This is the headline of an e-letter recently sent to the professional leaders of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by Bishop Claire Burkat.
Bishop Burkat announced that she and the church were having an epiphany.
“The age of the mainline Church as many of us have known it has passed, and there is no blueprint for our journey in this next, rapidly accelerating age.”
The epiphany may have struck sooner and taken fewer casualties if Bishop Burkat had taken time to get to know congregations when she took office. Heart to heart dialog at the time might have helped her hear things we congregations were trying to tell her. We could have helped her lead. That’s the Lutheran way. Interdependence.
It has taken almost every day of her six-year term, but Bishop Burkat has discovered some things for herself.
“The most apparent changes in our congregations and denominations so far see us shifting our focus from relying on professional staff, planning programs, keeping-up buildings, and preserving institutions toward engaging people inside and outside our churches in spritual conversation, as well as creating caring communities, collaborative service, and collective discernment.”
Redeemer was trying to tell her that. We had forged our way, with very little reliance on professional leadership. We had fostered good relationships with neighborhood organizations. We had relied on the gifts of the laity. We recognized that God was at work in our community in a new and creative way.
Now SEPA has a new blog to share ministry stories of its member churches. Although the site invites us to Tell Our Story, we doubt that our story would make it past moderation. So we will tell our story here. Feel free to tweet or reblog or post it on God Is Doing Something Good Blog for us.
- Redeemer had a growing outreach ministry to East African immigrants. They had found a church home in East Falls and were growing in participation and leadership. Redeemer of the 20th century had welcomed the 21st century, adapting our traditions—not forsaking them—to welcome many new people.
Bishop Burkat and SEPA discouraged our ministry and locked us all out of God’s House.
- Redeemer was concentrating on developing lay leadership.
That need is the topic of Alban Institute’s Roundtable this week. Redeemer had been working at this for a decade.
- Redeemer had a plan to help immigrant families locate starter homes, obtain mortgages and make necessary renovations.
Bishop Burkat and SEPA made this impossible.
- Redeemer had a plan to pioneer congregational use of the web. The fact that we were locked out of our church home made this a priority.
If you are reading this (along with our more than 100 daily readers) you have discovered our ground-breaking blog.
- Redeemer recognized that our property, rented to a Lutheran Social Service agency, was contributing to a valued neighborhood ministry. This was a mission alliance that served a church agency, our congregation and neighborhood. If money were our sole objective, we could have rented our property for more.
Bishop Burkat and SEPA’s interference put the agency in the middle of a property dispute. They chose to shut down their 25-year presence in our community.
- With this long-standing mission project ruined by SEPA, Redeemer worked for a year to develop a school that would serve the community in a way which would also foster religious values.
Bishop Burkat and SEPA evicted the school just as it was about to open.
- Redeemer recognized that a neighborhood ministry to immigrants, while valuable and God’s apparent plan for us, was not likely to be funded from the offering plate. Neither would an outreach mission to college-aged youth and young professionals, also a large part of East Falls neighborhood. Both were obvious missions for any church in East Falls. We worked to develop alternate income streams using our assets.
Bishop Burkat and SEPA sued us to obtain our property and endowment funds for their own use.
God continues to work through Redeemer.
In our excommunicated state, we began visiting other Lutheran churches. We started to see firsthand many common challenges. We are responding.
- We are creating a model for a program that would help small congregations create an eductional outreach and reconnect with their neighborhoods. VBS-aid is getting inquiries from all over the coutnry. It’s an idea that could bring many benefits to the emerging 21st century church and to SEPA. It needs start-up funding.
- Abandoned by our own denomination, Redeemer is forming new relationships with other Lutheran groups and other denominations. We are pioneering an educational model for congregations that would not be expensive and would create ongoing dialog and community—another good idea with growing support.
If SEPA hadn’t taken our money, we could fund our projects with our own money.
Bishp Burkat ends her missive to SEPA professional leaders:
“Let’s perceive this journey into uncharted territory as a great adventure. There will be dangers, and we will surely make mistakes.”
Bishop Burkat is right. Mistakes will—and have been—made.
It is not too late to admit that SEPA’s actions in East Falls were just that—a mistake. The art of leadership, especially Christian leadership, is to recognize mistakes and take actions to reconcile.
This is a leadership quality all churches must foster. Congregations must be free to make mistakes without hungry big brother/sister Church waiting to take advantage.
The road into the the future would be smoother if SEPA could admit their mistakes. Instead of counting coup on the neighborhood congregations, try respecting that God may be at work in ways you have yet to understand. That’s the value of an epiphany.
Redeemer may be SEPA’s most valuable congregation — and we’re not talking about land and endowments. Assigned an excommunicated status, declared to be dying, Redeemer has been trail-blazing.
It’s not too late to make things right in East Falls. We are ready for reconciliation. Are you?
As Bishop Burkat points out, “God is God and we are not.”