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Healthy Communities Start With Well-trained Leaders

A note from Tammy Devine: "It is always exciting to watch our ELCA leaders discover the joy and renewal that comes from living well. As we set forth toward a wellness reformation this year, I have invited several colleagues to share what has made a difference for them. An exciting pilot program in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin is exploring what tools and gifts leaders need to create a healthy culture in their congregation."


Pastor Laurie Skow-Anderson
Assistant to the Bishop, Northwest Synod of Wisconsin
Chetek, Wisconsin
May 2016

What does a healthy church look like? Do members work out in a Zumba class after Sunday worship? Do they serve hummus and zucchini slices at their vegetarian-friendly potluck dinners? The Northwest Synod of Wisconsin believes that while activities like these might be part of a healthy culture, creating a healthy church goes deeper. Our Healthier Leaders Serving Healthier Communities (HLSHC) team believes that healthy, vital congregations start with healthy, well-trained leaders. For more than two years, this team — made up of two members of the NSW staff, a synod pastor, and representatives from Portico, Augsburg College, and Fairview Health Systems — has been working together to develop a process that will empower such leaders and congregations.

Ten congregations in our synod volunteered to be a part of a two-year pilot program. They each formed a team of five (four lay leaders plus the pastor) who signed a covenant to participate. Each team worked with a trained peer coach and agreed to take part in three weekend retreats focused on leadership development, faith practices, and congregational renewal tools, along with worship and time for reflection.

We started by acknowledging that change is difficult, and that leading a congregation to change requires specific skills. We used a simulation of the popular game Oregon Trail to illustrate the challenges that our churches face today. Just as the pioneers had to decide what to put in their covered wagons, we have to decide what our church needs to take with it as it moves forward in God's mission. And, like the pioneers along the trail, we as a church have to leave behind the things that are weighing us down so we can carry on what is of ultimate importance. The Oregon Trail experience helped our pilot congregations clarify their purpose in God's mission and the Christian values that were absolutely essential as they move forward in God's future.

Our next step: Finding ways to measure the health of a congregation and its leaders to see if this intentional process would actually make a difference. Linda Bobbit of ELCA Research and Evaluation identified four key tools: the Congregational Vitality Survey, the Congregational Mission Perspectives Inventory, the Congregational LifeCycle Chart, and the LEAD Readiness Survey. Our pilot congregations took them at the outset to create a baseline. They will complete them again in 24 months to see if this process has, in fact, been a catalyst that moved the congregation toward a healthier future in God's mission.

We are already seeing evidence that congregational renewal is first and foremost about spiritual transformation. Following our first retreat — which included a variety of prayer practices — our pilot teams each created a project that was meant to deepen the spiritual life and health of their congregation. One team designed a new prayer ministry; another planned a series around Martha Grace Reese's Unbinding the Gospel; another will set aside time in worship for people to share their "God Sightings."

Our process is affirming that congregational renewal often begins with one person whose life has been transformed by Jesus Christ. The HLSHC team is excited to see how changed people, change churches, change the world.

Interested in learning more about the Healthy Leaders Serving Healthy Communities project? Contact Pastor Laurie Skow-Anderson for strategies and resources.

This submission describes a personal perspective on an aspect of the ELCA benefit program that may or may not reflect the experience of others.

email Share your Wellness Voice at livewell@porticobenefits.org

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