And Jesus stopped and called (the two blind men), saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes and immediately they received their sight and followed him. Matthew 20:32-34
Many congregations struggle with decline in attendance and income, transitioning neighborhood and context, lack of coherent and appropriate vision for mission. Time and time again congregational leaders make efforts to re-tool and re-shape the congregation’s life and ministry, only to find resistance to change, lack of commitment, and little positive results. At the heart of all, we do as Lutherans are the means of grace, Word, and Sacrament, which communicate to us the real presence of Jesus Christ. Our response to His life-giving, life-renewing presence is often hindered by lack of focus, unclear vision, ineffective communication, cooperation, and commitment. One of the challenges to renewal and re-formation is our closeness to our congregation’s history, culture, and current practices. As with any family system, we can be so involved that we are blinded to the reality of our situation, unable to see clearly God’s will for new direction and transformation.
In ongoing reflection and conversation, leadership of the North American Lutheran Church has been seeking an integrative approach to congregational assessment, evaluation, and renewal. Working together, Assistant to the Bishop for Missions, Dr. Gemechis Buba, Assistant for Missions Jenny Brockman, Assistant for Domestic Missions Pr. Phil Gagnon, Director for Renewal Ministries, Pr. Brad Hales and Assistant to the Bishop for Ministry, Pr. David Wendel have developed such an approach, appropriately titled, the “Fresh Eyes for Mission Summit!”
The goal of the summit is to involve appropriate leadership in the NALC, together with congregational pastor and leaders, praying first, “Lord, let our eyes be opened!” We then trust that the Lord will give participants fresh eyes to receive new insight and understanding, all aimed at new or renewed direction for mission and ministry as the congregation seeks to follow Jesus firmly and faithfully!
Each summit begins with extensive pre-work by pastor and congregational leaders, which is reviewed by NALC leaders who bring varied experiences and expertise. An on-site visit is scheduled, normally with three NALC representatives who then join congregational officers in a tour of local context, neighborhoods surrounding the church, neighborhoods bordering the congregational service area, and making visits, where appropriate, to neighboring congregations, community offices, and locations. The goal is to look with “fresh eyes” at the congregation, context, and community.
The NALC facilitators then meet with the congregational pastor and lay leaders to review pre-work, asking, “What have we learned? What is a surprise? What pre-conceived ideas were supported or dispelled?”
A Saturday workshop takes place, led by NALC staff, involving formal and informal leaders of the congregation, using the Missional Capacity Assessment tool. This framework, originally developed by Dr. Buba at the 2014 NALC Mission Festival, has now been expanded into a workshop that assesses Missional Culture (faithfulness, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, centeredness on Word and Sacrament, church as Body or building, unity and healthiness, prayerfulness), Missional Leadership, Missional Context, with specific conversation, evaluation and numerical rating done by congregational leaders to arrive at a “missional capacity.” In other words, the assessment helps the congregational leadership determine capacity for mission in the present and the future!
The final step in the mission summit is to ask, “Where are we, where do we go from here?” The focus is on, “How has God gifted you? What do you have to share? What are your greatest assets for mission and ministry? What are your current challenges? What is hindering your mission and ministry? What is God’s vision for your future as a congregation? What is God calling you to be and to do? What action steps, then, are necessary to move toward God’s intended future for your congregation? The summit ends with Sunday worship and when appropriate, a congregational forum.
The first “Fresh Eyes for Mission Summit” was held October 8-11, at Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church, North Charleston, SC, facilitated by Pr. David Wendel, Assistant to the NALC Bishop for Ministry. Due to COVID restrictions on travel, other NALC leaders were not present, but Dr. Gemechis Buba led congregational leaders in a video keynote presentation and Pr. Gagnon, Pr. Hales and Jenny Brockman were involved and guided the process from the beginning.
Advent was established in 1934 in a fast-growing area filled with homes and families, due to the nearby U.S. Naval Base and Shipyard. When the military installations closed in the 1990s, the community and congregation experienced decline and the neighborhood around the church building transitioned. The congregation faced difficult questions in 2006 which resulted in a commitment to “restart,” which included calling Pastor Melinda Jones in 2007. Thirteen years later, there have been many attempts at renewal and “restarting,” with little impact. Given the congregation’s situation, Pr. Jones and the local leadership requested participation in the Fresh Eyes for Mission Summit.
Pastor Jones states, “The Fresh Eyes Mission Summit was a guided study of Advent’s mission and ministry in the past, the reality of challenges of today’s socio-economic setting, and the joyful expectation to serve the Gospel in the future. NALC leaders immersed our council in Scripture and encouraged open and honest discussion about the congregation’s faith habits, its mission statement, and where we see God leading us. The Fresh Eyes Summit allowed Advent to refocus our vision from the process of doing ministry (how we worship, membership numbers, programs) and shifting the focus on our call and the cross of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We give thanks to God that the FEMS was a resource open to us and to the NALC.”
After the mission summit, Linda Donnell, a member of Advent’s council shared, “I believe it was a very fruitful process! The part of the summit that was most helpful to me was…hearing the thoughts of our fellow council members and grading ourselves regarding our mission capacity–it gave us some things to think about as far as improving and what others actually felt about different situations. One thing is certain, we will all be praying to God to guide us on our new Advent-ure!”
The mission summit in North Charleston has resulted in specific, concrete action steps guiding the congregation’s response to what developed as God’s will for a new direction in North Charleston. The new vision regarding what is being termed as a renewed “Advent-ure” for Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church has been presented to the congregation and embraced with excitement and enthusiasm. The simple goal is to invite and welcome all God’s children to the “Advent-ure” which is being a part of Advent Lutheran Church!