Some congregations choose simplicity; other congregations have no choice. And still others embrace what’s necessary so it becomes a blessing. First Lutheran Church in Newton, Iowa, fits the latter description.
Faced with the closing of the town’s major employer and the eventual loss of more than 3,000 jobs, First‘s leaders knew they would have to pare the congregation’s expectations and lifestyle. They would have to find a way of “being church” that could be supported by a drastically reduced membership and a severely diminished budget.
It was clear that the consumerist-corporate model of congregational life wasn’t sustainable anymore.
Rather than seeing this reality only as an overwhelming problem — staff reductions, program cuts, fear and anger, loss of large numbers of families — leaders saw another possibility: First could eventually prosper as a “simple congregation.”
Over several years and after facing all the predictable stages of grief that beset people and congregations, the leaders came to a breakthrough insight. As Howard D. Vrankin, pastor, recalls the moment: “We realized that we are a family, and we want to go somewhere with our family.”
From their association with Dwight Dubois of the Center for Renewal at Grand View University, Des Moines, Iowa, they adopted a helpful mantra: “The church of Jesus Christ has a mission; the mission of Jesus Christ has a church; and we are that church.”
In small groups and families, the congregation embarked on a yearlong, in-depth exploration of Dave Daubert’s Living Lutheran: Renewing Your Congregation (Augsburg Fortress, 2007).
Gradually members came to see they could reduce their expectations that staff would lead and carry out programming. They realized they could draw each other into exciting ministries that were in line with their personal and congregational assets.
Council member Judy Lackore Monroe recalled, “When we came to the end of it — the closing of the Maytag plant — we knew who and what was left and what we could do with it.”
Without staff to depend on, parishioners assumed leadership of ministries that could be sustained. A small cadre envisioned and brought into being a ministry — supporting a hospital in Tanzania with presence, sweat and money — that galvanized a can-do spirit and infused congregational life.
Committees were whittled, “stewardship drives” ended and new leaders emerged. Families that had learned to do with less applied those behaviors to congregational programs and events. Mission became less dependent on money and more evident of joyful creativity. Cooperative ventures with other congregations increased.
First is slowly regaining membership, restoring its health as an enterprise of God. Most likely, though, the congregation will never return to its former ways of thinking about being God’s people or getting God’s work done. At First now, “first things” — discipleship and mission — are first.