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A friend of mine challenged me today by asking, “What are the elements of sustainable ministry?” Dennis then pointed to the Ojibwa tribe of Native Americans who considered the impact of their decision-making on the next seven generations.  Talk about sustainable community, they had it.

Our church was founded in 1857, and celebrated 150 years in 2007.  If you consider 25-years* a generation, then we are in our seventh generation.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, “What future are we bequeathing to the next 7 generations?”

In thinking about sustainable ministry, three characteristics came to my mind:

1. Everyone has a seat at the table. By that I mean that all voices are heard, all persons are valued and respected, and the congregation acts in love. This makes the process long, messy, and slow but the consequences of not hearing everyone are greater in my opinion.  The popular notion of the charismatic, “follow me, boys” leader who takes charge, rallies the troops, and leads the way single-handedly is a myth that continues despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Leadership hears the voices of supporters and opponents, considers all viewpoints, learns from detractors, and builds trust and confidence in others.

2. The future emerges from the past. I like Mark Lau Branson’s book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, which is the case study of Branson’s church (Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary). Branson led them to use appreciative inquiry as a technique to recover the best of their past, and find a way forward in the future. The idea of the future emerging from the past is a very biblical concept, the most outstanding example being the transition Jesus uses in his, “You have heard…but I say unto you” statements.

3. Jesus is the head of the body, and the Spirit is its breath. I know that sounds very theological, but the practical side of recognizing this is not our church is that we can ask some tough questions. David Augsburger’s book, Dissident Discipleship, moves the conversation from “What would Jesus do?” to “What is Jesus doing among us now?” which is a whole different question. Discerning the presence and leadership of God in a congregation is critical.  Recognizing that we are the people of God, saved by the grace of God, and led by the Spirit of God creates a long-term view that is sustainable from one generation to the next.

When churches think about sustaining ministry for seven generations, the question is no longer, “What do I like?” but rather, “What is God leading us to do that will resonate for the next 175-years in this community?”

What do you think?  Have you considered the next 175 years of your church’s ministry?  What questions would you ask to discern God’s guidance into the future.  After all, we’re indebted to the wisdom of those who went before us, and the grace of God among us which has sustained ministry this long.

* Cultural generations are now considered 10-15 years in length, but Native Americans had their own families and their off-spring in mind when they considered the next 7-generations.