Across the ELCA, members and leaders believe one of the most important functions of the church is to serve as a valuable member of its community—a place where people can find what they need and receive spiritual guidance, emotional support or more tangible gifts such as food or clothing.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the needs of people. That thought led to the launch of the Congregations Lead Initiative (CLI).

Developed in 2021, the CLI is a two-year program funded by a Thriving Congregations Initiative grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. that brings together up to 50 ELCA congregations to discover new and useful ministry innovations. Housed under the Innovation Lab within the ELCA churchwide organization, the initiative is part of an effort to help cultivate new, young and diverse people.

CLI leaders believe one of the best ways to do that is to understand how each congregation and community is different, then tailor their outreach to best meet those differing needs.

“We want to find ways to respond to hyperlocal situations and provide resources to congregations so that they can respond to the needs of their community,” said Rebecca Payne, CLI program director. “This isn’t a prescriptive program of saying, ‘Here’s how you’re going to innovate.’ It’s more about providing congregations with the tools to be able to listen and react to local needs.”

“It’s all about making informed decisions and finding ways to experiment that are rooted in the actual needs of the community.”

The initial group was comprised of 41 congregations, representing 27 ELCA synods in 20 states and Puerto Rico. Some congregations were identified by their synods, including the Southwest Washington, South Dakota, Upstate New York and Caribbean synods. The remainder were chosen from public applications. Each congregation selected demonstrated an established connection with their surrounding community as well as experience in handling change.

“They weren’t starting from scratch, trying to build up brand-new relationships in a community that didn’t know them,” Payne said. “And they were congregations who had already had at least a little bit of practice with trying something new—change wasn’t a new concept to them.”

Participants received training from innovation and ministry thought leaders, as well as personalized group coaching and support from the ELCA Coaching ministry. Congregations also networked with other group members to learn from what their peers were doing.

The program uses a methodology called design thinking, which Payne said is an approach centered in listening and empathy. Participants began by conducting interviews with not only members of their congregations but also their communities to better understand the expressed needs.

“The example I like to use is how often does a congregation say, ‘We’re going to start a book club for new people to come check us out.’ And then nobody shows up, and that’s because nobody needed or wanted a book club,” Payne said. “So it’s all about making informed decisions and finding ways to experiment that are rooted in the actual needs of the community.”

A mindset shift

Participating congregations analyzed the data gathered during interviews and used it to inspire brainstorming sessions. That led to mini-experiments conducted last summer. Each experiment lasted between six and eight weeks, with programs addressing everything from the need for child care to food insecurity, from providing resources to aging populations to offering people a way to overcome the sense of isolation felt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They built prototypes for these short-term experiments and then evaluated how they went. Then they went through an iteration phase of being able to tweak and maybe scale up some of those experiments and implement changes to test it again,” Payne explained. “The process allowed them to practice short-term experimentation, leaning into failure and risk-taking, because knowing that when we fail is when we learn the most.”

One congregation, Gethsemane Lutheran in Brookfield, Wis., looked at their large parking lot located along a busy street and saw an opportunity to bring their church to the people. They hosted a Family Fest, which included free games, food and other activities, drawing around 300 people from the area.

“We learned that people are looking for a place that is safe, nonjudgmental and a place that offers kindness to all families, no matter their race, socioeconomic background or how they have been created,” said Perrie Dralle, pastor of Gethsemane. “[The congregation] has learned the nature of authentic and organic welcome. We have learned that people are looking for the love of Jesus without knowing that they are looking for it. Our people learned what that looks like outside the walls of the church and outside of Sunday morning.”

“[The congregation] has learned the nature of authentic and organic welcome.”

After conducting the mini-experiments, each congregation closed out their time in the CLI this year with a capstone experiment, built upon the knowledge they had gained through the program’s initial stages. But Payne said the work doesn’t end here.

“I’ve shared with these congregations from the beginning [that] what we don’t want to happen is, ‘Oh, we spent some time doing some experiments. We wrote it up in our annual report, and now it gathers dust on the shelf, and we never touch it again,’” she said.

Aside from developing programs that can potentially carry on beyond a congregation’s time in the CLI, Payne said she hopes the program instills a new sense of purpose and intent in participants that will allow them to expand God’s work in their communities.

“We really hope to build a mindset shift of being able to try new things and being able to actively respond to the needs of the community, because communities aren’t static,” she said. “They’re always changing, they’re always evolving, and our congregations need to be able to do the same.”

Jennifer Bringle
Jennifer Bringle is a writer, editor and lifelong Lutheran who lives in Greensboro, N.C., with her husband and young son.  

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