by James P. Wind

To suggest that congregations have logic or that they are logical is to invite debate, or even ridicule. Indeed, many folks who lead congregations, or belong to them, or ignore them, stand ready to pounce with countless examples of moments when congregations acted in most illogical, or even anti-logical ways. Their stories frequently include refrains such as, “We do not know how this decision was made,” “So and so felt strongly about this and the rest of us went along,” or “What were they thinking?”

If by logic we mean “the science of the formal principles of reasoning” then my guess is that while many individuals may have tried to use such principles— often in vain—in various congregational decision making moments, that very few congregations would identify themselves as practitioners of such a science. On the other hand, if we define logic as an “interrelation or sequence of facts and events when seen as inevitable or predictable” or as “a particular mode of reasoning viewed as valid or faulty” (alternative definitions in Merriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary), then congregations may in fact have their own, distinctive logics.

Let me give an example. Recently I attended a board retreat of Wheat Ridge Ministries, a Lutheran Chicago-based organization that gives seed grants to congregations and other faith-based groups for the purpose of starting new health-related ministries. The board was meeting to think about its future direction. To orient themselves, they turned to their past. As they filled in a 110 year long time line, I got a glimpse of how congregational logic works.

In 1903, the Rev. J. F. S. Her, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Denver met with 15 congregation members to discuss an urgent need. Tuberculosis was epidemic in the U.S. at that time and many victims of the disease were heading for higher elevations, like those around Denver, in search of health. Like so many congregational moments, this one began with a real need and a conviction that the congregation should do something about it. They did, deciding to create the Evangelical Lutheran Sanitarium Association of Denver Colorado. Two years later the Association purchased 20 acres for a “health farm” in nearby Wheat Ridge, Colorado. They put up 15 tents and admitted the first patient on June 8, 1905. Five years later the tent colony had expanded to the point where it could hire its first full-time superintendent and chaplain, the Rev. John Schlef. By 1921, the Tent Colony had grown to include 29 tents. 16 years later the tents were replaced by a pavilion, but not before 950 people had been sheltered by the tents.

By this time a logic had been established. A way of thinking about the church’s healing ministry had taken root and deepened. A congregational commitment had been set in motion, institutionalized, and grown. A sequence of events, at first quite risky, had grown into a major healing enterprise that to some, at least, seemed inevitable, or providential. In the 1940s, the organization changed its name to the Wheat Ridge Foundation. Its mission widened to include assisting other Lutheran pastors working in sanatoria around the country. A program of scholarships for Medical Social Service was established and soon a Medical Social Services Program began at Chicago’s famous Cook County Hospital. That program became the Lutheran Family Service organization in 1952. Three years later a Medical Mission Program was established by grants made to India, Hong Kong, and Nigeria. Mission stations in Guatemala and Japan soon followed. As the Fifties came to an end, the original Wheat Ridge Sanatorium was folded into Lutheran Hospital and Medical Center.

But the logic—experimenting with new ways to care for the most basic human health needs—kept going. Wheat Ridge Foundation moved to Chicago in 1961 and focused its energies on grant making. The ministries rippled and spread in many directions. Space here allows mention of only two of the most wide reaching experiments. In 1970, the Foundation gave a grant to help launch the Parish Nursing movement. By the mid-80s, the movement had developed its own International Parish Nurse Resource Center and its members were training parish nurses in more than 130 nursing schools and health systems in the U.S. The organization’s website now counts more than 15,000 parish nurses around the U.S. and has developed programs that serve international interfaith communities in more than 23 countries.

In 1975, the foundation gave a grant to launch Stephen Ministries, a training program that equips congregation members to offer pastoral care to their fellow members. That one program has helped launch parish based caring ministries in more than 11,000 congregations in 150 denominations. Today its website boasts that it has trained more than 500,000 people to visit sick and home bound people in their parishes and communities.

In the 80s and 90s the logic continued to unfold. Wheat Ridge Foundation changed its name to Wheat Ridge Ministries. Its program spread to support physical rehabilitation projects in China and development of congregational programs for immigrants and refugees in the U.S. Most recently, Wheat Ridge has worked with congregations that seek to develop ministries for the wounded warriors who have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is just one story about how congregational logic works. One congregation responds to one need by taking a simple step or two, often a seemingly improbable one like putting up tents for people suffering from tuberculosis. Out of those often illogical looking endeavors, a sequence of events follow that no one could have predicted. There are many examples of this logic in the American story. Universities, hospitals, social service agencies exist all over this country because a few people in a congregation here and a few in one there, did something that probably did not fit their existing program. No one knows how many lives have been touched by congregational logic. Fortunately, new logics are being set in motion today, ones that will feed and house people and provide elder care and preschool programs. Maybe more of us need to learn how to think this way.



James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute



Congregations Magazine, 2012-06-15
Issue 2, Number 2