Our vision to lead faithful innovation for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to listen deeply to our church partners. Together, we must discern what the Spirit is innovating at the grass roots, where current practices are breaking down, and what challenges and opportunities Christian communities and their leaders face.
This fall, teams of faculty/staff traveled to a dozen ELCA synods across the country to listen to local pastors, lay leaders, and synodical staff. We saw firsthand signs of new life and struggle in local ministry contexts. In response, we put together a report that summarizes what we heard in that listening, along with other research that has been conducted at Luther Seminary since 2015. This report will guide all the innovation work we do at Luther. And as our listening to the church deepens, we expect to add to it in the coming months and years.
Here are the key themes that emerged from the listening.
Connect with God
Leaders and congregations need a Christ-centered identity, embodied in a life of discipleship and nourished through spiritual formation.
When we asked what leaders need to know and know how to do, what we heard, above all, was what leaders need to be. A Christ-centered identity, embodied in a life of discipleship and cultivated through spiritual formation, was named repeatedly not only for leaders, but also congregations.
Thriving churches, leaders, and members evidence a vital relationship with the Triune God. They have a clear Gospel-centered identity and focus. They cultivate practices of listening to and being led by God’s Spirit.
Where church life is breaking down, congregation members struggle to know and connect the biblical story and faith practices to their daily lives. While they may believe in God, they have a hard time naming how God is present and active in their lives and the world. Where identity is primarily about cultural and social affinity, as opposed to deep connection with God and neighbor, there is little urgency to grow spiritually or risk changing. Pastoral leaders must be able to articulate why theology matters to people’s daily lives in ordinary language.
Leaders need to cultivate community by listening to people, loving them, and building trust within and beyond the church.
In an increasingly fractured society, people yearn for community yet often don’t know how to live into it, especially across cultural, social, and political differences. Leaders must meet people where they are and involve the community in intentional practices of mutual listening, relationship, and reconciliation.
Leaders need a spiritual and theological purpose that frees them to renegotiate established cultural norms.
Most congregations and leaders know they must change in the midst of powerful cultural shifts, yet don’t know how to go about it or are unwilling to risk it. Competency in leading adaptive change is essential, but even more essential is understanding why.
Congregations that are connecting meaningfully with their own members, younger generations, and diverse neighbors are driven by a spiritual and theological purpose that frees them to renegotiate established cultural norms. This purpose varies from congregation to congregation, but what is important is that they have discerned one. Those who lack such a purpose struggle to adapt and are often caught by a spirit of inertia, despair, scarcity, and fear.
Connect with Diverse Neighbors
Leaders and congregations need intercultural competency to connect with neighbors across all dimensions of diversity.
One major area of adaptation facing mainline denominations is engaging and embracing diversity on multiple levels. While this varies in different contexts, ministries that are able to form Christian community amidst diversity reimagine cultural expressions of Christianity for the sake of a distinct theological witness. Intercultural competency and practices of listening, presence, and cultural translation are integral to this work and essential for leaders.
Equip the Saints
Laypeople need opportunities to develop as disciples, ministers, and leaders.
In many congregations, there exists an expectation that professional clergy will perform ministry for the people rather than equip the people for ministry. Clergy and staff are often caught trying to meet these expectations with fewer organizational resources than ever before.
Some of the most innovative, hope-filled ministry sites we visited do not rely on professional clergy or a traditional paid staff; they have learned to empower the people for this work. In innovative larger congregations, clergy and staff often focus on multiplying lay leaders–not for committee work, but for front-line ministry in the church and world.
Shift Ministry Models
Leaders need to know how to start, tend, and manage entrepreneurial models of structuring and financing ministry.
As church participation declines, there is need for entrepreneurial models of structuring and financing ministry. Ecumenical and regional partnerships are increasingly common. Ministries are being launched with alternative income sources beyond congregational giving. Leaders must know how to start, tend, and manage these structures and initiatives.
Deepen Administrative Leadership
Leaders need to be skilled in organizational leadership, management, and administration in a 21st-century world.
Skilled leadership empowers ministry. Pastors must learn organizational leadership, management, and administration for a 21st-century, networked world. This is where they spend much of their time, yet many feel unprepared leaving seminary. Lay people are often frustrated by the managerial incompetence of pastors, and the ministry suffers.