FWE Integration in a Small Congregation: Part II

Reprinted from Made to Flourish. For the first part of Amy Sherman’s interview with Mary Lou Erlacher, click here.

ALS: Has there been any push back by any congregants regarding the foundational ideas in the FWE movement?

MLE: Not really push-back, no. We have a really strong elder team, consisting of men who think well and carefully. One elder, who is an engineer, has been wrestling some with the notion of the restoration of all things. He’s thought that the Bible teaches that everything is going to burn up in the end. So when his wife decided to join the BLESS group, he did, too, in order to hear more of these concepts that are new to him.

ALS: You sent me an email listing some of the other activities of the Faith & Work Ministry at Cornerstone. Let’s talk about some of those.

MLE: Sure. I’d hoped that maybe around spring and summer 2016 we could get some book groups off the ground—I see those as a 101 type activities. But we had four different families in the church who were planning weddings, and with graduations and the fact that we don’t do small groups in the summer, there just wasn’t a big sign up. We have been doing monthly vocational interviews with individuals from the congregation during Sunday morning worship. We call this TTT—“This Time Tomorrow”—following Mark Green’s language. [Eds. Note: Mark Green heads the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

ALS: Have you tried to have a variety of people from the flock giving those testimonies? Like not just full time workers but also stay-at-home parents or retirees whose work now is in their volunteering?

MLE: Absolutely, we’ve done all that. One Sunday we brought up a retired couple who have gone back to work part-time. He’s a school bus driver and she is the bus attendant. It was great hearing how they saw that as a ministry. Around Mother’s Day we interviewed a stay-at-home mom and also a mom who works outside of the home as well as inside. Recently we heard from a young couple in the church: she works in a medical office and he’s in IT.

ALS: And you mentioned something in your email to me something that I just loved: that you also had a teenager from the church do one of these vocational interviews.

MLE: Yes. That all came about because Pastor Matt’s 6-year-old son said to me one day, “How come we never hear from any kids during TTT?” And I realized he was on to something! So we invited a teenager named Anna and she talked about an internship she’d done with the Civil Rights Commission.  She said that the experience gave her a “better understanding of the issues some people face who do not have all the advantages others have.” In September we had two elementary school students come up and talk about their work at school and at home. We talked about the Tom Nelson’s idea of “the audience of One” and doing their work for God.

ALS: That is so great.

MLE: Yes, it was special. I’d asked for one of the children to consider doing it and called her mother to discuss it, mom said her daughter knew right away what she was talking about when she said “TTT.”  It’s something that’s becoming part of the rhythm in the church’s life and people have been really positive about it.

ALS: Do you feel like you have encountered any special challenges in “vocation infusion” as a smaller church?

MLE: Well, when we didn’t have a lot of people sign up for the summer book groups. I had to realize that if you have four families busy with weddings, in a small church that’s actually a fairly large percentage of your people! And, other non-family church members were helping them with wedding preparation. Our church meets in a warehouse that we are remodeling (Warehouse of Worship!) and so some effort needed to be put into decorating it to be pretty for the couples getting married.

And of course finances may be a challenge in a small church. We were fortunate to have the Kern Foundation grant, Cornerstone also put up some of its own matching funds, but that grant definitely helped us to get things launched.

But I’d say that smaller churches also have an advantage. Because we’re small, people know each other. There was a lot of trust that the leadership had in Matt and me, so when we would come back from the VILC retreats excited about the possibilities there was openness. It wasn’t a blind trust, however. They wanted to hear the theology behind this and be confident that a new faith and work ministry wouldn’t be just some “flavor of the month.” They trusted and respected us and when they heard how this is woven into the big narrative of the Bible they were eager to see the church move forward.

ALS: What are your plans for the Faith and Work Ministry going forward?

MLE: I am going to continue on in my position as coordinator, but in a volunteer capacity, next year. I don’t think we will run the BLESS program again until fall 2017-2018. Next year we’re going to follow more of a 101, 201 sequencing. In December-January, instead of our regular small groups, we’re going to offer a 101 group that will go through the For the Life of the World series. [Eds. Note: FLOW was the brain child of Dr. Stephen Grabill, one of the early leaders of the VILC initiative.] Then the 201 level group will go through the S.H.A.P.E. curriculum that Erik Rees did when he was at Saddleback Church. This is a short study that helps people identify their gifts and experiences and passions. Once you have a vision that your work matters to God and that we co-labor with Him for flourishing, it’s good to have a strong understanding of just what your natural and spiritual abilities are and how God might want to use the experiences you’ve had and the passions and heart that He has put in you.

I’m also hoping that down the road we might partner with other churches in doing another mini-conference here in Iowa. We did one back in 2014 with Tom Nelson (under a Kern Family Foundation Knowledge Building grant) and that led to a lot of small groups in area churches, including Cornerstone, going through Work Matters. That laid a great foundation for all this work we’ve been doing since the VILC. I had a chance this summer to attend a conference in Breckenridge, CO that the Denver Institute for Faith and Work hosted and there I met other church leaders who are also on this mission. Some of them felt like offering mini-conferences was one of their most effective strategies.

ALS: We are really starting to see a national faith and work movement now in the Church, aren’t we?

MLE:  Yes, and it is so encouraging. I really love being around these like-minded people. Many ministries, such as the Surge School, have been so generous with their advice and their materials. It’s great to be part of this national community where we are learning from one another and encouraging each other.

ALS: If you had to sum up, what would say the impact of Cornerstone’s Faith & Work Ministry has been so far?

MLE: People are understanding the ideas better. We’re starting to have some common language, such as the phrase “the now and not yet” of the Kingdom. I’m seeing changes in people’s lives, for example, among our BLESS members is a woman who runs her own small fiber arts business. And she’s been growing in learning to communicate with others about the “why” of her work, and why and how she treats her employees and customers and uses locally-sourced or fair trade and environmentally friendly materials.

Another woman from the church works at Home Depot. She’s generally on the returns desk and it can be hard. Sometimes she knows that people are bringing things into the store for a refund, but they stole them in the first place! She said that used to really make her mad. Now she says she is trying to see these people more through the eyes of Christ, wondering what circumstances have made them so desperate as to feel they need to do this. She says she can often spot them right when they come in the store because they don’t look like they’re comfortable with what they are about to do. She says she right away says a prayer for them. And even though she usually can’t give them money back because they don’t have a receipt or don’t meet the criteria, no one has become angry with her.

I don’t think I can say that the faith and work ministry has really “rocked anyone’s world” yet. Except, maybe, mine! But we are seeing changes. There’s good interest. This has become an embedded ministry of Cornerstone Church. And we’re planting a lot of seeds!

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