Today (May 1), I head off to the Assembly of the Florida-Bahamas Synod. It starts tomorrow in Orlando, and I’ll be overseeing the audio and visual again. The Assembly will elect a new bishop. For the ELCA in Florida, this is a “change year.”
In my various capacities with the synod and ecumenically with the Florida Council of Churches, I’ve learned a lot about church life beyond the congregation. For most of the baptized, the congregation is where the rubber hits the road. Rightly so. The gospel comes to life in family and communities of faith. The church beyond the congregation is a different kind of thing. It has a servant role to the vitality of congregational life and to planting the mission of the gospel in new places. It also supports the ministry of the church: pastors, lay professionals and lay ministers. Call these duties to place and staff.
A particular set of organizational skills come into play for the church beyond the congregation. Often we hear that we need to be more contemporary in worship or more missional in outlook. That may be true in a given congregation. But it’s hard to make blanket assertions for every congregation. The continuum from contemporary to traditional worship has to be measured directly for each congregation based on their own assets and capacities. Lutheranism does not promote a “one shoe fits all” philosophy. We are about “the vernacular” – making the gospel known in the language of the people receiving it.
What’s important for Word and Sacrament based worship is that we do it as well as we can, that it authentically reflects faith and our need for faith, that it inspires participation in all who gather, and that it connects us with the work God is doing in the world around us. Thus in the power of the Spirit, Christ is made known to us and we are sent that Christ is known in the world, so that all might praise God for life abundant.
So I’ve reflected on what our new bishop might pursue – just as many others have, too. Here are my two big thoughts.
As we acquire cross-cultural skills in a transparent church that connects diverse people to work together, we will realize God’s mission in our communities.
First, to strengthen our congregations, we have to learn more “vernaculars.” In the next six-year term, our bishop would do well to help at least a third of our congregations acquire useable cross-cultural skills so that they can present the gospel better to more people in their neighborhoods. Florida has become a highly diverse state. Multiple languages are spoken in many of its cities and neighborhoods. Cultural habits vary widely. The working assumptions of various groups differ in many ways. There is no doubt that we know the gospel. We need skills to tell “the old, old story” in ways that people new to us can understand. We may also discover how the gospel has already been made real to them in ways that strengthen our own faith. As we gain such skills, with the power of the Holy Spirit, “as many as welcome the gospel will be baptized and thousands will be added to our number,” to paraphrase the Pentecost story in Acts 2.
Second, there is a set of organizational values which have emerged as ingredients to healthy, sustainable systems. Among them are three in particular: Transparency, integrity and collaboration. For the church beyond the congregation, these values (or lack of them) make a difference. Briefly put, transparency involves whether the actions and decisions of the organization, its leaders and members readily make sense to one another. When something does not make sense in an organization, then the spirit and interest of those who are counted on to participate in it are too weakened to be effective. Integrity is often expressed as “doing what you say” or “walking the talk”. True enough. Organizational integrity also involves connecting people, places and activities together in a meaningful narrative. With these two values in place, we come to know both why something is being done (transparency) and why it is worthwhile (integrity). The third value is collaboration – co-laboring, working together, partnership. This is one of St. Paul’s repeated themes. He constantly invites and encourages others to work alongside him and with him. The Spirit has generously distributed gifts for ministry among us all. When we work together with our various gifts, the Spirit empowers the mission of Christ in wonderful ways. A synod mindful of the values of being transparent, committed to integration and striving to collaborate will be a healthy and productive system.
Let me conclude this reflection with a metaphor.
The word hierarchy gets used a lot in the church. There are two kinds of hierarchy. One comes from the Roman army and its chain of command. The other is pictured best as a great pipe organ, with rank upon rank of pipes. No pipe has greater or lower status in itself but rather is treasured according to the sound it contributes to the harmony or the performance of a musical score. The pipes work together. The musical score tells all which pipe is sounding when. Working in concert, score and pipes, the music becomes the narrative of meaning for the whole endeavor. Transparency, integrity and collaboration arise out of rank upon rank. Who is the performer in this scenario? Some might say, the new bishop. I prefer to think the bishop is among the pipes and that the performer is the Holy Spirit – and the score (really the music made!) is the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
So I pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, with celestial fire our hearts inspire!”
The Rev. Russell L. Meyer receives his Doctor in Ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary on May 13, 2013 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.. His project thesis, “Embodied Integrity: Realizing the Holy Spirit via the Social Field in Ecumenical Conversation,” involved designing the conversation for the 2012 Annual Meeting of Christian Churches Together in the USA to prepare for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. The thesis outlines the process by which community conversations can lead to new collective actions.
After nearly 25 years of parish ministry, Rev. Meyer began serving in 2005 as an organizer and consultant to the “church beyond the congregation.” He shares his ministry serving as Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches and Communications Consultant (and other duties) for the Florida-Bahamas Synod. He is involved with a wide range of ministries locally, statewide and nationally that seek to express the unity which Christ gives Christians and the life which the Spirit gives the world.