Monday, July 28, 2008

Healthy Congregations Manage Conflict

NW MN Synod Bishop's Letter
August 2008

“So, how many conflicted congregations have we got in the synod right now?”

If I were asked this question, I’d probably respond: “About 270 of them!”

What? How can that be? Are things that bad?

Not at all! Rather, we have 270 congregations that are dealing all the time with various and sundry disagreements about things that matter. Garden-variety conflicts aren’t signs of ill health. Rather, they indicate that our congregations are alive, seeking to be faithful in God’s mission. Members of the congregation are able to manage the conflicts that are part of the fabric of parish life.

If I’m asked how many conflicted congregations we have in the synod, what the questioner really wants to know is: How many churches aren’t managing their conflict well? For how many congregations has conflict become a problem?

On any given day the Northwestern Minnesota Synod does have some congregations that have, for a time, lost the ability to manage conflict in their midst. Conflict is thwarting God’s mission.
How can you tell if your congregation is no longer managing a conflict well? Here are some symptoms:
* People vehemently deny that any conflict exists
* Members stop listening carefully to one another
* Persons withdraw their presence, withhold their support, issue ultimatums.
* Blame gets focused on a scapegoat, often the pastor
* People think less reflectively, less imaginatively
* Folks start choosing up sides
* Secrets are kept, clandestine meetings are held, anonymous letters are written, communication breaks down
* People stop taking responsibility for themselves
* Quick fixes are sought
* Members gossip about one another or “triangulate”–bringing in a third party rather than going directly to the person who troubles them

Conflict run amok damages relationships within the Body of Christ, and that in itself is tragic enough. What’s even worse is that unmanaged conflict derails the congregation’s ability to move forward in God’s mission. Rather than walking faithfully and purpose-fully behind their Lord toward God’s gracious future, members of the church get sidetracked.

Fortunately the vast majority of our congregations are not paralyzed by unmanaged conflict. Most churches have learned how to deal with conflict in the course of their common life. How do they do it?

Peter Steinke, in his Creating Healthy Congregations study guide, speaks of three characteristics shared by churches that possess a sense of coherence that allows them to manage conflict:
1. Meaningfulness. Church members have a sense of purpose and are committed to it. They take up the challenges that come to them and shape their destiny under God.
2. Comprehensibility. Folks have a framework for making sense of what is happening. Healthy interaction and clear communication are taken for granted. People see change as natural. Decisions are made on the basis of clarity, not necessarily certainty.
3. Manageability. Church folk don’t act like victims or complain about how unfairly they have been treated. They recognize the gifts and tools available to them, and they respond thoughtfully to the challenges that confront them.
Let me add two more characteristics of congregations that manage conflicts::
4. Forgiveness. When we gather weekly to begin our worship, it is not by accident that we start by confessing our sin to one another and to God. We dare to speak these words only because we know God has an answer to offer us: “I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, for Jesus’ sake.” People who live within that confession-absolution rhythm always have the best resource for managing conflict.
5. Preparedness. Healthy congregations expect that they will occasionally encounter sharp disagreements. Just as they keep their liability insurance up to date and their fire extinguishers recharged, they have a conflict management plan “in place.” They cultivate leaders who know how to take stands and stay connected with others. They work with clear guidelines and policies. They have functioning Mutual Ministry Committees. They read and practice Matthew 18:15-20 routinely. They ask their leaders to go through Healthy Congregations training.

Larry Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. Why do we avoid thinking that conflict is normal in the life of the church?
2. Recall a time when you or your congregation was involved in “conflict run amok.” How did it start? What happened? What resulted from the conflict situation? How did it end? What did you learn?
3. Recall a time when you or your congregation experienced a well-managed conflict situation. Ask yourself the same set of questions under #2 above.

Gathered, Transformed, Sent

Centennial Service at Calvary, Bemidji
July 27, 2008
Acts 2:37-47

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

What’s the difference between a person celebrating her 100th birthday and a congregation observing its centennial?

Well, the difference is that when a person turns 100 everyone worries—either about starting a fire from all those candles on the birthday cake OR they worry about the honored guest having a heart attack trying to blow out all those candles!

The 100th birthday of a person often marks the “end of the line,” the culmination of a life.

But when a congregation celebrates its 100th birthday, you ship the bishop in to preach so that (as Pastor Trandem was quoted in last Friday’s Bemidji Pioneer) “we can cast a vision for the next 100 years.”

Yikes! Steve—what an assignment! Thanks for not low-balling anybody’s expectations for this morning’s sermon!

Pastor Trandem talked that way, though, because, as the lifespan of Christian congregations go, the first 100 years is really just a good start.

The life of a congregation, you see, transcends the lives of its members. You aren’t the same Calvary Lutheran Church that got started when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. God is forever replenishing the church….God is continually gathering, transforming and sending his church.

Gathering, transforming, sending….those are words you’ve been lifting up in this Centennial year. They not only sum up your past—but they are clues as to how God will move you toward your bicentennial as Calvary Lutheran Church.

What will get you to the year 2108? Three things in particular: the gathering, transforming and sending work of God.

First, God will keep gathering you.

Wherever God is at work, God is always gathering his people….calling us out of the world…gathering us around Word, sacraments and mission.

Our God has always been a gathering-God. In our text from Acts, chapter 2, we see God gathering the church from every nation under heaven, drawing people together through Peter’s preaching, leading 3000 persons to Holy Baptism…

….and the first mark of that newborn church in Jerusalem was their determination to continue gathering. Verse 42 of our text says that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” God doesn’t deal just with solitary, isolated individuals. God gathers people in, gathers persons together, gathers them unto himself.

The very first thing Calvary Lutheran Church did back in 1908 was to gather. God assembled, from among many Bemidji-ites, a congregation called Calvary.

And as long as people keep gathering here, there will be a Calvary Lutheran Church. To help that happen you have recently invested in your gathering place, your building and grounds—not ends in themselves, mind you, but means to the end of gathering around Word, bath, meal and mission.

But gathering is just the first thing—the prerequisite, if you will, for all that follows. For when God gathers you, God also transforms you.

Here in our text we see how those listening to Peter’s Pentecost sermon were “cut to the heart.” The gospel had “gotten” to them, gotten under their skins, disturbed and unsettled them, opened them up to ask: “What should we do?”

A question like that invites God’s transformative work, because transformation starts with discontent with the way we are, discontent with the way things are in this world.

On the day of Pentecost, that transforming power was more than evident. People, cut to the heart by the story of Jesus, asked “What should we do?”

And notice, please, what Peter didn’t say. Peter didn’t say: “Oh don’t worry about it. God accepts you just the way you are.”

No! Although Jesus Christ indeed HAD saved them all with his precious blood, freely shed on the Cross of Calvary….God’s great work still needed to “come home” into the troubled hearts and unsettled lives of these people…

…and so Peter responded with this gracious invitation: “Repent—which means ‘turn away from all that separates you from God’…”

“Repent,” Peter said, “and be baptized every one of you every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Dear friends, before we ever get it in our head to go looking for God, God has been long on the lookout for us, finagling all sorts of ways to get to us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us—Christ did the heavy lifting, Christ procured our salvation…

…but all of that reaches its destination when our hearts are cut to the quick, when we become so unsettled with our sin and the world’s waywardness that we become open to God’s transforming work in our lives.

This congregation, Calvary Lutheran Church, has been, is and shall be a dangerous place—dangerous in the sense that we are changed here. The fragmented pieces of our tattered lives are knit back together here because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

What will the next 100 years look like for you at Calvary? These years will be filled with God’s gathering, transforming work in your midst….and all of it, so that you might also be God’s sent people, bearing Christ wherever you go.

Gathered, transformed, sent! Here in our text the people of the first church in Jerusalem obviously didn’t keep the Good News to themselves. God’s love spilled over, through them, into the wider community, with the result that, as it says in v. 47, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

I’m convinced that if Martin Luther were alive today, living here in North America, he would rewrite that part of his Small Catechism about the Holy Spirit calling, gathering, enlightening and sanctifying us.

If Luther were a pastor here in North America in 2008, Luther would add “sending” to that great list of Holy Spirit verbs.

You see, when Martin Luther lived in Germany, between 1483 and 1546, he assumed that almost everyone in the world had been baptized, had heard the gospel, could be called (at least in some sense) a Christian.

Luther was only 9 years old when a guy named Christopher Columbus found out that there was a whole, much bigger world “out there” in which everyone was NOT baptized or acquainted with Jesus Christ.

Unlike Martin Luther, you and I no longer live in “Christendom.” We cannot assume that everyone around us knows Jesus, believes in Jesus, has come to Jesus in faith. We live in a vast “mission field.” Just this past week I heard that 50% of the residents of Beltrami County are unchurched—and that 50% of the folks in your county also live in poverty.

So here’s the upshot, the payoff of all the gathering, transforming work God has been and will keep doing in your lives: God does all that in order to send you. The sending is what God is after.

I know that sounds scary, so let me suggest that you start close to home, and then work your way out from there.

My friend Bob (not his real name) is an active disciple at Our Savior’s in Moorhead where I served as senior pastor before I became bishop. My friend Bob once told me that there was a time when he seldom came to worship. On Sunday mornings he was AWOL most of the time….

…Until someone near and dear to him got under his skin and cut him to the heart. This person simply said: "Get up, get out of bed, and help me get these kids of ours ready to go to church. If you want them to turn out to be the kinds of kids God can be proud of you need to start coming with us, you need to keep the promises you made when they were baptized, you need to start showing up."

And Bob has been showing up ever since. No church committee made him the object of a campaign. No ordained pastor "got through to him." His wife just called him to start living by promises he had already made. Bob got back in the picture because God sent his nearest neighbor to him—God sent Bob’s wife to bring him back into the fold.

Here’s why God gathers and transforms you in this community called Calvary Lutheran: God does all that in order to send you to your neighbors with the good news of Jesus Christ.

And that’s what will get you to your bicenntenial: God’s going to keep gathering you, transforming you, and sending you. So---hang on to your hats—and enjoy the ride.

In the name of Jesus.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

God's "Doing" Word

Bethany and Mt Carmel Lutheran Churches, Williams, MN
Isaiah 55:10-13
July 13, 2008

Three veteran baseball umpires were comparing notes on the fine art of calling balls and strikes.
One of the umpires declared: “It’s simple: I just calls ‘em as I sees ‘em!!”
The second umpire replied: “I do better than that: I calls ‘em as they are!”
The third umpire chimed in: “I’ve got you both beat! They ain’t nothing ‘til I calls ‘em!”
This may be a little story about baseball, but it also tells us something about words, particularly the difference between two kinds of words.
There are, you see, just two kinds of words in our world.
First, there are words that say things.
Most words are like that: “saying” words that convey information, words that fill up dead air space—words we tuck into dictionaries, encyclopedias, newspapers and all kinds of books.
“Saying” words are words about the weather, the price of gasoline, the local gossip, Twins or Vikings scores, scandals in Hollywood or Washington–you name it.
TV’s Jerry Seinfeld and friends called these “yaddah-yaddah-yaddah” words.
Not that these “saying” words are bad, mind you! It’s just that these words don’t take us anywhere. They say things–and that’s about it.
There’s a second type of words, though–and these are words that go beyond simply saying things. These are the words that actually do things. These words don’t just say what they say–these words do what they say. I call them “doing” words.
Our friend the third umpire in my opening story illustrates the power, the dynamic energy of “doing” words. “Those baseballs hurled from the pitcher’s mound past the batter to the catcher’s mitt: they ain’t nothing ‘til I calls ‘em.”
So, if the umpire says: STRIKE! It’s a strike–whether or not anyone else agrees. And if the umpire shouts: BALL. Well, it’s a ball–and there’s no use arguing!
If there are two kinds of words in the world–“saying” words and “doing” words–how can you tell them apart?
“Saying” words seldom change our lives.
“Doing” words ALWAYS change our lives.
Good “doing” words change our lives in at least three ways:
§ They free us from our past.
§ They transform our present.
§ They deliver to us a new future.
Some “doing” words free us from our past–they liberate us from whatever haunts us, whatever might be holding us back. For example:
“New evidence has emerged. The Army review board hereby upgrades you from ‘dishonorably discharged’ to ‘honorably discharged.’ Congratulations!”
Other doing words transform our present–they change our current circumstances in profound ways. For example:
“Yes, yes, yes–I do want to marry you!”
Still other doing words deliver to us a new future–they crack open fresh possibilities for the rest of our lives. For example:
“You and your spouse passed all the screening tests. The adoption can proceed. You’re going to become parents!”
How can you tell “saying” words from “doing” words? It might be as simple as strapping a blood pressure cuff on your arm.
“Saying” words rarely affect your blood pressure.
But “doing” words can make your blood pressure spike in an instant!--along with your pulse, respiration, and perspiration rates, too!
And what happens when the speaker of a doing word isn’t just another human being?
What happens when God speaks “doing” words to us? That brings us to our Old Testament Lesson for this morning, from Isaiah 55:10-13. [Let’s read it together...]
This gorgeous gem of Scripture paints for us a picture of melting snow and gentle spring rain. The first hearers of this prophecy were well acquainted with drought. They knew about parched soil, dry dirt, and stressed crops needing a drink.
The people to whom this prophecy first came knew that water made the difference between having a harvest or not, between life and death itself.
Isaiah likened the rain that falls from heaven to the Word of God that also falls from heaven. Both the rain and God’s Word make wonderful things happen. “...So shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth,” says the LORD, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Do you see the “doing” words just bursting from this text?
God’s Word never returns empty.
God’s Word always accomplishes God’s purposes.
God’s Word forever succeeds in whatever God intends.
And why is that? It’s because God stands behind God’s Word. God pours everything that God has and is into God’s Word. In Jesus, God literally becomes God’s Word.
Even though you and I might speak “doing” words to one another, we can’t always guarantee the outcome of all those “doing” words.
We can say: “I forgive you for what you did...”
But later we may change our minds about such forgiveness…
We can say: “I promise to be faithful to you and stay married to you, until death parts us...”
But as we know, only about 50% of the time does that marriage promise “succeed” for life.
We can say: “I love you forever...”
And yet, even if we stay true to that promise for as long as we live, none of us lives “forever.” Death is a limitation built into every promise that we speak.
When God speaks “doing” words to us, however, God is limited, God is held back, God is conditioned by none of those things.
God forgives us–and God never crosses his fingers at the same time!
God commits himself to us–unreservedly, unconditionally.
God’s promises are never “bounded” by death.
In the risen Lord Jesus, we encounter a promise-speaker who has death behind him.
That gives “doing” words from God a totally different character.
God’s “doing” words truly do free us from our past, transform our present, and deliver to us a new future.
Think of all the times Jesus spoke liberating, transforming, future-delivering “doing words” to those he encountered.
To that Samaritan woman by the well who had had five husbands and was working on her sixth Jesus said:
“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
To stinking, dead Lazarus–already four days in the grave–Jesus shouted: “Lazarus, come out!....”
To that woman caught in adultery Jesus declared: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Jesus was forever speaking “doing” words to anyone who would hear him. In fact, it was this way of speaking–speaking for and in the name of almighty God–that got Jesus into trouble and eventually got him killed.
Remember the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus? When his friends tore a hole in the roof above and lowered the man down to Jesus, he said to the man: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

This upset the guardians of the Jewish laws so much that they asked each other: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They were really asking: Who authorized Jesus to speak these “doing” words in God’s name?

You and I know the answer: God did! God authorized Jesus to speak for God! The God who finally raised Jesus from the dead granted Jesus permission to speak for him. Indeed, we say that God was alive in Jesus, speaking all these powerfully effective “doing” words.
And because Jesus is risen from the dead, because Jesus still lives among us, God continues to authorize this kind of wild, audacious speaking.
In fact, such words are regularly spoken right here in this very place. Such words define this place, this community of faith called Mt Carmel and Bethany Lutheran Parish.
We hear such “doing” words week in and week out.
These divine “doing” words free us from our past, transform our present, and deliver to us a new future.
They sound like this:
John or Mary, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.
The body of Christ, given FOR YOU. The blood of Christ, shed FOR YOU.
When these words (or words like them–words with a direct-address “you”!)...when these words are spoken, a fresh start is granted, faith is given, hope is restored.
And nothing about us is ever the same again.
For these “doing” words have God’s authority behind them. These “doing” words accomplish in us whatever God proposes, they succeed in the thing for which God sent them to us.
These “effective” words mean life to us, and a future without end in Jesus Christ, the promise-speaker par excellence.

That is why Jesus invites us to come here continually, again and again, knowing that right here is where we hear, taste, eat, and drink words that make us new.
In the name of Jesus.