Western Iowa Synod Health Check
Bishop Rodger Prois
Most of us go regularly for a health check-up with our doctors, we take our cars to a mechanic for oil changes and check-ups, we get energy audits from utility companies, and we periodically have our computers scanned and cleaned up, to name just a few similar activities. I submit to you, with this writing, a brief check-up on the health of the Western Iowa Synod, (a.k.a. The Lutheran Church of Western Iowa, ELCA) at the beginning of this New Year.
I have used the following text from Isaiah 58 to guide my thoughts:
“11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” NRSV
There is a list of laments offered earlier in this chapter of Isaiah, then the author reminds them of their turned inward behavior and what they could be doing, and here in verse 11 is a restatement of what God has promised and turns the negative to positive.
Changing the prevailing trends in the synod has been the work of my team and I since taking office in 2013, with the primary goal of strengthening inter-synodical relations, while allowing our companion relationships in Tanzania and Chile to mature. Essentially, turning the negative to positive. A synod check-up is by its very nature multi-faceted and complex. I will attempt to keep this report on track using the Wholeness Wheel that Portico Benefits has been holding up for many years. There are six areas to examine; Social Interpersonal, Emotional, Physical, Financial, Vocational, and Intellectual. These are centered on our baptism in Christ and surrounded by Spiritual Well-being.
When talking with congregational leadership I will often state that it is my firm belief that God started the congregations in our area so that the people in the community the churches are planted could hear the Gospel and have access to our unique Lutheran witness. The assumption that God has bigger plans for the church pushes us to move outside the walls and engage those who are our neighbors. Today many of our neighbors are significantly different than us. I am encouraging, no pleading, that every member of the synod consider what it might mean to redefine our concept of neighbor. Look for Espirit articles, Living Lutheran insert articles, direct mailings, seminars, and assembly educational offerings that speak to “Changing Hearts in the Heartland.”
Also on the Social/Interpersonal area of interest it is good to note that over 50% of the congregations in the WIS are in shared ministry agreements. While some have entered into these arrangements so that they could afford half of pastor’s compensation package, others are now finding that their partner congregations have interesting people who share similar values and have common interests. I have heard of partnerships meeting for pot-lucks, picnics, and joint youth groups. Two of the conferences in the synod have regular gathering for Ministers that have an educational component, but mostly for support and socializing.
When I came into the area 8 years ago many of the pastors I met were more like Eeyore than Tigger. I have encouraged them to find talk therapists, like Pr. Judith Johnson, who deal with issues of church leaders that can drive a person into the doldrums. It is still my hope that we can develop a Mental Health Network for long term support and learning. One of my catch phrases is “choose joy”.
This is an area of growth for many of us. Our health care partner, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, tell us that the pool of those in the ELCA plan are less healthy than other similar groups with many indicators of stress and symptoms of bad habits. There are some who are working to change this reality. Deacon Lynn Egesdal, and others, are intentionally changing their life style choices and have great stories to tell of renewed energy, greater mental acuity, and smaller clothes. Portico has a number of healthy choice suggestions on the website
Last summer’s drought conditions were very concerning for many who grow the food so the world can eat. I am told that once the crops were in the situation wasn’t as dire as feared. High yields were experience in many areas, almost making up for low grain prices. Contrary to early concerns some congregations report that offerings were comparable to 2016 with a few reporting receipts over their budget. I am thankful for all congregations who support our joint work in the Western Iowa Synod and am cautiously optimistic that we could achieve our budget projections. Pr. Jeff Ungs and I are working on a new narrative budget that will graphically demonstrate where the synod revenues are realized and distributed. An important fact to consider is that nearly ½ of those monies we send on to ELCA Churchwide are returned to us in grants or Pr. Ungs position support. Thank you for your partnership in this ministry we share.
In this category I need to speak of our candidacy process and how we are preparing people to be Ministers of Word and Service, or Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Early in my service as Bishop I became aware that not everyone wanted to serve in this territory, not all congregations could afford a traditionally educated pastor, and some situations required adaptive solutions. The WIS has become one of the leading synods of the ELCA in the use of Theological Education for Emerging Ministries (TEEM) candidates. There are currently 16 in candidacy in the TEEM program, and we have another 4 who are seeking a Masters of Divinity degree. As I have said before, “The church is not dying, it is merely changing.”
A major focus of our work together must be providing solid Continuing Education opportunities for all rostered people, and have the elected leaders of congregations urge their pastors and deacons to avail themselves of that education. The church is one of the few, if not the only, professional organization that does not require those who lead to engage in intellectual pursuits and educational growth. I am pleased with the events that have been offered like Boundaries Workshops, Theological Convocations, Discipleship Academy, Fort Dodge Forum, and now the Sioux City Forum. I am thankful for the leadership of many of the Mission Center Team, and others who serve on networks, committees, and task forces that make these educational offerings possible.
We could stop with the above 6 areas and feel we have a well-balanced view of our work together, however any service organization could claim those same segments. It is important to remember that this is the Church and we carry an understanding that we are led by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel, Baptize, and teach all the Jesus taught us. The WIS Spirituality network now has 6 trained spiritual directors who are available to lay or clergy for guidance and encouragement leading to spiritual growth. Anyone interested in learning more about this opportunity should contact Pr. Lorna Hallas.
With great thanks to all who help make it so, I feel the synod is in relatively good health and we are headed in a good direction. I know that there remain areas we need to work on, but with help from the Holy Spirit we can continue to do God’s mission in this territory.