The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
by Chloe Ahlf
“Bringing leaders in congregational life is pivotal to what we do,” says Elise Winter, council president at Memorial, Afton. “We learn from each other, no matter the makeup or the size. The value of sharing how and why we do something, or why we don’t, helps the greater church.”
Winter was a facilitator for the President’s Forum workshop at this year’s Tool Kit for Congregational Leaders, an annual event aimed to equip lay leaders with new skills and networking opportunities.
Bishop Lull agrees with Winter – the valuable work of our lay leaders adds immeasurable strength to the greater church.
“Your volunteer contributions as lay leaders add significantly to the vitality of your congregation and therefore to the strength of the Saint Paul Area Synod,” Bishop Lull wrote in her introduction to this year’s Tool Kit. Continuing, “...your labor of love occurs as you translate skills as artists and organizers, financial managers and teachers, into leadership on your congregational councils and committees.”
The 10th annual Tool Kit for Congregational Leaders was held Saturday, February 6 at Shepherd of the Hills, Shoreview. This year’s event and its workshops focused on the needs lifted up at the visioning process events that happened throughout the synod this past summer.
More than 115 lay and rostered leaders from 38 congregations gathered together for workshops covering a variety of topics, from communications planning and leading bible study fearlessly, to mindfully opening our spaces to those with disabilities and being a public church in the 21st century.
One of the most popular workshops of the day was Holding Respectful Conversations on Difficult Topics. The inclusion of this workshop reflected calls for the synod to address topics such as racism, sexism, immigration, and gun control – and to help congregations mindfully address them, too.
“There is something of grace and love inherent in the practice of being open and listening to the other and engaging in respectful dialogue,” Tom Duke, workshop leader for Respectful Conversations, tells me.
The workshop provided lay leaders with the ability to lead such conversations and was “intended to give people an understanding of how structured dialogue can help congregations provide safe and effective ways to talk about subjects which can be highly charged or even divisive.” This includes internal conversations involving organizational issues, or community and social issues.
“The capability to conduct these [conversations] can build and strengthen relationships, empathy and community, even if differences remain,” he tells me, adding that, “failure to do so can push such issues underground or lead to avoidance, distancing, stereotyping and undermining of community.”
Duke has faith in the concept that “congregations could become known as centers of constructive dialogue for the sake of the broader community.”
Following her time in a fellows program at Augsburg College, Sarah Peterka of Shepherd of the Hills led the workshop Public Church. The workshop examined what it means to be “public church” in the community, and Peterka shared a 4-step process that offers a new approach to how churches can shape their mission outreach and community involvement.
Aside from workshops focused on being more engaged with social issues, the visioning process brought to light another struggle that many churches feel: staying on top of things in the ever-changing digital world.
“Technology is getting easier to handle and doesn’t have to push your staff into overtime,” The Rev. Dawn Alitz tells me. She led the E-Formation workshop, about bringing the digital age into faith formation. “In learning how to curate the great materials that already exist on the web, and connect with different audiences within the congregation, churches really can have an up-to-date web presence.”
The Communications Planning workshop also introduced attendees to digital strategy. Trip Sullivan, who co-led the workshop, explains that, “Putting some thought into your church’s communications strategy is an important exercise to make sure your day-to-day ministry is aligned with your big picture objective. You need to think about who your audience is, the best way to reach them, and what you can tell them.” In the workshop, Sullivan went through some basic digital tools to boost reach so that what you can tell them can get further, with less people power.
The Rev. Laurel Bernard also led a workshop on expanding reach and ministry, but to a specialized community, in the workshop Disabilities Seen & Unseen: The Vulnerable in Our Midst.
“While many people living with a disability or health condition are able and willing to offer gifts and skills within a faith community, often it is all too easy for these more vulnerable individuals and families to disappear from the community,” Bernard says. She cites feelings of having nothing to offer due to compromised time, little money, or limited attention span, as reasons why people and families with disabilities might isolate themselves. “Developing a ministry of listening to these families is important,” she continues. “Understand that sometimes the most important ministry they can offer is simply their presence at worship and events. Invite them to pray for the community, even as the community prays for them. Beginning conversations in our congregations that encourage us to see, appreciate, acknowledge and utilize the gifts and skills of those we often do not see, or are taught not to see, is a great place to begin.”
Much like the Respectful Conversations workshop, Disabilities Seen & Unseen focused on dialogue, whether it be in the community or internally within a congregation. Terri Endres, DM, of Portico, agrees that delving into deeper conversations is always a meaningful way to begin big change. Endres led Healthy Choices, Healthy Living, a workshop about “creating a healthy environment that supports healthy leaders and congregation members” using Portico’s Wellness Reformation tools.
Participants were “high on passion and enthusiasm for creating an environment that supports healthy leaders and members so that congregations can better serve their neighbor,” Endres tells me. “We entered a deeper conversation about the need for mutual accountability between our pastors, staff, and members concerning health and wellness. What a great beginning to an often difficult conversation.”
Overcoming fears of lay leadership – the fear of developing a deeper dialogue, of confronting divisive issues, of talking about wellness – is what Tool Kit strives to empower our lay leaders to do. For some of our lay leaders, aspects of faith formation or church governance are new and scary.
“Does the idea of leading a Bible study cause you to panic?” That’s the question that Diane Jacobson, AiM, posed for Bible Study for Dummies. This workshop opened up a dialogue surrounding fears – and tackling those fears – of leading a Bible study without a pastor.
The Rev. Janel Kuester enthusiastically empowered lay leaders to confront the daunting work of the church constitution in her workshop The Living, Breathing, Ever-Changing Document: The Church Constitution.
“Getting and keeping your constitution in good order can be overwhelming,” Kuester acknowledges. “But keeping this living, breathing, ever-changing document up to date is a gift you give to your community of faith. These documents provide the rules – the law, not the grace – but when they are in place and well-maintained, they allow congregations to focus on ministry – witnessing, caring for the poor, teaching and proclaiming.”
Other leaders found empowerment through the Presidents’ Forum, where council presidents, vice-presidents, and other council leaders gathered together to talk through topics of common interest.
“The group found out they had more in common than differences when it came to leading their congregations, even though we represented different sizes, focuses and geographies,” Kris Olsen, former council president at Roseville Lutheran, says. “We were able to quickly find common ground and had meaningful conversations about what it means to be a lay leader.”
“People were eager to share and eager to listen to what each of us is doing and how each body in each congregation works,” Elise Winter of Memorial, Afton, adds. “Valuable work goes into the Tool Kit that binds us together and shares the larger image of the church.”
Every year, the Saint Paul Area Synod staff work hard to take an accurate pulse of what our lay leaders want and need to be learning. We do this because we put immense value on the lay leaders that map out, bind together, and inspire the extensive work of our congregations and therefore the wider church. Last year, we asked what it means to be church, here and now. Over the summer, we asked the 125,000 members that make up our synod where they sense God is calling us. This year, on the cusp on the Reformation, we are declaring that we are Lutheran, bold and hopeful.
Through their work, our lay leaders show us what it means to be church, here and now. They demonstrate a keen sense of where, and to what, God is calling us into. Our lay leaders also demonstrate what it means to be bold and hopeful. They lead fearlessly and express daringness to learn new things and network with new people, scouting out new ideas and new ways of being church. This year’s Tool Kit exemplified just that. Excitement to take on the task of delving into divisive topics, to lead potentially difficult Bible studies, to create a meaningful communications strategy and try out new technology – this lends even more hope to the potential of our churches. It lends yet more strength to our synod. It bolsters the work that we can do with our neighbors. And it loudly declares that we are Lutheran, bold and hopeful.