FWE Integration in a Small Congregation, Part I

Reprinted from Made to Flourish.

In October 2016, Made to Flourish’s Amy Sherman interviewed Mary Lou Erlacher of Cornerstone Church in Marion, Iowa. Cornerstone Church is a 15-year-old congregation in the Evangelical Free Church denomination. Predominantly white, the church includes many seniors, empty-nesters, and a growing number of younger families and couples. Membership is around 55 and about 100 people attend on any particular Sunday.

In 2015, Pastor Matt Proctor and lay leader Mary Lou Erlacher participated in the national “Vocation Infusion Learning Community” (the precursor to the Made to Flourish city Learning Communities). Fourteen church teams from around the nation met in three face-to-face retreats to learn about the biblical foundations underlying faith, work and economics; how to address and overcome barriers in the church culture to infusing an emphasis on FWE into the congregation’s DNA; and how to engage the church more vibrantly as an economic contributor to city flourishing. As members of the “VILC,” Matt and Mary Lou composed a “Vocation Infusion Plan” to implement with leaders back at their congregation.  Cornerstone’s is a story of “the little church that could.” It has quickly and effectively launched a variety of initiatives to equip congregants to understand how faith can shape and energize their work lives.

ALS (Amy Sherman): Mary Lou, what were the biggest “aha” moments for you during the Vocation Infusion Learning Community?

MLE (Mary Lou Erlacher):  The really big one for me was learning about the grand Biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. That presentation just peeled the scales off my eyes! For a long time, and I don’t think the Evangelical Free Church is alone in this, the focus was mainly on Christ’s atonement, which is obviously fundamental but there’s more. The story is not just about getting people fire insurance for when they die. It’s about the whole thing: why we’re here, why we do what we do, how we do what we do, and the whole idea of co-laboring with God. So really that big idea is at the heart of our faith and work ministry here at Cornerstone.

Participation in the VILC gave us an action plan on which to work. We’d come back from the retreats and update our elders on what we were learning and what we were thinking about doing. In this way, the leadership was up to date on everything we were contemplating trying out at the church.

ALS: What were some of the initial steps that you took at Cornerstone after the VILC concluded?

MLE: The first main thing was that Pastor Matt preached an 11-week sermon series in Fall 2015 called “Contributing to God’s Kingdom.” It was a topical series with some sermons based on Old Testament texts like Genesis 1 and Exodus 19 as well as some sermons based on passages in Luke and in the epistles.

ALS: How was that received? What sort of buzz did you hear around those messages?

MLE: It was received really well. Following it we did a little 5-question survey. We had probably about 75 adults on average during those Sundays and I heard from about 20 of them. One question asked people whether they thought their faith was relevant to their work (just over 70% said they strongly agreed with that). The others asked about whether people wanted to know more about what the Bible says on work and whether they feel like their work makes a positive contribution to society. It was encouraging to see that most people did have the sense that their work was making a contribution and that many were still hungry to learn more. Overall, I think people still had some questions following the series. About 60 percent in the survey said they are still figuring out how to apply their faith practically in their work.

ALS: What came next?

MLE: Well, what came next was sort of out of sequence, I think. But we had a modest Church Implementation Grant from the Kern Family Foundation for the 2016 calendar year and so we felt we needed to get moving on some of the ideas that we’d written about in that. Our most complex idea was for a 10-month discipleship and leadership class/program that was modeled, in-part, on the Surge School in Phoenix, which we’d heard about through the VILC. We call this our Blessed to Be a Blessing (BLESS) program and it involves a monthly group study. We’ve used the ReFrame materials from Regent College and a number of additional readings that we selected and put together into a syllabus.

ALS: What did you mean when you said the BLESS program was out of sequence?

MLE: I look at the faith and work ministry as having a 101, 201, and 301 level. And so ideally you’d start with 101 level activities and BLESS really is more like 301.

ALS: In addition to going through the ReFrame video curriculum together, what do you do in the BLESS group?

MLE: Everyone in the group—there are 10 of us—had already read Tom Nelson’s book, Work Matters, so we had that as a common starting point. We’ve also read parts of You Can Change by Tim Chester, a couple of white papers like Greg Thompson’s “The Church in Our Time” and the chapter, “Something Worse, Something Better” out of What is the Mission of the Church by DeYoung and Gilbert. We are currently reading a wonderful book by an outstanding woman in the F&W arena, Amy Sherman’s Kingdom CallingWe have great, in-depth discussions on these things. On the Strengthfinder’s test, I’m a “learner.” So being in this group is right in my favorite place. We’re all just learning together and going deeper. Eight of us will be traveling together in a couple weeks (as a part of the grant) to the Faith@Work Summit in Dallas and I think that’s going to energize us further.

There is something about being a part of a national or regional discussion that broadens the vison of a local endeavor.  Down the road, my aspiration is that these BLESS groups will consider how to help provide leadership in our congregation for what we can do, even though we’re a small church, to meet some kind of need in the community. Pastor Matt and I have met with the mayor as well as some business leaders in the surrounding area, trying to learn about community needs and where there might be a gap that we could fill as a church or as individuals or groups as the LORD leads.

(Stay tuned for the rest of the interview!)


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