Synod-Wide Review & Self-Assessment
A Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) review of the practices, activities and mutual ministries with and among the conferences, congregations and congregants of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
CC – Central Coast
CI – Channel Island
FC – Foothill Conference GLB – Greater Long Beach LA Metro
SB – South Bay
SGV – San Gabriel Valley TC – Tehachapi
TV – Twin Valley
Introduction (Randall Foster)
The ELCA Churchwide Office – in its collection of procedures and practices across the country preceding a Bishop’s election – strongly recommends that Synods initiate, as they enter their transition year, a formal review of their state-of-affairs. This assessment of the Synod’s capacity, its ability to provide guidance, direction and assistance provides for a greater appreciation of the challenges that lie ahead for any incoming Bishop and Synod Council.
The Southwest California Synod is a representation of much of Southern California. Comprised of nine conferences covering Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Kern and San Luis Obispo Counties, Southwest California Lutherans are united by the precepts, principles and practices of our faith yet are different as defined by the communities and neighborhoods in which we serve. These unique communities face varying challenges catalogued by economics, population density and diversity. Moreover, these nine conferences embrace urbanization, suburban life, and rural & agricultural settings. Thus, the needs of our conferences and congregations differ in relationship or degree based in part on these measurable variables.
The Southwest California Synod began its transition period in July 2020 with the creation of a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) review of its practices, activities and mutual ministries with and among the conferences, congregations and congregants. The basis for this “All Synod Review” was to assess and report on our adoption of the ELCA Strategic Goals as offered in the strategic plan “Called Forward Together in Christ”. These five distinct goals were accompanied by a series of probing questions intended to “spark” interests, reflection and dialogue. Those goals are designed for us to become:
Goal #1 – A thriving church spreading the gospel and deepening faith for all people.
Goal #2 – A Church equipping people for their baptismal vocations in the world and this church.
Goal #3 – An inviting and welcoming church that reflects and embraces the diversity of our communities and the gifts and opportunities that diversity brings.
Goal #4 – 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.
Goal #5 – A well-governed, connected and sustainable church.
The sharing of this information and the planned assessment review began on July 21st and culminated on August 17th, representing Round One. One hundred and twenty-six people participated in the first round of discussions. It was comprised of an orientation and introductory session, addressing the particulars of each session, while describing the objectives and the process for Round Two and the eventual development of the final report. Rostered leaders and council presidents were invited to Round One. Sixty-seven congregations were present.
The event schedule represented:
Round One Conference Sessions – Orientation and Introduction
- Greater Long Beach – July 21st
2. South Bay – July 22nd
3. Channel Islands – July 23rd
4. Foothills – July 28th
5. Central Coast – July 29th
6. San Gabriel – August 10th
7. Tehachapi – August 11th
8. Twin Valleys – August 13th
9. LA Metro – August 17th
Round Two followed these discussions in which the 113 people present were asked to provide input and commentary on each of the strategic goals, their impact on local ministry, and the their influence and effect on synod administration and governance. These informative sessions began on August 19th and concluded on September 3rd. Council members, ministry leaders, and Rostered leaders were invited. Fifty-seven congregations were present. The secondary event schedule represented:
Round Two Conference Sessions – Assessment and Review
- Greater Long Beach – August 19th
2. South Bay – August 20th
3. Twin Valleys – August 26th
4. Channel Islands – August 27th
5. San Gabriel – August 28th
6. Foothills – August 30th
7. Tehachapi – September 3rd (combined with Central Coast)
8. LA Metro – September 2nd
9. Central Coast – September 3rd
10. Special Spanish Designated Session – October 5th
Each session was sub-divided and participants were assigned to breakout rooms of 8-10 people from various congregations, both Rostered and lay leaders. A facilitator and a recorder manned each breakout room. Notes from the recorders were aggregated by goal and presented to the Synod Office on behalf of the Writing Team: (e.g., Rev. William Hurst – South Bay, Rev. Ruth Sievert – San Gabriel/LA Metro, Terri Pyle – Tehachapi, Carol Bjelland – Channel Islands, Deacon Lynn Bulock – Channel Islands, and Samantha Henderson – Synod Office). The summary that resulted was submitted to the Conference Deans for further review and comment from each of the nine conferences and other interested stakeholders. The accompanying report carries detailed responses comprising all 18 sessions in English along with a special session held in Spanish. Work is underway to host a 20th session in Mandarin. Every attempt at receiving candid, unvarnished reactions from those in attendance was made. Commonly stated or repeated observations and statements were highlighted. Best practices for which congregations were engaged were lifted as demonstration models. Issues requiring immediate and short- and long-term attention were catalogued for action. An abstract or executive summary evolved from the collection of voices that will serve as an informational narrative, helping to inform the 2021 Synod Assembly about the state-of-affairs within the Synod such that as a new Bishop is elected, they and the gathered assembly will have a clearer view of the challenges and expectations for the immediate future.
Many thanks to the Conference Deans for their help and facilitation of this most important work among us!
- Central Coast – Rev. Amy Beveridge
2. Channel Islands – Rev. Jennifer Chrien
3. Foothills – Rev. Scott Peterson
4. Greater Long Beach – Rev. Tracy Williams
5. Metro Los Angeles – Rev. Jonathan Hemphill – Interim, Rev. Caleb Crainer
6. South Bay – Rev. Christopher Lindstrom
7. Tehachapi – Rev. Dawn Wilder
8. Twin Valleys – Rev. Stephanie Jaeger
9. San Gabriel – Rev. David Beard, Acting
Strengths (Carol Bjelland)
Our Synod’s congregations are made up of engaged and committed people. The Focus Group responses reveal the following overarching common or shared strengths.
For the membership of our Synod’s congregations, service to others is foundational; service to the most vulnerable, at home and abroad; service to congregation members; and service to neighbors in the communities where we worship. Service takes on many different forms and formats, reflecting community and congregation history, dynamics, need, opportunity and passion. Members are involved in service ministries in their local communities addressing a broad range of focus areas, including, not limited to, homelessness, mental health, and addiction counseling. Support of Lutheran Social Services and other social service groups and programs in their communities is a common strength.
Service ministries focusing on alleviating hunger are strengths across the congregations. Some congregations host their own food ministry(ies) including food pantries, gardens, and prepared meals. Other congregations contribute to and participate with food ministries and food programs hosted by other organizations in their communities by sharing financial gifts as well as gifts of food and volunteer time.
Service to those in need in the global community is also a strength among congregations. Service is through connections to organizations such as LWR and LWF, their kit, clothing, quilts, and masks ministry programs, as well as other care organizations outside the United States.
Service is multigenerational. Congregations involve youth in intergenerational service opportunities as well as youth-focused service opportunities.
Establishing, nurturing, and growing connections and relationships is a strength shared by congregations, leadership, and members. Relationships are one-on-one, group-to-group, as well as with and among group members. In addition to relationships within the congregation and membership, relationships include congregations’ connections to their neighborhood and local community as well as to connections with other churches and faith groups. Relationships and connections promote an inviting and welcoming environment. Service and outreach go hand in hand with connections and relationships. Congregations connect to those in their community through service, as noted above, opening church facilities for community programs/meetings, participation in community forums, events, and programs, and through ministry outreach such as Vacation Bible School.
Congregations use many ways to make, nurture and grow connections, including worship, Bible Study, book discussions, adult education classes, community issue forums, phone calls, greeting cards, newsletters and social media. They use online/streaming of worship services and new technology such as Zoom. Congregations are adapting to new ideas and approaches for connecting and building relationships.
Generosity is a strength for congregations and members – generosity of financial gifts, time, talents and other resources to many ministries, organizations, programs, and opportunities. People want to give back where, when, and how they are able to do so, considering job losses and current uncertainties. Congregations are known for their generosity.
Commitment to Education
Supporting and promoting education and reputation for educational excellence is a strength for congregations. This takes different forms among congregations. Many congregations have adult education programs. Many congregations have education-focused ministries reflecting commitment to education, including opening and maintaining high quality preschools, participating in public school development programs, scholarship opportunities, language programs, education mentoring, employment training, and equipping neighborhood children and neighborhood schools with school needs such books, supplies, and backpacks.
The desire to promote diversity is shared among congregations. Congregations approach this in different degrees and in different ways. Relationships between congregations/within conferences promote diversity & multicultural perspective. Community outreach, participation, and service are paths to diversity and ways to create a welcoming and inviting environment. Some congregations have undertaken specific education opportunities to promote learning, reflection, and dialogue. Synod leadership, through financial gifts, focused ministry, programs, and events, also facilitates congregations in pursuing diversity of their membership and ministry.
Social justice is a shared strength among congregations. Congregations take different paths in embracing social justice and in being social justice advocates. Some have undertaken steps of study, reflection, dialogue. Congregations equip and support members in pursuing social justice issues. Congregations work with and support Synod Justice/Social Justice teams and their activities. Congregations and members pursue social justice through relationships and participation with various social justice organizations and programs.
Weaknesses (Terri Pyle)
The Synod Assessment Reviews held in conference discussions highlighted issues of weaknesses in areas related to the Synod goals of how the community views the church, equipping members for ministry, strengthening ties to the community, the level of outreach involvement congregations reach, and how the Synod structure is viewed. Location, visibility, reputation, and advertising were brought up as ways that affect how the community views the church in affecting awareness and outreach. The lack of awareness of baptismal gifts, not knowing how to get connected to serve, feeling ill-equipped to do ministry and lacking leadership training keep members from advancing programs, services and outreach and becoming involved. A few responses revealed areas of struggle with covert racism, microagressions and diversity. Churches experience difficult struggles even while our Synod and Church Statements hold up a standard of compliance promoting acceptance and welcoming of all people (GLB). These struggles, our priorities, the pace at which members take in new training, work to assimilate new ideas into their outreach, and not being able to share power, hold congregations back from strengthening ties with their surrounding communities. Finally, there are issues within the Synod structure that are keeping congregations from realizing, achieving and directing Synod goals. Synod functions are not known by congregants, Synod support is unclear, roles and responsibilities are confusing, lack of Synod communication between church offices and congregation exists, there are funding concerns and barriers to participate in Synod work.
Our churches experience a number of factors that contribute to how they are viewed by their communities. Some communities are not even aware of the presence of the church because its physical location is hidden from view. Or, if it is visible, its actual structure can be mysterious looking and so its purpose questionable. (GLB). One church experienced a problem with their reputation when a tragic event occurred at their facility (GLB). Our members do a lot of volunteerism and advocacy; but the community is unaware that a church is doing the work and their witness is unseen (CC/TC). Churches are not good at advertising and so do not reach the level of awareness and outreach that is desired for community involvement (CC/ TC).
Equipping Members for Ministry
At this time, during a pandemic, it is difficult to advance programs, services, and outreach when members are not able to gather in person. It’s hard to determine how many members are actually being reached (GLB). However, even in “normal” times, there are lack of resources for growth and reasons that keep members from becoming involved. Members are doing ministry without being aware of their baptismal vocations (GLB). People want to serve; but, don’t know how to get connected (TV). As Lutherans, we have an amazing message, though we don’t practice self- proclaiming. We feel we are not ready (CC). People don’t often feel equipped to do ministry. Some congregations are not equipped to do outreach and have no programs or interest in pursuing them. They tend to support other’s food services rather than tackling a ministry venture on their own (SGV). Some don’t want to be engaged; but, are looking for a place to recover (CC).
Leadership is key in advancing programs, services and outreach; however, leadership was an area that was identified as a resource requiring attention. Lay leaders need help in understanding how to be part of the larger church (SGV) where there are resources, connections and opportunities. Their lack of knowledge of church policies was noted (SGV). Those with leadership abilities are not placed in leadership (SGV); which again, demonstrates the lack of awareness of baptismal vocations for members and their churches. A concern that the ELCA is not supporting the call of leaders was raised in the example that leaders are not able to attend seminary without an undergraduate degree (SB).
Strengthening Ties to the Community
Churches are struggling to find ways to reach out to their communities when needs have increased and the work for members has intensified (SSDS). It is difficult to be a “welcoming” church during a pandemic when your doors are not open (SGV). Sustaining church requires a lot of work and other things can become more important (FC). Dealing with recent job losses and uncertainty among our members can keep their focus inward rather than reaching out toward others (SB). Preschools and schools in communities with diverse cultures can help to connect churches with the local community; but, may not afford opportunities for congregational growth due to cultural differences and a churches unwillingness to change (SGV).
Members can be overloaded with information as they learn about racism and social issues to be able to relate to their communities (CI). Greater Long Beach Conference has a multicultural ministry but power is not shared; white members have the money and the power and the others are “worker bees” who have tasks to do (GLB). Covert racism and microaggressions are also present (GLB). Some participants shared their church struggles with diversity and accepting all members (GLB) . Other issues have eclipsed anti-racism work (SGV).
A number of factors affect weaknesses in the level of outreach. Churches can be set in their ways, doing outreach the way they have always done it, focusing inward and not looking outside of themselves (SGV/CC/TC/SB). Programs will not happen without enough volunteers, so when their own churches are not large enough to host outreach ministries, their participation is worked within community organizations (SB/CC/TC/LA Metro). Attempted programs; such as, campus ministries have not been successful (CI). A bilingual ministry wasn’t sustainable without more help from the congregation, or was dependent on the relationship of a specific pastor (CI). Focusing on getting more members involved in social ministries needs attention (CI). Social service programs are on hold while serving hot meals has become the main focus (SSDS) Some outreach actions may be viewed as political (CC/TC).
Clearly from the discussion responses there are weaknesses in how congregations see value in the Synod; their support is unseen or unclear, roles and responsibilities are not well identified, both funding the Synod and as a resource of funding they are limited. Additionally, awareness, perception, information sharing and participation are concerns that the churches raised regarding Synod structure.
Many congregants do not know about the Synod (CC/FC), nor are aware of the conferences that make up or fall under their reporting structure. Not all congregations see the Synod as being a support system (SB). In fact, congregations see conferences as support rather than the Synod (SB). Although, in one conference collegium was not very involved together as a group (SGV).
The Synod is perceived as too busy for congregational needs and has distanced itself from churches (LA Metro). Some don’t find Synod useful or care about them (LA Metro). Roles and responsibilities are confusing (LA Metro/FC). Churches need help with how Synod works, documents are not updated (SGV). Congregations are facing financial difficulties (SSDS) and funding Synod support is difficult (SB). It needs to be a resource of financial assistance (FC). Synod is not visible in conferences that are further afield, and synod information does not get past the church office (CC/TC). It is difficult for Spanish speaking members to participate in synod events because of the language barrier and events are often during working hours. Members who really want to be connected are not able to attend during that time (SB). A better way for the Synod to share ideas and serve as a hub of information is needed (FC/TV).
Clearly, the Synod Assessment review conversations around Synod goals have identified areas of weakness in our churches which affect our ministries. It is hoped that with these insights combined within the context of the full SWOT Report will further the Synod goals for our Southwest California Synod.
Visibility of the church and the awareness of community involvement of its members is an area where the level of awareness and outreach is less than desired. Members cannot do ministry without knowing they have the gifts to accomplish it. Without knowing their strengths or how to volunteer those strengths, or the very lack of interest in pursuing programs, contributes to the difficulty in effective outreach. Leaders need help to be church leaders.
When the physical church is closed and members are personally struggling with job losses and uncertainty, it is a difficult time in which to keep an outward focus and strengthen ties with communities. While churches connect with and provide services and programs to their communities, those ministries do not necessarily grow the church. It is possible that components of welcoming and the unwillingness of the congregations to change contributes to this weakness in both outreach and strengthening ties with the community. Outreach needs to be worked with communities rather than driven for communities.
Many congregants do not have a basic understanding or clear perception of the Synod’s structure, function and the essential services they provide to the churches within our conferences. Synod support to the churches is questioned. Other conferences ask for clearer roles and responsibilities, information sharing, updated resources, stronger ties between churches and the Synod, and financial assistance. These vital resources are expectations when financial support to the Synod has been declining and providing such resources to congregations is a struggle.
Opportunities (Bill Hurst)
Once a SWOT analysis considers an enterprise’s strengths and weaknesses, the next area of inquiry is to analyze and evaluate its opportunities. These elements and assets offer channels and pathways for stability, resourcefulness, progress, and growth toward the entity’s core visions and purposes.
Our congregations are very different – with unique histories, challenges, engagements and visions. While they are united in shared history and theology, they have lived out these common areas of heritage in vastly different ways. Some have developed deep community connections, while others have remained more insular.
One common theme expressed in the conference conversations to date is the conviction that change is needed. In many cases, that impulse is driven by a recognition that older and more traditional models of congregational life and mission, while reflecting a rich history, no longer work in the current mission moment. In other cases, the move to greater neighborhood relevance and missional growth is called for – not merely as a matter of institutional survival, but as a direct response to the Gospel call to do justice, love kindness, and to live out the Reign of God in new and effective partnerships.
In reviewing the responses from the first two Conference meetings conducted by synod, the following broad areas of opportunity were lifted up:
While the Southwest CA Synod is a community of relatively young congregations (compared with ELCA judicatories in other parts of the country), many of these congregations have deep roots in their neighborhoods. Many feature beautiful buildings and grounds, and often these spaces have been shared with neighbors for a variety of uses. In some settings they have served as polling locations or offered their parish halls as sites for community meetings. Even for people not seeking a place to worship, many of our congregations are recognized as community assets and centers for ethics and social justice.
A number of our parishes sponsor, host or partner with programs or agencies providing crucial human services in their communities. Affiliations with organizations such as Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Maritime Ministries and others have value for neighbors who echo our concerns for care of the underserved or marginalized.
Some of our congregations host or operate preschools or elementary schools, and these institutions are a recognized benefit and blessing to working families. Even for those not aligning with our faith traditions, these ministries and programs are seen as highly important and positive in their impact on the neighborhoods they serve.
While not all congregations are as externally focused or woven into their communities as they could be (or want to be), there are tremendous opportunities to establish each and every one of these sites as open and excellent places of welcome, learning, advocacy, human service and compassion for their neighborhoods. The more that our congregations see themselves as servant communities, justice communities, and welcoming communities – and less as providers of membership services – the more effective they will be in the important (and overdue) work of re-rooting in our neighborhoods.
Justice Proclamations and Practices
While not all SWCS congregations are fully aligned with the mission directions and convictions of synod or churchwide expression, the affiliation of parishes with the ELCA and its various expressions is another area of tremendous opportunity.
The public face of this synod – embraced in whole or in part by many of our congregations – has been consistent in providing a strong voice regarding racial equality, societal justice, human rights and welcome/affirmation of persons and communities long ignored or dismissed by mainstream religious groups. Synod bishops have spoken clearly and forcefully on these issues, and taken a consistently visible and courageous stance on matters of deep importance to the communities and counties of our territory. Among these areas of public witness have been long term and consistent advocacy for LGBT+ affirmation and welcome, declaration of SWCS as a Sanctuary Synod, condemnations of racism and white supremacy, and appeals for compassion and justice in the public square.
The opportunities for establishing and expanding this public presence are immense, and much will ride on the willingness of individual congregations to align with these stances in their local settings. While our numbers are small relative to other faith communities in our service area, our shared convictions and public voice will find deep resonance with neighbors’ yearning for a just and compassionate society. The challenge is to translate our proclamations into concrete practice in every one of our mission outposts in years to come. The ministry of the Office of Bishop will be key in speaking justice and truth to power as one prophetic and effective voice.
A rich and diverse variety of local ministries are being conducted each and every day . among the congregations of this synod. Beyond community services, each of our parishes offer services of worship, programs of education and formation, specialized ministries to children and youth, elder services, and many other parish programs. Congregations offer their facilities and expertise to neighbors during times of joy and times of sorrow. Baptisms are offered as families welcome the gift of new life into their households. Weddings and other rites of passage are hosted and led for members and neighbors. Bereaved families are embraced through funerals, memorial services and counseling. Throughout the ages and stages of life, our congregations offer their energies and facilities to be of service to their neighbors.
These diverse expressions of congregational life – often viewed as member services – offer tremendous opportunities for outreach and connection to those outside parish membership. This depends on congregations embracing these traditional ministries in all their fullness as well as publicizing and offering these ministries to those outside their current membership ranks, and committing to meet our neighbors at the point of their felt needs and aspirations.
Neighborhood Outreach and Advocacy
In order to be more relevant, reflective and responsive to the communities we are called to serve, congregations will need to partner with agencies and organizations committed to justice and advocacy. Thankfully, there are many Lutheran, ecumenical and interfaith partners actively pursuing a more just and inclusive world in our synod territory and beyond. Among these are Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, CLUE, Lutheran Office for Public Policy, and others. A rich variety of established and emerging ethnic-specific ministries are helping parishes move beyond their traditional constituencies, becoming more reflective of and relevant to their neighborhoods.
Anti-racism and social justice programs and trainings are helping congregations embrace a broader and more just vision of human community. The Bishop’s Office has led the way in stating clearly this synod’s commitment to justice and welcome, and a number of parishes have made important contributions to this crucial dimension of the synod’s public advocacy ministry.
A special word needs to be said regarding the ethnic and language specific congregations and worshiping communities of this synod. These ministries offer immense opportunities for mission growth and neighborhood relevance throughout our territory. They truly represent a vanguard for meeting and engaging with neighbors not traditionally part of the outreach histories of most of our current congregations. Many of these congregations worship and serve primarily in languages other than English, and their relevance to the felt needs of our neighbors cannot be overestimated – particularly at a time of heightened tensions and immoral policies regarding immigration and sanctuary, public safety and policing, social justice and economic equity — and to legitimately pursue the vision of God’s Reign to which we are committed.
In order to more fully realize the immense opportunities inherent in these important ministries, serious attention must be paid to the ways they are supported and underwritten by churchwide, synod and local partners. The current models for initiating and growing congregation mission starts must be examined as to their effectiveness in encouraging and sustaining congregations, and particularly regarding those whose primary work is being done among economically stressed communities and constituents. A fresh and realistic approach to underwriting and sustaining these ministries of outreach and service will be crucial to their long term survival and success.
As with other areas of promise, the opportunities for growth and progress are immense. Much will depend on the willingness of individual congregations to embrace God’s justice as it expresses itself in the issues of the day. Honest and open conversations about challenging issues — such as white supremacy and privilege, fear of the stranger, resistance to change, and the call to prophetic activism – will be important dimensions of the call of synod’s next Bishop and Synod Council leaders. The prophetic voices of synod and local leadership will need to be trained not only on those outside our parishes, but will need to confront resistance within congregations and their constituents as well.
To pursue the many opportunities listed above — and many others that will arise – the development and engagement of effective organizational structures will be key. This synod possesses many of these assets at present, and a commitment to weaving them together into a missional whole will be crucial to grow into the church we seek to be together.
One common aspiration among those who participated in our conversations is that our Conferences take a stronger role in planning and collaboration. While the specifics need to be developed, working together rather than ministering in isolation is a goal worth seriously pursuing. Another common conviction is that ecumenical and interfaith relationships be strengthened.
Many congregations feel beset by the ever-increasing weight of financial challenges and fiscal management, including employment compliance and business office functions. There is an opportunity here for providing expertise in back-office requirements across congregations, rather than each parish having to rely on its individual volunteers or staff.
This same approach could be employed with specialized ministries in Children and Family programs, youth groups, weekday schools, community outreach, social ministry programs, and the like.
A number of congregations face closure, now or in the near future. This prospect offers an opportunity for growth and change in our missional future. Closure and merger could be a time to redirect resources and energies for outreach and new visions for mission and ministry. The development of a cohesive strategy for faithfully utilizing these assets will be crucially important for the future.
In conclusion, the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA certainly faces enormous changes and challenges in the months and years to come, as our conference conversations made evident. Along with these are immense opportunities for positive change and missional growth – and the next generation of synod leadership – bishop, pastors, deacons and lay leaders – are in a pivotal position to convene and broker the discussions and consensus that will be needed to craft a future with hope, and to grow into the just and effective Body of Christ we seek to be and become.
Threats (Ruth Sievert)
With all of our strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, conversation about threats seemed most on top of the thoughts of many people engaged in this process. Except for COVID-19 these threats have become obvious to some people a long time ago while others have only become aware in the last few years.
This pandemic brought our usual ways of doing things to a screeching halt. Suddenly, we had to employ technology to worship and have meetings, classes, and gatherings. For some pastors and leaders, this came somewhat easily. For others, it has been a challenge. While the line between ease and challenge has been in large part along age differences and the pastors’ agility with technology, it has also been due to resources of lay leaders who can help, appropriate technology, and internet accessibility. In addition to the challenge of providing digital worship, we are faced with the fact that many seniors lack computers and/or internet access.
Perhaps more than the technology challenge comes the challenge of keeping a community connected while we are apart. We did not ever imagine that this could go on for so long and there is great concern about what is happening to the people in our congregations who are more isolated by their lack of technology access. “When will we return to worship in person?” “ Will we ever have a live coffee hour again?” “When can we get back to normal?” We are faced with a new normal that we cannot really anticipate, but we know that we will never be back to our before-Covid normal.
In some settings, outreach during this time has increased with awareness of food insecurity, and congregations are finding ways to connect with other churches and agencies to reach out. But in many settings, outreach has all but or actually stopped during COVID.
People are well aware that we have aging congregations, with people who love to serve but can no longer keep up the pace they once kept. It seems true in most congregations that 10-20% of the people do 90% of the work. We are not getting younger members and often, when we do, they are very sporadic in their worship habits and participation. Where once, we could count on seeing people in worship 2-4 times a month, many consider themselves active if they come every 8 weeks. Worship on Sunday morning has become one of many, many options of things to do.
Aging members are often the ones who are giving at the level of tithing and above. Younger members are burdened with debt (student loans, housing costs, children’s schools, and general cost of living) and so are compromised in their giving habits. As the older members die, giving is going down.
Sometimes aging members who have been in leadership roles for many years are resistant to sharing leadership with younger, newer members. Indeed, for some, there is great resistance to any change, especially in worship. While many in these conversations expressed the understanding that we need to change, it is difficult to do it when long-faithful members are unwilling to go along with changes.
While institutional racism has long been a problem in our churches, recent events such as the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent peaceful protests put it more squarely before us. If we do not confront this in our congregations, death seems nearly inevitable – if not deserving, in the opinion of some. We are at a crossroads with this issue and we must find ways to do this hard thing in the midst of the most divisive political climate we have ever experienced. We have to determine how to deal with our disagreements, helping people to be vulnerable and courageous in doing this work.
Resistance to dealing with any of our “isms” is hard to get through because we are dealing with peoples’ deeply ingrained understandings of how the world works. One congregation mentioned resistance to changing the singing of our traditional hymns to more contemporary arrangements. Another pastor spoke of the challenge of helping the congregation value their pre-school ministry to mostly Spanish-speaking families who were not a part of the congregation. Racism is a very real threat to the Church.
ELCA Strategy for Mission Congregations
When starting new Missions, the ELCA provides funding, more so to our Spanish speaking Missions. After a period of years, depending on the situation, they begin to cut down on the funding, with the expectation that they will eventually become completely self-sufficient. All of our Spanish speaking Missions are in impoverished communities, and cannot expect to become financially self-sufficient. This is a huge threat and a constant burden on our Spanish speaking pastors and the congregations they serve. These congregations are providing important outreach and community service to the people who live in poverty, often far more than our English speaking congregations in more affluent communities.
While there are many and varied weaknesses and challenges in our congregations that some will be able to rise to and others will not, these three threats seem to be the most imminent threats to the very existence of our congregations. Responding successfully to these threats will require great faith, courage, tenacity, and the very real desire to work with and equip one another.