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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Prayers and People: Exponential

I’m writing this blog from a 737 high above the ground on my flight back home to Chicago from Orlando.

I called it Prayers and People because I’ve been all sorts of places with all sorts of people this past week, and somehow or another, they’ve all had to do with prayer.

About a year ago, I prayed feverishly that God might help me be called to a congregation in the Chicago area. About a year ago, I had a Skype interview with St. Philip in Glenview, and before I could believe it my prayers and God’s answers were leading me, Ben, and Jake to yet another new place.

I prayed feverishly when I started my call in Chicago at St. Philip that I might meet some other pastors and leaders in this city, to help guide me and share with me, and give me a sense of how to answer this honoring and humbling call into ministry.

I knew almost no one here, and yet as I prayed, God sent friends and leaders into my life. Pastor Martha Halls, the previous interim pastor at St. Philip, graciously offered to drive with me to the synod’s Professional Leaders Conference, at Redeemer-Chicago in October.

While I was there, I heard a worship band from the church play, and I listened to a sermon of sorts from their “church planter” and pastor, Matt Stuhlmuller.

I listened to Matt talk, and I thought – here is a pastor who is doing something. Honestly, authentically, excitedly – I could tell he was a person whom God had many plans for in the city of Chicago.

So after the event I sent Matt an email, we met for lunch: talked about all the ways God was calling us, and our excitement for the Church and our churches, and even too our fears and disappointments and how God might lead us even from our Good Fridays to Resurrection Sundays. It was great conversation and inspiring talk.

Matt was kind enough to invite to a gathering in the synod called the Church Planters Network, started by Redeemer-Park Ridge pastor and visionary Fred Nelson.

I came to the meetings, albeit often late, and I found myself in the company of more and more pastors who were doing something – or perhaps better said, who were opening themselves to what God might be doing among them and in their churches.

Many of them were pastors of some of the synod’s largest churches, interested in new mission. A few were church planters, dynamic and excited about new ministry settings. They welcomed me in – even though I wasn’t a large-congregation pastor or a church planter – perhaps because we shared together the idea that God was up to something in the synod, and God wanted them to teach me and share with me as God brought to life the seeds He had sown over many years at St. Philip, before I arrived.

I think it was a bit after the first couple of meetings that Matt mentioned to me: “Hey, you should come with us to Exponential!”

Exponential is a huge discipleship, church planting, and evangelism workshop held annually on the East and West coasts. This year it was in Orlando, and the theme was Seek and Save. You can probably tell by this theme that Exponential is not designed by Lutherans.

So, I wasn’t sure, but I’d been to Catalyst – a similar Evangelical conference – before, and I’d heard some of the speakers. And plus, Matt, Fred, Carol (also a phenomenal pastor, from Redeemer), Mark, a dynamic new pastor at a church in Gurnee, Katie, a stellar female church leader and pastor from Hinsdale, Hector, an associate to the bishop, Jade, yet another great Chicago pastor, and a few others I didn’t know as well from Chicago and across the ELCA were going, too. When I went to Catalyst, it was just me and our assistant pastor from my internship congregation. I was interested to see what it might be like to experience this Evangelical Extravaganza with my fellow Original Evangelicals (that’s another, slightly cooler, name for Lutherans. We did begin the Reformation, after all).

There’s so much to say about Exponential. Far too much for this blog alone and certainly too much for my time on the plane. I’m sure this experience over the past few days will leak itself out throughout my ministry: in new ideas for adult forums and discipleship programs at St. Philip; in new nuances to my preaching; in anecdotes; in deepened friendships and relationships … So I won’t go too far into it now.

Prayer – for a call, for new relationships, for the Spirit to lead me in ministry and lead St. Philip – brought me from a new seminary graduate living in California last year to a newly ordained pastor and Exponential attendee in Orlando this year.

Prayer brought me through Exponential, too. An Evangelical conference can sometimes be an odd place for a female pastor. There are lots of workshops for Pastors’ Wives, lots of women following their pastor spouse with children in tow, lots of pregnancies, lots of babies. The Pastor was always called He in examples, and there were a few too many jokes early on at women’s expense.

It has always made me sad that I sometimes experience far more discrimination as a female pastor (in certain settings) than I ever did as a female sportswriter.

It was helpful early on to process and pray through these things with Katie, Matt, Mark, Carol and Fred. Katie is a braver woman than me, and she wore her clerical collar on the second day of the conference. I considered having Ben attend with me next year and go to all the Pastor’s wives workshops.

I found myself caught, ashamed almost for being upset by the jokes and male-only club that sometimes dominates these conferences. But God gave me the space to look at it from the long view, and I saw myself there, with the other female pastors from our synod, as a witness of sorts. A visible reminder of what is often invisible in the Evangelical world: a female lead pastor. And maybe perhaps, one of those little girl babies in the arms of her pastor’s wife mom, might see a woman at the conference refer to herself as pastor, and years later tell her dad: I think I could give the sermon, too.

The Evangelical world is changing before our eyes. Leaders like Andy Stanley are challenging previously held givens: demanding that faith rest not on a supposed inerrant book but rather on an event, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When I thought about it later, how too Evangelicals at the conference were lifting up a place for people who are gay in their churches, and preaching tolerance, and seeing the face of Muslims and people of other religions in our midst: I thought, you know it’s great they are saying these things, but Lutherans have been saying them for decades.

Maybe we have. Maybe it’s a Lutheran tendency to assert that we have always been right, all along. And maybe it doesn’t matter.

Andy Stanley has a much bigger pulpit to preach from – figuratively – than the average Lutheran pastor. He’s a phenomenal preacher, he knows his Bible, and thousands of people – at least - are listening.

The church is changing at Exponential. Movements are beginning, and perhaps most optimistically: young people of all ethnicities, economic backgrounds, locales, even countries: are excited about witnessing and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not just by converting, or “saving,” but by, as one of the speakers said: Living Questionable Lives. Being transformed by the Gospel in such a way that we might be asked why? And there, he said, is where our witness most powerfully begins.

So I can throw aside the misogyny and gender bias and some of the antiquated language for a moment, and give thanks in a new prayer for a prayer that began a long time ago. That God might use me, and that God might pair me with other leaders so that I might learn from them and grow with them as the Spirit works in each of us.

I am so grateful for the ways God has answered that prayer.

And I’m utterly grateful for one final way that God has answered my prayers.

See I’ve been away from Ben and from Jake since Sunday afternoon. And darn if every little baby or toddler at that conference made my heart hurt. I missed them. My arms felt empty without carrying my little guy around. Last night, probably because I was tired and overloaded from the fantastic but also tiring conference, I found myself nearly crying in bed as I imagined his chubby little arms and tiny little hands gripping my finger and pulling me across the living room for yet another game.

I told myself, God, if I can just get back in time Thursday night to rock with him and read before bed like we always do, that will be enough for me, God.

Originally I was booked on a 7:45 p.m. flight arriving in Chicago at 9:30. But the conference ended at noon. And I told myself I would do whatever it took to just get on one of those earlier flights. I got to the airport at 11:30 a.m. – we left a bit early as the others had a previous commitment that afternoon.

I got on the standby list for 2:40. It was delayed. There were 22 people on for standby and the gate agent told me the flight was overbooked. No room.

I felt the pathetic tears of a new mom creep toward my eyes as I told her: “I’m trying to get home to see my son.”

And unbelievably, this gracious woman moved me up to No. 2 on the standby list.

I waited in agony, and then I watched as one “Platinum” member on the list below me got to go ahead. There’s nothing like the airlines to give us Americans a little glimpse of life in a caste system.

The agent saw me fretting, and just when I was sure I wouldn’t get a seat, and I prayed that last desperate prayer: she whispered to me “I have a seat for you.”

So I got on. I’ll land in Chicago, God willing, around 5:15 p.m. Plenty of time to rock my baby to sleep; plenty of time to thank God for all these prayers, all these places, and all these people doing God’s work.


  1. Thanks for sharing this! Really stirs me to be in prayer

  2. Thanks for this, Angela -- a good summary of Exponential and a deeper view into how you experienced it. I'm excited to see how God will use your combination of commitment and openness, topped of with strong communication gifts and skills. :)

  3. Thanks for reading Carol! I am excited to start Unbinding the Gospel this summer :)