It's time for our bishops to think outside the box about effective pastoral leadership

by Christine Schenk

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I was recently struck by a highly creative project at Chicago's nondenominational LaSalle Street Church, where the church's pastoral leadership entrusted $500 to each of its 320 members and asked them to use the money for some good cause.

Pastor Laura Truax and church elders decided on a "reverse tithe" after receiving an unexpected windfall of $1.6 million from the sale of a 1970s-era, racially integrated, low-income housing development, Atrium Village, which the church had established in partnership with three other Protestant churches. The partnership had a 15 percent share in the property, a 35-year agreement that a percentage of units would be set aside for disadvantaged populations, and final say in any decision to sell the property. When the 35-year agreement expired, the property had greatly appreciated in value and there was a great deal of pressure to sell it. The church partnership finally agreed, but with the stipulation that a percentage of units in any new construction would be set aside for low-income people.

"It's not really our money," Truax said in a telephone interview. "The way we look at it is that God wants it back in circulation."

When she distributed the checks, Truax preached on the parable of the talents, encouraging everyone to reflect about where he or she could best invest in the socially progressive legacy of LaSalle Street Church. The faith community is well known for its commitment to the poor, whether it be feeding homeless families in the neighborhood or donating an ambulance for a medical clinic in Niger.

Church members were dumbfounded by the unexpected gift but quickly rose to the challenge.

Kristin Hu planned to give her $500 to help "dreamer" children of immigrant families. Jonas Ganz, an avid skateboarder who grew up in Amman, Jordan, donated his share toward a new skate park in his hometown. Other church members put their money toward a no-kill animal shelter, food pantries, an eyeglass ministry, and purchasing winter clothing for disadvantaged college students.

The diversity of needs churchgoers chose to support is impressive. Even more impressive is the creative pastoral leadership that trusts the leading of the Spirit in each believer.

Truax wrote about this on her blog:

How do we know it won't be "squandered"? We don't. But we know this: that every day we wake to gifts we never sought, expected or earned. ... This is the essence of faith I think. Not just that we believe in God but that God believes in us. And trusts us to do great things with his gifts.

The biggest challenge is still to come as the congregation decides what to do with the rest of the money. The unprecedented "reverse-tithing" project, you see, addressed an array of pastoral concerns. This is the most innovative aspect of the whole endeavor.

Truax's No. 1 concern is to forestall tension that could emerge as the community works out how to spend the remaining $1.44 million. She hopes the great diversity of causes supported by her flock will shape the community's discussion. She had this to say in the Chicago Tribune:

That's why I felt this tithe was so important and giving it to people and letting them do whatever they wanted with it and letting them hear all these amazing ways other people are being led. It might open space in each one of us to recognize there are many wonderful ideas, not one of them is any better than the other idea ...We'll be able to be generous both in our spirit and the way we talk about these things with each other.

Now that's what I call wise pastoral leadership. This pastoral team is more concerned about sustaining the harmony and unity of their church family than in the final decision about what to do with a bunch of money.

"At the end of the day, there are 100 great things the money could be spent on," Truax told me. "It's not about the place we end up, but more about how we get there."

LaSalle Street Church is in the middle of a nine-month discernment effort to see how to use their windfall on behalf of the church's mission. An 11-member leadership council, including Truax, is spearheading the discernment. One hundred fifty church members have already joined 15 small groups that meet in people's homes to ponder and pray. Prayer captains present monthly summaries of each group's leanings and learnings to the leadership council. A team of 30 is interviewing the remaining 170 church members, including the youth community. You can find more details about the innovative process at the project's loveletgo blog.

You will also find interesting posts about Ignatian discernment and Stephen Colbert!

This is not so surprising since Truax went to Loyola of Chicago for her Master's of Divinity. Though never a Catholic herself, Truax tells me: "The foundation of my spirituality is Ignatian. I made the 19th annotation retreat many years ago, and Ignatian discernment is molded into a lot of what we do here."

When learning about how LaSalle Street Church operates, I noticed how much this congregation resembles our earliest Christian communities, where small groups of believers gathered in private homes to pray, discern and experience the leading of the Spirit. Members of each small house church then gathered for weekly worship in a larger assembly of 300 to 400 people, usually in the inner courtyard of a home or warehouse owned by a wealthy Christian patron, some of whom were women. Their "pastor" was either a leader of a house church such as Nympha or Stephanus or a missionary/prophet such as Paul or Prisca. Their "leadership council" was a "council of elders" (presbyteroi) composed of tested local leaders both male and female.

It is lamentable that many of our Catholic bishops are now closing viable Catholic parishes with important ministries in poorer neighborhoods because they have "only 300 members."  

Look at what "only 300 members" are doing at LaSalle Street Church!

Is it time for our Catholic bishops and some of our clergy to think more broadly about how effective pastoral leadership functions? True pastoral leadership notices, encourages and trusts the work of the Spirit in the heart of each believer for the building up of God's reign in our world.

And then it gets out of the way.

What a great force for good a Spirit-powered Christian community can be in our wounded world!

Thanks, LaSalle Street Church.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

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