Thursday, April 9, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to New Opportunities

Synod Theological Day
“From the Field, For the Field”
April 9, 2015--Fargo, ND

As I prepared these remarks I took seriously the fact that the first word in the assigned topic is "recognizing”….because “new opportunities” may, at first glance, look like anything BUT new opportunities.   They may—rather—strike us as really steep mountains, scary obstacles or huge piles of manure.

So the question is:  out of what sort of orientation toward reality do we approach this world and life as we know it?   It’s easy as pie to operate out of a default “problem orientation,” a way of looking at things that comes naturally for upper Midwestern Lutherans. Such realism-run-amok can shoot down any fresh idea, any new way of thinking—in an instant!

What happens, though, when we look at things from the vantage point of the Empty Tomb on Easter morning?   What happens when God opens us up to embrace a “promise orientation” that steps out of the gloomy house of death into the sunshine of Christ’s resurrection, cracking open God’s promised future in Christ?

“Recognizing new opportunities” involves willingness to reframe just about everything that comes our way—especially the “awful awfuls”—in the light of Christ the crucified and living one.   Such reframing involves looking again at the problems that seem so self-evident, and perceiving within them the possibilities God has tucked inside them.

I want to share two examples from our life in the NW MN Synod over the last five years—realities that seemed at first like anything but “new opportunities”
1.   First, a nagging sense that we’re an aging, declining church with an uncertain future.
2.   Second, the loss of over 10% of our congregations due to disaffiliation—effectively redrawing the very map of our synod.

We could not perceive “new opportunities” in these realities without first staring right at them, taking them in, and wrestling with them—the way Jacob wrestled with God (or was it a demon?) by the River Jabbok--wrestling until Jacob extracted a blessing from his opponent.

So if all we look at is “who shows up on Sunday mornings,” the narrative of aging and declining seems readily apparent.   But when we actually delved into the demographics of our region, another story emerged:  in 17 of the 21 counties of our synod, children and youth age 18 and younger outnumber senior adults age 65 and over.   And between 2008 and 2012 three-quarters of the counties in our synod showed population increases, not population decreases.

Shored up by this “second look” at our mission field; proud of our heritage as a child-friendly, youth-loving synod; aware of our people’s hunger for an alternative narrative to define us—late in 2010 we responded by surfacing and claiming a vision for our life together that would fly right in the face of the story we’d been telling ourselves about ourselves.

Lift up the Next Generation Vision—handout.

We have found that this Next Generation vision “has legs.”   
·       When our synod downsized its staff in 2010, we sought out a way to sustain our long-standing commitment to bringing together middle school youth and high school youth for faith-nurturing mass gatherings that are integral to the youth ministries in many of our congregations.  
   We retained our synod LYO board as one of the ways we not only sustain these gatherings as youth-led faith experiences, but also as one of the ways we train up younger leaders.
·       We set forth the Next Generation vision in a series of bishop’s Bible studies in 2011.
·       Our spring 2013 EEEvents, a.k.a. church council training events, featured breakout sessions on topics related to the theme:  “Living into the Next Generation Vision.”
·       And at last year’s synod assembly we agreed to partner with Vibrant to offer training and coaching for congregations hungering to help homes and families reclaim their role as primary arenas in which faith is formed.   Share brochure.

Regarding the other problem we had—the loss of over 10% of our congregations since 2009 due to disaffiliation—a generative discussion began at a retreat for our ten conference deans held in February of 2013.  

We talked first about the pain and disruption caused by losing 33 congregations to disaffiliation--leaving one of our conferences a shadow of its former self, and significantly altering the landscape in two other conferences.     Clearly, we didn’t need to maintain our 25 year old ten-conference structure.   Isn’t it time to “redraw the lines” to come up with a smaller set of larger conferences, giving each conference a critical mass of congregations to live and work together as near neighbors?

But then the deans shifted to a more basic question:   why have conferences at all?   What are they good for?   What is the purpose of the conference in our way of being church?   As we pondered that deeper question, mindful of all the ways neighbors help neighbors, one of the participants dared to recast the whole issue by asking—what if we had 20 smaller conferences rather than 7 or 8 larger conferences?  

In that moment, when we took a second look at what at first seemed like a little map-redrawing exercise, we knew we were looking at something bigger.  We recognized that we actually had, not a math problem or a geography conundrum, but a “new opportunity.”

So our synod council invited a group of about 20 folks from across the synod and its varied constituencies to gather and do more than redraw a map.   We named this group our synod “Rethinking Conferences” Task Force.

The group met regularly throughout 2014 and did several things.
We learned some of the history of how our old 10-conference structure came to be.   An older member of the group recalled a time long ago when every pastor and congregational president went to conference gatherings because that’s how you got the “stuff” for the coming year—the paper resources and “hard copy” curricula—that fed congregational programming.

We learned that if you go all the way back to 1988, the synod had actually diminished in size by 67 congregations—from 300 in 1988 down to 233 in 2014.

We pondered all the realities that fed our earlier pattern—where county lines were drawn, where school district boundaries were set, where local phone service was a factor.  Revisiting this history, all the changes that have happened since 1988 came into sharper focus—especially the overwhelming influence of the Internet, cellular phone technology, and “virtual reality”—a phrase not even in our vocabularies in 1988.

As we rediscovered our history, we examined again, with great care the one small paragraph in the ELCA Constitution for Synods that describes conferences.  Two things captured our attention on the Rethinking Conferences Task Force:   the varieties of configurations mentioned and the missional purpose for such ways of connecting with one another.

So, having recognized we had a new opportunity on our hands, we responded by doing some cooking and stewing.   We shifted from thinking of this as a microwave oven project, to realizing we had a crockpot project on our hands. 

We took our time, talked and listened to one another, dreamed together as people among whom the Holy Spirit was moving--and out of all that,  a proposal emerged (described on the handout) that is now before our synod, to move in three directions simultaneously—involving clusters, conferences and networks.
   To invite congregations to be parts of 26 clusters  of churches and ministry agencies in close geographic proximity to one another.
·       To form these clusters into eight conferences to choose leaders, gather at least annually (perhaps on the same Sunday afternoon, perhaps with some shared programing developed in collaboration with the synod), and to tend legislative functions such as supporting conference shared ministries, nominating persons for synod council and CWA voting members, and surfacing resolutions for consideration at synod assembly.
·       To open the door to non-geographic networks, using social media platforms like Facebook…networks of folks coming together around shared affinities and ministry priorities, e.g. networks of Vibrant Faith congregations, multi-point parish leaders, a congregations developing relationships with congregations in our companion synod in southern India.

Postscript:  My remarks, obviously, are retrospective in nature.   In truth, we did a lot of “wandering around” before noticing the possibilities tucked inside these two problems.   That’s what the church is always doing, which is why the most honest way to describe God’s guidance is to say: I’m not sure right now--but I’ll get back to you, after enough time has passed that God’s fingerprints have become visible!

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