Sunday, October 26, 2008

Healthy Congregations Thrive With Healthy Leadership

Healthy Congregations Thrive With Healthy Leadership

“Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" Esther 4:14 (NIV)

The Book of Esther tells the compelling story of a Jewish woman, Esther (4th century, B.C.), who used her position in the harem of the king of Persia to prevent the genocide of her people. To do this, Esther had to risk her very life!

Esther is unique in that it’s the only book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God. And yet it’s impossible to read Esther without perceiving the guiding hand of God at work, raising up a powerful leader at the right moment, “for such a time as this.”

God is always doing that—calling forth leaders in the right place, at the right time, with the right gifts. Over the past year I have witnessed this a number of times in congregations of our synod. I recall, in particular, a couple of congregational presidents who, simply by virtue of the who they were and how they conducted themselves, helped keep parish crises from spinning out of control.

What makes for such healthy leadership? It’s tempting to think that leaders have special knowledge, extraordinary skills or magnetic personalities. But, as Dr. Peter Steinke points out in his Healthy Congregations training materials, leaders promote health in congregations primarily through their presence and functioning.

Steinke lists 26 attributes of such leaders. Let me highlight four of these attributes:

1. Healthy leaders know who they are. They are comfortable in their own skins and don’t hesitate to define themselves for others. They are anything but chameleons or “shape-hifters.” They resist being squeezed into other persons’ molds or preconceived notions of what a leader should be.

2. Healthy leaders take responsibility for their own actions. They know they can’t be responsible for how others function. They are self-aware, able to take criticism, willing to accept the consequences of their decisions

3. Healthy leaders regulate their own anxieties. They can move calmly, patiently, deliberately within an anxious church environment. They resist picking up the “virus” of worry or desperation. God graces them with the ability to weigh alternatives, think clearly, and act responsively.

4. Healthy leaders stay connected with others—including those absorbed by anxiety or those stirring up mischief in the congregation. Such leaders listen to others, creating space and time for respectful conversations. But they do not allow the mission to be thwarted or the congregation to be highjacked by persons with narrow agendas.

We’ve all seen how highly reactive persons can spread anxiety throughout a congregation—almost as if anxiety were a virus. But the same holds true for health in the congregation. Healthy leaders “spread” health throughout the system as they influence others to take responsible stands, keep focused on God’s mission, remain calm in adversity and stay connected with each other through thick and thin. Thank God for such servants in our midst!

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion:
Recall effective church leaders you have known. How did they contribute to the health of the congregation through their presence and functioning?
What leadership gifts has God given to you? What are your “growing edges” as a leader?
How does your congregation identify, call forth and nurture healthy leaders?

This is the seventh of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

Jesus Gets Us Unstuck

Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead
50th Anniversary—Reformation Sunday
October 26, 2008
John 8:31-36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When I was in high school many moons ago, I (like your own Pastor Matt the birthday boy) was a member of FFA, which according to one wag, meant “Father Farms Alone.”

One of the things we Future Farmers of America in southern Minnesota did back in the early 1970s was to raise pheasants on our farms for release back into the wild. We did that because, due to a loss of habitat, the wild pheasant population in our area had declined drastically And so we FFA members raised birds to restock the depleted pheasant population.

There was just one problem with that, though. It wasn’t hard to hatch pheasants, feed and water pheasants, and give pheasants a nice place to grow up in. The problem wasn’t at the front end of that process—the problem came at the very end.

Those crazy pheasants, you see, had a hard time catching on to that “release back into the wild” business! I still remember, one spring morning, being part of a bunch of blue-jacketed FFA boys, who had a couple of cages full of ready-to-release pheasants on the back of some guy’s pickup…..and when we lifted one of those cages down to the ground….when we opened the door of that cage, the birds just sat there.

They weren’t exactly longing for freedom. These wild creatures, who had grown accustomed to three square meals in a nice, warm, safe place….these pheasants clung to the sides of their cage and would not stride out into the sunlit freedom for which we had raised them.

So we FFA boys had to literally drag the pheasants out of their cages, shoo them away, and then run back to the pickup so the pheasants wouldn’t follow us back home.

So much for pheasant freedom, I guess!

And that gives us a picture of a broader, deeper truth…namely, that one of the crazy things about freedom is that sometimes you can’t give it away!

Jesus bumps up against that strange truth in this morning’s gospel reading from John, chapter 8.

Here in these verses, Jesus aches to give away the freedom that he has come to bestow upon the world….and yet his listeners, those “Jews who had believed in him” weren’t buying any of it. Like my old FFA pheasants, Jesus’ hearers clung desperately to the sides of their cages, they couldn’t see any good reason to step forth into the glorious freedom Jesus was talking about.

Who us? they asked Jesus….We don’t need freedom. You can’t free us from anything. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”

That last line is about as outrageous as the inflated promises we’re hearing daily in the waning days of this presidential campaign season. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”

Such a statement could be true—only if you completely forgot slavery in Egypt, conquest by the Babylonians, exile by the Assyrians and every other episode in which God’s chosen people had CONSTANTLY been under some tyrant’s thumb. In fact, when Jesus and these Jews had their encounter, in that very moment, they were all under Roman rule, they were all in some sense “slaves” to the dictates of far-off Caesar.

Who us? Freedom? We don’t need to hear about that. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone….”

….and denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, either!

This massive “disconnect,” this huge communication gap between Jesus and the “Jews who had believed in him”—this wasn’t just a “Jewish problem.” No, it was, and it still is a human problem.

None of us….not a single one of us….wants to imagine that we are not free. When we think of ourselves, we don’t use words like “slave” or “captive” or “prisoner.” That isn’t the self-image we carry around.

Freedom may be nice for someone else….but we don’t need any of it. We’re fine. We’re content. We’ve grown accustomed to things the way they are. What would we do with freedom?

It is precisely into this situation, into this human condition, that our Lord Jesus has come with a commission from his heavenly Father to set all the captives free. And so, right off the bat, Jesus almost always has to help us, first, see our need for freedom….just as he does here in John, chapter 8.

And so, face to face with these Jews who had believed in him, Jesus comes out and bluntly says it: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

Sin is something that we don’t just dabble in, from time to time, Jesus says. Sin is not a “take it or leave it” thing for us. No, but rather, sin is like eating potato chips. We tell ourselves we’re just going to have one or two or maybe three…and then just like that we’ve polished off the whole bag. Sin swamps us, sin washes over us, sin overwhelms us.

Jesus has to talk just that bluntly here because the first step toward freedom involves sizing up the cage we’re already in, perceiving how we’re clinging to the walls of a prison cell that will be the death of us.

Jesus starts setting us free by helping us first see our lack of freedom. And then Jesus doesn’t just talk about freedom. No—but rather, Jesus does freedom to us. Jesus makes us free.

Syndicated columnist Mark Steyn writes: “The other day I found myself, for the umpteenth time, driving in Vermont behind a…vehicle [proudly displaying on its rear bumper a FREE TIBET bumper sticker.] It must be great to be the guy with the printing contract for [those] 'FREE TIBET' [bumper] stickers. Not so good to be the guy back in Tibet wondering when the freeing [of his tiny nation] will actually get under way. For a while, my otherwise not terribly political wife got extremely irritated by these [bumper] stickers, demanding to know at a pancake breakfast at the local church what precisely some harmless hippy-dippy old neighbor of ours meant by the slogan he'd been proudly displaying [on his car] decade in, decade out: 'But what exactly are you doing to free Tibet?' she demanded. 'You're not doing anything, are you?' 'Give the guy a break,' I said back home. 'He's advertising his moral virtue, not calling for action. If [the U.S. secretary of defense] were to say, ‘Free Tibet? Jiminy, what a swell idea! The Third Infantry Division goes in on Thursday’, the bumper-sticker crowd would be aghast.”

God so loved the world that God didn’t shower down on it a billion bumper stickers that say FREE SINNERS!

God so loved the world that God sent his Son, who came among us to do something about our servitude, that is, to make us free. And…“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus came among us, not just liking the idea of freedom, but bringing freedom, doing freedom, marching into Satan’s stronghold and blasting open the doors of his dark dungeon. Such freedom was precious enough to our Lord Jesus, that he was willing—more than willing—to shed his blood for it, for you and for me.

And that’s what we’re about, dear friends. We’re about setting people free, in Jesus’ name.

When we’re at our best, we Lutherans know that and we do it “in spades.” On this Reformation Sunday, every year, we recommit ourselves to being agents of God’s freedom, just as Martin Luther did 491 years ago, when he nailed that manifesto to the door of the Wittenberg Church—a declaration of independence, a charter of freedom for generations to come.

You’re about that here at Christ the King. You’re in the freedom business. Folks come here, not fully realizing how they’re stuck in some cage, stuck in an addiction, stuck in a revolving door of rotten relationships, stuck in the illusion of respectability, stuck in “affluenza,” stuck in whatever it is we’re stuck in.

We come here stuck—and Jesus gets us unstuck. Jesus makes us free. Jesus frees us from our past. Jesus frees us for God’s future, and the grand mission that God is forever calling us to serve.

That’s what you’ve been doing so well for the past 50 years, it’s what you’re about, after all: setting sinners free in the name of Jesus. Mending lives back together again through the grace of Christ the King.

Two weeks ago I was at another 50th anniversary celebration, down at United Lutheran Church of Elbow Lake. And during the children’s sermon that morning I asked the kids whether 50 years was old or young. Most of the kids thought 50 years was pretty old…but one bright young man raised his hand and said: “Fifty is old….but in ‘church years,’ fifty is still pretty young.”

You’re still pretty young here at Christ the King. In fact, you’re far closer to the beginning than to the ending of your days. God has lots more in store for you. You aren’t going to run out of things to do anytime soon.

Because as long as anyone—anyone!—is frantically clinging to the wall of some cage or prison cell….as long as anyone is still stuck in sin, Jesus, the savior from sin, Christ the King in our midst, will be at work, setting us all free.

In the name of Jesus.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

No Empty Seats

United Lutheran Church, Elbow Lake, MN
50th Anniversary--October 12, 2008
Matthew 22:1-14
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Lambeau Field in the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a holy place of sorts. Since 1960 every seat in Lambeau Field has been sold out for every Green Bay Packer home football game. Some 74,000 persons are on the waiting list for Green Bay Packer season tickets. The policy at Lambeau Field is: no empty seats!

So imagine a man who had waited a lifetime to go to a Packers home game, and when he finally got to do so (courtesy of a season-ticket-holder who couldn’t attend one Sunday afternoon), this man observed that the seat just in front of him was empty.

How could this be—an empty seat in Lambeau Field! At half-time the man finally worked up the gumption to ask the fellow sitting right next to the empty seat if he knew who normally sat there.

“Oh, that,” the man replied, “that was my late wife’s seat.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the newcomer mumbled, feeling like a heel.

But still it bugged him….to have a single empty seat in Lambeau Field! It bugged him so badly that he spoke to the widower once again. “I know that you might want to remember your departed wife by leaving her seat vacant, but couldn’t you honor her memory just as well by inviting one of your dear friends to occupy that seat?”

“I suppose I could,” the widower replied, “but right now all my closest friends are still at my wife’s funeral.”

“No empty seats,” is the motto at Lambeau Field, and it clearly was the policy of the king in this parable.

His son, the crown prince, was getting married. A week’s worth of wedding festivities had been planned, and the invitation list had been painstakingly put together. Invitees were given advance notice of the days they should set aside.

And yet, when the hour of the wedding feast came, when the festivities were about to begin, all the invited ones turned out to be no-shows. Here it was a royal wedding, no less—people should have been falling all over each other to get in, but instead they all offered lame excuses when summoned to the wedding hall. Some were even downright offended by the intrusion of the king’s messengers, and a few of those messengers were-shockingly!—killed.

So the wedding feast was ready, the food was piping hot, and no one was showing up. The king was infuriated. After avenging the murderers of his messengers, he sent out his servants one more time, gathering up anyone and everyone they could find—“the good and the bad,” our text says.

And this time all the guests came—all the last minute invitees showed up, and the banquet hall was filled.

“No empty seats” was the king’s obsession and his goal, and he reached that goal—by hook or by crook.

And that tells us something about God, dear friends. God wants there to be “no empty seats” in God’s glorious kingdom. God is fiercely determined to fill every available space with his people, his chosen ones. God wants an SRO—standing room only—crowd around his throne.

And how about us? How do we feel about empty seats, say, in this sanctuary? Across the 270 congregations of our Northwestern Minnesota Synod only about 26% of our members are in worship each week. Imagine that: a church that seats 100 folks, drawing only 26 persons—that’s a lot of empty seats that the janitor needs to keep dusting off!

And worse than those empty seats is our complacency, our lackadaisicalness about them. We 21st century Lutherans have “made peace” with all the empty seats, we have acquiesced to that, we have accepted it much too glibly.

Think of it this way: what if we imagined each worship service as a sumptuous banquet, a veritable feast? What if (following the trajectory of this parable) we pictured Sunday morning worship as our own Old Country Buffet time? How would we feel if we regularly prepared food for 100 and 74 of them failed to show up? That’s a lot of Tupperware containers of leftovers we’d need to squeeze into the fridge! Wouldn’t it kill us to let all that good food go to waste?

And that, dear friends, is what’s happening all the time. For 50 years God has been serving up, each week in this congregation, a feast of mercy and grace and lovingkindness in Jesus Christ our Lord. God has been feeding you and those who came before you here at United Lutheran. The food that is served up here is nourishing, piping hot and delectable. It restores us and give us life.

But on a typical Sunday here in northwestern Minnesota, when the weekly banquet is ready—74% of us Lutherans are AWOL. 74% of us prefer starvation.

What if, dear friends, we rested a little less easily with that? What if we determined not to have anyone miss that meal? How might that fire our imaginations and move us out, like the king’s royal messengers, to invite and plead and cajole hungry people into eating the bread of life?

What if, dear sisters and brothers here at United Lutheran, what if you moved into the next 50 years of your congregation’s life, simply telling yourselves that you will no longer tolerate empty seats in God’s house? What if that even became part of your mission statement: No more empty seats?

But there’s another shorter parable tacked on to the parable of the wedding feast here in Matthew 22, a codicil of sorts, that at first seems awfully puzzling.

As the king surveys his filled-to-the-gills banquet hall, he spots a man not properly attired. Here’s what I think happened. The king invited all the wedding guests, made it possible for them to come, and even fitted each of them out with an appropriate wedding robe, as they entered the banqueting hall. It didn’t matter how dirty or filthy or tattered they were—the king would cover over all of that with a beautiful wedding robe, at no extra charge!

But one man brazenly snuck in in his old duds, the rags in which he felt most comfortable. He was making a “fashion statement” of sorts. It was his way of saying, in terms of his manner of dress, “take me just the way I am or take me not at all.”

And the king, to our great surprise, bounced the guy out into the street!

What’s going on here? Does this king want “no empty seats,” or not? Why would we invite this guy, only to evict him from the party? Was the king, after throwing open the doors to everyone, suddenly getting snooty?

Not at all! The king wanted to have mercy, wanted to share his generosity with all, right down to supplying them with a garment suitable for the occasion.

God accepts you and me, just the way we are—this is true. But God never leaves us “just the way we are.” God welcomes us to the banquet, and we can expect that that banquet will transform us, will make us new.

The man who turned up his nose at the offer of a free-rent wedding robe was, in effect, saying: I choose to enter and remain in my rags, my sin, my waywardness. And the king said: “Nothing doing. I want all of you—lock, stock and barrel. I want you and I intend to make of you a new creature.”

God wants no empty seats in God’s kingdom. God wants to fill all the seats in the banqueting hall. God welcomes you and me to the wedding feast—which is to say, God welcomes us to the transforming, renewing power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

We will be changed by that. We will not be content to remain in our dirty old rags. We will long to wear the robe of righteousness, wrapped around us in our baptism. We will be glad—we will be overjoyed to wear the king’s gracious robe that covers over all our sinful brokenness and makes us clean and bright and new in God’s sight.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.