Ministry in a Post-Pandemic World: A Conversation with Beth Lewis

We got in touch with Beth Lewis, former CEO of Augsburg Fortress (now 1517 Media), to ask for some words of wisdom for children, youth and family ministry leaders in 2023. 

You led Augsburg Fortress (now 1517 Media) through major changes for 16 years, including what the business world calls a “turnaround,” which occurs when a business that is struggling with performance moves into a new phase of recovery. What mindsets, strategies and practices did you use to help this turnaround occur that you think could also be used by children, youth and family ministry leaders? 

Beth Lewis

There are three primary leadership tools that I have used with success, not only as we turned around 1517 Media but also with other organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, both faith-based and secular. 

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Leaders cannot over-communicate with everyone involved in a ministry. Whether it is a strategic plan, annual goals or the schedule for next week’s youth gathering, as a leader, you might think, “But I’ve said this over and over, surely the rest of the team already knows this.” Don’t underestimate the power of repetition. And not just verbally but using different media and communications styles—in-person conversation, emails, posters, text messages, voicemail messages and newsletter articles. We all have communication preferences, and we tend to absorb information best when it comes to us through our favorite method. 
  2. Grow, Hold, Fold. I have used this phrase for more than 30 years as a way to help remind people of the importance or prioritizing how they spend their resources of time, attention and money. We used it frequently at 1517 Media as a strategic guide to identify what products or markets we would invest in for growth (Grow), what we would continue to do at about the same level as in the past (Hold) and what we would stop doing (Fold), so that we had the time, energy and money to invest in the arenas we had strategically selected for growth. This works for ministry too. Do you spend more effort and budget on an afterschool program for young children or VBS? Is your priority offering cross-cultural mission trips for youth or having them attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering? Every decision has pros and cons, opportunities and costs. The Grow, Hold and Fold framework can help with your discernment. 
  3. Express Gratitude. In my experience, nearly everyone I have encountered wants to do good work. They may shine because of their natural talents, long hours and visibility within an organization. Or they may quietly do foundational work that isn’t noticed but is essential to the workings of the company or the church. Did you notice that the person who sorts the mail is cheerful even doing this mundane job? Say thank you for their cheerful demeanor that brightens your day. Did you notice that one person unfailingly ends up cleaning up the shared coffee area so that it is tidy for the next day? Offer your appreciation for their attention to making the community area a welcoming space. You’ll make their day and you’ll feel better, too! 

What are you noticing about churches, ministries and leaders right now that you think our readers may be interested to know? 

This post-pandemic time in which we are living has made us wrestle with some changes that are welcome and some that aren’t in our ministries. For many years, I spoke across the ELCA and ecumenically with the theme “Gutenberg to Google: Effective Use of Technology for Congregations.” I talked about the critical importance of embracing new technologies for communication, efficient meetings, teaching and learning, etc. Mostly, people expressed interest but had excuses for why it wouldn’t work in their congregation (time, expertise, money, etc.) And then the pandemic. Almost overnight, churches went from “we can’t” to “we must and we are.” That is a welcome adaptive shift in how we do ministry that continues to benefit us as people of faith! 

Churches are reaching people who are homebound because they can now attend worship services via video technology. Adult forums aren’t just made up of the people who attend in person, but often there are hybrid attendees who aren’t members of the congregation—they might be from across the country. In addition, we see ecumenical participation in ways that we only hoped for in the past because of access via video conferencing tools. My husband taught a hybrid course on Palestinian/Israeli relations for the congregation to which we belong a few months ago, and the guest lecturer was Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who joined us from Bethlehem, Palestine! But we can’t stand still. Churches, synods and other ministries need to keep investing in and exploring new opportunities for using technology to connect with the community and proclaim the gospel. 

One of the negatives I see post-pandemic is the dramatic decrease in engagement in faith formation among children and youth. I think busy families with children and teens found that having the opportunity to watch worship on the big screen at home while enjoying breakfast in their PJs provided much-needed relaxation and time together. Because of this and other conflicts, such as Sunday morning sports, faith formation in community has not come back in the same ways that in-person worship has come back post-pandemic. I’m seeing a few congregations experiment with less frequent intergenerational gatherings that include faith formation, fun, a meal, etc. And the ones that are successful are generally not on Sundays but on one or two evenings per month. It isn’t the same as the Sunday school most of us expect, but it is better than nothing as we adapt to families’ priorities and need for some downtime as they look at their busy calendars. At 1517 Media, we frequently used the phrase “test and learn,” meaning that we just needed to try new things knowing that some of them would fail and we’d learn from them, adapt them and move on. Others would succeed, and we could invest in them for the future. I think that churches need to have this same “test and learn” and “failure is ok” mindset in order to find out what will work in their own contexts for faith formation for children and youth in this time and for the future.

Thinking about the word “Enough,” finish these sentences:

The church has more than enough of . . .  resources. Some of the congregations I’m most impressed by in terms of their community outreach and care for their neighbors are the smallest congregations. But they see a need, figure out how to help, roll up their sleeves and just do the work. They are passionate about it. 

The church doesn’t yet have enough . . . courage. We need to be vocal and active forces for good for those who are on the margins. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, immigrants and refugees, elders, the poor, etc. 

The church needs to say “Enough!” to . . . White Christian Nationalism. We have seen the corruption of the word “Christian” over recent years as it has been used to try to take hard-earned rights away from people because they aren’t white or citizens or men or conservative or . . . As ELCA Lutherans, we need to intentionally partner with people in other mainline denominations and people who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and more to step up and help people understand that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, that people of all faiths are welcome here and that we must protect this basic civil liberty that the founders of this country were wise enough to include in our foundational documents. 

How was your own faith shaped by the experience of the pandemic? 

Like many people, I think my faith was broadened as I was able to experience the richness of worship in many places and in a wide range of styles by attending worship virtually. During the pandemic, I was privileged to do quite a bit of consulting with a group of pastors and lay leaders from the Eastern Province of the West Indies Moravian Church. What a joy it was to not only meet with them to talk about their challenges and opportunities to reach the people in their communities, spread across multiple islands but to worship with them and tiptoe into their congregations via social media. All of this was done using technology and wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic. Among other things, I witnessed their passion for prayer, a central part of their faith. That deepened my prayer life. 

Since leaving your position as President and CEO of 1517 Media, you are now the owner of Getting to Transformation where people can contact you about your work as a consultant, speaker, board member and interim executive. You’re visiting a lot of conference rooms, while many of our readers are in Sunday school classrooms, youth rooms and supply rooms. But one of your great gifts is being able to listen and relate to people doing church work in all kinds of ways. How do your executive skills come in handy when you talk with people who work in church settings?  

When I worked for 1517 Media, I frequently spoke to groups of pastors and lay leaders all across the church at conferences, synod assemblies, etc. on the business practices that can be helpful in faith-based settings. I continue to do that as a speaker and consultant. I have two primary areas of focus: first, helping ministry leaders do strategic thinking in these rapidly changing and challenging times and second, helping boards, councils and vestries improve the quality of their governance. I have become passionate about good governance for all organizations and believe that it can make or break a ministry. 

What do you think children, youth and family ministry leaders can visualize that people in the boardrooms don’t always see so clearly? 

I am often awed by the simple faith that God will provide and does! Of course, we humans need to step up with the gifts that God has given each of us and all of us in community in order to make things happen. But when times are tough and I hear ministry leaders lift up their abiding faith in God’s grace, it always makes me pause and say, “Thanks be to God!” 

What inspires you about the children, youth, and family ministries you see in churches today?

The energy, enthusiasm and creativity I see among leaders. There are superb CYF leaders across the church. Many of them are quite young (or perhaps I’m getting older and they just seem young to me!). They give me hope for the future of the church and God’s people. 

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