Healthy worker relationships lead to healthy congregations. That was the observation Nebraska District President Richard Snow shared in a November meeting in Tempe, AZ. And then Snow outlined the why and the process he’s successfully used to build up church workers with healthy relationships in his district. He’s proposing that same process for the LCMS.
That’s what leaders do – find what works, gather people to help consider positive changes, and build a consensus among them that leads to action.
LCMS Needs More Than Talk
Snow has been successfully leading like this by using a meeting format designed to gather pastors and lay leaders from “all sides” of the LCMS. It’s worked so far in Nebraska and other Districts. In conjunction with other District Presidents, Snow plans additional meetings to “widen the circle” of agreement in the coming year.
The goal of these meetings? Through conversation and group process, gathered groups will develop 4-6 concepts to coalesce disparate parts of the LCMS toward a united future. More than talk, these meetings lead to action. Snow leads people to act like the Body of Christ they are – walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
Snow Sets the Tone
To help the group begin the process, Nebraska DP Richard Snow began with a devotion based on 1 Corinthians 12 – the Body of Christ. Then, he reported on his work in Nebraska to encourage healthy worker relationships.
Snow sees this as a vital component for the LCMS if we are to thrive in the future. His diagnostic bullet points are simple and powerful:
- We must start with understanding how God designed us to work together collectively. I need you, and you need me. We need each other if we are to be the Body of Christ as He intended. Each part is called on to do its work in God’s Kingdom.
- Each of us is important and has been given gifts for all of us to use. We are interdependent in the Body of Christ.
- Once we are baptized into Christ, we are gifted for His purposes for all of us. Our loving God knit us together as He chose and created us to be (Psalm 139). We are not accidentally connected. God designed us to act as His Body. We are fearfully and wondrously made.
- On the one hand, we tend to question our self-worth and identity in Christ. We believe we don’t have anything to add to the Body’s work. It’s easy for us not to work together because we don’t see ourselves as adding anything special or unique.
- Conversely, we also believe in our self-sufficiency: “I do not need you.” Too often, our Church reflects our “culture of cancel” with one another. We quickly dismiss people who don’t think the same way we do and practice “self-amputation” in the Body of Christ.
- Our Synod was born of conflict. Remember the Prussian Union, Bishop Stephan, and the Altenburg debate? Unfortunately, conflict seems to be our preferred – and unhealthy – way of dealing with one another. Unhealthy conflict comes from our human nature and is not God’s design for the Body of Christ.
- We have this misnomer in Synod that if we elect the right leader and get all the right resolutions in a convention somehow, our Synod will be “fixed.” However, our Synod will only be “fixed” when we follow God’s design for His Body and become healthy by developing healthy worker relationships.
It’s Working in Nebraska
DP Richard Snow reported how this is working in Nebraska — and the necessity of meeting together:
“How do we celebrate our unity in Christ without shattering into disunity? The phrase I use in Nebraska is this: ‘We cannot walk together if we do not talk together – and we cannot talk together if we do not meet together.’ Ultimately where our strengths are greatest are in our gatherings.”
He outlined the five-step process for improving church worker health – and ultimately building healthy congregations.
- Gather around Word and Sacrament. That’s where God does His work on us, in us, and through us.
- Build trust through that shared experience. Building trust is fundamental to our health. But you can’t build trust on your own. It takes others “outside of us” to build trust. Trust is a team sport.
- Allow for healthy “pushback” and the healthy conflict that may create. None of us want conflict and the pain to the Body it can bring, but we need it. None of us have all the answers. We need to hear opposing ideas and work through them. I need to hear when I’m wrong. I need to listen to better ideas than mine.
- Healthy pushback and healthy conflict help build a shared focus and vision — goals we want to do together.
- This shared focus and vision allow for accountability — where we can, in healthy ways, call on one another to accomplish our part of the shared vision. In addition, it leads God’s people to develop outcomes that we can commit to as the Body of Christ.
Action is vital to being the Body of Christ as He intended, according to Snow. Living this way is not a spectator sport:
“As Luther taught us in the Small Catechism, ‘What does this mean?’ does not mean ‘What do you think?’ There’s an action involved. His answers to ‘What does this mean?’ all have to do with ‘How will I act because of this?’”
Healthy Churchworkers Build Healthy Circuits and Congregations
Snow’s experience is that using these five steps helps build healthy circuits. That’s not conceptual health. Out of healthy worker relationships flows healthy circuits — and healthy congregations. Snow reports these four specific outcomes build a healthy Body of Christ:
“I describe healthy circuits as those where guys that are actually meeting together and wrestle with issues together. We want to see four primary aspects of culture in the circuit.
First, circuits have to be a place of joy. Like in our Aaronic blessing (the Lord’s face “shine upon you”) kind of joy. That kind of joy means that when I see you and you see me, I am glad to have you here and to see that reflection of God in you. I don’t see God’s eyes very often, but I do when I see you.
Next, circuits need to be a place of sacrificial loving connection with one another. That’s where we listen to one another, pray for one another, and spend our time and efforts to support one another’s ministry.
That results in a shared community identity together — that Body of Christ kind of identity where we know we respect and trust and love one another.
Finally, built on that joyful relationship of sacrificial love and shared identity as a part of the Body of Christ, we can have loving correction when things go wrong and we fall to our sinful natures. We can truly say ‘This isn’t who you were created to be in Christ. This is not what God designed you to be.’ But if there is not a relationship where there is some joy, love and community identity, now you’re just a stranger trying to beat me up.
The end result of having healthy church workers in healthy relationship with one another is going to be healthy congregations. It’s the result of building up one another in love.”
As a layperson, wouldn’t you like your pastor, teacher, or other church workers to be in a healthy circuit like Snow describes? Wouldn’t you, as a church worker, want that, too?
Building Up Is Our Design
Our Congregations — Our Synod couldn’t agree more with Nebraska District President Snow. St. Paul summed up the same call to change and build up one another in this way:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16, ESV)
We all can commend President Snow’s leadership. We need to see this from our leaders at all levels in this LCMS. If your District President has not already scheduled one of these meetings, ask him to do so.
As President Snow said, “‘We cannot walk together if we do not talk together – and we cannot talk together if we do not meet together.’ Ultimately where our strengths are greatest are in our gatherings.”
It’s Time for “Middle Missouri” to Lead
There is an unhealthy division in our Synod. That needs to change. These meetings are a good start. They seek to establish common ground among those with a “diversity of gifts” within the Synod. They start building healthy worker relationships.
Members of Synod seem to form something of a bell curve attitudinally. Everyone believes they are “Middle Missouri.” That’s impossible — not all of us can be in the middle. The meetings Snow leads help define what those at the top of the curve and “one standard deviation” on either side believe. That’s because there’s lots of talking and listening going on. The “middle” gets to speak.
The last 20 years of Synod history show the edges of the bell curve within our LCMS tend to set the agenda for the rest of us. A preferred future for the LCMS is one in which those with diverse opinions listen to one another, dialog, and cooperate — collegially and collaboratively. We need a Synod where confession feeds mission and mission feeds confession.
Following the pattern of the first of these meetings in Las Vegas called by Concordia Theological Seminary Fort Wayne President Larry Rast, these meetings have helped. The resulting products are remarkably similar. But, more importantly, the process used built both relationships and understanding.
One participant reported:
“They believe as I do and are concerned about the exact same issues I am. I used to think the guys on the “other side” where just wrong and didn’t care about our confession. Now I’ve discovered that “they” are just as committed to our confession as I am — and I’ve come to appreciate more how God has created this LCMS to be His Body with all the diversity of gifts His gives.”
We pray that a united “we” evolves from this meeting. We will report the outcomes of these meetings in future articles.