No One Will Pick Up the Phone

Modern office cubicles divided with folding screensIf you were to pick up the phone and call the ELCA churchwide offices in Chicago, and said that you had questions about children’s ministry, or Sunday School, or something similar, there would be no one to take your call.  It’s true.  Say it’s a question about a resource…or perhaps about background checks for volunteer teachers, or maybe continuing education opportunities; there’s no one there who could help you.  Or, go to the ELCA web site.  There are no pages there that reference children’s ministry.

Don’t get me wrong, you’d probably get transferred to someone, and they’d be nice and would try to help.  (They’re all really nice people there) But there would be no one there who could answer your questions, or even tell you where to look.

Those positions were eliminated years ago.

Now I don’t want to get into evaluating those moves.  I don’t know why those decisions were made, and the folks who made them have moved on.  It could be that in the world of the church, at that time, the decision made total sense.  It’s not up to me to judge.  But I’ve noticed something interesting:

A few years ago, after a massive restructuring of the ELCA offices, and a reorganization, there were no children, youth or young adult positions left.  (The Youth Gathering remained staffed…but that’s self-funding.)  After some time and reflection, new positions were created in youth ministry and young adult ministry.  And I think the direction these new positions took makes all kinds of sense.  No longer “Directors” with heavy programmatic responsibilities, these new position descriptions include being aware of and knowing the landscape; networking; communicating; convening; linking congregations to resources and leadership development for both youth and adults.

Paul Amlin works in the youth ministry role, and Rozella White in the young adult role.  They are both gifted and phenomenal leaders.  We’re blessed to have them in these important roles.

But nothing has been done with regard to children’s ministry.  There is no one in our denominational offices that relates to those who do ministry with anyone from birth to grade 6.

To be clear, I don’t think that having this position in Chicago would solve our problems.  It would not.  Our problems with shrinking participation in faith formation for children (see my last blog entry) are congregational problems that will require congregational solutions.  But what kind of statement does it make when our denomination doesn’t spend any resources on the first third, of the first third of life?  I think that’s troubling.

Ministry is a continuum.  We all know that…it’s been one of the operating principles of the Network since its formation (and the church in general for a lot longer than that.)  So to expect that we can begin resourcing for ministry with young people when they hit age 12 or 13 without any attention prior to that isn’t realistic or healthy.

I also think it sends an unhealthy message to congregations.  We know the developmental importance of engaging children and their parents in faith formation at an early, early age.  There is so much ‘bang for the buck.’

I believe this needs to change.  I believe churchwide resources should be spent in this vital area (Not at the expense of the other two, but in addition to them).  A position structured similarly to the youth and young adult positions will allow for someone at the denominational level to ask the questions…to do the research…to network…to share resources…to invite practitioners to the table to think about solutions…to train…to think big picture with their colleagues…and… to answer the phone.

It would be both a gift, and a statement, to the church.

Networked in Christ,

  1. Todd, I wrote a long response after your first post about this subject, almost word for word what you wrote above. But then I took a deep breath and did not share it. The void at church-wide in the areas of Christian Education and Children’s ministry is beyond troubling. I have literally stood at cubicles and in the hallways of our ELCA offices with tears this past year, asking the questions you asked above.

    Currently, anything related to Christian Education on the web is found under Category: Faith Practices. Sub-category: Baptismal Covenant. Although just now I attempted to locate these pages, and finally gave up any attempt to navigate the new web site.

    Members of the Lutheran Association of Christian Educators have been in on-going conversation with Brenda Smith, the ELCA liaison to LACE and the staff person for Faith Practices. We have had face-to-face meetings and written letters and even submitted a design and wish list for what might appear on the ELCA Web site related to Christian Education. In the end, we (Christian Educators Board members) decided it was not worth spending all our energy in this arena. Instead, we are re-grouping, renaming and putting all our efforts into being the most relevant network of Christian Educators we can be, along with being a voice for lifelong faith formation in the ELCA.

    The separation of youth and young adult ministry from Children’s Ministry and Christian Education has a long history in the ELCA – they have always been organized and staffed in different departments or Units. Once upon a time, the Education portion of the ELCA “E” team had 12 staff people. It was gradually reduced to two then one, then none.

    You are correct in that the ELCA, from the offices in Chicago, cannot solve the multiple challenges facing congregations in the area of nurturing faith from womb to tomb. But having a desk and an advocate inside the building for the first third, of the first third of life would be one step towards that end. Much like in congregations who staff for youth ministry – if we do not give our full attention and resources to those ages 0-12, then youth ministry can too easily become remedial youth ministry. More importantly, we need to look at the greater picture of what is the ELCA approach to Discipleship and how does it include Christian Education and faith formation beginning with our children and those who parent them and teach them.

    Thank you Todd, for adding your voice and that of the Youth Ministry Network as advocates for those ages 0-12 and the adults who care about them.


    1. Well stated, Linda. I have appreciated your passionate advocacy since beginning my ministry at churchwide last March. I have appreciated your sharing with me and the work that LACE is up to. Let us pray that your voice, the Network’s, and all of the many practitioners who raise their voices will be heard.


  2. I wanted to add a P.S. – Rev. Brenda Smith has been a faithful advocate and liaison for Christian Education, doing what she is able within the current structure and staffing.


  3. My wonderful colleagues, I can’t begin to thank you all for lifting this up. We are gradually becoming so sequestered within our four walls that we can no longer think outwardly except in the abstract. I’ve always said this building has collective amnesia when it comes to the work of the Gathering; yet they are more than eager to allocate the offerings that the young people bring. I want a church that pays attention to the now and the not yet. We seem to be caught up in formulaic approaches, sadly.


  4. Thanks to Todd and Linda for lifting up this issue. As Linda said, many of us involved in the Lutheran Association of Christians Educators have been talking about this issue for several years. We are passionate advocates for lifelong faith formation, seeing parents as crucial in the process of faith formation for children and youth. Equipping parents is very important. But before that can happen, leaders in congregations have to be equipped so that they can encourage parents in their role of faith formation. The ELCA has lots of people resources who are knowledgeable about faith formation across the life span but providing answers to questions and directing people to the best resource does not happen without intentionality and structure. The Lutheran Association of Christian Educators is very concerned about these issues.


  5. I want everyone to know that Bill Kees and I advocated vigorously for reinstating Christian education as part of the Churchwide Organization for many of the reasons y’all have noted. At the time we were told that the plan was for Augsburg Fortress to assume the responsibilities previously held by Churwide staff. I suppose no one could have anticipated at that time the challenges AF has faced along with all denominational publishing houses. I am extremely grateful that this conversation is being reignited in youth ministry circles, in addition to LACE. It is a plea that has been voiced for many years and, as Todd said, those who made the decision are gone. Maybe this is the “something new” we have been waiting for.


  6. I’m praying for the “something new” to be a regeneration of Christian Education for all steps of life, but especially the early years. I think LACE is doing everything it can to ignite the fire and keep it stoked! I’m hoping that churchwide will hear our cry! Thanks Todd and Linda for your well voiced comments.


  7. in my opinion, the idea (way back when) that Augsburg Fortress would take on the responsibility for Christian Education for the ELCA, was based on the belief that Christian Education is primarily about Sunday School and resources for Sunday School. I believe this is the heart of the issue then – and still today. Christian Education is about the whole of Faith Formation. Sunday School is one means, and one means only – and one that fewer and fewer people are finding effective in today’s world. We have some continuing education to do, inside the churchwide offices and outside, to inform people that ministry with those 0-12 is more than Sunday School.

    Augsburg Fortress/Spark House has indeed continued to provide quality resources, tools and curriculum to reach a variety of ages and households – in innovative, tech savvy ways.


      1. I agree with the description of faith formation in the church today shared by others above – importance of early faith formation, absence of Christian Education classes at seminary, faith formation not reducible to resources, etc. And I would be (one of) the last to discourage the possibility of someone tending the relationships and networks within the churchwide structure, and representing those new networks to the churchwide structure. I know what good it could do. Still, perhaps because over the last 15 years I have with great frustration and grief re-channeled my focus that I am sensitive to how much energy such a goal takes and think such energy is better invested to creating such networks ourselves – as is this!. Perhaps it is a new day and such position is possible. Perhaps I am too weary of the fight and have moved on to others arrangements. I now find is exciting and more satisfying to be engage with new ways of engaging others around faith formation – offered by LACE, Staats, Melhiem, Roberto, Vibrant Faith, etc. Thanks for the conversation.

    1. Well stated arguments for Christian education advocacy at ELCA levels and I agree. I do think not having the staff, however, has been a spark for more grassroots efforts at grasping the meaning of faith formation with children which has been a positive but not fully charged effort to date. Faith formation happens in community…in homes, in churches, in service, in events as people of all ages learn, worship and practice faith. The ELCA has provided some tools, such as Book of Faith, but without strong integration and support at local, read synod and congregation, levels these tools of learning and formation are left not fully engaged. Rather than overpowering staff positions at ELCA, let us develop empowering models such as the current DEM positions in synods, which I see as making a difference. Christian education is after all an evangelistic effort and having similar Faith Formation Mission positions in all 65 synods may do wonders in supporting congregational and family faith formation and bring more vitality to efforts to connect with children and young adults.


  8. Todd, Linda, Heidi, Diane and all who’ve posted comments on this critical topic. As a Synod Resource Center Director, and member of the Association of Lutheran Resource Center Directors, I can confirm that congregational leaders have tons of questions about children’s education. We receive them in our resource centers across the ELCA. We do the best we can to connect them with tools for Faith Formation.
    As the director of the ELCA’s Select Learning ministry, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of you to create resources that were aimed at connecting children and youth to our Book of Faith Initiative.
    As the director of our six-synod, 9-year effort to raise up young leaders for this church, I’ve had the honor of working side by side with Paul Hill and David Anderson, whose constant drumbeat has been the critical role of resourcing homes to be places of faith formation.
    The list could go on. Each of us have put our lives into this effort.
    The point is that all of our different networks need a central hub around which to gather, share and be equipped to make this dream a reality. Where it should be, and who it should be we can debate. That it is needed is beyond debate.
    Thanks for pushing this conversation along, Todd. I look forward to seeing many of you at the E.


  9. Paul Lutz (former Director for Adult Education, DCM, ELCA) December 11, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    I don’t think expressing frustration at what churchwide can or cannot do gets us to where we want to be. The reality is that churchwide does not do, resources, influence, or control what it use to. I will leave it to others whether that is a positive or a negative. My point is that it is time to get over it and embrace the new networking, self-generating and contextual ministry opportunities we all are able to engage in. Support for family ministry, children’s’ ministry, and my favorite, adult faith formation, exist in many and various places. Let’s share what we know and stop looking to others (the old model) to legitimize our ministry.


    1. Hi Paul, Please let me be clear that I am not advocating for a return to old models. Far from it. I am looking for the continued evolution of the new models that are emerging. The churchwide structure is not in a position to provide resources. But as the new networking-oriented model of sharing resources and providing support are gaining traction, the benefit of having someone tending the relationships and networks within the churchwide structure, and representing those new networks to the churchwide structure, is (in my opinion) imperative.

      And you’re right. Frustration isn’t helpful. I’m not frustrated, I’m excited about the possibilities.

      I don’t think we’re looking to anyone else to legitimize our ministry. That ship sailed a long, long time ago, and frankly I think the eco-system has matured to the point that it’s not necessary any more.

      But someone who can see all the strands woven together into what is faith formation (and ultimately what is church)…that would be a help.


      1. Full agreement with Todd! (Okay, I admit that I have at times been a bit frustrated), but that does not over shadow the excitement at all things being made new! I am energized by the new voices and opportunities before us!

    2. Paul-with a previous writer, I’m not advocating a return to old models of dependency on “mother church.” At the same time, there are smaller congregations which have neither the resources, acumen, or other wherewithal to sort through the myriad possibilities out there. If we are truly concerned about the future of the church, then as that church we need to show more concern for the formation of faith in the very young, including some form of resource desk/person in Chicago who serves as a clearinghouse/information and referral service for what’s out there. And, thank you for your good work in the Churchwide organization.


  10. Thank you Todd for lifting this up! I agree with you and Linda, and all the other people, who commented that a desk at churchwide would NOT solve the problem but it would show concern and solidarity with those of us everyday who try and shout faith formation from prenatal on from our congregations. We get concerned when we don’t have youth at church and events, and we should, but we should be walking beside families from the moment they are married, pregnant, adopting, etc. We have to stop siloing youth ministry into its own thing and integrate all ages into all aspects of ministry. Yes, it will be messy, yes sometimes noisy, yes sometimes not for you! We need someone who can hold the big picture at the ELCA wide level for us, network and communicate what is working and what is not in congregations. We need community around this issue-local, synodical and churchwide. Thank you for your post! Blessings, Brigette Weier


  11. Thanks to all of you for your insights and boldness in speaking up. What a lovely surprise in these days of Advent to once again ponder about faith formation and what has been at the core of who I am and where my passions sent me. Well said everyone.


  12. Amen, amen.


  13. Augsburg Fortress (which is my employer of 11+ years and in the best financial shape it has been in for a long, LONG time, for which I am very thankful) can never be the solution to this “what can we do at a churchwide/institutional level to nurture faith formation?” challenge. Curriculum can never fully equip congregations to solve the deep and troubling problem of a child and family exodus from church that occurs long before the teen years.

    First, some numbers. Annual baptisms of 72,000 in 2003 have fallen to about 53,000 in 2010, the most recent year for which I could find data from the ELCA’s Office of Research and Evaluative Services. So the overall number of baptisms is decreasing (this echoes the Sunday School data Todd presented in a previous post), which is troubling, but I think the first years after baptism point to an even more problematic situation.

    I believe we are a church that publicly proclaims that baptizing infants is core to our identity, then provides nothing at a churchwide level to support congregations in their ministry to young children and their families. Why the omission of a segment of hundreds of thousands of members when we have churchwide conversations about mission, ministry, and growth?

    Here are some more numbers to support the occurrence of this omission. These numbers, like the one Todd mentions in his post, are mostly zeros. In a 2009 study on church attendance and demographic trends, no data were collected on ELCA members under the age of 15. Are children in our congregations counted? The last time I reviewed faculty lists, ELCA seminaries have 0 or 1 professors specializing in Christian education (Trinity has 2). Are children in our congregation worth learning about? The initial marketing materials for the “Always Being Made New” campaign included zero photographs of infants and children. Are children in our congregations seen?

    Am I crabby about this? Well, yes. We all have things to be crabby about, no? But I consider all the trends and numbers (and the possible obsolescence of my own job) and think to myself if we want to grow and change and become a vibrant presence in a hurting world, why not start at the start?

    So my son keeps asking me why this is so long. I have thoughts on this. Lots of thoughts. Thanks to Todd for writing about this and for all of you who have contributed to this dialogue. I know most of you who have posted and I so value your amazing, Spirit-filled work to bring the good news to the world in many ways.

    Hope to see you all at the E!

    Dawn R.


    1. Thanks for weighing in, Dawn. Yours is a critical and respected voice in this discussion. When Bill Kees and I were advocating for keeping a position at Churchwide, one of our main arguments was exactly what you affirmed: “AF can never be the solution…”


  14. Is it possible that the answer lies in the past? The former American Lutheran Church held training events, I think every other summer, at which district folks were equipped to train and provide resources for congregations. I used to say, one of the things our church does well is *events.* Wishing we could still capitalize on that strength.


  15. Todd-well written, good wisdom. We continue to put our resources into beating dead horses (redevelopment of dying churches) on one hand, and on the other, in some circumstances, funding outreach “mission” projects which will never be sustainable. To not fund the formation of souls in the youngest members of the Body will say to the rest of the world, “We really don’t believe we have a future.” And our actions will ensure that lack of a future. Its time for a change.


  16. Our Lutheran understanding of faith is a true gift that needs to be shared with children and families. Many years ago the Search Institute identified the most influential factors on a young adults faith formation. Family life, Mom and Dad, and camp experiences had the highest ranking, but with no ELCA guidance our congregations are left to figure it out for themselves. The influence of media, culture and big business post far louder ideas than our church does.

    Does this need to change? Yes, but how, when and where.LACE has bee struggling to be a voice, presence and resource, but it stands in the shadows to what Group, Presbyterians, and Fundamentalist Family Ministries are shouting out a very different message.

    In the season of Christmas it is enlightening to hear a dialogue on how do we as Lutherans teach, serve and evangelisize the youngest members of our faith family without resources or guideposts. After 28 years of serving congregations I know Chris Ed works when I see parents teaching VBS and bringing their children to church who I taught many years ago in SCS and confirmation. How do we grow the faith of parents who are unchurched or never confirmed so they can share God’s love with their children?


  17. Debbie Streicher December 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

    This is a wonderful conversation centered around an important issue facing congregations today. I believe an important component for uplifting ministry to children lies in the leadership of our congregations. Helping them become more informed about the value of including children, youth, and adults together in our settings is important. My understanding is that Christian education is very rarely a required course in seminaries and in fact, many Christian education teaching positions have been eliminated recently. The larger church reflects this.
    As a church, we need to work together to build a strong network using all the gifts and talents of those we currently have in our system who are so very passionate about lifelong faith formation.

    Being actively involved in LACE, The Lutheran Association of Christian Educators, I am reminded daily of how very important it is to support and provide guidance for the many , many volunteers and staff who need help with learning about what they do, finding resources for their congregations, and simply seeking someone who will listen.
    And I am reminded of how very many passionate Christian educators continue to dream and envision a place where they can use their ministry. There are few who have not felt the pain and frustrations that occur in everyday ministries. I am in touch daily with more than a few who all are willing to commit time and energy to not giving up.

    Let’s work together on this and open our hearts and minds as to how we can become trusted resources that larger organizations like the ELCA and seminaries can point to for congregational assistance. Technology today is a superb tool to make this happen. In my opinion, we are at a point in the history of the church where we need one another more than ever. Lifelong faith formation includes all the ages. Adults are the key faith role models for children. What we envision for children cannot be done without adults being on-board.

    I hope the work Paul Amlin and Rozella White encounter with young adults and youth workers reveals the importance of recognizing the impact adults have on the lives of children and the future of the church.


    1. Debbie –
      I think your second paragraph is important to highlight for those in children and family ministries who are often unheard but continue to tend the baptism journey from birth through the elementary years and are starved for the greater church to recognize the range of gifts needed to do so and support that with energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and opportunities not provided by our current structure. Kudos to Lutheran Association of Christian Educators!


  18. I agree with the description of faith formation in the church today shared by others above – importance of early faith formation, absence of Christian Education classes at seminary, faith formation not reducible to resources, etc. And I would be (one of) the last to discourage the possibility of someone tending the relationships and networks within the churchwide structure, and representing those new networks to the churchwide structure. I know what good it could do. Still, perhaps because over the last 15 years I have with great frustration and grief re-channeled my focus that I am sensitive to how much energy such a goal takes and think such energy is better invested to creating such networks ourselves – as is this!. Perhaps it is a new day and such position is possible. Perhaps I am too weary of the fight and have moved on to others arrangements. I now find is exciting and more satisfying to be engage with new ways of engaging others around faith formation – offered by LACE, Staats, Melhiem, Roberto, Vibrant Faith, etc. Thanks for the conversation.


    1. Paul-again, thank you for your faithful service. John


  19. HI All,
    Didn’t read all of your comments, but got the gist of the conversation and wanted to remind everyone that the Lutheran Church in America (one of our predecessor church bodies) created the stop-motion animation series Davey and Goliath in 1960 with visions of reaching children where they were and teaching that God loves all. I used to manage this property when I was employed at the ELCA in the Communication unit which is no more. The ELCA still owns the rights to this property if they have not let it slip into public domain and I had all 65 episodes digitally remastered and color corrected. It is not a end all solution, but at least one resource that can be shared and developed further. What ever you think of Davey and Goliath, the messages of the stories are clear, God loves you. Children still enjoy them. Some are available on DVD which I also managed contracts for. Maybe the ELCA would be interested in contracting me to manage the property. It is still one viable resource. and the site is still up though not sure anyone is managing it today.


  20. I grew up a PK in the ELCA, and now work in an ELCA congregation as Director of Children and Family Ministries, and I must say that it frustrates and saddens me to no end that not only are there not well-known networks for ministry to children, but that there is ALSO no one at churchwide shepherding the people in CE positions and this ministry as a whole. Yes, networks are fantastic and serve a purpose, but so much more good can come from having a person or persons to serve as facilitator and resource. I sort of ‘fell’ into CE after leaving teaching and attending seminary. I LOVE my work. The foundation of faith we help lay in the lives of littles is of utmost importance. I’m happy that churchwide has put people in positions to help in youth and young adult arenas – but this is simply not enough. Strong youth and young adult programs start even before children are born. I’m sorry, Todd, but I DO think there needs to be a body in a position at churchwide, along with, of course, a great network like YMNet. What happens when a denomination doesn’t endorse or help promote its own resources is that all too often you get well-meaning, but uneducated or undereducated people in CE positions that use whatever curriculum or program is new and trendy. This is not usually ever good. Someone needs to help CE folk in discerning what curriculum/programming/resources are good and useful and theologically sound. Where does this help come from but from churchwide, or at least at the synodical level? Something simply must be done about this.


    1. Ummmm…I think you misunderstood me. I was advocating in favor of a person in that position in the ELCA.


      1. Ummm… “To be clear, I don’t think that having this position in Chicago would solve our prolems. It would not.” Is that not what you said? I read your previous post about declining attendance. Yes, this is a congregational problem, but one that would be greatly assisted with synodical and church-wide resourcing, support, and education. In my context we do not have such a decline. Attendance in both programs (Sunday programs and VBS) is rising. Besides, comparing those two programs isn’t really appropriate – they’re two entirely different animals.

      2. Mea culpa. I just re-read your last paragraph. It seemed though you were advocating most strongly for simply more networking. I don’t see that solving the problem. Networking needs a catalyst and that catalyst should be someone ‘answering the phone.’

      3. Got it. I can see where that would seem confusing. I should have been more clear.

        I do think that someone in that position is essential. I don’t think that we can expect that someone in that position would be able to solve the issues which are largely congregational. But I do think it would be an important piece of the puzzle (which is now absent.)

        Sorry for the confusion!

  21. Jessica Duckworth’s article, “Education,” in The Lutheran, October 13, 2013 caught my attention the first time I read it – I even turned the corners of the pages down to remind myself to return to it. It seems appropriate to share it now, as a part of this conversation, “Let us recommit to lifelong Christian Education in our homes and in our Lutheran institutions, learning together to figure out how to be disciples in this moment and this time. Sometimes what we learn together is going to feel just like it always has-familiar and comforting. But sometimes what we learn together is going to feel raw and unfamiliar. In those moments of discomfort, the Spirit will be nudging us to expend some energy to imagine our Christian life in new and different ways.”


  22. Let us be bold in following the Spirit’s nudging.


  23. Quality articles is the important to be a focus for the people to go to see the site, that’s what this web site is providing.


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