Where the Church Meets the Public Square
Helping Congregations Respond to Needs in
their Communities

Eye on LSSI, Fall 2011 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

Credit: Robert Neubecker“Life is a series of choices and decisions, and our choices do shape how we feel about ourselves and where we’re headed in life. The choices are difficult, and we know that God does understand that.”

Pastor Lester Newberry-White is talking about both his congregation, United Mission in Christ Lutheran Church, and the people of the community it inhabits, North Austin, on Chicago’s West Side. The area has been economically depressed and crime-ridden for decades.

A fairly high percentage of people from North Austin are serving time in prison. Many are mothers separated from their children for extended periods of time. It is in the best interest of the mothers, the children and the community that those family ties be sustained, not broken.

One way to do that is to see that the children visit their mothers. Another is to see that, when they get out of prison, the mothers have a chance to change their lives and become productive members of the community.

But how do you do that in a community chronically low on resources of every kind? What choices do you have?

Faced with a situation that puts the whole neighborhood at risk, Pr. Newberry-White and a group of his members decided they could not solve the problems on their own. They enlisted the help of two neighboring congregations, Bethel and Mission in Christ Lutheran churches. The three congregations have a history of collaborating on worship and community issues, including a community food pantry.

But the obstacles were still formidable, and they enlisted a fourth partner and resource, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), which is the statewide social ministry agency of the three Illinois synods of the Evangelical Church in America (ELCA).

In a very real sense, this is where this story begins.

Are we called?

In March 2011, LSSI created a new unit, the Office of Church and Community Services (OCCS), under Pastor Dan Schwick. Its purpose is to help congregations provide social ministry in their communities by taking advantage of resources available through LSSI, its staff and its relationship with other provider agencies. 

At this moment, both the congregations and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois are feeling their way through this new means of partnering. LSSI brings extensive experience, knowledge and resources to the table, but the ministries and the decisions about how to proceed are up to the congregations.

Most of these new relationships are in the planning stage. And there are questions to be asked:

Is God really calling us to do this?
If we say “yes,” then what?
Where is the money coming from?
The talent?
What are we getting ourselves into?
What are realistic expectations for our ministry?

LSSI has recommended that the North Austin congregations look at LSSI’s Connections program, part of its statewide Prisoner and Family Ministry, which provides a variety of services for families affected by incarceration, including a prison visitation program called Visits to Mom. The tentative name of the new ministry is “Lutheran Connections West.”

Newberry-White hopes the three congregations can solve enough of the basic problems to be able to formally launch their new ministry on Reformation Sunday in October. “Once we [the congregations] are able to own this together … then we have a good foundation to introduce this to the surrounding community and for them to take ownership of it all.”

Schwick says local ownership is a primary consideration for LSSI. “We are working to develop LSSI’s ability to help congregations shape the communities in which they live.”

He said he hopes to work with congregations or clusters of congregations and help them develop ministries that meet community needs, in effect creating an intentional plan for mission in a given community. “We want to be right where the church meets the public square.”

Pr. Bob Rasmus is the chair of LSSI’s board and the senior pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana. He says LSSI is a “direct extension of every congregation’s social ministry,” adding that the new Office of Church and Community Services “affords us an opportunity to build on that relationship and the understanding that we are the church together, and we can be a resource for developing and encouraging locally based ministry.”

This new strategy of LSSI grows out of the vision of the agency’s president, Pr. Denver Bitner, who took the reins at LSSI in 2009 after 36 years at Zion Lutheran Church in Rockford, 22 of them as senior pastor.

Zion is a large inner city congregation with a racially diverse membership and a strong commitment to social outreach. Its Midtown neighborhood is also one of the poorest in the country. Over the course of three decades, Bitner helped create several social ministry organizations, including Zion Development Corporation, which works on economic development, housing rehab and renewal, and employment. LSSI has worked with Zion Development to provide services to Midtown, including transitional housing for young adults aging out of foster care.

Bitner sees OCCS as “a re-patterning” of the agency, going back to its beginning in 1867. The agency began as a result of several Illinois Lutheran congregations merging their individual ministries to form Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) to better serve their communities.

“Those congregations looked outside their doors and said, ‘God is calling us to respond to the needs of the community.’ When we do that, we are the church — the ecclesia — or those called out,” he explains.

After 144 years, Bitner said, LSSI has become one of the most complex social service organizations in the country, with a wide range of programs, including the only faith-based prison ministry in Illinois that connects prisoners with their communities in Illinois.

Forward to the beginning

The new strategy represents an effort to return to the hands-on congregational ministry from which the agency grew.

“It is not about LSSI bringing programs and putting them in place,” Bitner says. “It is about congregations doing what one of our founding congregations did in Andover, 144 years ago. They had a lot of wood, and they were going to build a steeple on the church. But instead, they ended up using the wood for coffins for all the people who died in a cholera epidemic. And then, they built an orphanage for the children who lost their parents.

“When we give ourselves away, God blesses and multiplies whatever it is that we might do,” he says.

Something of that spirit is at work at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, which is investigating the feasibility of a home for adults with autism.

Federal and state programs provide education and other services for autistic children, but young adults age out of those programs, and the full responsibility of caring for them and teaching them to fend for themselves falls on their parents. As the parents age, the issue of their care becomes a major problem.

From left:  Pr. Dan Schwick, vice president of the Office of Church and Community Services; Valerie Everett, director, LSSI’s Connections; Joy Medrano, LSSI’s coordinator, church and volunteer relations; Valora Starr, director for Discipleship for Women of the ELCA; and Pastor Lester Newberry-White, United Mission in Christ Lutheran Church, meet to discuss how a cluster of three ELCA churches in Chicago’s North Austin neighborhood can develop social ministry for families affected by incarceration. Credit: Allen BourgeoisThe Congregation Council at Our Saviour’s has appointed a six-member committee to work with LSSI and evaluate a new mission opportunity of a small group home for high-functioning adults with autism.

In this instance, LSSI saw the need for housing and care for young autistic adults in the Arlington Heights community and approached Our Saviour’s about partnering on the project.

Susan Erickson is a member of the Our Saviour’s task force and a substitute teacher of special needs children. She said the committee has been researching a project developed by parents of autistic children in Richmond, Va., and is exploring funding options.

“We’re looking at a private pay option, because there is no state funding for this population,” she explains. “We’ve been thinking of a residence for seven or eight young adults. Our goal would be to help them learn a set of social skills and be able to function on their own in society. We hope to make a recommendation this fall.”

Our Saviour’s pastor, Dan Hoeger, says the exploration with LSSI has been “an exciting opportunity to work with an organization that has proven it knows how to do stuff for the long term.”

“Sometimes as a congregation you want to do something big, and you hope to come up with a good plan for it, but the reality is that it takes planning; it takes experience and training and a broad base of resources.

“We’re still in the stage where we’re not sure if this will work out, but it’s been a treat for us to have some of our most talented people work with LSSI.”

And in Morton, not far from Peoria, LSSI has a long-term partnership with Advent Lutheran Church, which has adopted LSSI’s Single Parent Program. This is a different example of how churches can respond to help people in their community.

Lynn Goffinet, a member of Advent, who, prior to retirement, used to work as LSSI’s statewide director of adoption, says every group in the congregation helps support the program. A youth group yard sale recently raised $3,000 for the program. Among the items sold were five trunks of clothing and household goods, collected by the congregation.

The Single Parent Program is offered through LSSI’s Galesburg and West Peoria offices and serves Knox, Peoria, Tazewell, Warren and Woodford counties. It provides support groups, parenting and vocational education, and home visits tailored to each family’s needs.

The Office of Church and Community Services works differently with each congregation, based on the needs of the congregation and the community. Dan Schwick says it is always important to ask, “Who else needs to be at the table?”

He hopes that more congregations will ask that question and turn to LSSI.

If you would like information on how LSSI’s Office of Church and Community Services can help your congregation or group of congregations respond to needs in your community, please call 847/635-4653.