October 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Greetings in the name of our ever loving God, and Jesus Christ our Savior who bestows on us grace in abundance.

As we look out our windows we can see that autumn has arrived. The leaves have begun to turn, there is a bit more of a chill in the air; the world around us has begun to change once again. The seasons have a wonderful way of reminding us that change within this world is inevitable, and is usually a good thing. At the end of this month we will have come around again to the commemoration of the event that we use as the starting point of a time of great change within the life of the church: the Reformation.

With the nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther set out to start a conversation as to how the church could be changed for the better, to be brought back to having Christ, and the Gospel message be the focal point of the Christian faith. As Lutherans we see that these changes that Luther spells out were meant to bring about something good, and to a degree it was. However, the result of the Reformation cannot be seen as completely good. The subsequent split that happened when the Holy Roman Empire refused to listen to Luther in regards to the reforms he suggested has left a lasting impact on the church as a whole, some of which is negative. There were, and have been, hurt feelings on both sides. There has been hostility toward one another, and in some cases an outright refusal to even work together for the sake of the world.

At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans back in August, I was encouraged to see that this dynamic between Catholics and Lutherans is continuing to change for the better. At this 2016 Churchwide Assembly the voting assembly approved a document entitle Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist. This document, jointly prepared by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sets out to continue the work of bringing our two church bodies back into union with each other as ecumenical partners; a work that began in 1965 when the two communions first started holding ecumenical dialogues.

Declaration on the Way first sets out to outline statements the two communions have been able to come to consensus on in regards to topics of church, ordained ministry, and Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) after which they go into more detail about each agreement. Such statements include agreements like, “Lutherans and Catholics agree that the church on earth lives from and is ruled by the Word of God, which it encounters in Christ, in the living word of the gospel, and in the inspired and canonical Scriptures;” or, “Lutherans and Catholics agree that the proclamation of the gospel is foremost among the various tasks of the ordained ministry,” or even, “Lutherans and Catholics agree in esteeming highly the spiritual benefits of union with the risen Christ given to them as they receive his body and blood in Holy Communion” (Declaration on the Way 5, 12, 14). The general idea behind these agreements, thirty-two in total, was for these two church bodies to come up with statements that may have been points of division and contention in the past, but are no longer.

That is not to say, of course, that both church bodies are in full agreement when it comes to the entirety of these categories of church, ordained ministry, and Eucharist. The second to the last section of this document highlights the remaining differences and what may need to happen in the future to be able to be reconciled in regards to these categories. One such difference that remains, in regards to Eucharist, is the mode of the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine. For Catholics Jesus is fully present in the bread and the wine which is completely transformed into His body and blood. Whereas for Lutherans we believe that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the bread and the wine without the physical properties of the bread and the wine ceasing to be there. It is important to note here that in order for this issue, and others like it, to one day no longer be non-church dividing issues doesn’t mean one side will have to concede to the point of the other. All this means is that both sides will have to be able to accept and respect the understanding and interpretation of the other side; agreeing to disagree with each other and knowing that that is okay. In total this joint committee task force identified fifteen remaining differences outlining considerations that must be made in order to move forward.

As a community that is made up of a variety of different Christian faiths and the practices there of, including our Catholic brothers and sisters, this document highlights the importance of being able work together for the good of the community and the world regardless of our theological differences. As we journey closer and closer to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this document reminds us of what Martin Luther intended to do when he attempted to get the conversation started to bring the church back to its foundations in Christ and Scripture; that is for the church to be a church that is always reforming, always being made new. If you would like to read more about the continued path toward greater unity with our Catholic brothers and sisters a digital copy of the document Declaration on the Way can be found on our parish website under the section entitled “Links.”
In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

September 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace, mercy, and peace to all the children in the faith of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.

“I think it’s important when we organize our work together that we understand that we are church first. And we need to be clear that our lives are formed by word and sacrament, that we gather as the beloved children of God around the means of grace, that our lives are in Christ.” These are the words of our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, from her report at the ELCA National Churchwide Assembly that took place in New Orleans, Louisiana August 8th-13th.

These words that I have quoted, spoken by Bishop Eaton, highlight her four point focus of the past three years since being elected to the office of Presiding Bishop at the last Triennial Churchwide Assembly. That focus being: We are church. We are Lutheran. We are church together. We are church for the sake of the world. It was with this focus in mind that the 945 voting members, plus visitors and guests, gathered together to conduct the business of the national church.

For one week we all gathered together for daily worship, fellowship, and voting on the key actions that were before this triennial assembly. For me this was a wonderful, eye-opening experience in which I gained a deeper appreciation for how the church operates on the national level. While I was in New Orleans, however, there was one question that was going through my mind, and I am sure my mind was not the only one with this question: How does all this affect the people back in the communities we all represent? In the same report I quoted from above, Bishop Eaton answers this question by saying it is up to us, the voting members, along with visitors and guests, to bring these actions back to our communities; to talk about them, and to figure out ways in which they apply to our own contexts. It is with this in mind that I write to you all in this month’s newsletter. Through my monthly newsletter articles over the coming months it will be my intention to begin these conversations in our context, keeping in mind that this is just the beginning of these conversations.

Over the coming months I will be highlighting the actions that came before the national church assembly. Actions like the acceptance of proposals like the “Declaration on the Way,” a document marking the path toward greater unity with the Catholic Church; and AMMPARO, or Accompany Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities, a commitment to uphold and guarantee the basic human rights and safety of migrant children and their families from Central American’s Northern Triangle and Mexico. The assembly also approved the unification of the lay leader rosters formerly known as Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers into one signal new lay roster now known as Ministers of Word and Service. On top of all that the assembly approved proposals such as deepening relationships with historic Black churches; toward a responsible energy future; repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery; peace with justice in the Holy Land and justice for the Holy Land through responsible investment; a call to discernment on U.S. foreign and military policy; welcoming refugees; and supporting military personnel, veterans, and their families. Obviously there was quite a bit from this assembly that should be talked about, and in these newsletter articles I will only be able to scratch the surface. It is my hope that these conversations will continue to happen through our work and ministry here in the churches of English and St. Luke Lutheran, part of the Eastern North Dakota synod, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As Bishop Eaton said in her report, we organize and work together because we are church first, and we are church together. For us in rural North Dakota it may seem as though we have little to nothing to do with what goes on at the national level. The truth is, however, we do not live in isolation. What affects our brothers and sisters in Christ across our nation and world also affects us here in rural North Dakota. This is the mindset I have as we begin these conversations of these actions, as we too strive to understand what it means for us to be church together; to be church for the sake of the world.

 

In Christ,
Pastor Ryan

August 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Have you ever wondered how the church is run? How are decisions made and who makes them? I think for the common person in the pew these questions, and others like them, are not running through their minds on a regular basis. But yet these are important things to know when one is part of a church community.

When it comes to the running of the church this takes three distinct forms for our church body. The church is run on a local level (the church councils of English and St. Luke Lutheran churches), on a regional level (the Eastern North Dakota Synod), and on a national level (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

Most of us are very familiar with how the church is run on the local level. The church council meets on a monthly basis in order to take care of everyday business of our congregations. When there are bigger issues to be discussed, ones that should include as many voices as possible, we gather for congregational meetings, usually happening once a year, sometimes more if absolutely necessary.

As for the regional level of how the church is organized and run, a few of you reading this may be familiar with. Some of you have gone to the annual Synod Assembly where all churches in the Eastern North Dakota Synod gather, by way of their delegates, to discuss and vote on matters that affect the majority, if not all, the churches in our Synod. The Synod has a council as well that also meets on a regular basis ensuring that the month to month business of the Synod gets taken care of.

When it comes to the national level, however, I would bet that there may only be a select few of you that have ever experienced how the national church is run. Instead of holding an annual meeting like our local church, and regional synod do, the national church holds a triennial assembly to conduct the business that pertains to the national church as a whole, the collective churches that make up the ELCA. As with the Synod, the National church also has a council that oversees the month in and month out operation of the church, but it is at these assemblies that happen every three years where the majority of the how the church is run takes place. It is here that the delegates from each of the synods that make up the ELCA gather in order to elect new leaders, vote on key issues that face the national church as a whole, adopt a three-year Budget Plan, and most importantly, to worship together as a united church body.

At this year’s triennial Church-wide Assembly I have been given the honor of serving our national church as a Rostered Voting Member at the Church-wide Assembly, helping to represent the Eastern North Dakota Synod. I will be flying down to New Orleans, LA in just a week’s time, August 8th-13th, in order to serve in this way. This is an experience that I have never had before, but is one that I am really looking forward to.

This year the main focuses of the assembly center around the election of a new Vice President of the ELCA, the highest office a lay person can serve in for the National Church. Also we will be discussing things like what Theological Education for our church will look like in the future, a call to repentance and repudiation of the Document of Discovery that ended up hurting the native people of this land for centuries, as well as many other issues as well.

But just because you yourself are not going to be able to be in attendance in New Orleans at the beginning of August, does not mean that you are unable to be a part of what is happening at all. One of the biggest ways that you can be involved in this Assembly is by praying for the Assembly and those who are gathered there, including myself.  Pray for the church and its leaders to seek out God’s will above all else as we try to conduct the business of the National Church to the best of our abilities. If assemblies like this is something that might interest you, you can watch it online by following the live stream from your computer by going to http://www.elca.org/ChurchwideAssembly. On this website there will be a link for you to click on to access live video and audio coverage of what is happening in New Orleans.

We are coming up upon an exciting time in our church. I am thankful and excited that I get to be a part of it in New Orleans and it is my prayer that you all will join me during this exciting time through prayer and the live stream if that is something that interests you. I look forward to when I get back with you all to share with you all my experience.

 

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

 

 

June 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace, mercy, and peace, be unto you from God our Father, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Even though President Kennedy only spent two months shy of three years in office, in that short time he was able to leave a mark on the American people that has kept him among some of the greatest presidents to ever serve our nation. In an article written in the Washington Post on November 22, 2013, fifty years after Kennedy’s tragic assassination, writer Dylan Matthews makes mention of a gallup poll that found that Americans rate President Kennedy “more highly than any of the other 11 presidents since Eisenhower.” Matthews also cites a 2011 poll that showed President Kennedy coming in fourth amongst the greatest presidents of our nation’s history behind the likes of Reagan, Lincoln, and Clinton. Here was a man that was and still is held in high esteem among the people whom he was elected to serve, and it seems he really did have a pretty good head on his shoulders. President Kennedy seemed to know a thing or two about how life operates; specifically when it comes to the changes life inevitably brings

There is another old saying that says there are only two things in this life that are guaranteed, death and taxes. It seems to me from the quote above from President Kennedy he would include change on that list of guarantees in life.

By the time you will read this newsletter article we as a joint parish will have embarked on a new worship schedule for at least this month of June. Since the joint parish council decided to give this new endeavor a try back at the end of April, there has undoubtedly been some mixed feelings about alternating worship between Medina and Streeter every week for the month of June. There are some of you out there who are all for this idea. After all our individual churches attendance has a tendency to drop here in the summer months, so why not give ourselves an advantage of possibly having bigger numbers each week by combining. There are also some of you who are less than thrilled about this new idea. Eighteen miles each way can very well seem like a long distance to go to church, especially if it is not the church you are familiar with. I personally think that this could be a very good experiment for us to try and I do believe it could wind up being beneficial for both churches in various ways. After all another old saying goes, the family that prays together, stays together. The same could very well be said about the family of believers that make up our joint parish.

Now, I am not writing to you all about this today to try and convince you that you have to be on board with this idea 100%, nor am I trying to change your mind if you are not on board 100%. But I am writing to you to ask you to simply give it a try. Give it a try with an open mind. Try not to think about it from the stand point of what we are going to lose through this experiment but instead what we stand to gain from it. As President Kennedy once said, change is unavoidable, it is a law of life. And it is only when we are open to this unavoidable law of life that we are able to find the changes that do work and the changes that don’t work as we move forward into the future together as the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish.

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

May 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be all glory forever and ever.

Friends in Christ, over the last several months we have been looking in-depth at what exactly goes into making a congregation in a rural setting vital; how do these churches discover hope for the future of their ministry in an ever changing world? We have explored the aspects of congregation vitality: Prayer, Worship, Making Disciples, Evangelism, Caring Ministries, and Leadership. We have been following the outline laid out for us in the book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations by David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung.

However, there is one aspect of building a vital congregation in the rural setting that we have yet to explore; the final chapter of their book entitled Context: Discovering the Gift of Place.

In the world of Real Estate the motto is, “Location, Location, Location.” When it comes to these different aspects of building a vital rural congregation, I would say that this motto also applies, and I would say this is the point Poling-Goldenne and Jung were making in their final chapter as well. “A key to effective ministry is acknowledging, celebrating, and using the gifts of a congregation’s place and its people” (96). All of this is to say that none of those other aspects matter unless a congregation is in tune with its people, and its surrounding area; that is the context of the congregation. To put it even more simply, what works for a vital congregation in Fargo is not going to necessarily work in Jamestown; and what works for a vital congregation in Jamestown is not necessarily going to translate to Medina and/or Streeter. Each church in these different contexts are going to have to find ways that work for their own context in these areas of building a vital congregation.

In this last chapter of Poling-Goldenne and Jung’s book, the autors list off four different types of contexts in which congregations that identify themselves as “rural” fall into, according to Canadian sociologist R. Alex Sim’s 1988 book Land and Community. Those categories are: Ribbonville, Agraville, Might-have-been-ville, and Fairview. Poling-Goldenne and Jung take this one step further and add one more context of their own to this list: Countryville.  Each one of these contexts have their own gifts and drawbacks that are unique to them that the congregations in these contexts have to figure out and overcome if needed. Each one has their own unique set of aspects within the categories that we have discussed over the last several months that work for them that will give them hope for the future in making them a vital rural congregation.

The bottom line that the entire book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations points out is that there are a variety of areas that congregations can focus on in order to bring hope for the future as a vital rural congregation, but how those aspects are implemented will be different for each congregation depending on their own unique context. The only way to find out what works for us, the churches of English and St. Luke Lutheran in Medina and Streeter North Dakota, is to be willing to take some risks, try some new things, and most of all not be afraid to find out what doesn’t work for us, in order to find out what does.

What we learn from all of this is that this is an ongoing process. It is an ongoing process that I am personally excited to continue to pursue and walk beside and with you all as we work together to discover hope for our future as vital rural congregations.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters.

 

Pastor Ryan

April 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father, and from the living Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, through the truth and love made known to us in God’s Holy Spirit.

Over the last few months we have been discovering together ways in which we, as a rural, multi-point parish, can build vitality and find hope for our future in spreading the gospel message. In doing so, we have looked at some key areas of vital ministry of rural congregations; prayer, worship, evangelism, and caring ministries, following the chapters in the book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations (2001) by David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung. This month we look to begin to tie all of these ministries together.

In order for all of these ministries to happen within a vital rural congregation, there is one underlying need that is of utmost importance. It may be obvious to some people what that need is, but maybe not in the way that one would expect. In order for these ministries to occur and bring vitality to a rural congregations, or any congregation for that matter, there needs to be a strong sense of leadership. Now, when many congregations, and according to authors Poling-Goldenne and Jung, think about strong leadership, they generally think of the one person who has historically been seen as the primary leader; that is the pastor. Fifty some years ago that was the way things were done, especially in small rural congregations; the pastor was the one “driving the tractor,” borrowing language from Poling-Goldenne and Jung. And to tell the truth, this is still found in some churches to this day. In fact when I first got to Medina and Streeter almost three years ago, I remember hearing language like this, “Oh Pastor, it is whatever you want to do.”

However, what the study done, that this book is the byproduct of, found out is that the congregations that found themselves as vital rural congregations where viewing leadership in a different way than this top down approach where it is the “Pastor Show,” and the church just follows suit. What these congregations came to realize is that when they shifted their style of leadership to a more team approach, they were able to move away from just being able to maintain the church to being able to do ministry as a church. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung state, “Leadership is like a dance in which someone can take the lead sometimes and follow at other times;” and again, “In this model of shared leadership, people pass the baton of leadership back and forth to each other” (85).

Now, it is not like these churches just pulled this idea randomly out of thin air and ran with it. No, they came to this model of leadership by looking to Scripture and learning from the model of leadership that Jesus himself demonstrated. This pattern of leadership is modeled on Jesus and his ministry and thus seek his will in their ministries through prayer, Bible Study, worship, preaching, and committees or ministry teams, the very thing vital congregations are trying to do. “These congregations embrace images of Jesus as servant leader. Jesus loved others in life-transforming ways. Trained others by employing a multitude of creative teaching strategies” (86).

When leadership is done in this way, as these congregations found out, effective leaders where then able to cast a vision of mission that others were able to get on board with, and initiate change, not for changes sake, but for the sake of the gospel. They were then able to manage conflict, which undoubtedly will arise whenever undergoing any kind of change, and where able to do so with the foundation of prayer and study.

In this model of leadership, the pastor steps out of the way in order to let leadership happen, while still being a key source of mentorship, training, and support. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung state, “When pastors lead others to a fuller appreciation of their gifts and empower them to take on spiritual and programmatic leadership, either within or outside of the faith community, the whole congregation grows together” (87).

As the pastor of the churches of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish, this is a pattern of leadership that I have been trying to model, as best I can, but it is going to take more than just me in order for this to become a full reality for us. From where I sit now, I know that some of the pieces are already there for this to fully happen. We already have great leaders within our churches. My challenge to all of us is to continue to encourage each other, using our own individual gifts, in order for us to fully reach our potential as a vital rural multipoint parish, constantly looking to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as true leader of us all.

 

May the living Christ be with you always!

Pastor Ryan

March 2016’s Letter from the Pastor

To those of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

 

In last month’s Pastor’s Article we looked at the chapter of David Poling-Goldenne and L. Shannon Jung’s book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregation that dealt with Evangelism within vital and effective rural congregations. What we found is that, while there is no one right way for all churches to do evangelism, there is one thing they all share: sharing their faith openly with those around them.

However, in this next chapter, Poling-Goldenne and Jung, lay out a way that in the end may produce effective evangelism without being the goal from the get go. In chapter six the authors describe how many of the effective and vital congregations they researched had a common denominator of caring ministries; that is serving the community around them, both locally and globally, as Jesus served. These congregations see themselves as existing for the primary reason of serving others; acting out forms of caring service and social ministry to the community around them.

The ironic part is, however, that they are not doing these acts of caring service and social ministry for the exact purpose of evangelism; that is bringing new people into the church. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung state, “their motivation is to love others as Christ has loved them” (76). These vital and effective congregations don’t participate in caring service and social ministry expecting a return for their service, like gaining new members, instead simply because this type of ministry and service needs to be done. As such, as the popular hymn puts it, “[All will then] know that we are Christians by our love.” This type of service may produce such a reward like new members, since people tend to, as Poling-Goldenne and Jung say, be drawn into faith and community because of the charisma these congregations exude through genuinely caring for those around them (76).

While these acts of service and caring tend to focus primarily on the immediate area surrounding these effective and vital rural congregations, by meeting the immediate needs of the community, they also recognize that caring and providing service to their neighbors must reach farther communities as well; nationally and even globally. As the authors point out, “Vital rural congregations view both local and global efforts as important” (77). But whether the community being served is local, national, or global, one things remains most important: to meet the needs that are relevant to each specific community. In our local community it would do us no good to build a well and provide clean water, since those things already exist here in our country. Likewise it would be no good for a community in a third world country to sponsor a safe environment to hold a post prom party if that specific community does not yet have a school in which to hold a prom.

There is a specific obstacle, however, that can derail community care and service before it even gets off the ground, which this chapter of the book Discovering Hope addresses. There is a common sentiment that tends to get expressed, especially in small rural communities. Sentiments like “We are too few and too small to make a difference. What could our little church do for others? We can barely take care of ourselves” (79). The truth is if we were to set out in this type of service and care for our community with this mindset, then we have already set ourselves up for failure. But the truth also is, that we already know the needs that face the people within our community, and we are already doing something to address some of those issues. Like supporting food scarcity both locally and globally. Or providing space within our walls for local organizations and activities to meet, organizations and activities that also work for the betterment of our community and the people within the community. When we are honest with ourselves, we find that the size of our numbers is not what matters, but the size of our hearts in relation the size of the needs around us.

The bottom line is this. The key to discovering hope and building vitality in rural congregations, through prayer, worship, making disciples, and evangelism all boil down to the one major function all churches in every community serves: providing caring, relevant, ministries and service to the community around us, both near and far. When a church is committed to showing that they are Christians by their love, or by doing God’s work daily as called shepherds of God, as our mission statement reads, then the people who see and are affected by this feel our energy, are blessed by it, and are drawn into service of their own by it. As Poling-Goldenne and Jung put it, “Through caring ministries, Christ is made known not only to those served by the congregations but also the congregation themselves” (81). If you are looking for a way to make sure our congregations are vital rural congregations, then I would invite you to take part of the service opportunities that already exist. If one of the ones that already exist do not fit something you are passionate about, then I would invite us to have a conversation to see what our church communities could be engaging in for the betterment of our communities both near and far.

In God’s grace and glory,

 

Pastor Ryan