In late 2018 and early 2019, faculty and staff teams from Luther Seminary visited a dozen ELCA synods across the United States to listen to local pastors, lay leaders, and synodical staff. The purpose was simple: to discover what Christian leaders need to know, or know how to do, to be faithful and effective in changing ministry contexts.
The visits were coordinated through the innovation team, a cross-disciplinary group of faculty and staff whose focus is accompanying churches and their leaders to discover how to address the challenges of forming Christian identity and practice in today’s world. The team is headed by Dwight Zscheile ’08 Ph.D., vice president of innovation. “Innovation starts with listening,” Zscheile said.
“Before you can know how to help, you have to have a deep understanding of the challenges facing those you serve—in this case, Christian communities and their leaders.”
On synod visits, teams consisting of one faculty member and one staff member toured congregations, ministry sites, and neighborhoods to see firsthand what’s happening in the church in rural, urban, and suburban settings.
“It was a rewarding experience,” said Professor of Systematic Theology Lois Malcolm ’89 M.A., who visited the Eastern North Dakota Synod with Vice President of Seminary Relations Heidi Droegemueller. “Meeting the pastors and congregation members brought our work into sharper focus and made it come alive in deeper ways.”
Our listening partners
- 75 lay leader developers
- 58 ministry sites in 12 ELCA synods
- 12 large ELCA congregations
- 15 ELCA synods and episcopal dioceses
- 550 pastors via a Lifelong Learning survey
- 33 churches from the Vibrant Congregations project
The innovation team evaluated this qualitative research alongside other data collected through surveys on congregational vitality and learning communities. A clear picture emerged of seven key themes that churches and their leaders must learn to address in order to thrive in the 21st century.
1. Deepen Christian identity and practice
In a culture in which Christian faith is no longer assumed, leaders and congregations need a Christ-centered identity, embodied in a life of discipleship and nourished through spiritual practice.
“You’d be surprised at how many leaders, not just lay members, struggle with this,” said Michael Binder ’17 Ph.D., affiliate faculty member in congregational mission and leadership. “In our work, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in vibrant congregations there’s a sense of deep connection with God and neighbor that leads to a willingness to grow spiritually and risk changing. Where church affiliation is about social, cultural, or political affinity, there’s a lack of urgency.”
2. Cultivate community
The polarization of contemporary society came up again and again as a source of concern for congregants and leaders. Congregations must learn how to form Christian communities across cultural, social, generational, and political differences. This happens as communities are willing to meet people where they are and enter into intentional practices of mutual listening, relationship-building, and reconciliation.
3. Innovate faithfully
Many congregations struggle to innovate because they fear letting go of cherished traditions. But faithful innovation is not about change for its own sake. It’s about being willing to adapt practices to better serve a world in which cultural and social norms are shifting. Congregations need a vibrant spiritual and theological purpose that frees them to experiment.
4. Connect with diverse neighbors
10 a.m. on Sunday is still among the most segregated times of the week in many North American communities.
To connect across multiple dimensions of diversity, congregations need an intentional commitment to intercultural competency, engagement in the local neighborhood, and an ongoing practice of listening, presence, and mutual welcome.
5. Equip the saints
In many churches, there is an expectation that professional clergy will perform ministry for the people rather than equip all people for ministry. Laypeople need opportunities to develop as disciples, ministers, and leaders.
“Some of the most hope-filled sites we visited don’t rely on professional clergy,” said Paul Hanson ’89 M.Div., a Luther Seminary philanthropic advisor and innovation team member. “Other effective congregations focus on multiplying lay leaders, not for committee work but for front-line ministry in the church and world.”
6. Shift ministry models
As church participation declines, many churches are experimenting with new organizational models and alternative sources of income beyond congregational giving. This includes starting, tending, and managing entrepreneurial ways of financing ministry. For example, Grace Church in Nampa, Idaho, has an Etsy shop called Threads of Grace where it sells hand-stitched stoles to clergy around the world. The fabric and labor are donated, and all proceeds fund the church’s ministries.
7. Improve administrative leadership
Lack of training in administrative leadership creates frustration for leaders and those they serve, while skilled leadership empowers ministry. Leaders need to be trained in organizational leadership, management, and administration for a 21st-century world.
“These themes will guide all our innovation work at Luther Seminary,” said Zscheile. “And there’s more to come! As our listening to the church deepens, we expect to learn more about what it means to educate leaders for Christian communities in the coming months and years.”
Visit faithlead.luthersem.edu to learn more and join the conversation.