Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mission Table Leadership

2014 Bishop’s Monthly Columns
Mission Table Leadership (Part 1)

Note:  quotations in italics are from The Mission Table by Stephen P. Bouman (2013, Augsburg Fortress), pp. 71-80.  .

“ As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:18-22)

“The only constant is change.”  This statement, which sounds oxymoronic,[1] sums up so much about how life “feels” nowadays—perhaps especially life in the church.

Almost nothing that used to work still works.   The culture, rather than supporting faith and communities of faith, seems indifferent if not hostile to the things of God.   Patterns of “doing church” that sustained us for decades, if not centuries, seem outdated, ineffective.   We grow weary from trying to rethink just about everything.

Stephen Bouman captures the dynamic at work well when he writes:  

The decline of institutional religion is calling us into ministry in a new context here in North America.  Yet the United States remains unique in the world when it comes to spirituality.  Eighty percent of the US population is still convinced that God is real.  So here is our context: institutional forms of religion are collapsing while most people still believe in God.  We are awash in spiritual hunger.  In this in-between place, we do not yet know what forms will emerge.  All things are possible.  In such a time as this, what kind of leadership can come alongside congregations, communities, and spiritual seekers, helping them to imagine new mission tables, revised old ones, and learn from what they see emerging?

Not For Sissies

I’m struck, as I work within our synod, how difficult it can be to surface leaders for mission tables.   Folks are willing to sit around the circle and participate—but don’t ask anyone to serve as chair or convener (thankfully this doesn’t happen all the time!)  It is as if people sense that leadership, too, has changed in the church.  And leadership nowadays is definitely “not for sissies.”

Yet there has never been a time in the whole long life of God’s people when leaders have not been called forth—when leadership has not emerged.   And even today, the need for leadership has not diminished.  Despite the ways that church leaders in the 21st century may need to learn how to lead differently from the way leadership has functioned in the past, some bedrock realities about leadership have not changed:

Leadership in a missional church is spiritually-grounded.   Leadership at its best emerges from men and women of God who pray, worship, dwell in the Word, serve, give and struggle for justice.  Writes Bouman:  “Mission leaders build tables that are spiritual oases of service and solidarity with the lives of communities in this secular yet believing context.”

Such spiritual leadership doesn’t produce Supermen or Wonder Women leaders, though.    Bouman draws attention to the biblical picture of humility in leadership that characterized Moses and Jesus himself.   Such humility “wears well” in our 21st century context, in which the church is often on the margins, no longer at the center of things.   “The church’s mission needs leaders infused with the presence of God, confident in the promises of God, and filled with the hope that comes with being humble before God.  In that humility is strength, integrity, resolve and a single-minded embrace of the possibilities the risen Christ makes present.”

Leadership in a missional church is baptismally-endowed.   When I preach at ordinations or installations of pastors, I often remind them, “You didn’t get yourself into this mess!  God has called you!”  

The same goes for the whole people of God, not just pastors.    When God saves us through our baptism into Christ, the Lord simultaneously sends us to serve Christ’s mission of reclaiming the whole creation and making all things new.   Therefore, “we cannot talk about leadership in the church without talking about the call every Christian receives at baptism to be part of God’s mission in the world, to be part of the priesthood of all believers.  The church today needs leaders who are committed to agitating and winsomely engaging its members and neighbors around that call.”

So, what does such spiritually-grounded, baptismally-endowed leadership look like today?

A Mission Leader is Relational

Every year, on Pentecost Sunday, we read from the second chapter of the Book of Acts.   I wonder, though, if we always notice both the public and the relational sides of this amazing story.    The public side is what we’re most familiar with:   the Holy Spirit descends in a fiery public demonstration of evangelical power, leading Peter to preach a sermon that immediately draws 3,000 persons to be baptized into Christ.   Wow!

But the relational side of the Pentecost Story is just as amazing (see Acts 2:42-47).   Immediately those who are baptized enter into relationship with one another!  The impulse to gather together seems to be intrinsic to being joined to the Risen Christ.   Community—the first church—is formed and takes shape.   The public event of Pentecost produces the relational reality of the church-in-mission.

We live in a time when the relational side of the church’s life needs to come to the fore.   This might come as a surprise to us as we’ve watched life in the 21st century unfold.   Doesn’t it seem as though life has become more “atomized” as persons seem mesmerized by their precious digital devices?   We watch people walking down a sidewalk, each one focused on his or her iPhone or Droid—it’s amazing that they don’t run into one another more often!

But look more closely.    Our hi-tech world carries with it a hunger for hi-touch encounters.   The implication for a church in mission is that leaders will “put in the time and energy needed to build relationships within the congregation and in the community….Relationships are the synapses[2] of mission.”

A Mission Leader Pays Attention to Institutional Relationships

In other words, a mission leader cannot afford—ever!—to be a lone ranger.   Writes Bouman:  “Studies of new mission starts have shown that where local networks and relationships are strong, and connected to the wider church, so is the fledgling ministry.  It takes a village of tables to nourish and raise a new one.”

For this reason our synod continues to provide a means whereby we cultivate connections with new ministries.    I invite you to ponder and pray for the ministry partners we support together through our life as the Northwestern Minnesota Synod:

A Mission Leader Has an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence, observes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale….about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace[3] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”[4]

If we are living through one of these 500-year-rummage-sales, and if new forms of “doing church” are emerging, chances are the leaders God is calling forth will seem similar to entrepreneurs in the business world.    Entrepreneurs aren’t shopkeepers or minders-of-the-store.   They have no knack for conducting “business as usual.”   They are the visionaries who dare to try new things—and to risk failure in the process.

But entrepreneurs in the church can make us nervous.   They color outside the lines.   They try things that don’t always succeed. Their imaginations sometimes lead to flights of fancy.   We worry they might “throw the baby out with the bath.”

In truth, though, the church of Jesus Christ has always been blessed with such reckless risk-takers.  Many of us sense that we need them now more than ever.   If entrepreneurial leaders make us nervous, perhaps we need to all get in our cars and visit a mission start church.    Starting new ministries is just as much a part of our DNA as “preserving sacred traditions.”   As Bouman reminds us:  “In the past, planting churches has generated a restless excitement.  Our communal memory of excitement and bold risks for mission will be a path to the renewal of our beloved tables for the life of the world.”

A Mission Leader is Clear About the Power of Money

Because we are creatures of time and space, seeking to serve God’s mission in the real, tangible world all around us—nothing we set out to do in service to God’s mission will happen without financial resources.   Even though our patterns for how Christians live out the spiritual gift of generosity are changing—along with everything else!—we will continue to need mission leaders who
·        Cultivate in themselves and others a sense of stewardship that is wide and deep;
·        Built strong, sustainable financial models for ministry; and
·        Courageously ask for sacrificial support.

In next month’s column we’ll continue to look at characteristics of mission leaders.    Feel free to read the rest of Chapter 5 in The Mission Table, as you ponder your own gifts and passions as a missional leader in a changing church.

God bless you for being the mission leader God, in your Baptism, has called you to be!

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

For reflection and discussion:
  1. As you ponder your own calling to be a mission leader, how have faith practices and your baptism into Christ shaped you?
  2. What’s noticeably healthy about the relational life of your congregation?   What could enhance your relational life together?
  3. What connections does your congregation cultivate with any of our synod’s partners in ministry?  
  4. What sometimes holds back mission leaders from boldly asking for sacrificial support?

This is the eighth in a series of monthly bishop’s columns during 2014 on the theme, The Mission Table.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.   Readers are encouraged to purchase and read The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation & Community which can be ordered at .

[1] An “oxymoron” is a  figure of speech in which two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect.
[2] In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise).
[3] A carapace is a hard shell on the back of some animals (such as turtles or crabs)
[4] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence:How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker, 2008), p. 16.

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