given time, there are usually about 10-15% of the congregations in the Gulf Coast Synod in the call process.

The moment we announce a resignation our effectiveness in ministry begins to diminish. Giving the congregation more than 60 days simply prolongs the inevitable. Giving less than a 30 day notice will likely raise the anxiety. The exception to that is a conflicted setting where a severance package has been negotiated.

As I think back on each of my pastoral transitions, I can identify several responses. There was a sense of loss and sadness expressed by some, but certainly not all. Others had accepted it and were ready to move on. This was usually the largest group. A handful of people were ready to celebrate! None of us are irreplaceable. It’s humbling, but true.

There are guidelines we must follow according to the congregation’s constitution. The specific language from the required constitutional provision is found in C9.05.2. A rostered leaders “resignation shall become effective, unless otherwise agreed, no later than 30 days after the date on which it was submitted.” Generally speaking, thirty days is standard, sixty is bearable, more than that is usually too long.

Congregations are actually quite resilient. They will get over us, probably sooner than we care to admit. If we think they need a year to prepare for our departure that probably says more about our needs than theirs. People will grow weary of saying good-bye, especially if it goes on for several months. Good-bye fatigue is real. Long good-byes also delay the transition process. People need to move on just as we feel the need to change calls.

Informing the leadership is different. They need more time. Not much, but more. Maybe a couple of weeks? The council president needs to know about our resignation or retirement before the full council or congregation. Connect the council president with the bishop’s office as soon as you let them know of your intentions. Council presidents need to make plans with the bishop’s office for an exit interview, interim coverage, and other transition matters. The synod staff will work with the leaders so when your departure is officially announced the council can assure people that they are already working on the transition.

On occasion, the bishop’s office has been asked to help multi-staff congregations with a succession plan. This usually precedes a retirement where a new staff person is called for a period of overlap service with the outgoing rostered person. Upon the retirement of the outgoing leader the associate moves into the lead seat. As attractive as a succession plan seems, it is much more complicated than it sounds.  It is also beyond the scope of this short article. Suffice it to say, there are very few successful examples of the succession model.

So, what is a best practice when it comes to announcing a resignation or retirement? A call to the bishop’s office is a great place to start. Bishop Mike and the synod staff are prepared to help you think through the process. And yes, it does depend on the particular circumstances leading up to your decision to leave. Let us help you sort that out so you can end well and your congregation can begin strong with their next pastor or deacon.

Walk with Lutheran World Relief during Lent

Season of Hope banner


Walk with Lutheran World Relief (@LuthWorldRelief) during the season of Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a Season of Hope. LWR has prepared a suite of resources to energize congregations for global good, including a special homily series, step-by-step instructions to assemble Personal Care Kits, weekly devotionals by Lutherans in the U.S. and LWR staff and a Palm Sunday bulletin insert and children’s activity sheet.

Visit for these and other resources to make a positive impact on families living in some of the world’s poorest communities!


Walk with @LuthWorldRelief this Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a #SeasonofHope. Visit for resources to energize congregations for global good!


Walk with Lutheran World Relief during the season of Lent and announce to the world that the hope of Christ makes a new season possible: a Season of Hope. LWR has prepared a suite of resources to energize congregations for global good, including:

  • A special homily series featuring pictures and stories of the families you reach with LWR
  • Step-by-step instructions to assemble Personal Care Kits for families in need around the world
  • Weekly devotionals by Lutherans in the U.S. and LWR staff
  • Palm Sunday bulletin insert and children’s activity sheet

Visit for these and other resources to make a positive impact on families living in some of the world’s poorest communities!


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