Executive Summary of Learnings
from Living Waters New Mission Start
Dan and I started this new mission in hopes of building a new congregation, but my health problems - chronic and persistent migraines 3 months after starting, caused us to cease the ministry and close. Here we summarize what we have learned so others involved, interested or supporting new mission can benefit.
1. A Brief History of Living Waters
In early 2012 we heard God’s call to start a new ministry together that would reach out to people with whom established congregations rarely connected—the “spiritual but not religious.” After extensive reading and consultation with 21st Century Strategies, we formulated a plan to plant a new congregation in the south St. Louis County, the place we had called home for a decade. Throughout 2012, we shared our vision with members of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy (PCUSA) and the Central States Synod (ELCA). Each conversation clarified our vision and helped to move the idea to reality. We engaged in formal assessments for new church development pastors with both the PCUSA and the ELCA. Both denominations assessed us highly for this kind of work.
In May 2014 we formally launched Living Waters as a joint PCUSA-ELCA ministry. There were two significant parts of the early plan. First, we spent time in the community meeting people who lived and worked there and, when appropriate, invited them to events and gatherings where they could learn more about Living Waters and experience a new kind of Christian community. Second, we sought to hire two additional full-time employees to multiply the number of contacts that could be made and relationships that could be nurtured. We did not find these employees right away so our plan moved slower than anticipated, but the first three months were fruitful and exciting. The highlight of the first quarter was a free carnival we held on July 26. More than 100 people attended and we were beginning to get traction with our plans.
As work on Living Waters continued into August, Linda began to experience chronic migraines. At first, we imagined that the headaches were temporary, but by September it became clear that Linda’s health was having a major impact on the work of Living Waters. We started to adjust schedules and workloads to compensate for Linda’s health. While the adaptations made some difference, it also slowed down the momentum which was essential for the quick growth of Living Waters. Work continued through the fall, but Living Waters never regained the momentum it had achieved during the summer.
As Linda’s headaches continued in early 2015, it had become apparent that a major assessment of the project was in order. In mid-February we took a two-month unpaid leave to discern the best path forward. We realized that the ministry partnership that had given rise to the original vision and provided the early impetus for the project was essential to the plan as we had drawn it up. Not knowing when and if Linda would get relief from her headaches, and not wanting to waste remaining funds that could be used to further God’s Kingdom, we made the reluctant decision to recommend that Living Waters be closed.
While it was our deep desire that Living Waters become a vibrant, sustainable congregation, we do not believe that the closing of Living Waters represents a failure. Through hundreds of conversations in our community, we have learned how much people desire to be in authentic community and how hungry people are to experience God’s grace in their lives. What we have learned will not only shape our ministries in the years to come, but we hope and pray will have a real and lasting impact on the congregations in our Presbytery and Synod. We are grateful for the opportunity to try a bold initiative in new ministry and for the lives that Living Waters has touched. While Living Waters has officially closed we continue to meet with the core small group that has existed since the beginning and we continue to seek ways to share the love of Jesus Christ with those in South County who do not know that God is already in their midst.
2. Learnings about new ministry initiatives
Throughout our experience with Living Waters, we have learned many things that we hope can help any congregation or denomination that is seeking to start new ministries and to be an effective witness in the 21st century.
- Assemble a prayer team – prayer is the most important component of any new ministry—not only the prayers of the leaders, but the prayers of those praying for the leaders and the new ministry. Before we officially launched, we assembled a prayer team that committed to pray for us and Living Waters on a daily basis. We gave them monthly updates of what was happening and how their prayers were being answered. This team sustained us through our good and our difficult times. We can’t imagine doing what we did without them.
- Assess gifts and capacities – it is critical that people who take on new ministries have the necessary gifts and qualities for those ministries. We found both the Presbyterian and Lutheran assessments to be of great importance as they gave us confidence to do the work before us. Sadly, such assessments cannot predict physical health, but we feel strongly that the church must make use of the best tools available to assess individuals’ readiness and capacity for this kind of work.
- Build and maintain momentum – new ministries must always be on the move and always seeking growth. This means that analysis and meetings must be kept to a minimum and decision-making must be streamlined. While we had a Steering Team that supported Living Waters, we deeply appreciate that the day-to-day decisions were left to the leaders who were on the ground. When we were able to gain some momentum, the ministry did grow.
- “Try, learn, adapt” – what we know about effective ministry in the 21st century is that we don’t know much about it. There is no single blueprint or plan that will work everywhere. We must gather the best thinking we can, and then boldly experiment and try. When things work well, we can build on them. When they don’t, we need to learn and then adapt. New ministries do not have the luxury of tallying successes and failures, but we must all keep our eyes on the prize—making disciples of Jesus Christ.
- Get quality training – we are sorry to report that neither of our denominations provided high quality training for the work we were doing. We felt in particular that the Lutheran training (for a total of six days) was a waste of time and financial resources. The best training we received was from an independent, evangelical group called Church Multiplication Training Center. It will be important to help those engaged in new ministries to find training that can help them move ministries forward and not simply go out of denominational loyalty.
- Work with a professional coach – we couldn’t have done what we did without our coach. Coaching was an invaluable aid in implementing the approach of “try, learn adapt.” We strongly believe that every new ministry project must include resources for coaching.
- Exegete your community and build connections – we can’t effectively minister in a community if we don’t understand the community. While had lived in our community for over a decade by the time we launched Living Waters, we learned a tremendous amount about our community and its needs by meeting with community leaders (school superintendents, fire and police chiefs, community health leaders, business leaders). We also visited hundreds of businesses and organizations in our community and always introduced ourselves with a gift of hospitality (baked goods usually). This paved the way to great conversations and helped us identify potential members for Living Waters.
- Gain support and enthusiasm of your judicatory – one of the greatest blessings of starting Living Waters was the outstanding engagement and support we received from both the Presbytery and the Synod. We never once ran into a roadblock, but always found excitement and partnership. We wouldn’t have tried this new ministry without such enthusiasm from the two governing bodies and their leaders.
- Hire for evangelism not function – our plan called for hiring two additional staff members at the outset. While we were hiring people who had specific skills for once the church was up and running, we needed them to be making community connections with us early on. Both of the people we hired were more skilled and passionate about their ministry areas than about evangelism. In retrospect, we realize that we should have weighted the passion for forming relationships higher than we did.
- Use all available social media – there is no single way to communicate with people in the 21st Century. Anyone starting a new ministry must figure out what combination of Facebook, blogging, Twitter, Instagram, etc. works best in his or her setting. Email is a particularly ineffective way to communicate.
3. Learnings about the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR)
- SBNR’s are not religious for a reason. Many people we met had been hurt emotionally and/or spiritually during their participation in a traditional congregation. Rigid pastors, strict dogma requiring absolute adherence, the church’s condemnation of certain groups of people (e.g. gay and lesbian persons, divorced persons), power struggles between leaders or between the pastor and congregation are some of the experiences people shared. Listening to these stories was an important part of the ministry with people we met; however this did not necessarily lead to participation in the events or small groups we offered. Others left the church because the ministry and worship were not relevant to their lives. This was especially true for young adults. One young adult who grew up in a liturgical denomination felt like he was never a part of it, offering this description of his experience, “I felt like I was in the middle of a play, but didn’t know the script.”
- SBNR’s are not “missing something”. For those of us ensconced in faith and religious life, it’s hard to imagine how people handle life crises, job loss, grief and the stresses of daily life without relying on the power of God. It seems natural and logical to us that those without this are missing something, have a hole in their lives, and are searching for some of what we have. We found this not be true for the most part, at least not explicitly. Life stages and events carry their own meaning and purpose and people don’t necessarily feel they are “missing something” if there’s no higher meaning. Doing the right thing is what you’re supposed to do, not a sign of following God’s will. For example, a young mom we know treats her step-daughter as she does her own child – I see God at work through her, but she’s doing this out of love and simply because it’s what is needed. SBNR’s do not need us to hit the nails of their life with our spiritual hammers/labels. Overlaying our religious language on their human experience serves to push them away because they resist the very box we so quickly want to put them in.
The issue is that everyone is different and each interaction is individual – there’s no formula that applies to everyone. One person we talk with may be looking for authentic community, the next person, a way to use their creative skills, the next, free activities for his kids, the next, a way to serve their community as a family, the next just wants to be left alone. Developing these relationships is not only time-consuming but requires honest, vulnerable relationships that cannot have an agenda (of participating in my church-thing) dangling in the background. Even when people have spiritual questions, thoughts and interests, the answers they seek do not lie in traditional church forms and experiences.
If people are looking for worship in a Christian community, there are plenty of traditional congregations and many more places with “contemporary” worship and a high quality band for them to seek out.
The SBNR people who came to our small group or events were in a narrow band of people looking for spiritual community, but not one that would tell them what to do or how to think. A small group worked for them because we started with their experience, their own life – a place where only they are the expert – and gently wrapped spirituality and the Biblical story around it.
- SBNR’s are interested but not necessarily available. We were surprised how often we would talk with people in the community, and they would say, “I was just thinking about finding a church,” “that sounds like the kind of church I’d like to be a part of,” or “I’m really glad you’re doing this”; but these conversations rarely materialized into a follow-up conversation much less participation in an event or a small group. In the midst of people’s busy lives, what we were offering (spiritual conversation, free food and drinks, drawings for prizes, free activities for kids) did not raise enough interest for them to overcome the barriers of participation: they had no personal connection either to us or someone already involved, they wouldn’t come alone, they didn’t have childcare, they are suspicious of organized religion. We had a greater response to our summer Carnival and to our Christmas celebration, especially among those with lower income. For middle class families, the caliber of activities we could provide on a limited budget did not reach a compelling level for people who were already involved in and paying for other activities.
- SBNR’s get to know Jesus through relationships with faith-filled people. While those of us in the church can encounter the transcendent presence of God in worship, music, the Sacraments, liturgy and so on, people with no church connection first connect with an individual, then with a community, and then with God. This was difficult at first because in building a new ministry, our job is to sell ourselves and relationship with us as the “product.” Once people make this personal connection, they are more likely to take the risk to come to an event or small group. Once they experience community, a more personal connection with God in Jesus takes place, and the opportunity for them to experience “God-sightings” in everyday life grows from there. We wanted to connect people to Jesus right away, because it felt wrong (egotistical, self-serving) to connect people to us instead of to God; this is something mainline Protestants have to get over in order to do outreach in this era! The way to God is through us and then through community.