Ministry Imagination Grants: Imagine. Innovate. Initiate.
By Dennis Sanders
It’s not uncommon these days for a congregation to spend time discerning how to do mission and ministry in the 21st century. What worked in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s often no longer works now. What does it mean to be a congregation at this point in time? How are we witnesses to the gospel right now?
Mount Olivet Lutheran Church of Plymouth, like many congregations in 2020, is committed to respond to a radically changing age. After a season of discernment, congregants decided that its calling was not simply to keep the lights on, but to be open to what God has in store for them.
This west suburban congregation was already in many ways engaged in serving others. Members have fought for affordable housing through Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, tutored students in Brooklyn Center, and supported a shelter for women dealing with domestic violence. But Mount Olivet’s leaders want to be more intentional in how it connected with the community around it. “We’re kind of a unique suburban church,” said Beth Horsch, the senior pastor. “We have some awareness of our community and we wonder how are we called to respond?”
THE CONGREGATION SPENT more than a year of deep listening to the community and to the still, small voice of God. Members discerned a calling to be attuned to the community around the church. That’s when they came up with the theme “be open.”
Realizing that God called the community to be open, they noticed that the church sat at a pedestrian entrance to French Regional Park. Church members could see people walking past the congregation and into the park. “One of the questions that we’ve been asking, as we noticed people and bikes and families taking advantage of that access, is how could we open our grounds up more to the community to provide a place for sacred space,” said Pastor Beth.
The entrance to the park was an opportunity to connect to the community through “open grounds.” The congregation had ample space that abutted the park. Members wondered: Was there some way for the church and the park to be linked? “We had the land available and we really wanted to develop a labyrinth that was close to our community gardens,” Pastor Beth said. Church leaders believed it would be a good idea to place a public prayer box where people would be invited to write a prayer request and place it in the box.
“It offers a way for members and the general public to utilize a beautiful, open, and peaceful chunk of land to pray, contemplate life, and examine one’s spirituality by participating in an ancient tradition,” adds Mark Schmidt, Mount Olivet’s council president.
“If you got a park as a neighbor, how can we not just be a fence line but actually shared space with the public?”
The congregation entered into a conversation with the Three Rivers Park District and other organizations to create a “healing walk” for the community. “If you got a park as a neighbor, how can we not just be a fence line but actually shared space with the public?” Pastor Beth said. “How do we deepen that relationship and look at something that we can share?”
The walk would include places for prayer and reflection. “We really wanted to develop a labyrinth that was close to our community gardens,” Pastor Beth said, using part of the church land to as a starting point for the healing walk.
Mount Olivet was able to identify funding to create the labyrinth. The Minneapolis Area Synod’s Ministry Imagination Grant paid for signage along the labyrinth and healing walk, waterproof benches, as well as a training on hospitality and prayer for congregation members. “Part of what I wrote in the grant [was a chance] to reimagine what prayer could be within the community, but also outside the community,” Pastor Beth said. The hope is to take the partnership to another level of cooperation through classes and groups coming to use the labyrinth and the rest of the healing walk. In that way, their vision of openness would continue to extend from its simple beginnings.
NEAR THE LABYRINTH IS a community garden which will connect to the next phase of their vision: “open tables.” In December 2019, Mount Olivet became a dining site for Loaves and Fishes, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that provides fresh food through its dining sites. The garden will provide fresh food that will end up on the plates during the weekly meal on Mondays.
“In a similar manner to the pedestrians that experience Mount Olivet by walking by, using the parking lots, or by visiting the labyrinth, we are going to meet members of the community that are new to Mount Olivet via the regular Loaves and Fishes meal,” Schmidt says. “How cool would it be to develop a tradition of a shared community meal plus a 15-minute time of meditation and contemplation every Monday evening?”
The Ministry Imagination Grant gives the congregation a chance to test things out. “The gift of the imagination grant allowed us to experiment,” Pastor Beth said.
“But the discernment is not complete. Further discussion could include consideration of affordable housing built on church property.”
The training allowed the prayer team and other congregational groups to re-envision their mission. The team will connect with the passersby by praying for those who leave requests in the prayer box. Pastor Beth says this gives the more introverted members a chance for leadership. There is also a sense of awe in taking part in this endeavor of prayer. “This is really a sacred privilege that we have,” she says. “You can’t really know the impact. But we can trust in how the spirit is working in that and connecting the community.”
The community meal continues to bring people from the surrounding communities and is steadily growing in the number of guests. Pastor Beth has hope that the healing walk could give people experiencing homelessness and other difficulties a space to just be.
But the discernment is not complete. Further discussion could include consideration of affordable housing built on church property. The land and the building are not just maintenance challenges, but are gifts to be used consistent with God’s purposes. “We really want to be more of an engaged community partner, and not assuming that we know people’s stories or what their needs are,” Pastor Beth said. “It’s just inviting people into conversations on what that is. That has been the game-changer for us; a deep sense of listening.”
When winter finally recedes and Minnesotans come out to take advantage of the outdoors, many people will walk past Mount Olivet and head towards French Regional Park.’ They will see the signs; maybe take a walk along the labyrinth or write a prayer request, placing in the box. Inside the church, the prayer team prays for people they haven’t met. It’s all about making the church space an open space for the community. “When we called it open grounds, we were intentionally aware that this is public space,” said Pastor Beth.
But she does see the irony in talking about open grounds when the road in front of the church is not so open. “It’s so odd to me that the location we want to be more open is technically almost on a dead end.”
But this dead end is opening up the congregation to new adventures.