As you CLC folks probably know, a couple weeks ago I defended my doctoral dissertation at Seattle University and will graduate with my Doctor of Ministry degree on Sunday, June 16. You all have been incredibly gracious to offer me more continuing education resources to complete this degree. In fact, you are mentioned on one of the first pages of my dissertation: 

I could never have completed this project and program without the generous gifts of continuing education time and monies from the members and friends of Christ Lutheran Church in Ferndale, Washington. They initially sent me on this journey, and I can only hope that what I have received can be returned to them in gratitude for their support. 

I also dedicated my project to you and my family: 

DEDICATION 

To Christ Lutheran Church, for the support of your pastor 

To my parents, Rod and Sharie, for modeling and instilling in me, alongside the Holy Spirit, the desire and ability to lead 

To Michael, whose partnership is my life’s greatest gift 

And, especially, to Tae—my deepest hope for the future 

will be forever grateful for your partnership in this project! I will plan to make a verbal presentation of my findings later this year at church, but at this point I wanted you to know more about what I’ve been working on these past few years. Though it might sound a little cumbersome, here’s the title of my dissertation: “Discerning Our Posture and Imagination: A Delphi Study of Leaders in the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” 

So what does that mean, and why did I do this study? 

remember being at a point in ministry a few years ago when I didn’t know what to do next: our congregation was growing, yet worship attendance was waning; we were embarking on a building project in the growing community of Ferndale, while at the same time what had worked in the past in terms of program and practice didn’t seem sustainable; and at that point I had been out of seminary for 16 years—what I had learned in seminary wasn’t helping me meet new challenges in ministry. 

Fortunately, I didn’t feel alone. Numerous colleagues in our synod, as well as authors like Tod Bolsinger, Elizabeth Drescher, Patricia O’Connell Killen, and Phyllis Tickleechoed this uncertainty in a society in which the fastest growing “faith” is “none,” and in a North American church which is undergoing yet another radical reformation. 

As well, over the past three decades, numerous military reports and subsequent leadership management writings have posited that the world is increasing in “volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity,” or VUCA for shortThis means that the challenges we face in the church are no longer only “technical challenges for which we already have the knowledge, skills, and resources. What we are facing are adaptive challenges in which new learnings, unpredictable change, and new competencies are required. 

Though other excellent research and initiatives have focused on congregational vitality, what I believe is crucial in the face of VUCA and a changing church is how clergy and lay leaders are “postured” for ministry, and what kind of imagination we must possess, in order to participate with God in leading a future church which will undoubtedly be very different than the past. 

This led me to “the pastoral question” I tried to answer in my doctoral research: 

“What are the leadership postures and imagination of both clergy and lay leaders that create the capacity to participate with God in facing unknown adaptive challenges in a complex future and across diverse ministerial contexts of the Northwest Washington Synod of the ELCA? 

I first studied theological perspectives on posture, imagination, transformation, vocation, and the emerging future. In reading biblical stories about humans’ posture toward God and God’s posture toward us, as well as the insights of theologians such as Walter Bruggemann, Gordon Lathrop, Norma Cook Everist, Craig Nessan, Craig Van Gelder, Dwight Zscheile, Martin Luther, and several others, I discovered bridges between biblical and Christian concepts and the leadership approaches needed for church leaders in a VUCA future. 

Then it was time to research the perspectives of clergy and lay leaders “on the ground.” Our synod bishop Kirby Unti gave me names of 18 diverse clergy in our synod whom he believed were among those with the capacity to face adaptive challenges in the church. Those clergy helped recruit lay leaders from their ministry contexts to participate in the research. In the end, 11 clergy and 8 lay leaders participated in a series of online Delphi surveys designed to find consensus on leadership approaches for the future. 

Below are the research questions which were proposed to both clergy and laity, as well as the coded and rated results from the series of surveys: 

  • What is the posture needed for clergy to lead the Lutheran church in Northwest Washington in the next five years? 
    • Clergy responses: 
      • Humility and opennesss
      • Confidence in God’s presence and guidance 
      • Eagerness to take risks in new ways of being church 
      • Invitational leadership 
      • Additional postures: Collaboration, Cross-cultural competency, Trust 
    • Lay leader responses:
      • Hopeful attitude 
      • Adaptability/flexibility 
      • Coaching posture 
      • Social justice conscience 
  • What is the posture needed for lay leaders to lead the Lutheran church in Northwest Washington in the next five years? 
    • Clergy responses:
      • Engagement with faith practices
      • Humility and openness
      • Willingness to adjust
      • Collaborative attitude 
      • Additional posture: Joy and hope that God is at work 
    • Lay leader responses: 
      • Adaptability/flexibility
      • Responsiveness 
      • Hopeful attitude
      • Social justice conscience 
      • Additional posture: Intentional listening posture 
  • What is the imagination needed for clergy to lead the Lutheran church in Northwest Washington in the next five years? 
    • Clergy responses:
      • Capacity for trust 
      • Experimental imagination 
      • Freedom from bounds 
      • Capacity for learning 
      • Additional imagination: Accountability 
    • Lay leader responses:
      • Experimental imagination 
      • Discovery of meaning 
      • Freedom from bounds 
      • Additional imagination: Hopeful imagination 
  • What is the imagination needed for lay leaders to lead the Lutheran church in Northwest Washington in the next five years? 
    • Clergy responses:
      • Attention to others 
      • Biblically-informed imagination 
      • Broad imagination 
      • Capacity for trust 
      • Additional imagination: Hopeful imagination 
    • Lay leader responses: 
      • Engagement with community 
      • Imagination beyond “what is” 
      • A focus on Christ 

I then took my theological learnings, the data supplied by the surveys, and the insights of Otto Scharmer in Theory U and Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston in Simple Habits for Complex Times to make 9 recommendations for leadership approaches for clergy and lay leaders for the future: 

  1. Clergy and lay leaders need a posture of humility, openness, and flexibility toward one another and the future God is already creating 
  2. Clergy and lay leaders must maintain confidence and a hopeful posture for the future 
  3. Clergy and lay leaders must be postured toward scripture and practices of faith 
  4. Clergy must have a coaching posture 
  5. Lay leaders must have a posture of willingness to adjust 
  6. Clergy and lay leaders must foster an experimental imagination beyond “what is” 
  7. Clergy and lay leaders need an imaginative trust in God and one another 
  8. Clergy need to discover what is truly meaningful to foster the imagination needed to lead 
  9. Lay leaders must foster imagination by engagement in their community and attention to others 

In my 130+ page dissertation I unpacked each of these recommendations more, as well as suggested future research, including surveying deacons, addressing multicultural competence, and addressing practices for cultivating postures and imagination. 

I plan to use these findings to have ongoing conversations with the church council and other leaders regarding how we might posture ourselves and foster the imagination needed to lead the church of the future—most importantly, our own congregation. 

The most important reminder I had in participating in this research is that God’s promised future is already being created, and God is the primary actor who enables our posturing and imagination. The Holy Spirit is already at work in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. By participating in God’s own life, we humans are not passive recipients, but rather the Spirit transforms our posture and imagination to work with God in creating new futures which bring resurrection, hope, and promise to the world.