Every congregation is impacted by the ebbs and flows of the economy that surrounds it. Particularly when things change relatively fast, how do we respond? Certainly, stewardship leaders worry about the financial budget, but as ministry leaders, we are also stewards of our mission. In today’s post, Pr. Lewton shares a story of the way they stayed afloat, by focusing on mission. “Money follows mission,” it’s been said. That might not mean more money, but it might just mean a new kind of vitality, which is great news for stewardship leaders.
Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders
By Pastor Lisa Lewton
Within weeks of beginning my call as senior pastor in a Western North Dakota congregation in 2015, the oil boom became “the slow down.” The timing was ridiculous.
Boom town, circa 2007
The congregation I serve is located in a city near the Bakken Formation. Dickinson, a small town until the oil started flowing, experienced dramatic population growth. Young men flocked to the region to begin work and find a home, and spouses and children followed. The community grew younger. People grew richer. Fast food restaurants and banks multiplied like rabbits. Even a Starbucks came to town when things were booming.
Slow down, circa 2015
And then I began my call.
With the economy slowing down and me still unpacking books in my office, the congregation passed its budget and held its breath.
A slow down was not a new thing in a context that had survived two oil busts. Everyone knew things could go bad very quickly, so they assumed things would. People lose jobs and surely they will move away. A city that grew quickly can most certainly decline quickly. Worry filled the pews. So we waited.
For what, really, were we waiting? That is a fun question to ask in a time of change. For what were we waiting? Were we waiting for resources to run out? Waiting for people to leave, or come back? Waiting for the church to be what it was before?
Waiting is a spiritual practice. Like the Israelites, we tend to hate it. For human beings to wait requires trusting God, whom we are not, whose steadfast love is better than life itself (Psalm 63).
As the congregation waited during the slow down, led by an inexperienced senior pastor, we did what we always did. We worshipped. We saw the neighbors in our community also experiencing the same changes. We spiritually cared for families adjusting to reduced income, recognizing that domestic violence is ugliest at times like these.
A school social worker and retired lawyer noticed some kids did not eat a meal between Friday’s school lunch and Monday’s breakfast, so we started a backpack program in the church basement for kids who were hungry over the weekend. (In that same basement a few years prior, the church had housed homeless men when they arrived in this oil boom city with dreams, but no money for food or rent.)
My books were all unpacked and the economy continued to slow down. But with an eye on the budget, we reminded one another God provides whatever resources (time, talent, and treasure) that are needed to do ministry in a church. We did not need to wait. God was waiting for us to be the church God needed at the corner of 1st and 6th.
Looking back, the greatest gift that comes with a change like this is an urgency to cling to mission. Our bishop, Mark Narum, has said it well: Why, for God’s sake, does this congregation exist? Where, in Jesus’ name, are we going? And how, through the Holy Spirit, will we get there?”
In a time of change, we came to understand why it mattered that we follow Jesus together in that particular time and place. We set our hearts on the most important work of seeing our neighbor like the Good Samaritan saw the person in the ditch. Our neighbors had unique needs, and the congregation had something to offer: a place to worship and seek healing, and a basement to pack food for backpacks.
The slow down was not my favorite way to begin a new call. But I just might recommend it.
About the Author
Lisa Lewton has served at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church since 2007, first as associate pastor and then as senior pastor in 2015. Her husband, Marcus, is a middle school principal in Dickinson. They are parents to three kids.