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The Hardest Parts: Patience and Trust

Bethany had a storied history. As the only American Lutheran Church (ALC) in the city, their evangelism strategy involved waiting for people from northern states where ALC congregations had a larger presence to come to town. Over the course of twenty-five years they moved from their first location in a “mansion” where the mission pastor’s family lived upstairs and church activities happened on the first floor. They built three major worship spaces, each progressively larger than the last. They remembered well having a relatively large staff: two pastors, a youth director, part-time music staff, and office staff. They remembered themselves as the flagship congregation of the area.

 

The formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) changed the landscape. Bethany became one of several ELCA congregations in town. The development wave had moved several miles south of their location. Having been built in the 1960’s near an interstate interchange, they found that people could see them, but struggled to get to their building. In so many ways they had done everything according to recommendations of the time.

 

Over the years, congregation conflict had decimated membership and attendance. The staff shrunk to a pastor, a music director, and a part time office person. People publicly wondered aloud “who would turn out the lights.” Their second career newly minted pastor had offered at least a dozen options for revitalization with little to show for them. The congregation demographics had aged so substantially that gaps existed in membership and participation among multiple generations.


In this moment, the congregation council in partnership with their pastor and bishop had convened multiple meetings to discuss the way forward. Their work presented major challenges. In the first gathering, the conversation suggested that members wanted someone just to tell them what to do. But at the second gathering, when the leadership team (council, pastor, bishop) presented a proposal for a way forward, people rejected it as too little too late, too expensive, too much change, impossible. Finally, the President and Council presented all the options with their relative cost and benefits and asked the congregation to choose which course to follow. Think of their process as a “modified ecclesiastical ballot” moving through ballot iterations until they arrived seeking a merger partner.

 

The next phase of congregational discernment began with formation of a team. That team led a sixteen month process of developing hopes and conversing with local congregations. They identified a partner for deeper conversations. The discussions among congregations proceeded with long hours and difficult discussions. They developed an agreement for each congregation to vote on. In the end, Bethany rejected this agreement.

 

It was that merger discernment team who ultimately proposed that the congregation needed to move toward dissolution. They took ownership of the decision. The process had its hiccups, but in the end, they liquidated their property and distributed nearly a million dollars to various ministries. They sold their building to another church who flourished in that space, witnessing to God in that neighborhood so dominated these days by low income apartment housing.

 

Through it all, the congregation received substantial support from the bishop and the bishop’s staff. The process was challenging and often looked more like failure than success.

 

Discernment can be like that especially when it involves whole groups of people. Discernment takes time. Clarity comes slowly and often feels blurry and cloudy. Sometimes, individuals and groups want someone to tell them what to do. Sometimes, they opt for other plans. The hardest part can be patience. The other hardest part can involve trust: trusting God, trusting companions on the journey, trusting the outcomes.

 

As this synod embarks on the journey of discerning who God calls to serve as the next bishop, the Discernment Team has worked to help individuals, smaller groups and the whole synod begin prayerfully wondering together about who has the gifts. Perhaps the early questions include: gifts for what? The team has begun work to describe who the Central States Synod is. Capturing all the ways that members differ across so many dynamics challenges creativity. One hopes that the image that emerges includes both the wonderful and surprising diversity as well as unity among all who call the Central States Synod and its congregations home. And one hopes that the image speaks clearly of common trust in God, trust of one another, and trust in the movement of the Holy Spirit as we discern together what God has already begun and will continue to do.

 

Prayer: O Holy One, companion of all who journey, give this people ears to hear, eyes to see, and the will to trust you and one another as we embark on this journey of discernment. Help us breathe through the foggy, frightening and maddening times. Help us rejoice in the moments of clarity and unity so that in the end, we recognize that your Spirit served as guide all along the way. This we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, by that same Holy Spirit. Amen.


Pastor David Frerichs has served three congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in three different synods. He now serves Saint Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, having come home to the Central States Synod. Beware, he talks about riding bicycles enough that one might believe he actually does it.

 

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