Jesus. Everyday. Everywhere.

Minot, ND is June. What could be better? For the next two days I have the privilege of being with church leaders in the Western North Dakota Synod. I love the theme: Jesus. Everyday. Everywhere. I also have the opportunity to share about Faith+Lead Academy, Luther Seminary’s online theological education for church leaders, everyday disciples, and spiritual seekers. If you want a peek at what’s coming – check this out.

Reimagining our Call to Steward Leaders

Today I had the opportunity to engage leaders in the ELCA around questions that guide our candidacy processes and practices. I’m grateful for the opportunity and thankful for the work candidacy committees do on behalf of our shared ministry in the ELCA.

Please pray for all those involved in candidacy as we remember our call to steward leaders for God’s church and together discern a faithful way forward in today’s dynamic environment.

Here is my presentation, for anyone interested.

Coronavirus, Circles, and Holy Week

People across our country are in the midst of a “Stay at Home” shutdown due to the coronavirus. This is a new phenomenon for me, as a fifty-something adult. For many, this shutdown means each day looks and feels pretty much the same. Those of us in this category are trying to find a new routine as we work and homeschool during the day, and clean closets, read, binge-watch Netflix or Hulu, and call or Zoom friends and family at night. While life is not normal, it is still ordinary in many ways. We do our part in flattening the curve by staying home, and perhaps making masks, funding charities, or volunteering, yet mostly we are bored, lonely, and crave “normal” as we knew it before COVID-19.

Some of us are going to work. Those of us in that category are “essential employees.” Essential employees range from carpenters to grocery store workers to doctors and nurses. I’m grateful for essential employees. Most essential employees are invisible, like the truck drivers transporting toilet paper and cleaning supplies or the community leaders coordinating food distribution and welfare. Some are visible, like grocery store clerks and gas station attendants. While I have often taken those jobs for granted, now their presence comforts and encourages me to get only what I need today and trust they will also be there tomorrow. Some of you are game-changers, like the doctors and nurses, receptionists and janitors who tirelessly show up every day to do their job at hospitals and clinics. But it doesn’t end there. There are also researchers and companies doing their part to find a vaccine and keep supplies flowing, EMTs and police officers who put themselves “out there” to keep us safe, and hospice workers and caregivers in senior care facilities. Thank you for the jobs you do and the roles you play in making this pandemic as humane as possible. I will never know your names but see how you are working for the common good. We are all benefitting from your work.

The coronavirus has lifted the veil on death. It has reminded us we are all mortals. We will die, of this virus or something else, and this makes us vulnerable. For many, facing our own mortality has awakened our capacity to be grateful and compassionate. We were created to care for one another; humans are designed to love deeply. Our capacity to care for others is not limited to our family and friends, but also extends to strangers and people we have never met. As Brene Brown so eloquently reminded us, awareness of our own vulnerability frees us for living abundantly no matter the circumstances. Vulnerability is not a flaw in our design, rather it is an opening to lean into and explore.

This pandemic has also illustrated that not everyone has access to the same resources. This makes some of us more vulnerable than others. Systems free and constrain us. When we believe resources are limited, creativity can diminish and selfishness increase. While that is a human response, we do have other alternatives. We can tap into the compassion and gratitude planted in our DNA and counter our fear and selfish nature. We can reach out to the most vulnerable and begin the restoration of society there. We can choose to see the disparity and give-up our personal comforts for the sake of our neighbor having the basics of life. Seeing beyond vulnerability to possibility can lead to action with an eye toward what is good for all.

I recently ran across this short video about circles. It offers a lesson geared for children that might serve us all as we move forward in the days ahead. What if we all had the power to expand our circle of relationships? What if our capacity for gratitude and compassion had no end? What if we could tap into how we were designed and could love others at an exponential rate? Could a pandemic of love counter COVID19?

Christians are in the midst of Holy Week. This is a sacred time in the life of the church. It is the end of the season of Lent, a season where we have named our mortality and need for a savior. This year that message was been in our face and urgent. Yesterday, at the White House briefing it was predicted that this week will see an exponential increase in deaths. Death is all around us – in the news, in our lives, and in our journey of faith. What will we hold onto? What will sustain us? What is your source of hope?

People of God, we cannot save ourselves. We, as a people, will disappoint. We will fall short. Our hope must come from outside ourselves.

As you journey through the next few days, I invite you to lean into gratitude and compassion. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and practice loving others. And in the midst of it all, ask what is your source of hope?

Innovation: From Buzzword to Renewal

(This post first appeared in Faith+Lead on October 17, 2019.)

As innovation becomes a buzzword, it’s easy for church leaders to reduce it to a trend. But how might it play a powerful role in renewal?

In week one of my innovation and ministry class, I ask students to define innovation. Their definitions focus primarily on innovation as invention—novel ideas, new practices, and/or breakthrough technologies. While this understanding of innovation isn’t wrong, it’s thin and robs innovation of its ability to reframe complex dilemmas and connect problems to human realities.

The word innovation comes from the Latin word innovare, which means renew. It’s the process of renewing personally and communally, of nurturing life, especially after a crisis or fallow time. Its efforts can be modest or spark a movement.

Ministry is also about cultivating life: nurturing relationships, reconciling brokenness, and shedding light into dark places so all of creation may live abundantly. Ministry tethers renewal to the one who creates and redeems by joining our personal and collective action with God’s activity.

Today, we don’t have to look far to see the need for renewal in the world. Perhaps a deeper look at innovation could help us reimagine the renewing aspect of ministry.

Innovation as discernment and experimentation

Innovation renews as people adopt new practices through experimentation. In other words, we act our way into renewal, not think our way into it.

Innovation is novel, but its novelty must serve some end. Many congregations have used innovation to attract people. While new music or communication methods may catch people’s attention and create energy, congregational renewal must go deeper. Therefore, innovation begins with discerning God’s calling for us at this time, not brainstorming clever ideas.

Discernment is grounded in listening—to people’s lived experiences and to God. Once congregations have discerned what they are called to be and do, brainstorming and experimenting follow. Discerning and adopting new practices are more iterative than linear; in other words, it requires collaboration, feedback, and a lot of trial and error.

Innovation as changing the way we see

Innovation leans into the present with an eye to the future. As we, personally and communally, enhance our capacity for innovation, we learn to see a future not yet realized.

Faith also has a transformational dimension—a dynamic relationship with a living God. Deepening our relationship with God changes how we see the world. Where we once could see only challenges, brokenness, and insufficiencies, God helps us see possibilities, healing, and fullness.

This transformation in the way we see is not a one-time event, but an ongoing, life-long process. New ideas, practices, and inventions awaken us to different possibilities and angles of vision, which change our actions and experiments, which again change the way we see.

Two kinds of innovation

Imagine a continuum with steady, slow changing environments on one end and complex, unpredictable environments on the other end.

Learning happens in all environmental conditions, but the orientation is different. In steady conditions, learning is oriented toward the past; in complex conditions, it is oriented toward the future.

Innovation in steady conditions works with existing values and the established paradigm. This developmental view is known as sustaining innovation, which entails a group of thinkers offering inventions to the masses that will either be adopted or rejected.

Innovation in complex conditions works differently. Within these conditions, new ideas and approaches begin in particular networks. Over time, these new practices take hold and dislodge current patterns, becoming more mainstream and breaking down established paradigms. This view is known as disruptive innovation. (For more on sustaining and disruptive innovation, see Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma).

As the formal expressions of church experience decline, disruptive innovation will become more necessary. Discovering and working with emergent values and networks is key to renewal in complex conditions. It is time to ask different questions and open ourselves to new ways of being God’s church in the world.

Innovation as renewal

God’s command to love God and our neighbor remains, and ancient practices continue to form Christian communities and remind us of our identity as God’s people. Yet how we participate in God’s mission and love our neighbor will change, as will the ways we employ ancient Christian practices.

Because the path to the future is not clear and the need for renewal urgent, church leaders must expand their imagination. Sharing the good news of the gospel requires connecting with the particularities of time and place and wrestling with the complexities of our time. Might the discipline of innovation help us discern our way forward and transform our way of seeing?

Innovation might be a trendy word, but its essence is more than a fad. Given our current conditions, a robust understanding of innovation, combined with a missional understanding of church and reliance on the Holy Spirit, could point the church in the right direction.

About the Author

Terri Martinson Elton is the Associate Professor of Leadership at Luther Seminary. Having served 20 years in congregational and synodical leadership before coming to Luther, Terri is deeply committed to accompanying congregations in discovering new expressions of ministry. Terri has co-authored a book on Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World with Rabbi Hayim Herring, researched and written about Cultivating Teen Faith, and has a new book, Journeying the Wilderness: Forming Faith in the 21st Century, coming out in Spring 2020.

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Joy in the Workplace


Is it possible to have joy in the workplace? I believe so, in fact, as Christians God hopes so. Here are some things to consider.



Did you know?

  • In the US, working adults spend a significant percentage of their waking hours working. Of the 43.6% of adults that work, the average hours per day is 8.21. (For men it is 8.66 and women it is 7.67 hours.) American Time Use Survey (2017)
  • 33 percent of workers are engaged in their jobs, 49 percent are not engaged, and 18 percent are actively disengaged. (US and Canada – Gallup Study) Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 3.26.28 PM
    • The Gallup Organization defines the categories as follows:
    • Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward.
    • Non-engaged employees have essentially “checked out.” They sleepwalk through workdays, They put in time but don’t approach their work with energy or passion.
    • Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day,, these workers undermine what engaged co-workers accomplish. (
  • Employees who use their strengths, skills, and abilities every day are 6x more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive, and 15% less likely to leave their jobs.  (Gallup)

What is the difference between Joy and Happiness?

  • Happiness relates to what is happening outside – externally – and centers on me
  • Joy comes from inside – internally – and connects with something outside of me

Resources: Yale Center for Faith and CultureTheology of Joy and the Good Life project and videos: What is Joy?  and Difference between Joy and Happiness 

Faith and Joy

  • Faith anchors our life in something outside ourselves – God.
  • Living a life of joy recognizes faith as a living relationship with God and opens one’s self up to God’s activity around and through us.
    • We are created to be relationally connected.
    • We find purpose when we have meaningful work to do.
    • We find joy when we use the gifts God had created us with.

As you work tomorrow, be it caring for your kids or engaging in a business deal, think about joy, engagement, and God’s desire for you to be relationally connected and to share your particular gifts with others.


Failing Boldly

Failing Boldly: FailingBodly_FinalCover3D.jpgHow Falling Down in Ministry Can Be the Start of Rising Up

By Christian Coon

Do you know how to fail well? My guess is most of us don’t. In fact, our culture doesn’t talk much about failure, and the church is not that different from society in this regards.

Pause and think about the last time you sat and talked about your failures in ministry with colleagues. What was it like? What were the circumstances? What if this was a regular practice?

Ministry can feel very competitive, making it hard to share when things do not go well.

Yet talking about and learning from failures is an important leadership practice, one especially true for church leaders in this time of disruptive change.

Christian Coon, a United Methodist pastor, speaks into this reality in his book Failing Boldly. As a church planter, he has had to learn how to set his ego aside and develop a framework for failing well. Framed theologically and theoretically, he invites church leaders to step into this work not so they become better pastors, but so God’s church may embrace it’s calling in a deeper way and discover hope that only God can provide.

Filled with great stories and metaphors, Failing Boldly is accessible and offers an honest look at ministry. Coon’s informal style is inviting, but don’t let it overshadow the challenge he is placing before you. Failing well is hard. It takes practice, intentionality, and humility. Facing failure does not guarantee long-term success, but it does remind us of our humanity, call us to grow and learn with a community, and invite us to hold fast to God and God’s mission.

I recommend church leaders read Failing Boldly, or at least have it on their shelf so when God’s nudging you to embrace failure, it is ready for you.



I cannot watch TV, check social media, or workout at the Y without being reminded of the pain and suffering in the world these days. Stories I cannot believe to be true, images I would rather not see, and political debates I am surprised our country is engaging in. I am often overwhelmed, and sometimes paralyzed by the depth and breadth of brokenness in our world.

Each day I also find joy in my work, discover grace is unexpected places, and encounter love among friends and family. These ordinary moments, ones I use to take for granted, sustain me and ground my life. Without them, it would be hard to face each day with hope and compassion.

Our world is filled with paradox. The thing with paradox is that two realities are true, one truth does not cancel the other. The love I receive, for example, does not negate the pain of others. Some days I forget paradoxes are all around me and I try to make sense of them, reconciling one with another. I hold on to one truth and dismiss another. Yet when I live with this either/or posture, I find myself disregarding a truth I need to hear. Sometimes the truth I am overlooking is that good exists all around me – at the grocery story, in my neighborhood, on social media. Sometimes the truth I am ignoring is people suffering – in places I have never been, in homes where friends and family live, in the congregation I attend. Living aware of multiple truths, of paradox, is a necessary, and fruitful, part of life.

Our identity as Christians is paradoxical – we are created in God’s image – with all the capacity to love as God does – and we are of this world – broken and in need of healing. Discovering what it is to live based on this Christian identity means discovering how to live a paradoxical life. We know God’s love prevails in the end and God’s preferred future has not yet fully come to be. How can this be true? Because God, in Jesus Christ, came to earth and rewrote the end of the story. He told us about the kingdom of God and promised us a forever future with God at the same time he named the pain and brokenness. Living “in between” means claiming these promises, at the same time we participate in the folding of God’s future on earth.

This week this paradoxical life is going to become visible in Houston, TX. 30,000 ELCA Lutherans are gathering under the theme “This Changed Everything.” Those gathered will claim once again their identity as children of God and name the pain in the world. They will hear God’s promises proclaimed and accompany people suffering. Preparation and planning for this gathering has been taking place for over three years. Congregations, youth and adults, have been getting ready. Houston is excited to receive the sojourners. Prayers have surrounded every aspect. It has not been easy. There have been obstacles – natural disasters, staffing changes, endless to-do lists, and unexpected changes, just to name a few. But now, as so many of us make our pilgrimage to Houston, the planning and preparation shift to welcoming, embracing, learning, serving, praising, and embodying. Now guests also become hosts, speakers also participants, those served also teachers. And one idea will guide it all – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. This truth is what creates a paradox in our world. It is what makes possible God’s kingdom to be unfolding in our midst today. And this week we get to see ways our participating in is paradoxical and makes a difference.

Please pray for everyone in Houston this week. Pray that this gathering may be a witness to the hope, love, and joy of God. Pray that light shines in dark places and God’s love is experienced in meaningful ways. And look for ways you can be part of God’s unfolding future wherever you find yourself. (To follow the ELCA Youth Gathering on social media see #elcayg2018)

Learning again

Many of you know I’m on sabbatical. Having witnessed other people take sabbaticals, I had a vague idea about what it would be like. I thought I’d enjoy it but wondered if I would be a bit lost without a regular schedule and if I would have a had time getting motivated each day. Others worried I would have a hard time not being around other people on a regular basis. (A far concern from my perspective.) Almost one-fourth of my way through and I am happy to say – I am loving it.

It didn’t take me long to develop patterns for organizing my time. (Working with a coach probably helped! Thanks Dawn!) I do commit to showering and “going to work” each morning (in my office across the hall) and I have enough connections to the outside world that I haven’t lost contact with colleagues and friends or my social skills. And, believe it or not, I run out of time each day, each week, and each month to do all I had hoped to do. Needless-to-say, motivation has not been a problem. My lists of books read and to read are both growing. My time writing is both focused and spontaneous. My networking is strategic and open to new possibilities.

Reflecting on this first chapter, my biggest discovery is I’m learning to learn again. I love learning, well mostly. I love the kind of learning that happens on my terms – when I get to choose the topic, the timing, and the grading scale. I don’t love learning that is forced on me,  that disorients me, and that exposes my weaknesses or blind spots. As an educator, my “business” is to cultivate environments were others learn and to learn myself. Most of my world lives in the first category – learning that happens on my terms. I am in this work because that is an environment where I can thrive. And I got to this place by being a learner…mostly through traditional avenues of campus classrooms and accredited degree programs, with some contextual learning thrown in. Yet in today’s networked, information age, traditional pathways of learning (at least in my 53 years experience) are being disrupted and learning itself is being reimagined. This places me more in the second category – learning that’s hard and not on my terms. This disruption has challenged me as a teacher. In the past several years I have been rethinking “the classroom,” and even more importantly, my own approach and paradigm for learning. But I’ve been doing it all in the midst of a long to-do list. Learning with limited time and tight deadlines is instrumental, and while there is a place for that, what I need is to do the harder, transformational work that comes from the second category.

This year, I get to open up space to rediscover what it is to be a learner in the midst of new realities and challenges. My learning is not guided by a professor, and I’m not learning to get credit for a course. I’m learning because as an educator, I need to rediscover the joy and pain of transformational learning. I have goals for my learning (mostly attached to my writing project and to the courses I teach), but they serve more as guideposts along a journey than agenda items for each day. As you can see by the picture above, the pile of books on my desk is diverse, and that is just the current “to read” stack. I’m also learning from podcasts, online lectures and presentations, and experiences in the world. Finding resources for learning is not the problem, the challenge is creating space for reflecting and processing the ideas- that is where I need to exercise discipline (and perhaps interrupt my preconceived schedule for the day).

This morning I had the joy of stumbling across a podcast with one of the authors in my stack of books. (Kate Bowler is the author of Everything Happens for a Reason and is a colleague I’ve appreciated for years.) Wavering between curiosity and procrastination, I started my workday by listening to the podcast. Kate’s words provided theological language for my own experiences, challenged my thinking about leadership, and expanded my thinking about this journey of learning I am currently on. I invite you to take a listen – the link is below. And here are some ideas and phrases that stood out to me today:

  • are we willing to abandon our own assumptions? about life and about God?
  • facing our own arrogance is painful and a deep sense of gratitude might be a gift on the other side.
  • there is freedom is knowing our limits.
  • the resurrection is real – and all around us.
  • resurrection is preceded by death – real dying and decade.
  • death is coming to the end of ourselves.
  • hope (and faith) is knowing God is present.
  • God makes things new.
  • community matters – and maybe we need to lower our bar and receive what others have to give.
  • needing others is hard – at least for those of us who value individualism and illusion of autonomy.
  • loving a preschooler through the journey of death and new life makes it real – and perhaps forces us to name the hard parts of life in simple, honest terms.

Podcast – Can These Bones w/Kate Bowler

I’m going to dwell in Kate’s words – and these takeaways – today as I get back to my previously “scheduled” day. I’m going to let these ideas interrupt me, as I also am not going to force myself to name three concrete lessons I have learned by dinner time.

So how is your learning going? Do you have some practices that allow you to shift from pragmatic learning (think YouTube videos to fix the toilet) to transformational learning? As I continue on this sabbatical journey I will use this space to periodically pause and offer some resources and reflections. Drop in if you are interesting. And I’d also like to hear from you about your own journey of learning in this information age. How are you pairing old ways of learning with new ways? In what ways is your learning being disrupted? How are you finding learning partners?

Thinking about Complexity

I’ve been reading on my sabbatical. Of all the books on my list, I choose to start with this one – Simple Habits for Complex Times. The simple premise of the book is that we are living in a new world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are on the rise and we need to develop a new mindset for leading. The authors, two consultants from New Zealand, offer three habits for developing this new pattern of thinking and acting: talk differently, gather information differently, and build strategies and plans differently. (If you want to see a short video on the book, check out this out.)

But this blog isn’t an ad for this book. This post is about mindsets. A mindset, or frame, is a set of ideas or beliefs that form a lens that enables one to see and understand what is going on in a situation. So I ask: What mindset frames your view of ministry? Not sure? Try this. Pay attention to the questions you ask. Over the course of a week, write down the questions you ask about the ministry situations you encounter. Then step back and reflect on what those questions say about your current view of ministry. Part of a team? Then do this exercise together, sharing your reflections at the end and trying to get a sense of the similarities and differences each of you bring. Once you have done that, create a 2×2 matrix to see if your mindset is more opened or closed. Label the first row narrowing and the second row opening. Label the left column threat and the right column opportunity.

So, what did you discover? Living well in a complex world requires a shift in mindset from one where probability was the norm to one where possibilities are the norm. Leading with a possibilities mindset means being open to opportunities and other ways of understanding. If you want to practice being more open, one skill to develop is asking different questions. Here are some to get you started:

  • When faced with a complex problem practice using “and” (rather than “or” or “but”). Using “and” doesn’t close down options or narrow choices prematurely. “And” lets ideas build on each other, creates a relationship between ideas that might be in tension with each other, and invites collaboration.
  • Are the questions you ask taking time into account? Time offers perspective, brings forth realities, and opens up new possibilities. Asking questions about the past, present, and future is all worthwhile.
  • Do your questions come with a genuine curiosity? Asking questions, or getting feedback, to confirm what we already know is a waste of energy. On the other hand, asking questions with a posture of deep interest and openness to be impacted by the response is really valuable. What to do with the answers/feedback is the second part of the process, but being open begins with reflecting on our own attitudes.