by Leigh Finke
The lightbulb thing—that’s how my conversation with Bishop Michael Rinehart started and ended. Rinehart is bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, home to 105 ELCA congregations spread across western Texas and southern Louisiana.
The lightbulb thing is a reference to Thomas Edison and his quest to invent the lightbulb. In the famous, perhaps apocryphal quote, Edison said, “I didn’t fail to invent the lightbulb 1,000 times. I created the lightbulb in a 1,000-step process.”
I spoke to the bishop about failure and how he understands the concept of failure in our current U.S. political and religious climate. Rinehart said that his synod sees, on average, one ELCA church close its doors every year. But despite the declining numbers in congregations and the increasing crises that face our nation—including the crisis at the border currently underway—he maintains an optimistic outlook about the future (several times he wondered if he was being to Pollyanna-ish).
“It’s the lightbulb thing,” he says. “That’s how you have to look at it.”
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Connect Journal: I’d like to start by asking what failure means to you.
Bishop Michael Rinehart: If you think of failure as not achieving a goal or objective you are trying to reach, that’s a starting place. There’s certainly different levels of failure, but you can think about them all in the same vein. You always got to view failure as one step in a process.
CJ: If it’s one step in a process, do you think it’s safe to say that no failure is permanent?
BMR: I think that’s the hope of the resurrection, isn’t it? That there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. There’s certainly failure that can leave permanent scars, but we believe there’s no failure that cannot be redeemed at some level.
CJ: Where do you encounter this notion of failure and resurrection in your work?
BMR: There’s an old adage in business—be sure to generate an efficient amount of excellent mistakes. Every time you try something and you mess up, you just learned how to not do something. Right now, in the church, we’re living in a time of change, of innovation. It’s absolutely critical that we be growing and learning.
CJ: That’s one way of looking at the trends of the church.
BMR: I believe right now is a time of reformation in North America. We’re coming from a time when church was the popular thing to do and coming into a time when church is going to be the church of conscience—a lot of change.
CJ: Can you tell me what you mean by “church of conscience”?
BMR: It was always the socially popular thing to do, to join the church in the 1950s. It was financially and socially advantageous to become a member of a congregation—whether you cared about justice and poverty and immigrants and orphans and widows and aliens and all the things the scripture talks about or not. It was a social club, basically.
Now we’re in a place where, thanks be to God, nobody cares or even knows whether you belong a congregation on Sunday morning. If you’re going to a church, it’s because you really believe in what the church stands for in society. I think there’s a kind of purifying going on.
CJ: When someone looks at the data around congregations, they could understand the decline at least in part as the church failing to get their message across. But you’re saying the church is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
BMR: Right. You can look back and see how the church has failed along the way. But a lot of stuff that’s happening in society is a multi-generational shift over much of North America that is not in the control of any one particular congregation. So, we can ring our hands and say what happened. Or we can look at it and say, hey, we’re in a new mission field. This is an opportunity, let’s engage the mission field.
CJ: Another area in which we could describe failure, nationally, is immigration. What do you think the church can or should be doing on that level of failure?
BMR: We are in a situation right now where, in 1980, I think we resettled 200,000 refugees, and now we’re 30,000. That’s just awful.
But people are responding. They’re becoming more aware and educated. When (the Trump administration) started separating children at the border and people saw children in cages, all of a sudden you saw people rise up and this administration did a turnaround in their policy—not a perfect turnaround, but they stopped some of what they’re doing. I think what we’re seeing people learning from their mistakes—people picking up the ball and running with it and not taking for granted that these things happen. Is that too Pollyanna?
CJ: Maybe. When we think about failure, and we look at the things we’re talking about—refugee resettlement numbers, camps for people at the border—how do you contextualize that failure? Is that the failure of U.S. government policy; is that the failure of the people, of the church?
BMR: When we started with the internment camps for the Japanese around World War II, whose failure is that? It’s everybody’s failure. The question is, what’s the church’s faithful response in light of the things that are happening? You can’t tell the government to stop doing what it’s doing. But what you can do is speak out against it, fight against it, donate money to organizations that are litigating against it. We’re seeing that happen. I see hopeful signs of that.
CJ: Let’s go from the macro to the micro. Can you talk a little about what your vision of failure and opportunity means for people in youth and family ministry?
BMR: We’re in a time of experimentation. If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else. I’m more worried about places that are still doing the same stuff they were doing in 1970—and it isn’t working—and then throwing their hands in the air and saying this is not fair, parents aren’t committed enough, our pastors aren’t good enough, our youth workers aren’t strong enough. Every excuse in the book. No. We’re in a different place.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean killing (everything). You don’t sink the ship you’re on until you build a new one, but maybe you operate with a dual operating system. Trying new things on the side, when you have something new that works, eventually it makes the old irrelevant.
CJ: What do you think it is that keeps people from trying new things?
BMR: There’s two responses to any problem. The traditionalist response is, it’s not working because we’re not doing the things we used to do in the way we used to do them. I call it the golden years motif—if we would just go back to the golden age, everything would be wonderful again.
Then there’s burn the house down. Nothing that used to be is any good anymore—burn it all down and start from scratch. I don’t find that particularly helpful either. The trick is to not get stuck. I think folks get stuck because they see all the change around them—and they’re somewhat terrified by it—and they think, if we go back to the way it was, everything will be wonderful.
CJ: You mentioned congregations having different realities. Can you tell me what that means, and how that might affect someone’s willingness to try new things?
BMR: We have some areas in Houston that are one-quarter African-American and Latino, one-quarter Asian, one-quarter Anglo. Huge Buddhist and Hindu temples, strong LGBTQ community—those realities for those congregations in those settings are night-and-day from a rural congregation that is an hour and a half from a metro center, where it’s harder and harder to keep a hospital open, harder and harder to keep a gas station open. And then you have suburban congregations who can still live in the myth of the past because they’re still big enough that if feels like they have something strong going and they’re not at the point of catastrophic engine failure yet.
CJ: What keeps that rural church from trying something new?
BMR: Whether rural or urban, sometimes it’s the power holders in the organization. And that’s not just about money. If it’s a generational church, where the majority of the members are part of one or two families that started the church, there’s power there. If the elders of the community aren’t willing to budge, then sometimes communities just get stuck. Then you either plan a new congregation altogether or else they eventually just decline and close. Our synod—one congregation a year closes.
CJ: We’ve got massive change that’s happening on the national level, at the community level. As you’ve said, there’s a real need to try stuff, and trying means failure. What’s your message to those folks who are working in those churches?
BMR: I think my first thing would be, you can’t get people to go from here to there until they see that here is no longer a viable place. Part of our job is a ministry of dissatisfaction. I like to tell people it is the gift of discouragement. You have to help people recognize that here is no longer a viable place. Second, you have to recognize that there’s going to be grief, and you have to name that grief, own that grief, honor that grief. Third, I like the dual operating system model—don’t kill what you got, build something new alongside. Four, innovate, innovate, innovate. Try new things. Create a space. The more new stuff you try, the more the congregation gets flexible and limber and can say, okay we’re going to be trying new things for a while, and it’s okay.
Here’s another thing, small groups. Half of all small groups fail within a year or so, if you call it fail. But if you have a group that meets for a year, and studies the Bible, is that really a failure? Instead it ought to spur us. It ought to motivate us. And, Thomas Edison. The light bulb thing.
Leigh Finke is a professional journalist who lives in the Twin Cities.