Focusing on Congregational Vitality

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By Bishop Michael Rinehart

outwardly focused congregationsThe ELCA has recently reorganized its mission in the U.S. to focus on congregational vitality, recognizing that the ministry of this church is lived out to a significant extent (though not exclusively) in the work of our congregations. If congregations are vibrant, then ministry is as well. Without synods or churchwide, congregations might struggle, but they would continue. Without congregations, however, there is no synod, no churchwide organization to serve the world and the church.

The Conference of Bishops met recently to work on a definition of congregational vitality. We ended up with a draft that looks something like this: Communities of Jesus that promote life-giving relationships with God, one another and the world.

Notice this definition is not about numbers. It is about vitality. We have all seen small congregations full of vitality, energy and outward-focus. I have seen congregations split, have families leave, and in the end be healthier and more mission-focused as a result.

I am encouraged by our denomination’s reframing of its work. It aligns nicely with our goals here in the synod, to become a network of growing, Christ-centered, outwardly-focused ministries passing the faith to the next generation. Through the work of LEAD, we have become, some would say, obsessively focused on congregational vitality. We are learning volumes.

It would be helpful for us to have an ongoing conversation about how you think the churchwide organization can best promote congregational vitality. It would also be helpful to hear your thoughts about how the synod can do so.

In the next few years, the ELCA is committed to the following goals as it becomes the church God is calling us to be:

GOAL ONE: A thriving church spreading the gospel and deepening faith for all people (Acts 1:8, 1 Peter 2:9-10, Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 1:16).

GOAL TWO: A church equipping people for their baptismal vocations in the world and this church (Philippians 2:4-11, 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, Romans 6:3-4, Mark 10:13-16).

GOAL THREE: An inviting and welcoming church that reflects and embraces the diversity of our communities and the gifts and opportunities that diversity brings (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 2:14-20, Acts 10, Galatians 3:26-28).

GOAL FOUR: A visible church deeply committed to working ecumenically and with other people of faith for justice, peace and reconciliation in communities and around the world (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, John 13:12-15, Isaiah 58:1-11).

GOAL FIVE: A well-governed, connected and sustainable church (1 Corinthians 4:1-2, 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, Micah 6:8, 2 Corinthians 9).

To these ELCA goals, I would share our synod’s four core commitments:

  1. Deepening faith: We will respond to the urgency in our community for deepening faith and spirituality.

Mindy Roll is our key leader for this conviction. Also on the team are Janelle Hooper and Kathy Patrick. Their plans to expand the team. So far they have produced a curriculum for small groups to deep in faith through telling stories. Harvey delayed our piloting and rollout, but 70 copies have sold, so its off and running. You can find this curriculum on Amazon at:

  1. Hospitality: Our synod and its congregations will model radical hospitality.

Chris Markert is our key leader for this conviction. He is in the process of assembling a diverse team. Hospitality is wide. It ranges from how congregations welcome visitors to how we welcome immigrants in our neighborhoods. They have prepared a congregational assessment.

  1. Leadership: Our synod will continue to focus on leadership.

Peggy Hahn is heading this up with some help from Blair. Their goals are to maximize teaching cohorts in our synod, to expand our digital resource center and to develop a pipeline for future leaders.

  1. Structure: We will tend to our structures, so that they serve us, not the other way around.

Evan Moilan is our key leader for this conviction. He has assembled a team. They have met by phone. John Turnquist is on this team, that will look at congregational and synodical constitutions for ways to streamline governance.