Personal Questions, the 5th Part

This is the follow-up question posed in the previous post: How has your ministry changed over time?

While I was at seminary, I started to realize that your standard, blue-haired Norwegian Lutheran church probably wasn’t where I belonged. Maybe it was all the stories about church splits over the color of the sanctuary carpet. Maybe it’s because our “home congregation” of Bethel, the place where I discovered grace and generosity of spirit, decided to leave the ELCA over the decision by the denomination to allow congregations to call (not by mandate, but if they so chose) an LGBTQ pastor. That one really hurt. It happened right while I was in seminary, and in spite of my letters (all of which went unanswered) to the congregation in favor of remaining in the ELCA, so I was left adrift. (Fortunately I had found another congregation in Noblesville, a new start, that took me in and gave me shelter so I could finish the candidacy process).

However I came to the conclusion about “standard, cookie-cutter” congregations, through my Missional Leaders course at seminary, I learned about Mission Redevelopment training through the ELCA. I wound up interviewing in the church-wide offices and got accepted to the program at the same time that I was in the call process for a congregation in the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. That’s where I landed, and it has been a great fit … most of the time. First Lutheran in Tulsa, despite some growing pains and speed bumps and other just human stuff, restored my hope in the church. I think they helped me heal some of my wounds.

First Lutheran is a bit of a strange congregation. I like to call us “The Church of the Weird.” A lot of that might be me projecting my own weirdness on the congregation, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfounded. They have been super willing to go along with a lot of ideas that may have been a bit out there. They were very tolerant, for example, of my interpretation of their plea to “deal with our homelessness situation” by inviting in the homeless people who flopped on our porches, just to use the restroom, have a cup of coffee, get warmed up or cooled down, and chat about how they got to the point they were now finding themselves. First Lutheran didn’t really blink an eye when those people started asking if they could join us on Sunday and I said, “By all means!” It wasn’t all smooth sailing or without its issues, but for the most part, the congregation kind of enjoyed it, I hear, to be part of a congregation where “All are welcome” wasn’t just lip service.

The long and short of this answer is this: I came into my call with a recognition that, while our congregation was getting financial help from the ELCA to be a redevelopment congregation, ALL congregations are essentially redevelopment congregation. Almost all congregations have, somewhere in their history, an understanding that they exist for more than JUST gathering on Sunday, singing pretty music together, and getting a “Jesus cracker.” An understanding, somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds, perhaps, that the grace they received really only becomes a gift when they give it away to others.

I’m still committed to that concept: all congregations are mission redevelopments, especially when they wind up coming together in new configurations. Whether it’s that there has been an argument that caused a schism and the people who stayed have to figure out what to do with the pieces left over, or whether there’s a new worship leader who comes in with their own style, inevitably there will be a change. It’s a new fish in the tank, a new surrounding, a new circumstance that changes the way a congregation walks. It might be big, it might be subtle, but the change is there. That realization is the continuity part of my answer.

How my ministry has changed: I think I’m clearer now than ever before that the world needs the church’s voice … as long as the church is speaking with the voice of its Master, Jesus. This has made me bolder in proclamation, I think, especially outside the walls of the congregation. It has changed the way I act as the public face of the church, and this introvert has stopped being quite as shy in shouting the message of inclusion of ALL God’s children … even if that upsets some apple carts or overturns a table or two. There’s nothing in an overturned table that can’t be rectified with earnest discussion, repentance, and a commitment to forgiveness. I’ve grown in the depth of that understanding much more than I’ve changed in the basis of it.

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