calendar September 15, 2023 in Mission

Urban Ministry Task Force Update, Summer 2023

At the 2022 SEPA Synod Assembly, our synod passed a memorial to study and explore the state of Urban Ministry in our synod. The resolution contained three primary objectives: 1.) assessing the wage disparity for urban pastors, 2.) assess the state of our buildings and 3.) develop a program to develop pastoral leadership in urban settings by reviving and internship program. Over the last year the Urban Ministry Task Force has been working to establish a scope of study and methods of surveying to determine the status of over 32 congregations that make up our urban churches. As part of that work we identified our urban congregations as those in Central and NE/NW Conference as well as those that are identified by the Synod’s Diversity initiative with a significant portion of their membership being people of color.

At the 2023 Assembly the team presented their findings on the first objective of the task force – showing our research into the disparity of wage gap between synod guidelines and what pastors are being paid for their work in urban ministry. You can access that presentation here or below and read the report here (starting on page D-14). Since that time we have been busy exploring the other resolution objectives.

Since the assembly this spring, we focused the Task Force’s work on learning the history of urban ministry in Philadelphia. In order to understand where we could go, we need to hear where we have been. Exploring the work (and lack of work) done by the ELCA and its predecessor body the LCA was helpful in knowing the rich history that is urban ministry in our city.

In July, we held a series of listening panels with pastors who have considerable years of urban ministry experience. From these listening sessions we heard stories of the LCA supported Center City Parish (CCLP) and how that help to support and grew urban congregations by organizing and supporting them with staffing and relationship support. These staff members were responsible for hiring and mentoring new pastors and interns as well as organizing programing such as summer camps, building support and continuing education for parishioners. Pastors described the camaraderie and pride of CCLP, and the losses they suffered as funding for the program declined through the 1990s and eventually ended. As the ELCA was created, funding for urban ministry was drastically altered and funding for projects like CCLP was eliminated. After those funding cuts, we saw 14 churches close in the city in the mid 1990’s. In the last 10 years we have seen another 5 closures in the city, with another scheduled for this fall. As we continue the work of the Task Force, turning this trend of closing around is high on the list of priorities.

As the team turns its attention toward the second pillar of the memorial, addressing the buildings of many of the urban congregations we again take a long view of how we got here by learning the history of how Lutherans have moved in and out of the city over the last century. A big theme that we believe affected the dynamics of many of our urban congregations was the role of white flight. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, white families across the United States moved away from cities to the suburbs. In Philadelphia, they left behind elaborate European-style church buildings. These oversized and often historic buildings are ill-suited to modern needs and now drain congregations of resources that are desperately needed to support ministry.

In light of all of this, you might wonder, What can be done? Our task force is pursuing three avenues of support.

First, we have designated three new urban congregations (Mediator, Trinity Germantown, and St. Michael’s Kensington) as ELCA Strategic Ministries establishing funding from the ELCA and our synod to support the ministries of these congregations. Strategic Ministries are congregations that serve diverse and/or high-poverty neighborhoods and are eligible for Churchwide resources.

Second, we have partnered with the Innovation Team from Churchwide. The ELCA received a donor directed gift to research smaller congregations and ways that we can help them thrive. The ELCA has identified our synod’s Urban Task Force to be the recipients of those funds and that work. Over the next year we hope to be working to design several experiments as we work to identify ways we can create thriving and vibrant urban congregations in our city. We hope that the learnings will be transferable so that many of our smaller congregations can grow from the process we are learning in the city.

Finally, the team is exploring opening new avenues for funding to support the ongoing work of our urban ministries. Knowing the scale of what is needed, we can help bring forward proposals that might help the synod structure more lasting and long-term support for some of our urban congregations who are struggling under the weight of forces beyond their control.

We continue to solicit your prayers for the Task Force’s work as they explore ways God is calling us to be faithful to the ministries in our city.

If you have questions about our process or want to find out ways you can be involved in the work of the task force – please be in touch with our co-chairs: Pastor Derric Jackson (215.915.4279) and Cliff Hayman (302.359.3336).