Promising Innovation: Reimagining Church Together

God works through leaders gathered together

working together

Post #2 – Promising innovation is collaborative with shared leadership.

Reimagining Church Together

Friday, March 13, 2020, marked the start of something new. Pastor Meggan Manlove at Trinity Lutheran Church in Nampa, Idaho, received an email that the regular regional meeting of pastors, deacons, and youth ministers scheduled for the following Monday would be switching from in-person to Zoom. When the meeting arrived, the leaders had plenty to talk about. Most of their congregations had just pivoted to online worship the day before as the world entered a pandemic. But because they were already curious about how God was calling them to reimagine church, they decided to engage in an experiment.  

By the end of the meeting, the group committed to inter-congregational partnerships in three areas: daily connection and devotions, online small groups, and Holy Week worship. It was amazing how quickly their ideas became a reality. Pastor Meggan says, “A member of one congregation is a web designer and she graciously volunteered her time to create” The Treasure Valley Prayers website (or is a collaboration between multiple ELCA ministries in the Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon region. Its landing page says they are reimagining church together. This tagline is not merely a marketing motto; it is a missional challenge. 

But the story keeps going. Pastor Meggan continues: “A retired pastor volunteered to coordinate the schedule of people—pastors, deacons, youth ministers—who would contribute to our daily devotion offering.” And within a week, the first daily devotion was published. The new website allowed people to express interest in a small group and two weeks later four women from four different congregations launched their small group. Congregations began planning and sharing prerecorded worship services for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.  Something new was emerging. Building on their trusted relationships and mutual desire to meet people’s spiritual needs, the Treasure Valley Cluster shifted from being a community of support for church leaders to a platform for being church.

Though the crisis of the pandemic ignited this experiment, the seeds for it were planted long ago. These leaders knew for years that God is up to something new, and they wondered and discerned together what faithful innovation might look like for the congregations in their region. In fact, this wasn’t their first collaborative experiment; that one involved confirmation. Seven years ago, Pastor Meggan and Pastor Ken Carrothers joined forces by bringing their confirmation students together for monthly meetings. The following year Pastor Ken, who serves both Redeemer Lutheran and Grace Lutheran churches in Boise, Idaho, took the experiment even further. A neighboring congregation was in pastoral transition, so he asked his council if he could help them by leading their weekly confirmation program. They said yes. That move broke open their siloed thinking and paved the way for the collaborative approach to confirmation they have today.

These church leaders recognized a shift was taking place. They understood that the inherited models of church, which feature independent and self-sustaining congregations with their own buildings and staff, are not the future. There is an urgent need to experiment with other forms of ministry so the church can have a vibrant witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the Treasure Valley leaders, tinkering with approaches to confirmation tilled the soil. Experimenting with a cluster-wide council retreat opened their thinking even more. And now they are creating cross-congregational small groups, sharing worship leadership, and expanding how they daily accompany people in their faith during a pandemic.

In his book Sustaining Grace: Innovative Ecosystems for New Faith Communities, missional leader and educator Scott Hagley writes, “Innovation is not just paramount to mission, it is a critical feature of Christian faithfulness.” The expressions of church we inherit are just one expression. From the first century to the 21st century, Hagley explains, “experiments in Christian community generate questions, surprise us, disturb us, and help us identify new possibilities for God’s presence and work in our midst.” What if a fruit of this disruptive time is deeper collaboration with other ministries? What if something new is trying to emerge? Are we actively looking for the ways God is moving in our midst? Hagley believes the church needs to encourage “ecologies for ecclesial innovation” because “the profound depth of the challenges we face will require us to innovate in relationship to God’s mission.” What we face today is like nothing we’ve ever faced before. Are we open to exploring these challenges together for the sake of the gospel?

The creation of and all of the other Treasure Valley innovations were possible because they cultivated a culture of collaboration. These leaders spent years connecting with each other and centering their lives on God’s word and prayer. They were ready when March 2020 arrived, and it provided the right moment for their collaboration to bear fruit as a faithful innovation experiment focused on sharing the gospel with people in a meaningful way. 

Pastor Meggan and her collaborators aren’t resting on their laurels. They are looking to the future. They reevaluated their efforts over the summer months and recalibrated with long-term sustainability in mind. Daily devotions continue, with 30 people contributing content and between 50 to 100 people reading regularly. Small groups still gather weekly, and two additional joint worship services have been created. The regional leaders also partnered to celebrate the ELCA’s anniversary of ordaining women and host a cluster-wide study on Zoom. They don’t know what the next chapter is, but they do know God is stirring in in their midst. These pioneers in Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon are deepening their bonds with God and with each other as they reimagine church together.

About the Authors

Terri Martinson Elton is the Associate Professor of Leadership at Luther Seminary. Having served 20 years in congregational and synodical leadership before coming to Luther, Terri is deeply committed to accompanying congregations in discovering new expressions of ministry. Terri has co-authored a book on Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World with Rabbi Hayim Herring, researched and written about Cultivating Teen Faith, and has a new book, Journeying the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century, coming out this spring.

Tessa Pinkstaff is a project manager and grant writer at Luther Seminary who serves on the Innovation Leadership Team. She leads the weekly Dwelling in the Word webcast for Faith+Lead. Tessa is passionate about spiritual disciplines—including silence and solitude—as a means for developing an intimate relationship with God. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from the University of Northwestern–St. Paul and is nearing completion of a Master of Ministry from Bethel Seminary. Tessa looks forward to earning a certificate in spiritual direction from Christos in Lino Lakes.

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