Itinerant Preacher

The last few weeks, I’ve been preaching at different sites around the western US.  What an interesting experience this is, both as a preacher and as a visitor!

As a preacher, I look not only at the texts for each week, but at the congregation to whom I will preach.  Who are they?  Where are they located?  What are their challenges?  What gives them joy?

The first congregation, to whom I preached the “Doubting Thomas” text, had just moved into a brand-new building and was figuring out how they would live in this new space.  The Thomas narrative concerns how the disciples are encountering the risen Christ, both in rumor and in actual encounter – a new space for them too.

The second congregation heard another story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, one in which the essentials of hospitality are emphasized.  This congregation is working on “mission redevelopment” which means they are undertaking specific tasks to determine their mission in the community – and hospitality to the community is one of those tasks.

The third congregation is the smallest of the three, in a mountain resort community, and they heard the text of Good Shepherd.  As luck would have it, the regional Lutheran camp was in attendance too and brought goats from their farm!  I was able to use the story of how their farm dog almost sacrificed her life for the herd last year, fending off a rattlesnake – and remind the congregation that while following Jesus (i.e., their outreach work) is not without risk, it is also not without the reward of abundant life.

With each visit, I expanded my own list of questions to keep on hand for when I am in a call.  Some of those questions:

*Is it easy to find the entryway?

*Are there folks present as greeters/ushers who can help someone find the restroom?

*Are there pavement issues that could be difficult for people with mobility issues?

*Does the whole congregation see welcoming the stranger as their job (not just that of who’s on duty that day)?

These Sunday visits have been GREAT.  They have also been super helpful for me, who has been with the same congregation my whole life!  Now I have some experience of what it feels like to walk into a new space – and my future ministry will benefit from that.

How about you?  Have you worshiped somewhere other than your home church, and found that the experience helped you see things “at home” in a new way?  I would love to hear about it!

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I’m baaaack….

Hard to believe we’re already in Week 2 of the month of February!

I’ve been out of town for a while.  The first 2-plus weeks of January, I was in Gettysburg, PA. at the seminary there for what is called the Diaconal Ministry Formation Event.

In plain English: two weeks of intensive instruction, discussion, discernment, and collegiality, all designed to help those of us considering diaconal ministry to get a better idea of where we’re going.  I met people from all walks of life, from all over the country, all on the same path towards ministry, either diaconal or ordained.  It’s a required class in my process.  (Then I came home, repacked, and headed to Utah for 11 days of skiing bliss.)

I’m going to depart from the usual worship & liturgy subjects to explain a little bit more about diaconal ministry and what it can be in today’s ELCA.

Diaconal ministry is also called the diaconate, and those in this ministry are sometimes called deacons – which sounds a little confusing.  “Diaconal ministers” are one of three layperson rosters in the ELCA – the other two are Associates in Ministry and Lutheran Deaconesses.

Lutheran Deaconesses have a long history that goes back to the mid-19th century in Kaiserswerth in Germany.  This is the nursing training hospital at which Florence Nightingale received her early nursing training prior to her groundbreaking work in the Crimean War.  Deaconesses generally work in health care, but also in other areas.

Associates in Ministry are lay professionals working in almost any area of ministry, usually in a congregation but sometimes in synod offices or specialized ministry areas.

Diaconal ministers, by comparison, specifically seek to work at the intersection of the church and the world.  This can manifest in as many ways as there are people!  They might be in a congregation, in a social service agency, on Churchwide staff – the possibilities really are endless.

As far as requirements for these rosters, the diaconate requires a master’s degree in an area of ministry.  Associates in ministry have to complete a specific set of courses, but a master’s degree is not required.  Deaconesses have specific requirements unique to their call.  All three rosters are considered Word and Service rosters, in contrast to the ordained roster or Word and Sacrament (ordained pastors).

There is a discussion in the ELCA going on about these three rosters, in hopes of providing some clarity for people.  We talked at the Event about what those changes might mean, and what our feelings were about the diaconate.

One day was spent “in context” – out in a ministry setting to see how a diaconal minister integrated into that setting.  The setting we visited was an in-town congregation with a full-time pastor (Word and Sacrament) and a full-time diaconal minister (Word and Service).  They had other staff members, some of whom were full time, but we were really struck by the way the pastor and the diaconal minister (DM) were modeling how these two rosters could be highly complementary.

It’s a bit of a change from what many of us grew up with: if there was “too much work” for one pastor, then the church had to think about calling a second one.  It’s only been in recent years that the ELCA has urged parishes to re-think this model.  As far as rostered leadership goes, the ELCA is in a tricky position.  We’ve been hearing for some time about the “retirement tsunami” that is imminent, with so many folks ordained in the 60s and 70s nearing retirement.  The numbers haven’t been there in seminaries – meaning graduating seminarians – to replace these retiring pastors.

But at the same time, the “way we are church” is changing too.  The model from the 50s of a programmatic ministry situation, with a building, a mortgage, expenses, and all the rest is not one that new ministry starts automatically default to any more.  And that’s a good thing!  You see, that old model is heavily reliant on what in the theatre we called “butts in seats” to keep things going.  You need a constant influx of people to the church – people who are contributing – for that programmatic model to work.

Don’t get me wrong; this model can and does work very well in many places.  But the questions are increasingly being asked, both in established parishes and in new ministry starts: are we meeting OUR needs or the needs of the community around us?  What are we called to do here and now, in response to God’s lavish gift of grace in Jesus?  How might our ministry look different five, ten, twenty years down the line as we continue to live into that response?

The parish we visited in Pennsylvania was established the same year as the town itself – 1752.  Its graveyard is the resting place for the town founder.  There’s a considerable history there – but they are not resting on those laurels.  Instead, they seek ways to meet the needs of the community around them, as well as the parish community itself.

One of the “markers” of the diaconate is to empower the people of God to do ministry in the world.  This was where the DM at this parish was particularly skilled, and she helped congregation members find their place to serve in a wide variety of ministries.  She and the pastor are in constant contact about the ongoing ministries of the parish, the possible future ministries, their ecumenical partnerships, liaisons with the town itself and its agencies – and they work out which of the two of them is best suited to respond to or work within a particular context.

I was mesmerized.  I saw before me what could be an amazing partnership model throughout the ELCA.  Of course, it would look different in each setting.  But the idea of those complementary rosters, in service to the body of Christ as well as the world, and enabling the body of Christ to likewise be in service to the world – THIS is what I want to do.

It’s incredibly exciting, and will require quite a bit of discernment and careful thought.  But the potential just blows me away.

As for now, though, it’s back to classes and study.  Preparation is a good thing.

Come and See

I’m in Palm Desert, CA. this week with my colleagues, at the Professional Leaders’ Conference of the Pacifica Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  We’ve been coming out to the desert for over two decades each fall for a time of worship, learning, and fellowship.  I wanted to share some reflections on what we have shared this week through the lens of worship.

Our plenary speakers this year are the Rev. Susan Briehl, renowned ELCA theologian and liturgical specialist, and the Rev. R. Guy Erwin, bishop of the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA (the synod to our north).  Our theme is “Congregations at the Crossroad” and we have been talking about what that means, in all facets of congregational life.

So many times our congregations find themselves at a crossroads when it comes to worship.  The question might seem to be a big one – concerning what lessons to read, perhaps – or it might seem to be a relatively small one, such as what variety of wine to use for communion.  The ELCA introduced a new hymnal in 2006, and that was a major crossroads for everyone.

Susan Briehl pointed out to us that Jesus’ first public words in the gospel of John are “what are you looking for?”  They are repeated in the garden after the resurrection, to Mary Magdalene.  These words put everyone who encounters them at a crossroads, forcing the questions “what is missing for you?  What is at the heart of your need?  What do you need for life abundant?”

In his answer, Jesus invites – “come and see” – and this becomes a leitmotif throughout John’s gospel.  “Come and see” is uttered by Philip to Nathaniel, and by the woman at the well.  (We also hear it from Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death, albeit in a different way: Jesus, you need to come and see what it’s like to deal with this pain.)

This “crossroads by invitation” is really where we should find ourselves every Sunday – asking and hearing the question “what are you looking for?” as well as hearing and proclaiming “come and see.”

Bishop Erwin – a noted Luther scholar – talked about aspects of a community that just about anyone would be eager to “come and see”:

  • Christianity that one need not be ashamed of – intellectual respectability, social responsibility, aesthetic value, community
  • Idea of participating in something bigger than ourselves, better than our everyday lives
  • A critical tradition –a profound and often overlooked legacy
  • Unapologetically church
  • A sacramental faith, a “real presence” – different from everything else

What do we seek?  Over and over, those of us in leadership hear that people are seeking some kind of connection and community, though they are at the same time apprehensive of community.  We seek connections that are profound yet meaningful, freely offered and non-coercive.  We are looking for Jesus as experienced in the believing and beloved community.

What would that believing and beloved community look like?  Bishop Erwin suggested it would include a sense of the sacred and sacramental, it would be a forgiving place where we wrestle together with complex things, where we would be organized for growth in mission to the community and in humility, and finally, it would be a home – a place where we belong.

What are you looking for?

Come and see.