By Cheryl Magness
The Making Disciples for Life (MDFL) Initial Gathering was held Jan. 9–11 at The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) International Center in St. Louis. The first in an ongoing series of regional conferences to come, the Initial Gathering was filled to capacity a month in advance and had to turn away another full conference worth of interested participants due to lack of space.
As he welcomed attendees to the opening session, titled “What We’ve Learned,” the Rev. Dr. Mark A. Wood, director of LCMS Witness & Outreach Ministry, emphasized the conference leaders’ desire to listen: “Believe it or not, the people in this building can’t discern what you need without you telling us.”
Wood added that a major goal of the MDFL initiative is to make existing resources more readily available while building connections between those who have knowledge and resources to share. “Right now, we don’t know where this is all going to lead. We don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s done. That’s up to you.
“So, speak up,” urged Wood, “and speak out.”
The MDFL initiative was adopted at the 2019 LCMS convention in Tampa, Fla. (Res. 4-03A, “To Commend to Synod Priorities for Mission and Ministry Emphasis for the 2019–2022 Triennium”). It is rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).
To foster conversation, the MDFL gathering featured large-group presentations by LCMS ministry leaders followed by both smaller “breakout” sessions and even more intimate “tabletop” conversations.
One of those tabletop sessions, led by the Rev. Dr. Steven D. Schave, director of LCMS Church Planting and Urban & Inner-City Mission, looked at both why and how the church needs to start new congregations.
“When it comes to reaching the lost,” said Schave, “you can’t beat new starts. But they also energize the existing church. The idea that a congregation needs to get healthier or stronger before it can plant a new start is misguided. What would happen if 90 percent of society said, ‘We’re not going to have children’?”
Trey Sansom, vicar at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Kingwood, Texas, echoed the comparison of the church to a family, saying that planting enables a congregation, “instead of being inwardly focused, [to have] a ‘baby’ to take care of.” He also agreed with Schave’s statement that planting new churches is the most effective way to reach the unchurched. “New churches reach new people; different churches reach different people; more churches reach more people,” he said.
Sansom described the work of Harvest Partnership, a network of several LCMS churches in the Houston area that come together twice a month to support each other in their church planting efforts.
“We are much stronger together,” Sansom said. “Networking mitigates a lot of the risk.” Members of the network spend time together not only during their regular meetings, but at other times as well, providing one another “a high level of trust” to discuss their work.
Something for everyone
The MDFL gathering included sessions on a wide variety of other topics, from ethnic ministry to disaster response, evangelism, demographics, stewardship, campus ministry, worship, volunteer recruitment, parish communications, worker wellness, deaconess ministry, rural and small-town mission, pastoral education, international mission and more.
As she led a tabletop discussion on “School Governance,” Dr. Rebecca Schmidt, director of LCMS School Ministry, spoke about the importance of clarifying roles among school staff, administrators, families and boards, especially as more and more schools shift from traditional supervisory-board models to policy-governance models. Attendees at the session included Lutheran school administrators, teachers and board members.
“If we could get everybody on the same page, it would make a world of difference,” said Berit Ericson, a teacher at Lutheran High School in Springfield, Ill.
Schmidt recommended the use of an outside consultant in implementing new policies and training board members and staff about their use. “Many things that we do in a school setting can be resolved on the inside,” she said. “But governance is one of those things that can be so heated and complex that … hiring a consultant and investing in that process, to help everyone see all of those pieces … can be very beneficial.”
Deaconess Maryann Hayter, manager of grants administration for the LCMS, led a tabletop discussion on “LCMS Grant Opportunities.” Attendees from around the Synod — from pastors to district staff to lay leaders — discussed their experiences applying for grants and learned about the range of grants offered by the LCMS. Hayter also shared some tips for researching potential grant opportunities, designing a clear proposal, and communicating when things don’t go as planned.
“It’s just a plain good reminder that by being here, you find out the resources that … you have a tendency to overlook,” said the Rev. Dr. Dwayne Lueck, president of the LCMS North Wisconsin District, during the session. “I’m already texting back to the staff. … Knowing your resources and what’s available to you … that’s the beauty of this.”
Learning and sharing
Between sessions, Peter Slayton, manager of social media for the LCMS, interviewed attendees about their experience at the conference.
The Rev. Kirk Clayton, vice-president of the LCMS Southern Illinois District and pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Mascoutah, Ill., said, “The joy of the interactive nature of the conference is that … as we listen to brothers and sisters in Christ that are engaged in ministry in their own situations, the stories … show that, despite our doubts … the Lord of the church is alive and working.”
James Carver, a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Pevely, Mo., agreed. “It’s been great … being able to sit down … and compare notes [about] what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. Carver encouraged lay people to attend because “your input is really important. … We learn a lot from our pastors, but … we [also] learn a lot from each other.”
The Rev. Gerald Paul, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Great Falls, Mont., noted the potential for loneliness in the work of the church but said, “When you sit … [with] somebody else [who] had a similar experience … that’s a great help. We’re not alone. We’re walking together.”
Making disciples for life
Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison began his remarks on the first day of the conference by joking, “When I was asked to do this, I thought, ‘What do I know?’ You probably agree with me.”
He concluded in all seriousness.
“We have vast blessings … [but] we have a great collaboration challenge, and that is the feeling that, if you don’t do it my way, you can just hit the highway. And those idiots in St. Louis don’t know what’s going on. Or those idiots over there don’t know what’s going on.
“That’s due to the sinfulness of all of us. We don’t have all the answers here. Nobody has all the answers. I won’t say that this is the most difficult time the church has ever faced … but this is a very challenging time.
“It’s time for us to pull together as fellow disciples, to listen to one another … love one another … encourage one another … work together, hold hands, pray, smile and trust in the mercies of God … the Scriptures … [and] the simple truth of the confession and be who we are for this moment, making disciples for life.”
Megan Mertz and Stacey Egger contributed to this story.
Posted Jan. 22, 2020