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A Pastoral Letter - October 29th, 2021

REFORMATION 2021: A New Reformation!

Huge events in the history of humanity have always provoked major changes, changes that are pervasive and have an impact on all of us. We’ve just lived through one such event. The pandemic has disproportionately crushed some families, but even for those who have essentially gone unscathed from the physical or health ravages of the pandemic, they are nonetheless feeling the pain. Job losses, social isolation, employment alterations, economic upheaval, and on and on. We still don’t know what life will look like going forward. And not knowing is disconcerting for most human beings. We want to know. We want to control.

Conversations like this are difficult because they imply change. And we don’t like change at the best of times, let alone when so much has changed in recent months. In short, we want things to be precisely as they’ve always been.

There is an irony I want to share with you. An irony which you may find surprising; perhaps disturbing. The changes that are being foisted upon us at this time, ought to be welcomed by us. Indeed, we need to be embracing the change!

Church bodies all over the world are experiencing a marked drop off in attendance, and concomitant declines in giving. The “church” is struggling to discover what it needs to do to respond and adapt to changing societal systems, perceptions and self-understanding. Their reactions or adaptions are often made in desperation, and sadly, are changes that come too late. An unprecedented number of congregations have closed in recent months due to a shortage of pastors and budgetary shortfalls.

There are however, a few congregations, like ours, which seems to be holding their own. But in order to be a successful congregation, we need to make prudent decisions now, from a position of strength not weakness or desperation. Like everyone else in the world, Incarnation needs to plan for the future, not react to imminent threats. And that planning must be understood and embraced by all stake holders within the church. Ministry staff, council members, committee leadership, and general membership; everyone has to understand the changes and embrace them. There will be anxiety because there are changes. But these transitions need not and indeed should not, be viewed negatively. If we at Incarnation are to make changes, those changes should be seen as positive moves to ensure success and ongoing vibrancy.

So….what I am about to share should not be seen as a “bad” thing, or in anyway negatively, but rather as an appropriate response to a changing, post-pandemic world.

Deacon Mindy and Intern Jennifer and I have been in long conversation about what the church might look like going forward. Heretofore, and for the past three decades, we’ve operated with a model that was comprised of three key personnel: a senior pastor, responsible for preaching, teaching, administration and vision; an associate pastor, charged with family ministry and pastoral care matters; and a youth minister, asked to care for our youth, seeking to deepen their faith as much as possible. That model worked exceedingly well for us over the years, and while retirees immigrated into Southern California, there has never been a particular reason to alter it. Now, given the explosion in housing costs, and the apparent beginnings of an overall exodus from California to less expensive places in the USA, it is time for us to change….

Our attendance, participation and income streams have remained relatively static across the years, but now the cost of personnel is skyrocketing, because the cost of living in California is so terribly high. For example, a minimum wage salary, fewer than 15 years ago was in the range of $40,000 per year; now it’s a minimum of $58,000. In 2008, the median home price was reported to be $640,000. Median sale price of homes in Poway in August 2021 was $1.15 million. The hard reality is that churches are struggling to keep pace with the rising costs. So far, we’re fine. We’ve come through the pandemic well. We’re blessed!

All of that said, it would remarkably imprudent not to set ourselves up for success moving forward.

Now it needs to be said that there are also positive reasons for encouraging a shift in paradigm. One of the marks of the ongoing dysfunction in the mainstream churches, is a tendency towards “clergy-centric” operations. That is, the pastors and deacons, provided not only vision and leadership, but essentially spearheaded everything that happened. Laity became less and less inclined to be participant in the life of the church, but essentially became “religious consumers,” content to be served, but almost never to serve. A prevalent misconception was that one’s financial gifts or offerings constituted “payment” for the service requested or required. A pastoral expectation that the “laborer is worthy of his/her hire” often has led to stress in congregations who’ve struggled to find the means to support their pastors.

Therefore, in the interest of the health of our community, we have consistently and for years have emphasized the paramount importance of service. For the health and the good of our membership, we have underscored the need to “Serve God in the Service of All God’s People!

Now, in the face of the economic strictures we may face in coming years, and more especially in view of the critical need to remain actively vital, we need to re-emphasize the importance of lay participation and leadership. The economy is simply providing a bit of a push for us. We are being pushed to do what we ought to be all about in any case. A congregation, a church that is “clergy-centric” will die. That has been born out in recent years, particularly through the pandemic, and in its wake. Congregations with strong lay leadership tend to survive and thrive through all manner of challenge.

BUT….that “lay leadership” means everyone. We all need to engage. We all need to embrace God’s service as a part of our Christian calling. We are all called to serve God and the way we do that, is in serving all God’s children. All of them. Everywhere. And, we can!

In view of the economic uncertainty surrounding us (marked mostly by exploding costs on all fronts), Deacon Mindy and Intern Jennifer and I, have proposed to council that we consider a ministry model that has a slight shift to it. Rather than three rostered persons on staff, we are proposing to move to a model that has two, with an intern. This model has exciting possibilities, with challenging adjustments that we’ll all have to embrace. If we all work together to maintain the high level of ministry to which we’ve all become accustomed, this strategy has the promise of building strength into our community. Additionally, it has the corollary benefit of being something that we can, for the foreseeable future, actually afford.

My description to the council was that this exciting new model can really work for us, but it will be contingent upon three things, two of which are relatively simple, and one of which might be a little more difficult. First, we need to turn a part of our property into an accommodation for an intern. That part is already under consideration and rests in the capable hands of our property committee. In order to mitigate the cost of living, we are working to renovate what was formerly the infant room of the preschool into a studio apartment for our interns going forward. Second, we need to ensure a consistent stream of interns for this to work, and that means developing a working relationship with the synod and the seminaries of the ELCA. (It should be noted that there are increasingly fewer number of congregations able to receive seminary interns, so in regularly receiving interns, we do a great service to our church wide expression).

The third step is the most exciting, and the most challenging for our congregation. We need to encourage a shift in the evolution of the culture of our community, whose expectations are all about participation and service. Moving away from a “clergy-centric” model, where the clergy provides leadership on every level, will theoretically strengthen our membership on every level. This in turn will empower us for years to come, as we seek to be the most relevant community of faith that we can be in today’s world.

In practical terms, as we shift to this new paradigm, we may have to adapt to a new way of doing things, recognizing that if certain things are to continue, they must do so differently. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to provide the presence of anyone on ministry staff at all committee meetings. The council liaison will transmit concerns to and from the respective committees to the council, and by extension the ministry staff. Answers may not be as immediately available to us, as we’ve become accustomed to, but it is a simple adjustment. Bible studies under the leadership of ministry staff may have to become more focused and with fewer options, simply due to lack of time. Two rostered people cannot appropriately or properly do the work of three rostered people. Moreover, an intern must never been seen as personnel replacement, but rather a learner, who can benefit from the experience of clergy in the field, and the wonder of God’s faithful people in this place. That said, many of our faithful members are more than capable of preparing and leading really solid Bible study, committee meetings, etc. It may also become necessary to limit the number of worship opportunities we make available to the people of Incarnation.

It is truly hard to say what precisely will change in the coming months. We are evolving, just as the church is evolving across the country and around the world. But one thing that is absolutely certain, these changes will not and cannot hurt us. Such struggles, even if difficult, always result in growth! Individuals grow in faith and capacity through participation and service. If we work together, with a commitment to service and proclamation, we’ll thrive!

The changes will impact us all. On staff, the way we have always done things will have to change. But we’ll adapt to the challenge. On the council, the way we have always done things will have to change. But we’ll evolve through the challenge. On the committees, the way we have always done things will have to change. But we’ll enjoy the challenge. In the congregation, the way we have always done things will have to change. But we’ll embrace the challenge. In truth, the church is going through something that it hasn’t systemically faced for centuries, but in some measure, it ironically faces daily. We are faced with the need for nothing short of a New Reformation! Changes are necessary. Positive. Simply re-inventing the same old wheel won’t do. The church has been adding programs, modifying strategies and developing constructs for centuries. The trajectory for all mainstream Protestant denominations is downward, simply because we insist on doing things the way we’ve always done them. Once again, the church is ripe for Reformation! A New Reformation!

In the days to come, I hope you’ll join us in embracing the call to service; to sharing with us the joy that is ministry! There is nothing more profound than the renewal that comes with service. I, for one, am undaunted by the challenges the future may bring. But I am truly excited by the possibilities before us. If we focus on serving God in the service of all God’s people, not expecting exclusively to be fed, but rather inclusively, to feed; by our own participation in the task, we will grow! Together, we’ll grow! A New Reformation!

May one and all experience a wonderful Reformation!

Pr. Luther

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