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Being A Vital Neighbor

Written by Kristina Frugé 

A few years ago we were gathered with a handful of local pastors at a coffee shop discussing this idea of being a public church. My co-worker Amanda and I were describing the posture of this work as one that shifts our attention from an internal one out towards the neighborhood, the larger context our congregations are located in. The rich imagination of the vision Ezekiel describes in ch. 47: 1-12 inspires this orientation. Ezekiel’s guide in the text points out how the water flows from the sanctuary out into the wilderness, bringing life and flourishing where-ever it goes; as it flows it gets deeper and wider until it is a river that cannot be crossed. 

Kristina Fruge by the edge of water bending down to pick up rocks. Water in the bible often connotes a never ending resource of life – God’s mercy flowing in abundance beyond our wildest imaginations. The invitation to become a public church is rooted in this vision as it begs us to take notice of what happens where God’s mercy flows and to get caught up in what God is up to in those places. God’s abundance can be contrasted with what often feels like a scarcity mindset when we are closed off from the outside world, mainly absorbed with our own worries and anxieties. However, God’s call urges us into the larger environment and relationship there. I hear this as good news to those of us in congregations where the temptation of a scarcity mindset is a daunting reality. 

Sitting in that coffee shop years ago, as we dwelled in the vision Ezekiel stoked up in our imaginations for being public churches, one pastor offered a helpful distinction. She pointed out that being a public church is about becoming a vital neighbor within the larger ecosystem of the neighborhood we are a part of. (Shout out to Pr. Brenda at Bethel Lutheran in South Minneapolis for that little gem!) There is lots of talk about vitality and thriving in the church world, but what God’s promises often point to is an understanding of vitality and thriving that is mutual. That flows beyond the sanctuary. That is for all. 

This is the arena of our wonderings and work in the Riverside Innovation Hub. Helping churches be vital neighbors is what we are about. It is also the way those of us on staff at RIH have been imagining our role with our neighbors. If you are reading this blog post, you are probably one of our neighbors! Our work and the resources we are able to leverage help us come alongside congregations and ministry leaders chasing after this work of being vital neighbors in our places. And so, as new seasons and new opportunities unfold for our work at RIH, we want to continue to explore how we can be vital neighbors to you – the larger ecosystem of church and ministry leaders doing this work on the ground in your many and varied places. 

This February, we have had a couple key opportunities to listen to our neighbors, paying attention to your joys, your heartaches, your longings, and your curiosities. 

Two folks engaging together about a bingo card. One sitting on the couch and one standing leaning over the edge. People in the background standing and talking. From Feb. 3-6 our team attended the ELCA’s annual Youth Ministry Network gathering, The Extravaganza, in Anaheim, CA. Here we spent time with children and youth ministry leaders, pastors and other church ministry folks. We had opportunities to share in several workshops what we’ve been learning in our work with congregations in the neighborhoods and with young adults. We had lots of conversations with folks who share our curiosity about what God is up to in this time of transition and upheaval – particularly with how churches have been thrust into a much more unpredictable time. We met some new and reconnected with old trustworthy conversation partners and heard what this time of uncertainty and discernment is looking like in their contexts – in places like Deerfield, Texas; Sioux Falls, SD; Faribault, MN; Orlando, FL; Rocky Mountain Synod; many Twin Cities Metro communities; NW Wisconsin Synod region; ELCA National Deaconess Community; ELCA Young Adult Ministry, and many more. The bad news, you may guess, is that folks are overwhelmed and disheartened by the heaviness they experience and witness in their places. But here’s the good news we heard – folks are sure God is up to something and eager to pay attention to it! Hope, curiosity and creativity are alive and well. And we are not alone. 


The RIH Team with two folks from Austin at dinner. We left sunny California and went straight away to Indianapolis, Indiana to participate in our Lilly Hub Gathering with other seminaries and higher ed institutions accompanying congregations and ministry leaders. This collection of lovely leaders and humans is a rich ecumenical experience.  Talking with congregational and community leaders and others who lead similar projects to RIH, we heard some of the doubt that comes with facilitating change work. Our colleagues are wrestling with questions like: Is the bigger impact we hope to have even possible? Can congregations and those of us leading Christian communities navigate the changes of our times to align more faithfully with God’s call to be church in this time and place? We spent a good amount of time with leaders from one particular hub in Waukegan, IL who has cultivated a deep sense of trust between congregations, young adults and the larger Waukegan community. Their work has often inspired us at RIH. They shared their deep laments about the sobering reality that comes with deep relationships in the neighborhood. Congregations and their leaders have been dedicated to becoming vital neighbors, but this doesn’t eliminate the fact that hard things continue to happen. Bad news continues to hurt folks, and sometimes the best good news we can offer in hard times is that we don’t have to go through it alone. 

The RIH learning community gathered outside at Mount Olivet Retreat CenterAnd most recently, on Feb. 24-26, our RIH team spent the better part of the weekend with our RIH congregational teams at our Sustainability Retreat at Mount Olivet Retreat Center in Farmington, MN. We spent Friday evening with the team leaders, hearing the moments of desolation and consolation this work has gifted them with. We spent Saturday with congregational teams who sustained a contagious energy for big heart and brain work during the day. They were deeply invested in imagining how they carry what they are learning into the future – into their congregation and into their neighborhoods. These neighbors of ours offered an inspiring reminder that hope and imagination continue to resource this work in their contexts. There also is a healthy dose of worry and doubt about the capacity of teams and their congregations. Will we and our congregational community have the capacity and openness to take some small risks towards the invitation from God emerging? Will we be able to sustain our efforts towards being vital neighbors? We continue to remind one another that this is not a sprint. In fact, it may not even be a marathon. This work of being a vital neighbor does not have a starting line and finish line. It is simply a journey, one that lasts a lifetime, and one we can be grateful to have so many trustworthy companions who join us for different seasons of it. 

Our team is holding many stories, questions and the gift of connection with so many lovely humans we experienced this past month with our neighbors. We hold these interactions closely as we continue to discern our work being a vital neighbor to you and many others chasing after a vision of being a public church. We remain curious about what God is up to in your places – in both the challenges and joys. So consider this post not only an update from us, but an invitation into further conversation with us – your neighbors at RIH! 

Reach out to our staff Kristina Frugé or Ellen Weber to share your own stories, questions or to scheme about how we can be in this work together.

Curious about our upcoming learning community? Learn more here about our upcoming learning community and application process.