Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Church History and Congregational Vision

Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." 
For the time-being, we'll run with this time-worn translation of the verse, even though some more contemporary translations such as the NRSV read, "Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint." Since I want to talk about vision here, I'll use the translation that includes the word I need, but I also note that even if the verse is more appropriately translated "cast off restraint" I still think what I want to say here holds true. In fact, the variety of translations provides nuance. One way groups of people lack vision is by not having restraint. Instead of staying focused on the center of their calling, they run off and try to do everything. They lose restraint. And they often perish.

I've learned that one important function of many pastors and leaders of congregations is that of memory keeper. Organizations often have short-term memory loss. A board does something together, serves for three years or so, and then there's a completely new board elected, and those groups of servants often don't pass on the institutional data necessary to carry memories forward. It is the pastor or other full-time staff, the ones involved in the daily, weekly, monthly, and annual conversations, who carry the torch.

In my last call, beyond being a memory keeper of current ministries, I found it valuable to be an amateur historian of the congregation itself. This proved especially fruitful at East Koshkonong, because East Koshkonong is an historic congregation, the first Norwegian Lutheran church in North America. At our 165th anniversary, I had the opportunity to share the story of the congregation with the local newspaper (Wisconsin State Journal). At a meeting of the Koshkonong Prairie Historical Society, I had the chance to present a paper on the founding pastor, J.W.C. Dietrichson that was later published in Lutheran Forum. For one simple example of how to share the history of a congregation, see the walking tour.

One tendency I've seen in congregations, however, is to focus on a narrow band of the history of the congregation, often especially its founding. Our congregation tended to do this. There's published literature on the founding, including the travel diaries of Dietrichson. I admit that I haven't yet published a book concerning the history of EKLC from 2004-2010, even though Dietrichson's book covers approximately the same number of years in the history of the congregation, and our six years in the last decade certainly contained some equally remarkable moments. Perhaps those of us who follow the founders simply assume that whatever we do cannot be as momentous as that which happened at the founding. The bible if nothing else should disabuse us of this--Adam and Eve only get a couple of chapters in the bible, after all--but we still operate this way.

I haven't done a comprehensive study, but some congregations do a good job of reviewing their history in order to express their vision and direction. One of the best examples I've seen is Hope Lutheran Church of West Des Moines, whose published history of the congregation is commendable both for its brevity and clarity. It tells you who they have been and who they are.

So here I am, beginning at new call at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church of Fayetteville, and I'm convinced that getting clear about the history and narrative of the place will be important in helping shepherd the congregation forward together with a common, life-giving vision. I love Terry Walling's model for this, of mapping out where one has been (he does this for leaders to help them live focused lives, but I think the model can work equally well for congregations) in order to clarify where God is calling you. He describes his process like this: "Focused Living is about discovering how God has shaped you throughout your past while charting a course direction that is aligned with God’s overall forming of your heart and life."

One of the ways God shapes me is by guiding me in my reading, so I often go into a new context with a long bibliography of material I'm reading. Some of the best books I'm reading right now that have helped me learn much about moving south and into Northwest Arkansas include:

Chad Gibbs, God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC
Arkansas/Arkansaw, Brooks Blevins
Ellen Gilchrist, The Writing Life
To Serve God and Walmart, Bethany Moreton

And of course, there is this nice resource on our church web page, a brief history of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

I also love hearing oral history, so in addition to spending time with members and hearing their stories, I'm really hoping to organize some time this spring a history mapping event to get a better sense of what it has meant to be a Lutheran congregation in Fayetteville over these past 40+ years. I was particularly pleased to learn that the Alban Institute has published on-line a complete guide to constructing your congregation's story. The book was originally published by Augsburg Fortress in 1993, but AF and the ELCA have released it to be published online in 2010.

Sometimes when you map out a whole history, significant trends and events can flash out that point in directions you may not have considered. Additionally, overall trends can help solidify certain directions and bracket out others. It really is helpful, but it takes careful, sustained, and prayerful work, and it requires time to turn the chronology into a narrative aligned with God's overall forming of the congregation. By keeping and tending the story, we become part of the story and keep the story going. This is an apt description of how to live as a congregation, and it also describes, ipso facto, what it means to be a Christian as well.

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