The Life & Death of Congregations – The Sequel

So, I was thinking that it was time to return to a train of thought I boarded a couple of posts back. The gist of that post was that everything lives and dies, including congregations. Congregations and organizations like them have choices about living and dying. I said, “The real causes of decline and death in a congregation is that it becomes more concerned about its survival than its mission. It is that plain and simple. The picture (below) reminds us that returning to our mission brings life. The choice we face as a congregation that has stabilized and matured is whether we will make the effort to be renewed and reborn through the power of the Spirit, or will accept the forces of gravity and begin a hopefully dignified decline into death.” 

life cycle 2

It is easier to let life cycles follow a natural course. Entropy (the process of running down or degrading) takes place without guidance or effort, so the downward path of decline comes like breathing… well, until it stops. It is much more difficult to swim against the current of entropy and fight decline. It takes not just effort, but letting go of habits and past behaviors. It takes more effort the deeper into decline an organization travels. It takes more effort to achieve longer periods of renewed growth. That is what the different color circles mean. The red circle signifies a modest turn made when the organization is at the leading edge of decline. The green shows decline a bit deeper and the growth a bit longer. The blue shows the pat from deep decline to greatest growth… and it takes the most change and effort.

Here is another symbol that signifies the same thing, but with much deeper results:

 cross sillouette

The Church today, it seems to me, misses many opportunities to experience resurrection, renewal, redemption, because we have forgotten how to embrace the cross. We have, with great fear and trembling, shifted from a mission of cross-shaped obedience to institutional survival or maintenance. Job one has become to make sure our congregation, seminary, college, synod, district, etc. survives the threats brought by constant and incomprehensible change. We ask, “What will happen to the building?” What will happen to the endowment fund?” “Will anyone remember us?” We have forgotten that job one is really to “Go, make disciples” or “take up your cross.”  Taking up the cross is what leads to resurrection and new life.

The cross for the church of our age is to make some hard choices. To allow many aspects of our way of doing things, our way of being to die so that God can raise up a new body in this world. It isn’t easy – look at Jesus! But if his followers won’t risk death for the sake of the reign of God, then who will?

I want to leave you with some choices it seems to me we must all make if we are to take up the cross of mission and be opened to God’s future. Ponder them and let me know what you think. I’ll write about some of these particular choices in the weeks ahead. As Moses told the people in Deuteronomy, we have a choice:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;  (Deuteronomy 30:19-20) 

  • Linked Arms or Open Arms
  • Full Tables and Seats or Empty Chairs and Seats
  • Managing Scarce Resources or Trusting God’s Abundance
  •  Everyone Decides or Trust Leadership
  • Membership Matters or Discipleship Matters
  • Fear of Failure & Death or Faith in the Spirit’s Guidance
  • Everyone Happy or Everyone Challenged
  • Reasonable Demands or High Expectations
  • Welcome Neighbors & Friends or Hospitality to Stranger
  • Giving to Needs or Needing to Give
  • What God Has Done or What God is Doing
  • The Past As Guide or The Future as Goal
  • Giving within Reason or Extravagant Generosity
  • Maintain or Thrive
  • Monument or Movement
  • Comfort or Discomfort
  • Passive or Active
  • Sunday School Faith or Mature Growing Faith
  • Church on Sunday or God Everyday
  • Divided by Disagreements or United in Diversity
  • Minimize Risk or Take Bold Risks
  • Old Friendships or Christian Fellowship
  • Never changing or Ever Changing

I know that we could add more to this list — and perhaps we will! I know some will say that these are all “both/and” possibilities. I think that is too easy. What shall we choose people of God? Life and mission? Survival and eventual death? That is really the question we need to be asking.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim Olson

© Timothy V. Olson, 2014

A Pastoral Letter of Thanks & Concern

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, eternally. Amen

There are many, many joys that come with being a pastor. There are also sorrows. Each come as we walk with faithful people through what life brings.  We give thanks to God for the joys and sorrows; for the privilege of sharing the sacredness of life with you and all those we have served over our years of ministry. We give thanks for each of you in our prayers and our hearts.

We write to you today out of a shared concern for our life as a congregation. There are times – trying times – in the life of the Church where we struggle to be about the work of our Lord. In our lifetimes we both have seen issues arise that threatened to tear the Church apart, it seemed. Watching from a bit of a distance, we both recall the evil and bitterness that marked the Church during the civil rights movement. Race divided the people of God. People fought over the Biblical view of race. When we were a little older, the acrimony of Church arguments came closer to home as Lutherans talked about the ordination of women. People left our congregations because they felt that women had no place in the pulpit. Each side seemed to consign the other to hell and damnation for disagreeing. This was not a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, the issue that gives rise to our most basic behaviors, that arouses the deepest anxiety and fear centers on human sexuality. Once again, the Church has struggled to provide a healthy witness to the Christ who is supposed to have the power to unite us even when we disagree; even when an issue is complex and hard to navigate. Our congregation has struggled with an undertone of conflict on this issue since 2009 when the ELCA adopted its statement on human sexuality. Our congregation, like the whole ELCA, is not of one mind on this issue. After five years, it is time to move forward; to be about the business of God in Christ.

Recently, the Council of the congregation has sought to provide support to us as we stand on the front lines of making hard decisions. They asked you to provide feedback to help them lead. We want to give thanks to all the Council members who have worked so faithfully to develop and share this resolution with the congregation. It has been a long conversation and process, spanning more than a year. It has included study of biblical positions and the statement of the ELCA. It was at times a difficult conversation. But, never once did it cause animosity or disrespect; never once was their anything but efforts that were faithful to God, the scriptures, and the mission of the congregation. The Council has shown its gifts for wisdom and discernment; they have prayed often and with power.

The feedback we received, the meetings held with SMA leaders and participants, and the discussions we have had with members reveal that 55-60% of the congregation supports the resolution presented.  We give thanks for those who voiced this support and saw the action as a means of staying true to our mission and their understanding of the gospel.

We also give thanks for those who do not support the resolution and expressed their opinions in gracious and respectful words that truly contribute to the difficult discernment of your leaders. These responses showed that the love of Christ can, indeed, allow people of different viewpoints on important matters live together in peace and with respect because Jesus Christ is bigger than any of our disagreements.

Some responses gave us not a reason to give thanks, but reasons to be concerned as your pastors. We are concerned about those responses that gave counsel rooted in fear: the fear that members might leave, that giving might suffer, that people will be mad. This has been a theme of conversations on nearly every decision – major and minor – for the last three or four years and perhaps beyond. Paul calls the church to “speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:14) One of the constant refrains from scripture is “Do not fear” because fear is the opposite of faith. We cannot be faithful and fearful at the same time. We must stop worrying about who is leaving and turn our attention to the strangers who we need to welcome. While we were wringing our hands about who might be leaving, seventeen new families visited our congregation on just one Sunday. How did we worry about them? Not once in scripture does anyone tell the church to look out for yourselves, but instead calls us to turn our attention outward to the people who need the gospel.  

Paul refers to those living in brokenness and who are estranged from God, asking But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15) Fear will distract us from the gospel. Fear will threaten our future more than any single decision. Fear will destroy us. Fear has already done damage.

We are also deeply concerned about the small number of responses received that were filled with anger, gossip, misinformation and threats.  These lacked respect for your leaders – who are your brothers and sisters in Christ; you neighbors and friends. First, we are concerned because these expressions of anger and malice are what Paul calls “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19. They are injurious not just to the community but to the one caught up in them. Paul teaches that “…enmities, strife… anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20) are signs that the Spirit is not alive and well in the person and in the community.  The fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 6:22-23) These are the signs of health manifested in a life rooted in Christ.

Our second concern is that this kind of gossip and accusation diminishes us as the body of Christ. It makes it harder, if not impossible to do what God calls us to do. Wild speculations, assumptions not based in facts, misinformation and lies have no place in our life together.

It is unfair and cruel to call the leadership “irresponsible” for dealing with an issue just because you think they should have done it differently. It is disrespectful to tell a Council (which includes two pastors) that they should “read the Bible” as if they have not. It is unhelpful to threaten to withhold giving or leave the congregation if you don’t get your way. That is not how mature Christians deal with each other.  We can both tell you that neither of us will ever alter a decision that has been arrived at faithfully because someone threatens to leave or stop giving. This leadership approach cripples the congregation and makes the mission about keeping everyone happy.  A congregation that tries to be everything to everybody will be nothing to no one.

It has been said that we have a couple waiting in the wings to be married and so, we are pushing some kind of personal agenda. This is absolutely false. No member of this congregation has approached a pastor about a same-sex marriage to date, and no one is on the horizon.  It has been said that this is all part of plan to drive out members who don’t agree with the pastors. This is a painful attack that is completely false. Your pastors may be calling the congregation to be ever clearer about our identity and some may not like who we say we are. But, we took an oath to love and serve the whole congregation and we take that seriously. It has been said that the new photo directory is an effort to cover-up the “fact” that many of the people we photographed before have left. This is nonsense. It has been said that these discussions show that we are “caving in” to the world around us. That is an opinion that many do not share.

We do not support a congregational vote on this matter for a number of reasons. Nobody wins in a close vote. The tyranny of the majority alienates people from one another and that is counter to the gospel. Votes create winners and losers and can fuel division rather than heal it. The Council is elected to govern the congregation’s life between annual meetings and to make policy decisions.  The resolution itself is a policy about supporting pastoral decisions and falls well within the council’s authority. The Council, in this case, has reviewed the biblical studies and the statement from the ELCA. They have debated and questioned. They have prayed. That kind of preparation cannot be assumed about a simple congregational vote. Lastly, if policy decisions are to be made by the congregation we adopt a decision making process that is laboriously slow and calls into question the purpose of the Council. It establishes a pattern of decision making that cripples the congregation. It also perpetuates a habit of mistrust of leaders to do what they have been asked to do. This has often plagued our congregation and kept us from a united purpose and mission.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time has come for us to live in faith, not fear; to reject a culture of gossip and partisanship; to live as God’s people in love with each other and our Lord. We give thanks for the many, many of you who are grasped by that vision. We pray for your support and your efforts to live in love, and even in disagreement over particular issues, because our unity in Christ is strong. We pray for those who have struggled with fear and anger, that the Holy Spirit will allow us to come and reason together; to respect each other for the sake of Jesus, not because we share the same opinions.

In Christ

Tim Olson, Lead Pastor & Pam Schroeder, Pastor for Care and Discipleship

Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral |

So, I was thinking about my death. Yup, I do that from time to time (and if you are honest…. well…). Maybe it is because I am a pastor and am called upon to speak in the face of death quite often. Maybe it is because we all wrestle with our mortality in some way. Maybe its because I am weird. But, I came across this blog shared by a friend, and so I ask you that will attend me in death: Please Don’t Say These Six Things at My Funeral |.



The Worthy Poor?

Jesus said, “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

As the thunder thunders and the rain falls outside, I find myself thinking about this verse from Matthew. If you have water in the basement or a lake where you backyard used to be, you may not think of rain as a blessing right now. Sunshine? Absolutely. Precipitation? Not so much. The point of the verse is that good things (sunshine) and bad things (more rain) come to people regardless of their worth or standing; no matter whether they earned them; and in spite of whether they are good or bad people – however we determine that. Maybe the reason that the verse sprang to my head as the drops fell against the window was because I also have had on my mind the response to poverty in our culture. All too often I hear things like, “We should support the poor, as long as they deserve the help;” or “We don’t want to create dependency in these people and help them too much, after all, they made their bed…” It is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy poor people, just as it is a fallacy that there are worthy and unworthy rich people. The sun and the rain fall on everyone.

I encountered a good article on the subject by Scott Dannemiller – check it out: There’s No Such Thing As The Worthy Poor | The Accidental Missionary.

poor jesus statue

Jesus is the one who reminds us how wrong we are when we start judging the worth of other people. The statue of “The Homeless Jesus” (you can only identify the body on the bench by the wounds in the hands and feet) is pulled from Matthew’s gospel too. When we see people who are worthless, Jesus is incarnate in and through them. That’s what he said. “As you do to the least of these you do to me.” “I was hungry and you… I was in prison and you…” The artist has a series of such works:


You see, you can’t dismiss anyone because Jesus died for them and is united in death and resurrection with them. We are all unworthy. It is Christ who grants us worth by sharing himself with us.

Ever since I first saw the Homeless Jesus, I have thought that the forsaken figure should be on the bench in the north side of our church. It would remind us that we don’t only meet Jesus inside the church, but we often walk right past him on the street in the guise f a person we deem unworthy. Today, we would look out and see Jesus on the bench in the pouring rain. I think of that and my heart breaks. Jesus on that bench beckons us to come out in the rain and walk in his reign with him.

We are a congregation that proclaims our “open arms.” Today, that has to lead to a wet embrace. – Peace to you.

Lifecycles: The Life and Death of Congregations

William Shakespeare reminded us about the reality of life’s cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death in his play Henry IV, when he wrote, “We all owe God a death.”  No matter how hard we try, death is a reality for all living things. We can keep fit, avoid vices, take our vitamins and perhaps have some effect on stretching the life cycle out a bit. But, then again, those efforts may not slow death’s approach at all.

The same truth about life’s cycle applies to organizations, nations, governments, ideas, institutions and even congregations. Rome began, grew, matured and after some centuries, died. The Soviet Union fell. American Motors no longer makes Ramblers in Kenosha. I’m pretty sure the congregation founded by Paul in Corinth is no longer open for worship. Organizations can, however, have much more control over the length of the life-cycle than we humans possess. Congregations can move out of maturity and decline and redefine, redevelop, or be reborn to meet that changes that are pushing it into decline. It is not easy; it is not without cost. The longer an organization declines, the harder it is to go through some renewal. If one waits long enough to change, to bear the pain, to catch a new vision, the harder and less likely it is that death can be avoided. The chart below paints a picture of this phenomenon:

life cycle 2

Holy Trinity has been around for over 60 years. We have seen growth and we have embraced stability. These are good things. For some in our community, there is fear that we are declining and death is in our future. Some worry that other growing congregations will take all our members. That is highly unlikely. Others worry that change and acting faithfully will make folks mad and they will leave. Still others long for “good old days” – where things always seem better and the skies are not cloudy all day.

When I see nearly 300 kids and over a hundred volunteers come for VBS, I have to say I don’t worry about any imminent demise. The real causes of decline and death in a congregation is that it becomes more concerned about its survival than its mission. It is that plain and simple. The picture above reminds us that returning to our mission brings life. The choice we face as a congregation that has stabilized and matured is whether we will make the effort to be renewed and reborn through the power of the Spirit, or will accept the forces of gravity and begin a hopefully dignified decline into death.  Will we take survival as our mission – which is no mission at all? Or will we lay aside or anxiety and fear and see where God wants to take us? What do you think we should do?


To Change or Not to Change…

I am asked a lot about change. Mostly the question is “Why? Why do we need to change anything.” I also asked a lot about why we don’t do things other churches do, or why other churches grow more than we do.  The two questions together are actually ironic. The answer to one set of questions is often the other.  Here is a thoughtful article about such questions.  Read it and let me know what you think.

What To Do When People Want A Church To Grow…But Not Change |

Pastor Tim

Bullying in Church?

So, I was thinking that with all the attention that bullying is receiving in school and workplaces and such, it might be good to be honest and say that the church is not without bullies. I have encountered bullies in just about every congregation in which I have had the pleasure of serving. (And if I count all my stewardship work before ordination – it is over 50). We can all have moments where we bully, and I am sure that I might be as easy to accuse as anyone on a given occasion. But I’m not thinking of folks who fall into a moment of frustration or passion and intimidate.  I’m thinking more about folks who do it all the time.  It is a modus operandi.

Church bullies usually don’t resort to physical intimidation or abuse (though they can). Usually, it is more emotional bullying. They are men and women, young and old. If you have ever gone to a meeting saying a secret prayer like, “Please Lord let so-and-so not get mad about anything at this meeting,” or avoid someone consistently because they are always complaining and trying to draw you in, you may know a church bully. If you know someone who never has anything positive to say about the church, you may know someone who is prone to bullying and is seeking support. Church bullies have learned that if they act badly enough, if they complain loudly and often, if they militantly stand in the way of change that most folks will back down and give them what they want to make peace. After all, isn’t the church supposed to be a place of peace? Aren’t we at least supposed to be nice to one another? Bullies use that goodwill to get what they want.

Now, I don’t have anyone in particular in mind as I write – as I said, I have encountered them everywhere; nor is there some recent event that has made this something to address. This is some thinking about an issue that plagues the church in our uncivil society and vexes the Christian leader in congregations nearly everywhere. Pastor Erik Parker has written about this phenomena in a pithy, ironic – and a little sarcastic – way that offers up a good analysis of what creates bullies in the church (and in almost any other setting).  Check out what he has to say at:

In the end, as Pastor Parker says, it takes courage to stand up to bullies and say, “Stop it. You are not going to get what you want this way.” In Christ’s name, we can call them to repentance and healthy behavior. But we can’t let them run the church. It may make us unpopular and raise our own anxiety.  It will usually lead to escalation and even behavior that sabotages mission and leaders until, after a time of being strong, the old behavior is broken. Then, we become a more healthy, vital community of God’s people.

That’s what I was thinking, today.

Pastor Tim