During July 2021, Terri Elton, director of Faith+Lead Academy and professor of leadership at Luther Seminary, convened a group of 31 grassroots leaders from the ELCA and beyond for a series of listening sessions.
The purpose of these gatherings was to articulate and explore the challenges Christian communities and their leaders face as they attempt to embody biblical imagination, identity, and practice in ways that address the longings and losses of today’s world.
The work was supported by a Pathways for Tomorrow planning grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc, and together with a cross-disciplinary team of Luther Seminary staff and faculty, Elton facilitated three listening sessions total. All sessions were robust, candid, and energizing.
What follows is a breakdown of 10 key takeaways from the conversations; for more in-depth analysis, download the entire report here.
Lead Adaptive Change
Adaptive change requires a cultural and heart-level transformation in a system. This stands in contrast to technical change, which can be accomplished by implementing a new protocol or tool. Overwhelmingly, we heard that leaders need help navigating the adaptive change process, while remaining faithful to their calling and engaging their contexts in imaginative ways.
In particular, participants said that leaders need to “learn how to learn” by listening deeply, trying new things, and listening again. In some cases, leaders are afraid to lead change, so they need permission to experiment. In other cases, they need courage to look outside their doors and engage with neighbors who have not traditionally been associated with the church.
Prioritize Spiritual Formation
Again and again, participants stressed that spiritual formation is key to helping Christian communities and their leaders lean into the work of adaptive change. They need to be formed in such a way that they are connected with God, faithful to the gospel witness, transparent about their human weakness, and open to their neighbors. Personal spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, contemplation, and dwelling in scripture, as well as communal practices of telling and listening to faith stories, were especially emphasized.
Practice Our Way into the Future
The transformation the church needs now is one that is felt and lived into more than conceptualized or planned. By engaging specific practices that build up “muscle memory” for the way forward, Christian communities and their leaders will gain confidence and clarity.
Specific practices that came up repeatedly include:
- Collaboration and sharing resources
- Deep listening
- Participating in justice work
- Being attentive to the needs of the broader community, not just the congregation
- Developing skills in digital media
- Cultivating intercultural competence
Live Out a Gospel Witness in Public
Christian communities should be present in places of despair, suffering, and injustice as a public witness to the healing presence of Jesus. In the process, they can hold space for lament, hear stories of pain, and advocate for more just systems.
In addition, they should work with leaders and organizations already engaged in justice work. Possible collaborations include: multi-faith/interfaith partnerships, bivocational leaders, social justice/community-based advocates, cross-denominational partnerships, artistic/creative leaders, and nonprofit organizations.
In one participant’s words, “Church should not be an institution but a movement.”
Shift Away from Clergy-Centric Models of Leadership
The professional model of ministry is breaking down, as the culture shifts from the “age of association” to the “age of authenticity.” Our listening partners emphasized that the church needs new models of ministry that cultivate shared leadership between lay and ordained folks. In addition, we must be receptive to the calls of bivocational leaders and leaders with multi-ethnic competencies (including, but not exclusively, multilinguality).
Reach People Where They Are
The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened a trend that was already underway: fewer people are returning to the pews on Sunday mornings. That doesn’t mean they aren’t seeking ways to make meaning or don’t need community. Christian communities must connect faith with everyday life, through everyday means (such as digital platforms), and in everyday language—while being honest about the real challenges people face, both personally and communally.
It’s Time to Change the Internal Conversation
Too often, the conversation inside the walls of the church sounds something like, “The church is in decline, we’re running out of money, churches are closing, the future is grim.”
The leaders in these listening sessions want us to shift the narrative. Everywhere we look, people are concerned about a dying planet, problems in their neighborhoods, and the need for justice. What would it be like if these were the conversations we had in the church, instead of worrying about decline? What if we entered the work of the gospel and did it together with our neighbors?
“Leaders Are Burning Out”
One participant summed up a phenomenon many of the participants expressed: “Support mental health. Leaders are tired and burned out.”
The causes for burnout come from various sources: dealing with unresolved grief, navigating unprecedented change, and leading deeply divided communities. Add to this the reality that the old models of ministry no longer “work” as effectively as they once did, and many leaders are reaching a crisis point.
The fix isn’t about adding yet another self-care practice to leaders’ to-do list but to fundamentally re-imagine what Christian leadership is—as opposed to running a series of programs or meeting all the emotional and spiritual needs of a congregation, what if Christian leadership means helping community members get curious about what God is doing in their midst, and giving them space and encouragement to experiment based on what they discern? This feels like a more hopeful way forward.
Five Populations that Are Underserved by Existing Church Structures
The group identified five populations that are underserved in the ELCA—and in the mainline Protestant traditions more broadly—but that are vibrant communities where God is active and could provide significant opportunities for collaboration and ministry.
- Ethnic minority communities, in particular Hispanic/Latino/Spanish-speaking communities, Native American communities, and immigrant communities;
- Rural communities (especially small congregations);
- Young adults and youth;
- Lower-income neighborhoods; and
- LGBTQIA+ communities.
The participants noted that it will be important to equip and support leaders from among these communities, as opposed to “sending in” established leaders from legacy structures, to help them experiment with new forms of Christian community.
The group wondered: How willing are current church leaders to undergo transformation by listening to voices outside their tradition and/or the majority? How willing are they to let go of previously held notions and assumptions? This will determine the extent to which these efforts are both faithful and effective.
Theological Education Needs to Change
According to our listening partners, seminaries are integral to the task of reimagining what church leadership and future ministry might look like. Seminaries should be open to collaboration, new models of training, and even relinquishing outdated notions of professionalization, knowledge, and status.
In one participant’s words: “I kept hearing over and over a need for our predominantly white institutions to let go of the idea that a PhD is the only way for someone to be credible in academia. We have lost the wisdom and knowledge…, the cultural expertise, and the sage wisdom from the community. … [We must] understand that the white theological framework is not the only way—and hold space for other frameworks to enter into the conversation.”
- What are the core challenges facing the church in your experience?
- What practices or shifts are most urgent in our current cultural moment?