In 2001, while conducting research for my book Revitalizing Congregations, I encountered a congregation that was in such a downward cycle and had such enormous internal conflict and divisions that I called it “Adrift Lutheran Church” and wondered whether it would ever be revitalized.1 Now, nearly eight years later, I’ve got my answer. This congregation, which is actually Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, has indeed revitalized itself.
“This church may be a lot of things, but we’re no longer adrift,” said one council member when I recently returned to the church to see how it had fared over the years.
Eight years ago a series of crises had left this congregation severely divided, even after a lengthy tenure by an intentional interim minister. Attendance was half what it had been just a few years before, and people continued to leave for other churches—or at least no longer worshiped at Gloria Dei. Its future was uncertain and did not look particularly promising. There are never any guarantees that a congregation in crisis will inevitably be able to reverse its fortunes, and I had my doubts that this church would be able to do so.
I concluded my initial study of the congregation in the fall of 2001, just when the congregation’s first intentional interim minister resigned because he realized that his leadership had become one more focal point of division within this conflicted congregation. After he left, a second interim minister served for more than a year before Gloria Dei finally called Jerrett Hansen, the church’s current senior pastor. In other words, the period during which the congregation was led by interim pastors was almost five years.
Today I conclude that I studied this congregation when it was at or near “rock bottom,” a place from which this congregation was willing to change its entire culture. Some church members seem to believe hitting bottom was an important part of the changes that have taken place since that time. “I think there’s a gift that comes at the bottom,” said one council member, “and this church needed to bottom out if it was going to be transformed. There are things you can only learn when you’re at the bottom.” Members explained that at that period in the congregation’s life, the chaos, unsettledness, infighting, and disagreements that had permeated the church community for so long had led to a state of ennui. But the hopelessness they felt at their situation also made them ready for leadership that would focus on the future rather than on what had been destructive in the past.
While there are many joys and benefits of long pastorates, one of the perils of these long tenures is that a period of congregational turmoil almost inevitably follows them. In the case of Gloria Dei, the five-year interim period was necessary before the congregation was able to turn in a new direction. I cannot minimize the suffering experienced by the small group of members in leadership roles—and that of their families—during these five years. This is evidenced by the fact that during the transition several leadership families left, some permanently and others temporarily, returning only once new pastors were on board.
Matching Gifts with Needs
Pastoral leadership is probably the key factor in the health of a congregation. Gloria Dei’s revitalization serves as an example of this notion. According to the council, a well-chosen call committee was able to match a pastor’s gifts—those of Hansen, a man then in his mid-fifties—with the critical needs of the congregation. Within six months Hansen led the congregation to call an associate pastor, Mary Laymon, whose exceptional gifts for ministry complemented his.
Hansen understood that one key aspect for congregational renewal would be the development of small groups. However, he also understood that he had neither the time nor the aptitude to develop this ministry fully. Thus, soon after he arrived, he led the congregation to call Laymon, a pastor he already knew, because he realized she had gifts he lacked in this area. As one member explained, “In terms of love of God and God’s mission for this church, both pastors are good. They balance one another with quite different specific skills.” He added that Laymon is not interested in administration but “is so loving and caring and just wonderful with small groups. The work she has done with small groups has gotten people to know one another—to band together as a caring community. She has worked wonders.”
One member described the council’s consensus about Hansen’s administrative gifts as follows: “Jerrett is not only a good minister, he is also an excellent administrator and manager, an insightful person.” Another member noted that “while Jerrett has a strong personality, he is willing to listen to people and include people in decision-making processes. Also, he has the ability to delegate and not micromanage. Finally, he has a wonderful sense of timing about when people are ready to change things or try new things, so that change has been well paced.”
Shortly after his arrival, Hansen assembled teams “to work diligently on statements that define our purpose and goals” and to develop a five-year plan for Gloria Dei. The council noted that he did not just choose “yes” people to develop the five-year plan but chose from a broad representation of the congregation. Gloria Dei now lives by proactive planning rather than reactionary response. In fact, a group was recently convened to begin developing long-range plans for the next five years and beyond.
Defining a New Purpose
As a young pastor, Hansen had led in the renewal of parishes he served. Then, prior to the call to Gloria Dei, he honed his skill for revitalizing congregations by serving on the national evangelism staff of the ELCA, working (in the mid-Atlantic region especially) to develop congregational mission starts for the church, and matching pastors with appropriate ministry gifts to these new starts. When Hansen began his ministry at Gloria Dei, he was quite directive. He said the church needed an identity—a purpose for existing—as a discipleship church rather than a membership church.
Luckily, the congregation was ready for this new approach. “By January 2003, when I arrived,” Hansen recalls, “there was a readiness by those who had been through all the conflict, a sense that enough was enough—and an attitude of let’s get on with it. There was a readiness—I would almost say for anything—so that the whole discipleship emphasis was something that the people grabbed onto very quickly because it was purposeful. A lack of purpose for the church was too evident at that point.”
The tool Hansen used to build this purpose was to encourage the entire congregation to study Michael Foss’s Power Surge.2 When I interviewed church members recently, they could readily list Foss’s six marks of discipleship, which they had been using to guide their lives: daily prayer, weekly worship, Bible reading, service, spiritual friendships, and giving. But the congregation’s initial reaction to Hansen’s request hadn’t been one of unbridled enthusiasm. “He wanted us to bring our Bibles to church,” one member recounted. “Imagine that! That’s his job! I’ve come to find that this is why we have to describe ourselves as ‘disciples in training.’” Said another, “What changed in this church was a recommitment to the Bible and a refocusing from ourselves to helping others through the six marks as disciples on a journey.” Not only do many members now try to live in the six marks of discipleship, but many can also give an approximation of the church’s mission statement: “The mission of Gloria Dei is leading people to learn, love, and live God’s Word.”
When I first studied Gloria Dei in 2001, one member, when asked what issues were facing the congregation, said, “Trust, vision, leadership, and communication—those jump out.” So, not only did Hansen have to face issues of vision and leadership but also the issue of trust—between pastor and congregation and among congregational members themselves. The first crisis was predictable. “Shortly after Jerrett and Mary arrived and began to take hold of the ministry, there was an attempt to undermine their ministry,” one parishioner reported during my recent visit. “Rumors were e-mailed around, accusing both of them of very poor conduct. The details are meaningless, but it was ugly. Both of them could easily have given up and moved on to another call, but they didn’t. They took charge of the situation and brought it out in the open for all to see and hear. This single incident solidified the majority of the membership with the pastors in trust, leadership, and communication.”
Thus, one leadership quality Hansen and Laymon have brought to Gloria Dei is transparency in all aspects of congregational life. Nowhere has this been more important than in the area of the church’s finances, where Hansen had to deal with the issue of open disclosure. Under the previous permanent pastor, little communication had occurred regarding finances. The pastor and a few key laypersons had controlled the finances. Moreover, the accountant from the independent retirement corporation where the pastor was CEO had kept the books for Gloria Dei. Yet, when that pastor retired, Gloria Dei had an annual budget deficit, a huge debt ($1.5 million), and financial books that Gloria Dei’s leadership could not decipher.
Hansen opened up the whole financial process by inviting every member to attend the monthly Finance Committee meetings. Fifty to sixty people came. Soon Gloria Dei had a stewardship plan to deal with the budget and to pay down the congregation’s debt. “Now we don’t have areas of nondisclosure,” commented one parishioner recently. “Now we have open dialogue between the pastors and lay leaders with the congregation. Nothing is done behind closed doors. Now trust exists knowing that questions will be answered if they are asked.”
Getting People Involved
Hansen has also helped his congregation find ways to explore their gifts for ministry and God’s purpose for their lives. This is being done through a program Gloria Dei calls SHAPE, an acronym for “Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personalities, Experience.” It provides a workshop experience where people get to explore and discover who they are, what gifts they possess, what talents lie within them, and how finding purpose can bless their lives.
SHAPE has been one way discipleship groups have been built in the congregation, so that today there are sixty to seventy small groups and teams functioning. In the past, most congregants came on Sunday morning and the staff carried out the ministry, but now a spirit of volunteerism permeates this congregation. The staff is much smaller today than it was a decade ago. Not only has much of the work previously done by paid staff been taken over by volunteers, but the pastors and the lay leadership have also developed an amazing array of hands-on ministries in the Philadelphia area and in the broader U.S. and abroad. For instance, Gloria Dei sponsors a Values through Sports program each Saturday at Iglesia Lutherana Nueva Creacion in Philadelphia, is a vital partner with several others churches and a synagogue in a furniture ministry called One House at a Time, and supports several food programs. The congregation also sponsored mission trips in 2008 to Canada’s Northwest Territories with On Eagles’ Wings; a youth mission trip to Manassas, Virginia and Washington, D.C.; and a youth and adult mission experience in El Salvador. In addition, the church has supported youth who traveled with church and synod groups to Sudan and Tanzania. The church also sent over thirty people—youth and adults—to New Orleans to work with Lutheran Disaster Response during each of the last three years.
The revitalization of the youth in the congregation has been another hallmark of Gloria Dei’s renewal, shepherded by a talented youth director, Mark Ristine, who was hired three years ago. The youth ministry began its revitalization through a dynamic affirmation program for seventh- and eighth-graders that focuses on faith development and faith formation. Small group gatherings between youth and adult mentors and leaders have developed relationships between adults and youth. The congregation also holds mid-week gatherings for food, study, discussion, and fun.
The effectiveness of Gloria Dei’s youth ministry has been built on relationships at the intersection of life and faith. At the church’s 9:00 a.m. contemporary worship service, the teenagers sit together in the first two or three rows, while their parents sit farther back. Then, on Sunday night, most of these teenagers come back for their own worship experience. Their parents are thrilled. According to one member, “Parents tell their friends, ‘The kids don’t want to leave church. They love being here and see themselves as being as much a part of the congregation as the adults.’” Like the adults, these teenagers not only gather for fellowship and worship but also have their own outreach ministry and mission trips.
Preaching and Teaching
While Hansen and Laymon have led this congregation back to the Bible, to biblically based preaching, and to a journey in discipleship, this congregation hasn’t become biblically conservative or a fundamentalist congregation. Moreover, the leaders can state how Gloria Dei differs from a congregation with a more literalistic biblical stance. “We are a progressive church,” said one member, “an emerging church. We have a belief statement that says we respect the faithfulness of the other paths which also may lead people to an experience of God. We’re inclusive—welcoming gay and lesbian people and all ethnic groups. We try to define neighbors as including even our supposed enemies in the world.”
Hansen takes risks based on the good news of Jesus Christ in his preaching and leadership. In the words of a council member, “We are in the process of teaching the cross. We’re in a process of teaching that we are in collision with the world which Jesus collided with, and learning and living that is a slow process, but it’s a sacred process that we hold dear. We don’t shy from preaching peace in a warring world. We are learning how to take a stand in the world.” An example of Hansen’s bold preaching, as remembered by one member, is that he began one sermon last year by saying, “You know that both McCain and Obama have had minister troubles, so if you think you’re going to run for political office, you may want to leave now.” That day’s sermon was on Jesus loving his enemies.
Finally, as I have discovered in many congregations, as long as faithful ministry is occurring, parishioners are okay with having political differences with their pastor. Said one interviewee about Hansen with a hearty laugh, “I don’t agree with everything. He’s a liberal hippy, and I’m pretty Republican.” But it’s obvious that this difference hasn’t interfered with his positive relationship with his pastor nor his experience of his church.
In Revitalizing Congregations, I stated that a key issue for Gloria Dei eight years ago was its identity as a Lutheran Church.3 At that time, the bishop was very concerned that Gloria Dei had no significant Lutheran connections in its theology, liturgy, or relationships. What has happened since? The consensus of the council is that Gloria Dei is now Lutheran: “We’re centered in the gospel. We celebrate Communion weekly. We see the i
mportance of [the wider church]. We give our apportioned benevolence to the wider church. We attend synod conventions. Our youth are involved in area and national Lutheran youth gatherings. We have an intern from the closest Lutheran seminary. But we don’t use Lutheran worship material. We create our own. We don’t emphasize the word Lutheran; we’re simply Gloria Dei. Yet you’ll find that the word Lutheran is in our bulletin. We participate at a lot of different levels with the Lutheran church.”
In other words, Gloria Dei members are comfortable being Lutheran, but the label isn’t very important to them; practicing Christian discipleship in the world is. Hansen puts it this way: “We have continued the practice of being secularly focused—it’s the emerging church concept. How do you get into the lives of people who don’t know who you are? The perception still is among us that Lutheran can be a roadblock. So we will be the church reaching for those secularly focused, and our theology is clearly Reformation theology, but the style is different.” Or, as the church’s intern put it, “I do not see anything here that is not Lutheran. I just don’t know if there’s a Lutheran sticker on it.”
The contrast between Gloria Dei eight years ago and today is extreme. The change borders on the unbelievable to me. Eight years ago this church was not only adrift, it was in severe crisis. Today the church has a purpose—the journey of discipleship in the world—which has changed the spiritual and emotional tone of the members by 180 degrees. Eight years ago the church was split into factions. Today, as one member expressed it, “This community seems very comfortable with each other’s sorrows and joys. Mike’s stroke, someone else’s broken marriage, or whatever happens, is not something we keep under wraps or pretend is not true, but we look at realistically and then we build hope together. Hope is the character-building thing. You go through tragedies, sharing them with one another, and this place is really good at being Christ to one’s neighbor. We show our vulnerability so that grace can abound.”
Eight years ago only a few ran the church; now Gloria Dei wants everybody to be involved and is very good at helping members identify their gifts for ministry. The change was swift and unsettling at first for some, but most adjusted to it and ultimately thrived on it. As one member recalls “Jerrett and Mary brought a unique dynamic in leadership that was totally foreign to us. We were thrown off the dock and into the deep waters. They said, ‘If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.’ We were empowered to make decisions, but didn’t feel equipped. But it was sink or swim—and the majority of people put in that position rose to the top very quickly. Leadership here is as much from volunteers as from the staff. Now everything is more efficient.”
With this dramatic renewal, some readers may assume that worship attendance has doubled or tripled during these years, but it has not. Instead, Gloria Dei has reversed its spiral of decline and enjoyed modest gains in average attendance. The congregation still deals with the aftermath of its five years of extreme turmoil and the decline it experienced in the decade before that. Another factor limiting growth is that Huntingdon Valley is a mature community with little new population growth. In addition, since the church is just over fifty years old, many early members are now dying off or are too infirm to come to worship. In the last eight years the congregation has averaged thirty funerals a year. These losses have offset the many new families who have joined the church during these years, most of them younger families with children.
But, as is often the case with congregations, the numbers aren’t nearly as important as the renewal of this congregation and its purposeful ministry. Sometimes we hear people say “this church is on fire” when describing a congregation where the enthusiastic and contagious spirit is readily apparent among its members. Usually this statement is not made about mainline Protestant congregations. With Gloria Dei, we find a mainline church on fire with the Spirit! Please visit its website (www.gloriadei.com) to learn more about this dynamic and inspiring congregation.
1. See chapter 3, “Adrift Lutheran Church,” in William O. Avery’s Revitalizing Congregations (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2002), 57–78.
2. Michael Foss, Power Surge, Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
3. Avery, Revitalizing Congregations, 74.
Questions for Reflection
- Gloria Dei reached “rock bottom” before its culture was radically changed. Can congregational culture be renewed without a church hitting bottom? I think it can. Where and how would you begin this process?
- Gloria Dei’s refocus to become a discipleship church means being a congregation with high expectations from its members. Churches with high expectations tend to be ones that grow. How would you begin to lead your parish to becoming a discipleship church?
- In If This Is the Way the World Works (Alban Institute, 2007), which I co-wrote with Beth Gaede, we argue that collaborative leadership is superior to hierarchical leadership. How might collaborative leadership lead to renewal in your congregation even if you do not have a pastor with Jerrett Hansen’s many gifts, money for a second pastor, or a hired youth director? How would you start to build collaborative leadership?
- Jerrett Hansen and Mary Laymon exhibited the following marks of pastoral leadership: an ability to build trust through transparency in all aspects of congregational life, administrative skills, a willingness to listen, the capacity to trust laity in their gifts, and a keen sense of timing. Do these gifts mark your leadership style? How might you build such gifts?