Open Letter to the Covenant

Post a Comment » Written on October 20th, 2008     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (October 20, 2008) – Following is an open letter to the Covenant family from newly elected President Gary Walter, designed to help Covenanters understand the challenges and opportunities as Walter sees them in assuming his new responsibilities.

Dear Friends,

Thank you for the honor of serving this movement that has meant so much to me. Shortly after taking office, we gathered many of those in positions of leadership from Covenant offices, regional conferences, and institutions. We called it “In It Together,” which is really the meaning of the word covenant.  I shared my sense of where we are and the opportunities and challenges ahead. Below I share with you what I shared with them. Feel free to share any reflections with me at

In I Kings 18, there is a debilitating drought in the land. Elijah prays for rain and sends a servant to tell him what he sees in the skies. The servant returns, saying there is nothing – no end to the drought in sight.

Elijah prays six times, and each time the servant returns with the same report. After the seventh time, the servant reports that he sees a small cloud, no larger than the size of a fist. The tiny cloud grows until the land is drenched and the drought ends.

I believe the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) just may well be that tiny cloud for this time. Deep in my heart  I believe, as others of you have concluded, that there is a convergence between who we are and the yearnings of the day. Our core ethos and approach to mission and ministry is what can reach this world.

“John Weborg describes it with simple elegance: we live with God and for God.”

We live in an increasingly post-Christian, post-modern, multiethnic environment. As such, people are hungering for a faith of authenticity, not plasticity; biblical depth and spirituality, not simply practicality; community, not individuality. They seek a faith that integrates kingdom values present and future, not simply looking to our eternal hope; of life-giving service to others, not self-interest; one that breaks down barriers that separate, not that insulates and isolates.

That is precisely who we are at our best.  Make no mistake. Who we are underlies our momentum as much as what we do.

You see, the Covenant is what you get when pietists join together in mission. It means we always want to move in two directions at the same time – deeper in Christ (our pietistic side) and further in mission (our reason for joining together in 1885). John Weborg describes it with simple elegance: we live with God and for God.

And so in going deeper in Christ we will build on our pietistic heritage, which is that commitment to the new and ever-deepening life in Christ. We will be ever nourished by the Word of God, caring relationships, obedient living, and a worshipful response in all circumstances.

And so in going further in mission, we will not pull back from the sharp point of the ship in world mission, church planting, strengthening existing churches, better reflecting the Kingdom of God in our ethnic diversity, and compassion mercy and justice.

To do all of that, we need to be investing deeply in our clergy, raising up the next generation of leaders, making sure our systems and structures are aligned for 2020 and beyond, and that in it all our identity and cohesion remains strong.

What will happen when we live with God and for God in that way? We will be the entire church taking the entire gospel to the entire world:
•    The entire church:  new churches and established churches; small churches, medium churches, large churches; churches in town and country, metropolitan, and urban settings; ethnically diverse, stylistically diverse, linguistically diverse, economically diverse; lead by women, lead by men.
•    The entire gospel: showing the world a renewed kind of evangelicalism, a compassionate evangelicalism that doesn’t shake a stick at people in anger but that carries the cross into the world with love and courage to share God’s grace with the lost and God’ hope with the oppressed.
•    The entire world – around the corner and around the globe.

In so doing, maybe, just maybe, we will be that small cloud that sends the rain that ends the drought.

Here are some observations about where we are, some of the issues at hand, and my sense of my role at the outset.

Where we are

We remain in the most expansive phase of our history. We are impacting more lives with the hope of Christ than ever. We have grown for 16 consecutive years, for an aggregate gain of 76 percent.  We are blessed by the relative strength of our existing churches, those over 10 years of age. While there is some erosion, a loyal and strong base of established churches provides the sound platform from which we are able to expand mission.

Having refocused our commitment to church planting, we now start approximately 20 churches each year. One out of every three people is attending a church started in the last 15 years. New churches reach new people and increase financial resources for the denomination and conferences, creating more support for all ministries.

We are more reflective of the kingdom of God. One-half of all new churches are congregations of color or intentionally multiethnic. As a result, 22 percent of all ECC churches are now congregations of color or multiethnic, making the ECC the lone known Euro-immigrant denomination to cross the statistically significant threshold of 20 percent.

The establishment of our first department in nearly 30 years – Compassion, Mercy, and Justice – makes a statement that we are committed to the hurting and to addressing the causes of that hurt, especially when seen in combination with our long-standing commitments through Covenant Ministries of Benevolence.

We are at the forefront of reframing global mission.  The ECC in all of its expressions is sending more people, more expertise, and more resources globally than at any point in our history, albeit differently than generations before.

You put together those various aspects of our momentum and you see that we are growing, growing younger, growing more diverse, growing more in conscience, and growing more aware of the entire world.

New Challenges

However, that momentum means we are facing new issues:
Relationally – growth invariably means it is more challenging to maintain bonds of cohesion and identity. If in our momentum we lose a sense of who we are, we lose our most important asset.
Organizationally – several structures and processes designed to serve a smaller ECC are strained.
Preemptively – focus is needed to stem the onset of erosion in the base of existing churches.
Multiethnically – we are in uncharted territory for a denomination of our background, requiring continuing wisdom, graciousness, and resolve.
Globally – a smaller world brings both bigger opportunities and challenges.
Ministerially – the demands for more new clergy and the performance demands on existing clergy make ministerial supply and on-going support critical for a thriving future.
Generationally –  many denominations inadvertently sideline the voice of emerging leaders; we need our gifted younger leaders to be a shaping voice.
Spiritually – we must have a depth sufficient to undergird our expansion.
Financially –  these are challenging times for local churches, conferences and the ECC.
Strategically – all of this places a critical responsibility on leadership to provide strong discernment and coordination for our ministry alignment.

Moving forward

I am confident we have the resolve to meet the challenges. In addition to factors mentioned previously, among our pronounced strengths are:
•    A spiritual earnestness sustained by our four-fold commitment of being a biblical, devotional, missional, and connectional people.
•    A full-orbed understanding of the Kingdom that involves both evangelism and compassion, both domestic and international commitments, and that seeks to bridge across lines that ordinarily divide the world: race, class, and gender.
•    An innate cohesion and identity (loyalty if you will) that repeatedly rises to the challenge.
•    Capable mission-hearted leadership at all levels of congregational, ECC, conference, and institutional service.
•    Openness to an innovative edge. Every organization needs some room for innovation and innovators. We have done that, pioneering approaches broadly used by others.
•    The ability to adapt. We have made timely adjustments in anticipation of opportunities and responsibilities.
•    Openness to new clergy and members, who enrich us and bring important perspective.
•    A “keep the main thing the main thing” approach , which keeps us in the replenishing center of our faith, not at the draining argumentative periphery.

Someone has said that leadership is not ownership, it is stewardship. As leaders we do not own the Covenant, we are stewards of what has been entrusted to us by God and by those who have placed us in these positions.

So, in wanting us to be good stewards of the “five talents” called the ECC, you can expect the following from me at this starting point:
1.    I will elevate our spiritual identity in every aspect of what we do, making sure we are living out what it means to be a thoroughly biblical, devotional, missional, and connectional people.  It has been said that the heritage of the past is the seed for the harvest of the future. Our future harvest will come from elevating and building on our foundational identity.
2.    I will do my best to create a cohesive leadership culture bridging Covenant offices, conferences and institutions. This event is a first step, not an end in establishing a cohesive sense of being one leadership group.
3.    In that spirit, I will work with across departments, conferences, and institutions to bring better mission and ministry alignment, innovating as needed. Busyness and productivity are not the same. Any organization, and the ECC is no different, is subject to the proliferation of non-strategic activity. It is timely to do a deep evaluation to better identify, create, and focus efforts that leverage effective Kingdom ministry across all parts of the ECC.
4.    As part of that, we will look at stressed organizational structures and processes. I am confident we can bring good innovation, while being alert to the risks of over-innovation.
5.    We need to lead the way then get out of the way. The current of our momentum is carrying us to a place where it will be time to turn the canoe over to other younger, brighter leaders more adept in the new terrain we will have entered. Further, within 10 years more than 80 percent of both the Council of Administrators and Council of Superintendents will reach retirement eligibility. Our polity does not accommodate succession planning, but we would only be wise to develop open mentoring systems that invest in the incredibly gifted younger leaders among us, women and men of all backgrounds.
6.    We will secure the funding of the mission. Failing at this means the prospects of cutbacks at this time of expanding opportunity.
7.    I will bring respect and collegiality in our relationship with our institutions and affiliated corporations. This is a tip of the hat to these well-run extensions of our ministry. They need a great deal of operational freedom, especially given the regulatory environments within which they operate. I appreciate their understanding that freedom is not the same as isolation, and advancing our common mission through appropriate points of collaboration and cooperation makes all parties stronger

When Solomon began his leadership with the people of Israel he asked God not for more riches, larger armies, or bigger borders. He asked for wisdom. That, too, is my prayer.

Look, there is a small cloud, no larger than a hand. May we rain God’s grace, hope, justice, and peace on a dry and thirsty land.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Report This Post

Leave a Reply

Report This Blog