By Pastor David Sprang
As I write this essay, I am reflecting on my first year as Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Evangelical Mission for the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. I appreciate the confidence that people have had in me and I am still excited at being able to help and inspire congregations to rediscover and enhance their mission.
Bishop Satterlee’s commitment to visit all the congregations in the synod in the first year has been a blessing. It is exciting and invigorating for me, and I am sure to Bishop Satterlee and Pastor Sarah Friesen-Carper to preach, preside, listen, and reflect as we visit throughout the synod.
A number of things strike me as I visit around the state. First, there is a dedication to the church and its social ministry that is far greater than I had imagined. There are dedicated leaders in congregations that are there every week making sure of things. Second, congregations in our synod are doing a wide variety of helping activities in their communities; like food pantries, partnering for homeless shelters, backpack giveaways, baby pantries, and Habitat for Humanity projects. Third, many congregations are working on global projects like supporting one of our companion synods, making items such as quilts and layettes for Lutheran World Relief, or supporting mission trips to domestic or foreign locations. Fourth, a dwindling number of children, youth, and young adults. Fifth, a variety of music and worship styles from outstanding to uninspiring. Sixth, even when I am wearing a clerical collar and people know that I am a visitor from the synod, few people actually greet me or welcome me, except the pastor or those I know.
I visit in many places where the congregation is well engaged in the community and listens to the needs of its neighbors. And others that have lost sight of what the needs are in the neighborhoods right around the church. Many congregations are very involved in social ministry, but hesitant to actually talk to people about Jesus or invite them to worship or provide opportunities to engage in conversations about faith. Must congregations are timid about telling their stories about the lives they touch with their ministries. Some congregations have accepted the fact that they are dying and are just taking care of those who come to worship. Others refuse to die and keep changing and adapting and coming back to life with a new spirit and enthusiasm.
We have gifted leaders in our synod. We have pastors who day in and day out care for the people in their congregations and communities. Often these pastors receive compensation below minimums, but they serve because they are called. Many of our pastors are tired. In many places the pastor is expected to do it all, plus balance having a family. There are gifted rostered leaders and lay persons who serve their own congregations and the synod in a variety of ways. I work with the Outreach, Witness/Evangelism, Financial Support, and Global Missions Committees along with the Living Water Ministries board. All these people give their time and energy to support and grow mission and ministry in our synod.
I have discovered what treasures our synod staff are. In Bishop Satterlee we have chosen a leader with limited physical sight, but incredible vision to see God’s vison for who we can be and how we can get there. I often forget when I work with Pastor Sarah Friesen-Carper that she is the same age as my son. She has great people skills and a keen sense of mission. Carrie and the rest of the staff work very hard at supporting us in our work together.
When I first started working with ELCA staff I became frustrated when they were not at their desks or took a while to return my phone calls. What I found is everyone in the churchwide offices does multiple jobs. The ELCA staff has been cut to bare minimums and still we expect full support and resources from people who are trying to keep multiple balls in the air, while congregations are giving less to mission support. The ELCA network and the DEMS from around the church are a gifted group of leaders who are working hard to promote mission and ministry. I am proud to be serving with them and learning from them.
There are many in the church that don’t see a future. Yes, average worship attendance is diminishing, and the numbers of youth and young adults are smaller than in decades past. But God has not abandoned the church. By our willingness to change, our recommitment to youth and young adults, an outreach to ethnic communities, and the power of God’s spirit, we can and will continue to be the church of Christ in North/West Lower Michigan. And I am fortunate to serve.