For Linda Bobbitt, receiving a Master of Arts degree from Luther Seminary in May 2017 was her most recent step toward finding new ways for people to connect with God and each other in a time when the church is undergoing great change.
Bobbitt, 52, is from Thornton, Colo. Her journey to seminary took a number of twists and turns along the way, starting with a later-in-life turn to Lutheranism to now entering the candidacy process to become a deacon with a call to the ELCA’s Churchwide Organization.
“I was not Lutheran, actually, for most of my life,” Bobbitt says. “I was Catholic as a kid. Then my parents got divorced and I started going to the Episcopal Church. I spent most of my younger life as an Episcopalian. But when my husband and I moved back to Colorado in the mid-90s and went back to the church where we’d been married, I found it dysfunctional. They’d gone through a big split over the gay/lesbian issue, and the church split into two.”
Pregnant with her second child, Bobbitt says she didn’t want to have him baptized into an unhealthy environment. Coincidentally, about that same time Bobbitt met a woman through her administrative job within Health and Human Services (HHS) who belonged to a nearby Lutheran church. The woman wanted to speak with the HHS department about partnering on an at-risk youth program.
“I thought that was really a great thing, a church that wanted to collaborate with us instead of demanding things from us,” Bobbitt said. “When the time came to look for another church, I said I’d like to go see that one. That first day, more people said ‘hello’ to us than had the entire year before at our old church. And we decided to stay.”
The church Bobbitt attended, Our Saviour’s in Fort Collins, Colo. viewed community collaboration as a big part of its mission. Bobbitt says she convinced her pastor to collaborate on a number of new efforts with the HHS, such as developing and running programs for the homeless. She jokes that as payback, he nominated her for the Region 2 Rocky Mountain Synod Council. She was elected, and eventually was elected to serve as vice president of the synod for two terms totaling eight years.
Bobbitt, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling, continued working at HHS while serving on the council. As such, she said she approached her synod work as she would her day job.
“As vice president, the first thing I did was try to figure out, ‘Well, what are the metrics of this synod thing?’ because everything else I did in my life was all about outcome measurements,” she says. “At HHS, we worked with the United Way and other funders to say, ‘What are the actual needs of this community and how are our funds addressing those needs?’ Then we examined data and figured out what we needed to do to make a difference. But when I looked at the church stuff, all I found was how many people were showing up and how much money they had given. That doesn’t tell you what the church is doing, and it doesn’t say what it’s about.”
As a result, Bobbitt ended up creating a survey tool to ask congregation members to share information about themselves and how they viewed their congregation. She worked with the ELCA Churchwide Organization to deploy it and tabulate results for the wider church. Those results were also reported to survey respondents.
“When we showed congregations how they responded to the survey, they wound up having really productive conversations from it about ‘What does it mean to be connected with God, one another and the world? What is our sense of mission and how does worship nurture faith? How are we seeking out and using the gifts of people and incorporating those people into our congregation? How are we talking about our faith outside our congregation and having an impact on the community?’ That’s the kind of stuff church should be about, right?”
When her term ended on the synod, Bobbitt spoke with the churchwide organization, saying she thought there was more potential to be found in the survey tool. One thing led to another, and she was eventually hired by the ELCA as a contract researcher and project manager for the Congregational Vitality Project (www.congregationalvitalityproject.com), which “was created to deepen the ELCA’s understanding of congregational vitality: what it means, how vital the ELCA is now, how vitality can be cultivated, and how the ELCA can foster cultivation.”
While doing this work, Bobbitt says she often interacted with clergy members and others within the church, but says she sometimes found she lacked a common vocabulary with which to communicate on these topics.
“Very early on in trying to understand the mechanics behind this, God was doing something with me,” Bobbitt says. “I couldn’t articulate it. I’m pretty good at explaining charts and that kind of thing, but I found that when I was trying to do this with pastors and so on, they understood my words, but it didn’t mean anything to them. It was getting lost in translation. And I also knew there was more going on with this that I wasn’t able to understand myself because my theology wasn’t there. In a conversation about it with Rollie Martinson [Roland Martinson, professor emeritus of Children, Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary], he suggested I look into the seminary’s Congregational Mission and Leadership program. So that’s how I came to be at Luther Seminary … I was trying to do a job that I didn’t feel equipped to do, and I was hitting a wall.”
Today, Bobbitt continues to work with the churchwide organization of the ELCA, and in July, she was named the coordinator of Area Ministry Strategies for the ELCA as a natural expansion on her work on the vitality project. In these roles, she will continue to work to help find new ways to strengthen congregations.
“My degree expanded my understanding of and imagination for what God is doing and how our congregations and the wider church can better participate in God’s mission,” Bobbitt says. “Learning more about leadership and theology also helps me communicate and engage more effectively with pastors and other lay and rostered leaders. I’m now better equipped to join other leaders in the continuing transformation of the ELCA.”