REJOICING IN GOD’S POWERFUL WORK AMID STRUGGLE: A RECENT CHRONICLE

We share this chronicle to celebrate and rejoice in God’s work by letting you see some of the actual work and thinking that goes on in a congregation that believes it is faithfully doing its ministry but which simultaneously runs up against real world limits. This story shows how this congregation attempts to address the challenges. We, in no way, see ourselves as a small, poor, dying congregation. We see ourselves as a rich, vital, exciting community that is lifting up Christ for our neighbors in Word, Sacrament and service. That does not remove the limits. It simply encourages both us and the wider to church to attend to these limits in faithful and creative ways.

Below is a letter Pastor Fecher sent 10/16 to Gift of Grace about facing potential congregational closure: 

Dear Friends in Christ,

On October 11 I sent you an email alerting you to the current financial situation at Gift of Grace. I am writing now to let you know where things currently stand.

As I stated in the previous note we have $17,000 of bills due immediately. These are monthly bills that have accumulated over the past 10 months. When we did not have the money to pay the bill, we simply delayed payment, presuming on the grace of our creditors and with the full knowledge this could not continue indefinitely. We are now at the place where not paying these bill will have direct consequences; grace periods have run out. Soon the utilities will get cut and Thrivent, the para-church company that holds our mortgage, will consider moving toward foreclosure.

Our financial short fall was predicted. We knew that our pledges and rental income would be about $1000 shy of expenses monthly. We searched for and did not find a means for making up this shortfall. That accounts for the accumulation of $10,000 of the shortfall over the past 10 months. The other $7000, is due to pledges that have not come in as expected.

If $17,000 appeared this instant, the ledger would balance, but we would start the same cycle over. In the past year we have not found a way to make this ministry sustainable, despite dedicated, faithful, prayerful, work and giving on the part of many people. It looks to us like we must make the responsible decision to start closing the congregation. The process will not be quick due to the many people who will be affected by closing, not to mention our many financial and legal obligations.

BEFORE we start down this path, I have called together sisters and brothers from the wider church to get their help in discerning Gift of Grace’s options. Many of these sisters and brothers have responded with love and concern. The date for the meeting has not yet been set, but will be set early this coming week. I will keep you updated.

In the meantime, offer your prayers as usual. Come worship, Come eat a feast at GraceFeast. And if you want to talk about this situation you can call your Steering Team members: Tim Linnemann (XXX XXX XXXX), and Vivian Little (XXX XXX XXXX)

Peace and power to you from Christ,

Pastor Jami Fecher

 

The salient parts of the note Fecher sent to area Lutheran pastors on October 18, inviting them to the meeting:

Gift of Grace is facing closure in the next couple of months, primarily due to our inability to sustainably fund our ministry. I am asking you to make time to participate in a meeting to help us discern our next moves before we start irrevocably down the path of closure. I am asking you because you are sisters and brothers in Christ, mostly pastors, concerned about Gift of Grace congregation and it’s witness to Christ in Wallingford, Seattle and in the whole church.

The meeting will include:

1)  brief worship,

2) description of Gift of Grace’s situation as the leaders of Gift of Grace understand it,

3) opportunity for you all to ask questions that help you thoroughly understand how the GoG leadership sees the situation,

4) open discussion toward next moves and potential new visions.

This will be a discernment meeting not an action plan meeting. We will be focussing on a process of discernment. The meeting will be considered a success if:

1) our situation is spoken,

2) you all bear witness to it

3) we end with a clearer picture of where we need to go next.

I will follow up this email with another information email that gives more details about Gift of Grace’s  situation.

 

The details Gift of Grace’s situation sent Oct  19:

BEGINNING OF DECLINE

We had a kind of heyday in which we were blessed to have as dedicated participants many young people and families who were graduate students or young professionals who, in due course, moved on to other parts of the country as their careers demanded. In fact, we rejoiced to be the sending congregation for 5 seminarians, all of whom are now ELCA pastors. As these leaders moved on we found ourselves at Gift of Grace with a depleted leadership pool, which led to a downward spiral in attendance and income from which we have not recovered.

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT CONTINUING DECLINE AND THEOLOGY OF COMMUNITY

God used this as an opportunity to deepen the commitment of the people who stuck around, weaning us off trusting ourselves, our abilities, resources and gimmicks, and teaching us to look more and more to Christ for direction. That meant taking risks. We began an outreach called GraceFeast, the goal of which is to act as an extension of our worship (literally) by inviting neighbors to join us for home-cooked Sunday dinner right after worship. The plan was to build community with as little institutional buffer as possible by directly inviting the neighbors living closest to the church, as well as our own friends and family who might be reluctant to worship with us, but who might consider being in fellowship over a yummy meal. This naturally included inviting our friends who live in the SHARE shelter that resides in the Gift of Grace building, and those folks inviting their friends.

As the poor came, the wealthy did not, and many wealthy who already participated at Gift of Grace left. (Wealthy in this case means, having a steady job, place to live and probably some education) We have discovered that the less institutional buffer there is to shield the haves from the have-nots the more threatened and less welcome the haves feel, while the have-nots, for their part, are perfectly glad to take what they can get, like a free meal and a safe warm place to hang out, with very little sense that community is reciprocal.

Learning to get along with people who have very different sensitivities and concerns is a hassle and many people, despite claiming it as a value, are unwilling to tolerate the learning curve. Nevertheless, this is our understanding of being a community in Christ and it is what we are trying to build.

 

WORD AND SACRAMENT & TRUSTWORTHY STEWARDSHIP

We are convinced the power to be such a community comes from Christ in the word and sacrament, not from human ingenuity or power. We have stewarded our resources according to this belief. Our leadership team has concluded that it does not matter if we have money or people if we have an improper understanding of the mission and service to which Christ has called us. It would be idolatry. Fearing idolatry, we have dedicated ourselves to scripture and to allowing God to address our anxieties (which often meant living with them). We have intentionally avoided using quick fixes to alleviate our anxieties. It is not that we consider finances unimportant. But they are the tool we use for the goal, not the goal itself or its measure of success. It has been difficult for us not to get these priorities backwards. We have spent more than a year educating the congregation in this direction. It is a serious paradigm shift. Many of the members of Gift of Grace spent 3 hours each Saturday for more than 6 months discussing our mission and stewardship with Bible in hand, seeking to more fully understand what we are each called to as individuals, and what we are called to collectively as a congregation. At one point in the process we burst into thanksgiving because we noticed God used our dire circumstances to lead us to do the hard work that 15 years earlier we had paid thousands of dollars to a Capital Campaign consultant to prompt us to do. Near the end of this process about 10 of us asked each other face to face what each would be willing and able to financially pledge. We also asked each other what time commitment each of us would afford, supporting the ministry of Gift of Grace. We were careful to encourage each to say “no” where they thought they needed to. Because we know that you cannot say a true yes if you cannot say “no”. We knew we needed the truest yeses we could get.

FINANCIAL RESULTS AND CURRENT SITUATION

The financial result was that our pledges and other income would fall about $1000 shy per month. We could see no immediate solution to this deficit, but decided to press on, exploring any possibilities. Two things happened: The deficit accumulated (at the rate expected, $10,000 in 10 months) and pledges fell behind ($7000 in the same time). As of last week we had outstanding bills of $17,000 due immediately. Even Thrivent, who holds our mortgage, is considering moving toward foreclosure. We now think, given the variables we see, that we have exhausted our options  and in the interest of being responsible must move toward closing. Before we make this dramatic and seemingly irrevocable decision we want to check in with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Perhaps there are things we have not considered.

 

An letter from Pastor Aimee Frye Appell, Peace Lutheran Church, Washington, MO (edited for brevity by Pastor Fecher)

Dear _________

I have been affiliated with the congregation of Gift of Grace …since around 1999. [I am now a pastor in Washington, Missouri.]

… I could share my sentimental and emotional ties. [Gift of Grace] is the congregation where, through the preaching of Jami and the fellowship of the community, I came to understand the gospel and to recognize the work of Christ in my own life. It is the congregation where my husband and I were married, and where we shared a renewal of our vows as we worked through difficult times in our marriage. It is the congregation that nurtured us through a lost pregnancy, and welcomed the first two of our living children to the waters of baptism. It is the congregation where I served as a council member, as council president, and as parish administrator, and where through the encouragement of Jami and other leaders I discerned my own call to professional ministry. But perhaps Gift of Grace is [not necessarily] unique in [the ways] it welcomed and nourished me and my family…

[I could also point to]  the huge impact on the larger church… [this] …very small congregation [has] made…  The first day that I worshipped there, during Lent of 1999, there were about 15 people in worship. Over the next few years, the

congregation grew in size and in strength, and almost every single person who joined was, like myself, unchurched or dechurched. Many of us had experienced harm and some outright abuse at the hands of other Christians. Gift of Grace stood in marked contrast to our other experiences of church, and we found a home there. ….We learned that we were part of the Body of Christ. We discovered that, having found a home at Gift of Grace, we could be at home in any Christian setting. This led to at least 5 of us leaving Gift of Grace to pursue professional ministry, but in addition, there are several others who have served the larger church as lay leaders. Countless others have shared with me a deepening of their own sense of vocation outside of specifically “church” activities. Teachers, cooks, construction workers, students, many of whom have taken that consciousness of Christ into their work across the

country. But this is history…

… The issue I would like to focus on is what Gift of Grace does mean now and what it might mean in the future.

Since …2007, the ministry of Gift of Grace has shifted quite dramatically. As Seattle has become more and more wealthy and gentrified, the marginalized have found themselves more and more unwelcome…[Gift of Grace attempts to be welcoming to ALL neighbors and actively counters] the belief that there are not so many people in need, and those who are, are somehow “other,” not neighbors. [We do not want to lose] the Christian witness to the presence of the other, the affirmation for both those in homes and those without, that these others are indeed children of God who are to be welcomed as Christ himself…

A few years ago… when Gift of Grace [was] in the midst of conversations with their neighbors about the SHARE shelter…I was following the story online and through the media. But one day, I learned of it from a completely unexpected source… An acquaintance [on Facebook], someone completely unaffiliated with Seattle or Gift of Grace, posted a link to a story about it [with their own comment, saying], “Well, look at this. Here is a church trying to be, well, church.” And that is my point.

While many of us in ministry spend time debating and discerning what it means to be church, what it means to be followers of Christ, what it means to do mission, the people of Gift of Grace are just doing it.

They have done some incredibly difficult discernment work, and they have determined that they are exactly where they are supposed to be, doing exactly the work they are supposed to do. Would that we all had the courage of our convictions to follow so faithfully where we are led.

 

Report to congregation from the meeting that was held on Wednesday October 30th

The meeting yesterday with the Steering Team, area pastors, and Gift of Grace people was a success according to the criteria we had stated beforehand, namely that 1) our situation is spoken, 2) you all (those present) bear witness to it 3) we end with a clearer picture of where we need to go next. This happened.

WHAT DID NOT HAPPEN

Here is what did NOT happen: 1) the group did NOT say, “Clearly Gift of Grace must takes steps right now to begin closing.” 2) The group did NOT say, “Don’t worry about thing, we have you covered financially for the foreseeable future.”

WHAT DID HAPPEN

Although we are still debriefing this meeting and will be for some time and although we do not know what seeds God sowed and what will grow from them here is some of what did happen.

1) Area pastors spoke their support and even their admiration for the ministry of Gift of Grace.

2) Some of the pastors pledged to make monthly financial offerings, with the money coming either from their congregation or from themselves personally.

3) Gift of Grace people made a good showing and participated graciously, exactly as we asked them to participate. Thanks be to God for those who were there and the service they offered. The Steering Team will be debriefing with them to collect impressions (as time permits).

4) Two of our former seminarians, now pastors, were present, offering their support. In fact, every seminarian this congregation “sent” either called on the phone, wrote or attended to offer their support. Thanks be to God for these rich and enduring relationships.

5) Several people made suggestions for developing further partnerships with congregations and agencies. There were also other suggestions made that the Steering Team will consider.

WHAT’S NEXT?

So, we are not done yet. Much work lies ahead to see if this ministry can be sustained. Here is what you can do: 1) pray for this ministry asking God to show us its value and then to treat it accordingly 2) come to worship (if you live close enough) 3) invite others to worship and/or GraceFeast. 4) express in writing how Christ makes himself known to you in the ministry of Gift of Grace. 5) Make a regular monthly gift, no matter how small. It might not make a big difference financially, but it indicates concrete supportive love. I make puny regular monthly contributions to certain ministries. The amount of money I send is so small I’m embarrassed, but they appreciate the concrete marker of relationship and I also benefit from being reminded that I am responsible for these ministries and I am participating in them.

 

Report to the pastors who were invited to the meeting of October 30th

Beloved Fellow Pastors and Friends,

Thanks be to God that so many of you responded to my request to meet with Gift of Grace leaders. I appreciate how seriously you took the request by responding with your workable dates and times. We chose the date that most people could make, which was last Wednesday, Oct 30. Many of you came to the meeting. It was a gracious show of support that bolstered Gift of Grace.

The take home message of the meeting was this: This week is not the week to start closing. It is the time to keep doing the mission we are doing and see if our funding pool, in the form of mission partners, expands to allow the mission to continue. We are willing to do this for as long as we can. We, in no way, see ourselves as a small, poor, dying congregation. We see ourselves as a rich, vital, exciting community that is lifting up Christ for our neighbors in Word, Sacrament and service. Several participants at the meeting pledged to join us in mission partnership with small but regular offerings. This encouraged us to remain steadfast and open to the future.

So, we are not done yet. Much work lies ahead to see if this ministry can be sustained. Here are some things you and your congregation might do if you had a mind to:

1) pray for this ministry, asking God to show us its value and then to treat it accordingly

2) Make a regular monthly gift, no matter how small. It might not make a big difference financially, but it indicates concrete supportive love. I make puny regular monthly contributions to certain ministries. The amount I send is so small I’m embarrassed, but they appreciate the concrete marker of relationship and I, myself, benefit from being reminded that I am responsible for these ministries and I am participating in them.

3) Come visit worship (Sunday 10:30 AM) and/or GraceFeast (Sunday 11:40ish)

4) Call me to talk about the hidden vitality of Gift of Grace’s mission and how we might work together to make it more visible.