In 1996 Gift of Grace (then named Zion American Lutheran Church) became a Fresh Start Congregation. This is what launched us on our way. At that time the ELCA was having much better success with new starts than redevelopments. In the interest of good stewardship the ELCA was reluctant to invest time and money in redevelopments, investing instead in new starts. The North West Washington Synod took a hybrid approach. The thinking was since God called a congregation to do ministry where it was located perhaps the synod could create the conditions to make a redevelopment more like a new start. To that end they were willing to invest time and money toward a very specialized redevelopment, Fresh Start.
Gift of Grace was one of four Fresh Start congregations. Two of the other congregations were in places (suburbs) where the population was exploding. These congregations were relatively new (10-20 years old, I think). They congregations simply needed an energetic pastor dedicated to outreach whose path was cleared so that her or his efforts would not be thwarted by the typical risk-averse habits of congregational leadership. They were bound to grow. And they did.
The remaining congregation was like us: a faithful elderly congregation with few in attendance, located in a landlocked, urban setting, with a large building on which maintenance had been long deferred. The other congregation decided after a year that even with new pastoral leadership they did not have the will to continue. So they closed. They were one of the few congregations I had ever heard of closing at the time.
The Fresh Start program had several features intended to set us up for success.
1) The pastors were called to a three year term call by the synod, overseen directly by the Bishop (then, Rev. Don Meier) rather than receiving the usual open-ended call from the congregation itself. At the end of three years Fresh Start would end and the congregation could decide what it wanted to do about pastoral leadership.
2) It was stated from the beginning that the pastor would spend about 50% of the time in evangelism, which certainly included outreach.
3) The congregation leadership was expected to cooperate with the innovations the pastor might suggest.
4) The pastors would participate in continuing education emphasizing evangelism, and the synod would pay for it.
5) The pastors would be a cohort that met together monthly with the bishop.
This worked well for Gift of Grace. We received tremendous support from the synod, the bishop, and the Region 1, Director of Outreach. The meetings of our pastor cohort helped us glean best practices. The continuing education pushed me to be more daring. The directors of outreach for Region 1, first Dick Wendt, and then Red Birchfield, were extremely good coaches for me, especially supporting and challenging me in taking risks. Of all the things pastors need I think collegial support and challenge is among the most important. Few pastors are willing to accept it. It is time consuming and it means competition must be set aside, but it is vital!
In 1999, my synod call as a Fresh Start pastor ended and Gift of Grace officially called me as their own pastor. We give thanks to God for three years of support we received through the Fresh Start program. That program set us up for the 20 years of mission in Wallingford we are now celebrating.